I’ve been asked before about my writing process, how I “live inside a person’s head” and write from their perspective, how I “became Pete” enough to “know him, “understand him”, “live” inside his world for two years and transform his life to paper. I’ve never met Pete—but I conversed with him for hundreds of hours about topics as diverse as The Godfather and The Art of War, Greek dishes and Chicago-style pizza. All topics mattered.
The key to writing about memory and especially someone else’s memories is to realize their significance to them. Memoir includes short narratives of pieces of a life. Pete used to ask me, “Am I doing this right?” But there is no “right” way to tell a life story.
Some colleagues accused me of using “method acting” techniques, a controversial theater whereby the actor “becomes” the character, like Billy Bob Thornton depended on an unusual—and painful—method to nail his character Karl's signature shuffle: The actor placed crushed glass inside his shoes, forcing him to limp around. He earned an Oscar nomination for the role. I didn’t need to know how to ride a motorcycle, or live among the Outlaws to write about them. I needed to “know” Pete; and so I listened to his inflections, the way he told a story, the way he laughed, I listened to what he believed was important. I heard him. And I did my best to capture his essence, his larger-than life powerful persona in just a few thousand words.
Writing Pete’s book was different than any other—in order to “know” Pete we spent every Sunday talking for three hours…not always about his story, sometimes about his life, how challenging it was for him to live in the “square world” and abide by new “rules of engagement.” He said it was like navigating a new planet. But one thing he found universal was the concept of gratitude. He showed me this right out of the gate….sending me a dozen roses as if I had just walked onto a great stage having embarked on the biggest writing adventure of my career. It was a symbolic and thoughtful and deeply touching. He thanked me for my dedication before I had even written a single word.
A major influence in Big Pete’s life was Mario Puzo’s, “The Godfather,” a famed novel about the Corleone Mafia family. Coincidentally, it was also a book I knew well, having particularly recalled the gruesome “horse’s head” in the bed scene. Every Sunday Pete and I spoke for three hours or more while I interviewed him at length about his life as Boss of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Gang. We discussed “The Godfather,” the Mafia, and the symbiotic relationship between The Outlaws and The Outfit. And, as often happens when writing about biker gangs and the players involved, life imitates art.
Shortly after finishing The Last Chicago Boss and delivering the manuscript to St. Martin’s for editing, I was startled awake at midnight. I heard a shuffling outside my front door. I flipped on the hall light, my heart hammering in my chest, and peered through the keyhole. There, on the front stoop, lay a ripped UPS package. I opened the door, stared dully at the plastic wrapped animal skull resting on the top of the box. Antlers poked from the plastic. I stared at the package for several minutes not wanting to flip over the box to study the address for fear of smudging fingerprints. Should I call the cops? And tell them what? There’s a skull on my front porch? Should I text Pete? Wake him up in the middle of the night? And ask him “what the hell”? Who would play such a sick joke on me? Don’t my neighbors know what I write for a living? I paced my hallway in the dark contemplating my options. Finally, I braved flipping over the box. I stared at the return address: China? China? I stared at my address and relief washed over me: the numbers had been transposed. Phew! The box was meant for someone else. Now I was really irritated. What if it was delivered to the wrong neighbor and that neighbor opened it by accident and just assumed it was meant for me? Who in the hell would deliver the animal skull to my front stoop at midnight? It couldn’t have waited until morning? What kind of freakish neighbors do I have anyway? Now I was really pissed. I was more worried about my neighbors now.
I decided to wait until morning to address the skull. I left it on my porch in exactly that condition overnight. I left it there the next morning while I went to work. The freakish bone white skull with the antlers rested on top of the box for the next three hours. I felt a little sick, I felt a little …..like the fictional Jack Woltz who wakes up to the horse’s head in his bed. I texted Pete a photo of the head, along with a “WTF?” in all caps. Pete and I immediately discussed the meaning of the head, reviewing possible scenarios, what did it mean? Who would be sick enough to do blah blah blah. ….finally I summoned the courage to read the name on the address….the head belonged to my neighbor! And when I marched next door with the open box and the skull, she exclaimed, “there it is! I’ve been looking everywhere for that head!”
KERRIE DROBAN is a criminal defense attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars and the University of Arizona where she received her Masters and Masters of Fine Arts degrees in Poetry. Her true crime books, Running with the Devil: The True Story of the ATF’s Infiltration of the Hells Angels, (Lyons Press, 2007) won the USA News National Book Award for best True Crime in 2008 and Prodigal Father, Pagan Son: My Life Born Into Madness,(St. Martin’s, Winter, 2011) is a two-time winner of the USA News National Book Award for Best True Crime and Best Memoir). Her book, Vagos, Mongols and Outlaws: My Infiltrations into America’s Deadliest Biker Gangs, (St. Martin’s, Winter 2013) is now a television series entitled, “Gangland Undercover,” produced by the History Channel. Her book, A Socialite Scorned: The Murder of Gary Triano, was featured on American Greed, Dateline and in “Murders and Mansions” produced by La Brea Entertainment. Kerrie’s poetry collection entitled “The Language of Butchers” has received critical acclaim, excerpts of which are published in The Antioch Review, Poet Lore, New Letters and Amelia and have won The Academy of American Poet’s Award, New Letters International Poetry Award, The Amelia Encore Award and The Daniel Shockett Award. Her fiction, The Watchman’s Circle (New Concepts Publishing) received the Daphne Du Maurier Award for Mystery Writing Excellence.