What: He impressed audiences with his performance on the 3rd season of HBO’s Def Comedy Jam (All-Stars Vol. 12). He has enjoyed a career as an actor, director and screenwriter. He is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for his creative non-fiction piece Forever. In an Instant., published by Literary Orphans Journal. A NEGRO AND AN OFAY is his first novel.
Where: Los Angeles
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just finished your debut novel, A NEGRO AND AN OFAY. Elliot Caprice is a flawed and troubled character, but I rooted for him throughout the story. How did you come up with the concept for this character and story?
Elliot Caprice came to me a long time ago, when I first tried my hand at screenwriting. Early on, he was almost a novelty—a setup for culturally-referential, purposefully anachronistic comedy. That never saw the light of day. It was all just exercises, really. Then, as life grew more and more serious for me, he became more and more serious. It’s been suggested that he’s an amalgam of me from a few different periods of my life. I’m not so sure about that, but perhaps there are parallels in our emotional fields.
When I was very young, and my life was ill-defined, I got off to a big start in stand-up comedy. Through all of that, I grew up a lot, and realized I wanted my creativity for me. Not to impress anyone else. Not to become rich, or famous. Yay me! Except then, I had to reconcile real life against desire. After doing television and a few movies, I wound up back in Chicago sitting on a help desk, not doing what I felt I was meant to do. I felt things were over for me before I really got started.
In an IT support capacity, there’s a lot of waiting around for the phone to ring. Left alone with my own thoughts in my own cubical, I’d write screenplays. The one that stuck in my wakeful consciousness was about Elliot. Elliot’s world is very real, visual. Palpable. I’d retreat in there when life was really roughin’ me up. Perhaps that’s how I built it. Seeking emotional solitude.
The story unfolded moment to moment. I make loose outlines about situations, but the rest comes from visceral experience. There are some realtime current events that influence the plot, of course. It just kind of folds in, like ingredients in a cake. Otherwise, it happens for me experientially, not empirically. I’m a witness. I hope that makes sense.
The title of the book describes the mulatto protagonist by using two racially charged terms from another era. How did you come up with such a powerful title? Are you concerned that it will put any potential readers off?
I will say, your suggestion that the title is powerful indicates it plays, and I thank you for taking a chance on it. I have faith in readers’ ability to suss out my intentions. I’m working on a long-term relationship with readers of this character and this world. I think the risk is worth it.
It isn’t so much I’m borrowing racially charged terms from another era and applying them in ours. I want to be clear about that. These terms were in common parlance during the period the story takes place. Those happened to be racially charged times. Same as now, but at least we seem to have evolved our cultural sensitivity a bit.
And it doesn’t only describe Elliot, but pretty much all of daily life for most folks back then. The twin halves of the American experience is white and black. We’re intertwined. Colluded, even. Then there’s logic: Elliot Caprice is the product of a black father and a white mother, so he is himself a negro and an ofay. He is on the trail of two men, one white and one black. In the street speak of the era, a negro and an ofay. America is, at once, both white and black, all the way down to it’s founding history. It just made sense. It just landed. It felt right. As my publisher Craig McNeely says, “With that title, you know the book is about something.”
A NEGRO AND AN OFAY is set in post-WWII Illinois and draws on Chicago’s colorful history of politics and organized crime. How much research did you do for this book? Why did the story need to take place in the past?
Plenty of research, and not just because quality work requires it. I wrote this book so that a person with little familiarity of Chicago wouldn’t be bored with too many nuances, but so someone who knows Chicago history like the back of their hand would appreciate the care I took. I could just see me going back to the Windy City for a reading, taking a question and hearing “Ya know, GreekTown wasn’t really around until after the 60s.” That’s it. Done. Credibility shot. I loved the work enough to make sure that wouldn’t happen. Folks will call you out, man.
For example, our tale is set in 1952, and everyone drives or takes trains. I put a character on the Double-Nickel (I-55) to Springfield, only to realize the Interstate Highway Act wasn’t pushed and passed in Congress until 1958. There’s no excuse for that sort of lapse. History means something. Folks are living longer. We have immediate access to vast reference materials. Some stuff just has to be right.
As far as the requirement of the period to the story, I have to say, I have a personal affinity for it. I was raised by folks from the time. I grew up digesting books and movies from the era. The 50s were a mess. Sure, we made it look good, but under the surface of America was an incredible amount of angst and longing and suffering and anger. That’s noir, man. It wasn’t all wine and roses for everyone. I love the language of the 50s. The power that came with everyone getting an automobile. Whole towns being bankrupt because people stopped taking the train everywhere and local economies built around rail suffered. Folks stuffing their deep sadness over the horrors of war in a junk drawer and going out and making their way. An entire nation of frickin’ boiling pots! Man, oh man.
It seems as if the 50s was the beginning of America’s affinity for trends, and for the occurrence of being caught up in them. I’m a bit attracted to that as well. But I didn’t go Forrest Gump deep when placing Elliot in true crime history. I wanted it to feel plausible, as if he could have been on the fringes of these things that happened. Just another fella who was swept up in it all. I think readers will dig how the period colors the man and the story.
We see plenty of Los Angeles noir and, of course, New York stories. I felt Chicago deserves another entry, but one that goes deep. Chicago reversed the flow of a major river, for aesthetic purposes. Chicago is called the Second City, not because it’s second to any other city, but because it’s the second Chicago, completely rebuilt atop the ashes of the first Chicago. In one year, the fat cats of industry jacked the city—the entire city—one foot above sea level because folks were tired of flooding. Jacked up an entire city, building by building, man. No different than if they were changing a tire. That’s a city that deserves to be the backdrop for some good crime fiction, and the period leading up to Mayor Daley and Sam Giancana getting Kennedy elected is fun stuff. Big crime, man.
Prior to writing this book, you have been a successful comedian, screenwriter, actor and director. How did you land on crime writing in 2015? What does this medium/genre offer that you can’t find elsewhere?
Crime touches us all, regardless of age, race, station in life. Crime is the only thing we all consistently have in common. That’s why we’re fascinated with it. Within that fascination, you can reach a lot of people with larger ideas. Crime fiction isn’t just about crime. Crime is a through line, yes, but same as in real life, crime is interlinked with larger issues of society. Crime fiction and its conventions and tropes are like poles on which we can hang communication lines. We can really get down with it. Chop it up together on bigger issues. That’s the beauty of crime fiction. It hits home. That’s why we read it even when we sometimes don’t like what we’re reading. It has a hold on us as a society, crime.
For some folks, crime is out there, perhaps waiting and threatening but not touching them. I was touched by crime from jump. I know it intimately. How to survive on the edges of it. How to feel when it approaches and how to get out of its way. Watching my friends, one by one, become criminals. One minute, collecting comic books and playing Dungeons and Dragons. The next, we can’t hang any more because they got gang symbols carved in their flesh and they carry guns and I just can’t. Coming home to see an ambulance in front of my house. “Hey, what’s that scar on my brother’s head from?” Going to the coroner with my mother and waiting in the car while my brother helps her identify my uncle’s body. “Hey, pretty boy. Imma fuck you up after school.” “Psst. Danny. Don’t go in the locker room at gym. They’re going to jump you.” That was normal. That was day-to-day.
I was raised up by good folks, and some good folks who happened to be criminals. Most people I knew growing up had both straight arrow family members and the ones who won’t be at Thanksgiving because they’re in Stateville Pen doing 3 to 5, or 5 to 10. I was raised with the assistance of television, and I grew up in a media town, so when it wasn’t Sesame Street, it was crime movies. Victor Mature playing some reluctant gangster. Cagney. Edward G. Robinson. Or the local news, exciting in itself. I watched the largest regional library project in Chicago history be built across the alley from me. I wasn’t hurting for books to read, and I put down kid stuff early. That’s when I leaned toward fiction. We learned about James Baldwin in school. I learned about Donald Goines and Chester Himes in the street. My parents were out of the picture. I had no adult supervision that gave a shit. I could go where I wanted, read what I wanted, and develop my own ideas about life. I was surrounded by crime and violence. I lost family and friends and loved ones due to crime. I’ve been to more funerals than weddings. All these things are going to color one’s perception.
And Chicago is a hard town to grow up in, even if you have supportive parents. I did not, so I found myself in the street, yet not of the street. My beginnings were wholesome, but my life didn’t remain that way. My heart did, I guess, so I was a participant observer more than a street rat. I did more watching and pleading, and then walking away when my friends wouldn’t listen. I guess I’m my own omnipotent narrator. Living life in first person, but understanding it in the third.
Given your background, do you intend to turn A NEGRO AND AN OFAY into a script? If you had the choice, who would you cast in the lead?
It began as a script, though you wouldn’t recognize those beginnings. I have been told my work reads like a television series. I like ending chapters on cliffhangers. I frequently introduce characters, send them adrift and allow them to return in logical moments with the weight of their travels upon them. I dig the words we say to each other. Dialogue has such a sweet sound, man. So we’ll see. I am in the business, ya know. As far as casting, I have a guy in mind, but I can’t say. He’s a little shy. Who knows? He may actually do it if something like that happened. Right now, the books are the thing. Elliot lives on the page and he’s happy there.
Is there anything about your experience as a comedian that informs your crime writing? Does your performance experience help with live readings?
If there’s anything about being a comedian that helps in my writing, it’s the understanding of time limits and attention span. I’ve heard my writing is sparse and to the point, yet I also have flourish. That’s probably a stand-up thing. Folks don’t want to hear you up there. They want to experience you up there. More words aren’t getting it done. What makes it work is point of view. Having one. Wielding it during the time of your set. Never letting off. Remaining true to it. So perhaps that.
With respect to readings, I think experience with speaking to crowds and knowing when I have them and when to move them came from stand-up, but all my experience comes into play. At Noir Slam, the screenwriter knew which passages from my book to use, how to edit them for time. The actor in me knew how to mete out performance. The comedian knew how to go up, get it on, and when to leave the stage with a big finish. It’s important to acknowledge that reading from my written work to a crowd of book lovers and genre fans isn’t anything similar to attempting to make the rent telling jokes to disaffected bar patrons in a place I’ve never been before. I won’t say it’s easier, but I’ve never had a bottle thrown at me during a book reading.
Your 2014 essay, FOREVER. IN AN INSTANT., was published by Literary Orphans and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Was your father’s suicide something you’d discussed publicly prior to publishing that piece? What has been the result of publishing that essay for you as an artist?
The result was liberation. Over the course of my life, I became so hung up on that story, man. It’s a triumphant story. It’s me overcoming circumstances that were bigger than me and beyond my ability to cope. I latched onto the hero’s journey aspects, other than the sad stuff. That’s what kept me going, especially when I was a boy. It’s a great story, so much that I refused to tell it. It was a part of my gold, and I kept it hidden. If you want to grow in life, you have to spend from your gold. Somehow I felt the impulse to pitch the essay to Mike Joyce at Literary Orphans and he loved the idea.
Once I finished writing it and sent it to him, only then did I realize I was in danger. The only danger was in surrendering my story—sacrificing it, to really live beyond it. Stories only really matter to the people hearing/reading them. Walking around filled with stories, in and of itself, means nothing. You gotta tell them shits. Set them free. I’ve been so much more creative and positive since then. I finally moved on to better stories. It was time. I’m glad I recognized it.
What publishing plans do you have for the rest of 2015 and 2016? What are you working on?
I’m working on a fantasy story for an anthology from Double Life Press. Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla resurrect John Henry to fight a race of machines. And I’m about 10 chapters in on the second Elliot Caprice novel, and it’s coming along nicely.
What books are you reading right now? Who are some of your favorite modern writers?
I love Eric Beetner’s stuff. I’m currently finishing RUMRUNNERS, which is excellent. THE SCIENCE OF PAUL, by Aaron Philip Clark, is a great read. I’m working my way through Les Edgerton’s wonderful work. Andrew Hilbert’s DEATH THING was darkly hilarious.
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.