What: A screenwriter, author and filmmaker living in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and cat Busey. His short films FOODIE and LIYANA, ON COMMAND have won several awards at film festivals across the US. His fiction appears in THE AVALON LITERARY REVIEW, PULP MODERN, THUGLIT and ZYMBOL, to name a few. In 2015, he’s been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and is a finalist for the Derringer Award. His novel DIRTBAGS was published in April 2014, and HASHTAG will be published by 280 Steps in May, 2015.
Where: Durham, North Carolina
Interview conducted by email. Some questions/answers have been edited.
I’ve always had a weird curiosity with the famous serial killers. In school, I wrote a lot of papers about them, collected their statistics like trading cards. I once met a girl who had the same odd interest in them and (no shit) said she joined Chi Omega because that was the sorority where Ted Bundy killed those girls back in ’78. You’d have thought we’d have made quite a pair, but it never worked out for some reason or another. But little facts will pop into my head sometimes when I’m in a perfectly normal, grown-up conversation and the looks I’ve received have been hilarious (to me).
The main character in DIRTBAGS, Calvin Cantrell, has an encyclopedic knowledge of serial killers. How much research did you have to do for that part of the novel? What did you learn about serial killers as a writer?
Most of that stuff was still in my head from old high school book reports or research papers in college. I had never heard of the Axeman of New Orleans until I got to researching Madame LaLaurie and stumbled across him, was completely fascinated. Researching Phillip Krandall was probably the darkest experience. School shootings are a fairly recent phenomenon and I had to do things like watch the school’s footage of the Columbine shooting or read extensively about the little jerk-off who did Newtown. That loser who shot up the movie theater dressed like the Joker… One particularly long day of research left me pretty despondent and I needed immediate intervention from my friends. I made them go out with me for drinks so I could see the good in people again…
Lake Castor is fictional. Geographically, it’s situated about where Danville, Virginia would be, although it is not based on Danville. My own hometown is a small town in East Texas that was destroyed by a tornado, so I’ve watched how suddenly the fortunes of a community can change. I lived in antediluvian New Orleans… But I feel a bigger threat to our American landscape than disaster, and that is the curious behavior of American business. Politics. Fucking religion. Things like that which conspire to destroy the American character and I wanted that reflected in the setting. Most of these towns up and down the East Coast have been destroyed by jobs shipping overseas. I wanted to take a crack at the sociology of a story, to show how characters shape themselves in a particular environment. I often use Lake Castor in stories. Usually, it’s either Lake Castor or East Texas.
Lake Castor is also the setting for your upcoming novel HASHTAG. How does your new novel differ from DIRTBAGS?
HASHTAG , for one, is a little longer. Much like DIRTBAGS, it is told in three parts. It also gets a prologue and an epilogue, which I’m pretty happy about. Our characters get a chance to leave town some in HASHTAG, which is fun. I think there’s no place more beautiful, more sinister, more dangerous and more blessed than the American South, and I wanted to take the readers on a little ride, so we manage to get out of Lake Castor. How we do it… well, that’s a different story.
Was writing a novel easier the second time around?
I was fortunate enough to have already written HASHTAG by the time DIRTBAGS was published. However, after having gone through line edits and copy edits, it fiddled with my head during HASHTAG rewrites. I kept rewriting it and rewriting it, and even after 280 Steps took it, I still emailed them and asked if I could rewrite it one more time. Since I’ve been lucky enough to get some good reactions from people regarding DIRTBAGS, I put a lot of pressure on myself to make a book that people will like. I kind of forgot that I was supposed to have a lot of fun and that’s what people will respond to. It took me a while to get that through my thick skull, but I think I’ve got it down now. Have fun while you’re writing and everything will be just fine… I hope.
In addition to your two novels, you are an award-nominated writer of short stories. How does your approach to that medium differ from your longer works?
I can write a first draft for a short story in a day. If I get the kernel of an idea, I can sit down and write and then set it aside and come back and rewrite a couple days later, then do it again… and after a couple weeks I will have a polished, fine-tuned little piece of fiction. That’s pretty rewarding. Finishing something is its own reward, and the short story allows you to reward yourself more often than you can with a novel.
If you could only write short stories or novels exclusively, which would you choose?
If I could do anything with my life, it would be for someone to pay me to live in the woods and write novels. I would hate to choose only one, because short stories are a blast and there are fewer thrills that finding yourself in a badass collection like THUGLIT or PULP MODERN or OUT OF THE GUTTER… I’ve made friends with a murderer’s row of horror and crime writers thanks to some of these journals. But if I could only do one, it’d be novels. I love getting deeper into the story.
You are also an award-winning filmmaker. How is your approach to writing fiction influenced by your filmmaking experience? How do they differ? How do they overlap?
Filmmaking appeals to the production. It has sound and pictures and you can use things to manipulate the tone. I like to think my experience with that has helped my writing. I read everything aloud three or four times, then read it aloud to others. I need to hear a gasp in just the right spot and I need to hear laughter in another… I need the prose to pick up in certain areas, then slow down. I need the dialogue to punch in certain places and to deliver information in others. I like to think I hone that by working in film, but ultimately you all will be the judge of that. My favorite difference is that I am forced to change fewer things when I write fiction. If a director gets hold of one of my scripts and has a different vision for it than I do, who do you think wins that battle? (Spoiler Alert: it’s the director) I have more control in fiction. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Again, y’all be the judge.
Do you have any advice for newer writers who are trying to get published? How about aspiring filmmakers?
Just do a bunch of shit. Write and write and write. Submit. I wrote for YEARS and never submitted anything. One day, I started submitting. Guess which one makes me happier. Whole different world once you finally sack up and submit.
If you had to choose ONE piece of your writing to recommend to a new reader, what would it be?
My short story in Out of the Gutter Online KNOCKOUT is a Derringer finalist. It’s short, sweet, and to the punch at only 1000 words. So if you wanted a little taste to see if you should come back for more, that’s where I’d tell you to go. I’m tempted to give a couple others, but since you capitalized ONE, I will stop.
What other publishing plans do you have for 2015?
HASHTAG will be published on May 26th. I’ve got another story coming out in Out of the Gutter Online I’m anxious for folks to read. I’ll submit a few other short stories and hope I’m fortunate enough to get them accepted. I’ve got a short story collection being published (I hope) in October called LUFKIN. I’m currently writing.
I will also have three short films coming this year. KEEPSAKE is a Southern Gothic short film directed by Meredith Sause. My short film LIYANA, ON COMMAND is currently in festivals, and my short film THE HOODOO OF SWEET MAMA ROSA (based on my short story originally published in ZYMBOL) will come out this summer.
I’m hoping this will be a good year.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Akashic Books, QuarterReads and Crimespree Magazine. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published in 2015. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION. You can read one of his recent short stories right HERE.