Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Claudia Oltean Talks About Writing, Crime Fiction and Prohibition-Era Detroit

This is a follow-up to yesterday's blog post about the crime thriller Another Chance to Die. Claudia N. Oltean is a lifelong reader and writer. She's co-author of the LexisNexis-published book, Media Skills: The Lawyer As Spokesperson, and former columnist of Vines By The Glass, a wine column. The catalyst for this new direction as a writer was this: both of Ms. Oltean's grandfathers were newspapermen in Detroit, Michigan. Her paternal grandfather, Allen J. Nieber is the inspiration for her first novel, Another Chance to Die, historical crime fiction set in Detroit during the tumultuous, danger-filled Prohibition years.

Since 2003, Ms. Oltean has been a partner and co-founder of LegalPR, a public relations firm representing lawyers, their clients and other professionals in their interactions with the court of public opinion. She works closely with local, state and national media. I'm guessing that this proximity to legal processes has also been an informative influence on her new project.

Ms. Oltean is also a prolific business writer, particularly related to news stories and public relations, business development and organizational development. She's written and published national surveys on customer satisfaction and has acted as corporate spokesperson on marketing and customer satisfaction. She has extensive experience with video scriptwriting and production. 

Having crossed paths on Twitter, I quickly found myself drawn in by the work she was doing.

EN: You inherited your grandfather's reporter notes and physical articles. Were you already a writer yourself, or did this inspire you to develop the craft?

Claudia N. Oltean: I have been a lover of words and books since I was about four. My grandmother was English and a great lover of literature. She read to me from many genres and encouraged me to read widely. In school I found English and Lit to be among my favorite courses and I started writing poems, short stories and even a detective novel I’m certain was dreadful. I did a column for my high school newspaper and later wrote and published some magazine articles. My life and career took me into the corporate world, where I wrote many business pieces, including corporate video scripts. Several years ago I did a wine column for my local newspaper (great fun) and then co-wrote the nonfiction “Media Skills: The Lawyer as Spokesperson,” published by Lexis-Nexis. I have always wanted to return to my roots in fiction and inheriting an amazing archive in words and pictures of my larger than life grandfather’s life and times, especially during Prohibition, was the catalyst to starting this project – a labor of love on several levels.

EN: It's an ambitious project to write a novel, and more so a series of novels. When did you take a serious interest in writing how did it happen?

CNO: As described above, I got serious when presented with a wealth of information about a fascinating man in a time so crazy it’s hard to believe. You’re right, it is an ambitious project. I have written in whole the first book, “Another Chance to Die” and worked with a professional editor. I am now in the process of doing some reconstruction based on learnings I’ve accumulated during this process. Novels are a very exacting and complex form of writing, as I’m sure you know, and I keep learning and honing my skill by inches every day. I still hope to write the Man in the Middle series of three books, but realize it’s quite a task I’ve set for myself!

EN: Based on your opening chapter, I get the impression that your grandfather was a pretty tough cookie. Did you know him while growing up and what did you see in his notes that cast him in a different light from the man you knew?

Grandfather's badge.
CNO: My grandfather was one of the strongest willed, most formidable and yet charismatic men I’ve ever known. I was fortunate to be very close to him and my grandmother during my formative years. He made a big impression on me. And yes, he was a tough cookie. As a crime reporter he walked and worked in danger on a daily basis. He investigated, instead of just reporting obvious facts. He was deputized by Detroit’s Wayne County Sheriff’s Office and The Michigan State Police, so he carried a badge and a gun, along with a notebook – not something reporters are generally known for. Reading his notes brought him back to life for me and gave me new details about some of his escapades, but they very much reflected the man I had known.

EN: Detroit is one of those cities with a history... Henry Ford, unions, Heartbeat of America. Your book will unearth an underside that people are quite unfamiliar with. Can you tick off a few of the insights that will be revealed through Another Chance to Die?

CNO: Many people don’t realize that Detroit and SE Michigan were a major hub for Prohibition activity. Here are some interesting facts:

With its immediate proximity to Canada (in some places less than a mile across the Detroit River), this area is credited with bringing in 75% of all booze smuggled into the U.S. during Prohibition.

Michigan went dry almost two years before the Volstead Act was brought into law nationally. Michigan criminals had a tremendous head start in organizing ways to break and monetize the ban on alcohol. The most successful and notorious Detroit-based gang was the Purple Gang. They brutalized, intimidated and murdered their way to great wealth and a fearsome reputation. Al Capone made a move on their territory, but they scared him so much, he backed off and made a deal to split up the state, east to west. He also used them as distributors of his private label whiskey. The Purples are credited with 500 kills, more than Capone and his outfit could have claimed. It is believed that a few of the Purple Gang were among the shooters in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Working on another scoop.
Before Prohibition took effect, there were something like 2500 places to get a drink in Detroit. During the ban that number mushroomed to 25,000 places to drink – from little dives to swanky clubs complete with music, dancing and gambling.

Prohibition in Detroit spawned the mixing of the sexes and races in public, out drinking together and thumbing their noses at a law they thought was a joke. My grandfather’s notes indicate he felt that women were out in an unprecedented way and, in his experience, were open to sexual encounters. I don’t know if this was generally true, but I do know my grandfather was a player.

There was plenty of police and public official corruption during Prohibition. A number of them chose to participate in rather than prosecute illegal activities. In one year, 1925 I think it was, both the Detroit Mayor and Sheriff were arrested at a speakeasy.

EN: What made your grandfather tick? That is, what was it that drove him to put himself in such risky situations?

CNO: My theory on that is based on what happened to his mother and what kind of person his father was. When my grandfather was about 6 his mother was killed before his eyes. They were on the streets of Detroit and a runaway motorcycle trying to avoid collision with a trolley slammed dead on into her and grazed my grandfather. She died instantly, and he received a wound in the hip, which caused him a slight lifelong limp. I believe he felt responsible for not having saved her and did not like the sense of losing control. Control was a central element of his character and in his relationships. His father was Detroit’s top commercial photographer and owner of Colonial Studios. By all accounts he was a very exacting Dutchman and may have been emotionally distant. He was the son of a hard core Dutch Reform guy (my great-great grandfather) who emigrated to Michigan in the 1800s and was a founder of Detroit’s first church of that faith. Looking at my GG grandfather’s photo is enough to scare you, he appears so stern and unmoving. One interesting thing, my great grandfather was very dapper, and he passed that proclivity along to my grandfather – he was a tremendous clothes horse.

EN: What is your main character's quest in this series of stories in The Man in the Middle Series?

The Rum Runners were operating with impunity
while Federal agents looked the other way.
CNO: In the first book his drive is all about being the top guy on his paper and against the competing newspapers to uncover and report the big stories. As crime reporter there was an abundance of those during and after Prohibition. He goes through a big change however when his actions result in the death of his colleague and best friend. Then he is interested in working in cooperation with law enforcement to stick a wicket in the operations of the gangs, while being seen as the same old hale fellow well met reporter. It’s a dangerous path he has chosen to pursue, as it is for all double agents.

EN: Will there be some inside dirt on the auto industry? What other historical figures will show up in your pages?

CNO: My grandfather knew everyone who was anyone. He had a close relationship with the Kelley family – my father’s contemporary was Frank Kelley who was Michigan’s Attorney General for 38 years. His uncle Tom was chief of detectives for the Wayne County Sheriff’s office and a close associate of my grandfathers. He knew and interacted with various mayors and governors and yes, he had association with some of the famous automakers, especially the Dodge brothers. There is a kidnapping episode related to the Dodges that could show up in book 2. Al Capone is an active character in book 1 and will probably show up in book 2 as both he and my grandfather had a connection to the alcohol production industry in Montreal, Canada.

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Ms. Oltean is a member of the Historical Novel Society, The Florida Writer's Association and the National and Florida Sister's In Crime Organizations. She is active on social media, particularly Twitter. You can follow her on Twitter: @claudia_oltean

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Last of the Capones Talks About Uncle Al

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