Neil: Okay, let's get it out of the way. I wrote a prison novel. I've never been to prison (except as a guest for a writing class) so I really just did some research and made the rest up as needed. But you, man, you have been to prison, so that's why I turned to you in my time of need. So, in The Baddest Ass, did I get it right?
Les: You absolutely did, Neil. And what you did is rare. So rare I don’t know if it’s been done before. You actually came to an ex-con to make sure the novel was correct in its prison material. And, to my mind, that’s huge. One of the things I learned early on about writing was that truth was important. Well, so many novels get criminals and prisons and the outlaw life so clearly wrong and no one calls them on it. Why? Well, because most readers don’t know it’s wrong any more than the authors of those books do. Nor do the agents and editors involved in the process. And, most don’t care. It’s not like ex-cons are a significant demographic.
But, it’s almost struck me as humorous that a war novel takes pains to get the settings right. To get the culture right. Or that a novel about Wall Street skulduggery is going to get that culture right. Or any novel about any culture. Most are written by people who’ve existed in that milieu and have a first-hand knowledge of it. One of the rare exceptions are prison and criminal novels. Very few criminals and very few convicts are writing novels. Almost as few are those folks reading those novels. But, if someone writes a totally bogus novel about the Viet Nam war, yo
What’s demeaning is that most writers who employ such settings don’t respect those who’ve done time to even ask them if their novel is accurate or not. It’s obvious they don’t respect the criminal they’re pretending to write about knowingly. They pretty much know they’re not going to get called on it, so they just make up all kinds of bullshit, based on mostly TV shows and movies and other novels which pay little attention to accuracy.
The thing is, if a novel is purported to be a war novel and it’s from a military pov and the radioman happens to say, “Over and out,” when ending a communication, he’s going to get called out on it and it’s going to be pointed out to him that “over” means “invitation to transmit” and “out” means “end of transmission” and never are the two used in the same sentence for very obvious reasons. Any military person reading this in a novel is most likely to put it down and never revisit it again. The author has just shown he hasn’t a clue about military life and if he can make this egregious a mistake in something like this, chances are that the rest of the story is equally bullshit.
Novels about criminals and prisons are never challenged, even though the errors are far bigger than the above example. And that is why when you asked me to join with you in this exchange, I gladly agreed. For once, I’m talking with a writer who does care about the veracity of his work. That’s rare. That’s extremely rare. I respect a writer who cares this much about his work and that means I’ll do anything I can to get people to pay attention to his writing. This is a writer who truly cares about the truth.
Neil: I love your novels The Bitch and The Rapist, and where you do a much better job of getting in a bad guy's head in The Rapist than I do in Yellow Medicine, we're still talking about two awful guys who are telling you their stories. But since that first book, I've retreated a bit, so now in The Baddest Ass, I don't let the reader know any of Lafitte's thoughts at all. How did that go over with you?
Les: Just fine. It’s the ultimate example of “show, don’t tell.” It’s informing the reader of the character through his actions instead of some inane ruminations in his noggin. We don’t need Lafitte’s thoughts—we know him through what he does.
Neil: I started to read the Rapist and thought, "Les is taking on some Jim Thompson territory here", but then it wasn't long before I thought, "No, he's taking on Albert Camus and Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn and AHHHHH!", and then you just scared me with how good you were. Discuss.
Tough question! I thought this was going to be about your book! Well, I wrote The Rapist years ago before I’d even heard of Jim Thompson and I’ve never read Solzhenitsyn—I tried, but just didn’t like his prose and thought he was incredibly boring--so those two are out as influences. But, since I was a kid, Camus has been my favorite writer and Dostoevsky is pretty high up there also, so in a way I imagine they permeated my writer’s consciousness. But, the truth is, two works were the impetus for this book. One was the bravest story I’ve ever read, Charles Bukowski’s “The Fiend”, and the other literary influence for it was the very ending of Richard Brautigan’s novel, A CONFEDERATE GENERAL FROM BIG SUR which explains God and existence better than anything I’ve ever read. Just married ‘em up and let my brain go nuts. I just wanted to show no matter how much we feel we’re different from one another, we’re more alike than anything. That’s what I hoped to accomplish with it and from many reactions I think I’ve succeeded. Almost everyone has said something to the effect that “while Truman was a truly odious character, I kept nodding my head at his logic.” If a writer can touch something inside others that most of us try to hide not only from others but from ourselves, it seems to me that that’s the most important thing that can be achieved as a writer. Or, as a human being.
BTW, if you or any of your readers haven’t read Brautigan’s novel, I highly recommend it. Particularly the ending. It’s the best sermon I’ve ever read on existence and how the universe works.
And, speaking of Brautigan, he kind of overworried about the sales of his books, which is why he took the pipe. Of course, they immediately rose to the top of the charts… Good marketing move; bad long-term life move. Which shows why our feeble attempts at getting more readers is kind of futile. We’re kind of like Herman Melville who sold less than 500 copies of Moby Dick during his lifetime. Or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experience when his girlfriend Zelda told him she wouldn’t marry him until he sold something—and he papered all four walls of his bedroom with rejection letters until he finally got a check… and this was in the days when it was infinitely easier to get published. Or, John Kennedy Toole who had to pull a Brautigan to get on the shelves of B&N. These are those famous readers we’re after? Makes me wonder about our intelligence…
Neil: I consider Bryce West to be a bit of me (not the brave parts, but the scared-silly parts) if I had gotten stuck in prison. Meaning, obviously, afraid and wanting to survive. What does Bryce do wrong during his part of the novel?
Les: There is no “wrong” in a person’s actions in prison. Each person has to figure out the way he’ll go and there isn’t a manual as far as I know. What works for one person will backfire for another. For example, some guys go into the joint thinking they have to establish some kind of badass reputation or they’ll become punks. These are the guys who attack someone the minute they hit the joint. For some that may work. For most, it won’t. The thing is, just about everybody in the joint is capable of some heavy-duty badass shit. And, when a new guy comes along and breaks bad, most guys realize this is a scared dude. It’s pretty clear he’s bought into some kind of myth and has never done time or he wouldn’t have attacked a dude first day! That’s a guy who probably isn’t going to last long. He’s already shown that he’s a quivering mass of fear. And, most inmates have fear. It’s not showing that fear that makes the difference. If a guy just goes nuts first day and attacks someone for no discernible reason, it’s clear to most of us that this is a guy whose idea of the joint has been derived from watching movies or reading bad novels. Most guys in the joint have been doing time from their teenage years and know better.
The smart con knows that the best thing he can do is try to become as invisible as he possibly can be. He also knows that his safety depends on how many friends he has inside. The more friends, the less danger he’s in. That’s why gangs have become so important inside. Most exist because they provide protection for the weaker guys. And, most cons realize that their strength or weakness depends little on their fighting prowess or physical strength or size or any of that. It’s almost totally dependent upon attitude. If a guy is willing to go balls to the wall in a situation where he could lose respect, he’ll get respect and be left alone. It’s always about attitude and not much else. And, you can’t fake attitude. You either have it or you don’t. It’ll show in the way you walk, the way you talk, and the way you look at others. The best actor in the world can’t fake attitude, at least not for very long.
Everyone in the joint who isn’t a complete psychopath is afraid. And, even those guys are afraid. No one escapes fear, even those guys who act like they’re the biggest force of nature on the planet.
Neil: You and I both are trying to find as many new readers as we can. You and I both also write some really dark stuff that tend to repel a large swath of readers, too. So, why do we keep doing this to ourselves, man? What the hell, right?
Les: I don’t know about you, Neil, but I keep doing it because I’m more interested in truth on the page than fans or customers. My aim for the reader is for them to experience an honest emotion, hard-won and deserved. Something that actually makes them think. I suspect you feel the same. I know we’d both like to have lots of folks buy our books but not at the expense of writing something we know to be bullshit just because more people will like it. Personally, I really enjoy pissing people off. Especially those mushheads who subscribe to that PC crap. I think it’s also because we’re kind of smart. For instance, look at the people who buy People Magazine or show up to get autographs of Tom Cruise. Who really wants those kinds of simpletons to be reading your work? Would you want to spend time with them in a bar or have to suffer them in our living rooms? Not me. If those kinds of folks read your books and like them, that says more about you and your work than them. And, what it says about what you’re writing isn’t very good. The better the work, the smaller the audience. It’s always been that way. Personally, I’d rather have fewer readers but readers I can respect. And, I don’t respect the kind of people who vote over and over for their choices on American Idol. I hope my readers have some smarts and there aren’t that many people walking around. Walk down any street, visit any mall, and you’ll see what I mean. If many of those people like your work, then you probably haven’t written much that’s worthwhile.
The kind of writing one produces is like music. The more superficial, the more people who are going to like it. The biggest audiences are for C&W and rock and roll. Both are composed of a simplistic beat, very basic instruments, and lyrics with a hook, repeated ad infinitum. They operate on a simplistic level. The listener doesn’t have to bring much to the experience. As you go up the ladder to better music, the audience thins out. When you get to classical and opera and jazz, you’ve really thinned the herd. The audience has to know something about music, about notation, about how instruments and their roles as part of something bigger, about conducting, about a lot of things.
The person who listens to Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat major and knows something about music will hear both the beauty and the rich humor being expressed.
The person listening to the BeeGees “Stayin Alive” will only know to thrust his forefinger in the air and scream the lyrics himself. (Off key…)
The person listening to Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” knowing that Miles hit such a high C that he burst his lip during rehearsals and wouldn’t play tunes from the album in later years because he claimed it hurt his lip to do so, has a much different experience than another person listening to “Yakety Yak” by the Coasters.
The same thing applies to writing. The better it is, the lesser the audience. It’s a law. Or, at least a rule.
I had an advisor at Vermont College, Phyllis Barber, who explained this to me the best I’ve ever had it explained. She used music as the best example for good writing. She said that any musician worth his or her salt, knew those pieces they could play that were guaranteed to elicit a surface (read: cheap) emotion. You know—those sappy pieces they play at weddings like “Wind Beneath My Feet.” That would get half-drunk babes shedding tears in a nanosecond. Every musician knows what songs trigger those kinds of surface emotions. Superficial stuff that would instantly bring up superficial emotion. But, a really good musician also knows that there are pieces they can play that require great skill in execution and that if they provide the level of artistry required, they can elicit true and deep emotion within the knowledgeable listener. This is music that earns its emotional response. And, this is the kind of novel I try to write. One that earns a deep response. Not the audience that cheers when the skinny kid develops muscles the size of Buicks and goes back and kicks the asses of the bullies on the beach and wins the girl. That audience lives at the Multiplex and survives on Mountain Dew and Ruffles potato chips and acne medication. And reads People… Or… more likely… looks at the pictures.
Or, we could write about a guy who goes to law school (Ivy League school, natch), graduates at the top of his class, marries the beauty queen/head cheerleader, and then sells his soul to a law firm in a Faustian deal, shortly after which he realizes his faux pas and goes through some fistfights, car chases and gun battles and other chasey-fighty stuff to escape and finally settles down to practice law in a small town (preferably in Oxford, Mississippi) where he’ll fight for Justice and apple pie and finance a literary magazine and come home every day to his lovely wife Irma (not her real name. It’s not anyone’s real name…) who’s always dressed in a blue gingham dress and has just-baked chocolate chip cookies (not from a mix). That kind of crap sells tons of books. But, look at who you’d have to invite into your living room and who you’d have to sit in a bar with. Or—God forbid—answer their emails. Is it worth it?
The thing is, it’s highly unlikely either of us are going to ever draw Stephen King numbers to our websites or to buy our books. Your novel, All the Young Warriors is a prime example of one of the best novels published last year—a brilliant fictionalization of disparate and downright interesting individuals and their psychologies involved in a complex social and political milieu, but it’s just not going to sell in the numbers of a Fifty Shades of Crap simply because it’s not written in that superficial level I talked about above. In other words, it’s not going to appeal to folks who move their lips when they read and it’s those folks who have Amazon Free Deals at the top of their bookmarked lists.
While answering this, I was watching a chef’s show on the BBC channel. They take these young chefs through a competition until they end up with the top three and then those three cook for a dining room full of Michelin-starred chefs—the best in the world. It reminded me of writers. (Everything reminds me of writers…). These young chefs are the best up-and-comers in the world and when they finished they were exhausted. And then, the Michelin chefs praised their work and it was all worth it. More than worth it.
It occurred to me that cooking is like writing and chefs and fry cooks are like writers in a lot of ways. There are lots of kinds of food available in all kinds of restaurants. Everything from a neighborhood ptomaine poison dive to a MacDonald’s to a Bennigan’s to Clare Smyth’s offerings at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey. Just as in books there’s everything from a “Fifty Shades of Crap” to a “Twilight Zone” to a “A Time to Kill” to a “The Stranger.” And, like eateries, lots of other steps and levels in between.
The guy preparing a meal for the Michelin chefs isn’t too concerned about attracting the guy who gobbles down Big Macs and eats with his baseball cap on. He or she isn’t concerned about huge numbers of “customers.” He doesn’t cook for customers to begin with. He creates his dishes for diners. Diners with sophisticated palates. He has no ambition to open a restaurant with a huge sign proclaiming “100 billion Eggplant au Poivre’s sold.” This is a guy who’s deliriously happy that Arnaud Donckele just proclaimed that his Poulet de Bresse was, without question, “the best he’d ever tasted.”
That’s the mistake I think we as writers make. We’re trying to create ratatouille and wondering why we’re not attracting MacDonald numbers of readers. Ain’t gonna happen. To expect a quality book to move huge numbers just isn’t realistic and yet we keep wanting it to happen and get mad or frustrated when it doesn’t. To bolster this statement, I’ll quote C.V. Hunt in his novel Legacy when his character says, “You can shit in one hand and wish in another and see which one gets full faster. Or… you can just take my word for it.”
Numbers are never going to be the test of our writing. Our quality will be judged by how many Arnaud Doncklele’s praise it. It’s just the way it is… you can wish in one hand, or… you can just take my word for it.
|Anthony Neil Smith|
Neil: What's next for you, writing-wise...and what do you hope is next for me, writing-wise?
Les: Not sure what’s next for me, Neil. I’m trying to write a book similar to THE RAPIST but that’s an exhausting task and I’m not sure I have sufficient energy to accomplish it. I’m trying though… I’ve also begun a book called The Fixer who finds criminals who’ve done heinous things and escaped full punishment for their deeds and left the families of the victims devastated because their loved one’s killer is walking around free. He does what the justice system won’t or can’t do—he captures these folks and then makes their lives miserable—and by miserable, I mean fucking miserable—and lets the survivors enjoy their retribution. He’s a contemporary Paul Kersey on steroids. Where ol’ Paul just blew ‘em away, The Fixer treats ‘em like the budding serial killer kiddie does by torturing ants and bugs by pulling their legs and wings off. Slowly. Over many, many days. And videotapes the goings-on to give as gifts to the victim’s loved ones… I’m pretty sure I’ll have to go to Europe to find a publisher for this one! Although… Jon Bassoff would be a guy who’d probably consider it. It’s going to be totally anti-PC… Using jock’s math, it’s going to be 110% anti-PC… My readers are going to number in the dozens…
What I hope for you is ambitious. And simple. I want you to write and write and write! I’ve loved every single thing of yours I’ve read and I’ve read everything you’ve published. My favorite is All the Young Warriors and I want at least three more books with those guys! I just thought it was an amazing novel—that it was precisely what a novel should look like. I’m in awe of the talent it required in its creation—it should have won all kinds of shit.
So I have mixed feelings about a sequel to your latest novel. On the one hand, I know I’ll dive in immediately. I also know it will take an emotional toll on me. But, then—that’s what we’re all trying to do to our readers, isn’t it? Elicit emotions? Well, yours did!
So, yeah. I want you to write another prison novel.
Basically, I just want you to write. Anything. There are some writers who could publish their grocery list and I’ll glom onto it. You’re one of those guys.
Buy Anthony Neil Smith's The Baddest Ass on Amazon.
Buy Les Edgerton's The Rapist on Amazon.
:: Anthony Neil Smith wrote THE BADDEST ASS. He also wrote two other Billy Lafitte novels--YELLOW MEDICINE and HOGDOGGIN'--and a few more books. Go buy them. Smith lives in Minnesota, where he Chairs the English Dept. at SMSU.