Matthew Randazzo is the author of three books: Ring of Hell: The Story of Chris Benoit and the Fall of the Pro Wrestling Industry, Breakshot: A Life in the 21st Century American Mafia and Mr. New Orleans: The Life of a Big Easy Underworld Legend.
We talk Sunday night, May 24, about his new book Breakshot.
I mumble about a woman I met who turned out to be a grad student in chemistry. "I thought she was a stripper."
Matthew: "That shows you still have room to evolve. Just because a woman is a beautiful, sexual piece of art does not mean that she uses that to make money. Still objectifying women, it’s a shame."
Luke: "When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?"
Matthew: "A writer since age eight. I wrote my first book when I was nine. I had to stop it halfway because I had killed off all the characters. I liked the power of killing off characters too much to put together a story. It was just a gruesome stunt show of these elaborate ways for me to off people."
Luke: "What did you think of the movie, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke?"
Matthew: "Mickey Rourke and Darren Aranofsky (the director) name-dropped me in an interview. I wrote a book on pro wrestling, Ring of Hell, and they found that book intriguing.
"I thought the movie was good. I thought Mickey Rourke’s performance was incredible. It was very true-to-life from what I’ve encountered interviewing washed-up pro wrestlers.
"It captured a true segment of the pro wrestling industry. To me the more interesting story is not the down-and-out guys who end up chewed up but more how even the millionaires, the guys you see on TV, find their bodies destroyed and find themselves psychologically warped by an industry that is just unimaginably exploitative. That multi-million dollar corporate exploitation is more interesting than the flea market independent show thrown by some guy with a couple of thousand bucks to waste, which is what The Wrestler represented."
Luke: "When you were in high school, where were you in the social pecking order?"
Matthew: "I was not very high. I would’ve been a nerd if I hadn’t been so good at speaking and so better at insulting than any of the bullies were. I was a loner but not a terribly picked on loner. I felt alienated. I went to an expensive private school in suburban New Orleans (Metairie Park Country Day) and felt completely out of place. It [was home to] a lot of the rich white and Jewish people who fled New Orleans when it became increasingly black in the 1960s and 1970s."
Luke: "Do you love writing?"
Matthew: "I love writing. I keep getting myself into trouble because I will accept almost any writing assignment because I love the challenge of it. I am almost completely unemployable otherwise."
"If I had better people skills, I would be running for political office. Writing is the closest simulation of real world power that you can ever have while being a guy isolated in a room in his pajamas. Know what I mean?"
Luke: "I know exactly what you mean."
"What are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer?"
Matthew: "That’s a very challenging question. My strengths? When I’m really deep into a topic, I can really delve into it in a way that’s kinda left-field and ways that people haven’t previously thought about it. I’m very good lyrically with the ways I describe things. My uses of language, I’m a very stylistic writer. My prose is very forceful. My weaknesses? I tend to go overboard. I get so passionate in the midst of writing that I say things that I am not sure even I believe. I have a very good work ethic. I’ll work harder than anyone you ever meet. But I have very poor organization. I may work 36 hours straight one day and then spend two days in a coma just staring at a computer screen not getting anything done."
Luke: "Give me the Readers Digest version of how you became a writer?"
Matthew: "I did all types of weird gigs. I got more assignments to write something and then the magazine would fall apart… I dropped out of college when I was 20 and I devoted myself full-time to becoming a writer. I had my first agent when I was 20, Jack Scovil in New York. We put together a couple of books. One of them was Breakshot. It took four or five years to get a book deal. I was supporting myself as a paralegal. Eventually I got an offer from my second agent, Andrew Lownie, a guy in London , if I wanted to write about pro wrestling. I have a lot of friends in that industry. I took that opportunity. That came out last year when I was 24. It turned into a surprising success. I got a two-book deal after that. I’m just about to announce another book deal."
"I had two novels written when I was 18 and 19, both of which I had opportunities to publish and decided not to."
Luke: "How has marriage changed you as a writer?"
Matthew: "It’s made me a lot more empathetic. It’s made me think more about how I want to approach things. I’m naturally more of a scorched-earth personality, very Napoleonic. Before I met her, my writing read like someone in the midst of a PCP fit, just this raging masculine blast of adjectives. It was unreadable except for the 5% of the populace who were angry nerds. She humanized me and helped me mature."
Luke: "How did you get mixed up with Kenny Gallo?"
Matthew: "I know a gentleman from the underworld in Providence, Rhode Island. One day I’m called. He says, I’m going to send you a ticket. I don’t want you to ask why or who you’re going to meet. I just want to introduce you to someone.
"I liked the guy and I trusted him and I was bored, so I went to where he said to meet him. I go into a hotel room and in comes Kenny. He says, Kenny, you’ve talked about writing a book. Matt, you’re a great writer. You two need to do business. I’m going to get something to eat. And he walked out of the room.
"I was only 20 when that happened. I think Kenny and I have talked every single day since then. The book turned out well. It’s a stranger than fiction story but that’s how it happened."
Luke: "How long did it take you to realize you had a book with him?"
Matthew: "Once I realized he was telling the truth… I could see he was a Japanese-American gentleman and he was in the Mafia. That’s a book right there. The notion of this well-educated wealthy kid from Orange County who reaches the inner sanctum of the New York Mafia was a book."
Luke: "Why wasn’t your stomach turned that this was a stone-cold killer and you should have nothing to do with him?"
Matthew: "I’ve known a lot of people who you could say similar things about. I’m the son of two lawyers. I could’ve become a lawyer. I chose to become a writer because I wanted to lead a more interesting life and to do that I knew I’d have to take a lot of risks… When I wrote about pro wrestling, people told me I should be worried about my safety because I took on Vince McMahon. I called him unimaginable things that he’s never been called in public and this is a bililonaire with a reputation for taking reckless vengeance.
"I made a conscious decision when I decided to devote myself to becoming a writer that I would do anything that it took to become the best writer I could and deliver stories that nobody else could do."
Luke: "Was it easy for you to like Kenji?"
Matthew: "It’s easy to like Kenji. He’s a very charismatic, he’s a very friendly person in most situations. I’m always attracted to intelligent people so that made it easy for me."
"The hardest part of writing Breakshot was writing about porn. I found it very challenging to write about porn because porn is such a salacious topic and it has so much baggage with it that I felt it would derail the entire book, that all the momentum I was building would hit this loggerjam. There are so many angles to the way that porn treats women. There are so many angles to Kenji’s complicity with the way porn treats women. There are so many people who will just gag at the thought of the grotesque sexual acts I describe. I thought it would kill the book.
"Porn is also inherently ridiculous. It’s kinda like pro wrestling in that it can be an extremely dark and exploitative industry, but it is so ridiculous in its mechanics that you can’t help but laugh at it.
"It was hard maintaining any coherence to the story while still doing an expose of the porn industry through Kenji’s eyes."
Luke: "It sounds like the exploitation of women was harder for you to deal with than the murder of men in the cocaine section?"
Matthew: "Yeah. I have a very New Orleans world viewpoint. Anyone who chooses to work in the black market, who chooses to work outside the law, who can’t rely on law or human convention or any good will from their fellow man and they end up getting killed, that’s part of their job. That’s a life they knowingly entered and they knew the risks that go into it.
"Maybe this is some kind of latent reverse sexism on my part, I couldn’t help but feel pity for a lot of the women, and even some of the men, in the porn industry because I think they might’ve been sold a bill of goods that was different from the reality. A guy who’s a coke dealer knows what a coke dealer is.
"I interviewed a lot of people in porn for this book. When they entered porn, there seemed to be this naivete that being a porn superstar was very different from the reality of being a working adult entertainment actress. There’s a certain tragedy there whereas a coke dealer getting shot or he shot other people or a mobster going to jail because he committed crimes and knowingly entered a crime family, that to me isn’t something to pity. I found a lot in the porn section of the book that I found morally troubling. There was a level of exploitation there that wasn’t on the level."
Luke: "The counter-argument is that these girls are all hookers trying to get something for the least possible effort. And this is what you get for that kind of attitude."
Matthew: "I think that’s valid as well. Unlike almost every, unlike a lot of Italians, I don’t have a madonna-whore complex where women are just perfect little petals that are getting ruined by society. I don’t believe that. I believe there are a lot of jaded hard lazy degenerate characters who are women who enter porn. At the same time, a lot of those women are doing so not out of a maliciousness in their character but out of an inherent weakness in their character.
"I felt that way when I was writing about pro wrestling and I was talking about men. These were people who on the face of it were jaded crooked characters, but at heart there was this sort of naivete, even though they could see what was the end result of their lifestyle by looking at other people, they had deluded themselves into believing it was something else.
"It is easy to dismiss people in porn as prostitutes. They’re doing a sleazy job for easy money. On its face, that’s true, but it is also an industry where some otherwise good people were used up and chewed up in a way where the karmic interplay wasn’t even. What they put in didn’t otherwise justify the response they got from society."
Luke: "Is there anything that people can do that renders them less human than to become a receptacle for a lot of sperm on camera?"
Matthew: "Is there anything that has a more symbological way of dehumanizing people?"
Luke: "I noticed around the porn industry, that once these women had done porn, they ceased to be real human beings. Almost everyone around them thought they were just porn stars, they were just cum buckets."
Matthew: "Is there anything that can do that more? That’s got to be a pretty good contender for the number one act that you can do to really promote the dehumanization and the robbing of dignity from yourself in American society. When I was in Europe, I don’t think it was that strong of a stigma. In the United States, it is a crushing thing to someone’s character if they want to live a normal life, unless they are one of those jaded characters who loves that lifestyle. I think you’re probably right, that there isn’t any one single act that destroys someone’s dignity as a human being than being sexually used up on camera, not that I argue with anyone right to do that. Everyone should have the right to do that. I don’t have a personal qualm with it, but you wish you had a counselor to really explain to them the repercussions before they did it. That’s free will, that’s the tragedy of being human."
Luke: "You talk about the porn being the toughest part of writing the book. It’s like making a feature film but with 15 minutes of close-up hardcore sex."
Matthew: "There was one part of the porn section that I really liked writing. That was the section on Buck Adams. He died the day before I was set to interview him, which just killed me. Buck was a screwed-up exemplar of the porn industry. He had a multitude of family issues. He had this glorious dream of turning porn into blockbuster mainstream entertainment. He just dumped money on porns. He had these special effects and these elaborate plots and this gripping action. It was if Independence Day with Will Smith just stopped after the first set up and just went into a 15-minute gangbang with a bunch of aliens and Will Smith and then went right back into the action. It just laid bare the absurdity of the porn industry. You had porn, snuff films and all these Hollywood pretensions of being somebody intersecting in a black comedy way.
"Kenji was just a passive observer of this one-man self-destruction machine. Almost self-destruction as a performance art. Kenji almost dies because he’s willing to go along with Buck’s bullshit and film scenes with all these elaborate special effects that Buck doesn’t know how to use and almost dies because he almost gets blown up."
Luke: "How much of this book is in Kenny’s voice and how much is this book is in your voice?"
Matthew: "I logged like 200 total days in phone time with Kenji or conversations in person. I have a good understanding of how he thinks and how he speaks. Every story in the book is adapted from an email or a story that Kenji told me. I would say that everything in the book is in his voice. Were there turns of phrase used or the sort of elevated language that Kenji wouldn’t say off the top of his head if he had written it? Of course. But on a character level, on a truth level, every word of the book can be accurately represented as Kenji’s."
Luke: "I’ve known Kenji since 2001 and I’ve not noticed him turn a phrase. So when I’d read a turn of phrase in the book, when I’d read the more philosophical parts of the book. I’ve not heard Kenji philosophizing."
Matthew: "Some of the more acrobatic turns of phrases in the book, where it looks the co-author is coming in to do a dance, to do a shuck-and-jive routine, those are word-for-word things that Kenji had told me. He’s not typically the type of guy who will do something like that. On occasions that he did, I thought it was priceless because it showed a part of his personality that he normally hides."
Luke: "Kenji spoke to me on a street level. In some ways, this book is a work of literature. The writing is not run of the mill journalism."
Matthew: "Kenji’s favorite writer is Cormac McCarthy. He is really attracted to that sort of writing. I’d probably say something like Elmore Leonard or James Ellroy. Where you have something that is honest and straight-forward and authentically street and still rewarding on a literary level. When we first talked about doing this book, he talked about something that would straddle that authenticity and stand the test of time."
Luke: "If you read Kenji’s blog before you came along, there’s rarely a sentence that’s not misspelled, that’s not doing violence to the English language."
Matthew: "Kenny, if you talk to him in conversation, is smarter than his blog is. There are people who are intelligent in a way that isn’t literary, who are intelligent in a way that has nothing to do with the mechanics of putting together a sentence. Some of the smartest people I’ve ever known couldn’t do simple addition. Trying to capture Kenny’s intelligence and personality and put it on a page in a way that he couldn’t do himself, that’s why he has a co-author.
"I didn’t make Kenji into something that he’s not. I certainly did not fluff up her personality or perform a PR job to make him a better person than he is. If anything, the book is considerably more honest, dark and grim than anything he’s written of his own volition. I didn’t want people to pick up a book and have it just be a prurient salacious register of crimes that a criminal committed. I wanted it to have social and literary value that people wouldn’t expect."
Luke: "How much did you have to work to make Kenji an appealing character that people want to read about?"
Matthew: "A lot. This is a guy who before he could legally drink, before he was 21, trafficked in hundreds of kilos of cocaine, who was arrested for the murder of his best friend, who’d intentionally run over people with cars, committed all sorts of attempted murders, this isn’t like a Henry Hill character in Goodfellas, a knock-around two-bit criminal. This is a hardened vicious predatory personality. He’s also a charismatic and likeable guy who can win over a room.
"A leader of the Vargos motorcycle gang, one of the most hardened motorcycle gangs in the United States, used the word ‘diabolical’ in an interview when he described Kenji to me. He said that out of all the people he knew, Kenji was the last one he’d want to piss off.
"I’ve read a lot of true crime books and I’ve read a lot of Mafia books and there isn’t a Mafia book about a character this predatory that’s honest. None of them own the viciousness in their character. Kenji, from the second I met him, wanted to admit that.’
Luke: "Kenji doesn’t turn into a human being until he runs into his ex Tara at a movie when he’s about to marry Tabitha Stevens. And he starts having remorse. It’s three-quarters of the way through the book."
Matthew: "His high school sweetheart, this blonde Orange County surfer girl, not terribly bright but good hearted and innocent, she looms large over his story."
Luke: "Until then, the Kenji of the book always regarded himself as so much smarter and better than everyone else."
Matthew: "I had to tone down how arrogant, anti-social and remorseless Kenji was. I have the interrogation documents from when he was arrested for his best friend’s murder, which he didn’t commit. I’ve never read a criminal being more disrespectful and more arrogant and more hostile and more taunting to police officers. This guy was 20 years old when he did this. I never saw such a vicious venemous character."
"It’s hard writing a book about a sadistic character. This is a guy who had to stuff toilet paper in his mouth before committing violent crime because otherwise he would uncontrollably giggle while inflicting pain on people… It’s like the Dennis Hopper character from Blue Velvet."
"We just got a response from a gangster in Brooklyn. He read the book and dug it, but he’s worried that he’s friends with this guy. And that unsettled him. And this is a professional criminal who realizes he let Kenji infiltrate his life in a way that makes him uncomfortable.
"My favorite response so far was from a war hero from Afghanistan who was badly wounded in action. He read Breakshot in nine hours, read it straight through. What he liked best about it was that it captured the mania of violence. The ecstasy that comes from a completely reckless violent vicious lifestyle."
Luke: "Did you and Kenji have any arguments in how to put this book together?"
Matthew: "We had two major disagreements. He won one and I won one. I wanted to make the porn section less important in the book. It was the hardest part for me to write. He was insistent that I cover porn in detail. He felt like he couldn’t honestly tell the story of his life without discussing his decade in the porn industry. He proved right in the end.
"We had tons of arguments about which photos to include in the book. Kenji wanted to include a great number of famous criminals where I thought it was more important to include photos of Tara and his family and the human element of Kenji as opposed to a dictionary of mug shots. I won that battle."
"Nothing he ever told me, he told me not to put in the book. He wanted it to be as honest as possible. He said, I don’t want anyone to find a single part of the book where I held something back."