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TJ English and The Corporation
by Katerina Charisi
2017-10-29 11:38:56
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TJ English and The Corporation: A movie from a book that’s not even published yet; A writer coming straight from the streets of New York and an interview full of passion for the craft of writing and love for the Human.

pj01_400TJ English, nominee for an Edgar Award for the category of Best Fact Crime in 2016, does not belong to the pure Historical Fiction category, but, he is the one who managed to create a sub-genre with his specialty of bringing in the light the underworld’s activities as a study to social history. For over two decades, through his non-fiction and journalism, TJ English actually chronicled the American underworld. Former taxi driver in New York, he combines in a unique way his experiences from the streets and his journalistic research, writing compelling books that excite readers every time. His goal is not only to give the big picture, but also to share all those little stories inside the big picture. So, he is not one of the greatest journalists of our time with no reason.

A big thank you for managing to squeeze into his loaded schedule my questions; now, sit comfortably and enjoy all the amazing things he shared with me in this interview.

Q: Writing non-fiction. How tough can that be? Stephen King said once that it’s much easier with fiction; you just let your imagination to do all the work. I’m guessing there is a big difference in “writing down the facts in a book”, than “writing a book one actually might want to read”. What is your opinion about it? Is it pure journalism to you, or do you want to produce a page turner at the same time, playing with words and sentences, revising and/or make changes when needed? After all, it’s always a book that needs to be read.

The first obligation of any writer is to tell a good story – fiction, non-fiction, journalism, poetry, etc. – it’s all the same. The non-fiction writer has the additional obligation of working with factual information. I aspire to the highest levels of research and scholarship in my books, but it is all in service of telling a story that is compelling, illuminating, and entertaining.

Q: What is it so fascinating about the stories you choose to bring to light and you write so passionately about it? What inspired you most to follow this genre? (It is said actually that you managed to create a new sub-genre with your specialty).

I write about the social universe, the way things work, or don’t work in society. I write from the point of view of the criminal underworld, what many refer to as organized crime, but to me the underworld and the upperworld are flip sides of the same coin. The idea is to explore aspects of history and the social universe that shape our daily lives in ways we don’t necessarily see. Black market capitalism, politics, business, culture are all extensions of the criminal underworld. How this process shapes individual lives and the development of society/culture in general is an endlessly fascinating subject to me. Particularly in the United States, where capitalism is a kind of religion, I don’t think you can understand American society without having some knowledge of organized crime.

Q: Why people involved to the cases you write about would talk to a writer? What makes them want to share personal moments and facts from their past, all the valuable info we read in your books?

People are willing to talk for many different reasons. Sometimes they talk because they want to get something off their chest. Sometimes they talk because they want their version of events to be put on the public record. Usually, by the time they are talking to me, the story has played out, or is in the process of playing out, and they have a vested interest in putting forth their interpretation. Then it becomes my obligation to verify what I am being told, to not be “played” or used by a subject. It becomes a kind of a dance, and ultimately it requires trust and respect. I have a reputation for getting people to talk with me; I think it is because I approach people, including criminals, with no judgement. I am not out to get them, to make them look bad, or to judge the choices they’ve made in life. If they give me an interpretation of their life that is true and honest, I attempt to approach it with understanding and compassion – even if this person is a criminal or murderer or a social outcast of some kind.

Q: Nowadays, you could say that the term “short” is dominating. People are just too busy. Videos must be short, ads must be short, texts must be short, emails, even stories. The literature we met by writers who lived 100 years ago, is probably something we won’t see again. What do you see in today’s readers? Is it lack of time that causes lack of patience in reading, or is it something else that makes people not to read much? (Greece has one of the highest rates in non-reading people).

Modern technology has brought about an assault on people’s ability to focus on one thing. People are constantly on their devices – laptops, phones, pads, etc – taking in information in short doses. They simply no longer have the attention span to focus on something non-visual for a sustained period of time. It’s a big problem. People no longer have the “intellectual muscles” to focus, think, analyze, and become lost in a book all at the same time. The books I write are long and in-depth and require a thoughtful reader with an active imagination, and these kinds of readers are a dying breed. People want information spoon fed to them in small doses. I worry about this, about what it means for my profession and also for the future of the social world. People who can’t think for themselves are open to manipulation by political ideologues and demagogues. We see it happening all around the world.

Q: Getting back on the craft of writing, I read only one of your books, The Westies; I can sense narration is something you’re serious about. How is writing treating you? For others is joy and words come out easy, others find it torturing, struggling with each sentence until they take it out right. How long it takes to complete a book after you’re done with all the research? How long does your research take?

Craft means everything to me. The fun part is the research – traveling, interviewing people, taking in information on a particular subject. The process of acquiring knowledge is thrilling. The hard part is getting it all down on the page in a way that is insightful and entertaining to a reader. It’s possible that one of the hardest things to do is write sentences and paragraphs that are compelling and fresh. I mean, there are only so many letters in the alphabet, only so many words in any language. To engage a reader, to hold their interest, is a big challenge. I approach it like a craftsman, say, a carpenter. If it is a chair I am creating, I want it to be the most interesting and comfortable and well-crafted chair ever created. This requires great creativity and attention to detail. This is hard work. It’s not a spontaneous, joyful process. The joy and satisfaction comes at the end with the creation of the work.

Q: Is there a life-motto posted somewhere next to your office, something you need to check in the morning before you start your day?

Yes. From Walt Whitman: “The job of the poet is to resolve all tongues unto his own.”

Q: Does your next book choose you - or you choose it?

It has to be a subject that I am unendingly fascinated with, a subject with many layers. Creating a book is like an archeological dig deep into the earth.  It takes two to three years to create a book of this type, and the worst thing that could happen is that you become bored with your subject midway through the research and writing. That’s never happened to me because I choose subjects that hold my interest, and I am able to get deeper and deeper into the story.

Don’t miss it: The Corporation: An Epic Story Of The Cuban American Underworld” by TJ English, the book that managed to start a real fight between filmmakers before it even published. Paramount and Di Caprio’s Appian Way, and Benicio Del Toro as the protagonist just make us count the days until somewhere in 2018.

The story gets us back in time and between the ‘50s - ‘80s Miami and New York, revealing the action of the Cuban Mafia. Jose Miguel Battle Sr, the leader of the powerful Cuban Mafia in the face of Benicio Del Toro who’s got the first leading role in the upcoming film, born in Havana, resorts in the US after the rise of Fidel Castro where is trained by the CIA to fight the Bay of Pigs in 1961.

(Parenthetically: Invasion of the Gulf of Pigs was a failed military intervention in Cuba to overthrow the Fidel Castro government. The paramilitary group "Brigade 2056", started from Guatemala and within three days was defeated by the Cuban Armed Forces under the direct command of Castro.)

After the invasion, Jose Miguel Battle Sr was captured and imprisoned in Cuba. When released, he went back in the United States where he eventually began constructing his vast and powerful criminal empire, bringing himself to become one of the strongest Mafia bosses until his death in 2007.

The film is entirely based on the real events as TJ English wrote in his book and that couldn’t be a more cinematic material. From the Ovi Team our best wishes for every success! Thank you very much.


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Stef 2017-10-30 04:59:26
Great article!

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