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A Conversation with the Breakout Kings: Nick Santora and Domenick Lombardozzi

Nick Santora is the author of SLIP AND FALL and FIFTEEN DIGITS both forthcoming from Mulholland Books. He is also the co-writer, co-executive producer and co-creator of Breakout Kings which premieres this Sunday, March 6th at 10PM on A&E. Here, Santora and Domenick Lombardozzi (star of Breakout Kings, The Wire, Entourage and more) discuss their collaboration on the show, the concept of literary TV and, most importantly, which New York borough is the best.

Mulholland Books: Nick, you’ve described shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, and now Breakout Kings as “literary TV.” What does the phase mean to you?

Nick Santora: I think to me, and there are other shows that I think fall into that category as well like Boardwalk Empire. But to me, it’s trying to take television to a different level of storytelling -when you’re doing stuff that you have not necessarily seen before. There’s television out there that is absolutely great; and that makes a lot of people happy and makes a lot of people a lot money, but it’s definitely, for lack of a better term, I guess, a bit old hat. It’s the straight case of where character dialogues are interchangeable and it just doesn’t make a difference who says what. I can state from experience: I’ve worked on shows where I’ve been on set, and I’m not going to name the show; but, where one actor was having trouble with his lines, and his buddy, another actor has said don’t worry, I know that line. I’ll take it and you take my line, it’s shorter. And my writer brain and my producer brain both cramped at hearing that until, I actually saw them play the scene and I realized- it just doesn’t make a difference, who says what.

Because the whole entire episode is about the case and the characters are nothing but meats puppets that give exposition. It really bothered me, and I swore that if I could ever get my own show on the air, I would try at least to make the show about something other than just the case of the week. And on Breakout Kings, that’s what I and Matt Olmstead, my co-creator on the show, have tried to do and I think that we have been relatively successful.

MB: Domenick, your Wikipedia entry claims that your main inspiration as an actor is the film State of Grace. While the film is a cult classic, it’s also kind of a narrow choice, so I thought I’d ask…

Domenick Lombardozzi: No, that’s not true. Although, I do love the movie. Gary Oldman. Fantastic. Although I did A Bronx Tale when I was fifteen, it wasn’t until I did a movie called Kiss me Guido that I really fell in love with acting– just the whole process, the learning what other people do, the camaraderie. It was that experience for me because we actually took that movie from nothing, and got funding, did readings to get money, to get that movie we made for Tony Vitale, and it was just that whole process that really inspired me.

NS: Kiss Me Guido is another example of literary film–Tony Vitale is really a talented writer. You know we can all go out and see a movie that is a lot of incredible special effects, and the star of the movie frankly is what’s done in the editing biz with the incredible talented editors, and the CGI, and all the incredible technology that is available today. Those movies are great and I love those movies; and I’ll be the first one to go and see one of those films, but, I also love a film where the star is the story, and the actors are bring the story to life.

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Do You Have to Be a Murderer to Write Killer Fiction?

Everyone reading this column has one thing in common: we all love crime novels. The question I’d like to pose is, are the best crime novels written by those experienced in crime, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it?

Crime fiction is about murder. Do crime writers who have experienced violence write different kinds of murder mysteries than people who never have? I think so. Just like the best war novels are almost most often written by men who’ve experienced war (From Here to Eternity, The Young Lions, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Naked and the Dead). In American fiction, as far as I know, the only great war novel ever written by a guy who had no experience in war was Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage.

My favorite crime novel, The Hoods by Harry Grey, was written by a man who was serving time for manslaughter in Sing Sing. While it is true one of the most successful books, The Godfather, was written by a man with no known ties to the Mafia, Mario Puzo was smart enough to pick up a great deal of street gossip and anecdotes from his Mafia-infused neighborhood. In addition to this, as a veteran of World War II, he witnessed much violence and corruption in postwar Berlin. Out of this came his wonderful novel The Dark Arena. Perhaps the greatest crime trilogy of the 20th century, the Studs Lonigan books, was written by James T Farrell, a guy who knew many Studs Lonigans in the poor and violent Chicago neighborhood he grew up in. And of course, we also have Nelson Algren.

Perhaps a writer can compensate for not personally taking part in violence by being an acute observer. Therefore we have people like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and James Ellroy, who may not have participated in violence themselves, but avidly follow and report on it. Of course, there are many criminals who have published successful crime books, but these are usually ghosted. I know in my case, my fiction comes out of the eighteen and a half years I spent growing up in East New York, the toughest slum in the country. Since I was not tough, I had to be extremely brutal in order to win my streetfights. A writer who had to decide whether or not to murder people writes different crime fiction than someone who hasn’t. Now I’m not saying I killed anyone, but out of the ninety or so street fights and fistfights I was in, there were a number of times I made decisions to try. As Mike Tyson, a guy who grew up in Brownsville–East New York, said in the documentary that bears his name, street fights were different from his fights in the ring. While street fighting, he had to beat his opponent so badly he would not be able to return to his block and bring back reinforcements or a gun. In my fiction, when I’m writing a violent scene, all I have to do is remember my past. There are certain things that writers who have engaged in violence know that writers who’ve never witnessed or participated in any can never know. A former editor of mine, Brando Skyhorse, once happened to ask me questions about the authenticity of a scene I wrote in which one character was pleading for his life. Without even thinking, I responded that I’d had a number of people plead with me to let them live, and this is what they said. Brando kept the scene. I am not proud of how I grew up, but by writing fiction I have managed to constructively use the violence I witnessed and participated in. This violence came from both warring street gangs and the young hoodlums who grew up to be portrayed in movies like Goodfellas.

There are other crime writers, including ex-cops and criminals, who, like me, participated in and witnessed tremendous amounts of violence. People who experienced violence in the past and have the talent to write about it will probably write more realistic crime scenes than people who have to fall back on their imaginations. If realism is your standard, it makes sense to first read writers who in their pasts and possibly present are actually involved in crime. A person who has fired a gun or investigated a murder will write a different book than someone who hasn’t.

Joseph Trigoboff lives in New York City with his wife and two children. He is the author of The Shooting Gallery and The Bone Orchard. For his novels, Joe draws much on his childhood in the violent neighborhood of East New York/Brownsville where street and fist-fights were commonplace and packs of wild dogs roamed the streets, he is currently working on a memoir about this period in his life.

Crime Fiction and Fact: Real vs. Hollywood

If there’s one thing I know about, it’s crime. I’ve dealt drugs, used drugs, been shot at (and shot back), participated in high-speed chases with the cops, and lived with a call girl. I’ve been involved in stabbings, check-kiting, armed robberies, and some other tricks and stratagems of the hustling trade. Even spent two-plus years in prison, in one of Indiana’s then two maximum security prisons, Pendleton, back in the sixties on a 2–5 for second-degree burglary.

I also have this weird desire to write true accounts of the criminal mind in novels, something I’ve seen very little of. Very few novels, other than true noir, ever come close.

What’s the reason most miss the true nature of the criminal mind? That’s easy. Most who write have never been criminals.

Let’s look at three of the most common inaccuracies:

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Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman on themselves and everything else

I’ve known Mark Billingham since 2002, but I feel as if we’re lifelong friends. When I heard he was going to move to Mulholland, I was sad for our mutual publisher but happy for Mark, if that makes sense. We share several enthusiasms, including the music of Elvis Costello and beer. I guess I should also mention that Mark is the author of the award-winning series of police procedurals about Tom Thorne, and a stand-alone, In the Dark. A stand-up comedian, he also is one of the funniest people I know. My new book came out in the United States on Tuesday, August 17, and Mark’s latest, From the Dead, is out in the United Kingdom on Thursday, August 19. When Mulholland asked if I wanted to inhabit its online real estate for a day, I suggested that Mark and I chat via Facebook. This is a lightly edited version of that chat.

MB: So, Laura, the new book is out in a couple of days. This is another stand-alone, right?

LL: Yes, another stand-alone. It’s called I’d Know You Anywhere, and it’s about a woman who’s contacted by the man who kidnapped and raped her when she was fifteen.

MB: Are you into any kind of pattern with the stand-alones and the series? A Tess Monaghan, then a stand-alone?

LL: There was a pattern, but it was broken because I wanted the book that was serialized in the New York Times magazine — The Girl in the Green Raincoat, the one with Tess’s pregnancy — to go out into the world before I resumed her story. That will finally happen next year.

MB: You’ve said that in some ways the new book is a companion piece to Life Sentences.

LL: After writing a book about a high-strung type who wrote the kind of book that book clubs discuss, I wanted to write a book about the kind of woman who belongs to a book club. Does that make sense?

MB: Absolutely. So would you say it’s less of straightforward mystery novel than you might write if it was a Tess book? Or should I say less of a crime novel?

LL: Less of a straightforward mystery, but very much a crime novel.

MB: So many writers, when they’re as many books in as you, start talking about feeling certain pressures to deliver the genre goods. Is that something that bothers you at all?

LL: Nick Hornby has a great line about how writing a good novel within a genre category is harder than writing a mainstream novel. I think it ups the ante in a very exciting way. It helps that I never did big twists. Weaknesses can become inadvertent strengths. I’ve never delivered huge twists (although some readers of What the Dead Know might disagree) so readers don’t expect me to take the tops of their heads off.

What do you think? Your Thorne books and your stand-alone seemed to me to be centered in real-world situations, where things are surprising, but never out-of-the-blue-didn’t-see-that-coming. I have to say, I think the dedicated reader, the one who wants to solve things, should be able to see things coming. You?

MB: Yes, I agree. I’ve actually started to grow tired of books where there is twist after twist. You can never actually invest in the story, because you know that so much of it is going to get pulled from under your feet. There’s a danger of it becoming nothing more than a technical exercise.

LL: I think at some point we have to choose between being clever and being — I’m stuck for the best word. Grounded? Credible? I’m not saying the latter is better than the former, just that it’s hard to do both in the same book. Presumed Innocent managed it. But it’s hard.

MB: If your book stands or falls on a reader being able to figure out a twist, or who the killer is, then it’s probably not much of a book. There has to be something more going on than that.

LL: I talk to young writers (or just new writers) about role-model books, the books that one aspires to write. Did you have such books? You know, “If only I could write a book like [Title] I would be so happy.”
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