What: Author of FEDERALES and BURN CARDS. His short stories have been featured in several publications, including Thuglit, Beat to a Pulp, and Shotgun Honey. His short story collection, SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE, is out this November from 280 Steps.
Interviewed conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Since you’re about to publish SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE, a tremendous collection of 13 short stories, I’m going to ask you one question about each story. First up is “Union Man”. What inspired you to write a period piece about a man caught between a rock and a hard place during a steel mill strike?
Thank you for the kind words and interview! I wish I had more notes on “Union Man.” I write by hand a lot and have tried hard to keep to a journal since 2012 (I’m finishing up my third). I have a small paragraph from early in 2013 about researching the steel strikes (I recall looking at a lot of photos and articles online), and I sent off a draft to friends for critique that May. It’s unfortunate as it’s a favorite of the collection, but I do know at its heart that it’s my ‘fatherhood story.’ My first son, George, was born in August of 2012 and a clearly recall this being the first piece where I incorporated my sense of being a father, the responsibilities, etc. It was a story that I had to write, and even though I knew pretty much from the outset where it needed to go—for narrative reasons and to make an impact—it was still difficult to write.
Actually I wasn’t. I floated in the middle of the pack with friends spread out in different groups (soccer, orchestra, gaming, etc.) so I avoided the brunt of it. I was a shy, anxious kid at times growing up (especially pre-teen years), so I think I pulled from those experiences. The story originally formed in my head with a series of images—Machiko, a character in the story, out on this bluff/cliff. It was her own special spot and she ended up being discovered, bullied by boys and accidentally pushed to her death. It had some similar themes but was pretty different. When I started writing the scene with Donny snorting the Pixy Stix, the story evolved and took on a different life. I was a lifeguard for four summers at the pool in my hometown. It was a large complex that was packed from beginning of the summer to the end. There was a big staff of lifeguards and while Donny’s experience isn’t my own, all of the little details (visceral sights, sounds, smells) are. It’s like that for a lot of my writing.
This is my favorite line from “Digging Deep: “Winter has taken up permanent residence in the hall outside our front door, the cold seeping through century-old boards.” It sums up the despair and ambivalence that runs throughout the story. How do you set the tone for your short stories? Is the spark a character or a certain line or a memory…?
I’m a very visual person. It’s part of what makes writing comics so attractive to me. But it’s also true when writing prose. I think a lot about these stories before I write them, but much less in terms of plot, or “the writing,” and more as a series of images or snapshots—moments at different points of the story that set the tone and come together to give me a general idea of where I’m going, what I’m trying to achieve. I think you’re onto something when you mention memories. “Digging Deep” is really an exaggerated slice of my life. The snow, triple-decker house, streets, neighbors and bodega—it’s all real and right outside my window. Some of the main character’s worries might have been mine, but in the story they’re fictionalized to be stronger and make them personal to him.
I enjoy questions like these because while I do think a lot about my stories up front, I try not to consciously think at all while I’m writing and just go with my gut. Recent interviews (including this one) have been helpful in forcing me to reflect on the decisions I’ve made and better understand and articulate the underlying factors of my writing.
Most of the stories in this collection are a slow burn, but “Bringing In The Dead” might feel more familiar to fans of short crime fiction. How do you feel the “crime genre” label applies to the stories in this collection?
I wrote “Bringing in the Dead” around the same time as FEDERALES. There are a lot of similarities in story and style between the two. I love crime fiction and I love writing it, but the past year or so I’ve found myself drifting into the nebulous ‘literary crime’ or more dark, slice-of-life literary that touches on crime but isn’t crime if we’re splitting hairs. I think the shift has to do with both my reading and writing habits. I LOVED my two years reading for Shotgun Honey, but the vast majority of flash fiction is driven by explosive plot, action and violence. In many ways it has to be—you’ve got less than a thousand words to grab a reader and make your story memorable. This pushed me to write differently and explore other avenues. I don’t think I was necessarily cognizant of it at the time though. A lot my writing is subconsciously driven and I don’t see the whole picture until I get a chance to reflect, or more likely a writing partner tells me and I feel like a fraud.
Writing-wise, while I didn’t specifically tailor stories to a publication, I did write with publications in mind (or at least a desire to be published.) The question of “what would Thuglit/Beat to a Pulp/Needle/etc want?” had to be on my mind. I hope in doing this that I didn’t consciously or subconsciously censor myself, but it wasn’t until I wrote the four new stories for the collection that I truly let loose. I wrote and edited “Digging Deep,” “Imaginary Drugs,” “Lupe’s Lemon Elixir” and “Safe Inside the Violence” last May in a little over a month. The process left me totally burned out, but I think they are some of my best work and the stories I’m most proud of.
That’s a long-winded ramble toward getting to genre. A lot of writers say ‘fuck genre’ and I agree for the most part. Write what you want to write and don’t worry about expectations or where it will fit on the shelf. But when you sell a book you go from art to business and it’s no longer yours. A label will be stuck on it because that’s how people buy things, especially books. We all want to know at least a little bit about what we are getting ourselves into. Is the collection crime? Sure…for the most part. And if you come for the crime I think you’ll dig it. But if you’re not a crime fan and (hopefully) give it a shot, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
“Lupe’s Lemon Elixir” was one of my favorites in this collection. Mainly because of the interesting perspective and unique action that drive the plot. How important are character motivations when putting a short story together ?
Thanks! This one is a bit special as it took the longest to write. I wrote a rough outline in February of 2013 but didn’t make time until May of this year. I’m glad I toughed it out. Sometimes when I outline I end up writing most of a story in my head which makes it a struggle to get down on paper. Motivations are extremely important to me. Most of my fiction tends to be character driven with plot coming secondary or after the fact. Motivation needs to be strong to drive home what’s at stake and to help the reader relate to characters. Take away motivation and you begin to lose logic, tension, etc.
“Vacation Package” is less about the crime and more about the consequences, a theme that runs throughout SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE. Do you consciously approach your characters from an emotional perspective? What is the trick to striking the balance between action and contemplation?
Yes and no. Again, I drive as far as I can into a story with my gut, with the moments I’ve already developed in my head, but upon revision or when I reach a road block, I’ll think hard on internal conflict, see what else I can pull from it or expand on. I think striking a balance just takes practice. I love very limited third person and first person stories, but you have to be careful and avoid being too contemplative—too wrapped up inside their head without action moving the story forward. I hope I’m finding that balance.
Probably the collection’s most fantastic—and heartbreaking—story is “Beyond The Sea”. Did you create the more fantastic elements to balance the unhappy relationship between the mother and son?
This story actually came about because of an anthology call for horror stories set in 1950s Americana. My dad is from Baltimore (Go O’s!) and every other year growing up we visited relatives in Maryland, usually finishing the trip in Ocean City. I LOVED the cover of this anthology, and very much wanted to have a piece in it. “Beyond the Sea” was sadly rejected, BUT in hindsight it was a fortunate rejection. A lot of writers are outspoken about the need to be paid for your work, and for the most part I agree, however, I do think online exposure at professional publications, when you are just starting out, can be a great thing. Anthologies are a tough sell, but readers will click a link in a heartbeat to read a story online, and this story got a lot of visibility when Beat to a Pulp published it. Long story short, the fantastical elements came about because of the anthology requirements, but overall I think it’s my love letter to Ocean City and my memories of growing up there…albeit in a dark and twisted way. I’m very fond of the place—the boardwalk, kite shops, arcades (if they are even still there), caramel corn, Dolle’s salt water taffy…I could go on. “Beyond the Sea” was a lot of fun to write.
Why did you choose “Safe Inside The Violence” as the title for the collection? Was this the story the collection was built around or a sleeper hit you wrote at the last second?
This was the last story I wrote for the collection (also written at the last second.) In some ways I built the story around the title. I’d had pieces of the story in my head for quite a while—mostly the setting and the neighbors, but I wasn’t sure how to tell it or what the full story would be about. The ideas came back to me when thinking about the title and how it fit with some of the themes in the collection. From there quickly grew the form of the main character, a guy who returns home and all too easily falls right back into a situation he’d left behind him in his past.
I think (you’ve probably noticed by now that I use “I think” a lot in my responses, and it’s because I’m being honest with you and that these are difficult questions and I’m not certain of my answers. I write half-asleep in the early morning hours and who knows what’s going on upstairs half the time. Most of what I write just spills out of me onto the page…) I’m drawn to the everyman because I live in a city and these are the kinds of people I interact with every day. It’s easy to move through life and not think about those around you. I’m not talking about friends or coworkers or even neighbors. But what about the crew grabbing your garbage, the guys out in the bucket truck in the middle of a storm because your cable went out, the woman who’s owned a diner for 50 years and never takes vacation, your waiter, EMTs who work the night shift, etc, etc. What are their struggles? How do they relate to yours? What are you taking for granted? There are deeper truths—realities both beautiful and heartbreaking—and insights around us. If we close our eyes (or keep them glued to our screens) we lose our ability to observe and relate.
I was really drawn to the central moral dilemma in “Blind Spot”. How did this one come together for you? How did Jim’s character and his relationship with Sherri develop as you wrote it?
This came together in a flash around Jim and Sherri’s relationship. I think part of the focus was always around his anxiety in the moment—he knows it’s all coming down on him and the reader can see it coming down on him and so the reader is forced to suffer through that moment with him. I’ve read several real-life examples of cop-source relationships that go south (can they go well?) and so the backbone of the story was there before I sat down. It’s a fun one, and probably the most lighthearted of all the stories in the collection.
The character Watt has a night of many firsts in “Bitter Work”. Why do you think it is important to knock your characters so far out of their comfort zone? What does it allow you to expose about human nature as a writer?
The more you are pushed out of your comfort zone, the greater the stakes. I’ve been in some very stressful situations and it’s fascinating to me to see people you think have it together be the first to shut down. On the flip-side, others take the reins, rise to the occasion and succeed in the moment. In fiction, you can create a lot of these ‘sink or swim’ moments when characters are outside of their comfort zone. What happens if they fail? Does that create a similar moment? And another and another? You can quickly see decision, or action trees forming that take a character deeper and deeper into a hole. When you remove their comfort and success, you see the truth in what they are made of, the choices they make on their way back up.
I thought that “Nor’easter” was the biggest stylistic departure. Tell me about a few of the stories that didn’t make the cut.
Interesting! I had a goal to write a ‘Santa Claus’ story every year after Shotgun Honey published “This Ain’t Halloween” in 2012. I only made it to two (HA). Total failure. But back to the question…obviously “This Ain’t Halloween” didn’t make it in. I have several flash pieces that I really like, however I didn’t include them because I wanted to keep the story count relatively low. Over the past few years I kept a running list of stories I’d like to have in a collection one day (I like lists…). When I began seriously looking at it late last year, I suddenly realized how many of them possessed a similar cast of characters—father/son, mother/son, brothers, father/daughter, fatherly figures, etc. At the heart of every story was a family of some kind. This revelation helped me re-tailor the collection. I left out a couple that just weren’t good fits or too jarring (shed a tear for “Charred Kraken with Plum Butter.”) A couple where too recent—”Death to My Hometown” from TROUBLE IN THE HEARTLAND, and “Snapshots” from PROTECTORS 2. The last issue to tackle was the word count. I wanted the book to be at least 40,000 words, and after procrastinating/working on other projects, I scrambled, rounding it out with the last four new stories. Fast forward through a few weeks of playing with story order and it was done.
Like other stories in this collection, “The Things We Leave Behind” is a period piece. Why does this story to close out the collection?
A few of the periods chosen for stories within the collection were driven by anthology guidelines. This is one example. I wrote “The Things We Leave Behind” for Noir Carnival, edited by Kate Laity. I chose it to close out the collection first because of the title, but also because I think (I hope) the ending makes a lasting impact. There’s a lot of personal touches to this collection with this story being one of the most. My younger brother and I are two and a half years apart in age and very close, but for the last decade we haven’t seen each other much more than a few days around the holidays each year. That probably sounds more terrible than it is—things are great and we keep in touch—but there’s that underlying feeling of longing that’s driving the story.
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.