WRITER WORKING INTRO: [Full disclosure: Les has been a friend and mentor of mine for a while, but my words about his talent and work are true ones.]
Les Edgerton is a noted, versatile, and prolific writer of everything from craft books to Noir thrillers. His newest and hottest items are Just Like That and The Bitch, which chronicle the in-prison-and-out-and-in struggles of young Jake Mayes.
You can tune in to a lot more Les at his blog at http://www.lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com. In the HONORS department, that psychological thriller I mentioned above, The Bitch, has been nominated for the prestigious Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Novel in the Legends Category. Now, it’s up to the public and readers to choose the winner by voting. You still have time to treat yourself to a download and a great read, and in any case, I encourage you to go to http://www.spinetinglermag.com/2012/03/31/2012-spinetingler-award-voting/ and cast your vote for The Bitch.
How many chances will you get to cast a positive vote for one of those, huh?
Now, let’s hear from Mr. “Hooked on Noir,” Les Edgerton himself.
WW: Your varied writing background output includes not only superb craft books such as Hooked, intense short stories like those in Monday’s Meal, a coming-of-age novel called The Death of Tarpons, and even (with son Mike) a volume about little league baseball. Lately, though, you’ve been on a noir fiction tear, with two noir works in print and another on the way (The Rapist from New Pulp Press.) What moved you in this direction?
LES: That’s easy. I discovered that it existed. Until a couple of years ago I was completely unaware of noir’s existence. And, it wasn’t until six months ago that I learned that a book could not only begin but end darkly. That’s the truth, unfortunately. Now, I’m wondering what else is out there that if I knew of it, would grant me even more writing freedom.
When I was a kid, my only source of books was the local library. Because of my age, I was kept from so-called “adult” fiction. Didn’t matter I grew up in a bar, saw my first guy shot when I was 12, routinely observed adultery, sex in all shapes, sizes, and forms, as well as every form of abuse, up close and personal. Knew personally, drunks, thieves, rapists, perverts, and all the dirty flotsam of society. The librarian didn’t want to corrupt my “innocence.” Another instance of an adult (and, a bureaucrat to boot!) who wanted to protect me from myself. Story of my life.
This is why I detest most forms of government especially socialist forms. They all want to be nannies. I just want someone to explain how a person with an I.Q. of 100 is given control of a person with an I.Q. of over 160. I guess it’s in the numbers. There are far more mediocrities than intelligent people, and most seem to gravitate toward government or institutional positions… I think they sense they wouldn’t make it as entrepreneurs or on their own abilities. Why we have unions… Mediocrity gains strength in numbers.
Then, in high school, the ones who could nurture an inquisitive mind—English teachers—were just people with the same mind set as that librarian. If they even knew of any interesting books (doubtful…), they made it their mission to keep it from our young, “innocent” minds. None of them wanted us to know of writers such as Bukowski, for example. In their defense, most probably weren’t aware of writers like that themselves as they were no doubt “sheltered” by the ones who came before them. Mediocrity promoting mediocrity. Controlling minds controlling minds… Each generation of censors creates the next generation of censors.
It makes me angry. I’ve lost years and years of writing about the things I’ve always wanted to write about because I didn’t think it was permissible. One might say: Well, why didn’t you just write about those things anyway? Implying that it’s some kind of honorable goal to fill up a bunch of drawers with unpublished manuscripts… The answer is I’ve never had as a goal to write for a drawer. I’ve always intended an audience and if I believe no one would publish what I really wanted to write it would be kind of dumb to write material that I didn’t think had a chance of being published. I’ve never had the slightest desire to be “discovered” after my death. I want the rewards while I’m still alive. What good does it do one to have their work read once they’re room temperature? Do they think that when they’re dead they’re looking down from some vantage point and rubbing their hands in glee that people are now reading their work? That’s the only thing that makes sense of writing for “posterity.” Do you suppose Herman Melville is now sitting up on a cloud somewhere, feeling justified that his stuff that wasn’t read during his lifetime is now taught in universities? If anyone believes that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can make you a great deal on… So, I wrote what I was led to believe as publishable work. If I’d known I could write the stories I wanted to write and that they had a shot at being published, I’d have been all over that from Day One. But, if you’re convinced by everyone that what you want to write can’t possibly be published, then… you don’t write it. Which, I assume, is the goal of the censors…
WW: I suppose some day, with a little practice, you’ll learn to speak your unrestrained mind. But on another matter… Like most classifications, “Noir” may be more of a marketing tool than an accurate description of a genre. That said, what do you think separates Noir from other detective or crime fiction?
LES: First, I’m going to throw out “detective fiction” from consideration of your question. In my opinion, detective fiction has nothing to do with noir and actually very little to do with crime fiction other than there are crimes involved in each. There may be noirish elements present in detective fiction, but there are noirish elements present in nearly all stories, other than those intended for publications such as Guideposts. Little Women seems to me to be a perfect example of noir. Imagine living in that house and not waking up each day itching to fire up a Black & Decker and beheading everyone you see! All contemporary stories are about trouble and noir is, for most of society, about trouble. And, a noir story may have a detective as a character, but that doesn’t make it a detective story. I think they’re mutually exclusive.
Everyone has a dark place inside him or her. That place we strive mightily to hide from others. It’s why we create white or social lies, why we practice the art of lying, either directly or by omission, why we put on hundreds of false faces during the course of the average day. Nearly all of us are engaged in a constant battle to hide who we really are from those around us. Nearly all of us are engaged in a constant battle to hide who we really are not only from others but from ourselves. In a large sense, it’s an instinct for survival. But, that dark place, deep inside, that we battle to keep hidden, is where truth resides. The problem is… we all have such a place. We lie to ourselves when we refuse to consider that everyone around us harbors the same dark place. What makes noir different from other crime fiction is that it aims to get closer to that dark place. Which is why it will probably never be one of those “bestselling” categories. Most people don’t want to face the fact that like everyone on the face of the earth, there is what the moralists would term “evil” residing inside each individual.
What the nihilist or at least the nihilistic character sees isn’t good and evil. Choices are based on survival and not on morals. Choices are based on expediency and not in fear of some moral punishment after death or societal disapproval. In fact, in the society most noir characters inhabit, their actions aren’t considered socially wrong, but more along the lines of that popular bumper sticker philosophy designed for a television audience mentality, “It is what it is.”
What makes noir different from other crime fiction is that it goes further into that dark place that inhabits all of us much further. Endings represent probably the biggest difference. Lessons aren’t learned, “happy” endings aren’t arrived at—in fact, it’s not even necessary that that adage of most writing instruction be followed—that “satisfactory” ending thingy. True noir fiction is relatively rare. Too often, stories are deemed noir simply because the protagonist commits bad or so-called “evil” acts. In many of those stories, the protagonist is presented as a sociopath or even a psychopath. True noir isn’t about sociopaths. It gives us characters who do what they do because they’re trying to survive.
Noir is the human state before civilization. Before the veneers of socialization. Noir is nihilism, pure and simple, without the filters society has created. Nihilism is the natural state of man. Nihilism means different things to different individuals, but my personal definition is that of moral nihilism which can sometimes lead to anomie. Some would claim Edvard Munch’s painting “Scream” is the artistic expression of this brand of nihilism, but Munch is showing the result of morality. The true nihilistic or true noir story doesn’t lead to this at all. It leads to simply one thing. Survival.
Emile Durheim posits that anomie is a nurtured condition. Well, what state of mind or societal mindset isn’t? He also is the sort of philosopher who sees Munch’s ìScreamî as the expression of a nihilist.
Personally, I think he’s just another academic full of hot air and a lot of bullshit.
WW: You’ve spent some time behind bars, which likely put you in contact with a galaxy of noirish characters, Can you give us some insight both into what a more or less typical noir protagonist is like and how such a one might compare/contrast with your own characters?
LES: It depends on what you mean “typical noir protagonist.” If you mean “typical” in what most people consider a noirish character to be I’m unable to answer that since my definition differs. Again, I think that most who would define noir subscribe to an image of a sociopath or a psychopath. That’s not my interpretation and I realize I’m in the minority. My own idea of what a noir protagonist is is much like my characters Jake Mayes in Just Like That. What was revealing to me was that several reviewers expressed surprise at a criminal who committed crimes “just like that;” i.e., without forethought, planning, etc. But, that’s what us criminal types do. Cathy Johns, then-assistant warden at Angola (The Farm) paid me the ultimate compliment when she read it, saying it was the “truest account of the criminal mind that she’d ever read.” It’s mostly in books, written by those who aren’t criminals and get their “insights” into criminals from other bad books or movies, where this kind of character appears. The vast majority of criminals operate more from a place of reaction than from planned action. The average criminal operates more like a Stone Age sensibility as a hunter. Thog comes across a dinosaur, has his spear with him, sees it and throws it and tries to kill the dinosaur. Thog doesn’t sit around with his cavemates and plan a bunch of details about a dinosaur hunt. It’s just what he does. He knows how to kill a dinosaur and when he comes across an opportunity, he simply takes it. It’s what most criminals do. They know how to break into a bar and so when they’re driving down the street and see a dark bar and nobody around… they take out their spear and attempt to slay the dinosaur.
Does that mean that criminals never plan their crimes? Of course not. I’ve been in on many “planning sessions.” What that usually amounted to my rappy and I agreed to meet at a bar to plan a break-in. We arrived, ordered drinks, and talked about a place we thought we could get into. For maybe 3-4 minutes, and then the conversation got down to the really important stuff—like which girls in the bar we could separate from their lame-ass boyfriends. Most of the “planning” talk was about how much money we figured we’d get and whether we thought the guy closing the bar was a “laundry basket” guy or a “trash can” guy. Most bars hide the day’s receipts either in the dirty laundry or in the trash can. You can pretty well count on it. There are a couple more places these folks like to hide the money in, but 80% of the time, that’s where you’ll find it.
And that would be the “planning” stage. Then, after we broke into that place, we’d just drive around and pick other places out at random. Most nights when I was a burglar, we’d hit an average of 4-5 places, based on how the target place “looked” at the time I was cruising by. There were nights when we’d hit over ten places and there was no planning at all. Just taking advantage of an opportunity or our mood. I did over 400 burglaries and only got “caught” at one of them and that was a job I didn’t want to do but got talked into. We all know the cops aren’t likely to catch us unless they just happen to be driving by and hear or see something. Most crimes are “solved” when somebody happens to get caught and then they roll over on their rappies. Mostly, it’s criminals helping catch other criminals. Most outlaws don’t worry about cops catching them. Not unless they’re planning on knocking over a donut shop or a strip club. You just avoid robbing or holding up regular cop hangouts…
WW: Two of your latest, Just Like That and The Bitch feature Jake Mayes, whose struggles to survive both in prison and on the outside create wire-to-wire dramatic tension. You point out in your foreward to Just Like That that parts of the book are autobiographical. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to ask the cliché: How much of Jake’s psychology and situation is Les?
LES: In Just Like That, Jake’s psychology and situation is almost all mine. It’s based on several road trips I took with a friend and it’s based on the time I did in various jails and in prison and on my own experiences. Of course I never killed anyone—that’s a capital crime with no statute of limitations—but just about everything else is almost verbatim from my own experiences and state of mind. In The Bitch, Jake’s psychology is mine but the situation isn’t. That’s a purely fictional situation. But, I’m pretty sure Jake reacts to everything just about like I would and makes the same choices I would.
WW: Noir and other crime fiction is often stereotyped as what the MFA crowd likes to call “action-driven” (as opposed to “character-driven” or “voice-driven”), meaning car-chase crazy and devoid of ideas. Yet, I’m impressed to the degree to which your work involves important moral conflicts. I find this particularly true of your upcoming The Rapist. How about a comment on the central philosophies and principles that underly your tales?
LES: First, I wouldn’t pay much attention at all to what the “MFA crowd” said or thought. To be honest, who cares what they think? Most are still trying to write and promote what’s called “literary fiction” and anybody who walks into any bookstore knows that’s a kind of writing that’s gone. To deny it doesn’t make it less gone. It just makes that crowd the same sort of crowd who tried to keep the whale oil industry going… A curious artifact of society.
I think those kinds of comments are from folks who don’t know the difference between an action thriller such as Lee Child writes from a crime-themed story such as Elmore Leonard writes or a short story such as Paul D. Brazill pens. They practice “selective reading.” They see the crimes and car chases and all that and don’t see what else is going on on the page. Plus, when they walk into the clothing store that they hang out at—the one that still sells sport coats with leather patches on the sleeves—or at the local coffee shop that offers 16 kinds of soy lattes—they can group together and put down all those they see as inferior. They kind of remind me of the first rule of poker. If you can’t spot the sucker at the table… it’s you. The folks they’re putting down are down the block on the shelves of Barnes & Noble… and their books aren’t. So, who’s inferior? I just don’t pay much attention to what these folks say or think. They’re just not important to anything but their own little circles. Kind of like the whale oil supporters…
WW:You are not only a terrific writer, but a gifted teacher. How much and in what ways has your teaching influenced your writing?
LES: A lot. The way I teach is via the workshop method where all the students comment on each other’s work as well as me. When I see a writer taking a wrong turn or doing something that I’m pretty sure is going to hurt him or her in getting published, I can’t simply point it out and say, “Don’t do that.” I’m compelled to tell him why. It’s not just “Rule #12.” There are sound reasons why not to do something. By having to come up with a valid reason I’m forced to look at my own writing with the same critical eye.
WW: Name two or three of your favorite Noir authors–past or present. Maybe discuss what makes them powerful.
LES: There are so many! This truly is the age of literature and in particular, noir. I don’t want to leave anyone out, so I think I’ll stick with dead folks. At the top of the list would be Harry Crews—may he rest in peace or at least with plenty of Jack Daniels. I think Faulkner was a great noir writer. As were Dostoevsky and Celine and Camus. The best was a guy most wouldn’t think of as a writer of noir, but I do. For one of his books only. I’m referring to David Sedaris and his great book, Barrel Fever. Pure noir. The rest of his books, no. After that book, it looked like he was trying to channel Dave Barry and not doing a good job of it. Made his stuff more “PC” which ruined it for me.
WW: What’s next?
LES: You mean books, right? Well, I’ve been working on a noIrish thriller for several years now, titled The Fixer. Not going to talk about it simply because whenever I talk about a book I’m working on, I kind of “talk” the book out and it becomes hard to write—I feel like I’ve already done the work. Briefly, it’s about a New Orleans guy who’s a hitman, but of a different variety. He makes all his hits look like accidents. For instance, he infects one of his targets with rabies while she’s asleep. When she wakes, she doesn’t even know she’s infected and the nature of rabies is that when you know you’ve got it… it’s too late, booby.
He works for a woman he calls “The Arranger” who… well,arranges all his jobs for him from her “office” at her permanent table at Commander’s Palace on Magazine. A lot of things go wrong for him…
I’m also beginning a novel somewhat like The Rapist in tone. It’s about a guy (kind of like me) who’s in prison and this straight comes in to lead this writing class for the inmates. This teacher is a crime novelist who’s sold bazillions of copies of his books. My protagonist has a bit of a jones against this guy. This writer-dude has all kinds of wrong bullshit in his novels. Things like calling shanks “shivs” and hacks “bulls” for which he’s lauded by other lames on the bricks who don’t know any better than he does. The writer himself hangs out in strip clubs and thinks he’s amongst the criminal element. He has tattoos obtained in commercial shops—no prison ink for this guy. He’s constantly getting his characters in fights and he wins all of them. My inmate protagonist just sees through this guy as a complete phony and detests him. He sees him the way Texans see certain types, as a guy who’s “all hat and no cattle.” The writer-dude thinks they’re friends and keeps acting like he “understands” him and the other inmates. So, my inmate guy initiates a riot and during the riot he grabs this guy and for three days has him in his cell and along with other inmate friends has him some fun with the guy. At the end of it, the guy can truly claim to have witnessed the criminal mind up close and personal and can from then on write with verisimilitude. Only, he doesn’t much feel like writing after his experience…
I’m also bringing out my Writer’s Digest how-to, Finding Your Voice, in ebook format. Should be available soon.
Carl, thank you for this opportunity! I’m at the age where I’m only interested in saying what I really feel and don’t much care if I piss anyone off. One of the reasons I enjoy being a writer is that I don’t have to worry about stating my opinion. I won’t lose any life insurance policy sales or insult the school board and lose my job… It’s kind of liberating when you can speak the truth.
WW: And so you have. Deepest gratitude for contributing to Writer Working. You got my blood up a few times here, and I’m sure you’ve pissed off a couple of other readers as well. And helped our understanding of Noir at the same time. Good Show!!!.