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Is Joey Boloccini Really . . . ?

The question I’m asked most about my novels, The Coffin Haulers and The Champagne Ladies, is: Are the characters based on real people?

Just one, I answer.

Everyone else is a figment of my imagination. I never knew anyone who wanted to be a private detective like Joey Boloccini, better known as Joey Baloney. Never knew a family that made their living by hauling coffins, or two erotic women like Rita and Sandra (and I feel the less for that), or anyone who enlisted in the army during the Vietnam War and then went AWOL, though I know a few guys who were drafted during the war and a couple who were killed. Luckily, I never was drafted.

Everything I write, except for historical references, is based on what I remember growing up in my neighborhood of Little Village in Chicago, when it was predominantly an enclave of Eastern European immigrants and their first-generation children. I used to sit on my front porch in the summer and watch the neighbors go by, old women carrying bags from the corner store, the men walking to and from the tavern on the corner, and make up stories about them.

The names I use for the characters are names I grew up with: Emil, Bogdan, Boller, Anton, Mamie, Adeline, etc. I use them because they seem natural to me.

The characters have personalities and traits that I believe actual people would exhibit in real situations. Joey talks a certain way because a private detective with his personality would talk like that. Adeline Podlowski in The Champagne Ladies is a woman looking to be more than a housewife because it’s 1968 when the story takes place and many women wanted that.

People ask if Ben Podlowski, a central figure in The Champagne Ladies, is baed on me. Not really, but some of his actions are. Ben works as a busboy at Bohemian Inn Restaurant; I was a busboy at Little Village Restaurant. Ben plays baseball for a Liberty League team; so did I. That’s the extent of the resemblance.

The one character based on a real person is Claudine Dabec in The Champagne Ladies. She’s a noncomforming individualist who can’t abide phoniness, has no patience with the wilfully foolish, despises pretense and lives life by her own rules.

She’s the author.


Two-Day Price Promo for The Coffin Haulers

It’s called the Kindle Countdown Deal. Starting at 8 a.m. PST on Friday, Nov. 8, the price of The Coffin Haulers will be 99 cents for 24 hours. After that, for another 24 hours, the price will be $1.99 and then return to the original price of $2.99.

It’s a bargain at any price. The Coffin Haulers has received 5-star reviews on my Amazon book page, Goodreads, and Windy City Reviews.

I’m having a problem linking to my Amazon page and the other websites, and the WordPress help button isn’t working. So here’s a link to my Amazon page.

Interviewed by In Print Radio

Sharon Boehlefeld, left, interviews Gregg Cebrzynski

Sharon Boehlefeld, left, interviews Gregg Cebrzynski

I was interviewed on Saturday, Oct. 5, by Sharon  Boehlefeld for In Print Radio. Sharon is a member of In Print Professional Writers Group in Rockford, Ill., an affiliate of the Chicago Writers Association, of which I’m a member. I’ll let you know when the interview can be heard and I’ll publish a link. It’s an Internet radio station, so you can access it no matter where you live.

The photo above was taken in the studio. Here’s more information about In Print Radio and its interviews with writers. If you’re interested in writing (I assume you are, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this blog) you should give the previous interviews a listen. They’re very informative.

Jean Shepherd

Jean Shepherd

Jean Shepherd

I attempted my first novel in the early 1970s. It was titled “The Biographjy of Stanley Podlowski,” and it was an embarrassment. I rewrote it. It was no longer an embarrassment but it was still bad; bad in the sense that it stunk.

That was my opinion then. I still hold to it.

But I showed it to a friend, who was mildly amused by what I’d written, and he said the plot and characters reminded him of something that Jean Shepherd would write. I had no idea who Jean Shepherd was. My friend loaned me his copy of “Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters.” I was hooked. And I realized two things: First, what I had written was something that Shepherd had done on a smaller scale. Second, he did it a lot better than I did.

I became a fan then and there, read all his books, watched his shows on PBS (the one he did on my beloved Chicago White Sox is a classic; I watch it before the start of every baseball season), mournfully read his obit in The New York Times when he died in October 1999, happily devoured the biography, “Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd,” written by Eugene B. Bergmann.

Like Shepherd, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. South Siders have a certain swag, an attitude not found in any other part of Chicago. It’s equal parts survival instinct, tolerance and cunning. In my neighborhood it was also mandatory to become an expert in looking over your shoulder whenever you walked someplace. Most people don’t know that the classic movie “A Christmas Story” is based on a couple of Jean Shepherd short-stories, or that he makes a cameo appearance in it as well as doing the narration.

Shepherd made his name in radio as a late-night host of a show on WOR in New York, and his written words tend to get overlooked. That’s a shame, because he had a singular voice.

William Faulkner

William Faulkner

William Faulkner

Before I read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in 1991, I had read hundreds of novels spanning every conceivable genre, but it wasn’t until I read that one book that I understood what novel-writing was all about.

It’s the story of  the breakdown of the Compson family over a thirty-year period. Caddy Compson is the central figure and her relationship with her brothers — Quentin, Jason and Benjy — is told from multiple viewpoints. (Caddy has a daughter, whom she names Quentin).

The Sound and Fury is Faulkner’s greatest achievement, and, like his previous and later books, is not an easy read. But when I came to the end of it I remember clearly it was a morning in late June and closing the book I smiled and said aloud, “This is one hell of a story.”

Faulkner is not for everyone. I told a friend how much I enjoyed As i Lay Dying and she said it was the worst book she had ever read, and read it only because it was on the assigned list in her American Lit class.

It’s been a long time since I read Faulkner. I still haven’t read the Snopes Trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion) but the other day I decided to read Knight’s Gambit, a book of six mystery stories. That’s right, Faulkner wrote whodunits. Although both my novels, The Champagne Ladies and The Coffin Haulers, are mysteries, they’re not typical for that genre.

The fact is, I’ve never read many standard mystery books. I read all of Sherlock Holmes while i was in grade school and a couple of other mystery novels later on, but that’s about it. I prefer mystery stories more in the manner of Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and Ministry of Fear.

The mysteries in Knight’s Gambit are solved by Gavin Stevens, one of my favorite Faulkner characters. As described on the back cover of my Vintage paperback edition, “Stevens’ sharp insights and ingenious detection uncover the underlying motives.”

No gun play, no chase scenes, just wit and intelligence — that’s what I like.




Getting From Here to There

The lights in the hospital room were off when Lily entered.

That’s the first line of my new novel, which I’ll begin writing next week.

“Would you like to have dinner?” he asked

And that’s the last line. All I need now is sixty-five- or seventy-thousand more words and I got it made.

When I start a book I always know the first and last sentences. It gives me direction. But the odds of those sentences actually making it into the book are negligible. When I began The Coffin Haulers, the first sentence is close to what I started with, but the novel was supposed to end with Joey Boloccini saying, “Case closed.” It doesn’t.

The same was true with The Champagne Ladies. I changed the first sentence so many times I don’t even remember what the original was in the first draft.  It doesn’t matter. Having something to work with, knowing the beginning and end, gives me a goal. I’m not wandering about without an end in sight and a beginning that leads logically to the end.

I don’t outline my novels because that’s too rigid of a structure for me. Other writers live by outlines. Whatever works. i take copious notes on how I want the story to proceed, and often the notes turn out to be irrelevant to the plot or characters. Here’s one that seemed interesting when I wrote it but turned out to be needless to the story: Maybe introduce the alderman as a plot point.

Notes are a stream-of-consciousness technique (something Joey actually employs when he’s stumped) but not always meaningful. And now let me me amend that; They are meaningful because they tell me where the story should not go as well as where it should go.

The exact wording of the first sentence may not remain in the final draft, nor the last sentence, but at least in have a map to follow.

Writers Helping Writers

I’m eternally grateful when fellow authors agree to mention my books on their blogs and websites. The latest mention comes from Richard Stephenson, who listed “The Coffin Haulers” as an Amazon Highlight. Check out his blog and his books here.