What: His debut noir mystery novel, GO DOWN HARD, was published by Brash Books in 2015 and was First Runner Up for Killer Nashville’s Claymore Award. His short story “Honeymoon Sweet” is currently nominated for both the Anthony and the Macavity Awards. He is chapter President of Mystery Writers of America SoCal.
Where: Los Angeles
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just finished reading your debut novel, GO DOWN HARD. It focuses on two of my favorite things—L.A. and rock and roll. How did you dream this story up? Why is L.A. the right place for this story?
After years toiling in TV, I was sick of outlining (a required step in selling a script), so when I turned to crime writing I just sat down and started. I had no idea where the book was going, but I had a first paragraph (long gone), which ended with: “If there is a flaw in her beauty it’s the back of her head, which some jerk has seen fit to splatter across her million-dollar Lichtenstein.” That seemed promising, so I figured out who “she” was and the bricks began to lay themselves. As I met new characters, they started driving the story and I just held on for the wild ride. Of course I had to go back and do a lot of shucking and jiving to make a cohesive story out of it, but I had a ball doing it. Seat-of-the-pants writing was a whole new concept for me, and I loved it, even if the book took three times as long to write as it needed to.
Of course, it had to be set in L.A. and to me, that means rock. My old school friend Robert Landau has an exhibit up at the Skirball Museum as I write this, about the last of the hand-painted rock and roll billboards of Sunset Boulevard. That was my turf. I grew up above the Sunset Strip. My grandmother went to L.A. High. I went to Fairfax, as did my mom. I formed my first band when I was 12. I ran the light show at the Whiskey a Go Go when I was in High School. The first house I ever owned was in Laurel Canyon, which is a rock hall of fame in and of itself. I haunted the Ash Grove and the Troubadour. I ushered at the world premier of Hair (and I don’t mean the movie). L.A. and rock are the soil from which I sprang, the blood in my veins. Not to mention that noir was born here. How could I NOT set GO DOWN HARD in the world of L.A. rock?
I live in the San Fernando Valley these days, which—until a few years ago when the County passed a law requiring condoms on porn shoots—was the porn production capital of the world. It wasn’t hard to find porn actors to interview for the price of a beer. There’s even a bar here that has porn star karaoke once a week. The pièce de résistance was getting invited to a porn industry Halloween party. I won’t go into detail because the Internet is a family place and there may be some cozy writers reading this, but suffice it to say that it took place on a porn film studio dungeon set. They had a topless DJ, privacy tents, stripper poles, an inflatable wading pool filled with olive oil and a lot of people in wild costumes with even wilder stories to tell.
You published a novella, PSYCHO LOGIC, in 2014. Was your approach to writing the novella any different than writing the novel? How did you grow as a writer between publishing the novella and the novel?
I wrote a short story that got nominated for an Anthony Award in 2014 called “Dead End.” I really liked the main character, Johno Beltran, whose back story was that he’d been, a detective, kind of like Mark Fuhrman, the glove guy from the OJ trial, only likeable. Johno had been railroaded by a crack defense team into looking guilty of evidence tampering, allowing a psycho killer to walk free. We meet him four years later, his life in ruins, living out of his car, working as a parking attendant. One night the killer drives up to the valet stand in a $100K BMW and we’re off and running. The story resolved nicely, but Johno’s future was up in the air. I wanted to see what happened next, so I continued his story in PSYCHO LOGIC. I actually wrote the novella while my agent was shopping GO DOWN HARD, so PSYCHO LOGIC was the beneficiary of the lessons, not the other way around.
As to what those lessons were, I really can’t say. I’ve been a writer in one medium or another all of my professional life. I think I learned most of the basics years ago. The problem is keeping them all in mind at the same time. It’s impossible. You focus on character and make a dumb plot mistake. You focus on style and forget about conflict. I think writing is like playing a sport: the more you do it, the fewer bonehead mistakes you make. You never stop making those mistakes but you do reduce their frequency as your literary muscle-memory plays an ever-expanding role. So I wouldn’t say I learned any specific lessons, but my writing improved because the added writing hours reduced my duh factor.
Prior to writing fiction, you have worked as a journalist, a writer-producer for network television, a feature film screenwriter, and a nonfiction author. How did all of that varied writing experience prepare you for writing fiction? Why did you choose the mystery/crime genre?
I feel very lucky to have had such a varied career because each medium taught me a new skill set, each of which adds something different to my toolbox. My crime writing prose style is heavy on dialog, which came from screenwriting. My work tends to be densely researched, which comes from journalism and nonfiction books, besides being my favorite way to procrastinate. I think these varied disciplines add up to a broader perspective that helps steer me clear of the clichés of my genre.
According to your bio, you have published two non-fiction books that were “#1 NYT bestsellers—one pop-psychology the other pop-gynecology.” What the hell is pop-gynecology? Did any of that knowledge find its way into GO DOWN HARD?
I used to answer editorial job ads in the L.A. Times classifieds to find work. One of those jobs was on a gynecology book that was co-authored by a doctor and a journalist. But just as the project was starting up, the journalist sold his first novel, a crime novel as fate would have it. So he hired about a half-dozen young ghost-writers to take over the nonfiction book. The other writers all washed out within a month, so I ended up ghost-writing the whole first draft. The journalist did a polish and IT’S YOUR BODY: A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO GYNECOLOGY went on to become the first self-help gynecology book. It was #1 on the NYT nonfiction bestseller list for something like six months.
Soon after that book came out, a publisher offered the journalist a deal to co-author a lay psychology book. The advance was a joke. He told them he only knew one person who could write and would work for peanuts. That became the first book with my name on the cover. I wrote it in 1977 and, miraculously, it’s still in print. There’s not much from the gynecology book in GO DOWN HARD, but there’s a lot from the next two pop-psychology books I wrote. I don’t want to name the first one because that might be a spoiler for some readers, but the second one was TOXIC PARENTS, which hung on the NYT list for about three months. I think the psychology books add a lot of depth to my characters, at least in back story, not so much from my co-author’s treatment philosophy as from what I learned researching the books—interviewing mental patients, prostitutes, battered women, convicted abusers, psychologists, family court judges, cops, and hundreds of my co-author’s patients.
Your short story, HONEYMOON SWEET, was nominated for both the 2015 Anthony and Macavity Awards. Did you know that this story was a potential award-winner when you wrote it? How do you know when a short story is done?
Nominations are a crap shoot. If you spend time thinking about them, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. I’m more interested in whether a story is working. Does the plot have unexpected turns that, only in retrospect, are fully motivated by character? Is there a punch at the open? A satisfying twist at the end? Does the pacing work? Does it have an underlying theme that adds depth without being didactic? These are the sorts of things I concentrate on. Publication or nomination either happen or not, but if so, I’m already working on something else by then.
I know a story’s done when I send it out. Until then, it’s a work in progress. I’m a revision addict. If I rewrite something and realize I’ve just revised it back to a previous draft, I’ll sometimes call it quits, but generally, I’m never satisfied.
There’s a lot of talk these days about non-paying short story markets. Do you have strong feelings about whether or not new or aspiring writers should be paid to publish? Is there a benefit to publishing without pay?
When I came up through the ranks, it was possible to make a reasonable living as a freelance writer. Now, unless you’re lucky enough to get a staff job in television, it’s incredibly hard. Most short story markets that pay, certainly don’t pay enough to put a meaningful lump in a writer’s wallet. But a token is better than nothing. I believe any writer who produces content that some market deems good enough to publish (in one form or another) should be paid for it. But I also understand that the world has changed for artists of all stripes. Writers, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, graphic artists… we’ve all suffered from the prevailing belief of the digital generations that content should be free. Piracy is the new jay-walking. The future lies in finding new ways to monetize our writing because the old ways are over. The music industry learned that lesson the hard way. TV is in the process of dealing with the revolution in video distribution. Traditional publishers should have learned from the mistakes of others, but they’re clearly slow learners. If they survive the turmoil, it will not be due to their prescience.
I highly recommend volunteering to be involved with MWA and Sisters in Crime for the visibility, networking and fellowship. But I have to say it has done more harm than good to my writing. This is entirely due to the amount of time MWA has eaten out of my writing schedule. I’m planning to serve one more term as President because the first time around was such a huge learning curve that it seems a waste not to amortize that experience. Nonetheless, I should have completed my next novel by now and, to some extent, I can blame that failing on my MWA duties. That being said, the simple act of hanging out with other writers at chapter events and writers conferences has done a great deal for my writing in terms of talking shop with others and picking up ideas or energizing my motivation. I don’t regret a minute of it and look forward to volunteering in other ways to support the writers community when I retire from the chapter board.
What other publishing plans do you have for 2015 and 2016?
First and foremost, I’m gong to finish my next novel, GO DOWN SCREAMING. My agent has been patiently waiting much too long, and I’ve probably been forgotten by all those publishers who begged to see my next book when they passed on my first one. I also hope to find time to write more short stories, despite the fact that I tend to use them to procrastinate when I get bogged down in the second act of my novel. I do have a story coming out in King’s River Life in September, and a SciFi story coming out this fall in an anthology called OCCUPIED EARTH (edited by Gary Phillips and Richard Brewer). I’ve also got an independent film called Smuggling for Gandhi, based on a true story, that’s supposed to go into production in 2016 but my producer’s only got half the financing so far, so I’m not holding my breath. It’s a writer’s lot to work for potential success that may or may not pan out. I don’t focus on the outcome, I just keep on writing. That’s the only part of the process I can control.
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.