Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Hi folks,

I wanted to share some stuff with you about my brothers and sisters inside the walls. If you can help spread awareness of this, please do. It's a great program.

Do you work at a community or public radio station? Does a friend? April is National Poetry Month and we think the Prison Poetry Workshop radio series should be broadcast into homes and prison cells across the country.  
The Prison Poetry Workshop
Sit in any prison classroom or recreation room and ask: How many writers are in the room? How many people are writing rhymes or poems? Carefully-folded pieces of paper come out of pockets – words written in tightly stylized handwriting. As we listen to these poems we realize they hold a deep significance to our understanding of American culture and its tradition of democratic arts.
Prison Poetry Workshop is a public radio show hosted by journalist Rend Smith, and travels across the country exploring the rich history and stories connected to the prison poetry literary form.
To access the full series on PRX: http://www.prx.org/series/33451-prison-poetry-workshop
If you’re not on prx.org, you can download episodes at this link: http://prisonpoetryworkshop.org/episodes/ or contact us directly(nick@workingnarratives.org) for help..
Don’t have time for the full series? We suggest airing our one-hour Marquee production: https://beta.prx.org/stories/109950
Want to bring prison poets to your station, but don’t have a full hour of airtime?

We’ve got you covered with our Prison Poetry Workshop podcast series (great for drop-in content), which you can find here
https://beta.prx.org/series/33472 and here http://prisonpoetryworkshop.org/listen/
Contact Nick Szuberla for more information: nick@workingnarratives.org

Learn more about the series at www.prisonpoetryworkshop.org.

Blue skies,

Monday, February 16, 2015


Hi folks,

I recently received an email from emerging writer Ashley Gaumond who asked a couple of really good questions and I thought I’d answer them here as I’m sure there are others who visit here who might have the same questions.

Ashley asks:
1. Does a short prologue have to follow the standard rule for a scene (goal, conflict, disaster)?

My answer: Well, first of all, as a general rule, I don’t believe most prologs are useful or necessary. In general, I find that at least from beginning writers, most are created because they’ve been told they shouldn’t begin a novel with backstory and setup, and they’ve found an all-consuming need to provide… backstory and setup. If they call it a “prolog” they feel they’ve dodged the rule… That doesn’t mean that all prologs are bad, and occasionally we’ll see one that works and works well. But… that’s only occasionally. At least, in my experience. I think if you’ll look at the ones that get published you’ll often find that if they were left out, it didn’t affect the book adversely at all.

In Hooked, I talk about prologs a bit, and use the example of Larry Watson’s wonderful novel, Montana, 1948. It’s an absolute terrific book and he has a well-written prolog. But, I don’t think it was needed at all. Mostly what it did was… provide backstory/setup. Which did nothing for the book, to be honest. I think a lot of writers—especially newer writers—think they make a novel look like… a novel. They just kind of look “official” or something. Most are written in kind of a melodramatic style—the tone being—“Here’s a person who has undergone something really heavy and emerged sadder, yet wiser.” That kind of thing. Well, if you just read the novel sans the prolog and it’s written well, you’ll probably emerge from the experience feeling, “This was a person who underwent something really heavy and emerged sadder, yet wiser.” Without the nudge of a prolog… It just seems to me that prologs written for that reason are pretty much saying the author doesn’t trust the reader’s intelligence to grasp that without the author pointing it out in the beginning.

As to your question, does it have to follow the standard rule for a scene, why would it? Most prologs aren’t scenes to begin with—they’re the internal monologue of the character or purportedly an outside judge of the events to come—and while some may contain a scene—which by necessity is a past event and therefore nearly tensionless—most are kind of a sermonette delivered to convince the reader that what they’re about to experience is… emotional and powerful. Personally, I kind of take offense to someone telling me how I’m supposed to react to the read. It feels like they're telling me I need to feel guilty if I don't experience what they told me I would after reading it.

And, some people love ‘em.

I’m just not one of those people. Convince me your novel is a big deal by the writing itself.

Ashley asks:
Regarding antagonists, can every character except for the POV character serve as an antagonist at some stage in a novel (even the "good" ones)? I see an antagonist simply as someone (not just a villain!) who challenges the protagonist at any given time.

My answer: First, I’d like to provide a definition for the protagonist and the antagonist. The protagonist is simply the person through whose viewpoint you experience the story. The antagonist is simply the individual whose goals conflict with those of the protagonist’s. In my view, it’s a really big mistake to view either of these people in moral terms, i.e., the protagonist as “hero” and the antagonist as “villain.” Same applies to that dumb term, the “M.C”. It’s not the “main character” boobies—it’s the protagonist. This is simple stuff, kids… What happens when you do that is you tend to create one-dimensional, cardboard characters. Cartoons. Snidely Whiplash vs Snidely Doright. Yuch. I see these kinds of terms used often in writer’s advice and I really have a jones against them. When you begin to think of your characters as heroes and villains, you’ve just dumbed down the story immensely, in my opinion. You’ve almost completely destroyed the possibility of complex characters with that kind of mindset. In the worst instance, you’ve created a morality tale and, as Samuel Goldwyn said to a screenwriter who brought him a screenplay with a moral “message”: “Don’t send a message. Write a story. If you want to send a message, use Western Union. They’re much better at it. Just write a good story.” Perfectly said.

This is the kind of thinking that led years ago to that term “anti-hero.” If you think of protagonists simply as the person through whose viewpoint you experience the story, all that morality goes out the window as utter nonsense. The term “anti-hero” comes about as a subset of thinking in terms of heroes and villains, good vs evil. So, if a writer creates a protagonist who is seen in terms of good vs bad and they’re “bad” then they’re an antihero. Fairly infantile and limited thinking in literary terms. Just my opinion, but it’s the only one I have…

And, you can’t write a good story if it’s simply “good guy vs bad guy.” That’s just junk writing. That’s Snidely tying Nell to the railroad tracks and Dudley rescuing her… Again… yuch… Cartoon stuff for Saturday morning on the floor in your jammies… Junk food for the mind. Nothing to see here folks--move along...

Before I completely answer your question, Ashley, here’s what a story consists of.

1. A protagonist who has an experience that profoundly changes his/her life and therefore creates a story problem. (And the only place for a contemporary, publishable story to begin with. Probably not with a prolog that provides an outline of what's to come, attendant with a drum roll warning you as to the coming emotion you'll experience...)
2. His/her struggle to resolve that problem against increasing obstacles and opposition.
3. His/her resolution to that problem, containing both a win and a loss in that resolution.

Okay. Notice I made protagonist singular. That’s because it has to be one person. If there is more than one, the reader’s interest is hopelessly diffused. We see clearly one person. We don’t see two or more, at least not clearly. A book about capitalism vs communism won’t work if it’s about the U.S. army vs the Chinese Communist army. If, however, it’s about the commanding general of the U.S. army vs his counterpart of the Chinese army, then, yes, it can work. Or a private in each army vs his counterpart in the other. Whatever. When I see work that tries to do that, I know instantly that this writer has put the cart before the horse. He or she is thinking in terms of “theme.” And, for writers, theme is something that should be thought of only after the first draft is done. It’s at that point that we figure out what the story is about in terms of loglines, which is what a theme actually is, and then apply that to the rewrite. Check any issue of TV Digest for themes... Anything that doesn’t fit the theme upon rewrite needs to be exorcised. But, it’s not something a writer should even consider when writing initially. Just write a story.

And, the antagonist should be a single person as well. Same reason. We can’t visualize multiple people nearly as well as we can an individual. Does that mean there can’t be others who oppose the protagonist? Not at all. There can be many, many people who provide opposition… and there probably should be. But… they’re not antagonists. They’re merely people who do antagonistic things.

Here’s the perfect example—the film Thelma & Louise. The protagonist is Thelma. Contrary to what some might think, she and Louise aren’t “co-protagonists.” It’s Thelma’s story. Louise is along for the ride and experiences many of the same things Thelma does, but it’s Thelma’s story, all the way. Louise, if you want to assign arch-types, is the “Older Mentor” type. She’s not really older—they’re the same age in the movie, but she’s the one with more experience. Her story is necessary but it’s subservient to Thelma’s.

Now. The antagonist. When I show this movie, I usually ask the audience who they think the antagonist is. Very few get this right and that’s because largely they haven’t learned to think of story with the writer’s eye. The usual answer I get is her husband Darryl. Well, Darryl ain’t the antagonist. He does antagonistic things, but he just plain ain’t the antagonist. The second-most-common answer is Harlan, the would-be rapist who Louise shoots and kills. Again, not. The antagonist is Hal the cop. Darryl is Snidely Whiplash. So is Harlan. As are most of the other men in the story. Just a bunch of guys who do antagonistic things but aren’t the antagonist.

Look at the definition of the antagonist. He’s the individual whose goals conflict with those of the protagonist. Which is exactly what Hal does. Thelma wants to escape—Hal wants to catch her. Nothing moral in this. In fact, Hal is the nicest guy in the entire story. He only wants to catch Thelma to save her—first, from being charged falsely in Harlan’s murder and next to save her life. If Callie Khouri (the screenwriter) had thought in terms of “heroes and villains” she probably would have come up with what my wife Mary calls a “chasey-fighty movie” and gone direct to video if it would have been made at all. It’s because Khouri doesn’t think in those terms, but with the correct definitions of protagonist and antagonists. Her protagonist has a problem and her antagonist wants to thwart her resolution of that problem. It’s that simple. And, yet, creating characters under that definition leads to incredibly complex characters and situations.

And, yes, there are all kinds of characters in the story who do bad things to Thelma. But, only one person is above and beyond all others as the antagonist. The other characters—Darryl, Harlan, the truck driver, the state cop, et al—all do things to thwart Thelma but they are all limited in their opposition. Hal is the one who remains steadfast during the entire story to thwart Thelma’s goal—escape. And, he also satisfies the dimensions of a great antagonist—he is very, very powerful. He's very smart, has years of experience in catching criminals, has almost unlimited resources—state police, FBI, helicopters, dozens if not hundreds of pursuit vehicles, many, many guns, communication abilities—it goes on and on. The strength of a novel depends on the strength of the antagonist. You should write that down. I’ll repeat it: The strength of a novel depends on the strength of the antagonist. There are lots of writing “rules” that aren’t always necessary, but that’s one that really always holds true. Think of classics like The Silence of the Lambs. One of the most powerful antagonists in literary history. Think of Cape Fear. Personally, I’d spend far more time on the antagonist than even the protagonist. And, I’d always make that an individual. And, supply lots of other characters who also do antagonistical things to the protagonist. They’re allowed to have helpers and should have many of those.

So, Ashley, the antagonist is not “someone (not just a villain!) who challenges the protagonist at any given time.” It’s the individual who provides a constant obstacle to the protagonist all of the time on an up close-and-personal level.

So, please don’t think of these folks as “heroes and villains.” That’s kind of a good path to self-publication as the only avenue to seeing your book in print…

Hope that helps!

Blue skies,

Me and Anonymous 9 discussing prologs...

Saturday, February 14, 2015


Hi folks,

Have some stuff to share--be forewarned, this is long and you may want to read it in parts--an award from crime writer/weapons expert Ben Sobieck for my latest novel, THE GENUINE, IMITATION, PLASTIC KIDNAPPING and a couple of interviews Mr. Sobieck had with me.

Also, be forewarned that there are some instances of violence and stuff the PC crowd will frown at.

 The Dubious CrimeFictionBook Awards

There isn’t a crime novel I read this year that went for broke in the humor department quite like The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping by Les Edgerton. Edgerton approached this kind of humor in The Bitch, but Plastic cranks the slapstick to 100. It’s more Beavis and Butthead than Three Stooges, but it also contains a nugget of truth about human nature present in every Edgerton novel.

The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping is the only novel that, genuinely, made me laugh out loud. It somehow turned a forced amputation into one of the most hilarious scenes I’ve ever read. That takes some doing.

Les Edgerton is one of the most capable crime writers alive, which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his background. Edgerton makes no bones about his criminal history, which eventually landed him a stint in prison. That kind of frankness makes him one of the best interviewees around.

Edgerton’s latest novel, The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping, made my shortlist of the best reads of 2014. At the end of the novel, Edgerton leaves the reader with personal notes outlining the true-to-life events that inspired the novel. I couldn’t resist picking his brain.

Q: I look at KIDNAPPING as THE BITCH 2.0 in that the cons and humor in the latter are amplified in the former. Did you write KIDNAPPING with THE BITCH in mind?

A. Not at all. Actually, I wrote KIDNAPPING many years before I did THE BITCH. If there are similarities, it’s only because my mind and world-view works fairly consistently.

Q: Your notes at the end of the novel say that KIDNAPPING is your way of getting back to writing "simply to entertain and get a laugh from readers." What were you burnt out on that you needed to get back to that?

A. Just unrelenting seriousness in the last few books I published. Just thought it was time for a few chuckles. It’s the original reason I began writing as a tyke in short pants—to entertain. Well, and to score chicks, but that doesn’t always work out the way you hope it does.

Q: You wrote a screenplay version of KIDNAPPING. What's the status on that?

A. Same as ever, I guess. Just hoping someone asks to see it. It’s listed on InkTip and that’s about it. I get looks at the logline and sometimes at the script, but so far nothing much has happened. That’s my fault, I know. It’s just too energy-draining to keep trying to market things and I’d rather spend the time writing. Hollywood’s a young person’s game, totally. Over the age of about 35, it’s pretty well over as far as pitching stuff yourself. It’s really a matter of somehow getting the right person to read it.

And, the “right person” means an A-List actor or director who sees it as something that can help their career. I keep thinking that there are a few folks out there who if they ever got to read it would be interested. People like Woody Harrelson and the guy who plays Charlie on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” would be the perfect pair as Pete and Tommy, for instance. If anyone knows them I’d love to get the script into their mitts. I don’t know who I see playing Cat—she’s honestly better looking and sexier than any actress I can think of off the top of my head. But, I think whoever played her would find it a star-making role.

Q: You confess to taking part in prostitution in the novel's notes. Not as a john or pimp, but as a passive participant of the "services rendered." Any concerns about sticking that into the public eye?

Nah. I’m no longer a minister, so what would I lose? Come to think of it, I’ve never been a minister so I don’t know what harm it does to have folks know. I thought it was kind of cool at the time—I mean, who gets to cut coke lines, drink top-drawer booze, in a world-class hotel, watch a couple of world-class call girls work out and get paid for it as well as taken out and treated to a fantastic meal at Gallatoire’s? Kind of the dream gig, in my opinion. I was also an escort for a long time for a top New Orleans escort agency where I was the companion for older, wealthy women, and trust me, that beats working on the boot line at the Goodyear plant.

Q: The character of Cat is also based on a real person. You even used her real name. From your notes at the end of the novel, the character doesn't sound half as nuts as the real-life version you described. Any worries about that coming back to bite you?

A. Hopefully. I miss her! I’d love for her to show up and take another shot at me—are you kidding? That was fun! She was without a doubt the most exciting person I’ve ever known. She was much, much bigger than any fictional character. Her mother sold her to Carlos Marcellus when she was 8 or 9 for a bag of weed (Mom was a junkie) and then Cat made the career-ending mistake of turning 12—way too old for this “Romeo” and he turned her out. She went down to the Quarters and survived by prostituting, rolling sailors, dealing drugs, etc.—anything to survive—and I met her when she was 25 and a top call girl.

We had a lot of chuckles together. She tried to kill me a bunch of times and it was just plain exciting. That sounds probably worse than it was---each time, it was on the spur of the moment and she was over it quickly and we went on as per usual. I loved living on the edge with her. She’s probably dead by now—can’t imagine her still alive, although it’s possible, I guess. But, she doesn’t read much, so she’ll probably never read the book.

If it gets made into a movie, chances are better she’ll see it. She’s in my memoir, ADRENALINE JUNKIE, extensively, and if it ever gets published she might find out about that. HBO Films wanted it a few years ago and were all ready to film it but the book deal fell through or it would have been out. The prez of HBO read it and said it was “…a PERMANENT MIDNIGHT, but with balls.” I think that’s high praise, but then I never thought Jerry Stahl’s story was that big of a deal. If I’d grown up in suburbia and had an allowance and lawns to mow when I was a kid, I might have, but his deal seems mostly kind of “poor rich kid falls down and skins his knee” kind of hi-jinks. He spirals into the cocaine abyss because he was too smart to be writing ALF? Cut me a break.

By the way, I wouldn’t call Cat nuts at all. She always acted within the perfect logic of her personal experience. If she hadn’t been a little “nuts” she probably would have been killed years ago.

Q: Like your other novels, this one is based on your past experiences, and you make that known in your notes at the end of KIDNAPPING. Given those experiences landed you in prison, were they worth it for the sake of writing books later on? Would you change anything?

A. Nope. Not a thing. It was all great material. Actually, I knew I was going to prison a long time before I got there. It takes cops forever to catch someone if they don’t want to cooperate, but I knew I'd end up there and it didn’t bother me at all. Now, after having been there, I wouldn’t have been so anxious to arrive, but even so, it was all worth it. You can’t buy the kinds of experiences I’ve had—they’re priceless. As for the price of writing books, whatever that is—Faulkner got it exactly right when he said: “The Ode On a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.” Perfectly said.

Q: Does it ever rub you the wrong way to see other crime writers try to play up a tough guy image without having actually lived it the way you have?

A. It used to, but not really. I just don’t buy many of them as having much experience along those lines and it shows. It seems like it’s always a kind of a shuck—that they’re just trying to sell wolf tickets and anyone who understands “Jeff Chandlerin’” (a term we used to use) knows these guys are harmless and fold pretty easily. When I see so-called fictional “outlaws” hanging out in strip clubs and having all these choreographed fights it’s just funny. No actual outlaw hangs out in strip clubs—those are mostly for losers and wannabes—and I don’t know anyone who fights like John Wayne in real life and lives very long. I really don’t ever want to hang with someone who thinks strip clubs are cool or are some kind of outlaw milieu.

I was lucky. I was an outlaw when outlaws were really outlaws. Now they all seem to be meth users and druggies and those were creeps in my day. I’d be ashamed if I had to get drunk or high to rob a place—seems kind of sissified and punkish. We didn’t have all these gangs in my day either—no secret handshakes and all that crap. Most jobs I did on my own and the only ones I ever had trouble on were done with others who got caught and then rolled over on me. Pull your own crimes and the odds of getting caught are greatly diminished. Some folks don’t have the balls to do that, though.

There are so many untrue myths about criminals. That you can’t make a living and will always get caught. The amateurs do. The druggies do, I guess. I still know guys who’ve been robbing places all their lives and haven’t even sniffed a bust. It’s the same crap about gamblers. I made my entire living as a gambler for four years and never lost money. I’ve done things that are still open under the statute of limitations I can never write about but know how to do things and get away with them. I didn’t quit pulling crimes because I had some kind of come to Jesus moment—I just plain don’t like the food in the joint or the restriction of movement. It’s a lot better on the bricks.

Recently, I had this hoary old agent contact me after he read my story in the Springsteen anthology and thought I had some “ability” and wanted me to send him some stuff. On a lark, I did, especially when I found out he used to rep a former criminal we are all aware of. It got weird when he asked what I was writing currently and I told him it was about a hitman who made all his hits look like accidents and this dude wrote back and said that would be impossible—that such a hitman hadn’t existed after 1977 (still don’t know where he got that), and I sent him a clipping about a friend of mine—Kenny Vincent, the nephew of Marcellus who is an old friend of mine—who has “acquaintances” who do exactly that today. This old fart made the mistake a lot of people do—if it isn’t in their life experience they don’t believe it can happen. Another “expert” who, as it turns out, is mostly impressed by his own, limited experience. That turned out to be the end of our correspondence—he didn’t want to be challenged, I guess.

Q: The "N word" comes up a few times in KIDNAPPING. You mention in the notes that a screenwriter you worked with, a black man, thought its use was appropriate given the context. Why'd you feel this was important to highlight to readers?

A. Good question! And, I’m ashamed to say that I was probably covering my butt. Me, who hates being PC! We all have our weak moments, don’t we? Actually, I don’t care if anyone was insulted, but my black friend assured me that there was nothing racist in it so… And, why do we say “the N Word,” when it’s all right to say “honky?” It stands for “nigger” and that’s a perfectly good word. Mark Twain used it and he’s probably our best writer. It’s just a frickin’ word. Where’s George Carlin when you need him?

Our language is getting horrible. It’s like the terms “invited guest” and “home invader.” That seems to be the same difference as legal immigrant and illegal alien. Logic in language seems to have fled the culture…

Q: The message underneath the comedy in KIDNAPPING, at least from my point of view, is that what's important to a person depends not on the who or the what, but the how. Perception is reality, and if you can manipulate how something is perceived, you can change its importance to a person or a group of people. Is that what you were going for or am I totally off? If it is, are you suggesting that most of day-to-day existence is the result of people conning each other, both legally and illegally?

A. Great question! And, of course the answer is yes—there’s probably not a human exchange in any day of the year in which both parties are completely honest and without an agenda. It’s what being a human is. We’re all involved in a shuck with each other. We all want something from the other person. The trick is to want something they want to give up. And, that’s just about everything. It’s an ongoing negotiation and game, all the time. It’s what we are. It’s why we constantly go around proclaiming we’re honest to each other. None of us are. Outlaws are the most honest and preachers are the least honest. Whenever a guy tells me he’s a Christian and shakes my hand, I always count my fingers afterward.

Q: You recently had a bout of COPD that you said on your blog could have been, "the big one." Given how close to the razor's edge you've lived, does this bother you? In other words, of all the ways it seems you could've bought it, does going out with COPD seem inappropriate?

A. Yeah. My dream has always been to get shot by a jealous husband when I was 99 and climbing out a bedroom window. COPD just seems so fucking inadequate.

Q: What's the last movie you watched?

A. Can’t remember in a theater. Haven’t been to a theater in probably 20-30 years. I think it might have been CITIZEN KANE. The key word is “Rosebud” in case anyone hasn’t seen it… Last movie I watched at home was one of my favorites, NATURAL BORN KILLERS. Woody definitely knows how to play a bona fide outlaw. He’s a guy I’d love to have beers with but I’d make sure I was sitting with my back to a wall and had a weapon handy. Oh, and I just watched ONCE WERE WARRIORS which is one of my all-time favorites.

Les Edgerton's The Bitch is one of the most arresting crime novels I've read this year (no pun intended). It chronicles ex-con Jake Bishop's attempts to avoid "The Bitch," a slang term for "habitual criminal." It's similar to the Three Strike Rule. Jake already has two strikes when a prison buddy calls him up for one last job.

The yarn itself was compelling on its own, but I suspected I was reading a story-within-a-story. Author Edgerton served time in the same prison as his Jake character. His colorful past is already well-known in the crime fiction world, but I still wanted to pick his brain. How much of the story was true?

Fortunately, the author was more than happy to do an interview. Here it is, unedited and unfiltered. Just 100% pure Edgerton. Read the whole thing. His real-world answers could put fiction to shame.

P.S. Click here to buy The Bitch on Amazon. It's available at all other fine e-retailers, too.

BEN: It's impossible not to compare the lead character in The Bitch, Jake Bishop, to yourself. You both did time in Indiana's Pendleton Correctional Facility, for example. Was The Bitch catharic to write?

LES: First, a small correction. When I was in prison, it was “Pendleton Reformatory.” Only, it wasn’t a “reformatory,” but one of the two Indiana maximum prisons, the other one being Michigan City. The only difference between them was that cons 30 and younger were sent to Pendleton and cons older than 30 went to Michigan City.

The “correctional facility” is a recent name change and nowadays they have a juvie facility in addition to the main prison. While I was there, then-President Johnson conducted a national study and concluded that Pendleton was “the single worst prison in the U.S.”

And, it was. There were eight riots during my stay, not including the one I walked in on when first sent up.

As to your question, Ben, writing it wasn’t much in the way of a catharsis at all. For a couple of reasons.

One, I’ve written about my experiences there in many of my previous novels and short stories, and so the “catharsis” value has pretty much been exhausted by now.

And, two, I’ve never lost a lot of sleep over my experience there. I was a criminal and going to prison is just part of the deal of being “in the life.” That “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is pretty much the way it is. Just a part of the job description. Criminals are pretty good at compartmentalizing things and when you’re in the joint, you’re in the “zone” and not outside, on the bricks in your mind, and when you’re out on the bricks, you don’t waste a lot of time thinking about the joint.

I see a new breed of criminal today on TV where these guys are crying when they get caught. What kind of punk cries?

BEN: One of the themes throughout The Bitch was having to make a bad choice in the pursuit of something better. For example, kill Person X to save Person Y, yet create a new problem with Person Z. It's almost like the game is rigged. Does this reflect your view of the world, that we're doomed to a certain fate no matter what we choose?

LES: Ah! So you’re asking me if I have a Calvinistic view of life—that predestination thingy!

Well, on Monday’s I think that, and on Tuesdays I don’t. On Wednesdays, I don’t care.

To be honest, on most days I don’t care. I have a different vision of morality and God and all that. Most days, I fit the definition of a nihilist quite accurately. Expediency is what gets me through life.

For instance, I don’t perform criminal activities any longer and it’s not because I had some kind of “come to Jesus” moment or some kind of epiphany. I’ve just weighed the pros and cons of performing a criminal act and since I’ve been there (inside the walls), I have a clear idea of what that’s like and so far I haven’t come across a crime whose possible rewards outweigh the possible penalties.

If I ever do, I’m pretty sure I’m off that good citizen dais and out there doing the crime. But, it’ll have to be the perfect crime with an enormous upside. At my age, to go back to the joint is a certain death sentence and I’m not quite ready for that. Incarceration really is a good deterrent once you’ve experienced it.

BEN: On that same note, Jake is sucked back into the world of crime despite trying to get as far from it as possible. Is this a fear you were exorcising through Jake's character?

LES: Not really, but I can understand Jake completely. He’s the guy I could be if I had a moral view of the universe. Except, he’s really kidding himself that he’s a moral person.

In the end, he’s as nihilistic as I am. Not trying to come across as some kind of “badass” hardened criminal type, but I really don’t feel like I have a lot of fears. I’ve done time, been homeless, been shot at, been stabbed, had just about everything you can imagine thrown at me and can never remember feeling anything at the time than the same thing—that what was happening was interesting and would make great material for my fiction.

Detached is the best way to describe my feelings at any of those times. I’ve always thought “what’s the worst that can happen” in any situation I’ve been in, and never has that “worst thing” been all that bad.

It’s the feeling I had when I was in a shootout with what I thought were cops in a grade school and it’s the feeling I had when my call girl girlfriend Cat had stabbed one of my other girlfriends and was trying to eviscerate me. “What’s the worst that can happen here?”

In those cases (and others) the worst was death, and hey… nobody gets out of life alive, so what’s the fuss all about? It’s going to happen to all of us (death) and if you worry about it, it seems to me that you’re kind of… what’s the word?... oh, yeah… stupid. It’s going to happen at some time, so when it does what’s awakened is a feeling of avid curiosity. What’s it going to be like?

BEN: "The Bitch" refers to the slang term for "habitual" criminal, which others refer to as the "Three Strike Rule." Wind up in prison three times, and you're "out" for life. Advocates of these laws say they deter crime. Yet in your novel, it seems to encourage it. Jake will do anything - no matter how extreme - to avoid a third term in Pendleton. Which side of this issue do you fall on?

LES: These “law and order” types—politicians and the media, especially—don’t have a clue what deters crime. Or, rather, I suspect they do, but their agenda isn’t to keep people out of prison. It’s to gain votes for pols (for being seen as “tough on crime") and for viewers and readers (in the case of media.). It’s sexy and it’s popular to appear to exhibit the attitude of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” The things they do don’t deter crime in the least.

Here’s what deters crime. Barber school. (I’m using this as an example.) When I was in Pendleton, I had a much higher degree of education than most—I’d graduated high school and spent four years in the Navy and was a radioman and cryptographer. The average educational level of my fellow inmates was about third grade. When most of these guys got out—and most do get out, which straights don’t seem to realize will happen—they have no skills to gain any kind of meaningful employment. Which means, they’ll be on the street again, with no way to gain money for a meal, for a place to crash, for any of that. So, they’ll end up doing what they know how to do. Stick up a 7-11, sell drugs, break into a place.

Well, Pendleton at that time operated under the philosophy of rehabilitation. They actually meant it. The barber school was the best “lick” in the place and inmates fought over getting in. The reason was, the training was the best in the country and as a result barber shop and hairstyle salons were waiting in line to hire us. On the bricks, a guy in a civilian barber school got to cut maybe 1-2 heads of hair a day. He went to school for seven months. In Pendleton, we cut 12-14 heads a day. For at least two years and often a lot longer. When we were released, we were just far, far better at cutting hair than anyone else. Our services were valued and highly. I had to field offers of employment from literally hundreds of places. Guys from civilian barber and beauty schools couldn’t buy a job. They took our leavings, basically.

The result was, about 82% of us stayed on the bricks. We made serious money and got married. Bought homes, joined the Rotary, had kids and coached Little League. Why? Because we had excellent jobs. I was making $500 a week in 1968, which was great money in those days and it went up from there. Legitimately.

And, as great as the barber school was, it was virtually the only program in Pendleton that had this kind of success rate. The reason was we learned a very marketable skill. The second-best lick was the machine shop. Theoretically, guys could learn to be machinists and go out and secure a good job. The problem was, the machinery they learned on was outdated by at least 50 years and so the inmate who’d gone through that program wasn’t much better off than the guy who worked in the laundry or in the chow hall. The barber school program was a huge success and showed what was possible. Very few guys who went through the barber school came back.

But then… civilian barber students started protesting that all the good jobs were going to ex-cons and support for the program went away… Lock ‘em up and throw away the key…

The thing is, nothing the “authorities” do these days deters crime. I can’t think of a single thing. Warehousing criminals is the worst thing to ever happen for a lot of reasons space doesn’t allow me to go into here. What’s needed is a realistic look at criminals and prisons and the wrong-minded approach pervasive in corrections today, but that’s a pipe dream. Too many people making a lot of money off crime and I’m not referring to the criminals.

BEN: "Prison rape" is often the punchline in a joke. The Bitch takes a different approach and details the long-term psychological damage of rapes behind bars. The survivors might be prisoners, but they're still human beings. Is that a point you were trying to make?

LES: First of all, “prison rape” doesn’t go on nearly as much as straights think it does. It’s actually fairly rare. If one were to believe movies, books, and comedians, one would think it’s all that goes on in the joint. And, it doesn’t.

In fact, in my two+ years inside, among over 2,000 inmates, I was aware of maybe 5-10 such instances. There were more going on, I’m aware, but those were all I was aware of. This is one of the biggest myths perpetuated. It’s not a sexual thing—it’s a power thing and most often between blacks and whites. Whites don’t rape blacks as a rule, but blacks will often try to rape whites. In their minds, shows they’re in control.

I got hit on twice in two years. The first was in jail, not prison, so only one time in prison. And, that came about after I got my parole and made the mistake of talking about it. (You don’t tell anyone as there are lots of guys who can’t stand it that someone’s getting out and they’re not and they try their best to fuck up a guy’s parole.) A black guy got in my barber’s chair (a no-no—blacks don’t sit in white barber’s chairs and vice versa, unless one of them’s a punk), and told me he was going to make me his kid.

I’d made up my mind what I was going to do if that ever happened and I did exactly that. Grabbed my straight edge and went after him, trying to cut his throat. Chased him all over the barber school and then Jonesy, a black hack, caught me, ran me into the office, locked the door, and took the black inmate over to his dorm. Jonesy could have written me up—and he should have—but he didn’t, which saved my life as I would have lost my parole and I knew if I had to do the whole five years of my bit, I’d have to kill the dude who fronted me and once I did that, I’d be in there the rest of my life. So, Jonesy saved my life, in my opinion.

The guys who get hit on are guys who are all alone. In Pendleton, that meant guys from small towns who weren’t career criminals before and didn’t know anyone. I was from South Bend and had been pulling jobs for years and knew everybody from South Bend and so had all kinds of buddies who had my back as I had theirs. A good example of what happens is one day a new kid came onto our tier from a small town—Tipton—and he seemed like an all-right guy, albeit naïve, and I kind of took him under my wing. Well, a black dude started romancing him (although the kid didn’t realize what he was doing)—giving him cookies, cigarettes and all that.

I warned the kid that he needed to get away from this guy, but he was convinced the black guy was just trying to be friendly. He was. A week later, he’d turned the kid out. Big-time. Not just for himself, but he put the kid on the block. First thing he did was get a ball-peen hammer and knock out all the kid’s front teeth. (Better for blow jobs.) A week after I’d tried to warn him off, the kid was roaming the aisles on movie day, giving blow jobs to other inmates for cigarettes and green, turning them over to his new “friend.” Sad, but he was too ignorant to know when help was offered him.

But, that’s where most rapes come from. It’s just not a common deal at all. It wasn’t something most of us even think about or worry about at all. Seems to happen a lot in movies and in novels written by writers who don’t have a clue.

All that said, I’ve got rape in THE BITCH, don’t I! But, both took place in jail, not prison. One is far more likely to be raped in jail than in prison for several reasons. One, many guys in jail haven’t done time so all they know is from books and movies. So, they try to imitate what they think goes on, especially black guys. Not trying to come across as a racist, but it is what it is.

Second, and more important, guys in jail are hours or mere days away from being under the influence of drugs and that makes you do things and act in ways you wouldn’t when sober. Third, often guys in jail haven’t made the alliances they will in prison and so are more at risk. Jail and prison are vastly different animals.

Your original question was if I was trying to show that survivors or prison rape were still human beings. Well, not consciously. I simply assume they are (still human beings). I think a lot of straights think all criminals are rapists, child-molesters, serial killers and the like. The fact is, the vast majority of convicts are involved in crimes of property more than in crimes of person. Far more guys inside for burglarizing bars and gas stations, for stealing cars, for sticking up 7-11’s, for check-kiting, for assault on the wife who they walked in on as they were banging their best friends, than are in there for the crimes commonly portrayed on TV.

So, yeah; I think most of the guys inside are still human beings. Books, TV and movies are all engaged in sensationalizing prisons and are a long way off from any accurate portrayal. That series on MSNBC is typical bullshit—if a person believed that show, they’d think most inmates are pumping iron all day long or are total nut jobs. Totally unrealistic show, but if they showed the boredom that prison truly is, ratings would plunge.

BEN: You're candid about your colorful past, even writing about it in your bio on your website. Why? As you point out in The Bitch, people can react negatively to finding out one is an ex-con.

LES: For years, I did just that—kept my past secret. Then, I got tired of listening to people who usually had it all wrong. The truth is, most criminals are pretty much like your average citizen. Not that many hang out in strip clubs, have tatts, use drugs and drink like there was no tomorrow. Not that many have killed someone. Not that many have raped or been raped in the joint.

If you took the population of the average prison and set these folks down in the food court of your average mall and dressed them “normally” I doubt if anyone looking at them or listening to them would ever think they were any different than anyone else who might be in the mall. In fact, the average citizen probably talks to an excon every week and doesn’t have a clue. At one time, for instance, I could walk into just about any barbershop in Indiana and almost always someone cutting hair there would be someone I knew from Pendleton. The average lame who came in for their haircut didn’t have a clue. Well, we’re out there in your neighborhood.

Some of us are working in fast food, some are selling insurance, some are working on your car, some are taking your dry cleaning and handing you the pickup ticket, some are managing movie theaters… you name it, ex-cons are doing the same jobs and living the same lives as anyone else. Remember, I was a college prof (still am), was in college and elected student body president, worked as a reporter for The South Bend Tribune, sold Prudential life insurance, worked as a headhunter for an executive recruiting firm—in short, did a whole bunch of jobs that, if you believed bad novels, bad movies, and bad TV wouldn’t be the case. But it is. We’re (ex-cons) are in every segment of life on the bricks and doing virtually any job you can think of.

BEN: Let's wrap up with a lighter question. What would be on the Les Edgerton sandwich?

LES: A tunafish sandwich made with the recipe of this place I used to go to in Bermuda. I’ve never tasted anything like it since. And, I don’t even like tunafish much, but this sandwich was awesome. Second choice, would be fried oysters.

Thanks for having me on, Ben. This was fun!

Well, there you go. Hope you got a bit of a kick out of these.

Ben has the definitive book on guns and knives coming out from Writer's Digest this summer. To get a preview and to preorder a copy, go here.

Blue skies,