I am both pleased and honored to have a chance to ask Les Edgerton a couple of questions. Les doesn’t need any introduction, as he is a well known fiction writer (The Rapist, Just Like That, Gumbo Ya-Ya: Stories, and The Bitch that comes out on January 20th), always ready to support his fellow writers and who also kindly shares his knowledge of the craft (Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing, Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go). There’s another writer that I think of, when I see or hear Les – the great late Eddie Bunker, who’s also been there and seen things and … yeah, written about them, although Les tells stories with his own voice and a comparison is made only out of respect. Check his author blog to learn about writing, and – of course – the Amazon to buy his books.
Hi, Les, it’s an honor to have you here – can you tell us a bit about yourself with your own words please?
Thanks for having me, Renato—it’s an honor… and promises to be fun!
I guess to begin with—I’m an ex-con who’s now reformed and has taken a vow of poverty—become a writer. I’m no longer ‘in the life’ not because I’ve had some ‘come to Jesus’ moment, but because I’ve been to prison and don’t have much of a burning desire to return. So far, no crimes have presented themselves with enough upside that I’d consider worth the risk should things go south. If one did, I wouldn’t consult a minister to make a decision—I’d just weigh the pros and cons. It would have to be a healthy seven-figure opportunity with a low-risk factor to make me say yes. Probably not gonna happen.
While many people don’t want to be defined by their work, I have no problem at all with being defined by mine, which is writing. It’s what I do and what I am—a writer.
What changed my life was my wife, Mary. I think of my life in two parts: B.M. and A.M. We met in an unusual way. We were both waiting in the outer office of the U.S. Marshall’s, waiting to get our new identities in the Witness Protection Program, and struck up a conversation. Her crime had something to do with large numbers of sheep and Black&Decker power tools, which is all I know. The rest, as they say, is history. We can honestly claim that our relationship is a product of a Stockholm Syndrome situation gone right.
We keep the romance alive! Every Friday night, I draw her a hot bath, strew rose petals on the water and break out five brand-new Bic razors. Then, I shave her back. I highly recommend this for newly-weds who don’t want to lose the new car smell of their relationship.
It’s also important to not be a phony when you compliment your Significant Other. Here’s an example: One time, she asked me to take out the garbage and I said: Nope. You cooked it, you take it out. They know when you’re being real and when you’re just blowing smoke… Keep it real.
Also, keep all the sharp instruments and ammunition hidden.
You write a edgy, right in the face, no bullshit fiction, and your characters say things the way you believe them – it seems like a routine, how did you achieve that kind of style?
Just by being myself. When you speak the truth it doesn’t take a lot of effort. Writing is just another form of communication and all any communication is is getting the image in my brain over to yours. It isn’t nuclear physics. And, being truthful makes it easy. Ask any cop. It’s why they keep asking the same questions, over and over, to a perp. If he’s lying, he’ll fuck up, eventually, and there you go. If you always tell the truth, there’s just not that problem.
Also, I write mostly crime novels and since I was a criminal for a very long time, I know how at least one criminal thinks and acts and what goes on in the life. I don’t have to invent much. A lot of the time, I just reach back and pull out a story from my own life.
A long time ago, when I was just a tadpole, I knew I wanted to be a writer and at that time, I thought the best way to be good at that was to accumulate experiences ala Jack London. So, that’s what I did. Then, just a few years ago, I read an interview with Flannery O’Connor and she said that if a person lived in the same little town all until they were 17, they had enough material to write for the rest of their lives. Just wish I’d found that out a long time ago—it would have saved me a lot of grief!
Except… I’m really grateful for all of my experiences and particularly the bad ones. Fiction is about one thing only and that’s trouble and although I know the so-called ‘literary writers’ seem to be able to dredge that trouble up from heavy-duty contemplation of their navels and the lint in there, I have a ton of very concrete bad situations to draw upon and I see that as a positive thing. Just don’t have to put a mind-fuck on stuff. Just tell a story and know it’s true as monkey sex and I don’t have to spend all that time staring at my navel, even though it’s an ‘innie’ and very attractive as belly buttons go. It always seems that in reading some of those kinds of writers that one could easily get a hernia straining so hard to make something out of so little…
If you think about it, the bad experiences are the ones most of us remember the best and the most fondly. Look at all those guys who dwell on their two or three years in the Army, especially if it was during a wartime. How many people do you know remember the year they inherited daddy’s fortune as their best memory? Over the year they spent in Europe, living in a garret and eating Raman noodles to survive? It’s not only trouble that illuminates fiction; it’s trouble that illuminates our lives and our memories. Trouble is what we measure ourselves against. Scarcely anyone measures their own self-value against the day Daddy gave them the keys to their first Mercedes. If they do, they’re a sad person I think.
We need the bad times to let us know the value of the good times. We talk about ‘going through the fire.’ Very rarely do we talk about ‘going through the gentle spring rain.’ Fire forges character. Gentle spring rain forges… I’m not sure what it forges but it isn’t character.
You are very generous, when it comes to sharing your knowledge and technique, but not only that – you also put a great deal of humor into texts, that could otherwise be dull, and you definitely are an authority, a guru of writing even. We know writing is fun, but how do you make reading about writing fun?
Well, if writing is done right, it is fun. I defy anyone to show me any activity that’s more fun over a sustained period. And, I know there’s a thing called sex and it’s pretty neat and all that, but you’re talking about twenty minutes to an hour, normally (more with drugs and/or alcohol, of course) twice a week if you’re married, but writing is a 24/7 activity. Even when I’m having sex, the experience is already making its way into a story… One of my wives nailed it when she said to me after our divorce, ‘I was just material, wasn’t I?’ She was right… And, I believe in only two absolute rules about writing. To be successful, it needs to be clear and it needs to be interesting. And, if you can only do one of those two, you can fudge on the clear part. It’s absolutely imperative to be interesting.
It’s also important that we realize that this isn’t nuclear physics. Knowing that alone lightens the text…
Also, humor is decidedly a criminal trait. It’s how we get through a lot of the misery we find ourselves in. You’ll hear more sick jokes around a dead body than anywhere else. That’s from both sides—cops and criminals. My wife hates that about me. I’ll crack on stuff she thinks is SERIOUS SHIT and she thinks I need to spend some time on a shrink’s couch. She’s probably right but I don’t want her to know she’s right so I just tell her to go lay down by her dish… Well, I don’t say that out loud…
The funniest shit I ever heard in my life was the time this guy came into the rec room at Pendleton and proceeded to smack a guy’s melon a couple of rows ahead of me about sixty-eleven times with a claw hammer. Everybody had a joke going ten seconds after the guy walked away. Dave Barry would have gotten two books worth of material at the yuks we were throwing around then. We probably have a different kind of sense of humor than you’d find at a life insurance sales convention… or maybe not…
How do you see the writer’s role – as an educator, a world changer, or just a storyteller, whose primary mission is to entertain a reader, to give him a great experience in exchange for a couple of hours?
I’m with Isaac Bashavits Singer on this one, who, when asked very nearly the same question, replied that he just told stories. Is there a more noble calling? Not in my mind.
What does your typical work day look like?
I wake up around 4:30 and my wife brings me a pill I have to take before I can eat anything or drink coffee for an hour. I watch TV or sleep for that hour and then I’m up and lunging for my first of probably 8-9 cups of coffee for the day. After the Three S’s in the bathroom (where I read), I hit my computer and I’m there all day, only moving to take an occasional piss. I drink coffee all day long and smoke cigarettes. I don’t eat breakfast or lunch, usually, simply because I’m not hungry and it takes away writing time. I have literally hundreds of books all around me, plus my Kindle, and I take frequent breaks to read. Reading is the single most important activity for a writer to engage in. I was going to add ‘imo’ but didn’t because it’s just the truth.
My wife comes home anywhere from six to eight at night and we have supper (during which I read). I go back up to my computer until around 8:30 and then we go to bed. I do this seven days a week.
I usually have an average of a couple of dozen writing projects that I’m working on. I don’t believe in such a thing as writer’s block any more than a plumber thinks there’s such a thing as plumber’s block. Both of us just do the work. If I get bored on one thing, I just close that file and open up another one. A lot of my day is spent doing things that to non-writers might not seem like writing but they are. I have a class of novel-writing students whose work I go over each day. I also have private writing clients and I do the same with them. I’m online also and most of what I do there has to do with writing. I read constantly and according to my Kindle average 3-4 novels per week.
How do you start to write? Do you work out the plot, do you research a lot, or do you just sit down and write out of your head?
With a novel, it has to percolate in my mind for about seven-eight years. I always have 4-5 novels simmering and add a few each year to replace the ones I’ve written. When I’m ready to write it, I pretty much know where it’s going to go. I write a different kind of outline—it consists of 15-20 words. Five statements that comprise the entire novel. One statement that describes the inciting incident that begins the trouble that’s going to be the basis of the novel. Three statements describing the three major turning points almost all novels have. One statement describing the resolution. It’s my road map. If I was going to drive to Adak, Alaska, I’d get a map. It’s the same with a novel. I may get there by just driving north, but I imagine it’d take a lot longer and use up a lot more gas. This kind of outline gives me a sound grasp of it—to come up with this kind of outline means I have to have given it some thought, which I’ve found many writers haven’t and is why their book peters out at around page 70-80. They usually didn’t have a story but what the late Blake Snyder termed ‘the smell of the rain on the road at dawn.’ If I come up with a twist in the plot I didn’t envision going in, then I just take twenty minutes and rewrite my outline and I’m right back on the highway. Here’s perhaps a good example. I have a short story, a novel, and a screenplay of the same story… and I’ve used the same outline for all three. And, while all three were centered around the same main plot points, each was a very different story.
A short story is a different kind of animal. Since they don’t have that same arc as a novel—that Freitag scheme doesn’t apply to short stories since the character doesn’t have to change profoundly but only experience a tiny bit of insight—they don’t require the same kind of preparation at all.
Because of what I write—mostly about crime—I don’t have much need to research. My life has been research. Now, if I was an insurance salesman and wanted to write about crime, I guess I’d probably have to do some research. But, I was a criminal for a long, long time and therefore I truly do write what I know. Also, I’ve been doing this a long, long time, so I know how to jump in and balance all the elements and keep it going in my head without messing up.
A novel or a short story – which is more fun to write for you?
A novel, for sure! I quit writing short stories years ago, mostly because there wasn’t any money in them and there were very few readers. It was also really hard to get short stories published in those days. There were probably only a couple of dozen litmags that were considered quality and less than six or seven that were really worthwhile to get published in. The New Yorker, Paris Review—a few like that. Mostly, though, I just want more time with my characters than short stories allow. Nowadays, because of the Internet, there are bazillions of places to place short stories. Unfortunately, it’s become so easy, many of the ones that we see are… what’s the word I’m looking for?… oh, yeah… crapola. I see more and more of these things that seem to be written not only by people who don’t know a thing about crime but seem to feel that the cruder they are and the more screwed up and on drugs they can make their characters and the more vile things they can make their characters do, that that’s somehow noir or crime writing There just don’t seem to be any editors these days in an awful lot of those places. That said, I’ve also read some truly amazing short stories on the ‘net. Ten percent are quite good. It just takes a mighty effort to plow through all the white noise sometimes… And, even though there are a lot more places now, it’s difficult to think of many that are equal to the Paris Review. Not sure if any are at that level yet.
Your fiction could easily translate into pictures. Have you ever written (or thought about writing) for film or TV?
I have. Years ago, I was teaching for the UCLA Writer’s Workshop and when you teach for them, you’re allowed to take other classes for free. So, I took Steve Duncan’s workshop on screenwriting. I’d never seen a screenplay before that, but on the second day, Steve called me up and told me to drop the class, that it wouldn’t do me any good. He said just get Trottier’s THE SCREENWRITER’S BIBLE, and learn formatting (which he said would take about ten minutes… and he was right) and then he’d like me to co-write a script with him. Well, first I decided to take a stab at writing one myself so I did. Took two days, literally. I wrote for eight hours the first day and then, two weeks later, picked it up again and finished it in seven hours. Now, anyone can write a bad script in two days… or even less… but this script became a semifinalist in the Nicholl’s and a finalist in both the Writer’s Guild and Best of Austin competitions, so I’d say it was vetted. Screenwriting isn’t writing, imo. It’s ridiculously easy for one thing and it’s just not writing. I don’t believe anyone’s ever curled up in a hammock to read a screenplay unless they were a director or producer or actor and they were just doing their job. I don’t write them any more mostly because I just don’t think much of the form. We all have limited time and I just don’t want to waste my time on something I don’t respect. Money’s never been my motivation for writing in the least, and I can’t figure any other reason to write screenplays other than the gelt.
Plus, I’m too old for Hollywood. After the age of 35, it’s really difficult to sell anything, no matter what they tell people in all these university film programs. Hollywood is up-front and honest about it—they practice ageism and don’t make any bones about it. The primary market is teenaged boys and they just don’t think anyone over the age of 35 can understand that demographic and write for it. Do older writers sometimes sell scripts? Well, outside of the established screenwriters who are that age or older… very, very rarely. It happens but then there are people who’ve won two back-to-back lottieries. The odds are about the same. The chances are much better for an older writer to get a novel published than a screenplay sold. Plus, who in the heck wants to write stuff teenaged boys find interesting? Have you talked to one of them lately? See what I mean?
If someone wants to take any of my stuff and make a movie, go for it. I wouldn’t object… but I wouldn’t want to spend the time writing it myself. Just send me a check. Hire that 20-year-old to screw it up and just send me the money and tell me the nearest theater it’s playing in.
What are you working at the moment (if it’s not a top secret)?
My writing isn’t top secret at all! Now… the work I’m doing on the new hydrogen-fallipalooza bomb I’m making out of mayonaisse and a secret ingredient is, but since you didn’t ask about that, I’m fine.
I’m working on a bunch of things. A final rewrite for my memoir, Adrenaline Junkie. That’s my main project presently. I just got notes for it from a writer I really respect, Ben Sobieck, and I’m busy rewriting it according to his considerable wisdom. Several novels. Two are thrillers. One is about a hit man who specializes in doing hits and making them look like accidents. It’s gonna be a manual for the folks who are anxious to perform the perfect crime and need some guidance. Another is about another kind of hit man who only does hits on folks who escape proper justice. He watches TV shows like ID and finds people who’ve done heinous crimes but draw light sentences. Maybe a guy wiped out an entire family and raped everyone in the family unit including the family dog before decapitating them… and then, because he lives in California draws a sentence of six and a half years (with a heavy dose of counseling…). My guy finds these folks when they get out and exterminates them. Kind of a Death Wish on steroids. A new writer’s how to, based on films. Bunch of other stuff.
I like the hit man motif. In my version, he gets away with it. So many people think that all criminals get caught and that’s just not true. We only hear about the ones that did. Trust me—lots of criminals don’t get caught. If it wasn’t for that pesky statute of limitations deal, I might even mention some of mine. It’s like gambling. There’s this myth that all gamblers eventually lose. Just not so. I made my entire living for four years gambling and the only reason I quit was that I made it mostly by betting middles and amateur, weekend bettors ruined it for us. I had a good friend who inherited a chain of supermarkets who ended up selling them and made a great living the rest of his life from gambling, far more than the couple of million a year he made from selling groceries. The ones who end up losing are usually the amateurs. If I go to a casino and see someone playing the slots or roulette, or betting on the shooter at the craps table, that’s the guy I want in my private poker game… Bring the rent money, pal…
There’s a reason we call straights ‘lames’…
How important do you find social media for your writing and promoting it? Which is more relevant, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn …?
I’m not sure. I suspect it isn’t all that important. On my blog I have a little over 300 followers so that isn’t going to catapault me onto the bestseller lists even if every one of ’em buys ten copies of a book. (Although, I hope that doesn’t stop any of them from doing so if they were planning to…) Where I do think it’s important as a writer is that I get exposed to writers I wouldn’t be aware of otherwise. I’ve been introduced to a ton of really top writers that I wouldn’t have without the ‘net. A lot from Europe, in particular. As for which media is more relevant, I’m not sure if any of them are, but I’m probably wrong. I often am. Ask any of my four ex-wives. Maybe even my current one…
Agents and editors seem to think that it’s important. They’re always asking about one’s ‘platform.’ I’m not convinced that 325 followers constitute a ‘platform’ but if so I’m there… I kind of suspect they think it’s important because they read other agent’s and other editor’s blogs and see them touting it so… If any of those folks are reading this, I’m trying. I’m really trying.
Who are your literary heroes?
I have bazillions of literary heroes! Anyone who writes well is my hero. I won’t name living ones just because after we finish here I’ll think of someone I forgot and I’ll feel terrible. Plus, the list would be in the hundreds. Among the dead ones there are also bazillions. Probably the biggest heroes for me are folks like Camus, Borges, Celine, Ray Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Chekhov, Bukowski, Harry Crews, Faulkner, Hemingway, not Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, John Donne, Nabakov, Isaac Bashavits Singer, James Crumley—just lots and lots and lots of writers. You’ll notice there isn’t but one woman in that list. That’s because until recently I read very few women. It just seemed that most of them wrote about ‘relationships’ and that’s not a subject that interests me in the least. Lately though, I’ve been reading a lot of women writers. Contemporary writers. It seems they’ve been freed up to write about things I don’t think they felt they were able to in yesteryear and today’s women writers are absolutely fantastic and I read a lot of them. I often wonder what Louisa May Alcott would have written about if she’d felt free to write anything she wanted to and get published—I’ll bet a dollar Jo and Meg would be involved with leather more than they were and might be getting their groove on in different ways that they did… We really kept women writers down for far too long of a time… hell, keeping them down for ten minutes was too long, but we did it for centuries. And, now, they’re starting to kick our ass!
What advise would you give to a young (or maybe not so young) writer, who’s just starting to think of becoming a writer?
Don’t write. Take up fingerpainting or brain surgery.
Why in the heck should I encourage competition?
Kidding! I can’t give any better advice than Jim Harrison did when he advised anyone wanting to become a writer to ‘read the whole of Western literature for the past 2,000 years… and then, if time permits, to read the whole of Eastern literature for the same period of time.’ For, he said, ‘if you don’t know what passed for good in the past, how can you know what passes for good today?’ Reading is how one learns to become a writer. Period.
Thank you, Les!
Totally my pleasure, Renato. I know going in that my answers might piss some people off and if so that makes me happy, happy, happy! If a writer ever says or writes anything that doesn’t offend someone, I don’t think he or she has a right to call themselves a writer. It’s our job to stir up things and make people uncomfortable. It’s for sure the media and politicians don’t do that any more. Too many people these days have bought into that PC moronic crap and don’t want to hurt anyone’s little tender feelings. Too bad. Opinions are our biggest stock in trade and why would anyone want to hide their goods? It’s why I love quotes from past generations of writers about other writers. They didn’t pussyfoot around and pretend to like everyone so they’d be liked. Did I mention I hate PC mushheads? Grow a pair…
I’m a very angry person. I write for the same reasons William Gass did—I hate.. a lot… and hard. Mostly, I hate bullies and I hate posers and very often they’re the same person. The other side of that coin is that I love an awful lot of people too. I especially love my fellow writers who fight the good fight and keep on keepin’ on. It’s a tough dodge we’ve chosen.