Nick Chiarkas is a Wisconsin Writers Association Board Member and the author of nine traditionally published books: two award-winning novels Weepers and Nunzio’s Way and seven nonfiction books. He grew up in the Al Smith housing projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When he was in the fourth grade, his mother was told by the principal of PS-1 that “Nick was unlikely ever to complete high school, so you must steer him toward a simple and secure vocation.” Instead, Nick became a writer, with a few stops along the way: a U.S. Army Paratrooper; a New York City Police Officer; Deputy Chief Counsel to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations; Deputy Chief Counsel for the President’s Commission on Organized Crime; Chief Counsel for the USATBCB; and the Director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency. On the way, he 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 that their children are hopeless? How many kids with potential surrender to despair? That’s why Nick wrote Weepers and Nunzio’s Way — for them.
Nunzio’s Way – “In this city, you can have anything you want if you kill the right four people.” ~ Nunzio Sabino
In Weepers, Angelo and his gang defeated the notorious Satan’s Knights with the help of his uncle Nunzio Sabino. Now, in Nunzio’s Way (a standalone sequel to Weepers), it’s 1960. Nunzio is the most powerful crime boss in New York City, protecting what’s his with political schemes, business deals, and violence.
Against this backdrop of Mafia wars, local gang battles, and political power plays in the mayoral election; an unlikely assassin arrives fresh from Naples after killing a top member of the Camorra. Nunzio has lived by the mantra; Be a fox when there are traps and a lion when there are wolves. Will Nunzio be a lion in time?
Who’s your favorite author? J. D. Salinger, his writing is beautiful, inventive, and skillful. For example, here is a sentence tucked into a narrative toward the end of his short story A Girl I Knew, “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there, leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.” I find it breathtaking. On a personal note, in 1965, while I was in an Army hospital at Ft. Campbell, Ky, I received a kind letter from J. D. Salinger; subsequent exchanges inspired me to write.
Do you base any of your characters on real people? Yes. When I think about them as characters, they may slip into a caricature; however, basing my people/characters on real people, they come to life with all their failings and attributes.
Where do you place your settings—real or fictional locations? Although my novels are crime-thrillers, I write them as Roman à clef – a novel with a key – which is a novel based on actual events, people, and places overlaid with a façade of fiction. The fictitious names in my novel represent real people, places, and events, and the “key” and the fun are the relationship between nonfiction and fiction.
What is the best book you have ever read? This is hard; here are three: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Godfather by Mario Puzo, and Yesterday and Today by Louis Untermeyer.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Before you write a first (bad) draft, tell your story to a recorder (10 minutes maximum). Just as if you were telling me the story sitting in a pub. Don’t tell me what it’s about; tell me the story. When you’re finished, please wait a few days before listening to it. Then listen to your story with paper and pencil in hand. You will learn three things. (1) Do you have a story and a plot; (2) Does it hold your interest; and (3) What research is necessary? If yes to (1) and (2), do the research and then write your first (bad) draft.
Anything else you’d like to tell us about yourself and your books? Recently, at a book talk, I was asked, what was the primary inspiration for my novels Nunzio’s Way and Weepers?” My response was that I wanted to show that life was hard and dangerous when I was growing up in the projects, yet there was love and cohesion between families, friends, and neighbors. I added this brief story as an example:
It was late afternoon on a sunny day in 1957. I was 13 years old and sitting on a bench in the small concrete playground near my building. I was alone reading a Little Lulu comic book. Sylvester Green, tall, tough, and 16 years old, walked into the playground.
He said, “Whatcha readin’, Nicky?”
“Lemme hold your comic book.”
I had to say “no,” or I would be a punk. I put up a bit of a fight, but Sylvester knocked me over the back of the bench into brittle and painful bushes. He took my comic book and left. I got up and looked around; nobody saw what had happened. Good. I dusted myself off, wiped some blood off my face with my sleeve, and went home.
My mother met me at the door when I got to my apartment. She asked me where my comic was mbook was.
“Ah, I must’ve left –”
She said, “Zitto cetriolo.” Which means “shut up, cucumber” in Italian. Why cucumber? I have no idea. “I saw that boy, Sylvester; take your comic book.”
“It’s no big deal, Ma; I –”
“No big deal? Andiamo.”
You guessed it, Andiamo means let’s go. She grabbed my arm, and off we went to Sylvester’s building. This was not good news for little Nicky, but I was counting on Sylvester being out somewhere, enjoying my comic book. As I said, it was a lovely day, and it wasn’t supper time or anything—no chance he would be home.
My mother knocked on Sylvester’s apartment door. Sylvester’s mother opened the door. “Marie, can I help you?”
“Stella, your son took my son’s comic book.”
“Sylvester, give Nicky back his comic book,” Stella shouted over her shoulder.
She did not give Sylvester a chance to lie ; she just told him what to do. Sylvester came to the door, handed me my Little Lulu comic book, and looked at me in a way that made it clear that tomorrow would be a bad day for me since we went to the same school. My eyes and body language tried to explain that I didn’t say anything to him. My mom just saw what had happened. No use.
My mother thanked Mrs. Green. Mrs. Green thanked my mother. That was the end of it…except for me the next day.
When I think about that story, I realize no police were involved. The mothers took care of everything. Families knew families. Police were rarely called for anything. The benches were usually lined with women and out-of-work men. They all watched over the neighborhood. This was the inspirational string of the family and neighbors coming together to solve problems that tie my two novels together. And when they couldn’t handle something, they knew who to go to: Nunzio’s Sabino.
Despite the poverty, we (the kids growing up on those streets) felt loved and valued. Not just by our family but by our neighbors, not by the greater society, but by our neighborhood. The older women and men told us stories and shared life lessons. Lessons like: Don’t be a bully; Do what’s right even if you catch a beating; Be polite; Share; Help; Don’t self-pity; Accept responsibility; Don’t be a sore loser; If you win, don’t brag; Read at the Public Library; Be a stand-up guy. Mostly, I learned that it is not about what you get for what you do but what you become by doing it.
How do our readers contact you? They can use my email – firstname.lastname@example.org