What: Author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist. Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
ZERO SAINTS is one of the most original crime novels I’ve read in a while. What was the inspiration for this story? How did it evolve as you wrote it?
Thanks! I had something to say. There is something that folks in the streets go through that is amplified by inhabiting Otherness. I wanted to tell a crime story that was weird, but that also dealt with loneliness, fear, and identity. Folks love genres and categorizing authors, but I write nonfiction, crime, horror, and bizarro. I knew there was a way to bring them all together. I started writing ZERO SAINTS and let the story tell itself. I also decided that this one was going to have a lot of my past and that I was going to tell it in Spanglish because that was the only way it would sound authentic. It got darker and weirder from there. I don’t outline things the way the pros do, so the narrative developed as I wrote, elements came into play, and fun took over.
Most of it is fiction, but there are some situations that embellished/slightly fictionalized versions of personal experiences. Javi and Luis are two homies who I ran around with. We got into some stuff together. I’ve also been a brown man in Texas for a while, and that fact alone is enough to give anyone a couple of books worth of material.
Chapter one of ZERO SAINTS really sets the tone. How did it come together?
Once the idea had more or less congealed in my brain, I sat down and wrote the first chapter in one day. Then I touched it up a bit because I was invited to read at Noir at the Bar in Norman, Oklahoma. I took it from there.
The mixed use of English and Spanish in ZERO SAINTS is an interesting stylistic choice that flows well. Why did you decide to take this approach? What has the reader response been?
I wanted this story to be as real as possible considering there’s a lot of supernatural elements in it. The characters came from where I came from. The syncretism was pulled from my own life and growing up steeped in it. There was no other way to tell this story. These characters are not Shakespeare academics, they’re the people you find in barrios all across the US, Latin America, and the Caribbean. I can write stories in English, but barrio noir will always be in Spanglish. This is how we think and talk.
As for the reaction, it’s been an interesting mix. Some people love it and think I accomplished what I set out to do. Another group doesn’t finish the book or leaves 1-star reviews because they get lost with the Spanish/Spanglish. I had already decided that every barrio noir was going to be bilingual or more (there are two more languages in ZERO SAINTS besides English and Spanish, but no one talks about those!), and the negative reactions just made me double down on that decision. If you pick up a barrio noir novel about Mexicans and Puerto Ricans written by a guy with a name like Gabino Iglesias and you’re unpleasantly surprised because you find some Spanish in there, fuck you: this novel wasn’t written for you, sugar.
I read chapter 6—”La frontera redux”—twice. It’s really well crafted and fits neatly into the storyline, but also reads as a stand alone essay or soliloquy Did you approach this chapter differently than the rest of the book?
That chapter was written at the airport in Portland after attending BizarroCon. I had been submerged in great literature for four days and when I sat down, I knew I had to make that one special because it encapsulates a lot of what goes on with the folks who are forced to cross that frontera. I had been toying with the idea of second person, and it felt natural to write it that way.
I’ve been in Austin for 8 years now, and I’ve seen the city at its best and its worst. The funny thing is that everyone always pays attention to or only know the good. I’m from the gutter. I hang out with those who have nightmares about la migra. I walk that line between being another Austin resident and being a cultural outsider every day. The same thing could be done in Los Angeles or New York, but those cities have already been exposed in literature. I want to do that with Austin. This is a funky city with a really dark side, and I want to be its Ellroy.
Does being a book reviewer affect your relationship with your own writing? As a reviewer, what is your relationship with reviews/reviewers of ZERO SAINTS?
Yes! Man, I sit down and read amazing books and then the crippling insecurities set in. I just finished rereading Benjamin Whitmer’s PIKE and I’m thinking “I know violence. I like violence when it means something more than violence. I can write violence. Sadly, I’ll never be able to write violence like fucking Benjamin Whitmer.”
As for reviews, I guess I do what most authors do: celebrate the good and the bad. Every Amazon review counts. When I got my first 1-star review, I jokingly texted J. David Osborne apologizing for letting him down. He texted back ten seconds later: “Good! Now people outside your circle are reading the book. Now it’s a real thing.” In fact, I would love it if had 10,000 1- and 2-star reviews someday as long as every single one of them had that “Verified Purchase” at the top.
Too many to list, but I’ll give it a shot: Brian Keene, Richard Laymon, Barry Gifford, Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Charles Bukowski, Bentley Little, J. David Osborne, Carlton Mellick III, Chester Himes, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Cody Goodfellow, Oliverio Girondo, Horacio Quiroga, Jerry Stahl, Stephen Graham Jones, Laura Lee Bahr, Harry Crews, Langston Hughes, Hunter S. Thompson, Reinaldo Arenas, Julia de Burgos, Joe Lansdale, Pedro Pietri…like I said, way too many list, both living and dead.
Got any other publishing plans for the rest of 2016 and beyond?
I may or may not drop a surprise thing before the end of the year. Meanwhile, I’m punching away at the next barrio noir, working on something weird, and polishing a nonfiction collection that I’d like to get out there but, you know, it’s a nonfiction collection.
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in Sept. 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available from Down & Out Books.