An author may specialize in writing violent, hard boiled tales of desperate people doing risky things, but that doesn’t mean the author is anything like his or her characters. Most of the time the writers are sharing their own fantasies, essentially fetishizing the outlaw lifestyle. The readers themselves take a vicarious walk on the dark side with no danger to themselves. Kind of like a video game. Except reading requires a certain kind of mental concentration that is eluding more and more of us as our multi-media culture both expands and contracts. I’ve never played a single video game in my life, but I understand the emotional emancipation of creative imagination, especially my own. I also credit writing for saving my life.
For the record, though many of my books can be categorized as some version of “noir,” I’ve never considered myself a crime writer per se, though I have lived amongst that element, and skirted along the sidelines of nefarious activities, sticking to the shadows for the sake of my own safety and sanity. I write mostly from my own experiences, and I've had my share of hard knocks. But since I’m not a criminal, at least in the legal sense, I don’t really relate to criminals, except in an abstract, existential sort of way. My protagonists are often damaged people who read too many crime novels and watch too many crime movies, and then try to act accordingly. And therein lies the conflict of the otherwise unconventional narratives.
But don’t call me a “crime writer.” Unless, of course, you consider my work an affront to society at large. The only rules I break are literary in nature.
Enough about me. Let’s focus on the subject of this interview, which is not the interviewee. I'm just providing a context for what's to come, which is some heavy stuff.
Les Edgerton is a legend. Maybe not in his mind, but in mine and many, many others, both readers or writers. He comes by this honor not through any intentional ambitions, but incidentally, just by living his life, often taking the hard road instead of cruising down Easy Street. Not that there was often an optional fork in his path, anyway.
Though I’m a “straight,” at least as far as the law goes, I relate a lot to Les both as a person and as a writer, though our backgrounds are quite different. Besides artistic sublimation of our personal demons, we are bonded by a tenacious survival instinct, a penchant for blunt public statements that piss people off, and a low tolerance for baloney. (In my case, I eschew both the behavioral and the edible iterations).
Les has plenty to say on these and other subjects, so I’ll let him take it from here. Hang on tight: it’s going to be a bumpy, grumpy, but mind-expanding, eye-opening ride.
You will also learn the distinction between being an "author" (which describes anyone who can upload an ebook) and a "writer"...
You’ve sold everything from drugs to life insurance in your colorful life. How do you sell yourself as an author in such a crowded, competitive marketplace?
I don’t think I’m a good one to ask this of! I don’t seem to do that great a job in selling myself. I suspect it’s because social media is fairly foreign to me and I’ve always felt out of place in it. People who pat themselves on the back or seek out praise seem a bit… what’s the un-PC word I’m looking for? Oh, yeah, kind of girlie. Most of it reminds me of “those kids” in high school, running for class president. Working the room pretty much like a… what’s the word I’m looking for?... oh, yeah, like a whore. That’s kind of what social media looks like to me and I’m just uncomfortable in it. And yet, I put more of myself out there than I can ever feel comfortable with. I just have a deep-seated belief that real men and women don’t wear their feelings on their sleeves and that seems to be a main staple of social media. So, in what will probably be an unpopular answer to your question, I’m probably not suited very well to social media so I doubt if I’ll ever do well with it for promotion. Plus, I think it’s maybe a bit overrated—I don’t think it moves that many books. What moves significant numbers of books is being published by a Legacy 5 or a top independent, getting reviews in mainstream papers and mostly by being on the shelves of brick and mortar bookstores. Social media seems to sell to a very small audience, composed of authors in the same genre and their relatively few fans. Compared to the effort expended, I don’t see a commensurate return in sales. I suspect many of us have bought into that advice that we need a “platform” if we want to sell books. And, crank out more and more books, regardless of the quality.
Just not interested in getting votes for Prom King…
You’re been in the military and in prison, so unlike many of your peers in the noir field, you know real violence up close and personal. How does this background inform your work as a crime fiction writer?
As an honest and knowledgeable writer. I see all these writers writing criminals and it’s obvious most don’t have the faintest clue how the criminal mind works or how real criminals actually act. It works the same as the straight’s mind, to be honest. Like a straight, they don’t think in terms of good and evil or good and bad. Whatever they do, it’s usually for the same reasons a straight does things. (I know that the term “straight” today sometimes means a heterosexual, but I use it the way guys in the joint use it—to describe a person who obeys the law, i.e., a “lame.”)
The way most bad guys keep getting portrayed is pretty much the way MSNBC portrays criminals in their inside the joint series. Mainly, they show two-three kinds of criminals—the psychotic and the weight-lifters. The gangs. None of those guys are the norm—they’re just the guys they can sensationalize. Most are the outliers, but they’re presented as the average guy. If you could watch an average prison scene, you’d probably focus on the guys bench-pressing Buicks. Those aren’t the bad guys. Half of them are on steroids and half of them couldn’t or wouldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag. It’s mostly all for looks and show and doesn’t scare anyone. They’re selling wolf tickets and the only people who buy those are lames. Or, the gang-bangers. They walk around like they’re breaking bad all the time and the truth is a lot of them are jokes. Or, out and out cowards. They only break bad when they outnumber others. The quiet guy on the corner of the yard, talking with one or two guys is the true badass in the joint. The weightlifters don’t bother him, the gangsters don’t bother him. They walk around this guy and ignore him. That’s because he’s the guy who will take them out in a New York second and they know it. But most writers don’t even know this guy exists. He doesn’t fit their stereotypical ideas of what a convict is or what a truly bad ass looks or acts like.
There are so many books now about meth criminals or guys who are high or drunk and are basically just mesomorphs. Yeah, there are guys like that—more now than ever before—but there are also a substantial number of people involved in criminal activities who don’t look anything like these guys and act nothing like them. A great many criminals never get caught. Look up crime statistics and it’s an eye-opener. Personally, when I finally got caught I’d committed well over four hundred burglaries and many other crimes for which I never got charged. I actually got caught for two crimes. Two. They charged me with 82 burglaries and they didn’t have a clue about any of them other than the two they caught me in the act of. Now, any endeavor you get caught doing two out of over four hundred, you’d kind of have to admit was successful. The only way I got charged with more than those two was that I was with other guys who also got caught and they snitched me out, telling about the jobs they’d been in on with me. The cops got lucky and actually caught me in two actual crimes out of the more than four hundred I got away with. If cops didn’t depend on snitches they’d never catch anyone. For crimes against property that is. For some crimes—like murders and kidnappings—they have a better rate. Although, more than half of all murders go unsolved, so…
I didn’t quit committing crimes when I got out of prison—I just quit getting caught. And that was because I acted alone. I also didn’t drink or do drugs on “the job.”That’s all it takes to be a successful outlaw. I committed over a thousand new crimes after being released and the cops didn’t even sniff what I was doing. I remember times when I left my parole officer’s office and went out and robbed a place. It’s really easy to be a successful criminal. There are so many outlaws who commit crimes constantly and never come close to getting caught. But, straights keep on believing this bullshit that crime doesn’t pay and eventually all criminals get caught. That’s about as true as saying all gamblers eventually end up losing. Yeah…
The other thing lacking in many writer’s work is a sense that they have a clue at all about killing or facing death. Everyone fancies themselves an expert these days and few are. In Hemingway’s day the writers who had never faced death left that stuff to Papa—most would have been embarrassed to portray violent death in their pages—Hemingway might have called them out on it. So they wrote about things like garden parties and had characters named Gatsby. At which they did fine. When they wrote about things they actually knew something about and had some actual talent, they looked like real writers. Today, those kinds of writers are not afraid of being called out and they pretend to know something about facing death and while a few do, a lot don’t. They’ve never been in the service, or a criminal, or a cop or anyone who’s faced dying on an up-close-and-personal level. Sorry, but I can’t suspend my disbelief for a lot of them. They give away their innocence in so many ways. A lot of them should be focusing on garden parties more, the life of insurance salesmen, and sorrowing over the lost babes of their youth…
At some point in your life, in between being a hair stylist, business headhunter, sports writer, and escort service specialist, you were actually homeless, and then you earned a MFA in writing. Do you feel your diverse personal and professional experiences or your formal education are more crucial to your literary success, or are they complementary? Is it different for everyone?
I was homeless more than once, Will. Several times—in New Orleans, in Baltimore, in Orange County. No big deal. Our homeless are far wealthier than the poor of most countries. I never had to miss many meals. Too many bleeding hearts out there for that to happen. And, even if there weren’t, our Dumpsters hold better and more food than most of the shitholes in the world do for their regular citizens. Except maybe the Dumpsters in L.A.—that’s one shithole where it looks like the homeless have completely taken over…
As to your question, formal writing instruction never gave me an ounce of help in writing. Just a colossal waste of money and time. And, I went to one of the best schools in the country—Vermont College, which places in the top five every year in Poets & Writers. I shudder to think what these Johnny-come-lately programs that have sprung up everywhere are like. They’re just cash cows for colleges. The only one I see as being of value any more is Seton Hill. Not even Iowa any more. The vast number of writers are being taught to be one-trick ponies. They just keep writing the same tired-ass story over and over. Show me the difference between Jack Reacher novel #1 and Jack Reacher novel #18. Not ten words worth of difference. And I read and enjoy Reacher novel, and admire Lee Child who doesn’t pretend to be a writer but is an author. Big difference.
I just went through a near-death experience and my entire outlook on life has shifted. I know now what guys like Richard Brautigan felt like. Like we’ve put our entire lives out there and no one noticed, except superficially. Well, screw that.
The real reason I think you asked about MFAs and the like is that you understand that the vast majority of wannabe writers have (rightfully) little faith in their writing ability and are looking for a magic bean that will confer the title of writer upon them. This is the kind of thing they’ve looked for all their lives. Go to school, earn an MBA, make a fortune on Wall Street or in the corporate world. Get a law degree, go to med school, get a teaching degree, a degree in journalism, etc., etc. It’s all about education, about a degree. Biggest load of bullshit ever sold to gullible youth. And, the only route to success they’re aware of. It’s fool’s gold but they don’t know it. They don’t realize the adults in their lives have been sold a crock of shit and all they can do is move it along to the next generation.
Kids, listen to the truly wise among us. Listen to the genius, Flannery O’Connor, who when asked if MFA programs discouraged writers, replied, “Not enough of them.” Truer words were never spoken… A semester studying just one of her stories (preferably without some idiot MFA advisor whispering in their ear their own moronic interpretation of it) will learn infinitely more about writing than sitting through a hundred academic lectures and make-work workshops. Run like the wind from MFA programs if you ever want a chance to learn to write. Where it will help you is to get published in journals run by MFA folks, mostly an experience that feels oddly like incest, probably because it is. It will also get your work read by a certain kind of literary agent who still puts value in these kinds of worthless degrees. They’ll help you become an author. Not a writer. But, I suspect the majority of folks writing today would rather be an author than a writer. At least, a lot of the work I see reflects that mindset.
Will, to fully answer your question, for me neither my life experiences nor any formal education were crucial to my literary ability. To my literary success, my life experiences—particularly the ones outside the norm---were helpful, but as far as literary ability only two things really helped that. First, an extraordinary intelligence (an I.Q. of 163), and second, having read far, far more than anyone I know was the biggest single factor. I firmly believe that you learn to write by reading. And, it’s what I notice about a lot of today’s writers—they don’t seem to have read much of quality. I began by reading Balzac and de Maupassant and the Russians when I was six and seven and eight years old. I see so many writers who say they began reading the Hardy Boys and cannot believe they’ll ever amount to a whole lot in letters. Is that elitist? Sure, but to be a good or great writer is the very definition of elitism. Can you imagine Saul Bellow attending some of today’s writer’s conventions or even being aware of them? Hemingway might show up but only because he had a commercial side and figured out people would buy him drinks. I’m pretty sure Flannery O’Connor wouldn’t even consider something like that. She valued her brain cells more than that… Too much class and pride to work the room like a high school kid trying to get enough votes for class president or prom king.
Reading voraciously and reading a quality list from the age of five or six is the key to becoming anything more than a formulaic or hack writer. Being also a genius doesn’t hurt. I get students who read an average of 5-10 books a year and I know they’re never going to write anything I’d want to read. Their literary heroes are John Gresham, Stephen King and the like. It used to be that anyone who read those kinds of authors would never admit it in public but those days have changed… It says a lot when a “writer” claims that one of his writing heroes is Stephen King. You can pretty well bet this isn’t a writer who can tell the difference between an Ian Fleming novel and The Stranger although he probably would never read the latter.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
I’ll list those who’ve written stories I admire and those I’ve learned something from. I always hate doing this as I can’t begin to list them all and after the interview comes out I feel badly about forgetting someone who should be on the list. Please forgive me the omissions.
Here ya go. The Bible. Harry Crews, Camus, Borges, Steve Hamilton, Joe Lansdale, Anthony Smith, Paul Brazill, Ray Banks, David Sedaris, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, Raymond Carver, Ken Bruen, Christopher Moore, Flannery O’Connor, James Dickey, Faulkner, Nelson Algren, Charles Bukowski, Elaine Ash, Kurt Vonnegut, Jim Murray, Larry Brown, Helen FitzGerald, Barry Hannah, Les Edgerton—yeah, myself—I read my own work often--Celine, Mark Twain, Guillermo O’Joyce, Sherman Alexie, Richard Brautigan, Callie Khouri, Janet Burroway, Linwood Barclay, David Mamet, Cormac McCarthy, Anton Chekhov, Saul Bellow, Pete Dexter, Larry Watson--a lot more I’m forgetting right now. You’ll notice most are older or dead and that’s because I don’t see a lot of competition for great writing these days. I see a lot of work you might call “satisfactory” but little that is actual genius. It’s like a sea of mediocre TV series’ episodes that look a lot alike out there. Name ten books that actually affected you emotionally in the last couple of years. Name five. Hell, name one or two! Name one person writing today who could write a book to match one of Nelson Algren’s. There are a handful but a small handful.
Sorry about the bitterness. I nearly died a few weeks ago and it kind of changed my outlook on life and writing. I’ve come close to death before but prior to this was young enough I didn’t really believe I could die. Now I know it’s always very close. And it made me want to never again lie for the sake of being liked. I’d much rather be respected and even hated for being forthright and honest than for making somebody feel good.
Write a truly great book like The Lock Artist, Trout Fishing in America, The Stranger, A Feast of Snakes, The Rapist, No Country for Old Men, or a short story as brilliant as “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “The Fiend” and then you’ll be a writer and not just an author.
What’s next for you?
Well, since I’ve just committed professional suicide with this interview, about all that’s left is to get my affairs in order, then lay down in the casket and cross my hands and await the pallbearers.
In the meantime, I’ll be finalizing my memoir, Adrenaline Junkie, which comes out this fall from Down&Out Books. Maybe it’ll win one of those awards some of my other books should have won. Probably not… Finishing up a novel based on a short story I wrote when I was 12 and that my agent urged me to write, saying it “haunted her” and that if I wrote it well, could be as good as No Country for Old Men.
At any rate, thank you for this opportunity, Will. Hope the haters won’t include you—you just were the gracious host who asked the questions and didn’t realize he was talking to the angry old bastard threatening the kids on his lawn with his .12 gauge…
And, I don’t really hate many of my fellow writers. I just don’t want to have drinks with some of you… and I’m sure the feeling’s mutual. That’s what we call a “big hairy-ass deal”… not… Too many “nice” guys (to one’s face) out there who I wouldn’t turn my back on for a nanosecond. I love the real men and women of literature. I detest the phonies that work the room and can’t do the real work of writing. As we say in Texas, too many writers today are “all hat and no cattle.”
I prefer gray, or maybe blue with some fleecy, cumulus clouds, but…wow. And as a high school dropout, I was never a contender for Prom King, either. Thanks a million for one helluva ride, Les. Glad you're still at the reins.
FB – Les Edgerton, Author
BIO: Les Edgerton is an ex-con, matriculating at Pendleton Reformatory in the sixties for burglary (plea-bargained down from multiple counts of burglary, armed robbery, strong-armed robbery and possession with intent). He was an outlaw for many years and was involved in shootouts, knifings, robberies, high-speed car chases, dealt and used drugs, was a pimp, worked for an escort service, starred in porn movies, was a gambler, served four years in the Navy, and had other misadventures. He’s since taken a vow of poverty (became a writer) with 21 books in print. His memoir, Adrenaline Junkie is currently being edited prior to being published by Down&Out Books in November, 2018. Work of his has been nominated for or won: the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award (short story category), Derringer Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Jesse Jones Book Award, Spinetingler Magazine Award for Best Novel (Legends category), awarded two literary grants from the NEA, and the Violet Crown Book Award, among others. Screenplays of his have placed as a semifinalist in the Nicholl’s and as a finalist in the Best of Austin and Writer’s Guild’s competitions. He holds a B.A. from I.U. and the MFA in Writing from Vermont College. He was the writer-in-residence for three years at the University of Toledo, for one year at Trine University, and taught writing classes for UCLA, St. Francis University, Phoenix College, Writer’s Digest, Vermont College, the New York Writer’s Workshop and other places. He currently teaches a private novel-writing class online. He lives in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where he immigrated to some years ago from the U.S. and is currently learning the language and customs there. He writes because he hates... a lot... and hard. Injustice and bullying and mendacity are what he hates the most. He can be found at www.lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/