This episode of the Crime Cafe podcast features my interview with crime writer Nicholas Chiarkas.
Check out our discussion of his Weepers series!
Before I bring on my guest, I’ll just remind you that the Crime Cafe has two eBooks for sale: the nine book box set and the short story anthology. You can find the buy inks for both on my website, debbimack.com under the Crime Cafe link. You can also get a free copy of either book if you become a Patreon supporter. You’ll get that and much more if you support the podcast on Patreon, along with our eternal gratitude for doing so.
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Download a copy of the PDF transcript of this episode here.
Debbi: Hi everyone. Our scheduled guest for today was unfortunately unable to be here. However, fortunately we have another author filling in for him. He was the director of Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency for 22 years, and has also received several awards for excellence. He founded The Justice Without Borders organization, a transnational group that provides legal aid to victims of labor exploitation and human trafficking. Interesting! He has also written two novels – Weepers and Nunzio’s Way. It’s my pleasure to have with me as my guest, Nicholas Chiarkas. Hi, Nick. How are you doing today?
Nick: I am fine. Thank you so much for having me, Debbi. I appreciate it.
Debbi: Well, it’s my pleasure. Very much so. It’s great to meet you. Tell us about your books. They’re part of a series. Is that correct?
Nick: They are. They’re part of what we call the Weepers series. The first novel was Weepers. The second one, which came out this past October – wow, almost a year ago – is Nunzio’s Way. Can I hold them up and show you what they look like?
Debbi: Absolutely. For anybody who is watching on YouTube.
Nick: I just happen to have a couple.
Debbi: Oh, yeah. They just happen to be sitting there.
Nick: This is Weepers and this is Nunzio’s Way.
Debbi: Very good. Very good. Hold Weepers up a little bit more. Good. Get a nice, good view. There we go. Weepers. Okay. Look at all those people in the background. Very evocative. Let’s see, so they have different protagonists though, correct?
Nick: There are some of the same ones, but they do have different characters. Weepers focuses more on Angelo, who is a 13-year-old kid growing up in the Al Smith projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where I actually grew up. In many ways, Weepers, if you were talking to my wife instead of me, she would say it’s a memoir or a Roman à clef, you know, a story that is based on fact that has a façade of fiction over it. And it’s kind of fun to guess who the characters are and what the real events really were. So it’s based on a lot of real events and my experience growing up in a housing project like you did, Debbi, in New York City.
Weepers focuses more on Angelo, who is a 13-year-old kid growing up in the Al Smith projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where I actually grew up.
Debbi: Yes, yes.
Nick: And it is an experience.
Debbi: It is at that, and I’ve toyed with the notion of writing a memoir, actually, if I decide to risk remembering all those horrible things that happened.
Nick: Well, two things. One is, that actually happens. I did remember stuff that I thought I forgot and probably would prefer to forget. On the other hand – and I’m not just saying this because you are kind enough to have me here – you are a brilliant writer, and you had those same kinds of experiences and more, and I think you should. I think it not only would help a lot of people. I’ve gotten calls and letters and comments from kids I grew up with, boys and girls saying, boy, I forgot about that. You reminded me of X, Y, and Z. It’s very interesting. And several of them thought it was therapeutic for them to think about Weepers and what we went through and stuff like that. You need to do that.
I’ve gotten calls and letters and comments from kids I grew up with, boys and girls saying, boy, I forgot about that.
Nick: It would be a wonderful memoir.
Debbi: Oh my gosh. What a pat on the back! Thank you. I appreciate it. Are you working on the third book in the series?
Nick: I am. So with Weepers – and I know you’ll understand this immediately – with Weepers, I wanted to kind of raise the curtain for folks that didn’t grow up that way. I’m now living in Wisconsin. It’s a little cold here today. I’m living in Wisconsin, and a lot of people have no idea what it’s like. Not just growing up in New York, which is very different, but growing up in a low income housing project, and I wanted to tell the story, but not as a … I’ve written seven non-fiction books about crime and organized crime and things like that. I wanted to tell this story and tell the truth about it, but in a way that was both interesting and informative. I wanted to talk to Angelo about what he…
I wanted to tell this story and tell the truth about it, but in a way that was both interesting and informative.
I’ll tell you the funniest thing. When I first wrote Weepers, the first couple of drafts, Angelo’s name was Nicky, my name. He couldn’t do anything wrong. He was the perfect kid. I had to get rid of Nicky and I had to create Angelo, or it just wouldn’t work.
Nick: Yeah, what he saw, what he did. He’s not the perfect good kid, but I think you sympathize with him throughout the novel and kind of root for him, even though he has an uncle that is a La Cosa Nostra boss. He has friends and family that love him and embrace him even in the projects, even poor. And I also wanted to…And then I’ll be quiet. You have to stop me from talking.
I also wanted to let folks know that being poor is more than not having enough money. Being poor is how you feel about yourself and your self-worth and your self-value. At one point, Angelo makes the comment that – and it was the way I felt as a kid. If I’m having a fight with a wealthy kid from Uptown, and we both fall off the roof and die, I win because he has more to lose. And growing up poor, that’s kind of ingrained, and I wanted people to know here’s how it feels. Not just here’s what it is; here’s how it feels. So that was the idea of Weepers.
I also wanted to let folks know that being poor is more than not having enough money. Being poor is how you feel about yourself and your self-worth and your self-value.
When that was done, I thought about the La Cosa Nostra boss is Nunzio, Angelo’s uncle. I wanted people to know more about Nunzio. And so while it has the same characters, it’s three years later, 1960, and it’s more about Nunzio. Angelo’s still in it, but what Nunzio was like in his life and so forth. I’ll stop for a second.
Debbi: Okay. That’s okay. That’s probably a good idea. Let’s see. Do you have a specific number of books you’d like to write for the series in mind and a place where you’d like to aim it as an endpoint?
Nick: Wow. Scary question. I have five, I think. I don’t want to say what the endpoint is, but I do have an endpoint in mind. I have more focus on Angelo as he gets older and older. I have a couple of endpoints. One is that Angelo takes over for Nunzio. The other is he goes in the exact opposite direction. I’m not sure yet, and I’m not sure where Book Three, which I’m working on now, is going to take me, but it’ll get closer to that.
Debbi: That’s interesting. I keep thinking of things like The Godfather and The Sopranos. The Godfather, where Michael gets sucked into this life he initially said he didn’t want.
Debbi: And then The Sopranos, of course, where you have this absolutely cold-blooded killer who at the same time is so human that people relate to him. Fascinating.
Nick: It is.
Debbi: But this is yet another look at New York, which I think is intriguing and an important look at New York.
Nick: I agree, and it was an important time. Weepers takes place in 1957. In 1957, New York led the world in gang violence. The cover of Life Magazine had juvenile gangs on it. West Side Story came out as a play in 1957. The country was focused on the street gangs, and that was New York – Hell’s Kitchen, Astoria, the Lower East Side.
Nick: East Harlem, the Bronx, Fordham Baldies, the Red Wings, all of them. In Weepers – and I’ll give this away – in Weepers, the gang that Angelo belonged to was called the Grim Reapers, which was my gang on the Lower East Side. And what happened to me and happened to Angelo is, the first fight I got into, I started crying, and the other gangs started making fun of me as I was fighting. I was 12 years old, and they started calling us the Weepers instead of the Reapers. I told my uncle, I just can’t go to school anymore, and he took a pen and drew on my shoulder “Weepers,” and he said, change the name of your gang. Make it the Weepers. Own it. Take pride in it, and you’ll take it away from them. That’s where the name comes from.
I learned a lot from my Uncle Mario, and I also wanted to show that these kids, these tough kids, they were scared. They cried. It wasn’t the way the movies portrayed them. And The Godfather, while I love the book, and I love the movie, I’ll watch it again and again, in real life…
I also wanted to show that these kids, these tough kids, they were scared. They cried. It wasn’t the way the movies portrayed them.
So among the non-fiction books I wrote was on money laundering and organized crime. I was on the President’s Commission for Organized Crime in the White House for a couple of years, and I knew these guys from the street. The head of a family like The Godfather, wouldn’t live out in Long Island in a mansion surrounded by guards. He would live in the neighborhood. He would watch that neighborhood. He was part of that neighborhood. And I wanted to show the difference that Nunzio Sabino was in that neighborhood, taking care of the people in that neighborhood, and knew the people in that neighborhood. He was more vulnerable, but that’s where he wanted to be, and that was his constituency, you know? Anyway, again, don’t let me go. You and I are attorneys. We’ll talk and talk if you let us. I’ll try to stop.
Debbi: That’s true. No worries. No worries. It’s all interesting. How much has practicing law influenced your writing?
Nick: Oh, my, my, my! I grew up hating bullies. I know a lot of people say that, but I grew up hating bullies, and so I always felt I wanted to do something. When I came out of the Army, I just had a high school diploma. Wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and so I became a New York City police officer. I knew how to do that – put on a uniform, march, take orders and stuff. But primarily, I did it because … I know there’s a lot of reasons people become cops. I wanted to really help people that couldn’t defend themselves. I wanted to be their shield, and eventually I thought the law was the way to do that as well. People get pulled into the criminal justice system as you know, and for most people, it’s like landing on Mars. Unless they’re a professional criminal, they don’t have a clue. I wanted to guide them through it. I wanted to be a shield there, but as a cop, I also wanted to be a shield on the street between them and the innocent person. And so it was a conflict that I had to deal with.
People get pulled into the criminal justice system as you know, and for most people, it’s like landing on Mars. Unless they’re a professional criminal, they don’t have a clue.
As an attorney, I decided that I was going to be as concerned about the victim as I was about the defendant, even if the defendant was somebody I was representing. I tried to walk that line first as a prosecutor, but later as a criminal defense attorney or public defender. I wanted to represent poor people. I didn’t want to represent wealthy people, which might have been a foolish choice in the long run, but …
Debbi: I hear that.
Nick: But I wanted to represent the poor person. I wanted to be able to put my arm around him or her and say, I got you. I got you.
Debbi: That’s nice.
Nick: Does that make sense?
Debbi: It makes total sense to me. Absolutely, and I can certainly relate with that feeling. Is there an author that has most inspired you to write?
Nick: Oh my goodness. What a wonderful question. I’m in an army hospital in 1965. Wound up in an army hospital at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and I received a very kind letter from J. D. Salinger, in which he said – I have it hanging on my wall, of course – in which he said that … One of the things I love most about it… Let me back up a second. I was in traction. I was a paratrooper. I broke my leg. I was injured in different ways. Anyway I read all of his stuff even before I got to the Army, and I read it again and wrote him a fan letter just saying, you know, I read the following things and magazine articles. Have you written anything else? And I just mailed it to Cornish, New Hampshire, and he wrote back.
His first line was, I am at best a one-shot letter writer, but I wanted to answer that letter of yours. I see you’re in an Army hospital, something I recall was not very fun. And so it reminded me of Seymour and I always thought Seymour was in the army. Anyway my eventual contacts with him made me want to write, and things that he said about close your eyes and just write what you feel. Don’t write words; write what you’re feeling. He’s the one that said to me at least, if you’re having writer’s block, first of all, there’s no such thing And second of all, it’s not a brain problem. It’s not a word problem. It’s not an idea problem. It’s a heart problem. Read poetry, listen to music, take a walk, and you’ll get rid of that block. I believe that. So he is not only an inspiration, I think. I think his writing is just beautiful and touches people. People remember feelings as opposed to just his words. He said… Can I keep going for a second?
Debbi: Yeah, keep going.
Nick: Okay. There’s a short story by J. D. Salinger – you know it well, I’m sure – called “A Girl I Knew”. He wrote it for Good Housekeeping, and they changed the name to
“Wien, Wien”. It was originally “Wein, Wein”, which I think means wine, wine in German. Anyway, they changed the name and he never published with them again because of that. But in that short story which is about seven pages, on the fifth page in a paragraph, a narrative toward the end, a young man comes out on a balcony and says something like – I’m gonna mess this up. He says something like, “and there she was standing on the balcony, doing nothing that I could tell, except leaning on the banister and holding the universe together.” Who writes like that? And a critic of his said, well, that might not mean something to everybody. You should say what you exactly mean. And no, it means something. He’s number one for me, always.
Debbi: Wow. Very interesting.
Nick: Thanks for the question.
Debbi: Sure. That is a very unique contact you made there.
Nick: Oh, and at the time, I didn’t even realize it. Later in life, I was looking through old stuff. Where’s that letter? On the envelope where he addressed it to me, instead of N for Nick, he typed an H by mistake because he was typing and then he typed over the H several times to make it an N. That’s one of my favorite parts, that he was thinking of my name and correcting a letter. J. D. Salinger, sitting there correcting that. Anyway, …
Debbi: That’s so funny, just to think about that. Famous recluse makes sure that he gets your name right on a letter that he sends to you.
Nick: I know, and just the first letter. He wanted to make that right.
Debbi: That’s fantastic. Just fantastic. What advice would you give to anyone interested in writing for a living?
Nick: Oh, first of all, if you are very successful, you’ll make about $10,000 a year, and it’s going to be probably half from appearances, going around doing stuff, and half from your books. That’s if you’re very successful. If you’re super successful, if you’re J. K. Rowling or Patterson or anybody else you can name, there’s that golden star. It’s the same in acting and everything else, but it will move your heart. It will make you live twice. It will. I know everybody believes they have a story in them, and everybody probably does, and so my advice would be make a 10 minute recording before you write a word – 10 minutes, no more – of your story, the story you’re thinking of from beginning to end. Tell that story into a tape recorder. Don’t listen to it right away, because you won’t like your voice, but wait a couple of weeks and then listen to it.
If it holds your interest, if it seems like you want to go on when you’re hearing it and you know what kind of research you need to do, if you know those three things, then write your first bad draft. But first do a lot of research. If it doesn’t hold your interest, you need to either think of a different story or do more research. But don’t think about grammar. You know, Stephen King says language doesn’t always show up with its shoes laced up and a tie on. Don’t think about that. Don’t think about place, don’t think about anything. Just tell your story to yourself for 10 minutes and see if it holds your own interest.
Don’t think about place, don’t think about anything. Just tell your story to yourself for 10 minutes and see if it holds your own interest.
Debbi: That is a really excellent piece of advice. I’ve never heard that before either, but it’s kind of like doing an extended logline in a way, or kind of a short outline.
Nick: Yeah, exactly.
Debbi: It’s as if you’re pitching it to yourself.
Nick: Right. And a lot of people will want to tell you, I have a story in mind and it’s about this and this and this, and what it’s about is not the story. The story is the story, and so tell it. See if there’s a story there and a plot. I’m in Wisconsin and I’m looking out at my lake and it’s lovely, and I love to come here in the winter time and it’s covered with snow. When I do talks about writing and stuff, I will say that your story is the snow that’s covered out there and just the blanket of like a white downy cover. When you look out and suddenly see footprints, that’s your plot. And so the plot is the footprint in the snow of your story. If your 10 minutes doesn’t produce that for you, you need a new idea.
Debbi: Excellent advice. Before we finish up, I want to make sure that you get the details out about the book giveaway that your publisher is doing.
Nick: Sure. HenschelHAUS Publishing in Milwaukee. It’ll come right up if you put HenschelHAUS in, or if you email me, I will make sure like maybe the first three people, you can have a free copy of Weepers or Nunzio’s Way, or probably even the audiobook. The audiobook, the Audible is of course my favorite because my son and daughter did the audio together and it was …
Debbi: Oh, cool.
Nick: The most fun was to watch them rehearse because there are a couple of romantic scenes, and watching my son and my daughter try to get through that without laughing was kind of fun. But they do a wonderful job. Anyway, if you let me know or Kara Henschel know, she would be happy to send you a copy of either book.
Debbi: Fantastic. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish up?
Nick: No. I’ll finish up with saying once again, and I’m not snowing you, you’re a brilliant writer. You really are and people should know that. You’re a New York Times winning author and with a fantastic background. You’re feeling okay? You need to write your memoir. You need to let people know what it was like.
Nick: And I’ll tell you … can I tell you another reason why? I was doing a talk to a fourth grade class and the little girl in the fourth grade said to me, how would your story be different if your protagonist – her word, fourth grade – was a girl instead of a boy? And it stunned me and I said, I didn’t know. You are a woman that grew up in the projects. How is your story different? Everybody has told it from the boy’s point of view.
Nick: Yours is an important memoir.
Debbi: Oh, my God!
Nick: It’s not a farm girl growing up in Wisconsin. It’s not a girl traveling across … it’s not a middle class or a wealthy girl. It is a girl growing up in a housing project in New York City. Holy cow. I want to read that memoir. I do.
Debbi: My gosh. Now I feel like I have to start writing it now.
Nick: Do it.
Debbi: Oh, my God.
Nick: I’m a fan.
Debbi: The pressure, the pressure. Well, thank you so much. That is really encouraging. I just want to thank you again for filling in at the last minute.
Nick: Oh, Debbi Mack, I am honored. I am honored. Thank you for calling me.
Debbi: Well, it was my pleasure, believe me.
Nick: Thank you, my friend.
Debbi: Certainly, and I’m just glad that you were able to be on. In the meantime, I just want to tell everybody who’s listening, if you enjoyed the episode, please leave a review and tell all your friends. The podcast is Patreon-supported, so please check out our Patreon page. We have bonus episodes, chapters from my books, ad-free episodes, the occasional book review. All sorts of fun stuff for people who are patrons.
Nick: A great newsletter.
Debbi: I’m working on that actually. Yeah, I’m trying to get a newsletter together. I’d like to do things with short stories and stuff, and it’s like, okay, what thing do I have to do next? I’ve got scripts I’m reading. It’s really crazy right now, but I’ll get there eventually. Really, really. I was thinking about doing anthologies, all sorts of things, but yeah, I have all sorts of thoughts. Now if I can just put them into motion. Yeah, motion is good. Action. In any case, our next guest will be Tom Rosenstiel, assuming all goes well. And in the meantime, take care and happy reading.