Best-selling author and attorney Charles Brandt was nice enough to speak with me from his home in Idaho about his book I Heard You Paint Houses, which I wrote about yesterday here. We also talked about his research, the writing life and what he is working on now.
Q. I came away from the book really liking Frank even though he was a mafia hit man. Since you were a pallbearer at his funeral, I’m assuming you liked him as well. Did that ever get in the way of your research or did it work to your advantage?
A. Let me start by saying I’d known Frank for many years before the research for the book ever began. In Wilmington, Delaware, he was our local gangster. He was the head of the Teamsters and we had no gangsters in Wilmington, Delaware. When he became a Hoffa suspect in 1975, he was very unlikeable. He was a very mean fellow.
The Frank Sheeran who I got to know in the last five years of his life was a man who had already begun to change. That was a man who was feeling remorse and wanted to get it out and get it on the table. When people want to confess they want you to work for it. They don’t want to just spill the beans. At times I would be very exasperated with Frank Sheeran, but during that time I grew to like him a lot. I think that grew to help the book. As a trial lawyer, I always had to be objective, but me liking him helped him and made him comfortable knowing that I liked him.
My wife said that she had to pinch herself when she would leave him and remember that he was a killer because he was so charming and so engaging and had a twinkle in his eye.
Q. You spent five years conducting research for the book. How did you organize your material?
A. When you really get familiar with material as a trial lawyer, for example, and you know how you want to present it, the device that most lawyers use is the outline. I did work a lot on the outline—I worked it and reworked it. The outline was very important. There are some writers that don’t like the outline, but for this book that structure worked very well. I might move a chapter without ever writing a chapter. I wanted to structure this outline that you knew the man first. You knew him first and you knew what he did. You truly understood him as a child and as a young man and as a war veteran. The structure was to try to show in the early chapters what he was like and what he grew to in the later chapters.
Q. How did you decide what to leave in and what to take out?
A. I was guided by Frank. What he didn’t want made public was left out. He would say, for example, ‘Now what I just told you about Russell, you can’t use that.”
Q. Were you ever afraid as you were researching the book or after it was published?
A. I take precautions obviously. There were things I left out of the book. I talk about a ring that Russell made up for himself, Frank and one other person. The other person was Billy D’Elia. Billy was a successor to Russell Bufalino and was Russell’s nephew–but I don’t use Billy’s name. That is one example of exercising caution. I can tell that now because Billy is in jail. I also kept my role out of the book as best I could. I didn’t want anyone thinking I was convincing Frank to talk.
Q. I love narrative nonfiction and the way real life can read like a novel. What did you learn from your experience with fiction that helped you tell this story?
A. My first book was fiction. In 1988 I wrote the book The Right to Remain Silent. There is a line in it that confession is a basic human need. Frank Sheeran read that book and said to me that he was tired of being written about in all the other books on Hoffa. He wanted to tell his side of it and he wanted me to write it. That was in 1991. Right then and there I knew that he wanted to confess because you don’t say that without wanting to confess.
I think I always had an ear for dialogue and Frank would say memorable things I would never forget. It was like a tune melodies on the piano. He would say tremendous things.
Q. I read that the book is being made into a movie. Martin Scorsese will direct the film and Robert DeNiro will star as Frank. How involved will you be with the film?
A. They’re the pros. They have a great screenwriter, Steve Zaillian. He won the Oscar for Schindler’s List. Paramount flew me to New York to meet with Martin Scorcese, Robert DiNero and Steve. The purpose was for me to give them material that wasn’t in the book to help polish the screenplay. The meeting was supposed to last an hour. It was a 5:30 meeting. Finally at 9:30 I said I had to go to the bathroom. They kept putting off their own personal dinner plans and they just peppered me with a lot of questions. Now I am free to answer these things because so many years had gone by and people who might have been concerned are either in jail or dead.
Q. What else have you been working on?
A. I wrote another book after I Heard You Paint Houses—I co-authored with Joe Pistone Donnie Brasco: Unfinished Business. I just finished writing a book that will be out in December. It is about a FBI agent who was framed on four homicides by the mafia. It is called We’re Going to Win This Thing.
You can visit Brandt’s Web site at http://hoffasolved.com/.