Emmy-winning actor Michael Imperioli has always loved writing. For years, he'd write short stories and attempts at fiction.
He even earned his way into the rarified air of "The Sopranos" writing room, but he'd never tried his hand at a full-length novel until several years ago.
In 2013, when Imperioli's middle child was 16 and going through the "usual 16-year-old things," Imperioli attempted to relate to his son's mindset. He began writing a coming-of-age story set in his own adolescent era.
"I set it in New York in the '70s out of a fondness for the era, really," Imperioli told Wisconsin Public Radio's "BETA." "I was 11 when this story kind of starts."
The novel — "The Perfume Burned His Eyes" — follows 16-year-old Matthew as he moves from Queens to Manhattan. Matthew's father has just passed away, and his mom uses the inheritance to attempt to move up.
As it turns out, Matthew and his mother move into the same apartment building as poet, musician, icon Lou Reed.
Real world friendship
In real life, Reed died in the fall of 2013 while Imperioli was formulating the book. The two of them had become friends in the twilight of Reed's life and actually spoke shortly before Reed's death.
Imperioli said he included Reed as a character out of a deep admiration for the artist and his friend.
"He's been kind of a north star for me in terms of navigating my own artistic life. And he became very important to me. And when he died, I really felt something. That an era had really ended for me and for New York and for the music world. And part of me liked the idea of spending time with him in my mind," Imperioli said.
The trick was that the Reed that Imperioli befriended in 2001 was far different than the Reed circa the 1970s — who was in perhaps his most self-destructive phase.
"He was an aging drug addict, alcoholic in the '70s, to the point where he was really the rock star that everyone thought was going to die more so than like Keith Richards," Imperioli said.
It's this troubled version of Reed that becomes an unlikely father figure to Matthew in the novel.
The stage is set
Imperioli based Reed and Matthew's relationship on his own first interaction with Reed at a Knick's game.
It was in 1996 when Imperioli had been cast to play actor and "Warhol superstar" Robert Olivo — better known as Ondine — in the film, "I Shot Andy Warhol."
Reed was very close friends with Warhol and Ondine and had been very vocal about his disgust that the film was being produced.
Still, Imperioli used the occasion to break the ice with Reed and to introduce himself. He was hoping to get some insight into playing Ondine.
"I took the risk and I went up to him. I said, 'My name is Michael, I'm an actor. I just got cast in this movie. I know you're really not happy they're making it,'" Imperioli said. "He goes, 'I think it's despicable they're making a movie about that psychotic b****.' I said, 'Yeah, I know, I know, but I'm doing it anyway. And I'm playing someone who you knew whose name was Ondine.' And he went, 'Good luck.' And he turned away."
Moments later, Reed paused and turned back to Imperioli.
"He looks back at me a couple of times, and he waves me over to him. And I walked up to him, and he put his arm around me and said, 'Listen, work hard, do a good job and just remember one thing — he was very funny.' And that was it," Imperioli recalled. "And in some ways, that little scene really was a seed and a germ for the relationship between Matthew and Lou in the book."
Life imitating art
Imperioli is best known for his Emmy-winning turn as Christopher Moltisanti in HBO's era-defining drama, "The Sopranos."
In addition to being an aspiring mafioso, Christopher fancies himself as a bit of a writer.
In a circumstance of life imitating art, Imperioli became the only cast member who joined David Chase's writer's room. He penned five episodes over the show's run including the fan favorite from season 2, "From Where to Eternity."
Ironically, it was Michael's post-"Sopranos" screenplay and teleplay writing experiences that led to him focusing on writing a novel. He had three or four projects in various stages of development that never made it to air due to network and studio agendas. He became frustrated by that.
"Screenplays and teleplays are not works unto themselves. They're blueprints or schematics. Once you make the actual show, they're worthless. And until you make the actual show, they're kind of worthless. And I said, 'Well, if I write a book, it's an end unto itself,'" he said.
"There was something about the isolation and solitary qualities of writing a novel that, at that time, really appealed to me," he said.
During the isolation of the pandemic in 2020, Imperioli revisited "The Sopranos" for the first time since making it. He and fellow "Sopranos" cast mate, Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), created the "Talking Sopranos" podcast.
"The podcast gave me a real, new appreciation for ('The Sopranos') with some distance," Imperioli said. "Because when you're making it and you're involved in it, there's so many personal things that you don't have much of an objectivity ... And this was with 13 years of distance. And I was really able to kind of watch it and understand why it has held up and has so many fans."
In addition to writing another novel, Imperioli does have some other TV/film projects in the work, including one with Chase and Shirripa. In season two of HBO's "The White Lotus," streaming currently, Imperioli plays Dominic Di Grasso.
"The Perfumed Burned His Eyes" is available now from Akashic Books.