What: A fourth generation Angeleno whose short fiction has been featured in various publications including Thuglit, Plots with Guns, and Needle. His debut novel, THE NEON LIGHTS ARE VEINS, comes out in paperback Jan. 17, 2017, from 280 Steps Publishing.
Where: Los Angeles
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Congrats on the release of your debut novel. How did THE NEON LIGHTS ARE VEINS come about?
NEON LIGHTS was inspired by the happenings in my Los Angeles neighborhood from roughly 2006 to 2009. A young girl was murdered on our local pub crawl route. An article about it in the LA Weekly started the gears in my brain for the setting of the novel. The book is in no way related to the incident, but the dark atmosphere solidified what I had envisioned. I wanted to implode the standard L.A. Detective story and jigsaw it back together, both structurally and stylistically, into a novel that I had always wanted to read. The title pertains to The City as The Beast, a giant meat grinder that beckons dreamers and shits them out, generation after generation. A more specific meaning is held by the main character, Alvi Drake, involving his tragic past.
Being from the South Bay, skateboarding was a major part of my life. Got my first board at age 5, a Roskopp Big Ugly with Tracker Trucks, Slimeball wheels and clear grip. That’ll mean nothing to most people reading this, but any skater will dig the set-up. After skating well into my twenties, the injuries piled up; still need my right hip labrum reattached.
I still cruise with my kids, but what was so impactful from this background was the importance of individuality, style and progression. Progression is king in skating, and I hold it to the same degree when it comes to writing. If I am not pushing myself to consistently progress my prose, then what’s the fucking point?
How much of you is in the lead character, Alvi Drake?
I’d be lying if I said “none.” Alvi and I are definitely prone to some of the same vices. I could say that in my late teens, Alvi’s character is a figment of what I could envision my future becoming, if I kept going down the wrong path. This City will destroy you, if you let it. Luckily, writing became an obsession. Alvi has a love/hate relationship with Los Angeles, much like myself. In Alvi, I see the ghost of a past life that never came to fruition.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the virtual neon tour that you provide. Do you have a personal neon fetish, or was this something you researched?
Neon has always cast a spell on me. Los Angeles, in particular, is like a sprawling zoo of glowing tubes; however, less so nowadays then what I remember from my youth. Most are sirens calling you to experience life in sordid ways: drink this, eat here, come fulfill your wildest desires. The loudest signs harbor the most questionable joys.
There wasn’t much research done besides revisiting old haunts or keeping an eye on the streets for ghost neon, relics that remain on buildings but no longer work. Stuff I normally do anyway. Neon fetish has a nice ring to it; I’m going to steal that.
Prior to publishing your novel, you published several short stories. How difficult was your transition from the short form to the long form? Do you prefer one over the other?
I prefer novels. Novels I get swept away in; short stories, I always hit that wall of, “What the hell was I doing here?” I look at all of my short story publications as a natural evolution into the craft. Honestly, I never thought that I’d really hammered a story until Thuglit #22 with “That Dreaded Undertow”. The feedback I got on it was really comforting.
Venues like Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Needle, etc. were such an integral part in progressing as a writer; I am forever indebted. With NEON LIGHTS, I am looking at it the same way I did with my first published short: How can I build upon this foundation and get better as a writer?
NEON LIGHTS was originally written at the request of an agent. After a few drafts, they lost interest and I let it sit on my computer. After a year, I revisited it and got a final draft. Before sending it out to indie publishers, I took a good look at their backlogs. I was pleasantly surprised by the risks 280 Steps was taking with their book selections. They had locked down an aesthetic that was appealing and enabled them to take chances on fresh storytelling. Christopher Irvin, Ro Cuzon, Marc Rapacz, etc… I saw a pride in progression. They were the first press that I submitted to, cold.
Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading right now?
Nathanael West, John Fante, Nelson Algren, Eddie Little…
These days, I read everything by Steve Erickson and Richard Lange.
What other publishing plans do you have for the rest of 2017 and beyond?
I have a short story called “Mouth Bay” coming out in Crimespree Magazine; haven’t got a date for it yet. If you’re near Los Angeles, I’ll be reading at Noir at the Bar on March 5. Other than that, I’m in the end zone of another novel, lining up more readings and gearing-up for the next leg of this journey. They don’t call it “The Long Haul” for nothing.
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S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, was published on October 11, 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available from Down & Out Books.