Dennis N. Griffin writes fiction but his specialty is true crime. In this interview, Griffin talks about how he came to write the biography of one of the most infamous Las Vegas criminals. He also talks about outlining, looking for the right publisher, and promotion.
Tell us about your latest book, Cullotta.
Cullotta is the biography of Frank Cullotta, a former master thief, arsonist, mob tough guy and killer. Frank explains in graphic detail his life as a criminal on the streets of Chicago, his days running a crew of thieves and murderers in Las Vegas, and life in the federal Witness Protection Program.
I first became aware of Frank Cullotta through my second non-fiction book, The Battle for Las Vegas: The Law vs. the Mob (Huntington Press, July 2006), In that book I told the story of Chicago Outfit enforcer Tony Spilotro’s Las Vegas reign. This is the era dramatized in the hit 1995 movie Casino, in which actor Joe Pesci plays a character based on Spilotro. That book was told primarily from the side of law enforcement. So when I had the opportunity to meet Frank Cullotta — the last living and available member of Spilotro’s crew — I was enthused about the possibility of getting a look at that same time period from the perspective of the bad guys. Frank had already been thinking about doing a book, making the timing perfect.
During my initial meeting with Frank, he committed to discussing his life of crime and his stint in Witness Protection. He also agreed to talk about his role as an adviser to Casino, in which he appeared in several scenes as a hit man. Frank promised to talk candidly about the myriad crimes he’d been involved in for which he’d received immunity or the statute of limitations had long since run. They included murder.
After ironing out the details we sealed our arrangement with a handshake. Frank provided me with nearly 400 pages of notes about his life and crimes. I took my treasure trove home and started to read.
Do you do a detailed outline before you start the actual writing? How did you set about to plan this particular book?
Normally I write an outline of my projects. But writing Cullotta was different than anything I’d ever done before. I began by going over Frank’s notes multiple times, organizing events by time frame and writing myself notes of what areas required additional information or clarification.
Because the contract put on Frank’s life by the Chicago Outfit has never been officially lifted, his safety was a top priority. I needed to talk or meet with Frank frequently, but security concerns required me to contact him through a third party, making for a cumbersome process. As time went by and we got to know each other better, I was provided with the means to contact Frank directly. This certainly streamlined the operation, but it also placed me in a position of having knowledge that had to be safeguarded.
I was fortunate in that I had already done a tremendous amount of research regarding the so-called Spilotro days when writing Battle. Even with that advantage, it took about eight months to complete the manuscript and gather related documents.
Have you ever suffered from writer's block?
I’ve experienced writer’s block primarily with my fictions. I find that by mentally placing myself back in the shoes of my lead character — thinking and acting like he/she thinks and acts — I get energized and am able to come up with fresh ideas to get past difficult spots.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
My first two non-fictions were with Huntington Press, a small traditional press in Las Vegas. They specialize in books with connections to gaming, Nevada, or Las Vegas. Through those books I had established a good working relationship with them, both as a writer and marketer.
Shortly after my first meeting with Frank, I approached Huntington with a proposal outlining what Frank’s story would contain and the amount of detail he would provide. As an illustration, the proposal included Frank’s description of the facts behind the so-called M&M murders. They were the basis for one of the most memorable scenes in Casino, the one in which Pesci’s character places a man’s head in a vise and squeezes until the guy’s eyeball pops out. Huntington saw the book’s potential and agreed to publish it.
I would advise new authors in search of a publisher to do their homework. Find out which legitimate publishers are interested in their genre, learn the prospective publisher’s submission guidelines and follow them, write a professional query letter, and reply promptly to requests for additional information.
And, no matter how many rejections they receive or how frustrated they get, don’t give up! If they believe in themselves and their manuscript, eventually good things will happen.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
My first six books were self and/or POD published. I learned through them that marketing and promotion are as important as the actual writing. I also learned that books by new or self-published authors aren’t exactly a bookstore manager’s delight. Because of the obstacles regarding bookstore promotions, I targeted venues such as libraries, museums, and coffee shops. I’ve reached the point where I’m very comfortable doing those events. Even though my Huntington Press books are much more appealing to the bookstores, I prefer using the alternative venues mentioned above.
What is your favorite book of all time?
I’m an organized crime buff and have read many good books on that subject. Of them, I most enjoyed Mafia Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the Gambino Crime Family.
Where can readers find out more about you and your books?
I have four websites where additional information about me and my books can be obtained:
My Authors Den Site – I’ve also posted articles there about my publishing and marketing experiences;
My new personal site. It’s operational, but still under development.
What are you working on now?
I actually have quite a lot going on right now. I’m heavily involved in promoting Cullotta. In my spare time I’m finishing a fiction called Vegas Vixen, and doing consulting for The Vegas Mob Tour, which is based on The Battle for Las Vegas, and takes passengers to the actual locations where many of the incidents depicted in Casino took place.
I’m also mulling over three appealing true crime projects. I plan to start work on one of them in the near future.