What: The author of the multi-award winning Moses McGuire crime novels, BEAUTIFUL, NAKED & DEAD, OUT THERE BAD and ONE MORE BODY. And YOUNG AMERICANS, a ‘70’s glitter-rock disco heist novel coming September 2015. His short fiction has appeared in Beat to a Pulp, Blood and Tacos, Shotgun Honey, Protectors Anthology #1 & #2, Crime Factory and more. He lives with his wife Erika, two dogs and a cat named Riddle.
Where: Los Angeles
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
You have published three novels featuring Moses McGuire, a suicidal strip club bouncer. How did you conceive of this character? How did you create his mix of interesting character traits?
I knew I wanted to write about thugs and drunks, strippers and criminals, wholesome types like I grew up with. I was raised in the counterculture, think Leave it to Beaver directed by Federico Fellini. In my teen years Martin Scorsese took over the helm. I write for the outsiders.
Years ago a smart ass NY agent told me I would sell BN&D if I gave it a clean-cut protagonist, someone people could see my world through. I’m sure he was correct, but I wasn’t writing it for him.
What the fuck was the question? Oh yeah, where did Moses come from. Moses’ chassis was built on the tarnished knight archetype of Raymond Chandler. His drunken bull in a Stop-N-Go echoes my love of James Crumley. His bullmastiff was borrowed from Andrew Vachss. I say steal from the best. His suicidal tendencies came from asking myself who was the scariest man in the room? The one who doesn’t give a fuck if he makes it home for Christmas. That and I know a lot about self annihilation and solo boxing. Not that I thought about any of this while writing it. I just started on page one and typed until it was done. Then rewrote and rewrote and rewrote… until the prose stopped sucking.
Despite his many character defects—including a knack for justified brutality—McGuire is surprisingly likable. How do you strike that balance? How much of you is in him?
I’m always surprised that he is likable. I mean I like him, but I am fucked in the head. Moses, like me, is a cynical romantic, he knows we are all fucked in the end, but he will battle to the death to prove himself wrong. “Every woman needs a Moses,” a reader wrote, that’s sweet and a bit scary. I think part of his appeal is he has a strong moral code; he is loyal to his family of choice and the women he loves. He protects them brutally and regardless of the personal cost. As we grow older we accept that little compromises are a necessary part of life. I hate that. I chafe at bits of any kind. My father told this story, I was six or seven and he was choking me against the kitchen wall. He looked in my eyes and realized he would have to kill me or let me be, I wasn’t going to back down. Moses’s anger, heart, soul and outrage at the random unfairness of life are pure me. As are a lot of his flaws. Dylan Thomas says it so much better, “I hold a beast, an angel, and a madman in me, and my enquiry is as to their working, and my problem is their subjugation and victory, down throw and upheaval, and my effort is their self-expression.”
One of my favorite things about your Moses McGuire novels is the offbeat Los Angeles locations you choose to highlight. Do you catalogue interesting locations as you discover them? Is there a specific place in LA that you can’t wait for McGuire to inhabit?
I love writing about North East LA. I have lived there all of my adult life. When writing I walk with Moses in my head. I spent nights wandering the streets of Ensenada for book 2. Hung with pimps and whorehouse bouncers, took hookers to breakfast and listened to their tales. I found myself in the San Fernando Valley looking for a place remote enough to beat a fellow without getting noticed. I was born in LA, and damned if I don’t love the tawdry bitch. Some day I’d like to set a novel in Scotland’s Highlands or Denmark, maybe Viking noir. The north speaks to me. Don’t know if Moses can travel overseas, but it’s a hell of an idea.
You also published the memoir ALL THE WILD CHILDREN in 2013. What kind of life do you have to lead in order to get nominated for an Anthony Award?
What kind of life gets you nominated for a crime award? Um, a criminal one. That’s not all of the book, but there were a few illegal moments. A few more firearms than you would expect from a kid raised by hippy peace activists. It’s a hard read but ultimately uplifting. An agent told me it was writing gymnastics or literary high wire walking. I think in the narrative breakneck emotional rollercoaster ride camouflages where I stretch the form and screw with writing conventions. It is as good as I know how to write a book. I have been lucky to have writers I deeply respect fall in love with it. Yeah that’s cool. It has been rewarding to have readers come up to me and say, “the facts are different from mine but the feelings are exactly the same.” Two high schools are using it as a teaching resource. One high school in St Paul uses the Moses books in their reading program serving inner-city kids. I’ve Skyped with those classes and been blown away. Some of the students said my books were the first books they read for pleasure. Damn. Not much will top that.
All three Moses McGuire novels have been self-published. Why did you choose this path? What are the benefits/challenges of self-publishing?
The first two Moses books sat in a drawer for a time. I was very lucky to have Tad Williams and Charlie Huston like the work enough to kick my ass through multiple drafts of BN&D. When it was finally ready they both gave me introductions to some amazing agents. I kept hearing I was a talented writer, they loved the work, but didn’t know what to do with it. They suggested I shelve Moses and write a more mainstream book.
New Years Eve 2010 my big sister encouraged me to explore self publishing. I did it as an experiment. A chance to try and build the elusive “platform” everyone said a writer needed. I didn‘t anticipate the way the crime community took to my battered bouncer. On Twitter I connected with several wonderful reviewers and writers, but McDroll, Sabrina Ogden and Elizabeth A. White were the triangle of pimpage. They shoved Moses at anyone who would listen. They all have become dear and trusted friends. Knuckle dragger that I am, I figured Moses would appeal more to men than to women. I was so wrong. Self publishing gives me a direct shot to readers. It pays some bills and that doesn’t suck ashes. But to do it myself means committing to never put out a poorly made book. After Erika gets the manuscript ready for public consumption, I hire a professional editor, the awesome Elizabeth A. White.
For YOUNG AMERICANS, a disco heist novel set in the late 70’s, Elizabeth not only addressed structure but also fact checked and line edited. I hire a good ebook coder and cover artist. Me and Erika strive to put out a book that can compete with any publisher.
I saw you read an excerpt from YOUNG AMERICANS at the California Crime Writers Convention. What can you tell us about that work in progress? How is it different than the Moses McGuire novels?
YOUNG AMERICANS is coming in September. It is a Glitter Rock Disco Heist Novel set in 1976 San Francisco. It is a fun ride and a wonderful romp. One More Body (Moses #3) was the angriest novel I’ve written. And because it deals with kids sold into the sex-for-cash world, the anger was well placed. Erika laughed when I told her YOUNG AMERICANS was light comedy. Ok, maybe it’s Josh light. I was a glitter rock kid, (Glam to most.) All the young dudes and stunning dames would go to The City, a gay disco in S.F. and sniff poppers, munch Quaaludes and drink Cuba Libres. We’d dance and fight and fuck and generally act the fool. It has been wonderful to get to spend the last year back in those days.
What advice do you have for new writers trying to break into the crime writing game?
Write your ass off. Be fearlessly honest. The world is full of Tarantino wanna-bees, they tell stories based on books they’ve read or movies they’ve seen, mirrors facing mirrors, infinitely reflecting back a prepackaged world. And it is boring crap. Write tales you want to read.
Short stories are a great place to start. When I transitioned from screenplays to books I spent a year writing a story a week. I had a bunch of names in a bag and I’d take two out and start writing their story. These stories were shit at first, but I kept going and slowly I got a little better. I didn’t find my voice until the novels. The cool news is, now there are a gang of web sites for short crime stories. Get your stuff into the world. Go to Noir at the Bar events and writing conferences. I have made wonderful friendships at Bouchercon. Hanging with fellow writers and readers is the most fun you can have without a keyboard in your hands.
I have a short story in the upcoming Protectors 2 anthology, it’s called “When The Hammer Comes Down,” a multi perspective tale of a crack house raid. Daryl Gates and Nancy Reagan have roles to play. In 2016 I have an LAPD tale coming. The working title is “Tricky.” It starts with the cops finding an intellectually challenged man holding a smoking gun and standing over a dead man with Down syndrome. It is a chance for me to write about my older son. It’s a chance to write about the police, the good the bad and the fucking brutal. My grandfather worked for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department. He was an amazingly big hearted, strong man. I’ve had run-ins with asshole cops and good ones. It feels like a world worth investigating.
What are you reading these days?
I have read piles of nonfiction about the police. A couple of stand outs are “Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America” by Jill Leovy, and “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police” by Radley Balko. The fiction writers floating my boat at the moment are Timothy Hallinan, both his Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender books are wonderful. Terry Shames nails Texas small town world and her protagonist Samuel Craddock could give Longmire a run for his money. If you haven’t read Jamie Mason, all I have to say is, what the fuckity fuck? She slings words like her life depends on it. I’m looking forward to THE KILLING KIND by Chris Holm. And when the hell is Charlie Huston gonna stop making television and drop a new novel on us? Ask me in a few months and I’ll have a new list. I have so many talented friends, I’m never short on words to read.
What are you listening to these days?
The playlist for Tricky is a mix of rap and outlaw country—Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”, GemStones’ “Blind Elephant”, Earl Sweatshirt’s “I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside”, Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard’s “Django and Jimmie”, Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley. What ever cash I have left after knocking out the bills goes to buy books and music, I’m a junky and I’m ok with that.
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, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.