What: His debut collection, SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE, was a finalist for the 2016 Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is also the author of FEDERALES and BURN CARDS.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
You’re about to release, RAGGED, your first novel-length work of fiction. What was it about this story that made you go the distance?
Since the publication of SAFE INSIDE THE VIOLENCE, I’ve been focused on writing novels. The typical “mainstream” length of 90k words has always seemed impossible for me to reach. I have friends who will write 100k-150k and cut down, but I’ve been much more of an “under” writer during past novel attempts—coming in around 40-50k and trying to push the count up when I go back and edit, filling in details, etc. BURN CARDS was supposed to be a novel, but the novella length felt right and I cut it down. Two other novels landed in a similar no-man’s land, though they had other issues as well.
90k is so arbitrary, right? I’m sure the big publishers have run the numbers and somewhere around 90k is the sweet spot giving them the most bang for their buck. But, part of what I enjoyed so much in working with Cutlass Press is the trust they put in me. I’m not a 90k writer, at least for now. I’ve talked a lot in interviews on RAGGED how everything lined up over the past year timing-wise. When I pitched the outline I set a goal of 60k words—a gut feeling of where the book might clock out. It ended up around 65k after edits, and I’m very happy with the length. I want to challenge myself to write a longer book (the rough outline in my head seems to be headed that way), but we’ll see. I’m happy to take a crack at it and see where I end up.
I think the biggest challenge was making sure I had all of the “rules” set in my head before diving into the book. What species of animals live in the woods? Do they get along? Can all animals talk? What about birds? What’s the level of technology? Etc, etc. I mostly tried to go with my instincts using inspirations like THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS and Fantastic Mr. Fox (film) as a road map to what readers would believe and find acceptable.
It’s amazing what you can, in a way, get away with when writing an anthropomorphized society. Think about THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS—the book begins with two animals in a boat. The setting of the river is serene, technology almost non-existent. Move forward a few chapters and Mr. Toad is crashing cars, living in a massive mansion, and eventually arrested by humans and passing for a washer woman in disguise. Who built this mansion? How big is the car? Is Mr. Toad animal-size, or human-size? Everything is fluid, and everyone rolls with it. To me, once you’ve bought into animals who speak and wear clothing, anything is possible.
Was there anything freeing about it?
It was incredibly freeing to be building this world and developing these characters. However, it was a challenge to be conscious of maintaining a consistent tone throughout the book. Yes, I could crank the dial on the outlandish personalities, but the communities of the Woods and the Fells are both a huge part of the novel, and I was constantly checking myself to make sure I didn’t stray, include too much or go too far with something. I think it would be easy to overwrite, to include too much and overwhelm or distract the reader from what you really want them to focus on.
How did writing shorter stories prepare you to write a novel?
That’s a great question. I suppose the best answer is writing shorter fiction helped me work on my prose. I worked hard to write a novel that read like “me”—like what readers, and I, expect from my short fiction.
Do you prefer one form over another?
I love reading and writing short stories, but I hope to stick in novel territory for now. I had a lot of fun writing RAGGED and creating the world—there is a lot I want to explore and expand on outside of the Woods.
What has been the response to RAGGED among your crime readers and crime author peers so far?
So far, so good! I think there was/is a bit of…anthropomorphic, what? I was happy to read a review from a fan of my work who went in a bit apprehensive, but loved the book. I’m anxious as any writer is prior to a release, but I’m very proud of how the book turned out. I put a lot emotionally into the book, and I hope that comes across in the end.
If you could be any animal, what would it be? Why?
Oh, man. Maybe…a sea turtle? My wife and I visited St. John last year and did a lot of snorkeling. The island is so beautiful and we got to see a lot of turtles…they seem to have a pretty good gig. Swimming around a beautiful place without any worries would be nice, ha.
What’s next for you?
I had a novella outlined featuring GW’s cousin, Figg, who is briefly mentioned in RAGGED. It’s a fun little story I hope to crank out this fall. After that, I have big plans for one of the characters in RAGGED. It’s not a direct sequel, but a continuation of sorts, and something that would be fun to explore. Crossing my fingers that it comes together.
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S.W. Lauden is the Anthony Award-nominated author of the Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper novellas include CROSSWISE and CROSSED BONES (Down & Out Books). His Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series includes BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION and GRIZZLY SEASON (Rare Bird Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.