Tuesday, April 29, 2014

INTERVIEW WITH TONY BLACK

Hi folks,

Haven't had much time to tend to the ol' blog and I'm getting ready to head out to Texas to participate in a workshop and a retreat in Dallas and on a dude ranch near San Antonio, so I thought I'd repost an interview I participated in with British bestselling author Tony Black. It's raw and nothing is held back in this one, so... beware...



Hey Les

Great you're up for the interview - it's a lengthy one, I hope that's okay!

Some of the questions aren't questions, more like statements: just comment on those, please.

I may fire over some follow-ups if that's okay.

Thanks again, you're a gentleman.

Tony.

Thank you, Tony, for this opportunityI appreciate it, sir! Especially from such a well-regarded and brilliant writer as yourself. As for the “gentleman” bit, you may change your mind after reading some of my answers…

I've done quite a few of these interviews now, Les, and I have to say this is the first where I don't know where to start - to say you've led a colourful life is a bit of an understatement . . .

Let's start at the start, then. You've said 'dysfunctional families germinate writers' - discuss . . .
I think if you talk to just about any writer worthy of the name, youll find they came from a dysfunctional family. Its a background that just germinates writers. Think about itif you grow up in a happy family, you wouldnt have anything to write about and youd probably end up selling insurance. Fiction is about one thing onlytroubleand if youve never had much trouble in your life, you wont have anything to write about or probably even understand what trouble is.
I was at a writers thing one time where Mary Karr (THE LIARS CLUB) was appearing and she made the statement that all writers come from a dysfunctional background. All of us writer-types standing around nodded sagely at this precept and then someone asked if she could define a dysfunctional family. Karr laughed and said, “Thats easy. A dysfunctional family is any family with more than two members.”
Tolstoy said it the best in ANNA KARENINA with the line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

My own family was fucked up in just about every way they could have been. My mother was a religious fanatic—“fanatic” isn’t a strong enough word for what she was and isand my father was basically a brute who abused me in just about every way you can imagine. My father didnt spank me. He whipped me with various objects, including a live king snake, and usually would taunt me to fist-fight him and when I got bigger would do the same saying that I ever whipped him, hed just go get a 2X4 and take care of me like that. Nice guy… My mother did her part in the abuse department, mostly emotionally and mentally.

Two years ago, at the age of 68, I discovered the man I had been told was my father all my life wasnt. To compound the injury, my mother named me after himIm a frickin junior!and to this day wont tell me who my real father is. However, she claims God has forgiven her. I guess lying to your son for all of his life doesnt require forgiveness in her mind…

A lot of writers also talk about the influence of a big reader in their family - I believe your grandmother was the big reader.
Yes. She had a library better than the public one in our town of Freeport, Texas. And, she didnt believe in limiting what I read because of some age bullshit. The first writer I read at the age of five was Guy de Maupassant. Never did the “Hardy Boys” thing like many kidsdidnt read one of those until I was in my twenties and out of curiosity. After I read one, Im thankful I wasnt given that to read for my first reading experience or I might have become… an insurance salesman…

And your mother force-fed you the bible three or four times a year, didn't she?
Well, we read the entire Bible three or four times a year. We read it every single dayan average of probably three chapters a day.

Did anything particularly stay with you from those Bible readings in childhood into your adult life?
Oh, absolutely. Until very recent times, most of our great Western literature owes much to the Bible and Shakespeare. I always feel kind of sorry for readers who arent familiar with the Bible when they read a work like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, as theyre missing a lot of the meat of a book like that. Not to mention Faulkner or James Lee Burke or any number of great writers.

I'm almost itching to ask you about the later stuff but the early experiences seem important to you - you moved about a lot when you were young, didn't you?
If by “a lot” you mean several times a year, then yep. One of my wives can remember her third grade teachers nameI dont even remember what state I was in in the third grade. Probably several. In fact, until I hit my forties, Id never lived in more than one place for more than two years max. I loved moving, especially when I got older in junior high and high school. It meant I got to reinvent myself each time and get rid of the stuff that I didnt like each time. It also meant a lot more action with the opposite sex. Girls in high school like the new guy. Hes exciting and exotic in a way ol Jimmy who theyve known since the first grade isnt. I always tried to take advantage of that.
You mentioned one of your wives - how many times have you been married?
Five times. One only lasted an hour so maybe I shouldn’t count that one… I guess I should explain that one now that I’ve mentioned it, right?
Well, Lucille (not her real name) and I had the kind of relationship that led to our splitting up. What I mean by that is that we each had interests the other didn’t share and we pursued those with others. For instance, Lucille liked to bowl and I’d rather get my toenails pulled out than go near a bowling alley. So, she had a male friend she went bowling with in a mixed-doubles league. No funny business going on—they just shared that interest. I love music—all kinds, from C&W, to rock, to opera, to classical—whatever. If it’s done well, I love all forms of music. At the time, I subscribed to the South Bend Symphony and attended their classical music symphonies. Lucille hated classical music, so I went with a female friend who also enjoyed it. Again, nothing sexual going on—just two friends who enjoyed the same thing.
Well, we lived together for quite a few months and got along wonderfully. From time to time, we talked about getting married but never did. And then, one Saturday night we had a “salad” party (that’s where all the guests bring 10-20 pills with them and dump them into a salad bowl and you just reach in and take a handful, not knowing what you’re taking… Needless to say, most folks get pretty fucked up. And we did. We woke up the next day, hung over, still high, and decided to get married. We drove up to Michigan, just across the line, and found a justice of the peace and got married.
We returned home, had a little “honeymoon” and then I took a shower and came out wearing a suit. “Where are you going?” Lucille said, and I reminded her that it was the last symphony of the year. “Oh,” she said. “Well, have a good time and I’ll see you when you get home.” And I left like that. Everything was hunky-dory.
When I got home, she was gone and had left an angry note. Something to the effect that I was an “insensitive bastard” for leaving on our wedding day and she never wanted to see me again. I figured out instantly what was going on. I figured she called her mom who hated me and told her the news and her mother probably said something like, “Let me speak to the groom,” and found out I’d gone to the concert and began yammering how “insensitive” I was, et al. I imagined that Lucille was just experiencing cold feet and I was pretty sure that if I just went over to her folks’ house and copped a few deuces, I could talk her into coming back.
But… I was having cold feet myself. Good riddance, I thought, and packed up my shit and drove down to my folks’ house. I spent the next day calling people to find a landing place and got hold of an old friend of mine in Bermuda—Wendell Burgess, a black gay guy—and he said, sure, Les—come on over and you can stay with me and work in my store. He owned a photography shop on Queen Street in Hamilton. Wendell was always a gentleman—I knew he wanted to nail me but had never been overbearing about it. I bought a plane ticket and flew to Bermuda and stayed with Wendell for a week and eventually got my own place and another job as a bouncer at Danny’s Hideaway, a sleazy bar (yes, Bermuda has sleazy bars…). I ended up living in Bermuda for about a year and got tired of it and came back to Indiana. When I got off the plane, I told the cabbie to take me to my folks’ place—I was going to stay there until I figured out where to go next—I was thinking Mexico maybe—and on the way there, I changed my mind and told the guy to drop me off at this bar in South Bend I used to hang out at. I thought maybe I’d run into some old friends and get a party going for that night.
Well, I walked into this bar and it was around noon and outside it was bright sunshine and inside it was dark, which made it hard to see. I sat down at the bar and saw there were only three of us there. Me, the bartender, and this girl sitting down at the other end. She looked attractive, so I called down to her and asked if I could buy her a drink and she said, sure. I picked up my drink and walked down and sat next to her and looked at her closer and she looked familiar but I couldn’t place her. “Hey, cookie,” I said. “You’re going to think this is the biggest cornball line you’ve ever heard, but you really look familiar.” She looked at me, laughed, and said, “I should. We used to be married.”
It was Lucille! As soon as I realized that, I grabbed her drink and said, “Gimme that. I’m not buying you a drink.” Well, I was just kidding—I slid it back and laughed.
As it turned out, what had been just a regular neighborhood bar when I left town had been changed into a stripper club and she was working there as a stripper. It was her day off and she’d just come in early to pick up her check.
We talked and I found out what had happened. When I left, her dad tried to get our marriage annulled, but since we’d gone out of state, they wouldn’t allow it, so they had to file for a divorce. It took six weeks to get the divorce—based on abandonment. So, technically, I was married for six weeks, but since I was only with her about an hour after I said “I do” I count it as my hour marriage…
And, she wanted to get together, go out, but I said no. I don’t do strippers. Are you kidding? Only losers do strippers!

Do you think you were you sub-consciously gathering material for your writing when you were on the road?
Nothing subconscious about it at all. It was a decidedly conscious effort. Ever since I read my first book I knew I was going to be a writer and have never wavered for a second from that. And, up until a few years ago, I believed that the way you became a better writer was by accumulating experiences, a la the Jack London School of Writing, and thats all I was ever after. A few years ago, I read a Flannery OConnor interview in which she said that if a person grew up in the same house in the same town for her first seventeen years, she had all the material shed ever need as a writer. Kind of wish Id heard that long agoit would have saved me a lot of grief!

I name checked the Kerouac novel there to be a smart-arse - you do believe writing should be experiential, don't you?
Of course. If its not, its not writing. Its typing.

There's plenty of material in Les Edgerton's experience, can we take a few highlights - or lowlights - and talk about them? Let's start with your time working as a gigolo 'servicing older women' . . .
I dont know if Id term it as being a “gigolo.” Well, maybe it was. What happened was one of those strokes of luck. I had one of my girlfriends, Cat, stab another girlfriend, Rachele, and almost kill her and try to nail me as well. I got the knife away from her and took Rachele to the emergency room. When I was waiting there, Racheles mom showed up with this guy and told me that if Rachele died, I would too and the guy with her would be the one to render me room temperature. Turns out, she was connected and thats exactly what this guy would have done. Well, its what he would have tried to doI wasnt exactly helpless. Anyway, Rachele pulled through and we began to date heavier, which was tricky as she couldnt move much or shed pull her stitches out. Anyway, she and her mother both worked for a guy who was kind of a criminal kingpin. He had a cottage industry where he hired older women like Racheles mom to make these fishing lures in their home ala piece work, and to grease the deals with the national buyers of stores like K-Mart, he gave the buyers lots of coke and weed. He also had a regular drug business and used people like Rachele when they were under the age of 18 to transport his drugs from Houston to New Orleans. If they got busted, since they were underage theyd just get probation and hed never use them again. Rachele was over 18 but had never been caught, so she was still working for him.
Well, after she got out of the hospital, I started going with her to Houston and that was an experience. Wed go to this Quonset hut warehouse with tons and tons of weed piled high and all of these illegal aliens moving pallets of weed around with forklifts. Quite a sight. Anyway, the guy who Rachele and her mother worked for and me got to be friends and he had another sideline businessan escort service where young studly dudes like myself went out with older, wealthy women. Id made several stag movies years ago when I was 18 and living in Bermuda and he found out about that and asked me to work for the escort business.
It forces you to learn to be creative in the sack . . . My favorite client was the heir to the famous Ponchartrain Hotelshe was in her eighties and actually still fairly good-looking. She took me to Puerta Vallarta with her and her girlfriend. She rented the villa that used to belong to Richard Burton and Liz Taylor and it was a really fun week!
That's a book right there, Les . . .
I think you’re right. And, I have one…
I'm serious, you've led the kind of life that if it was put on the screen people would accuse you of making it up . . . is there a memoir on the cards?
I’ve had a memoir written for years, titled ADRENALINE JUNKIE. Just looking for the right publisher. Actually, it was sold at one point to the University of North Texas Press. You may find this story interesting.
I’d sold my first two works of fiction to UNT—a novel and a collection of short stories—and the editor, Charlotte Wright and the publisher, Fran Vick, signed Adrenaline Junkie—except it was titled MY SECRET LIFE in those days. That’s because I was hiding my past from everyone in those days. I thought it would hurt me for jobs and stuff (like dating so-called “decent” girls) if people knew I was an ex-con.
Anyway, they sent me a contract and I was assigned a copy editor and we began to work on an edit. A couple of weeks after this happened, Fran retired and Charlotte resigned to take the job as managing editor of the University of Iowa Press, a position she still holds.
That week, I took a trip to Hollywood to meet Paul Bennett, who had just signed me as my manager for film projects. I happened to have the hard copy of my memoir as I was doing edits on it and told him of the sale and he asked if he could read it. The next morning, he told me he’d stayed up all night and read it straight through. Anyone who knows anything about Hollywood knows these guys never read, so that was a huge compliment. Before Paul became a manager, he’d been the V.P. of HBO and was the guy who created the Comedy Relief specials. He asked if I’d mind if he showed my mss to his best friend, the president of HBO. Uh… duh? Of course, I said.
Well, this guy called Paul the next morning and said he’d done the same as Paul. Stayed up all night reading it. And these guys never read anything! Paul had told him it was sold to UNT and he asked that I not show it to anyone else in the movie industry, that they wanted it. He told Paul that it “was a Permanent Midnight, but with balls.” He said they wanted to wait until it was published and gathered reviews and perhaps some awards or nominations so that it had an audience and that they’d make the film.
Great news, eh? Well, not so much as it turned out…
A week or so after I returned home, the editor who had been assigned to me dropped off my grid. Didn’t return emails and then phone calls. I finally got hold of the new chief editor and my world fell apart. He claimed they couldn’t “find my contract,” so I didn’t have one. In a panic, I called Charlotte at Iowa and she said she’d been expecting my call. She said the new guy was doing the same thing to all the authors she’d signed. That he wanted his own stable of writers and was claiming to not have contracts for us. Which was insane, since book contracts there had to be vetted and okayed by their board of trustees or regents or whatever. I couldn’t find my contract as my bookkeeping and record-keeping is… well… bad. I know it’s here still somewhere, but where in the stacks of papers and books I don’t have a clue. Charlotte said she’d be glad to send me a copy of it and she also said that since I did have a contract, I could sue and they’d have to publish it. But, she said, “Do you want someone to publish your book who doesn’t want to?”
Well, no, I said. I guess not. I called my then-agent and told him what happened and he said not to worry. He’d find a publisher for it. But, first, he wanted to sell a new novel of mine and then he’d get a new publisher and for a lot more money. So, I ceased talking to UNT and got on with my life.
Wait. It gets worse… My agent at the time—Jimmy Vines—took the novel I’d just written, titled THE PERFECT CRIME, and thought it was so good he put it up for auction. That was an exciting time. I was getting phone calls every five minutes from him with updates. Finally, it came down to between St. Martin’s and Random House as the others dropped out. St. Martin’s offered $50,000 and Random House offered $45,000. Jimmy gave me my choice and I made the worst decision of my life. I took the lower offer because… it was Random House.
St. Martin’s wanted to publish it as it was—not change a single comma. In fact, they wanted at least two more books with the character.
The editor who took it for Random House was Scott Moyer who had just come over from Villard as a senior editor and mine was the first book he signed for R.H. Later, I don’t think he’d even read it—I don’t know this for sure, but I think he just got caught up in the excitement of the auction and bid on it. First thing he did was change the title to OVER EASY. He thought there’d be more and since it was set in New Orleans he changed the title to reflect the town (the Big Easy).
Ann Godoff, the president of R.H. called my agent and told him she loved the book and that when it came out it would not only be a bestseller, it would come out at #1 on the bestseller list. She could promise that because she said bestseller lists are determined by copies printed, not sales. It would be coming out simultaneously in paper from Ballantine and hardcover from R.H. And they were printing 50,000 copies in paper and 5,000 in hardback, which would guarantee it would open at #1. Big stuff for what they considered a first novel. My future was assured! At the time, I owned a hairstyling salon and we were at the point where our five-year lease was up and I had to make a decision whether to keep on cutting hair or become a full-time writer. I made the wrong decision… But, I had a deal from R.H., had a memoir that HBO wanted and what better time?
Sorry this has turned into a book on its own! Anyway, to make a long story somewhat short, during that period Bertlesmann bought Random House and they began jettisoning books. Mine among them. I ended up getting $12,500 in my first installment and never a dime after that. They cancelled the book. Which I’d rewritten eight times for Moyer. At the end, he said, “I wish you wrote like Russell Banks.” That’s when I lost it for the first time and fired off an angry email and that was the end of our “relationship.”
A few years ago, I talked to an old-school agent I respect very much and told him the story and he nodded and said it made perfect sense from his own experiences with them. He said that Random House always put out this fiction that they never turned down a book once it was contracted for but that they did it all the time, only used other reasons to turn them down so they could maintain that fiction. Live and learn… The thing is, it’s impacted my life financially and up to this very day.
My agent, Jimmy, said he’d never heard of such shoddy treatment of an author and that he’d never deal with Random House again. That should have tipped me off as to where he was, but it didn’t. He was going to refuse business with the biggest house in the business because of what they did to this little unknown in Indiana? In those days I guess I had just fallen off the turnip truck…
Which leads me (finally!) to the end of this. Because the novel deal disintegrated, my memoir lay languishing in a drawer. Where it’s lain until today…
One more thing. In your question, you said: “…if it was put on the screen people would accuse you of making it up.” You’re right. Especially after James Frey and all that mess. In fact, a good friend of mine, writer Bob Stewart, read it and said he believed it all except one part where I describe a day where I went to bed with five different girls. Well, I’d toned it down just for that reason. It was actually seven girls and I know that people judge other’s lives by their own so they probably wouldn’t believe the truth, simply because of their own experiences. When Bob said that, I knew I couldn’t win, so I said fuck it and rewrote the truthful version.
The thing is, I’ve had weeks in my life where more happened than in other people’s entire lives. I’ve really done some shit—major shit. And a great deal of it isn’t in the memoir. It would simply be too long and I’ve left off the past thirty years as it is. It’s a memoir, not an autobiography. I really always have been an adrenaline junkie and sought out experiences. And, I’ve toned down everything in it—lowered the volume—but I know there are going to be those who think I’ve embellished things or even made them up. People really do judge other people by their own experiences.

You're very frank about your past, how do you view your time as a drug dealer and as a burglar now? You served time for housebreaking, I believe.
NoI was never a home creeper! I did over 400 burglaries but they were all second-degree burglariesbusinesses. In Indiana youre a moron if you burglarize houses (first-degree burglary). At the time, if you got caught doing second-degree burglary, there were two possible sentences2-5 or 1-10. Homecreepers drew sentences of ten and a quarter (10-25). And, for what? Grabbing some fucked-up TV you couldnt sell and getting a hernia carrying it out to the car? No thanks! I ended up getting a 2-5.
I sold drugs, off and on, for a long time. Mostly heroin and weed, although at the end coke was becoming big and I moved coke as well.
As to how I view it, I see it as a mostly fun time. Id still be doing it, but dont like the downside as much as I used to. Im not an outlaw these days because I had some kind of “coming to Jesus” moment, but only because Im too old to jail these days. The food mostly sucks.

The low point came when you found yourself homeless, eating out of a dumpster . . .
That was just one low point of many! You’re referring to the time I was homeless in Costa Mesa, California, I presume. I was also homeless in Baltimore and in New Orleans. Thats no big deal, really. The lowest point was probably in New Orleans when my partner took off with both our halves of a coke deal and that represented my rent money. Turned out he lost it gambling. Every day for three days, I approached him at night, sitting out by the pool at our complex drinking beer and he didnt have my money. If I couldnt pay my rent Id be out on the street and I knew the only way Id survive would be by holding somebody up and if I got caught Id end up at The Farm in Angola. Did not want to end up there . . . So, I took a straight edge to him and chased him all around the complex, trying to give him a second smile. I was dead serious and he kind of knew it. One of the girls I was screwing at the time came in and broke it up and I gave him two hours to get me my money or we were going to do this all over again, and he did. That to me was probably the low point. Also, there was a group of off-shore riggers in one of the apartments who I owed part of the money to (wed ripped them off in our dealstepped on the coke a bit too much and got caught at it) and if I didnt get caught pulling a robbery or something to survive, they would have exed me. That was kind of tense. Homeless isnt that big of a deal. Theres better food in most of our Dumpsters than many third world folks will ever get to enjoy . . .
You paint a picture of yourself, back then anyway, as what we'd ironically call a 'charmer' over here, but I've read your work and there's some deeply sensitive writing in there: how do you explain the contradiction?
I don’t see a contradiction at all, Tony. Here’s the deal. I’m smart. Really smart. My I.Q. is 163. That means I’m a really good actor and to be a good actor means you’re blessed with great empathy and insight into others. That doesn’t necessarily mean the same as sympathy. It just means I can put myself in almost anyone else’s shoes and see instantly their motivations, understand their behavior, etc. And, take advantage of it. I can do the same in my writing. I can write just about any character and be believable, simply because I understand that person and know what makes him tick. Most people are ridiculously easy to figure out. I’ve always been able to do that. Since I’ve moved so often all my life, I’ve built up very, very few friendships and created no “legacies” anywhere, simply because I was never in one place very long and never developed any relationships. If I run into a person I knew in the joint, he’ll have an entirely different image of me than the student I taught at the University of Toledo. Or the two teachers I did a three-way with every lunch hour in Warsaw, Indiana… They all know a different person.

Were you rebelling against your sensitive side because you perceived it as a weakness, and if so, when did it become a strength?
Yes. Like I said earlier, when you move a lot, you have the opportunity to reinvent yourself each time and I always did. I’ve been a lot of different people and will continue to be. It becomes a strength simply because you make it a strength. It’s that easy and it’s that simple.

Despite reaching your nadir, over and over, the thing that strikes me about you is your lack of bitterness or anger. You do have the Hemingway bullshit detector installed though, don't you?
I think so. Plus, why get pissed? I got myself into whatever trouble I got into, and I knew the chances I was taking, so why would I get mad or bitter? Its just part of the deal. Its a clichĂ©, but real criminals really do believe in the adage, “Dont do the crime if you cant do the time.”
Ive been shot at, shot back, chased by cops, beaten by cops, had folks trying to stab me, been in prison, all kinds of stuff, but each time it was because of a choice I made consciously and knowing the downside. Insurance salesmen dont end up in those situations as a rule. So any trouble Ive had was created by myself. Nobody to blame but me! And, thats fine. Its just the cost of doing business as an outlaw. The rewards at the time far outweighed the downside. When youre an outlaw, youre about as free as anyone can ever be and it feels really, really good! And, my choices were made at a time when outlaws had honor. That seems to be disappearing today. I see these punks on TV whove just been busted and . . . theyre crying! What kind of sissy cries? Thats a guy whose end I can foresee once he gets in the joint . . .
That's the third time you've mentioned insurance salesmen . . . they really are the epitome of the shiny-arsed suit, aren't they?

Yeah, kinda. I actually sold insurance at one time. And, was good at it. In fact, a guy told me awhile back that they still use a video for training that they had me make when I was a salesman and that was 30-40 years ago. There’s a thing they want you to do and that’s to gather as many referrals as you can with each policy sale. I was the king of referrals. They wanted you to try to get at least one for each sale and if you could get three that was super. I averaged seven, so they asked me to do a video showing my technique.
I used the same techniques when I was a hairstylist. I have three books on building a salon business that still sell well and send me great royalties each year.
There’s just no challenge in selling insurance. It’s frickin’ boring. If a person has any intelligence at all, it’s a get-rich-quick shuck. The thing is, money has never ever been my motivator or goal and never will be. Money’s easy to make if that’s what a person wants. I just never did. How many cars can you drive, how many suits can you wear, how many beds can you sleep in at one time? What’s the point of money? I just don’t get it. It just seems so… average. Shallow. It’s like when I was robbing places. I never did it for the money. Didn’t need the money. I did it for the thrill.

Publishing is a business you've spoken of in the past, you see through the smoke and mirrors don't you?
I think so. Because publishing is run by people that means it has all the strengths and all the weaknesses anything else does in which human beings are in charge. Unfortunately, today, publishing is powered by the bottom line. It wasnt always so. What a lot of folks dont realize is that publishing never in history has made a lot of money for the folks who ran it. The average net profit by the ones who made a profit was less than three percent. A smart investor would run from anything like publishing. Publishing houses werent run to make money in those days, although they tried their best to do so. If a bright young person wanted to get rich, they didnt go into publishing. Publishing in former years was a largely idealized profession. Run by people who valued literature above everything. Thats whats changed. Except for a very few, its now run by beancounters. Profit goes before everything. And, thats whats killing the business, in my opinion. There are no more Bennett Cerfs or John Martins . . . at least in the traditional publishing milieu, the so-called Legacy 6. These guys are springing up in the indie pressesguys like Jon Bassoff, Allan Guthrie, Eric Campbell, Cort McMeel and Brian Lindenmuth and a few others, but very few in traditional publishing. At least not to my knowledge.

How do you feel the current business model is holding up?
Not too well. Kind of on its last legs. B&N is about to fold and then what? Look at where their prime floor space is going these days. Not to books. To Nooks. To figure out where publishing is going just look at whats going on in the brick-and-mortar stores. Fairly accurate forecast.
It can be quite a depressing experience going into a book store now, almost as depressing as listening to the people from the Legacy 6 talking about them. In the UK book stores now account for only 30% of paper sales but there's a lot of evidence to say readers are using them to browse . . . I heard one CEO seriously advance the idea of charging readers to browse. This is the stupidity we're up against . . .
You’re right, Tony, and the stupidity is ginormous… There are a lot of clever and smart people but not that many who are truly intelligent. There’s a big difference. The CEO who proposed this idea is a prime example of the kind of person we used to call, “penny-wise and dollar-ignorant.”

Is the future digital?
Oh, it seems quite clear that it is. Although, I think it will be a combination of digital and print. Theyll work out a mix that makes sense eventually, I think.
The 'attraction' of a big publisher seems almost lost on me now but when I started out it was the only gig in town; the shift's been seismic but publishing doesn't seem to have noticed the elephant in the room, or does it?
Oh, I think they notice it, but they studiously ignore it, hoping it will go away. It won’t.

Is it harder now to make a living as a writer, or easier?
I dont think its ever been easy to make a living wholly as a writer. Very few writersno matter at what place in historyhave been able to make a living just from their writing. Ray Carver, one of our best writers was unable to and this was several decades ago. Except for a handful, the way writers make money isnt from sales of their books, but by appearances and talks and teaching gigs and that kind of thing.

I believe you were about to give up on your ambition to get into print when it happened . . . the advice that changed gears for you was to write every day.
I didnt realize that writing was a job. I approached it the way a lot of wannabes dowaiting for the muse to descend. Id get things published, but it was sporadic and not regular. I was just about to throw in the towel when a friend who knew how much writing meant to me had a talk with me. She told me if Id just write every single day that in a week Id find I couldnt not write. She asked if I was a joggerfoolish question!and when I said no, she said it was just like jogging. She said if you jog every day for one week, thereafter you couldnt not jog. It would feel like missing a meal or worse. I was desperate at the time and I had heard the same advice over and over and it always went in one ear and out the other. But this time, I was desperate. So, I tried it. And she was right. At the end of the week, I absolutely couldnt go a day without writing. And, thats continued to this day. If my wife diedand I love her more than anything in the worldId be devastated, but Id still write that day.
When I began writing every day, I began getting published regularly. Direct correlation. Writings a job, just like plumbings a job. You never hear of “plumbers block” because it doesnt exist any more than writers block exists. Plumbers dont always feel like going to work, but they do anyway. There are many days when a plumber doesnt feel like sending that snake down the drain but they do. And thats the same thing writers need to do if they want to be successful on a regular basis. Get over what you “feel like doing.” Just frickin do it.

What other lessons did you learn about being a writer from the process of writing?
For myself, not to buy into that common advice to “just get it down lickety-split and then go back and fix it”. For my writing to work, I have to make sure its as perfect as I can make it before I go on to the next page.
For another, never assume youve arrived or that youve learned everything you can about writing. Not possible if you live ten lifetimes and even if you were somehow able to . . . it would soon change. The only constant about writing is that it changes.

You've written two books on how to write and coached several writers - can writing be taught?
Absolutely. To a certain level. That said, there are some things in writing that I dont believe can be taught. Recently, I read an article by a sports writer who related an anecdote he had while interviewing Barry Bonds. It was during his record year when he hit 73 home runs and was after the occasion of Bonds 52nd homer of the year. The writer described the situation which amounted to an impossible feat where Bonds hit a pitch off the handle of his bat for a home run that no one else in baseball could have with that particular pitch. He asked Bonds if hed tell him how he did it and Bonds simply said, “No. Im not going to waste my time and yours trying to tell you.
Bonds went on to say that there are some things in hitting you cant teach. That you either “have it” or you dont, and this was one of those “you dont” instances. He wasnt being arrogant, but just truthful. There are some things that cant be taught and that dont fit within parameters or rules. It amounts to a gift or a superior intellect or a talent only that person has been granted. And, its this way in any art form. There are certain things in writing that not everyone can do or master. And those are the folks whose work lives on and on. Does anyone seriously think that Faulkner can teach another writerno matter how good or even brilliantto write as well as he did? Dont think so.

Have you ever had to advise a student to give up?
Sure. Not in those words, probably, but if the work sucks I say so. And kind of in that language. The thing is, if anyoneincluding mecan make a writer quit writing by what we say to them, that person was never going to be a writer anyway. If it was my words to them that made them quit, then I think I just saved them a lot of timeIm pretty sure they would have figured out eventually that they didnt have what it takes.
The thing is, today the culture tries to tell everyone theyre “special” and that they can do anything they set their minds to. Well, life just aint like that. If everybodys special, then no one is. If everybody was capable of becoming a good writer, then it doesnt have much value. But, writing does have value and its because not everyone can do it. Often, its not simply a lack of talent but a lack of a work ethic and lack of a thick skin. And, I dont waste much time worrying about those folks. Theyre probably better off if they learn something theyre more suited for, like plumbing or brain surgery. Or selling insurance. Its a hard world out there and having people tell you isnt doesnt do anyone any favors.

Do you work to an outline when you write or are you a seat of the pants author?
Outline, absolutely. But not the kind most people think of. Writing a novel requires a huge devotion of time in ones life. Why would I want to waste it? The outline I use is the same one I require my students to use. It consists of 15-20 words. None of those Roman numeral Comp I things. It consists of five statements. The first is the inciting incident that creates the protagonists story problem. The next three are the three main turning points every novel has, and the fifth statement is the resolution which must contain a win and a loss. Thats it. It gives the writer a road map and it also gives the writer enormous freedom. It also forces the writer to put some thought into the novel and not just start off pedaling. Just like I wouldnt set out for a long road trip to say Adak, Alaska, I wouldnt set off on the long journey that writing a novel requires without a map. If I did, Id probably end up in San Diego or Nova Scotia instead of my destination.
There have been many writers who claim to be “pantsers.” Hemingway, for example. He took great pride in the fact that he didnt outline. Except . . . he did. The thing is, his outlines were about 100,000 words long and he didnt call them or think of them as outlines, but referred to them as “draft 1, draft 2, draft 3 . . . draft 8.” Same exact thing as an outline, but to my way of thinking a huge waste of time.

What about the actual process of compiling a word count - do the words come easy?
Not sure what you mean by “compiling a word count” Tony. I dont set myself limits each day for so many words. I get up at about five am and write all day until about six in the evening. Seven days a week. Some days I get a page or two and others I might get twenty to thirty or more. As for the words coming easy, almost always they do.
I just mean getting the words on the page . . . how long does it take you to write a typical novel?
It used to take an average of a year, year and a half. Now that I’ve developed an outline system and make each page as perfect as I can before going on to the next, about three-four months.

I mentioned the typical novel there but after having just read your latest - The Rapist - I wonder if there is such a thing as a typical Les Edgerton work. The Rapist is a quite exceptional novel.
Thank you, TonyI really appreciate that! Im also not sure what a “typical” work for me would be. A lot of people today are only familiar with my last few novels, but Ive also written a coming-of-age novel, a YA semi-horror novel, several baseball books, business books, etc. My first story collection, Monday’s Meal (which I consider my best work probably) would be considered “literary” and wasthe NY Times compared me to Raymond Carver and several universities did studies on it and it got starred review in places like the Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, etc.
A couple of years ago, I did a workshop with Don Maass and we were talking and having a drink and he knew I was looking for a new agent and asked why I didnt approach him. Because, I said, I know you want your authors to keep writing the same kind of book and establish a “brand” and I dont ever want to do that. I have too many interests to be limited like that. Don agreedthat was exactly what he and most agents wantit just makes easier and more profitable marketing and establishing a readershipand were still friends. If I ever wanted to write the same book over and over, Id look him up in a nanosecond, but I dont, and my current agent, Chip MacGregor understands this and its fine with him. Well, I know hed rather I become a brand and keep writing the same kind of book, but he knows Im not going to…

Where did the idea for The Rapist come from?
I had two stories in mind that provided the impetus. The first was a brilliant short story of Charles Bukowskis, “The Fiend,” and the second was the ending in Richard Brautigans novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur.
I feel that Bukowskis story is the bravest example of literature Ive ever read and wanted to see if I could match his guts in writing it. Brautigans ending in his brilliant novel represented the best definition Ive ever read for our existence and God and humanity and whats really going on in the universe. Just tried to marry them up.

Even talking about the book now I have a slight uneasiness about the title and it's not a pretty subject - I'm presuming it was a hard sell . . .
Actually, I thought it would be but as it turned out, it wasnt difficult at all. I wrote it 26 years ago and didnt send it out for that very reason. I had an advisor, Dr. Francois Camoin, at Vermont College when I was getting my MFA, and I showed it to him and he said pretty much what I thought as well. He said he thought it was a brilliant book but that Id have trouble finding a publisher for it, but that if I persevered I would and when it came out, it would win literary awards. He also said hed suggest I seek a European publisher as he didnt think the average American sensibility would “get it.” He thought it fit perfectly the French intellect and I do as well.
It is a hard sell to the public because of the title and I knew it would be going in. However, Im the poster boy for being against anything politically correct, so if it suffers in sales because of the title, so be it. Itll keep the kind of mushhead that follows PCism out of the pages of it so thats good and worth the tradeoff.

You handle the story with a kind of matter-of-factness that's unavoidable - were you consciously employing this as a shock tactic?
Nope. Its just the way I see the world. A psychologist would call me a sociopath or psychopath. Actually, thats pretty much what the prison shrink in Pendleton called me. Probably accurate . . . I just cant get all worked up about death or crime. Its just part of life. I have pretty much an amoral view of the world. Shit happens . . . Get over it . . .

The prose in The Rapist is beautiful - it really set me in mind of Nabokov - rhythms in your prose are obviously important, how hard do you work at those?
Not at all. I just . . . write. That sounds arrogant and if so, so be it. Writing has always come easily to meI imagine its because Ive read voraciously all my life. Its how we learn to writeby readingand so the rhythms and all of that are pretty well ingrained in my brain and subconscious. I really dont think about much when Im writing. Just get it down. I dont rewrite at all. Just about every book Ive written is the way it came out in the first draft. Like Bonds, I cant explain to anyone how I hit a particular home run nor teach them how to. I can just do it.
And, however others judge my writing, its been the same since I began. I have a story in my story collection, Monday’s Meal, that I wrote when Id just turned 13, titled “Hard Times.” The only change I made was the title. Originally, it was “A Mothers Love” but in the interim between when it was written and when it was published I learned a bit more about melodrama and therefore toned down the title a bit. Other than that, I sat down and wrote it in one day then and havent changed a word since then. I think if you read it, youd think I just wrote it last week.
Up until recently, I wasnt quite as honest as I am these days about my writing, and tried to come across as this humble, self-effacing dude. I turned 70 a month ago and something has happened to me. Im pretty sure I dont have long to gohave severe COPD among other thingsand suddenly its important to me that I say exactly what I think. Like Bonds, I feel I have a gift and I no longer want to sugarcoat things and pretend Im something Im not. That pisses folks off, but at this point, so what . . . Not enough writers are pissing people off these days, methinks. Its become a lost art. Were all too concerned about building those “platforms and gaining “friends.” Ive got enough friends and most of them just want to borrow my lawnmower. The friends I cultivate mostly are writers I admire and respect.
I also think that too often we want to combine the author and the work in one. As in the work defines the person behind it. I hope that Im more than that. At least my wife doesnt confuse the two . . . I have more than one author whose work I absolutely adore and have absolutely no desire to hang out with them or adopt their politics. And, Im pretty sure they feel the same about me. And, thats perfectly all right.
What means a lot to me is when you give my work a compliment as you did above, Tony. In my view, this isnt praise from some anonymous Amazon reviewer who doesnt have a clue what theyre talking about, but represents an opinion I value because I value the level of work the person delivers to the world.
It’s genuine praise, Les . . . but back to you: you mentioned ageing there, and you’re obviously at time of life where you’re appraising what’s gone - how do you feel about the body of work you’re created and, not to be too morbid, how it will be viewed and represent you when you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil?
I hope it will be seen as worthy. But, who knows? Nobody knows. Richard Brautigan certainly didn’t. Herman Melville certainly didn’t. John Kennedy Toole didn’t have a clue. It’s not up to us. I don’t know who it’s up to!
But, I’m angry at this point in life, even though earlier I claimed not to be. I lied. Why am I angry? Because I could have written so much more. I didn’t know that one loses energy at this time of life. The kind of energy required to write well. When you’re younger, you don’t realize how physical writing is. I mean, we’re either just picking up a pen or typing on a keyboard. It’s not digging ditches, exactly. And yet, it requires enormous strength and energy that you don’t realize until you begin to lose it.
I’m angry at just about everything these days! I wouldn’t have said this even five years ago, but time is running out and it’s important to me now to be truthful.
I’m tired of all the posers. A good example is my latest book, THE RAPIST. I had thirty-one of what I consider some of the world’s best writers give it rave blurbs before it was published. Since it’s gone up for sale on Amazon, it’s garnered 22 reviews and every single one is a five-star. And, all are from writers and readers I respect.
So what am I angry at? Well, if this many writers and intelligent readers think it’s a great book, how is it that no publisher except folks like Jon Bassoff and Brian Lindenmuth wanted to publish it? The same thing applies to my novel, THE BITCH. This is a great novel. I say that without reservation. I know it is. So how come an agent can’t move it; how come a publisher doesn’t see the worth of it? Who are these people running publishing? Many writers of worth feel exactly as I do, but no one wants to be the one on record saying so. Well, I don’t give a fuck.
And, it’s not just the FIFTY SHADES OF BULLSHIT kinds of books that I’m angry about. Those kinds of cultural phenomenons are always going to be around. It’s the novels in the same genre as I write in that get published that people praise and they’re absolutely mediocre. More and more, I think there are no editors left who actually have a bit of acumen and who love books and ideas. In other words, there don’t seem to be any geniuses left in publishing. Or at least any who have a set of balls.
The gatekeepers today are mostly mediocre as a group. That’s why they’re failing. They’re putting out mediocre products because they really don’t know what’s good and what isn’t. And, they’re worried more about their 401(k)s than they are in their work. It must be absolutely miserable in those folk’s bathrooms when they face their mirrors in the morning.
I’m just… pissed. Time to take my meds, I guess…

The Rapist's protagonist is something of a Humbert Humbert from Nabokov's Lolita; you've claimed the literary novel is dead but this is an unashamed literary novel, is it not?

Im glad you used Nabokov for your example, Tony, as I subscribe to his view on literature wholeheartedly. He said he didnt believe in any genre other than “good writing” and “bad writing.” I feel precisely the same.
I also understand the comparison to Humbert and others have made the same observation. Personally, I think Truman compares more closely to the Bukowski character Martin in “The Fiend.” Which reminds memy dream of complete and utter success would be to do the same as Bukowski did and collaborate with the brilliant artist R. Crumb in a joint work. If anyone out there is friends with Mr. Crumb . . . The Rapist, I think, would be right up his alley . . . Id love to send him a copy . . .
Market-wise, literary fiction is over. If folks dont believe that, look at the sales figures. Look at the shelf space literary fiction is given these days in comparison to other books. Its been drastically cut back just in the past seven years and is being cut back even more.
But, it hasnt. Its only been reduced if you buy the academics definition of literary fiction. Their silly definition that literary fiction is “character-based” while genre or “commercial” fiction is “plot-based” or driven. Thats a wholly bogus definition to begin with. Character and plot are equally important and each depends on the other in equal proportion in any worthwhile book and the emphasis of one over the other doesnt determine if its literary or commercial, except in the minds of the definer. Plotcausal plot--is simply what reveals and defines character. Its how the character reacts and acts toward the obstacles encountered in the story that deliver a character and a character arc. If there is no or if there is little plot, then its not “literary” at all. In fact, its largely unreadable. Those kinds of books are simply a writer regurgitating his or her largely bullshit thoughts as he contemplates his boring-ass navel that no one except writers of like ilk care anything about, and they only care about it as it reflects the stuff theyre typing and hope some other mindless literary type publishes.
Writers like Joe Lansdale, Allan Guthrie, Ray Banks, James Lee Burke, Tom Franklin, Neil Smith, Richard Godwin, Paul D. Brazillyourself, for Gods sakes!--and a thousand other writers are writing gorgeous fiction that in any intelligent view of what is literary and what is not, is just thatliterary fiction, provided the definition simply means the best writing. The academics dont consider it such, but who cares what they think except for a few, under-read college freshmen who havent yet learned to think for themselves and make their own value judgments?
Part of the problem is that by and large, the great unwashed no longer have much faith in their own acumen in deciding whats good and what isnt. Therefore, they rely on pompous pedants in telling them whats “good.” Another part of the problem is that the big awardsthe Booker, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the Governor-Generals Award and the likeare almost always given to books by academics, particularly left-leaning academics (thats an oxymoron, isnt it?), and books that are actually entertaining are almost always never on the lists.
Even the lesser awards are usually determined by what a writer-friend of mine called “clubitis.”
Those things are virtually all about politics these days and have very little to do with storytelling. Well, Id rather be known as a good storyteller than just about anything else.
Well, now that Ive pissed just about everybody off… Im off to open a bottle of Jack… Sorry to be so arrogant and self-absorbed, but since this is maybe one of my last chances to go on the record and say what I really think, so be it.
Thank you again for this opportunity, Tony. I appreciate it.

Well, that was it, folks. Hope to see some of you in Texas!
Blue skies,
Les




2 comments:

Sarah Faurote said...

Great interview. When Les' memoir comes out, it will be fab. Thank you to Tony Black for such a great interview.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sarah! Wish you could go to Texas and hang out with us!