What: He has done hard time as a musician, songwriter, and sound designer, but still refuses to apologize for it. BLACK’S BEACH SHUFFLE, the first novel featuring the guitar-slinging detective Rolly Waters, was a San Diego Book Awards finalist. The second, BORDER FIELD BLUES, won the genre award at the 2013 Hollywood Book Festival. His third Rolly Waters mystery, DESERT CITY DIVA, has just been published by Severn House.
Where: San Diego
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just finished your latest Rolly Waters mystery, DESERT CITY DIVA. How did you come up with this story about alien-obsessed cults in San Diego?
This story had a long germination, beginning with a weekend driving trip to the Southern California desert my wife and I made about ten years ago. That’s when I first encountered Salvation Mountain and Slab City, and their essential ‘outsiderness’ appealed to me immediately. Salvation Mountain is a brightly painted fever dream of Christian faith that was constructed over many years by one man, Leonard Knight, who lived at the site. It’s a remarkable piece of folk architecture, like the Watts Towers.
Next to Salvation Mountain is Slab City, an unincorporated, off-the-grid trailer community of free spirits, retirees, and survivalists built on the remains of a WWII Marine Corps training facility. The Marines abandoned the camp after the war, leaving only the concrete slab foundations. Over the years it developed into a wintertime stopover for folks living in their RVs and trailers, to the point where it became a semi-permanent community. A cafe, library, and church have been set up, along with a sculpture garden of junk art called “East Jesus”. What really got my attention was “The Range”, an outdoor stage where they have jam sessions every weekend. I knew I had to get Rolly Waters, my guitar-playing protagonist out there and DESERT CITY DIVA is the result.
I originally based the UFO cult on the Unarius Academy of Science, which is headquartered in San Diego. Its founder had a local cable-access show in San Diego for years, which made for some fascinating early morning viewing when I got home after gigs. It was also one of the few things on at that hour. The Unarians owned a piece of land in the mountains east of San Diego, which they intended as a landing pad for the alien beings who are central to their cosmology. After some research, I found the Unarians outlook to be rather gentle and benign. I had to look further for something more villainous. I found that in the infamous Heaven’s Gate suicides that took place in another San Diego neighborhood.
There were a couple of rules I had for Rolly right from the start. The most important was his non-violent nature. This is partly out of choice, and partly a necessity. He’s never owned a gun and has spent a portion of his life managing to stay out of bar fights. It’s a skill many a bar-playing musician has had to learn.
The other rule I had was that Rolly’s strengths as an investigator would be more about his dogged determination than his investigative brilliance. He’s managed to overcome alcohol and drug dependencies through sheer will power and that’s how he gets through his cases. What I hadn’t anticipated is that he’s really become more competent in his investigative skills. It makes sense, though. He’s been in the business longer. He’s a guitar player, after all. He gets better with practice. While he’s still no Sherlock Holmes, he does take charge of things more now. He’s more confident.
His relationship with his divorced parents has changed too, as he learns more about their relationship. His father used to be completely out of the picture, but he’s slowly working his way back in and I have the two of them interacting in the next book. Rolly will continue to live next door to his mother for the foreseeable future, though. I think my readers enjoy that relationship.
One of the main plot points in DESERT CITY DIVA is a one-stringed instrument called the diddley bow. Why did you choose it to be featured in this story?
The diddley bow is probably the first blues instrument. It’s a homemade instrument with two nails driven into a piece of wood, a wire strung between them and a bottle used as a bridge to raise the wire and make it playable. It’s a primitive instrument, but the one presented to Rolly in the book is a work of art, built by a real craftsmen. It’s intriguing to Rolly on its own, aside from the story that goes with it. It’s a simple instrument too, so beginners could plunk out some notes on it pretty easily. I originally featured a homemade guitar, but I needed something simpler for the story line and the diddley bow fit the bill.
With Rolly Waters you have created an updated and modern P.I. series. How important is genre to you as a writer?
I like to call Rolly Waters a cozy hero living in a noir world. It’s a nice shortcut to describe my books in genre terms. I’m playing around with genre expectations, but I couldn’t do that without the strength of both genres. Genre is critical to the way I write. At the same time, I don’t want to be a slave to it. Hopefully I’ve found a voice that balances the two in an original and readable way. That’s sounds kind of high falutin’, but it’s really about me having fun with the writing. If I couldn’t do that I wouldn’t be writing.
I’m not sure I have a favorite PI novel. The first writer who made me want to write crime fiction was Ross MacDonald. He moved the PI novel from tough urban environments to affluent California Beach towns. That immediately grabbed me, since that was the kind of environment where I grew up. And the resolution of his stories always echoed back to the emotional behavior of the characters.
I love Elmore Leonard for his characters and dialogue, and Tony Hillerman for his use of setting as character. I try to keep their voices in mind whenever I’m working on later drafts of my books.
In my early teenage years, I loved Ray Bradbury and in my high school college years, I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut. It occurred to me recently that they’ve both had a little influence on the Rolly Waters mysteries, with Vonnegut’s dry humor and the way Bradbury mixes the fantastic and the mundane. There’s hints of that fandom in my novels, at least that’s how it seems to me now.
I self-published my first book, BLACK’S BEACH SHUFFLE, partly because I wasn’t getting agent interest, and partly because it was based on my experiences during the dot-com boom and bust. I thought the story would lose its timeliness if I waited too long.
Then, when I finished the BORDER FIELD BLUES, I had agents who said no publishers would be interested because the first book in the series hadn’t sold enough copies. So I just decided to self-publish again and put more effort into my own promotion. One of those efforts involved entering various writing contests, which paid off as the book won the genre award at the Hollywood Book Festival and was a finalist in Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year awards.
At one point, Publisher’s Weekly magazine was running a special advertising insert for independently published authors. You paid something like $200 for a couple of column inches. I kind of said ‘what the hell’ and submitted an ad. Two months later, I got an email from the head of Severn House. One of the editors was intrigued by the ad and asked for a copy of the book. They made me an offer on the next book. It was a great encouragement. I’d heard very good things about Severn House from my writer friends, which sealed the deal for me. They’ve been very good to me so far.
Will you start writing the next Rolly Waters mystery in 2016? Do you have plans to expand beyond this character?
I’m working on the fourth episode of Rolly’s adventures, this one tentatively entitled BALLAST POINT BREAKDOWN. This one’s moved closer to home in San Diego. It involves various nefarious activities taking place in San Diego Bay. There’s Navy frogmen, Yacht club snobs, surf punks, and tour boat companies. It also includes killer dolphins!
I’ve got a couple of ideas for stand-alones, but I think I’ll stick with Rolly for at least two more books. I haven’t run out of ideas for strange crimes to solve and new places he can go.
- Heat Treatment by Graham Parker and the Rumour. It has all the aggression and anger of punk rock, but the musicianship and ensemble work are just stellar in support of the songs. Parker is still on of my favorite singers and songwriters.
- Wild Gift by X – I was living in Los Angeles at the time this came out, playing in my own power pop band. X’s first album had been an explosive announcement for the LA Punk scene, but this one shows even more confidence, skill and subtlety.
- New Orleans Piano by Professor Longhair – As a keyboard player, my early heroes were technically accomplished rock and roll players, people like Keith Emerson and Jon Lord of Deep Purple. Later in life I heard this album and it was a revelation, a true American original. How could one piano player create something so rhythmically complex, so completely joyful and fun?
What book is on your nightstand right now?
Elvis Costello’s new memoir, UNFAITHFUL MUSIC. I like to take a break from reading crime fiction every five books or so. Though, in this case, maybe it’s not much of a break. Elvis did write a song called Watching the Detectives. Recent crime novels I’ve enjoyed are David Putnam’s THE SQUANDERED, Matt Coyle’s NIGHT TREMORS and Elmore Leonard’s SWAG.
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.