What: Author of CANDY AND CIGARETTES, DEAD ANIMALS, THE LOUISVILLE PROBLEM, and LOVE YOU TO A PULP. His new novel, KILL EM WITH KINDNESS, will be released by All Due Respect Books in June, 2016.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
You and I met at the Left Coast Crime convention in Phoenix a couple of months ago. How was your experience at LCC? Have you been to many conventions? Are you going to Bouchercon this year?
First, thank you so much for inviting me to talk to you. I recently finished your novella CROSSWISE, and found it superb! Will start digging into BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION soon. [Editor’s note: Rad. Thanks!]
Left Coast Crime was my first ever conference, so I have nothing to compare it too. But I had a great time, met a lot of great people, drank more than I usually do, and basically pretended to be a professional for a few days. I also had my “panel-cherry” popped, which hurt much less than I expected. I would love to go to Bouchercon, but probably not this year though there are a ton of people I’d love to see who will be there. On a related note, my Left Coast Crime experience did teach me that I was pronouncing “Bouchercon” incorrectly. I was calling it Boo-ker-con. Yep. That’s me.
By far, though, the highlight was meeting you and the other guys at the Noir on the Radio reading.
The story I read was “McRib Therapy Alleviates Seasonal Depression”. If you remember it’s a happy tale about inadvertent necrophilia, Ronald McDonald, drugs, and prostitution. I wrote it after being contacted by Joe Clifford. He had checked out one of the rejected stories I’d sent to Out of the Gutter and asked me to send something new. “McRib…” was the result. I should also mention that this was after I “stole” Joe’s original title for Junky Love (my novella CANDY AND CIGARETTES), he’ll TELL you I stole it anyway. I say I just beat him to the punch. (Love you, Joe!)
How do you feel about reading your own work, either in front of a crowd or for a recording? Do you naturally feel comfortable?
I wouldn’t say that I “enjoy” that aspect of it, but it doesn’t make me too uncomfortable. I’ve been teaching for years and did community theater growing up so being up in front of people isn’t that daunting in and of itself. That said, I did have a pretty terrible reading in Michigan last year. It was for the release of LOVE YOU TO A PULP and the venue was a bar. I chose to read from my paperback, and the lighting wasn’t great, and I really struggled to see the words on the page. By that point I’d had WAY too much to drink and didn’t have the sense to stop and regroup. I stumbled through two chapters and it’s now another cringe-worthy memory that likes to pop up at say, two AM when I can’t sleep. I even had a stranger recommend to me that I read ahead. In hindsight I should have slapped the vape stick out of his fucking mouth, but as you know first hand, I’m a nice guy!
I just read your excellent rural Noir novel, LOVE YOU TO A PULP. I know I’m not supposed to judge a book by the cover, but the story was a real surprise to me. How did you come up with the concept?
I lived in southern Kentucky for about five years after I finished my undergrad in Michigan, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the location was going to be a major catalyst. After I relocated to Arizona, the landscape of the rural south really came into focus and I knew I wanted to write something set there. I had taken a break from writing, but my time in Kentucky refreshed my creative spirit.
I also became a parent around the same time and I began writing these kind of “father-son relationship/nature/meditation on life and death” kind of pieces, kind of like a southern fried set of Hemingway’s “Nick Adams” stories. In fact, a lot of what became LOVE YOU TO A PULP appeared elsewhere as short stories and flash fiction before I began tying it together for the book. Add the fact that I wanted to make the land itself a kind of character and I suppose you could say that the book is my love letter to the South. I miss it, a lot, and if circumstances were different, I’d move back there today.
One of my favorite things about LOVE YOU TO A PULP is that it blends some of my favorite elements of modern crime writing with elements of literary fiction, especially the flashback scenes of the protagonist’s troubled childhood. How did you approach this novel?
One chapter at a time, really, that’s not me being snarky. The story, as you mentioned, alternates between the past and present, by chapter. I admit that this was partially done to help create some suspense, abandoning and revisiting each of the both storylines by jumping back and forth in time, but that wasn’t the only reason for it.
My protagonist is not a good guy, he’s indifferent, his only redeeming quality is his willingness to stand up for an underdog. He has a drug problem and is prone to fits of violence, even seeking it out when a more diplomatic approach would probably work. I wanted to create sympathy for Neil through his back story, but at the same time didn’t want to bog down the narrative with all kinds of exposition. I solved the problem by creating two narratives that would eventually tie together at the conclusion. It was a good way to approach my first real attempt at long form, breaking it up into two separate entities. I don’t want to rely on that kind of approach, but I’ve started (and temporarily shelved) a sequel and it’s going to follow the same kind of template as far as that book is concerned.
How does LOVE YOU TO A PULP differ from CANDY AND CIGARETTES and THE LOUISVILLE PROBLEM? How have you evolved as a writer?
LOVE YOU TO A PULP was a bit more creatively ambitious than the others, at least at the time I thought so. I was consciously trying to balance a prosy, literary style with the grit of a crime story. There was also the added challenge of trying to work with two story lines. THE LOUISVILLE PROBLEM was intentionally written as a stylized throwback. It was for an “atomic era pulp” contest (didn’t win), and I was consciously trying to ape Jim Thompson. CANDY AND CIGARETTES was also written as a contest submission (another miss), but it was really just me sitting down and boiling down a novel to twenty thousand words. I guess I’ve evolved into more of a planner, but I don’t know if that’s good or bad. My best stuff (in my mind) is always a bit more spontaneous and not quite what I initially envisioned,
Jim Thompson, absolutely. The only thing that lets me believe I’m not ripping him off is that I wrote CANDY AND CIGARETTES before I’d read any of Big Jim’s stuff. Another would be Cormac McCarthy, how he writes these beautiful lines that you read for sheer pleasure, and then have to read again to parse out his meaning, and though you’re still probably wrong, they just resonate, like how a dream can affect your waking state. McCarthy’s stuff is so brutal and horrible, yet it’s balanced with this poetic, stylized prose. I don’t write much poetry, have never had any published, but I do my best to slip it into my own stories the best I can. On the flip side, Hemingway has been a lesson on how to scale it back, way back when necessary and make every word count, particularly in my flash fiction. Same with Raymond Carver. Not that I’d ever put myself into a group with any of these guys, they’ve just given me inspiration and techniques to steal.
What are your publishing plans for 2016 and beyond?
My new book KILL EM WITH KINDNESS comes out June of this year, and I’m really excited for that. It’s set back in the same fictional town as CANDY AND CIGARETTES, and as a result a couple old characters show up again. Going through the publisher’s edits right now and should have them done in a few days. I’m also working on a new novel, a contemporary PI piece that I hope will be as good as I think it is. By summer I hope to be using that manuscript to try to land an agent, but when that course of action inevitably fails I’ll publish indie and convince myself I didn’t want an agent anyway, until I finish the next manuscript of course.
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 from Down & Out Books.