Interview: July 31, 2014
Lorenzo Carcaterra is a former journalist and the #1 New York Times bestselling author of such books as PARADISE CITY, CHASERS and MIDNIGHT ANGELS. In his latest novel, THE WOLF, organized crime goes to war with international terrorism in the name of one man’s quest for revenge. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, the king of gritty crime fiction talks about writing a sympathetic mob boss, the extensive research that goes into each of his books --- including travel and plenty of neighborhood connections --- and why he so often sets his stories (at least in part) in Italy. He also shares how much of his characters are based on real people, why he’s so interested in the relativity of moral standards, and why organized crime is here to stay.
Bookreporter.com: While, at its most basic, THE WOLF could be tagged as organized crime versus terrorists, the story goes much deeper than that. It is a war between Vincent Marelli, who heads up a long and deeply established criminal consortium, and a terrorist named Raza. How did you maintain your balance, so to speak, while you were creating and presenting Marelli here? Did you have problems making him too endearing a character or, alternatively, making him too dark and thus losing what reader sympathy he elicits?
Lorenzo Carcaterra: The idea of the head of an organized crime syndicate as the hero in either a novel or a series of novels has always been something that intrigued me. I went to great lengths and made no concessions as to who Vincent is and what it is he does for a living: He is a crime boss, plain and clear. He is completely upfront about that. And the reasons for his declared war against terrorism, starting with his battle against Raza, while steeped in a quest for revenge, need to be sold to his fellow crime bosses as what it really means to them: a threat. That the chaos of terrorism will bring havoc to their business interests. Vincent is a dark character because of his work and because of the world he inhabits --- trusting few; confiding in even fewer; always looking for motives and keenly aware of potential betrayals.
So while by nature he is painted with a dark brush, the flip side of his coin needs to be clearly presented to the reader: a husband and father who has lost a wife and two daughters and must care for his son; a conflicted man in love with a woman as dangerous as he is; a man who takes his pleasures from activities where he can, at least for a brief time, let his guard down --- a game of chess played with a childhood friend; a game theory Internet chat room where no one knows who he really is; long walks on a beach with his son; a drink at an outdoor cafe with one of the few friends he trusts. He is a dangerous man and not anyone you would want as an enemy. But if he is on your side, Vincent Marelli can well be the best friend you would ever have. And that's the balance. To have the reader feel and believe Vincent is on their side.
BRC: Lawlessness, both among those who break the law and those who enforce it, is a theme that runs through many of your books and that you also explore in THE WOLF from several different viewpoints. How did you initially become interested in this theme as a topic for your novels? And where is the line, if there is one? At what point do the good guys become the bad guys? Or is there justification in fighting fire with fire?
LC: I was raised in a neighborhood where many of the men, my father included, served prison time and were always on the lookout for a con, a scam, a heist…even deadlier and more sinister activities. It was who they were, and they did very little to hide that fact.
Then, when I started working in newspapers and then especially in television on shows like “Cop Talk” and “Top Cops” and then “Law & Order,” I became friends with a number of cops, both here and in Europe, covering the entire spectrum of law enforcement. And what I noticed over the years, many of the great cops grew up surrounded by the same kind of men I did. And that there was a very narrow line separating a great cop from a great hood. One chose to abide by the law. The other chose not to. That can't help but affect the way I look at the world and the topics I chose to write about.
As one friend told me, a former New York State Supreme Court Justice and wonderful novelist in his own right, Edwin Torres: "Where we come from, we don't live in a black and white world. We live in a world where it's always after midnight and at that hour all the cats are grey." That's my world --- he was raised in East Harlem; I was raised in Hell's Kitchen. A good guy can turn bad on the spin of a dime, and the opposite is also true. But the reasons for that turn are what I find of most interest. If a good guy works hard to put a criminal away, a criminal who has committed the most horrible acts to the most innocent among us, and sees him cut loose because of any variety of reasons --- a loophole in a law, for example --- and he decides to take him out, chase him down and bring him to justice on his own, well, does that make him a bad guy? Or is he still a good guy who went after a bad guy?
There is a line --- it's just a very thin one and sometimes difficult to see. There is justification for fighting fire with fire --- but the motives and the reasons for it have to be made clear and have to be personal and touch someone in that most basic and human way. You can lash out. You just need a compelling and real-life reason for doing so.
BRC: Organized crime figures very prominently in the book. In your opinion, can anything be done about reining in organized crime? In fact, should anything be done about organized crime? Or does it, to some degree and extent, fulfill a purpose that society at large would be better off with than without?
LC: Organized crime will always exist so long as people want what it is they offer. On top of that, there will always be men and women who look for the easy way to the big dollar or what they perceive to be the big dollar. Organized crime in America could have been stunted in the beginning --- back in the 1940s and ‘50s when they first began to form families and syndicates. But it was easier back then to deny their existence. That allowed them to grow and flourish. Now, the world has shrunk and they have grown in power and strength. They are a dangerous and lethal part of our daily lives. As are the terrorists. It is organized crime pitted against disorganized crime. And as one great cop, Sonny Grosso, always says: "Let me go up against organized any day of the week. I know who the players are and they know what the rules are. They know my job is to catch them and they know their job is not to get caught. The terrorists don't care about any of that. They just kill for the sake of the kill."
BRC: THE WOLF is classified as a work of fiction. While a number of the events that take place here may be fictitious, the elements that comprise the bedrock of the book, particularly many of the characters, have the ring of truth and the real world to them. If you were to compare the truth to the fiction in THE WOLF by percentage (without specifically identifying which individuals and events fit into which category), how would the percentages break out?
LC: It's hard to put a percentage on it, but I would say on the terror end --- it is clear that they are eager to hit at cultural sites in Europe as I detail in THE WOLF. Last week, police in France broke a cell planning to bomb the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. The cultural sites of Europe are clear targets. So that part of my book is 100% real. The organized crime end of it --- the methods employed, how they make their money, the organizational structure to the groups and their history --- is also at 100%. The characters are all mine, for the most part, with snippets of real individuals borrowed here and there --- I would put that at about 20%.
BRC: I think that one of the reasons why THE WOLF and, indeed, your other crime novels seem so realistic is that they are so well-researched. I enjoy the trivia that you drop into your story at irregular intervals almost as much as the main story itself. Do you do your own research? If so, where do you normally begin?
LC: I do research my own books. I start with a list of books, and that list is wide and varied. For example, I read the histories of the Camorra (starting with Saviano's excellent book to a half dozen others) and one on the Yakuza and others on the structures of the various organized crime syndicates. Then, I read novels --- thrillers, mostly --- set in the cities I plan to set the book --- in this case, Naples, Rome and Florence. And I read both Italian and American (as well as British) authors to get a full flavor of the city. Then, I travel to the cities. I go to Italy often since my family is there and I know the three cities in question very well --- but you look at them through a different eye when planning a novel, so you start looking for the little things. I use the restaurants I've eaten in, streets I've walked on, places and sites I've visited. The next one is set in Paris primarily, so I am about to start reading the works of Cara Black and a number of nonfiction books detailing the history of that city. I also depend on my wide network of cops and, frankly, some non-cops and contacts who work and live in those cities.
It sounds like a lot and it is, but it's also a lot of fun and is like being a perpetual student. I read books on terror networks and how they function and operate. Then I talk to cops working the terror beat and see what I can pick up that wasn't in any of the books. One form of research feeds the other, and it is a constant flow of information. Some you use. Some you store away to be used at a later time.
And then there's the writing --- and while I write I watch movies and programs set in the cities I'm writing about, to give me more of a feel for those places. I always make sure a part of the book is written in the cities in which the novel is set --- in this case, chapters were written in Rome and Florence and one while I was in Ischia, an island my family comes from, which is 18 miles off the coast of Naples.
BRC: A great deal of the book occurs in Italy, which was also featured prominently in your earlier novel, MIDNIGHT ANGELS. What attracts you the most to Italy as a setting for your work?
LC: Italy is a great setting for my books, and I think six of the nine books I've had published have been set in whole or in part in that country. I have been going there since I was 14. My family is there, my bloodlines. I spoke Italian before I learned English even though I lived in New York --- no one at home spoke English, nor did anyone my parents knew early on. Plus, I find the locations to be more colorful and interesting to write about --- there is so much history to pull from a particular place and, in my case, so many memories. I always find stories set in Europe, especially thrillers, to be more exciting, more adventurous, more entertaining. It adds a layer to the story that other places don't have --- at least not for me.
BRC: Your name has become synonymous with unflinchingly dark crime fiction. Have you ever been tempted to write a novel in another genre? If so, what?
LC: Yes, I would love to write books in other genres and plan to if I live long enough and get the opportunity. I have a love story in mind called FRANCESCA that I will get to one of these days, and another called NONNA MARIA about my Grandma Maria --- a kind, loving yet tough woman who lost so much during WWII and did so much (black market; bootleg) to keep her family fed and alive and who turned my life around when I was a boy. I write scripts as well, and would love to do a sitcom/dramedy called ITALIAN DRESSING. But, for now, THE WOLF rules, and I need to spend some more time with him and the rest of his lovable gang.
BRC: THE WOLF was written during a very tragic period of your life, and, while beautifully written, a dark mood dominates the tone of the narrative as the protagonist struggles with the loss of loved ones. Did your personal situation and loss change your original concept of the book in any way, or was it born out of your own tragedies?
LC: The last two years were difficult, no doubt. My wife, Susan Toepfer, fought a brave and gallant battle with lung cancer and died on Christmas Eve. She fought the disease for two years. Dealing with that --- watching someone you love, someone you have spent more than 30 years with --- suffer and fight a disease without quitting on a daily basis has to somehow creep into the work. It can't be avoided. It was always planned for Vincent to have lost his wife and daughters, since the original concept of the book. But the dark cloud that hovers over him, and his constant struggle to come to terms with a loss that affected him in such a severe way, were probably borne out of what I was feeling during that same period. I tend to write dark in general, and watching my wife suffer and die as I did and seeing how it affected each of our children only added to the darkness of the story. It was never meant to be a light-hearted tale --- the subject matter doesn't call for that --- and it is dark by nature. My personal loss is attached closely to my character's, and I think it will stay that way throughout the series, for how ever long it runs.
BRC: Most authors have a schedule to which they attempt to adhere (to the extent that life allows) when writing. Could you walk us through your schedule? How did you develop it? And has it evolved in any way since you first started writing novels?
LC: When I work on a book, I write a script at the same time. My mornings are spent walking and feeding my dog and then having coffee, reading the papers, answering emails and, during baseball season, checking on how my Rotis team, the Convicts, are doing. Then, I start writing the book. If I can get three to five pages done --- between breaks for lunch and the occasional phone call --- it's a good day. Then, I go to the gym for 90 minutes. Then, write one, maybe two pages of a script. Then, a late dinner, some wine (sometimes too much wine), a book or a movie or go out with some friends.
When the book is really moving, I set the script aside and work on it on weekends and focus on the novel for the full day, looking to do as many as seven pages. And even when not writing, you are always thinking about it, or talking to your editor, bouncing ideas off him and him off you. When the writing is going well, there is no greater feeling. When it isn't, it truly sucks and nothing can lift your mood. I do the treadmill or elliptical every day --- I don't watch TV while doing it or listen to music. I lose myself, lock in and think about what I'm writing and where it's going. Many a character has either been killed or created while I'm running on a treadmill.
BRC: Your career as a writer and author has spanned several different mediums, from films to newspapers and magazines to, of course, novels. Do you prefer any particular medium to another? If so, why?
LC: I love writing books and scripts. I also enjoy writing essays; those are always fun, and it's great to be asked to do them. I don't do as many magazine pieces as I used to. I do write for the National Geographic Traveler --- they let me write about Italy, which helps with my research, and the editor is a dear and old friend, Keith Bellows, whom I have known since the ‘80s. I enjoy writing short stories and have published about seven of them. I see it all as writing, just each medium comes with its own set of rules. If I had to choose, I think I would stick with books and scripts. If put to the wall, I would choose books, I think. But I would rather not have to make that call. Not just yet, anyway.
BRC: You have been employed as a writer for almost all of your adult life. If you were not writing, what do you see yourself doing for a living?
LC: If I weren't a writer and if I were a lot smarter, I would have loved to have been a lawyer or a doctor --- both professions appeal to me for a variety of reasons. But I lacked the brains (not to mention the money) to go to the schools that would have helped guide me to those worlds. I also toyed briefly with a career in the military. I signed up for the Navy when I was 18 and had 72 hours to change my mind. My parents were completely against it, and I reluctantly took their advice. I love to travel and thought it would be a fun and interesting way to see the world and get paid for it. I also gave serious thought to living in Italy when I was in my early 20s --- it was a time of turmoil in my personal life, and I found a bit of peace and solace in Italy, but then landed a copy boy's job at the New York Daily News, which led to the career I now have.
BRC: Your writing career began in 1976. If you knew then what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently? And looking back, is there any particular move you made that you believe contributed to your ultimate success?
LC: If I knew then what I know now, I would have started writing scripts and short stories at a much younger age. I just don't know if I would have been any good at it. I'm self-taught as a writer and knew that my progression would be a long and slow one --- from newspapers to magazines to TV and then books and movies. At any point in the journey, if it had ended with magazines or with newspapers and not moved from there, I would have been content with that. But I kept pressing and moving forward, always looking to tell the stories I wanted to tell.
The one move I made that contributed to my success was when I finally decided to write about my father and a murder he committed in 1946. I wrote it on spec --- it was rejected by one magazine and then bought by three terrific editors: Jim Gaines, Jay Lovinger and Peter Bonventre at Time Inc. That article was later published in LIFE and became the basis for my first book, A SAFE PLACE. I remember Pete telling me at a lunch to celebrate their buying the article that "my life will never be the same again." And he was right.
BRC: Almost every great author is also a great reader. What have you read in the last six months that you would care to recommend to our readers?
LC: There is a first novel written by Julia Dahl called INVISIBLE CITY that I have been telling everyone to buy and read. It’s the first of a series and is nothing short of brilliant. Steve Berry's new book, THE LINCOLN MYTH, is fantastic, as are all his books. BLOOD TIES: The 'Ndrangheta: Italy's New Mafia by GianLuigi Nuzzi and Claudio Antonelli is a chilling read. And Daniel Silva's THE HEIST is his best one yet.
BRC: Are there any particular figures in the arts --- literary or otherwise --- who have had an influence on your career and your work?
LC: Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo are my two favorite writers. Each year I made a point of re-reading one of their books. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO is my all-time favorite novel and, for my money, the best one ever written. Michelangelo is someone I revere --- I have read all the biographies I can find on his life, and his tomb in Santa Croce in Florence is one of my favorite places on earth. I have gone to school on the works of Jack London, Pete Hamill, Elmore Leonard, Hemingway, Hammett, George V. Higgins and Harry Crews. How could you not? I can stare at a Caravaggio for hours and learn so much. And I have read as much as I could about Harper Lee and Truman Capote, and their books --- TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and IN COLD BLOOD --- both have had a profound impact on my life. I have had the privilege of writing for many wonderful actors. Two of them --- Dustin Hoffman and the late Jerry Orbach --- just made me want to go back and do better, be a better writer and give them an even better scene to act in.
BRC: Which do you prefer writing: books that stand alone or series writing? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
LC: I have done mostly stand-alones, and there is an advantage in that once the story is told, you can leave it behind. And that's also the disadvantage --- you are attached to the characters and sometimes want to go back to them, revisit, and start another adventure. I am now writing a series, and the advantage is you can watch the characters grow, bring in fresh faces, new confrontations, more personal chaos, and must avoid the pitfall of not allowing them to grow and change and expand with each book. It's a challenge to make each new tale fresh and keep the character in focus, adding more and more layers as you tell each new story. It's a challenge I'm eager to attempt.
BRC: I’ve learned that you are presently working on a novel titled THE WITCH, which I am presuming is a sequel to THE WOLF. Can you tell us anything about it? Is your intent to create a trilogy or an ongoing series in the world of Vincent Marelli? And are you working on anything else in any other medium?
LC: THE WITCH (working title) is book two in The Wolf series. My editor and I have talked about the first three and then seeing where we are after that. Ideally, in a perfect world, I would like to and could write a book a year for the rest of what remains of my career with Vincent. There are so many stories to tell, so many places to take him, so many battles to be fought --- both personal and against the terror world. It's an amazing world, and I have just skimmed the surface with the first book. But for now, we’ll take it one at a time and see where it goes. The readers will have a say in how many of Vincent's tales I will be allowed to tell.
Yes. I am writing a script for Harvey Weinstein dealing with Allan Pinkerton and the first attempted assassination of President Lincoln. I am also writing a script with Barry Levinson for a TV series and have a feature script lined up as well. And am planning on writing a serial novel --- a treasure hunt --- in conjunction with the National Geographic Traveler. And, of course, THE WITCH.