What: An ex-con who spent two years and change in prison on a plea-bargained down 2-5 sentence for burglary, armed- and strong-arm robbery, and possession with intent to sell, at Pendleton Reformatory in Indiana. Since his release, he’s earned a B.A. from I.U. and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and had 18 books published. His career for many years as a criminal and outlaw lend an air of rare verisimilitude to his crime novels.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just read your most recent novel, THE GENUINE, IMITATION, PLASTIC KIDNAPPING and loved it. Very dark and very funny. How did you come up with the character of Pete Halliday? Why New Orleans?
The novel stemmed from a short story that was published in The South Carolina Review and was about a guy who embodied many of the same elements that make up my own life. He went to the Big Sleazy because that was where I was from and knew the milieu well—especially the criminal areas.
You have published some fiction and some non-fiction—with baseball straddling the line. When did you first develop a love baseball? If you had to explain the game to a space alien, what would you say?
Interesting question! I’ve always loved baseball. Played it as a kid and in high school and had an uncle who was a year older than me who played for five different major league teams back in the sixties. Had a son who was extremely good. If I had to describe it to Yars from Mars, I’d tell him it was chess for athletes. Then, I guess, I’d have to explain chess to him… And then what athletes were… Seems like a lot of work. Best thing would be just to take him to a game in San Francisco and watch the Giants beat the Dodgers. He’d quickly get it…
A few of your non-fiction books are writing guides, including HOOKED and FINDING YOUR VOICE. As a fiction writer, are you good at following your own advice? Is there a conflict between your fiction voice and your non-fiction voice?
Short answer is…yep. I basically wrote those books describing my own way of working and of looking at the craft of writing. No conflict whatsoever between my fiction and nonfiction voices. That doesn’t mean they’re exactly the same. As Walt Whitman said, “We contain multitudes.” I’m pretty sure I do. I can chat with folks at a biker bar and an hour later chat with other folks at the Governor’s Ball and fit in with either. Different tones, etc., but the same guy.
Of your seven novels, which one do you think of as a drinking buddy? As the one that got away? What is your relationship to your novels once they’re published? How does that relationship evolve over time?
As a drinking buddy, that’s easy. JUST LIKE THAT is a semiautobiographical novel, based on a couple of road trips I made with my rap partner. None of them “got away.” If you’re not in charge of what you’re putting down on paper, that seems to me to be pretty sad and not a good thing for a writer to be. As far as a relationship, I love them all, and often reread each one of them. The one I reread the most are the stories in my collection, MONDAY’S MEAL. The stories in that cover a large part of my writing life. Two were written when I was 11 and 12 and others written when I was in my forties. I think readers would be hard-pressed to figure out which were written when.
You recently sparked a debate with your blog post questioning the value of MFA degrees. Has your opinion on the subject changed? What is the benefit of this kind of public discourse?
My opinion didn’t change in the least, Steve. Didn’t see any argument that would have persuaded me to do so. The benefit is to present facts and opinions on all sides of an issue and let readers make up their own minds, based on the evidence.
That MFA blog was followed a few weeks later by a post about your novel THE BITCH getting censored by a newspaper because of the title. Is censorship something you have encountered a lot in your career? Do you feel there is more or less of it in the digital age?
First, this might be a bit misleading. The review itself wasn’t censored. Only the word “bitch” was censored. The word itself was replaced by (filtered word). For example, the headline of the review now reads: The (filtered word) by Les Edgerton. And, the 5-6 instances where the word bitch appeared in the body of the review were treated the same. The newspapers would have published the review, but the reviewer herself felt that their censorship of the word would have corrupted the article and chose not to publish it. The effect of censoring a single word, led to the nonpublication of the review, and that looks like the intent of censorship worked, to me.
As to if there’s more or less, there’s decidedly more these days. Since the mid-90’s our culture has more and more been subverted by the insidiousness and odiousness of the political correctness mindset. It even reaches back in history to sanitize classics such as HUCKLEBERRY FINN. More and more, we’ve become a nation afraid of words. Of words! These cockroaches who promote PCism should be treated like the vermin they are. Language and the clear and precise use of language lies at the heart of all of our freedoms. When we begin to proscribe which usages we allow and which we don’t, we’ve successfully torn away the very underpinnings of freedom of thought and expression. I believe Pravda served a similar purpose in the old USSR…
Speaking of the digital age, what practical advice do you have for new writers trying to break into writing in 2015?
Uh… write a good book? One that’s better than the ones already on the bookshelves?
It’s the same advice given in every age. Personally, I would never self-publish. That’s basically a new name for what we used to call “vanity publishing.” Old wine in a new bottle. If anyone can tell me the difference, I’ll be surprised. Nobody has the “right” to be published. Everyone has the right to print their own work, either digitally or in paper, but a self-published, vanity press book isn’t the same as a published work, by traditional definition. The vast majority of those “books” only contribute to the increasing white noise we’re experiencing. We’ve become a nation raised to expect “participation trophies” and “instant gratification.” Well, the hard truth is not everyone is talented enough to write a publishable book. Get over it. Become a plumber or a brain surgeon or president or something easy. Just because you want to be a major league baseball player doesn’t mean you have the right to be one. But, I bet if some rich guy put billions of dollars up to fund teams on which anyone who wanted to could play, we’d have a bunch of people putting on uniforms. Of course, nobody would come see them play, which means they’d be in pretty much the same boat as all these people who self-publish—after their relatives and friends come see a game, they’d be gone…
Sorry if this steps on someone’s toes, but instead of getting mad at me, perhaps an honest self-analysis of their ability might stand them in better stead than someone telling the truth. Getting published—or achieving anything truly worthwhile—isn’t, nor should it be easy. It’s not. When we make it easy, there may be a brief glow at seeing something with one’s name on it, but that person has to know they haven’t done much of anything. Any more than those folks a few years ago who had a garage full of vanity books that collected mold had.
The best advice I can give a writer who sincerely wants to become a good writer is the same thing Jim Harrison said when asked the same question. “First,” he said, “read the whole of the western canon in literature for the past 400 years. Then, if you live long enough, read the same amount in the eastern canon. For, if you don’t know what passed for good in the past, you won’t know what passes for good today.” (Paraphrased badly!) One learns to be a writer by doing two things—reading voraciously and writing voraciously.
There are no secrets in writing. The secrets are right in front of you, on the pages of a well-written book. When something affects you emotionally, study how that writer achieved that effect and steal the technique for your own.
Who are three modern crime/mystery writers that you think everybody should read? Why?
There are far more than three! I hate to limit lists like this, Steve. For every one I put on it, I’ve left off at least ten to a hundred more who are as good or better. But, for sake of this, I will… reluctantly…
- Joe Lansdale—He captures the depth of the human soul as good as anyone around.
- Anthony Neil Smith—He’s just a smarter writer than most.
- Harry Crews—He’s probably the best writer in many generations.
All three of those guys write books that I read more than once. Books that resonate beyond mere entertainment. Books that teach me something about writing craft excellence.
And, I’m truly, truly sorry for the several hundred other writers I could have named just as easily.
Finishing the final edits on my memoir and getting it sold. Selling the craft book proposal we have out there for “A Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Bijou,” selling the nonfiction book proposal on black athletes who’ve given back to the black community after their playing days were over, finishing three novels I’m currently working on, finishing the companion novel to THE RAPIST, and a bunch of other projects. Avoiding states where there might still be outstanding warrants…
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 by Rare Bird Books in October 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.