What: Former newsman and Fiction Editor for Anthony-nominated Spinetingler Magazine. His Austin Carr mysteries—four so far, BIG NUMBERS, BIG MONEY, BIG MOJO and BIG SHOES—are published by Down & Out Books. His short stories have appeared in A Twist of Noir, Beat to a Pulp, The Big Adios and two anthologies, DOWN, OUT AND DEAD, and LAST WORDS.
Where: New Jersey
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Your protagonist, Austin Carr, is a Jersey Shore broker with a mobbed-up partner. How did you develop this character and the circumstances he finds himself in?
Most of BIG NUMBERS and the character Austin Carr are based on me and my life. After writing and asking questions for the newspaper since I was a teenager, a new and pregnant wife moved me from Los Angeles to New Jersey where I couldn’t find a decent writing or public relations job. I ended up turning the knowledge I’d gained as a financial news writer—and how to work the phones—into a new career as a salesman of tax-free bonds, and later all kinds of securities and money-management.
I worked most of the next two decades for a one-office Jersey securities firm run by guys who looked and talked like gangsters, although coming from L.A., everybody in Jersey sounded tough. After the first three years of cold calling and “dialing for dollars,” I’d had it. But I needed the job. Two families to support, and just like Austin, I was trapped. I took my frustrations out on a typewriter and created BIG NUMBERS, which tells of a guy desperate to change jobs, but trapped by his obligations.
BIG NUMBERS was a natural for the first in the series. I knew the title before I wrote the first sentence. The term ‘big numbers’ was constantly vocalized around brokerage sales rooms, and I bet still is. Everything in the securities business is numbers—yields, prices, projections, growth rates, earnings, and especially commissions.
In my day, we wrote down our bond sales on a chalk board so the whole sales room could see your progress, and any salesman doing well was putting up big numbers. If you found a rich new client, he or she was big numbers. My agent at the time said I should make the whole series use big, so I had BIG MONEY, BIG MOJO and BIG SHOES in the can before my agent and I parted ways. She never sold BIG MOJO and BIG SHOES.
Will there be a fifth Austin Carr book? Where are you in the process? When can we expect to see it?
Four weeks ago I would have given you the whole rundown on #5 (tentatively entitled BIG SHRIMP) that starts in 1963 with a tale about another series character, Mama Bones. I was figuring how to blend Mama Bones’ coming of age into a present-day tale of evil and slavery featuring Austin Carr and Mama Bones, and had been working on #5 for six months (in two different stretches), writing big chunks and getting a better outline this time, when lightning hit me over the holidays. A Christmas story!
My family experienced bizarre events years ago on Christmas Eve, and I finally understood how I could tell the story. It didn’t seem possible before. The story is completely different from any fiction I’ve done, but it’s reminiscent of feature stories I wrote for The Los Angeles Times. I’d rather not say more about this one yet, and since the length is uncertain, I can’t be sure about the next Austin Carr. Not too long before he shows up again, I hope. Austin has a great story to live through, and I’m anxious to get back.
I hated school but wanted to be a writer, so I landed a copy boy job with the intent of learning to write. I was nineteen, seriously into my Hemingway, and I’d read that’s how he started. Thus the biggest thing I believe I’ve taken from journalism is a love of brevity and clarity. I subscribe wholeheartedly to the Elmore Leonard school of craft—if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it—and I think all those words I created on The Times’ Underwood helped make me a clean and lean writer.
Twenty years ago, my research experience helped with the fiction. I knew how to work a library and a courthouse, and real life stories and experiences often can be reshaped into great fiction. But today, all kinds of information is at everybody’s fingertips. I love Google and use it constantly to help create realism (when I want it) in my fiction, but research is never the biggest part of my stories. Imagination is.
You have also published short stories as a writer. How does your approach to short fiction differ from your longer works?
I wrote most of those crime stories a few years ago after losing my agent. I was lost on what to write next, and short stories sounded good as an experiment. They were entertaining to produce, but I’ve read much better short stories on Spinetingler over the years, so I’ve almost stopped doing shorts myself. I did one for an anthology last year I’m proud of, but I don’t have much interest in shorts anymore. Every once in a while I think of something, think maybe I should spend the time and submit one to Thuglit, but I always chicken out and get back to my current novel.
As the owner and Fiction Editor for Spinetingler Magazine, what do you think makes for a great crime/mystery short story?
Being the owner of Spinetingler is like being a financial adviser to the homeless. But I do get to read a ton of short stories and I love that. Finding a really good one is a Gold Rush moment. Over the years, I’d say most great crime stories poked me hard in the curiosity department. I badly wanted to know what came next; needed to know something only hinted at so far. A series of small actions; an odd character or voice; once or twice, just a location with an eerie feel. The process feels very arbitrary when I’m going through Spinetingler’s submissions. Like sexual attraction. It’s there or it isn’t. To be published by Spinetingler, I have to personally like the story.
Short stories seem to come in and out of fashion, depending on who you talk to. What do you think the importance of short fiction is for the crime/mystery community in 2016? What role does it play in a writer’s development?
For new writers it’s historically been a place to break into publishing and I think it’s still true, maybe again today like it was last century. There are so many small, digital book publishers now in crime, noir and mystery, agents and editors are very likely to see your work online or in a printed anthology. I know personally of several deals made between agents and writers as a result of a short story.
I’m swiping BIG TOES and putting it on my list of potential Austin Carr titles. As for advice, avoid the terrible mistake I made of not showing my work, not getting out there and seeking criticism soon enough. As a result, I delayed my education in the basics of craft, particularly letting the character or characters tell the story instead of an author, and sticking to one point of view for at least one chapter or scene at a time. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re exactly the writer I’m talking to.) I wrote alone in a spare bedroom for over a decade and everything I produced was omniscient and almost unreadable. Don’t do that! Go to classes, join a critique group, pay for a professional editor.
What books are on your nightstand or e-reader right now?
Lee Child’s PERSONAL. I’m halfway through this, my fifth or sixth Jack Reacher novel. I’m a fan, although this one features a lot more description than earlier adventures.
Dana King’s THE MAN IN THE WINDOW. I think I like Dana’s cops even better than his private eye, but only because they throw around more bullets and butt-kickings. But the private eye in this one uses a steady string of wise-ass remarks and clever asides to keep me laughing and caring, reminding me every chapter of the greatest, Raymond Chandler. I put down Lee Child when I picked this up. I’ll finish this weekend.
Chris Pavone’s THE ACCIDENT. I saw Chris on a Bouchercon panel this past year, heard he’d wowed the New York publishing world with his female lead character. When Chris explained how he’d written so well from a woman’s point of view, I had to have the book. How did he do it? I haven’t started the book yet and I’ve totally forgotten what he said on the panel.
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in September 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available now for pre-order from Down & Out Books.