Thursday, March 21, 2013


Hi folks,

(As published on Benoit’s Dead End Follies.

Benoit conducts some of the best interviews on the planet and it was a privilege to be asked to sit down with him and chat. Gotta warn you--Benoit presented this in four parts because of the length and it's presented en toto here.

Question: Rapists are the most abhorred criminals in our society, next to paedophiles. What motivated you to write a first person narrative about one of them in your latest novel? Why did you decide to give a rapist a voice?

Response: I have to warn you—my answers aren’t going to be politically correct and I’m going to piss some people off.

First, it was never my goal to give rapists a “voice,” at least not in any significant way. I think of rapists pretty much as most folks do—as almost totally reprehensible beings. In fact, I don’t see it as a book about rapists at all, but rather a book about time and space and God and human beings. I thought about naming it The Memoir of Jesus Christ but didn’t as that would take away the power of the last line, which is what the book is really about. I did and do fully expect most people to see it as a book about rape and a rapist and prison and all that stuff, but there will be a few who I think will see it for what it was intended to be which is a book about the universe and God and how human beings fit in there and how it’s really all fucked up and there’s not much we can do about it. I don’t want too many of those folks, though. I hope most won’t be able to “get that.” If many did, I wouldn’t have achieved what I set out to do. The people I really respect and who I wrote it for—people such as Cort McMeel—understood it immediately and that pleases me to no end. Just about every one of the 31 blurbers got it perfectly and it’s those kinds of people I wrote it for. I would never write something intended for everybody. I write for my spiritual and intellectual twin and like most of us, don’t have many of those. I wrote it for Cort and I wrote it for Charles Bukowski and people like that. I didn’t even send it out for publication for over twenty-five years (wrote it in the late eighties) as I was pretty sure it didn’t fit any commercial guidelines. I just kept it in a drawer until the right guy came along. That guy was Jon Bassoff of New Pulp Press. There are others I would have happily published it with, like Allan Guthrie or Brian Lindenmuth, but Jon was the best for this book, I felt.

The idea for his book came from a Charles Bukowski short story, “The Fiend.” It is the most powerful, most honest, and most profound story I’ve ever read. The instant I finished it, I knew then that to write a story this courageous would be the best thing I could ever do and I also knew I would have as hard a time in finding an audience for it as he did for his work before the Germans discovered him and published him when America wouldn’t. In fact, I didn’t even consider a U.S. publisher until I met Jon. I always thought it would find a home some day with a French publisher. It’s a French book, you know. Intellectually. Perhaps Russian. The Russia of two centuries ago, not today.

What Bukowski did in that story was, to use an overworked word that in this case is precisely correct; brilliant. He took that person you spoke of at the top—the odious pedophile—and showed through his literary, insightful, particular genius that no matter what depths a person has sunk to (or risen to), he is still one of us. He is still human, no matter how grotesque and misshapen and evil his mind is. In this story, he wrote the single most illuminating line that has ever been written in literature. I’m not even going to use a qualifier for that statement such as “in my opinion.” It is just simply the clearest sentence ever written in literature. An early line in the story, spoken by the protagonist Martin as he is kissing the child, just before he rapes her, and the narrator says, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells--one hers, the other his.” When I read this line, it was as if I’d been struck by literary lightening.

Bukowski reached out from beyond the grave and touched me with his hand with those words and I knew then what I had to write.

And, that’s how The Rapist  came to be. My effort to write something as stark and honest and true as Bukowski had.

And, he’d already taken a “short eyes” as the character for his story, so all that was really left was a rapist. Never considered a serial killer or mass murderer as a character—most are really boring—all they do is keep repeating the same-o, same-o until they’re caught.

The rape and the trial and all that are only the window dressing. It’s really a novel of how I see the universe. It’s a story about a God who is omniscient, but who is also really old, and has all of the infirmities of age. After all, he made us in his image, according to the text, and I presume that means he endowed us with all of the same things as he himself is endowed with, including frailties and shortcomings along with all the strengths. It a novel explaining how time and space work. It’s chronological and at the same time, it’s not. It’s here and it’s there and it’s somewhere else that we can’t see because God hasn’t allowed us to see yet. It’s forever and ever and has always existed and it hasn’t yet begun and it’s already ended and that implies a circle. I see it as a ball of yarn, not of one continuous strand, but composed of countless strands, all woven together. It’s the past, the present and the future, all happening at once and yet not. It’s about a definition of time that we don’t yet possess, beyond the three most recognize.

What really struck me during the editing is that the copy editor, Alice Riley, got what I was trying to do. She pointed out that I vacillated between present and simple past and perfect past tense and wanted to know if that was on purpose as she suspected it was. Because of the time element, you see? It told me that she got it. That was an exciting moment for me. Most copy editors I’ve worked with probably wouldn’t have. They get the grammar and the spelling and syntax and all that stuff, but they often don’t really get the literature. She got that it wasn’t intended to be a chronological story at all. That the “parts” weren’t meant to fit neatly. They were like the pieces of string the old man explained to Truman on the mountaintop. I hope I get some readers like Alice. She understood that this was one of an unlimited number of memoirs that Jesus wrote. Is still writing. Hasn’t written yet. And, that he, like his father, got the pieces of time string mixed up sometimes. After all, they’re the same guy. That the parts that are mixed up are from the pen of the third party of the triune—the Holy Ghost. That poor guy never gets to get on stage, so I gave him some lines.

Tried to show that God had/has/will have a sense of humor. Probably a French sense of humor…

One more thing about Bukowski that I thought of because of something you said in your question. That first-person thing. I thought that while his story was the bravest thing I’ve ever read, he kind of copped a deuce with it. In almost all of his work, he writes from the first-person pov. In “The Fiend” he uncharacteristically employs a third person. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a third-person story from Bukowski other than this one. I think he got nervous at the last and wrote it in third because he was afraid someone would think he had that pedophile, hidden somewhere deep inside him, and he didn’t want people to ever think that about him. Because he didn’t. But, I think he was afraid that he might be viewed that way. I think maybe he saw what happened to Nabokov with Humbert Humbert where Nabokov had to come out and make public proclamations that, no, he wasn’t hiding a little Humbert deep down inside that he drew from, and Bukowski didn’t want people to think the same kinds of things about him about his character Martin. I decided I’d use first-person for that reason. It’s like Bukowski and I had one of those bar fights he was famous for and this was my secret weapon to knock him out. It’s the brass knucks I hid from him and brought out when he wasn’t looking. And, since he’s room temperature and can’t do anything about it, I can claim I won.

Question: Tell us about the long, hard road to publication for THE RAPIST . I'm sure finding it a home wasn't easy at all.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. It was infinitely easier to find a publisher for this than it was for my first novel, The Death of Tarpons, which collected 86 rejections before it found a home. And, that was by accident… On the right desk at the right time—the only five minute period it could have been there and been read. And that book won literary awards, which always makes me wonder about editor’s and agent’s acumen… As does THE RAPIST. I mean, it got 31 blurbs from some of the best writers in the world and yet not a single Legacy 6 editor wanted it? Okay…


I most likely would have found a home for it years before I did, but you have to send it out for that to happen. I wrote it over 25 years ago and it’s sat in a drawer, metaphorically, until now. I just didn’t think a U.S. publisher would see it as publishable. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking that once I got “established” (whatever that is), that I’d have work translated and through that I could interest a foreign publisher in it. I’ve always thought it fit the French mind better than anyone’s.

When I found myself in the MFA program at Vermont College, my last-semester advisor was Dr. Francois Camoin, a bona fide Frenchman. And, a bona fide literary genius. He was the first person I’d ever showed it to. He read it and then we had a drink together. He told me it was one of the most brilliant things he’d ever read, but that he felt I’d have trouble finding a publisher. He delivered the same exact thought that I had always had. He said he didn’t think it fit the sensibility of the American reader. He felt they were more attuned to Stephen King and John Grisham and the like and just wouldn’t “get it.” Too dark. Too intellectual. He went on to say that he thought though that someday if I got lucky I would find a publisher—like me, he thought it would be a European publisher—and that, even though it would be hard to get it published, once it was he predicted it would win all kinds of awards.

Well, over the years since then, I showed it to a few people. Mostly whoever was my agent at the time. The thing is, most agents—even though they’re nice folks, usually—are pretty much attuned to the top of their quality scale being commercial stuff like James Patterson, and none of them understood the book. So, I stuck it back into that drawer. And then, I became friends with a guy who I think has the best literary mind of anyone I’ve been privileged to meet. A guy named Cort McMeel. It took a lot by that time for me to trust anyone. Certainly not an agent! Most of them—while being nice people—could just as easily be selling Florsheim shoes—they’re salesmen and like the Ford salesman mostly want to move the latest car that’s hot. There really are no more Maxwell Perkins out there… That’s not a bad thing and agents aren’t bad people. They’re just not the sort of people you want in charge of something that’s intellectual, as a rule. That’s a type of product that’s outside their familiarity and comfort zone. They don’t want to represent Camus—they want to represent James Patterson.

Anyway, for the first time since Dr. Camoin, I met someone who I felt had a genuine literary mind. So I asked him if he wanted to read it. You’ll have to read the foreword which Cort graciously provided for the book to see how that went.

But… well. It went well. He loved it. In fact, he wanted to publish it under the imprint he’d just begun, Bare Knuckles Press. And, we had a deal until he ended his association with the press. Without Cort, I ended my own association with it. And, I happened on a new publisher. New Pulp Press. I chanced on a book of theirs that just blew me away. Jake Hinkson’s Hell on Church Street. Blew me fucking away. I went to their list and went down the row and read every single book publisher Jon Bassoff had published. Not a single clunker in the bunch. Not one! I know of no other publisher who has the record Jon does. Probably Allan Guthrie—don’t think he has a single book that isn’t brilliant. And Brian Lindenmuth. But, nobody had it like Jon did. That’s the guy I wanted to publish this book and it’s because of who he had already published. It was clear he was a guy who could read silently without moving his lips. He wasn’t much interested in moving Florsheim or Stacy-Adams shoes to make a buck… He actually understands and loves literature. Kind of a contemporary John Martin. I’m so glad I found him. And, like Martin, he even designed my cover himself. Damn—he really is John Martin!

I sent it to Jon, he liked it and he’s publishing it. I’m as happy as a clam before the clam learns there’s a thing called clam sauce… Pretty fucking happy… I’m hoping he likes two other works of mine he has on his desk and will want to publish them as well.

Question: I think most of Dead End Follies' readers understand the purpose of true, groundbreaking shock value in fiction and THE RAPIST has a mouthful of it. What are the novels that shocked you and redefined your boundaries as an artist?

Great question! First and foremost, Camus’ The Stranger has influenced me more than any other single work. One of the biggest things that struck me was how absolutely perfect it was. I think Camus practiced Eastern philosophy upon it as he wrote it. That trope about how you always include a small imperfection in any art form so that you don’t challenge God. There’s a tiny imperfection in it, but I haven’t been able to find it yet. I keep looking though, because if it is, indeed, perfect, we may as well all give up as what we’re after has been attained and that makes it a second-place thing and who wants that?

Second, there are a handful of novels that taught me how to write a novel. At least the kind of novel I wanted to write. Among those, I count Killshot by Elmore Leonard, A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, any and all of the collections of short stories by Ray Carver  , and The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. Most of Faulkner’s novels. More than any other novel or book though, has been the King James version of the Bible. It’s the basis for just about everything we experience in our culture, even for the agnostics and atheists. It’s where our civilization comes from. I don’t know how anyone can pretend to know who they are if they don’t know the Bible. Doesn’t matter if you believe what it says or not. I’m not talking much about the religion in it in terms of its value. It’s the other things. The cadence of the poetry, for example.

None of these “shocked” me in any sense of the common definition. I can’t think of any book that has ever done that. I’ve seen things in my life that are beyond anything I’ve ever read in a book. I’ll give you an early example. When I was 12, I had already been working in my grandmother’s bar and restaurant ever since I could remember. It was a rough bar, what you’d call a honky-tonk, and I saw pretty much everything you can think of in such a place. On my 12th birthday, Grandma thought it was time I learned her cab business, so she appointed me the night dispatcher. On my first night on the job, it was a slow night and the cabbies were all gathered outside the little shack where my phone and clipboard and assignment sheet and all that stuff was. My little desk and chair. Well, they got to screwing around after awhile and one of them found a dead rattlesnake—or maybe it was alive and he killed it—I don’t know. Anyway, he started waving it at another driver who didn’t know it was dead, and he was terrified of rattlers and kept telling the guy to keep that snake off him, but the other guy thought it was funny and kept tormenting him. Finally, the guy with the snake threw it at the scared guy and that man pulled out a pistol and shot him in the throat. About six feet away from me. Blood spurted everywhere and I got my share of it on me. Since I was the dispatcher, it was my job to call the cops, which I did. That was in the days before 911, so I had to get the phone book out, look up the number, and dial it and then tell the cops what had happened. All without looking like some kind of pussy kid. Later, I was called to the witness stand to tell what I’d seen. After you see something like that, what can be in a book that will shock you? Pretty much nothing. And, there’ve been lots and lots of experiences like that and far worse. So, I don’t anticipate ever reading anything in a book that will shock me in that way.

BTW, the guy was acquitted and left town immediately. The dead guy had a lot of friends and relatives who didn’t like what had happened.

That same year I got whipped bloody by my father with a live king snake and I tried to kill a group of older Mexican kids with a .38 I stole from a sporting goods store when they attacked me and my best friend down on a submerged barge down at the Brazos River by the shrimp docks. Witnessed a lynching in a way. By that I mean I was present when the sheriff was notified on the phone in our bar and knew from what he said what was going down. Remember watching him eat another piece of pie with tiny bites after he got the call and told us what was happening and how when he finally left to go “stop” them, he drove away at about five miles an hour. How you gonna stay down on the farm once you’ve seen Paree? By which, I mean how are you going to shock me with lines in a book?

What those books did was shock me with their beauty and with their power. Their ability to show a deep understanding of the human heart and the human soul. They gave me a standard to shoot for and one that I knew wouldn’t be easy to attain.

I have to take it back. I did read a book that shocked me and I just remembered it. A collection of Bukowski’s stories. TheMost Beautiful Woman in Town and Other Stories. It wasn’t the content that shocked me. The content was just about drunks and whores and stuff like I knew about since I was little. It was learning that the kind of stuff I wanted to write could be published. I had just assumed it couldn’t be because I’d never read anything like he wrote. He didn’t write anything very shocking, compared to real life. That it could become published; that was what was shocking. And liberating. And sad. Sad, that I was in my thirties before I found out the free society I thought I had been living in, wasn’t. That there was censorship everywhere and had been going on for a long time. Bukowski is the primary person who opened up the boundaries wide for me as a writer.

Thanks, Chuck.

Question: You made no secret that you've had a hard life. In fact, you seem pretty candid about it. How has it brought you to writing? What made you sit down and write seriously for the first time?

It’s the other way around, Benoit. It’s writing that brought me to a hard life, for the most part. I’ve actively sought out the dangerous places in life and for one reason—material for my writing. It’s only when you’re close to death that you come fully alive.

I sat down and began to write seriously when I was around four or five years old. Immediately after I was able to read the first book on my own, I decided at that moment that being a writer was the only thing I ever wanted to do and I haven’t wavered one iota from that moment. At that time, I thought I could write a better book than what I’d just read. I couldn’t then, but I think I can now.

I actually taught myself to read. My mother would read me those insipid children’s stories and I’d ask her to trace the words with her finger as she read so I could see where they came from on the page. They were really boring stories for the most part and trying to figure out the marks on the paper kept my interest better. Actually, they were more than just marks. My grandmother had taught me my alphabet and how to spell and write my name when I was about three and as half, so I had somewhat of an idea what words were. One day, I just continued out loud what my mother was reading—finished the sentence ahead of her. At once, she taught me phonics (the key to being a good reader, in my opinion). I was off to the races at that point.

The first book I read on my own was a book from my grandmother’s library. A collection of short stories by Guy deMaupassant. The first story I read was his “Two Friends.” He was imminently accessible, even to a small child. He just wrote plainly and clearly. I loved that book! My grandmother came in one day when I was reading it—actually, I’d stolen it from her library—and she took me up to the attic where she kept all of her books and told me I could read any of them I wanted to. She had a wonderful library. Most of the great French and Russian writers and that’s who I began with. She also had some Dickens but I couldn’t get into him at all.

This kind of ruined school for me from the start. The teacher would have us reading these really godawful books—stuff by James Fennimore Cooper in junior high, for instance—quite possibly the lousiest major writer in U.S. letters—it’s no wonder his work was made into early movies—it was “direct to video” writing. I loved Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, but Cooper was purely boring and his language was juvenile and just plain bad. When we had English classes, we were required to read books that were infantile and I couldn’t stand plowing through them. I’d bring in my own books and hide them inside the crap we were supposed to read. I remember being caught in second grade—we were all supposed to be silently reading some kiddie crap and I had secreted a copy of a Stendhal book inside the book we were supposed to be reading, probably his TheCharterhouse of Parma which I loved, and the teacher went ballistic. She called a meeting with my mother and told her I was defying her by reading a book not on the reading list—and that I couldn’t possibly “understand” it. We went back home and she told my grandmother who became incensed. She said she knew my teacher all her life and she’d always been a moron and thought everyone else was on her level. She called her up and read her the riot act and the upshot was I was allowed to sit by myself in a corner and read whatever I wanted while the rest of the class read the “approved” books. My grandmother, Louise Vincent, was one of the biggest businesswoman in town—she owned and ran a hugely busy bar and restaurant and a cab company, as well as owned a fortune’s worth of gas and oil and sulphur stocks and rental properties—and if she said something, people in town listened. I remember every year we’d go to New Orleans to Maison Blanche and they’d close the entire store while my grandmother and mother and my sister and I spent the day as the sole customers while models paraded the new fashions before them for Grandma and my mother to buy. Some little twit of a grade school teacher wasn’t going to make her grandson read The Hardy Boys Punk Ass Clubhouse or whatever.

In summers, we’d go to Louisiana to stay on my great-grandmother’s ranch which was the world’s largest Brahma bull-raising enterprise in the country. Those were great summers! My grandmother’s first cousin was U.S. Senator Allen Ellender and he was often there with other politicians and dignitaries. She was Louise’s mother and had an even bigger library than my grandmother’s and also gave me full access to it. She had more contemporary writers on her shelves than Grandma did—writers like Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who Grandma considered “sensationalist” and “trashy.” I couldn’t stand Fitzgerald (still can’t), but loved Faulkner when I first read him when I was I think, nine years old. Hemingway, I recognized as he seemed to write a lot like Stephen Crane who I also liked a lot. She also had a lot of good European writers like Balzac.

I’ve gone far afield of your question, haven’t I! Sorry. The thing is, I began reading very early, decided instantly that all I ever would want to do was to be a writer, and decided the best way to do that was to adopt the Jack London School of Writing. To always seek out new experiences. And, that’s what I’ve done all my life. I had one of my five wives after we’d divorced say, “You only married me for material, didn’t you?” To which, I replied, honestly, “Yes.” She was my first wife, a black woman I’d married in Bermuda where I was living at the time in the sixties.

I joined the Navy and afterwards began a life of crime, both for ostensibly the same reason. Experiences for material for my writing. Just about everything I’ve done in life was toward the same end—to accumulate material for my writing. And, since I had little interest in writing about the life and times of insurance salesmen or college professors, that pursuit usually led me to more nefarious environments. Who in their right mind wants to live in the suburbs and mow their lawns when they could be breaking into Joe’s Bar and Grill at one in the morning? Or working for an escort service and vacationing in Puerta Vallarta on some rich lady’s dime? Well, more accurately, what writer would opt for the ‘burbs over that?

Question: So if I understand well, you chose writing and constant seeking of new experience, but the fact you ended up in legal trouble, would it be fair to say crime fiction chose you? How have you ended up wanting to write about violence and the darker side of the human condition? Was there a triggering event?

I had to laugh, Benoit. “Legal trouble?” That sounds like I was sued for not cutting my grass often enough by the neighborhood association... I was a felon, pure and simple. And a convict and then, an ex-con. The “legal trouble” came from committing burglaries, armed- and strong-armed robberies, selling drugs, etc. Cracking a dude over the head with a crowbar. Stuff like that.

And, yes, there was a triggering event, sort of. I had always written about the darker side of life, mostly because that was what I’ve always seen and been exposed in my existence.

But, for a long, long time, I hid my past from everyone. And never wrote about the truly dark stuff. At the time, I just assumed it would hurt me, especially in publishing. I had no idea for the longest time that editors and publishers actually like real-life criminals as their authors! Half my agents never knew I did time or had held people up or outran the cops in high speed car chases or been in prison. Which meant that my stories, while dark, didn’t go into the really dark stuff I’d experienced.

Even in my first novel, The Death of Tarpons, which is about an abusive father and that boy’s struggle to find himself, was presented as fiction, even though it was about 85% true and from my own boyhood. And “cleaned up,” quite a bit from much of the horror that was my childhood. In fact, I had a publisher who offered me a $10,000 advance back in the mid-eighties for it, with the proviso I would allow him to put it out as memoir. I told him I couldn’t because it was only 85% factual. He was okay with that and still wanted it presented as memoir, and the reason I eventually did pull it from him was that he wanted to take out some parts that would “offend some readers.” In particular, a scene where the boy’s father beats him with a live king snake. In his words, it “might offend the snake lovers.” This was in the days before we even had the term “politically correct” and this asshole was way ahead of the times, I guess. Offend the snake lovers? That’s gotta be what? Five or six people? Like, who gives a shit about some frickin’ snake lovers? Plus, it was a true event and it was integral to the story so I told him, thanks, but no thanks, and pulled it. When I could have used ten dollars, much less ten thousand. But, what price is one’s integrity?

Anyway, I held back in that book, simply because I thought it would hurt my chances at publication if I exposed too dark of an environment, especially if it was factual.

Keep in mind, this was the eighties and an entirely different climate than today. Today, I know a whole lot more about what publishers want than I did then.

What changed everything for me was first reading Charles Bukowski and realizing for the first time that what I really wanted to write about could be publishable.

The second event occurred in talking to Diane Lefer whom I chose for my adviser twice for my MFA at Vermont College. I ended up trusting her enough that I revealed my background to her. To my shock she told me that my past was a decided plus in publishing. Knocked my socks off when I heard that. And, that’s when I began going to the really cool events in my life.

Diane opened my eyes to a lot of things. Once, she asked me what I thought about a writer whom I won’t name, but who is renowned for writing dark and even criminal stories. This guy’s won about everything out there and kind of acts the tough guy. I told her that my impression of him from his writing—I’d never met him in person—was that he was a phony… and a bit of a poser and a pussy. That he tried to exude this persona of a bad ass or even a criminal, but that his writing gave him away to one who’d actually done time… i.e., moi. I told her he sounded like a guy who drew mostly from the experience of maybe doing a few days in the city jail for drunk and disorderly, but he’d never been close to the inside of a real prison. That his idea of being bad, came mostly from hanging out maybe at titty bars and the like. She said she was glad to hear that, because even though she didn’t have experience herself with the criminal life, his books had always struck that same chord in her.

But, he enjoys this “persona” of being the “real deal,” and he isn’t even remotely close. I’ve run into writers like him since. A lot of them, actually. Whose idea of a criminal is the little drug dealers in their neighborhoods, most of whom are little suburbanite punks trying to supplement their allowances from Mommy and Daddy. Or from hanging out at stripclubs, maybe, thinking that the guys who frequent those places are some kind of real criminal element. Usually, the kind of guy who hangs out in those places is a loser of the nth degree and real criminals mostly laugh at them. Not saying that some of these guys don’t do criminal acts—some do—but really aren’t the kind of truly scary dudes you’re going to be celling with.

And meth and crack dealers? Gimme a break. These are just the bottom of the criminal barrel. Why would anyone think they’re remotely interesting unless their own lives are utterly boring? They’re the far-fringe, unsuccessful moonshine dealers of yesteryear. Hillbilly wannabes who think that because they own a gun and have shot someone that they’re the baddest thing on the planet. Nothing bad ass about most of them at all. Dumb as a box of hammers is the image that springs up in my mind. Pretty easy to figure out, as a rule. They don’t scare anybody except for those who grew up in suburbia. I guess they seem exotic to ‘em… Must be because that seems to be the audience for these kinds of fiction. About all that happens in a lot of those books is a lot of gratuitous violence that seems to be there mostly for the shock value.

Back to your question. I write about violence and the darker side of humanity because that’s what I’m most familiar with. I grew up with it and I chose that life when I came of age and had a choice and could have gone the safe and secure route. It’s never dull. And, I hate boring. Now, of course, I’m paying for it and I was pretty sure at the time that some day I would. I didn’t work for a corporation or a bureaucracy and so I have no pension. No savings, no money in savings, no pension. Nada. And, that’s fine. I had a really cool life and did more in just about any given week than some of these folks have done in their entire existences. And lived that kind of life year after year after year. I just never wanted to be that guy whose biggest deal in life was the two or four years they spent in the service, or the same amount of time spent in college, or the one time they went to Europe and backpacked for the summer. That’s it? That’s sad. As far as I know, you only get to go around once, so why on earth would an intelligent person spend most of their life doing boring-ass shit?

Here’s a for-instance. There’ve been several times when I was homeless. I was homeless in Costa Mesa, one of the richest towns on earth, and I was sleeping on the concrete floor of a garage and eating out of the dumpster of the Bob’s Big Boy next door for my meals. Was in pure agony from a severely pinched nerve to where I had to be up three days in a row to be able to go to sleep for an hour. No health insurance or money for a doctor and that was fine. Was right on PCH and from the front door of the garage could look out at the QEII, anchored there. Never for one second did I feel sorry for myself. Why? I was living life and it was never boring, not for a second. I remember looking out at the QEII and thinking about some rich dude out there, and feeling sorry for the guy. I imagined he kind of at least suspected inside that probably the only reason the babe on his arm was there was because of his bank account. I was living in that garage with a gorgeous redhead who had convinced me to come out to California from where we’d been living in New Orleans, and I was pretty sure the guy on that boat would have loved to have a girl like that on his arm, knowing she was there because of him and not because of the checks he could write. That kind of shit is priceless and I’ve always been aware that it was, even in the worst of times. It’s those times that let you know you’re alive.

I feel like I’ve lived the Frank Sinatra version of life. I did it my way. I was getting laid every night by a girl who screwed me because she liked the way I screwed, not because I could give her a charge card. How do you put a price on that? The guy at the cocktail party on the QEII was the unlucky one. I’m pretty sure your body feels pretty much the same way in jeans as it does in an Armani suit. It’s your weak-assed mind that tells you it feels better, mostly because some dickhead you don’t even like pretends to your face that you’ve accomplished something by wearing it. Your skin doesn’t know. Trust your skin.

But, I owe a debt to both Bukowski and to Lefer. They showed me what was possible.

Question: You're a creative writing teacher and you have written writing advice books. What's your take on the current writing advice market and how do you think young writers should use such a tool?

The writing advice market is bigger than it’s ever been and in many ways, better. In other ways, not better. Looking back to when I began writing many decades ago, there were very few such books available. Writers learned primarily from… reading novels and trying to figure out what worked and then adopting that for their own work. Today, there are so many books out there that the learning curve can be tremendously shortened. Although, like anything, there’s a downside to the flood of advice. Like anything else, there’s a lot of good… and there’s a lot of slag and dross.

There are expectation problems among many writers. The expectation that there are going to be “secrets” revealed in these books that are somehow going to catapult them onto the bestseller lists if they only unearth and use these secrets. I hate to be the one who tells folks that there really are no such secrets to becoming a good writer. All of the secrets in writing are right there in the open. They’re in the pages of novels you have open before you. When you see something that affects you emotionally in the novel you’re reading, stop and go back and figure out what that writer did that worked and how he or she accomplished that.

Often, writers read as… readers. Not as writers. They’re reading books on a very superficial level. For entertainment. That’s fine for nonwriters, but for a writer that’s foolish. To be blunt, it’s kind of stupid. It’s passing up the single best way to learn to write available.

I had a student ask me one time that if he tried to analyze every novel as a student and not just to be entertained, wouldn’t he lose the “magic” of the work? As it happened, this guy was a musician. Well, I said to him. Do you understand how to play an instrument? I won’t give his responses to the questions that follow because his answer to each was “yes.” Do you know how to play several instruments? Do you know how to write lyrics? Do you know how a symphony works—how all the parts go together to form a whole? Do you know how to create and build emotion within the listener with progressions? I asked a bunch more questions in this vein and then I asked him: “Does your knowledge affect your enjoyment?” Sheepishly, he answered that it didn’t. It added to it, he said, because he knew better than most the skill and craft and art the performer brought to the work. It only heightened his enjoyment.

Another time, I had a college basketball player ask me what was basically the same question. Well, I said, do you understand how a man-to-man defense works? Do you know how zone defenses work? Do you know the differences between a one-three-one and a two-three and a three-two? Well, sure he said. Of course. Do you know how a pick-and-roll works, I asked? Do you know that to be a good shooter you aim for the back of the hoop and never the front? Again, he answered in the affirmative. Then, I asked the clincher. Does that take away from your enjoyment in watching a game? Do you think the guy sitting next to you in the stands who knows nothing about the intricacies of the game enjoys it more? I trust you can guess his answer.

The same things could be asked of a chef. Because of a chef’s knowledge of spices and foodstuffs and combinations of foods, does he enjoy eating a meal less? It’s a question that can be asked of any art form. The answer is always going to be that the more the participant knows about the art and craft of anything, the higher the level of enjoyment is going to be, even though part of his focus is always going to be on how the art was created.

This sounds like a no-brainer and a waste of space to even point this out, but you’d be surprised at how many would-be writers have this attitude. Personally, I wish more of them had it. We’ve got enough competition as it is…

All of this is to say that there are too many writers who don’t do the work themselves while reading and expect to pick up the latest and greatest craft book as a kind of shortcut to find this stuff out. It can’t work like that and it doesn’t.

Does that mean that craft books are useless? Not at all. The only thing I’d suggest is that they’re not relied on at the exclusion of the writer doing his own work to learn.

Also, the writer needs to realize that craft books are these days often seen as cash cows by some publishers. There is more pressure than ever to convince a bestselling author to write one. They bring an enormous audience with them and that means, sales and money, boobie. Several of these aren’t delivering much in the way of scholarship or new material, but are mostly regurgitating things most writers already know or have already been promulgated in earlier books. The bestselling author often likes to write them as well, as it’s attractive in that very often it has the effect of making them look smart and even somewhat “academic.” I imagine if Stephanie Meyer and James Patterson come out with a craft book, the publisher is going to be rubbing his hands together in glee at the thought of all the large Christmas bonus checks he’s going to be able to write out to his employees.

Those are some of the negative things about craft books. The positives, however, mostly far outweigh the negatives. One very substantial benefit to a writer to read them is that very often seeing a particular bit of advice on the page validates something his instincts have told him is something he should be doing but he erroneously thought he shouldn’t. I had that very experience happen to me. Like most of us, I suffered through periods where I didn’t trust my instincts in writing. I had read book after book, sat through workshop after workshop and lecture after lecture, where the advice had invariably been to “just get it down, lickety-split, and then go back and ‘fix it’ through rewrites.” Apply that “work while the ‘muse descends’ white-hot fever of creation” and then go back and rewrite it. Well, my instincts always told me not to do that. What I wanted to do was make sure every sentence, every paragraph was perfect before I went on. But, who was I? I was this little nobody and all of these published, successful writers were continually telling me that my instincts were wrong and that I should just write as fast as I could. So I did what they said.

And, then, one day I picked up a new craft book and this guy (wish to hell I could remember who it was to give him proper and deserved credit!) was saying just the opposite. I can still remember the day I read him. He said to not do what everybody was always advising. He said to take your time, craft each sentence perfectly before moving on. He said that when you marked things to be rewritten, or underlined a word you furnished in haste and knew there was a better word but you didn’t want to stop to figure it out, or knew you were having your character make a wrong turn, that you almost never were able to return to your frame of mind at that point and that instead of rewriting, you became a copy editor instead. He advised (this was in the typewriter days) to always use your best, most expensive paper—that 20-bond stuff with the watermark—and not the cheap stuff. He said when you came up with a word that wasn’t quite right to stop right there and find the perfect word. That you should never go onto the next page until the page you were writing was as good as you could possibly make it. He said a whole bunch of other things along these lines, and at the end, he said that you’ll still probably have to do a rewrite but he predicted you’d do far less rewrites than you had previously.

And, he was right. Before I read this guy, I rewrote every novel an average of 8-10 times. The instant I applied his advice, I went to an average of one rewrite per novel.

What had happened was that I was like most writers. I was unsure of myself and of my instincts. I needed someone in “authority” i.e., a bona fide writer, to tell me that what I wanted to do was okay. That my instincts were sound and to follow them. Bless this guy! He gave me “permission” to do something I had always known I should do, but was afraid to because it seemed to go against the overwhelming “wisdom” of the writing fraternity.

What I didn’t realize fully at the time that most of us who write do so because first we were readers. Voracious readers. That means we’ve already assimilated most of the writing techniques we’ll ever need as writers, simply by dint of our history—of reading thousands and thousands of books. That we already know by all that reading what’s good and what isn’t and how to achieve good writing. That we have good “instincts” honed by years and years of reading. In fact, I can tell very quickly the folks who join my writing class who’s going to make it and who isn’t. The person who’s been reading nonstop and voraciously since the age of five or six has a decent chance of becoming a good writer. The one who admits they’ve read very little most of their life, has very little, if any chance of success. We begin to learn to write at around that age. Not when we’re twenty. And, I know there are stories of people who’ve had success who fit that latter description. But, I’m talking about “good” writers, not necessarily published writers or even bestselling writers. Good isn’t always descriptive of those authors…

Another benefit to reading craft books is related to the above. Very often, they serve to remind us of things we already knew and that’s valuable. Or, they show us something that we kind of knew or suspected was true but we hadn’t yet articulated it to ourselves and the book made it clear the thing we were perhaps fuzzy about.

What’s important about craft books is that even the very worst will almost have at least one piece of solid information in it. If a person spends say fifteen bucks on a book and learns one tiny piece of useful information, that book has paid for itself. So, I’d suggest to buy every single one of them. The ones that are repetitive or don’t show us much of anything new are still worth the purchase because if nothing else, they’ll probably serve to remind us of something important we’ve forgotten.

The other thing is that writing changes. The public’s taste in novels changes. That means the writing advice has to also change to keep up. John Gardner, author of one of the most popular writing books in history, realized this (although some of the people promoting his books don’t), when just before he died, he had lunch with his most famous pupil, Raymond Carver. At this lunch, he told Carver to “forget everything he’d taught him in college.” That “everything in writing had changed and that his advice then no longer applied.” And, he was exactly right. It’s too bad that there are tons of writing teachers in colleges world-wide that never saw this advice he gave Carver, because they’re still recommending his books to their students. That doesn’t mean they’re useless—they’re still very valuable, but only in context to his era. That’s the part they don’t tell their students. Probably because they don’t know or realize this. Much of what Gardner had to say is extremely valuable… and much of it isn’t. If he’d lived, he would have written other books on writing that would have refuted at least some of what he said in his earlier books. But, he didn’t. He died and his words are frozen in amber while the writing world has moved on in major ways.

And, so as not to mislead—I heartily recommend Gardner’s books on writing. But, in context. That means, read his, but read everything else in craft books, especially the current ones. Even the bad ones, but hopefully more of the good ones. The more you read, the more you’ll be able to sort out what works today and what doesn’t.

By the way, the single best piece of information on writing I’m aware of can be found by studying Richard Brautigan’s brilliant short story, “1/3, 1/3, 1/3.” If you read this and understand it, and more importantly, see yourself in the story, there aren’t enough craft books in the world to help you master the craft. You’ll see why Flannery O’Connor said in response to the interviewer who asked her if writing programs discouraged writers: “Not enough of them.”

Question: Last but not least, mandatory manly question: who wins a fight to death between a Ninja and a Viet-Cong?

Ha-ha. I wouldn’t have a clue! I know nothing about ninjas at all, except they have all these cartoons and chasey-fighty movies about them that some teenaged boys enjoy, and while I was in the Navy during the start of Viet Nam, I wasn’t stationed there, so know nothing about the Cong either. I suspect the Viet Cong dude would prevail, however. I’ve known several people who wear those cute little black suits designed by airy “artistic” types down at the dojo and who learn martial arts and never have worried about them too much—too often they seem to have taken up these activities because they either have a Napololeonic complex or have a history of getting shoved around and think that learning this stuff will make them bad, somehow. My knowledge of the Viet Cong is that they were serious dudes who would cut you down in a New York second without even thinking about it much. Plus, the few movies I’ve seen with ninja-like characters usually look like some choreographer who was a bit light in the loafers programmed their shit and when twenty of them attack a guy, they seem to favor doing so one by one, which always struck me as a curious way to fight and not a way I ever saw or was involved in down at the Dungeon in New Orleans. I think if they came up against a Viet Cong, he’d just kind of shake his head and mow them all down with his machine pistol. I do think that breaking boards and bricks and things is kind of cute, though.

To be honest, I don’t have much of an opinion of martial arts. I’ve known several guys who were into that stuff—both on the bricks and in the joint—and nobody takes them very seriously. I’m sure there are some who have an attitude and can back it up—I’ve just never met them, to my knowledge.

I remember a guy in high school whose dad was a state cop and who had him take all of these classes. Guy ended up a black belt in something or other. The guy was a first-class bully. He pulled some of his Karate Kid pink flamingo moves on me in school one day and I hit him up alongside the head with a rock the size of a baseball when we met up after school. I guess my black belt in rocks trumped his in Tai Kwon Whatever… I think a lot of those guys log in a lot of mirror time, looking at themselves practicing their “moves” and imagining themselves down at the beach kicking the ass of the guy who kicked sand in their faces in front of their little girlfriends.

I have a story about this guy. One night during my senior year of high school, I was living in the little town of Lakeville, about fifteen miles south of South Bend. One night I was up in South Bend partying and left for home about three ayem. When I hit the outskirts of town, I punched it and all the way home the speedometer stayed at 120 mph. There weren’t any other cars on the road so I had clear sailing. I’d just hit Lakeville and was making the turn on the far side, when a cop’s light went on behind me. I pulled over and up walks this state trooper.

He took me back to his car and started writing the ticket and talking to me. He said, “I’ve been chasing you ever since South Bend and I had you at 120 all the way.” I said, “Well, that’s kind of good news. Tells me my speedometer’s right ‘cause that’s what I had.” He handed me the ticket and I looked at the name and recognized it right away. It was the Karate Kid’s father. I told him I knew his son and we were great friends. We got to talking and he ended up tearing up the ticket and writing me a warning. True story. That wouldn’t happen today, of course. But, in those days and in that town everybody drove like that. And, we didn’t have the point system yet nor DUIs or any of that stuff. In fact, in Lakeville the Justice of the Peace was also the town barber and he’d let you pay your tickets off in installments. There wasn’t a single week out of the year when I wasn’t paying off several tickets at once.

A good friend of mine, “Hairs” Miller and I had a contest that year to see who could get the most tickets. Alas, I lost. I covered three walls of my bedroom with tickets and Hairs covered his entire bedroom, plus half of the ceiling. He had a ’55 Chevy and nobody could catch him.

I saw the trooper down at our teen hangout a few weeks after he’d given me the warning, and it turned out his son had told him that maybe we weren’t such great friends after all and that I’d been the guy who’d thumped him. He came up to me and told me if he ever caught me again, it wouldn’t be good for me. Luckily, he never did.

The guy was kind of a joke to begin with. He’d sent a good friend of mine to the joint a year or so before for life—the guy’d killed his mother and this guy was the cop who caught him—and my friend swore in court that if he ever got out he’d look him up and kill him. He wasn’t the first who’d told this guy something like that. There were a lot of guys in Pendleton and Michigan City who’d made the same threat and some of them were out. Anyway, this trooper ended up wiring his house and driveway and yard so that if anyone pulled up or moved in the yard, all the lights would come on in the house and outside and start flashing. He’d throw something on and come running out with his shotgun. All the kids in school knew it, and when we were out drinking at night, there were dozens of times we’d just whip into his driveway, watch the lights come flashing on, and then beat it out of there. Funny stuff!

There was a dude in Pendleton who, when he came into population the first day and out in the yard for recreation, started yapping about what a bad ass he was—had some kind of black or purple or rainbow-colored or whatever the big color is in those belts and he’d be walking along and whip out one of those “Cute Lil’ Tweety Bird Crouching Tiger” thingys, and all I saw was guys grinning and I gave him about a week before somebody turned him out. It was a lot sooner than that… And, I’m pretty sure they didn’t surround him with twenty guys and go at him one-on-one… On the other hand, if a Viet Cong had showed up in the yard and people knew it, I don’t see the same reaction happening… That’s a guy who’d get some respect.

The thing is, when a guy has to attend a school to learn how to fight, he’s probably not going to be a dude you have to give much thought to. It’s kind of like those guys who lift weights down at the gym. Gym muscles are cute, but I’d worry more about the fat slob or the anorexic dude who looks like a stiff breeze might knock him over and who doesn’t say much, but who you know has a nine under his arm and will use it. I suspect a lot of these guys spend a lot of time starring in the movies running through their heads… You can just tell…

Anybody you'd like to thank, regarding the release of THE RAPIST?

Absolutely! Cort McMeel and Francois Camoin for believing in me and this book; Jon Bassoff for the same and for putting his own reputation and own money behind it, which is always the truest test if someone believes in a book; a whole shitload of writers I respect for reading, blurbing and reviewing the book and giving it their blessings and high marks, and to Charles Bukowski and writers like him for showing me the way. And, of course I’d like to thank my readers. Without readers, writing is like having sex with yourself. The feedback you get for your performance is ultimately flawed.

Thank you for a wonderful forum and opportunity, Benoit. Thank you for pushing me to be honest and posing great questions.

That’s it, folks. Check out Benoir Lelievre at his Dead End Follies  for great interviews, book reviews, and all kinds of things on writing.

Hope you enjoyed this.

Blue skies,

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