Les is teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Watch to Write: Lessons for Novelists in Thelma and Louise” at St. Edward’s University. A native Texan, Edgerton is making several appearances in Texas this summer including this workshop, an appearance at BookPeople in Austin, an appearance before the San Antonio Writer’s Group, and will be on staff for the Writer’s Retreat Workshop at the Oblate Retreat in San Antonio, all in May. Details can be found on his website. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.
Scribe: When did you know you were a writer? Was there a defining moment in your personal history?
Les Edgerton: I knew at about the age of five. When I read my first book by myself I knew at that moment that I wanted to be a writer. I’ve never wavered for a moment. I thought at the time I could write a better story than the one I just read. I couldn’t then… but I can now.
Scribe: You’ve been a lot of things — homeless, a hairstylist, a life insurance agent, among other things. Do your array of experiences provide a foundation for writing?
LE: I wouldn’t call it a “foundation” exactly. It’s always been about material and experiences. When I was very young, I knew I wanted to be a writer and I thought at the time the best way to accomplish that was to accumulate experiences and then write about them, ala Jack London. A couple of years ago, I read an interview with Flannery O’Connor and she said if a person lived for the first 17 years of their life in the same house and same little town, he/she would have enough material for a lifetime of writing. Wish I’d read her years before—I could have saved myself a lot of trouble! Except, I’d do the same thing. I knew at that early age that one day—if I lived long enough—that I’d be 80 years old and sitting in that wheelchair at the nursing home with that blanket over my lap and all the money, cars, houses, clothes, et al, wouldn’t mean a thing, but if I had memories, I’d have something. I’ve got those memories now and wouldn’t trade them for anything.
Scribe: You recently published a book on craft. When did you become confident enough in your writing ability to start being able to write about writing?
LE: When I was in my thirties. I wrote Finding Your Voice, but it wasn’t published until my forties. I wrote it a few years before that, but didn’t know how to go about getting it published until a few years later. Actually, I knew how to get published but craft books don’t earn large advances as a rule and my agent at the time didn’t want to mess with something that was only going to offer a $10,000 advance. So, eventually I just sent it out myself.
Scribe: What is the intersection of film and books? What advantages do books have over movies and vice versa?
LE: The “intersection” is that they’re both forms of storytelling and that’s what good fiction is always about—creating a story. Books have a decided advantage over films because novels allow the writer to include the protagonist’s thoughts, whereas movies only show what can be seen and heard. That means that they naturally can provide more depth. Movies have an advantage over books in their production values—the senses of sight and sound are affected much more profoundly. That advantage however, is also a disadvantage, simply because they affect more than one sense. That reduces the audience’s level of active participation. The audience of a movie is more of a passive subject as most of the experience is provided for them and they don’t need to bring much to the experience to gain the benefit. As Marshall McLuhan so brilliantly delineated, a media that only affects one sense (as in reading) requires the audience to bring their imagination to bear to make the experience work, i.e., a “cool” media. Movies, being a “hot” media, don’t require nearly as much imagination from the participant, who merely has to sit there and experience the story passively. One’s brain usually isn’t overtaxed watching a movie… That “dumbing of America” that received so much press years ago really is true, as our entertainment tastes evolved to where more people went to movies and watched TV and reduced their reading, so did the overall intelligence as their imaginations were utilized less and less… To enjoy a movie, all one has to do is sit there and not do a whole lot of thinking. Reading, however, requires an active imagination, not to mention a larger source of information to call upon. What’s interesting is that old chestnut often posed–which did you like better, the movie or the novel?—was found in studies to be bound to whichever form the story was experienced in first. If a person read the book first, overwhelmingly they claimed to like the book better. If they saw the movie first, the movie won out. It’s basically a case of expectations. If you saw the movie first, you’ll “see” the characters a certain way and the book usually won’t match up to those expectations, and the reverse holds if the person read the novel first. Although there are always a certain percentage of those polled who will almost always answer one or the other consistently, probably because they have a bit of the “snob” gene working…
There’s another advantage to movies these days. When movies began their existence, they borrowed their structures from literature. However, nowadays the opposite is true. Today’s novels borrow their structure from film. Two good examples of that are transitions and beginnings. When movies began, they borrowed transitive models from books—that old “meanwhile, back at the ranch” scrolling across the screen as we went from one scene to another. All of that is gone and transitions ala the models we used even ten years ago in novels are fast disappearing. Beginnings in movies used to be taught along the same lines as novel beginnings. In movies, that used to be a standard ten minutes. No mas. Today, the setup time isn’t usually much more than a few seconds, or at most a minute or two. Same way with novels, because of the influence of film—no more beginning with setup and backstory and all that nonsense these days… At least not in work that wants to have a chance of being published.
Scribe: Why Thelma and Louise and not another movie?
LE: Great question! I’m writing a new craft book based on this workshop and T&L and at first, I intended to use parts from a lot of movies. I have a library of over 1,000 movies and meant to draw from many of them at first. However, the more I looked at other films, the more weaknesses I saw in all of them. Thelma & Louise was the only movie I’ve seen that doesn’t have a single writing weakness in it. Every single frame presents a valid and valuable teaching moment. I simply can’t say that about any other movie I’ve ever seen. There are a couple that come close, but none that were as consistently brilliant as this movie is. It’s quite simply a work of genius as the audience will discover. I’ve watched it over 200 times and I keep looking for a flaw but so far haven’t been able to find one. I’m speaking of writing techniques here. There are other movies I Iike better on an entertainment level, but none approach even remotely the level T&L does in providing perfect teaching lessons on how to write publishable, contemporary fiction. None come close to it. Discovering that was great, as it makes it extremely easy to use for teaching and a beautiful model for learning. In a workshop situation, I don’t have to rely on the audience knowing a bunch of movies to see great examples instantly. Virtually everything a writer needs to know and understand about contemporary fiction writing techniques will be shown at our gathering. And, they’ll get to see not only flawless writing but how the whole of the many parts comes together to create a powerful story. That is really important to me as I see a lot of writer education based on bits and pieces of diverse work presented as examples. We learn “parts” of writing, but not story as much. By watching a film that works on every single level and to see how all the parts we’ll go over come together into a seamless story, is extremely valuable. Please believe me that after watching this movie the way we will, I unhesitatingly guarantee the participant’s writing I.Q. will be raised significantly. If you attend you’ll see what I mean and I’m very confident you’ll feel like I’ve understated just how great a teaching and learning tool this movie presents. I predict participants will look back and identify many, many “aha!” moments.
Scribe: Last question … will there be popcorn?
LE: I hope so! Like Blanch Du Bois, I depend on the kindness of others. The only thing I’m not working at this showing is the concession stand…
— Thanks, Les!