What: Author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller WHITE HEAT. His story HOWLING AT THE MOON is short listed for both 2015’s Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Short Story. VORTEX, a noir-thriller, is Paul’s latest release.
Where: Los Angeles
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just read your next novel VORTEX. I loved how the action bounced around Southern California, almost as if the region was one of the main characters. Was that your intention when you set out to write it?
Thanks for having me, Steve, and I’m glad you picked up on that. To me the location of my stories or novels are characters in and of themselves. They inform the stories, they mold the characters. Often the people are who they are not only because of their background in terms of upbringing or what they’ve done or not done, but also because of where they live now or grew up.
I have stories set all over the place, from Calexico down on the Mexican border to Morey’s Piers, New Jersey, Death Valley, Reno and even Graceland. But the majority would be in LA and Southern California. I like LA for a lot of reasons. It’s Chandler country, so you might think it’s been overused, but there’s always something new to bring to it. It also has Hollywood and Venice (LA’s #1 tourist attraction) and, of course, Disneyland. Plus I grew up here, born in Hollywood, literally. And I’m just old enough to remember LA as Chandler probably knew it from when I was a kid before the building boom and when City Hall was still the tallest building. I rode the original Angels Flight and explored Bunker Hill before they tore everything down in the name of “progress”.
LA and many parts of SoCal are like a femme fatale who seduces you with dreams and promises, then leaves you washed down some arroyo—forgotten about. That’s also what appealed to me about Venice Beach and the Salton Sea in VORTEX. Venice because at one point it was supposed to be a romantic American version of Venice, Italy; and the Salton Sea because it was billed as some waterfront desert paradise that turned into a wasteland of empty, undeveloped streets and rotting, dead fish along the shoreline. I guess the theme I was going for is showing the decay and wasted dreams and a noir sense of the main character being his own worst enemy. You couldn’t tell the same story in New York City or Boston, nothing against those places—they have their own unique attributes, but they have a different vibe than SoCal/LA.
The story in VORTEX has some caper elements to it, but touches on some pretty serious themes related to the war in Afghanistan. How did you come up with that part of the story? What kind of research did you do about the war to round the characters out?
This novel, or novella, was originally for a publisher who wanted to do novellas. I wanted to do something classically noir and one of the themes of several film noirs is the disillusioned veteran returning from World War II. One of my favorites of these is Somewhere in the Night. So I wanted to do a modern take on that basic story and that’s the story I pitched them.
VORTEX deals with a vet returning home, and damn glad to be here, but who finds he can run from the war but not from himself.
As for research, I do know some Afghan and Iraq War vets, but as you might have guessed I’m too old to have served in those wars. So for certain specific things, like what kind of desert boots they wore, I asked those guys. But ultimately I ended up using very little in the way of those kinds of specifics. I do draw on personal experience for most of my characters, especially in terms of emotions and life experience and how that shaped them.
Your previous novel, WHITE HEAT, used the LA Riots as a leaping off point. In your opinion, how does VORTEX differ from WHITE HEAT?
VORTEX is set today, but I think both novels have a lot in common. WHITE HEAT is set in 1992 and the Rodney King riots are, as you say, the jumping off point. I think WHITE HEAT works as a noir-thriller, but I think it also works on a deeper level as it deals with race and racism in all strata of society. So it works on more than just the thriller level.
Both the characters in WHITE HEAT and VORTEX are vets, though from different branches of the service and different wars. But both have that to deal with. Like WHITE HEAT, I think VORTEX deals with other issues than simply the thriller aspect of it. PTSD, lost expectations of the American Dream, etc. I think overall they’re probably more similar than distinct, except in the details of time and place.
WHITE HEAT is also a detective novel with a noir P.I., who has screwed up due to his own arrogance and has to fix things; whereas the character of Zach in VORTEX is really more of a noir “everyman”. Someone who got caught up in something because he was young and immature and who has to get himself extricated from it…if he can. Duke Rogers in WHITE HEAT is sort of what Zach might become in several years, more hardened and streetwise. But in both, just as in most noir, the characters are tripped up by their own Achilles heels, their own fatal flaws and weaknesses of character. As Eddie Muller, President of the Film Noir Foundation, says in his description of noir for TCM’s Summer of Darkness: “…a truly noir tale is one in which the protagonist, acting out of desperate desire, does something he (or she) knows is wrong, but they do it anyway … and reap the dire consequences.”
And Shamus and Derringer award-winning novelist Dave Zeltserman says, “In noir, the hero is doomed, but he’s doomed of his own making. Noir isn’t about tragedy, it’s not the fates conspiring against some poor luckless soul. Instead it’s about our hero sealing his own fate by crossing a line that can’t be uncrossed.”
One thing that jumps out about your writing is that it’s very visual. How has your background in film influenced the way that you approach your short stories and novels? Were there any challenges in making that transition?
Oh God yes! When I first started writing short stories and novels some time ago, people said they read like screenplays. In screenplays there’s very little description, basically a beach is a beach. You’re not describing the fabulous crimson sunset. Also transitions are easy, they’re cuts or dissolves or wipes or whatever and there’s a certain understanding when people watch movies when these transitions occur.
So those were the two hardest things for me, trying to work on my descriptions, hell, trying to have descriptions…and making smoother transitions from one scene to another. I think I still write in a cinematic way and I use the three act structure as the basis for pretty much everything I write, but I’ve learned to adapt it to a more prosy (is that a word?) style.
And I do try to be visual. I think that’s missing in a lot of writing today. I guess it’s become more like a screenplay. I don’t have to be Chandler with his wonderful way with words, but I do like setting the scene and I like the luxury of doing that—which you don’t really have in a screenplay where you write EXT. BEACH – DAY. And because of my love of movies and noir films in particular, I do sort of see a movie in my head when I’m writing—even to the point of casting certain actors in the parts and even when they’re not necessarily alive. I tend to write a lot for Bogie and Jack Nicholson…
Your short story HOWLING AT THE MOON is nominated for both the Anthony Award and Macavity Award in 2015. How do you feel that your short stories differ from your longer works? Is your approach different?
I approach both the long form and short form works in pretty similar ways. I’m a pantser so I don’t outline. My first draft is pretty much my outline. It’s also pretty much a nightmare since I don’t care where it goes because I’ll fix it in later drafts.
Short stories are like single records, 45s, remember those? They’re short and probably should be catchy. Have a hook. Short stories are more challenging in some ways. You have to say more in less space. In short stories, I concentrate more on the characters than the story or the who-dunit. To me the who-dunit, how-dunit is less important than creating a compelling character that people can relate to and care about, even if they’re anti-heroes and maybe not the most upstanding citizens. In my story “Dead Man’s Curve,” the character is a burned out musician who is duped into carrying a dead body in the trunk of a car. And while you do find out who duped him and how, the parts of the story I like best are the parts where we learn about him and how he got to the state he’s in. I was afraid the editors of the anthology (LAST EXIT TO MURDER) would want to cut out all that stuff, but happily they didn’t. That’s where we really get to know him, who he is, how he got down and out, what his dreams were and are today.
Novels are more like symphonies. You have an overture where you introduce the main themes and then you explore those themes in more depth. And in novels you have a different problem: keeping the momentum going throughout the story. You have more space and room to explore the characters and settings, but you can’t let that drag the story down and keep it from unfolding and moving forward. You also have time to go off on different tangents, explore different possibilities and more characters. But ultimately both come down to having interesting characters with problems that need to be solved. Some people like a twist at the end of a short story, and that’s fine if it works for the story, but to me the main element is the character and how they resolve—or don’t resolve—their issues.
You are also the co-editor of the short story anthology COAST TO COAST: MURDER FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA (from Down & Out Books Oct. 1). What can we expect from this collection? What has being an editor taught you about being a better writer?
It’s a great collection of stories from a variety of writers, including several well-known names and award winners like Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Bill Pronzini (3 Time Shamus Award winner), William Link (4 Time Edgar Winner), and several others. The great thing about this anthology is the variety of stories—something for everyone and the settings bounce from East coast to West coast, so you get the vibe of each region—sort of like I was talking about in the first question—the SoCal vibe vs. the East Coast vibe.
This is my first trip as an editor, though I have edited things for individuals before. Since I have had experience putting things together that part wasn’t too difficult but someone asked me if it was it intimidating working with some of these very well-known and well-respected writers. I don’t get intimidated easily, so I wasn’t really intimidated. But I was and am honored to be in the company of these great writers, as I also have a story in the collection that I hope measures up.
And we’re talking about doing another Coast to Coast, batting ideas back and forth as to the theme. Probably for a 2016 date.
As an established mystery writer, would you encourage new writers to dive into short story markets? What advice would you have for them about writing and publishing short stories in 2015?
Absolutely, dive in! Just don’t let your head hit the bottom of the pool and split open. Okay, what the hell does he mean by that? A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and where the sun shone brighter, it’s my understanding that writers could actually earn a living by selling just short stories to various magazines. But that’s impossible today. Even if you sell half a dozen stories a year you’d be crazy giving up your day job unless you really want to live the life of a noir protagonist in a shit hole part of town where you take your life in your hands just by walking to your car, if you even have a car.
That said, short stories offer you a way to try out ideas or characters that can later be expanded into novels. Chandler did this with Marlowe who, though he first appeared by that name in The Big Sleep, sort of originated in short stories, though under different names. Short stories can be seen as the out-of-town Broadway tryouts, or Off Broadway shows, or a farm club for baseball.
Short stories let you experiment with different styles and develop your “voice”. But short stories can also stand on their own as an art form, not just a launching pad for novels, one that we shouldn’t let slip away.
Unfortunately, these days there’s very few paying markets. You’re lucky if you get “paid” in contributor copies. When I was giving occasional one-night seminars on screenwriting I would tell people not to work for free and I think that still applies in that field. But I think in terms of stories I’m changing my mind. I think one should submit to the paying markets first but they’re naturally hard to break into as everyone is trying. Once you’ve exhausted those then if you want to see your story in “print,” that is most likely on internet computer print, try the non-paying markets. Some are better than others, have more readers, or a better rep. So as with everything do your due diligence.
As for advice, go out and fucking live! Watch less TV. Do more living. See real people. I was in Barney’s Beanery, a famous LA (sort of) dive bar one night and two guys got into a fight and I used it in something I was writing. Have adventures. I’m kind of a hermit these days, but I have a treasure trove of living and adventures, good and bad, in the past that I can draw from. And above all, keep writing! No excuses.
Speaking of publishing advice, WHITE HEAT and VORTEX are both self-published. What are the benefits and challenges of self-publishing?
The main things are, you can get your books out without that long lag time of sending to agents, waiting to hear, most likely getting rejections, but if you do get accepted by one, then they send to editors and you’re waiting to hear again. And editors often have their own vision of “your” work. So I like the idea of not being under anyone’s thumb and being able to go totally with my vision, which is not to say the book shouldn’t be edited. With WHITE HEAT I think the subject matter scared people off, so I ended up doing it on my own and have had pretty good results both in terms of sales and recognition, it having won a Shamus Award.
The challenge is getting the word out and getting noticed. That becomes an almost full-time job—and that does take away from writing time. But, even if you go with a publisher, unless you’re a big name like John Grisham, they’re not going to do a whole lot for you in terms of PR, you’ll end up doing much of it yourself. So why not reap all the benefits?
But you do have to have a good cover. It needs to be written well. And it does need editing, but not to the point where your vision is lost.
The bottom line is you’re in charge, you have the freedom to do what you want, but you still have to do it responsibly.
What are your publishing plans for the rest of 2015 and 2016?
Bunch of things coming up. First and foremost VORTEX, with a September 1st pub date. But people should be able to pre-order it on Amazon soon, if it’s not already available for that by the time this blog is posted. So do it!
On August 17th, I have a flash fiction story called Fade Out coming out on Akashic’s Mondays Are Murder. It’s set at the famous corner of Hollywood and Vine…where the hell else would I set something? And not very far from where I was born.
Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine just bought a story called Ghosts of Bunker Hill. I’m really excited about this one. In the 1960s, the Los Angeles Powers That Be, in their infinite wisdom, decided to redevelop LA’s Bunker Hill section downtown. Lots of old Victorian houses there, as this was once the city’s premier wealthy neighborhood, but it had gone to seed over the years. Some of the houses were moved to other areas and my story takes place today in one of those houses, but has elements— “ghosts” —of Raymond Chandler and Marlowe and James M. Cain and John Fante. And you can see lots of these places—before they were moved or torn down—in several old film noirs, including Criss Cross, Cry Danger and Kiss Me, Deadly. And one thing I’m kind of jazzed about is that before they tore them down and moved them a friend of mine and I went down there and explored a bunch of them, which was really cool. And somewhere, deep in storage, I still have the top of a newel staircase post from one of those houses. Don’t know the pub date on this yet, though it will probably be later this year or in 2016 and, believe me, I’ll be letting everyone know.
S.W. Lauden’s short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Dead Guns Magazine, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in October 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.