What: His stories have appeared in a wide range of online and print magazines and anthologies. His story collection, THE LITTLE BOY INSIDE AND OTHER STORIES was published by Concord ePress.
Where: New York
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Your short story, “Break,” kicks off the new Broken River Books anthology, HARD SENTENCES. How did you come up with the idea for this one?
That was all David James Keaton’s fault. Seriously. I was racking my brain for an idea, something medical. Maybe the infirmary at Alcatraz, from a physician’s point of view. I started researching Al Capone and his well-known history of syphilis in his later years. It was all pretty interesting, but nothing good jumped out or clicked as far as story. I considered various angles, but most were dead ends for me. Nothing unique enough. Then DJK posted a list of concepts in the HARD SENTENCES guidelines that he wanted to see written. One of them was, “a story inspired by that Russian guy in the news who squeezed through the food slot in his prison cell.” I was like, huh? So I searched online and found the video and was like, hell yes, we may have something here. I watched this lanky naked dude wriggling through the food slot of his cell like some kind of slippery fish. He plops down on the other side of the bars, puts his clothes on and nonchalantly walks away.
The wheels started turning. What if there was no food slot? How could someone squeeze through the bars? What would stop you? Bone, of course. If we had no skeleton, we’d just be a blob and could squeeze through anything, and I thought of that liquid metal guy in Terminator 2. So I started thinking about diseases, anomalies, syndromes, anything that could help. And for me, the medicine has to make sense in order to write it. It can be fantastical but it has to be based in some real medicine or disease. And the anatomy has to be perfect. I had some diseases in mind, did more research, settled on osteogenesis imperfecta, and quickly realized I had something workable.
I saw the call for submissions on Facebook, where else? Once I saw it I knew I really wanted to be part of it. And with Keaton, Joe Clifford and J. David Osborne behind it with Broken River Books, I knew it would be something special. BRB has put out a bunch of terrific books by some great writers and the covers and overall products are always beautiful. And DJK said he was trying to get the book into the Alcatraz gift shop, which I thought was very cool.
I had no particular fascination with Alcatraz, but with its unique history and cast of infamous inmates, I realized that there was lots of fodder for stories.
There’s a lot of specific medical language in “Break,” but not enough to become a distraction. How do you strike the balance?
I don’t think about the balance so much anymore. I think early on I worried about that but once I got some feedback, and readers seemed to be okay with it, I just plowed forward. Personally, I like technical language if I’m reading something say, about law or machinery or whatever, and I think it gives a great sense of verisimilitude. And it’s a bonus if I can actually learn something. In a story like “Break,” where the disease and anatomy are critical, I knew I could ramp it up. It’s why I often have a physician or medical person as a character, so they can think things through, and use the language, otherwise it wouldn’t work. There are times when I think a word or phrase just doesn’t sound right, or flow well, or if I think it’s too out there, I won’t use it. I don’t want the reader to slow down, not even for a second. An example is at the end of “Break,” I use the word kneecaps which I wouldn’t ordinarily do, and it bothered me for a bit, and the physician character probably wouldn’t use it in his mind either, he would think, patellae. But in the end, patellae didn’t work, broke the flow, and really wasn’t necessary, so I let it roll. So yes, I guess there is some balance!
What also helps is talking to patients on a daily basis. I’m often asked by patients or family members to explain the terminology in radiology reports, or what the implications of the results are. I end up having to essentially translate the complex medical stuff into lay terms, and you get better and better at it, and have a sense of what people understand in general, and that sort of flows naturally into the writing.
You seem to have created a genre of your own by combining elements of medicine, crime and horror in your short stories. Do you think much about genre when you’re writing?
No, I don’t think about genre, not anymore at least. I think maybe early on, when I first started writing, I briefly tried writing a way I thought I was supposed to in order to make it “crime” or “noir” or whatever. I had no idea what I was doing really, which can be a good thing. But it just didn’t work. Stiff stories. Contrived. Things got better after I just said screw it and started writing the stuff I wanted. And it was much more fun. I knew the stories were different or weird and would be harder to place, but that’s the way it just came out. I realized I think in visceral terms, so I had no choice really. For me, the idea dictates the type of story it will be, how it should be told, what it will require. How much medicine or anatomy, or how visceral or how edgy. Over time, we writer types seem to gravitate toward the kind of writing we are meant to do, or just do better. Once you recognize what that is, embrace it and run with it. It’s freeing actually. I remember sending a story to David Cranmer at Beat to a Pulp years ago, he accepted it, said, “I like it but I don’t know what the hell it is, but okay.” He ended up starting a new category on his multi-genre site labeled, WTF. I was thrilled.
What are some of your other favorite short stories from HARD SENTENCES?
Nope! Not going there. Nope, nope, nope. What I will say is which stories I didn’t like. That answer is easy…NONE. There’s such a wide range of stories, and I think that’s what makes it such a strong anthology. And I’ll say the same thing we all say to our children when one asks the dreaded question, who’s your favorite? …….I love you all the same!
What other publishing plans do you have for 2017 and beyond?
I’m working on a novel, DYSMORPHIA, revolving around black market anabolic steroids and body dysmorphic syndrome. In a few weeks the fine folks at Beat to a Pulp are putting out a humorous sci-fi novella, TRANSGEMINATION, which incorporates my fascination with DNA. It was a fun project, kinda like Dumb and Dumber meets The Blob. Only there’s a doctor, of course, and some real science sprinkled in for good measure. And I’m getting close to having enough short stories tucked away for another collection.
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S.W. Lauden is the Anthony Award-nominated author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series including BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION and GRIZZLY SEASON (Rare Bird Books). His Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper novellas include CROSSWISE and CROSSED BONES (Down & Out Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.