Crime Novelist Charlie Newton Marries Truth and Fiction

Novelist Charlie Newton weaves complex plots of crime and corruption out of unrelated true stories. The rape and murder of a young girl and a strange history of biological warfare in Japan collide in “Start Shooting,” the Chicago native’s acclaimed second novel.

While a gang war threatens the city’s bid for the Olympics, a guitar-playing cop and a desperate actress from the same gritty Chicago neighborhood are forced to confront corruption, violence and the legacy of a family murder.

“It’s a novel about hopes and dreams,” says Newton. “Some propel you through the fire and some burn you to death. That’s the core story of the book.”

Newton doesn’t just base his novels on real events, he names his heroes after real people (like Chicago police officer Bobby Vargas, a friend of Newton’s who shares a name, occupation and more with one of the two narrators of “Start Shooting”), old friends or interesting characters he befriends while conducting research, ride-along style, transforming oversized tales into emotionally resonant stories of witness.

It’s an unorthodox approach, but Newton says it gives him—and his readers—an intimate  backstage pass to a different life.

“The policemen and the other people I know who use weapons for a living, they know I don’t care about the gunfight. I don’t want to know what kind of ammunition they have,” says Newton. “I want to know what the life did to them. How was it before you were this, how is it today, what’s the future going to smell like, how do you medicate to get through it?”

The Rules of Reality

Though he jokingly says he’s “too lazy and too angry” to write true-crime nonfiction, Newton nevertheless has strict rules for how he uses truth in his novels. He says in 90 percent of made-up scenarios, his characters must act and react as their namesakes would in a real-life situation.

“The characters are as true as they are in real life in terms of the important things that they do,” he says. “Marrying them to a quasi-fictional situation where they use those skill sets or those opinions to get themselves in trouble or to confront the issue and solve it, I purposely match the crime and the person and the underlying story.”

In the case of Bobby Vargas and “Start Shooting,” it started with a conversation the two friends had about Vargas’ conflicted feelings about his Mexican heritage. That, along with Vargas’ job on the police force and his other passions, brought the story Newton had been thinking about into sharp focus.

“I have lots of people who could have told this story, but the fact that he had this hope of being this great guitar player, and that he had this war in heaven with his genetic code, made him the perfect guy,” says Newton.

Birthing New Voices

Newton will read from “Start Shooting” at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Second Story Books (2004 Highland Ave.). He’ll also teach a three-hour writing workshop for aspiring writers called “Say What You Mean” at the bookstore Saturday morning. The workshop starts at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and costs $35, which includes signed copies of his books. Writers can register on-site or call 290-8585.

It’s another installment of the roving writing clinics Newton calls his Urban Writers Series. He teaches similar classes and mentors aspiring writers at the Chicago police academy, to veteran police officers and in gang-plagued neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Shore.

“I’m buying back some karma by going to these places and saying, let’s see if we can birth some new voices and change the dialogue,” says Newton.

Off the Beaten Path

It’s not exactly the path many novelists take after they toil for years on rejected manuscripts only to debut with a splash on Simon & Schuster (his first novel, “Calumet City,” is also set in Chicago) and later sign with Doubleday, home of bestsellers like John Grisham. But Newton’s not after the quiet life of a university appointment—or even a permanent address.

Though he’s in Chicago now leading writing seminars and promoting his book, he’s lived all over the world (“I’ve been a pirate or an outlaw most of my life, under someone’s flag or not.”), most recently in Berlin researching for his work in progress. And soon he’ll head south for a residency at Hialeah Park while a friend (Newton has a lot of interesting friends) renovates the famed Miami racetrack.

The globetrotting life lends itself to an intense monasticism Newton has found he can practice no matter his time zone. His routine is strict and driven, he says, by the stories he wants to write and the loneliness he wants to avoid—up by 3:30 a.m. to write aggressively for six or seven hours, followed by a few hours of gym time and author business, then out to walk the streets and meet the people who will inform his current work. He’s home by 6 p.m., has a couple of drinks and turns in, every day.

“When I get up at 3:30 (to write), my life’s in that book. Those people are real people, those situations are, for the most part, real, the places are absolutely real—I’ve been to them all or I don’t use them—so I’m living in those sentences,” says Newton. “That’s my sex, my alcohol, my betrayal, my affection, my hopes and dreams. It’s really alive to me.” 

Newton on “Start Shooting”:

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