What: A former award-winning investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Naval intelligence analyst, private eye, house painter, cook, dishwasher, magazine writer and journalism professor. His most recent book, DEAD HEAT WITH THE REAPER, was released by All Due Respect books in August 2015. His short fiction has appeared in All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter Online, Near to the Knuckle, Over My Dead Body, Dead Guns, Plan B, Spinetingler and Dark Corners.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
The first of the two novellas in DEAD HEAT WITH THE REAPER is called “Legacy”. Is the character Frank Trask based on anybody specific?
Trask is an amalgam of a number of people I’ve met, but he is primarily modeled on my own father, a construction mechanic and blacksmith who drank heavily and died in 1994. In fact, the backhanding of the biker, one of the incidents of violence in the story involving Trask, is based on a confrontation my dad once had with a drunk who was bothering my late sister in a bar in Pollock Pines, California.
The second novella in DEAD HEAT WITH THE REAPER, “The Creep,” features a disfigured vet named Alan Baldocchi. What was your inspiration?
I just wondered what it would be like if a young woman fortuitously crossed paths with somebody who was so ugly that he made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, but came to realize he was actually not a “creep” at all—just a person unlucky enough to be really horrible looking. I wrote the first scene where Susan meets Baldocchi on the stairway and set it aside. A while later I read through what I had written and the story began to suggest itself in my mind.
I call what I write “red noir.” It’s populist fiction. Most of my characters are working class, even the criminals. If there is a wealthy person in one of my stories, he or she tends to be the one doing the real evil. I tend to avoid stories about heros, though. I prefer to write revengers and stories about justice with an EC comics twist—the kind where it looks like the perpetrator is going to get away with his crime, but fate takes a hand.
About half the time when I write short stories, I start with a scene, a bit of dialog or both and sort of let the characters take me where the story ends up going. I often don’t even have a general idea where I am going to end up when I lay down the first hundred words or so. After I write the introductory paragraphs, I fill in the rest with specific scenes that pop into my head while I am thinking about the stuff I have already written. I tend to write about criminals, but these two novellas happened to be about everyday people who stumbled into situations where they did something noble despite their reluctance to meddle in other people’s lives. The common touch point is that both is doomed in his own way.
Prior to publishing DEAD HEAT WITH THE REAPER, you serialized your novella WITCH’S HAT TRICK in four consecutive issues of Dark Corners magazine. How does that story differ from “Legacy” and “The Creep”? What are the advantages to publishing a novella in this way?
I originally wrote that story as a long novelette and it was actually Craig McNeely’s idea to break it up into four parts. He loves serializing stuff and I think his instinct is really sound. Serialized novellas used to be very common when I was a kid and read a lot of Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine, Amazing, Fantastic Stories, Astounding, Galaxy and If. They were serialized to maximize the use of space and because the publishers were looking for ways to give readers as wide a variety of reading experiences as possible. I think that tended to make them more accessible to readers.
WITCH’S HAT TRICK is my attempt to write an old-fashioned fantasy story using updated characters. I wanted to see what might happen if a Ukrainian witch ran afoul of the Russian Mafiya. The familiar in the story—the witch’s raven who shows up in the mornings for canned sardines—plays a key role in some of the action. That was inspired by Fritz Lieber’s story “The Automatic Pistol.” You can see that the denouement of the story has to do with a Russian automatic pistol, too.
The research I do depends on what the story is. I did a western novel I self-published called TAMER that I had to research at four specialized libraries and three museums. It took a lot of background work to get clear on available weapons, gold mining, transportation, the Mexican War, the military governors of California and so on. I visited a number of areas along the Sacramento River and the Delta to gather descriptive detail for that one and rode the ferry from San Francisco to Vallejo just to fix the scene in my mind.
I did a lot of research for WITCH’S HAT TRICK because I really didn’t know anything about Russian and Ukrainian witches and wizards. The Mafiya side of the story I had down pretty cold because I covered organized crime when I was a reporter. For “Legacy” I did only minimal research, mostly about architectural matters because a badly maintained staircase is key to the story’s resolution. I had to look up a lot of stuff about Stage Four liver cancer, but mostly so I could shortcut the material. I just didn’t want to throw in symptoms that you wouldn’t find in a victim.
For “The Creep,” I did quite a bit of research on the Bradley personnel carrier, just to make sure having a six-foot nine gunner in the crew wasn’t totally outrageous.
Fortunately I live in an area where there are several excellent libraries. I actually like doing research—though I tend to feel less need to write the story once I have exhausted the background work.
You’ve written extensively about Oakland—both past and present. How has that city evolved over the years? Is it a better place to set your hard-boiled stories these days, or was it better in previous decades?
I’d say it is perfect for both. My private eye novel THE JADE BONE JAR is set there in the late 1940s, right after World War Two. Oakland was a fascinating place then: you had union busting corporations, tough union organizers, a jazz and blues district that was like a West Coast French Quarter, politicians on the take, crooked cops and loads of hustlers trying to cash in on the post-war boom. Oakland was called the Detroit of the West because there were so many auto plants; the big auto companies actually conspired to put the old Key Route train and bus system out of business so they could sell more cars. There was lots of crime.
There still is. Big companies built on pipe dreams rise and fall because of fraud. Some chiseler is always trying to build shoddy dwellings for profit. You have municipal shakedown artists, outlaw bikers, dope dealers, Norteno and Sudeno gang bangers, Chinese Triad groups, black militants, police brutality and guns, guns, guns! It’s a hotbed of Northern California hip hop with all that entails and a perfect setting for brutal stories about the underclass either from the point of view of criminals or their victims.
As an author who has published in a variety of formats—short story, novella, novel—do you have a preference? Do you find that your work is getting shorter or longer the more you publish?
I guess the answer is, it depends on the story. I feel as satisfied with a good flash piece as I do with a novel like THE JUDAS HUNTER or THE JADE BONE JAR. I really find novellas and novelettes are right in my wheelhouse. They give you room to expand the story and explore the characters more, but are more the kind of length that people seem to be looking for in this limited-attention-span age. When I was a kid reading the pulps, those were the first things I went for in mags. I think novellas are way underrated—Rex Stout did scads of them. And they fit right into today’s lifestyle.
It’s easier for me to name three I think nobody should waste their time with. Lee Child, James Patterson and Tom Clancy immediately come to mind. There are pots full of writers doing terrific work right now that everybody who likes good fiction should be reading: I could read Vicki Hendricks’ MIAMI PURITY over and over for her use of language and the depth of her characters; Dennis Lehane is somebody who wasn’t even on my radar a few years ago and now he is one of my favorites; what really made me a believer is the short story,”Animal Rescue,” that he turned into a terrific screenplay for the movie, The Drop. And Patti Abbott, for sure. I am finishing her novel CONCRETE ANGEL and it absolutely is a page turner. It reads like Cain’s MILDRED PIERCE turned inside out.
What publishing plans do you have for the rest of 2015 and 2016?
I have a novella being considered by a publisher right now and a couple of longish short stories that are already under submission. I am working on a novel about con-men and cops in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District called BOTTOM STREET. The hero of that one is a former pro light heavyweight who spent 12 years in Soledad prison because he was railroaded on murder charges. I also have a revenge novel in the works called STREET CLEANER that is set in a fictional town named Harbor City. Both of those are nearly done. And I am trying to get back into more or less regular schedule of publishing a review or essay every week in my blog.
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.