A conversation with Eddie Vega

I have a pleasure to talk with Eddie Vega – a writer, photographer, translator, editor and an entrepreneur. He is the author of Awake Now, Sailor (the novel), A Marine At The Door (novella), and editor of Noir Nation, the world’s only crime fiction & tattoo magazine. His work is obviously driven by passion more than by money, so he deserves a great deal of respect for that. Go find him at http://eddievega.com/, and watch out for his work …

Eddie Vega

You are the man of many talents – you express yourself visually, verbally, you translate and publish great literature … Where do you find yourself most comfortable?
On the stern of a tugboat on the open sea, leaning against a moving hawser line that is pulling a 10,000-ton barge. I sailed on tugs for three years while in my 20s and that more than anything else I have done informs my core identity. In the off-watches I was reading and writing poetry. When I was on dry land, I visited libraries and attended literary readings in Manhattan. I never borrowed books from the libraries; I could never return them on time because I would be gone for weeks and months. So in short, I find myself most comfortable on the open sea with a book of poems.
However, I still get flashbacks to some nightmare storms I survived. The smell of diesel fuel and jostling trains sometimes bring those terrible memories back. And the only way I can escape them is by taking out my Canon 30D and shooting the streets. Photography makes you focus on the world in front of you – not the one that’s in your head – and brings you into the supreme nowness of the moment. If you are thinking, you are not seeing.
Writing fiction has the opposite effect. It requires me to go deep into memory and pull those horrific moments out. With as much delicacy as I can manage. I liken it to sticking your hand in a sack teeming with the cut-off heads of rattlesnakes, some of which can still bite out of reflex. I saw some of that in the Mojave Desert when I was stationed at Twenty-Nine Palms, Cal. Marines used to hunt rattlesnakes with a flashlight – the rattlers’ eyes reflected the light, making them easy to spot – and a ten-foot pole with a noose that could be dropped around the head of the snake. A certain fellowdid not know about the reflex thing – or did but was too drunk to care – and stuck his hand into the sack to pull out a head as a stunt to scare a sleeping private. When his hand came out, there were several snake heads dangling from it by their fangs. The toxins made his arm swell several times its normal size and he almost lost it to amputation. That’s what writing fiction for me is like. I work from what I know, and what I know can be dangerous to my current health. All those moments of personal failure, humiliation, weakness, wrong choices with bad consequences, right choices with even worse consequences. I put my hand into a sack of teeming memories and hope it comes out without punctures.
This may be what separates the writer who writes to entertain and the writer who writes to provide insight that can only come from the pain of lived experience.The entertainer is ready to dance when the writing is done. The other writer is praying for mercy.

About publishing – you are very enthusiastic about books, although you are aware that there is no real big money coming from the book business. Where do you find the energy?
For me, writing is a religious vocation, a belief I developed at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, where I earned my high school diploma. (The school helped young men explore their desire to become Catholic priests.) Another sense that I developed there was a deep respect for work not money, and that one does not necessarily lead to the other. So I have greater admiration for a poet who takes three years to write a ten-line poem and earns zero dollars than I do for a Wall Street day trader who makes $100 million in a two-second trade. However, my greatest admiration goes to the trader if s/he is the same person who wrote the poem.
So the energy — the drive, if you will — to keep writing despite no monetary or institutional reward comes from a deep fear, rooted in my teenage years, that if I don’t write, I will lose my soul.

The writer is …?
A writer is someone who has no choice but to write. Like the thrush of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” If it does not sing, it will die.

Solitary, the thrush,
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat!
Death’s outlet song of life — (for well, dear brother, I know
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)

You are on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, … How do social networks benefit your creative work?
Online social media platforms are a great way for artists to stay connected and collaborate on projects, despite being separated by long geographical distances.
I got stuck in the rain not long ago while on a shoot at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. I found a dry spot under a large tree. There was water pouring on other spots forming puddles. I had my iPhone with me and decided to upload a photo of my predicament to Facebook. In that act of uploading the image, it occurred to me that at least three people would almost immediately click “like” on it: Audrey Lorea, Sarah Seeds, and Winston Blakely. They had been “liking” several other posts over several days. And as I thought about them, an idea for a book project we could all work on came to me. I messaged them while still under that tree and shared the idea, The Official Gangsta Handbook. A satirical take on gangsta culture with an educational purpose. The idea came out of nowhere, though it may have been germinating for some time in the dark recesses of my subconscious. Who knows?
Anyway, the four of us later met in real time in a real space – the Irish Haven – in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and mapped out the entire book. Winston, a graphic artist, brought his camera. He later turned the pictures he took of us into drawings to accompany the author bios. I don’t think this ongoing collaboration would have happened that quickly or that comprehensively without Facebook.

What are you working on at the moment?
In addition to The Official Gangsta Handbook, I am working on a short novel called Cold Island, about a Tang Dynasty Kung Fu fighter who ends up in Iceland where he fights Vikings and falls in love with an ice maiden. Whacky stuff. But fun.
I’m also working on a television script with Jerry Brandt, the famous rock promoter. He’s the fellow who discovered Carly Simon and Chubby Checker. Artistically, those are the only projects I’m involved with right now. Of course, I’m also editing and preparing for publication about a half dozen books for Bare Knuckles Press and Noir Nation Books, including a book of memoirs by Joe Trigoboff, a kind of prequel to Goodfellas, because Joe knew some of the same characters portrayed in the film and writes about them. There’s also a gumshoe detective novel by first-time novelist Terrence P. McCauley, and a crime novel by veteran Jonathan Sturak, a writer and filmmaker, who basically owns the contemporary Las Vegas noir genre. And a book that’s very close to my seafaring heart, a sailor novel by Gene Barry, who is currently on officer on a merchant ship navigating the Pacific Ocean. And finally, I’m working with Alisha Kaplan, of Barnard College, on a digital version of the collected poems of W.B. Yeats; we will be doing a multimedia presentation sponsored by the New York Yeats Society after it comes out.

How would you describe your writing style?
This is a very difficult question to honestly answer. I have drafted no less than three responses, all of which are worthless because they do not describe my writing style but what I would like my writing style to be. It does not help, of course, that my style changes dramatically depending on the kind of writing that I am doing, news reporting, blogging, prose fiction, poetry. So all I have to offer is what I’d like my writing to be: Clear, concise, with the power of a Bruce Lee punch.

Traditional printed book or eBook?
Literature does not care how it is packaged only that it is read (or heard).

What is your method of working, both photography and writing (as both are telling stories)?
If I can formulate a fresh narrative or capture an image that implies one, that’s an accomplishment. People love stories, fake or true. But stories are not essential to literature or to photography. Catching a moment in time, a feeling, a gesture, a howl, with no beginning and no end, also holds a high place in literature.

Are there any writers that you admire most?
Earnest Hemingway for his spare sentences. Walt Whitman for his embrace of suffering humanity and lack of concern when his lines went off the page. Shakespeare for containing the entirety of the human universe in his poems and plays. Anna Akhmatova for her searing family poems. Charles Bukowski for creating the persona of the deadbeat poet who has been rejected by the academy but who is taken very seriously by real poets looking for a teacher. Ann Sexton for her uncompromising lines that distilled her middle class agony to such a high proof that it will make you blind if you read it in its pure state; many don’t, and filter her through academic studies of the Confessional School; because of that she has been dismissed as a dark-haired Sylvia Plath whose suicide was not quite as interesting. But if poetry is distilled emotion set to words – as I believe it is, and this is what distinguishes it from prose – then Sexton was the very best poet writing in English in the 20th Century. No one can touch her, not Williams Carlos Williams, not Allen Ginsberg, and certainly not Robert Frost or Robert Penn Warren. And it’s a waste of breath to compare her to the weak tea poets who are the current darlings of the academy and the lecture circuits.

If you met a young (or not so young) writer, how would you motivate him?
I wouldn’t even try to motivate a literary writer. That kind of motivation comes directly from the divine spirit, which lives within the human soul and inspires creativity. If the question was how I would encourage a writer to write, assuming I had the resources, I’d offer a villa on the Riviera, with maids, a cook, and a large library. And I would say, you can work or waste your time anyway you want. But by the end of your life, you must produce at least one line of text that will last the ages.

Thank you for your time, Eddie!

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