Cherie Rohn was in the midst of changing careers; we've all been there at one point or another. It's that place where everything is up for grabs, you're ready to move on, and your mind is open. She decided to enroll at a casino dealer's school in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because she thought it would make for a lucrative career. She had many jobs under her belt: nightclub singer, scuba instructor, and TV personality, to name a few. You could easily say that Cherie has led quite an amazing life, and that would be the truth. Soon after enrolling in dealer's school she became fascinated with William 'Slick' Hanner, Cherie's blackjack instructor, who carried around his 20-page hand-scrawled bio in hopes that someone would want to write his life story. His handwriting was poor and his education wasn't above a third-grade level, but somehow Cherie could see the potential. Right then and there, she vowed to write his life story and never looked back.
Agreeing to do something is one thing, sticking to your guns is another. Cherie Rohn suddenly found herself in a predicament. She'd never written anything besides a simple letter, a school assignment, or a grocery list, but yet, she was determined to write a whole nonfiction book! As writers we know how much dedication it takes to set out and write a book, let alone starting as a man who hung with the mob. You've got to admire someone who has the drive to push herself to the limits like Cherie did. Where do you start? How do you acquire that knowledge?
If you're interested, this is the interview for you. Cherie Rohn is a success story. She's worked her way from idea to publication and is an amazing woman who you will learn a lot from. Cherie keeps her word no matter how long it takes, gets her facts straight, and comes up aces.
THIEF!: THE GUTSY, TRUE STORY OF AN EX-CON ARTIST
THIEF!, published by Barricade Books, is the gutsy true story of William 'Slick' Hanner, an ex-con artist with mob ties, who grows up in "the toughest neighborhood in the world," 1940's Chicago , and makes his way into all kinds of trouble. From childhood pranks such as shoplifting for zoot suits, to getting entangled with the Lucchese Crime Family in Miami, where he almost becomes fish food. THIEF! takes you back to a bygone era where people could do things for kicks, rob casinos blind, and end up in the wrong places without becoming a "made guy." In fact, Slick was on the fringes of all the hottest scenes throughout the last half of the 20th century, whether it was working in Las Vegas as a Stardust dealer, serving as Jerry Lewis' bodyguard, driving a limo for the infamous Chicken Ranch in Nevada, or celebrating New Years in Havana the night Castro took over Cuba. You name it and Slick has lived it.
Cherie writes the book in a fast-paced tone, true to Slick's voice. If I didn't know her, she would be invisible; she writes that well. And we as writers know that is one of the toughest things to conquer when writing a biography; yet Cherie does this with ease. The book is a hard-hitting adrenaline rush with a lot of laughter. She can tell you a story in a sentence; she knows how to cut the fat. This is an epic with a lifetime of story and well worth the read.
WOW: Cherie, we know your writer's journey started when you decided to attend the casino dealer's school in New Mexico, but what made you want to go there?
CHERIE: I'd recently lost my job as TV station manager in Santa Fe, NM, when the station sold, and I needed a well-paying job. Lucrative jobs were scarce in New Mexico, but Indian casinos were popping up like tumbleweeds around the state and I discovered casino dealers made fantastic tips. So I enrolled in Aces Casino Dealers School in Albuquerque. I was there to learn to deal blackjack, Caribbean Stud and roulette. I was such a rotten dealer, I think they put me in the "remedial school of blackjack dealing," Cherie laughs.
"I found him to be an
adrenaline junkie, con
artist who goes through
life like a speeding
freight train about to
derail at any minute."
(Slick signing THIEF! in Las Vegas)
WOW: It's hard to imagine you being remedial at anything! But this school is where you met William 'Slick' Hanner; so what was your first impression of him?
CHERIE: Slick was one of my teachers at the dealer's school-a guy who hung with the mob-but he acted more like a regular guy bursting with fascinating stories. He passed around 20 hand-scrawled pages of his bio to anyone who would read it, hoping to find someone willing to write his life story. One look at the material and I was hooked.
I found him to be an interesting screw-up, adrenaline junkie, con artist who goes through life like a speeding freight train about to derail at any minute. Physically, Slick was an average looking guy in his 60s. But his personality completely bowled me over, this quirky con artist with a soft spot for the underdog. Really, I have no idea why I decided to devote a good chunk of my life to writing his story. Slick thinks our meeting was an act of God. Maybe it was Providence.
WOW: (laughs) Did you know what you were getting yourself into when you agreed to write Slick's biography?
CHERIE: Ha! If I knew it was going to take 9 agonizing years to complete the book, I don't think I'd have done it. I had my work cut out. Never having written anything other than a few lurid love letters, I had to learn to write; I had to learn to write as a guy; and I had to learn to write as a guy who hung with the mob. No small task. Because we had such different backgrounds-Slick's hit-and-run opportunism versus my educated realism-our collaboration sparked plenty of fireworks between us. It's to our credit that we could work past our difficulties. Then there was the small matter of staying employed to keep food on the table and a roof over my head.
WOW: That's amazing Cherie. I read an article of yours that said, "I'd never written anything but, fired with unquenchable desire and possessing the optimism born of ignorance, I started to write."
Reading that is amazing... no one would've guessed that you hadn't written anything before! How did you go about acquiring your writing skills?
CHERIE: All writers need to realize that learning to write is more than just dashing off a draft or two and that's it. Today publishers want a polished manuscript requiring little editing. But I was so ignorant, I didn't realize what a huge task I'd set for myself. Beginning with Slick's sparse skeleton of a story, little by little I fleshed out the details through endless interviews with Slick and his cronies and tons of research.
About three years into writing, Slick talked me into sending out the manuscript to prospective literary agents. I fashioned a decent query letter (a one-page sales letter designed to pitch your book), then sent it off to about 10 agents. One actually requested to see chapters! I was on my way, I thought. Three months later, I received a standard rejection letter. Hand-written on the bottom was, "Great idea, but writing not up to industry standard..." I put the "cake" back in the oven to cook longer.
WOW: Well, now that "cake" is cooked just perfectly and filled with layers of delicious surprises. So who did you ultimately choose as your agent? And do you think having an agent is necessary for an author?
CHERIE: Three literary agents gave our manuscript serious consideration. But we actually received representation through one of Slick's contacts, Ed Becker our literary agent, who sent our manuscript to Lyle Stuart, owner of Barricade Books. Lyle offered us a publishing contract. But our situation was simply a lucky break.
As they say, unless you have pull with a publisher or your name decorates tabloid front pages, you absolutely must have a literary agent. With thousands of yearly submissions, publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. They just don't have the manpower to sort through them. And literary agents know the publishers who are likely to find your material interesting.
"I never did meet Lyle, but
when he called me to offer
us a publishing contract I
was on an island with lousy
cell phone connections. When I finally got through,
my heart ran a red
light hearing the news."
(Lyle & Carole Stuart of Barricade Books)
WOW: You mentioned the late Lyle Stuart, did you ever get to meet him?
CHERIE: No, I never did meet Lyle, but when he called me to offer us a publishing contract I was on an island with lousy cell phone connections. When I finally got through, my heart ran a red light hearing the news. Wish I could have met him...he's gone now. However, he was such a great man that tributes continue to pour into Barricade's Website about 8 months after his death. You ought to see what people say about him and Carole.
WOW: Yes, from what I've read, and from Carole's interview with us, we know that he was quite a remarkable person and a pioneer of free speech. And since this issue is called, "Small Presses Create Buzz," can you tell us what the advantages are of going with a small press?
CHERIE: Absolutely. A new author can receive more hands-on attention from a smaller press since there isn't so much in-house competition. Through my years of continuing research, I learned that naïve new authors suffer from the belief that publication marks the end of the author's work. Nothing could be further from the truth. The author now must change hats and become the best book marketer in the world. Check out the Arche Books website for more info.
Slick and I were very lucky that Barricade Books signed us to a publishing contract. This small press, which champions first amendment rights, doggedly works to promote THIEF! In fact, it was Barricade that made this interview with WOW! possible.
WOW: And we are so glad! Check out the Editor's Desk Article, which will clarify all misconceived notions of what a small press is (Cherie's above quote included), as well as the small press hot list!
Cherie, in your first chapter of THIEF!, you start out with a compelling incident that really hooks the reader in.
Slick wakes up in the middle of the night and is coerced into a 'midnight cruise' on his boat, the Knot Guilty, with the mission of dumping a black canvas bag of 'trash' over the side. Then in the next situation, you go back to Slick's childhood and familiarize the reader with what it was like to grow up in, "The toughest neighborhood in the world."
I enjoyed the organization and timeline of the book; how much outlining did you do?
CHERIE: Organizing the book came in fits and starts. Slick remembered events, dates, places, and names a little at a time. We also continually rearranged the placement of events in his life. Try to remember sequence of events with your own life and you'll see how difficult it is. The manuscript started out just with chapter headings. Later, I realized his life broke down roughly into three periods: Chicago, Miami and Las Vegas. Once we had the basic structure down, things ran quite smoothly. But, even during the last year, I cut entire chapters because they didn't add to the storyline. I became quite ruthless, chopping material that wasn't necessary even if it was dynamite. Finally, I added the flashback sequence at the beginning to hook the reader.
WOW: And that it did. Listening to the way you organized things makes me wonder about how you kept track of your research. There must have been a tremendous amount involved—
CHERIE: There were four folders: Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas and General, each overflowing with newspaper stories, Slick's and my written notes, Slick's friend's observations, a few pages torn (ahem, borrowed) from books and other pieces of memorabilia such as the Menu from the Chicken Ranch, a famous bordello outside of Las Vegas where Slick drove a limo. Luckily, I know my way around a computer pretty well. I also visited Slick's haunts in Chicago (my hometown, too), Miami and I moved to Las Vegas for two years to get a feel for the town.
WOW: I lived there myself for about a year. Wow, you have done your research. Another thing that impressed me is your knack for your subject's voice. I know that for biographers maintaining voice is key, yet you do it so well! How did you stay true to Slick's voice?
CHERIE: Thank you for the compliment. Of all the things I accomplished with this book, I'm most proud of maintaining Slick's voice. It's kind of scary now when Slick begins to say something only to have me finish it for him in his style. But the process didn't happen over night. Slick stopped me every time I used words that were foreign to him or didn't ring true. You can't fake it. At first, I didn't even know what a "standup" guy was. Two slang dictionaries, and studying movies like the Godfather and Casino, and the Sopranos TV series helped.
I also had to consider whether a reader would comprehend what Slick was saying. I changed his actual words just enough for clarity. Some writers try to mimic a character's exact dialect. In doing so, comprehension often suffers. You walk a fine line when recreating a person's voice. You have to feel your way through it.
WOW: There's a great balance in the book between raw voice and comprehension, and it's hard to imagine that you didn't have any peer guidance. I read in an article that you follow Mario Puzo's advice of, "Don't show your stuff to anybody. You can get inhibited." Do you think there's a disadvantage to writers' groups or not sharing?
CHERIE: Actually, that's merely a suggestion, especially when you're new and somewhat raw. You have to learn to trust your instincts. Let's face it. Friends and relatives are biased. I generally kept the manuscript to myself. Until someone reads it that really knows good writing, you probably want to refrain from showing your work. However, it's a great idea to join a local group to gain knowledge about the somewhat dizzying world of writing and publishing. I'm a member of the Gulf Coast Writer's Association. Everyone is supportive but there's no pressure to share your writing. Their website is loaded with useful info. Found the courage to give a talk for the group last fall, "Increase your chances of Getting Published." Check out, www.gulfcoastwriters.com.
WOW: Speaking of divulging information... when writing Thief! were you ever afraid that revealing this information could be potentially dangerous?
CHERIE: Funny you should ask. A recent review just came out about THIEF! mentioning that very subject. Columnist, Jay MacDonald asked, "Does the guy [Slick] who knows where the bodies are buried fear that some associates may take offense at his candid biography?"
I said, "We had a few death threats. I'm not going to tell you where they came from but they were real. Slick isn't one to worry. His attitude is, 'Hey, if that happens we can sell a few more books!'"
In reality, most of the guys who could do us bodily harm died from unnatural causes. The few still alive have their names changed in THIEF!
WOW: How important is changing the names of the people involved? I've heard that even with changed names, people will still try and sue...
CHERIE: People Slick knew weren't exactly upstanding citizens. I truly feel if we didn't change one name in particular, we could have left ourselves open to harm, not just a lawsuit. I'll let your imagination fill in the rest. Then there was Slick's boyhood friend, Leroy Smolen, who was on the crew of Mugsy Tortorello, the guy who killed Marilyn Monroe. We left the Leroy connection out of the book because Leroy was still alive when it went to the press. Angela, I've learned you have to do your homework, do the best research you can, have guts, and go for it.
"It's a constant battle to make your book stand out in the crowd. When you realize roughly 420 new titles hit the market daily, the competition is fierce."
WOW: Whoa...I think you have many more books in you, considering all the insider information that you've acquired! So how has promoting THIEF! been for you? Do you have any tips for authors?
CHERIE: It's a constant battle to make your book stand out in the crowd. When you realize roughly 420 new titles hit the market daily, the competition is fierce. You have to get creative; do as many book signings as you can and even hire a publicist if you have the resources. The other day, I walked into the local police sub-station and came away with 6 THIEF! sales. Who's more likely to find true stories about the mob, prostitution and gambling of interest than the police?
Gone are the days when a mid-list (new) author could expect a traditional publisher to market their book. The money and manpower simply aren't there. Check out this site for in-depth info on writing and publishing, www.archebooks.com.
WOW: Cherie, any new books in the works that we should know about?
CHERIE: Thanks for asking. A while back, Slick and I finished a gritty urban detective story for young readers called Dog Justice, about Herman the German Schnauzer who, after a car hits him, has a steel plate inserted in his head. From that moment on, he can speak "people talk." We're scouting for a publisher.
Currently, I'm collaborating with a criminologist on a true story about the man's cousin who is sitting it out on death row for a murder he didn't commit. New state-of-the-art DNA testing could possibly exonerate him. And our book may help save his life.
I've also moved into the realm of book editing. Two projects in the works are a manuscript entitled, The Anatomy of Racism in Black and White and possibly another-a new slant on the mobster, Myer Lansky.
My dance card is fairly full, but I do look at new projects I find interesting.
WOW: So, is there any hope that we might get to see THIEF! optioned for a movie? It would make a great one.
CHERIE: Boy, we sure hope so. Our good friend and publicist, Tony Montana, is working on that angle as we speak. Any producers out there who want to option THIEF!?
WOW: You heard it folks! I think Director Dito Montiel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (great movie, btw) and Executive Producer Sting (what a man and musician!) would be a good fit for THIEF! in my humble opinion as a movie buff...
Slick has a lot of interesting quotes in the book. Can you share with one of your favorites with our readers?
CHERIE: Yes, it's set in the late 1950s when Slick and his friend Bob Mauro flew to Havana from Key West for $10 each. The two guys and a couple of senioritas celebrated New Year's Eve while gunfire and rockets went off all night. Slick laughed, "If I didn't know it was New Year's, I'd swear there was a war going on out there." It turned out to be the night Castro took over Cuba.
WOW: That's a great scene our readers will have to check out. So do you have any parting advice for our aspiring authors?
- Research all you can about the writing/publishing business. Can't overemphasize this.
- Read! Especially your genre.
- Learn tight writing-cut anything superfluous.
- Write from the heart, as if you're talking to one person. Literary agents and publishers have built-in BS detectors.
- Have faith in yourself. Don't quit!
WOW: Great advice, Cherie! Thanks for inspiring us to follow our writing dreams, no matter what. You are a success story we can all learn from.
Be sure to check out Cherie and Slick's blog: www.mobwriter.blogspot.com for current THIEF! events, such as book signings, radio and TV appearances, newspaper articles/profiles etc.