Tell us about Nick Chiarkas. Where did you grow up, your family, career, etc.?
I grew up in the Al Smith housing projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where Weepers takes place. When I was in the fourth grade my mother was told by the principal of PS-1 that, “Nick is unlikely ever to complete high school, so you must steer him toward a simple and secure vocation.” Instead, I became a writer, with a few stops along the way: a New York City Police Officer; the Deputy Chief Counsel for the President’s Commission on Organized Crime; and the Director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency. On the way I picked up a Doctorate from Columbia University; a Law Degree from Temple University; and was a Pickett Fellow at Harvard. How many mothers are told their child is hopeless? How many kids with potential surrender to desperation? That’s why I wrote Weepers—for them.
Do you live in New York; do you have any hobbies? What do you do to relax?
I live in Middleton (a suburb of Madison), Wisconsin, with my wife (Judy) my youngest son (Josh) my dog (Mac) and cat (Mollie). Besides writing, I enjoy reading, painting (oils and watercolor), woodworking, and the sweetness of doing nothing whenever I can.
Your novel, Weepers, takes place in the NYC projects back in the 1950s. Was it difficult to write in that period, and what did you do to ensure you used the correct terminology and events?
In 1957, I was a kid living in those projects in that neighborhood. Nevertheless, I could not rely just on memory, so I did a ton of research. Everything from popular names to popular toys, period maps of the area, floor plans of apartments, news stories from NY Times archives, period magazines, lots of time in libraries and online. I went back to the neighborhood to walk the streets and calculate distance – in short a lot more time was spent on research than on the actual writing of my first edited draft. Along with the research was the creation of a complete backstory for each character and all events before and during my writing of Weepers. It was hard work and great fun.
Your protagonist, Angelo, is a youngster wise for his age and who experienced things a normal child would not have. Was this character a figment of your imagination, or was he based on an actual person?
In many ways, Angelo is based on me and my imagination. When I first started to write Weepers Angelo’s name was Nicky (me) however, I quickly found that Nicky was never doing anything crazy or bad, he was altogether boring. So I changed his name to Angelo and gave Nicky a minor role in Angelo’s gang. I still felt a bit protective of Nicky, so I changed Nicky’s name to Spiro and was free of that responsibility and limitation.
When did you decide to become a writer, and have you had any formal training?
As long as I can remember I loved poetry (reading and writing it), but I became serious about writing when I was a police officer with NYPD. I remember thinking it might be interesting to write something based on the conversations from the back seat of a police car. In the late 1960’s my partner and I responded to a killing on a subway platform. We transported two witnesses – both were men in their late 40s who lived in the abandoned subway tunnels – to our precinct for a statement. The men sat in the back of our police car and talked to each other about going down within the tunnels. (Note: there are 4 levels of tunnels the further down you go to live the less likely you will ever return to the surface – these two men just moved to the 2nd level but were still coming up). One man told the other that he snuck down below the 4th (lowest) level through a secret stairway. He said, “I went down all thirty feet below, and I heard some talking.” “Did you see them?” the other asked. “No, you know what happens if you look at them.” Both guys nodded. “What did they say?” “They were just talking over breakfast nothing really scary. One said he was there when God made everything, He just waved his magic wand…it was the best trick I ever saw.” My partner and I would just smile from time to time, but I was jotting down notes. Finally I asked, “So, what’s 30 feet below the fourth level?” They said, “Hell.” I kept the notes, wanting to write something (poem, short story, something) about this. I, of course, do not believe what those guys said in the back of our car. But, no doubt, they believed it. I wrote a poem titled Thirty Below. I also continued to take notes over the years writing poems and short stories. Finally after writing a few law books I decided to tackle a novel, Weepers.
Weepers is an engrossing tale that immediately draws the reader in. It seems you had an emotional investment in telling this tale. How long did it take to complete the story?
First, thank you so much for your kind words. And second, you are correct this was an emotional heart-driven story that insisted on being written. How long did it take? Counting research and more drafts than I can recall, it took eleven years. The first seven were when I had a day job, and the last four were more concentrated. I would wake up an hour early, make a cup of coffee or tea, and write. I stuck to Anne Lamott’s brilliant – Bird by Bird – advice and wrote at least one-inch every day. I am presently writing a sequel that my publisher wants it in 12 to 18 months. So, this will have to be a different – but every day – process.
Do you write anything else other than novels?
Yes, I love writing poetry.
And I have written non-fiction including:
- Wisconsin Criminal Practice and Procedure (Vol. 9, 1996, West)
- Ethical Problems Facing the Criminal Defense Lawyer – Practical Answers to Tough Questions (1995, ABA)
- Alabama Criminal Trial Practice, 2nd Edition (1988, Harrison now West)
- Alabama Criminal Trial Practice Forms, 2nd Edition (1988, Harrison now West)
- Criminal Offenses and Defenses in Alabama (1983, Harrison now West)
- Alabama Criminal Trial Practice, First Edition (1981, Harrison now West)
- Alabama Criminal Trial Practice Forms, First Edition (1980, Harrison now West)
Directed the research, writing and completion of the following books published by the U.S. Government in 1986:
- The Impact: Organized Crime Today
- The Edge: Organized Crime, Business, and Labor Unions
- America’s Habit: Drug Abuse, Drug Trafficking, and Organized Crime
What is your next project(s)?
Although Weepers stands on its own, it is also the start of a series. I am presently writing Nunzio’s Way, which will be followed by Black Tiger Tea and then Blue Bounty. I know the story that far, but don’t know, at this point, if there will be more to tell beyond that fourth book or if I will go in a different direction.
Is there anything else you’d like my readers to know about Nick Chiarkas or Weepers?
So family, friends – people that know me well describe me as a stand-up guy and a good friend.
- I dislike bullies.
- I dislike mean people.
- Weepers draws from my memory and my heart.
- I raised my two oldest children mostly as a single dad – just the three of us. They taught me a lot.
- The more I listen to politicians, news broadcasters and talking heads the more I like dogs.
Five Fun Facts not in my Bio:
- I was one of a handful of NYPD cops sent to Woodstock in 1969 to provide security – it was incredible.
- While in an Army hospital I received a very kind letter from J.D. Salinger.
- I was in the movie The Anderson Tapes (Starring: Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Walken).
- I grew up in the Al Smith projects where Weepers takes place.
- As a kid, I was in a gang and was an Eagle Scout.
Thank you for a great interview, Nick. Readers can learn more about Nick and his work at his website: http://nickchiarkas.com/