What: Author of the crime noir novella, DEBT CRUSHER, as well as the coming noir short story collection NEW ALLEYS FOR NOTHING MEN. He is the Editor-in-Chief for Crime Syndicate Magazine and the organizer for Noir at the Bar Seattle. He is also the one-off bi-monthly host of Noir on the Air for the Authors on the Air Radio Network.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just finished your great new short story collection, NEW ALLEYS FOR NOTHING MEN. How did this collection come together? How many of the stories were previously published and how many are brand spanking new?
So Tote the Note appeared in All Due Respect Issue 4, Waylon, On Rerun was in Thuglit Issue 18, Two Feet Deep was in Heater Magazine Vol. 3 No. 9, An Art Show Mating Call was in Urban Graffiti, Life of a Salesman appeared in That Other Paper (now defunct), Franklin and the Finger was in Flash Fiction Offensive, and Midnight at the San Franciscan was published as an ebook stand-alone novelette earlier this year as a promotional lead up to New Alleys for Nothing Men. The other five have never been published before, either for lack of submission or because they just never landed anywhere. Actually three of those five are my favorite stories in the collection, oddly enough. Seems like it always works that way.
Your fantastic short story Tote The Note was previously nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Derringer Award. Aside from that one, how did you decide which stories to include in this collection? Was there a specific criteria? What was the process?
I think every writer has stories or works that they really prefer. I wanted to take my most desperate stories and pair them together with a little comic relief in spots, without losing that sense of desperation. There was an original version of this collection that had quite a few different stories in it, actually, but over time I got a sense that the current stories all fit together thematically. I use the term “noir” pretty liberally in describing the stories in this collection, but it meets my definition, which is essentially desperate people doing desperate things with questionable results, mucking themselves up all along the way.
A lot of the short stories in this collection feature characters that find themselves in desperate situations after life-changing events—prison time, addiction/recovery, cancer, murder, etc. Why is it important for you to give your characters these kinds of motivations?
I have this belief that you see who a person really is when the shit hits the fan, when they are under duress. Anyone can smile while sitting on a million bucks, but what will you do when you lose everything, or stand to lose everything? The answer is different for everyone and every situation. I really enjoy exploring that with my characters. But more importantly, when I write short fiction I try to capture moments that are vital and integral to a character’s existence, moments that cannot have any other effect but to change their very existence from that point on. Sometimes this means death at the end, other times it could mean prison, or lost relationships or money, but I like to have my characters cross lines that cannot be re-crossed, and then see how they manage. That’s what draws me to writing noir, I think. It’s more than loving a good anti-hero, it’s exploring a flawed human who’s trying to make a shit sandwich edible, but getting it all over their face in the process.
In addition to NEW ALLEYS FOR NOTHING MEN, you have a novella coming out in January from All Due Respect. How does the story in DEBT CRUSHER differ from your shorter fiction? Did DEBT CRUSHER grow out of a short story?
You know, DEBT CRUSHER is totally unlike anything else I’ve ever written. It did actually grow out of a short story, and honestly it was written initially to practice writing crime fiction. In fact it was the first thing I ever wrote where I was trying to write a crime story, in fact what I would call a throwback crime story, though it’s not set in the past to any significant degree. I think that rings pretty clear in the text, and I can tell you you’re not likely to see another book like that again from me, though I love it for being exactly what I set out for it to be. It keeps a fast pace and captures all of the themes I discussed in previous answers to your questions, so I guess it’s actually more like my other writing than I give it credit for. But still it’s very different in voice and tone and subject matter than anything else I’ve ever written or ever will again, most likely.
Following your progression as a writer, it would seem like a full-length novel is next for you. Do you have one finished? Is it similar to DEBT CRUSHER?
I have a novel I’ve been shopping for the last four months or so. It was originally titled ROSE CITY, but given that the very talented Rob Hart has a novel coming out soon called CITY OF ROSE, I’m changing the tile as we speak. The working title I’m tossing around right now is TELLER COUNTY TANGO simply because I’m half way through another novel with loose ties to it that is titled TEXAS TWO STEP. Both are southern rural noir. TELLER COUNTY TANGO is a touch more literary in that it deals with broken family dynamics in the process of being a crime story, as where TEXAS TWO STEP I would say is very much in the tradition of Elmore Leonard, it’s a crime story with quirky characters, hippies and Texas Rangers and such. I’ve been thinking lately that I’ll shift direction after this one and do something totally different from either of them as well. But yeah, if anybody reading this is interested, I’ve got a hell of a southern rural noir for you to publish, haha.
Yes and no. As I mentioned above, a good short story should capture a moment that is integral to a character’s existence, one that will make or break them. To me that’s really just a microcosm of what a good novel should do. A good novel should capture an event or set of events that are integral to a character’s existence in pretty much the same way. It’s a macro version of the micro aspects that make a short story shine, with totally different pacing. Even a novella-length book has it’s own pacing independent of shorter or longer works, for that matter. A lot of people consider short stories harder to write, but up to this point I’ve found writing novels far more challenging, but also probably more rewarding. Novellas are the most fun to write though, to me.
You are also the host of the Noir at the Bar reading series in Seattle. How did you fall into that role? Did you previously attend other NoB events in other cities? As a writer,what is the appeal of Noir at the Bar?
I’d been considering doing one once I moved to Seattle, because I knew no one was promoting them here. But I had never actually been to one until Bouchercon this year, even though I had one planned for the week after that. I contacted Todd Robinson to ask him who was in charge of NATB, and he told me that it was grassroots with no real central leadership, and to go for it, which I did. The Bouchercon NATB gave me a good idea what to expect, and to tell the truth I’ve been sort of winging it so far, although our turnout has been fantastic and we’ve had some incredibly talented readers and mind-blowing venues as well, including one rumored to be haunted by Gertrude Stein’s lover’s ghost ( The Sorrento Hotel). At the latest event a couple of days ago people seemed surprised that I had put the two events so far together only having lived in Seattle for four months, but I don’t think it’s all that big of a deal. To me writers in every city ought to be falling all over themselves to put one together, it’s about the most fun I’ve had in years, and I’ve made some incredible friends too. It also led indirectly to my newest gig.
You recently launched a bi-monthly show for Authors on the Air Radio Network called Noir on the Air. What’s the concept? What makes a short story a good candidate for a live reading?
You know, Pam Stack brought that to me, and for whatever reason she believed I would be the right person to promote it, based on what I’ve been doing at Crime Syndicate and Noir at the Bar Seattle, both of which I absolutely do to support other writers. I’m hosting every other one, but there will be one once per month. I’ve been working my tail off not to disappoint anyone with the project. But to answer your other question, I think there are some stories that just read better out loud, for whatever reason. Most writers can probably tell you which of their stories are good candidates, even if they’ve never really thought about it before. A story that is fast paced, is either hilarious or full of action or drama, that’s usually what reads well out loud. I think stories with lots of well-written dialog also do really well live, provided you’re willing to do voices.
Crime Syndicate is all about preserving the paying and print markets for short crime fiction. I love short stories, but for whatever reason they’ve never gotten the credit or audience that they deserve. I mentioned above that many writers find them more challenging than novels, and that’s because they have to walk a line of what to include and what to leave out in such a limited format. I’d been tossing the idea for Crime Syndicate around for a while, and when All Due Respect shifted focus away from their magazine and toward books full-time, I really felt like it was a sad day for crime fiction. I wanted to try to fill their enormous shoes, and maybe take a little different approach in the process, using the website to review books, and bringing on guest editors for each issue so that the magazine doesn’t just reflect my taste, it reflects the taste of writers I love.
Eric Beetner is one of those writers; he’s unique, pulpy as hell, and funny. Plus he loves noir, like I do. I thought it would be fascinating to see what kind of stories he ultimately selected. I think we’ve got some truly unique stories coming out in Issue One, and I hope people will pick it up and love the off-beat approach, because some of them are very different than what readers are probably used to in crime fiction magazines. I’m working out the details to add a Crime Syndicate podcast soon, and I’m also kicking around some anthology ideas too for later this year. The goal though is definitely to create paying markets for writers, and to grow the market for crime fiction, and noir fiction in particular so that all crime writers can benefit.
With everything that you have going on in 2016—short story collection, novella, novel, radio show and a new magazine—what do you do to relax?
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the thing I actually love most in the entire world, besides writing. I’m closing in on the elusive black belt these days after eight years of hard training. I train pretty much every day, and teach as well. My goal is to open my own academy here in Seattle at some point, and to use it not only as a business, but to work with under-privileged kids and share the benefits of jiu-jitsu training with them. It totally changed my life. I would not be here talking to you if not for jiu-jitsu, and I want to give that back to other people. Plus, it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, bar none. The same way little boys like to wrestle with each other, it’s like that, but with chokes and armlocks and more technique than most people could ever imagine. It’s beautiful, and it’s endless, you can never learn it all. It’s also a pass-fail martial art where you get to see how your skills really measure up by “rolling” at the end of every class. It’s humbling, it keeps you in shape (and your ego in check), and it stops just short of religion to me. So everyone please buy my books and support the magazine to help me open an academy so I can teach full-time, haha!
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 March 2016.