Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


February 23, 2009

The Brooklyn-Baltimore Connection

Crime-fiction luminary Charlie Stella has gone from bookmaker to book writer.

Adam Rosen

Charlie Stella is a 52-year-old who can bench-press more than 400 pounds. Perhaps even more astonishing, he's an accomplished novelist who can bench 400 pounds. (Jonathan Safran Foer, presumably, cannot claim likewise).

Much like his hobby, Charlie Stella's background isn't exactly congruent with his literary bona fides. Born in Little Italy back when Italians lived there, Stella, now 52, grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn, the setting for mob paradigm Goodfellas. While not a wiseguy himself, Stella was a "knockaround" guy: "anybody you know doing technically illegal things to make ends meet." In his case, it was bookmaking.

Photo provided by the author
"1969, brother, if you're from Baltimore, that’s a Groundhog Year in Hell."

Photo provided by the author

In 2001, Stella published Eddie's World, a story about an antsy ex-mafioso going for one final score. He now has six novels to his name, including one of the 2003 Publisher's Weekly* Mystery Books of the Year, Charlie Opera, and he's also written several plays and short stories.

One of his most recent stories is contained in Akashic Books' hit Noir series, a collection of crime novellas specific to cities as varied as Minneapolis and Lagos. The original Noir was set in Brooklyn—one of its most popular series, now in its third volume—but Stella's contribution came in 2006 only after a last-minute call from Laura Lippman, who was editing the Baltimore iteration.

It wasn't until the book launch for Baltimore Noir that Stella had ever set foot in the city, but you wouldn't know it reading "Ode to the O's," undoubtedly one of the anthology's richest narratives. The story, which centers on two hitmen from Baltimore's own Little Italy—one a sports-obsessed, New York-despising veteran, the other a grasping up-and-comer—was easily drawn from two of Stella's most familiar themes: baseball and the mafia.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Stella talks to Gelf about the Baltimore mob, his abiding love for Strat-O-Matic, and why you needn't be a knockaround guy to write a good crime story. [You can hear Stella, along with DJ Scottie B and Dina Kelberman, talk about his work at Gelf's free Non-Motivational Speaker Series on New York's Lower East Side on Thursday, February 26, at 8 p.m.]

Gelf Magazine: You're New York born-and-raised. How did you get roped into writing a short story about Baltimore?

Charlie Stella: Roped nothing. I was and am very appreciative of Laura Lippman for emailing me one day with a request for a short story. We've banged heads politically a few times since, Laura and I have, but I don't forget a favor.

Gelf Magazine: Why'd Laura Lippman want you?

Charlie Stella: Okay, like A-Rod, I have to quit the hokey answers and fess up…Laura was desperate for a quick story and she heard I use steroids.

Gelf Magazine: You do an expert job of capturing the city—in particular, the abiding, irrational loyalty to the Orioles, and its attendant Yankee-hatred. What kind of research did you do?

Charlie Stella: Being a sports fan (back in the day) myself, I understood the "fanatic" aspect of home-team fans, but 1969, brother, if you're from Baltimore, that's a Groundhog Year in Hell. Laura actually helped me quite a bit on some of the Baltimore pronunciations, as sometimes I just assume everybody speaks the true mother tongue: Brooklynese.

Gelf Magazine: Many of your plaudits owe to the richness of your dialogue, much like
Richard Price. Curious to get your thoughts on his latest, Lush Life: A Novel, set in the Lower East Side.

Charlie Stella: I just purchased Lush Life about four weeks ago and had to stop reading it because I've recently been overwhelmed by Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade, Cold Spring Harbor, et al). I literally couldn't break away from Yates and read his biography and the rest of his works; he now rates as one of my favorite few authors, alongside Steinbeck and Malamud. I will get back to Richard Price first chance I get, though. Also, I've only recently been compared to Price. Usually I get comparisons to Elmore Leonard—although he's much smoother than I am—and/or my favorite crime writer, George V. Higgins. I think I'm somewhere in between those two as far as dialogue goes, nothing else.

Gelf Magazine: Is too much made of your background, or does the successful crime novelist really need to have real-life encounters to draw upon?

Charlie Stella: When I was first published, I thought it would be an advantage. It's not. I think writers are writers no matter what they're background. I may not have to do as much research about wiseguys, etc., than the next guy, but I don't know jack about police and always have to research that stuff.

Gelf Magazine: How much time have you spent in Baltimore? Do you think you could live there?

Charlie Stella: I went there for the first time for the book launch of Baltimore Noir. Outside of Strat-O-Matic baseball, I've only been to Baltimore that one time. I could probably live anywhere, but Baltimore is way too close to Washington, and as a devout anarchist after the bailouts, that would be too tempting. (That was a joke for any feds with nothing better to do reading this.)

Gelf Magazine: Forgive me for my youthful ignorance, but this is a metaphor, right? Isn't Strat-O-Matic a tabletop game?

Charlie Stella: It is indeed a tabletop game (which I sometimes still play; about two years ago I played the entire 1962 Mets season). But if you have a really good imagination and play both leagues, you can visit all 20—the number at the time—cities and ballparks. It was the greatest baseball game ever … it gave me my math skills, statistics, for future use as a bookmaker. It's been bastardized in a computer version; you have to do none of the work. Just like checkout cashiers—none of them can probably add anymore.

Gelf Magazine: What's your impression of Baltimore's Little Italy?

Charlie Stella: I didn't get a chance to see it and I really want to. We were supposed to go there a few months back to attend Mahler's Titan, but my sister was very sick and we had to cancel our plans. I lived on Grand Street in Little Italy during my street days so I doubt anything else can compare.

Gelf Magazine: Is there an actual animosity between the Baltimore and NYC mafias?

Charlie Stella: There's animosity between NYC mafia families, never mind anywhere else, although (from research) Baltimore doesn't really have anything near the structure of the NY mob, and are mostly handled by Philadelphia. And again, not nearly as efficiently, but that has more to do with all mobs having their problems with defectors more than anything else.

Gelf Magazine: Did it pain you to have the Baltimore outfit take out a Mets-hat-sporting New York mafioso?

Charlie Stella: That was a complete and absolute sellout and I will rot in hell for it.

*Gelf mistakenly reported that Charlie Opera was the 2003 Publisher's Weekly Mystery Book of the Year. It was one of PW's Mystery Books of the Year.

Related in Gelf
An interview with Brooklyn Noir editor and contributor Tim McLoughlin.

Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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- Books
- posted on Feb 24, 09
Charlie Stella

Adam is very kind in the above ... I weigh close to 400 pounds (so the benching isn't nearly as impressive as it might seem) ... and as for "acclaimed", well, maybe reviewed well, but I work 7 days a week as a word processor to support my writing addiction (so acclaimed is a relative word).

But I will be forming a blues-jazz band during the summer so anyone interested, email me, please (no drummers, that's my slot).

- Books
- posted on Feb 24, 09
Charlie Stella

Hey, one more thing ... Charlie Opera was on the Publisher's Weekly ten best of the year (not "best of") ... I don't wanna ruffle feathers.

- Books
- posted on Aug 11, 09
Dave Calvert

Man do i remember Brooklyn back in the day sitting on the stoop hangin with friends the when i was around 16 or so they started rebuilding the inner harbour then it was like brooklyn went all to hell drug dealers crack came out in the 80s man i can tell you some stories if you r interested to hear those stories mr rosen get hold of me by my e-mail heck i,d say you could write a book with what i been thrue

Article by Adam Rosen

Adam Rosen is a contributing editor of Gelf, and host of the Non-Motivational Speaker Series.

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