Friday, February 10, 2012

An Interview With Les Edgerton

Les Edgerton.

Ex-con.  College professor.  Raconteur.  Irreverent.  Damn good writer.

And rapidly becoming a good friend.

Met Les thru the internet social media circles.  Got a note one day from him saying he really enjoyed my writing and included himself as a fan of mine.


An established, well respected international writer like Les Edgerton is a fan of mine?  Carumba!  Turns out that we started talking to each other in various mediums---and discovered we are more alike in our writing habits and tastes.  Wow. Now the old man and I (we're about the same age, come to think of it) are working on cementing our friendship even deeper

You need to know that Les is one hard edged, "not going to modify into sweetness the cruel world of crime", kind of writer.  He tells it like he sees it.  The guy is an ex-con.  He knows from where he speaks about the inside ruminations of those who live on the other side of the tracks.  His fiction, therefore, is darker than most.  With no frills.  But . . . more than you think . . with a kind of twisted dry sardonic humor to it.

How could I NOT interview this guy?  So here it is.  In living color.  Enjoy.

1.  To say the least, you have lived a colorful life.  Was it a planned colorful life you endured?  Or did it come in fits and spurts?

It was most definitely planned, B.R. When I was five or six I knew I was going to be a writer. My idea of what it took to be a writer then was the “Jack London school of writing,” where you had adventures and then wrote about them. My entire life has consisted of doing my level best to have experiences. And then, when I was in my sixties, I read something Flannery O’Connor said where she claimed that if a person has lived in the same small town and in the same house for 18 years, she has all the material she’ll ever need as a writer. Now I find out! Would have saved me a lot of trouble if I’d known that years ago…

Gumbo Ya Ya
2.  Over the years you've written a number of books covering a surprising wide variety of subjects.  From hairstyling to baseball to crime fiction.  How did this polymath taste in slapping words onto paper come about?

I’ve just always had a lot of interests. How does one focus on one thing? I can’t. And, don’t want to. It’s hurt me, career-wise, as publishers and agents want their writers to create a “brand” and I have no interest at all in doing that, even though it would benefit me, money-wise. I like a lot of things and I love to write so that’s what I do—write about a lot of things. You have to control your own life and not let others do it for you. Especially not for as shallow a reason as “money.” Never been a huge goal of mine. If it would have been, I would have sold insurance or whatever. Actually, I did and was very good at it… but bored out of my skull. Walked away from a job that would have paid six figures a year which was good money in the seventies and a year later was homeless in Costa Mesa, sleeping on a garage floor and eating out of a Bob’s Big Boy dumpster. Really a cool time and I knew it at the time and look fondly back at it. If I’d stayed selling life insurance and fretting over my yard, I wouldn’t remember any of that, I’m pretty sure. Since I was a young boy, I realized that if things went okay, one day I’d end up in the ol’ nursing home with a blanket over my lap and all the money in the world wouldn’t matter. All I’d really have would be memories. Well, I have tons and tons of super memories. I also knew early on that one can only drive one car at a time and sleep in one bed in one house, so accumulating material things just never made much sense. At least to me.

3.  When did the writing bug first bite you?  And when, in your mind, did you finally come to the conclusion that you were indeed a successful writer?

When I read my first book on my own when I was five, I knew then that I was going to be a writer. Never considered anything else for a single minute. And, I was a successful writer from Day One. In grade school, I’d write these funny put-downs of bullies—teachers, parents and other kids—that got passed around and laughed at. My writing created an emotion in others and the feedback was instantaneous. That’s when I knew I was successful. That’s what writing is all about—affecting other people emotionally.

4.  We've shared this conversation before; but it seems rather obvious that just about every writer out there wants to write crime fiction. So the question is quite simple; what makes a writer succeed, and fail, in writing this particular genre?

Well, some would say the market decides success and in some ways it does, but not as much to me as perhaps to others. I consider my writing successful when other writers whom I respect tell me my writing was good. If a writer only looks at how many books he’s sold, then I feel very sad about that person. He’s not a writer,imo—he’s a salesman who happens to sell books and not shoes. I have absolutely no ambition to sell a million books if the books are crap. I have acquaintances who do that and good for them, but it’s not how I’d define success as a writer. I’d much rather sell 10,000 copies to intelligent people who truly understand and appreciate writing ability. I’ve had good numbers for book sales in the past and that’s fine, but when I get the royalty statement and it’s good, while I of course like that, what really trips my trigger is when I read a review of one of my books by someone I respect who understands the book and notes its quality. I can’t remember what my last royalty statement was, but I sure remember the day I read reviews by Anthony Neil Smith, Ray Banks, Paul D.

Brazill, Allan Guthrie and several others who praised my work. I can still tell you where I was, what the weather was like, what time of day it was and what I was wearing when I read a review by Luca Veste or Tom Pluck (or you, B.R.!) or any of a number of quality writers. Wish I could name ‘em all, but alas, room doesn’t allow…

The Bitch
To further answer your question—what determines success or no—for myself when I’m reading another writer it’s simple. Did he transport me to the world he created? Did I believe that world? Was it interesting and compelling? I admit, I’m a tough sell. I see more than a few “pretenders” out there and I just don’t read any more of their work once I sense that in their writing. Here’s a “for-instance.” If I read a novel and I come across the word “shiv” I’m probably going to put that book down and never return. It’s just not a word actual outlaws use. It’s a term from fifties’ movies and bad pulp fiction. I can’t even imagine a guy ever using that word in the joint—he’d get laughed out of the rec room as a newbie to the outlaw game and somebody would probably pop his brown eye. (Doing so by threatening him with a shank, not a “shiv.”) This is clearly a guy who got his information from movies and other bad books. I don’t expect most crime writers to have experiential experience about the criminal life, but when the “research” is clearly only from reading bad books and watching crappy, melodramatic movies, it doesn’t work for me. A writer who creates protagonists who are cops and detectives usually works for verisimilitude—it’s pretty easy to do proper research for that side of the law—while often those who try to portray the criminal pov don’t have a clue. That said, there are some people who really do understand the criminal mind, including (but not limited to) writers like Elmore Leonard, Joe R. Lansdale, Anthony Neil Smith, Richard Stark (especially Mr. Stark), Ray Banks, Allan Guthrie, a new guy I just discovered—Jake Hinkson, George Pelecanos, Charles Willeford, Ed Lynskey, David Cranmer, Duane Swierczynski, Tom Franklin, Harry Crews, Nigel Bird, David Goodis, Bill Cameron, Don Winslow, Steve Hamilton and a few others I know I’m forgetting (sorry!). These are the guys who create criminal characters I can buy. Especially Richard Stark.

5.  You have a number of novels published.  Why don't you tell us about your latest offering and what will be the next tasty delight your fans will soon enjoy.

My latest release was a story collection titled GUMBO YA-YA, I’m very proud of. Just before that, my noir novel, THE BITCH, came out and I feel that my best book yet published. I’ve got some more waiting to be published that I think one of them is even better and may even be ground-breaking. We’ll see… Last year, I also published two other crime/noir novels—THE PERFECT CRIME and JUST LIKE THAT. I’m working on a new noir thriller called THE FIXER which is about a hit man who makes his hits all look like accidents. Been working on that one about seven years and I think it’s going to be a good one…

6.  You now teach at the college level writing courses.  So tell us, can a good writer be trained through, say, an MFA course?  Or are the best of writers born as natural story tellers and are compelled to write?

I have an MFA in Writing from Vermont College and in the interests of truth in writing, have to say I learned very little about writing while there. It wasn’t the fault of the school or of my advisors who were all great people and terrific writers. I was already a good writer when I went there—already had four books published with two in the pipeline. What I did gain from my time there was a good reading list and a network that gained me entre to various publications. The biggest thing was it kind of validated me as a writer in my mind and that’s important. As far as training good writers via college classes, in a way, yes. There are certainly things a writer can learn in an MFA program—but it really depends on their advisors. There just are no “secrets” to be learned in programs or in workshops or in books—the thing about writing is that the “secrets” are in plain view on the pages of good books. Just look at what affects you in someone’s writing and figure out how they did it. It’s that simple. Someone did a study years ago, where they took a group of professional writers and looked at their educational backgrounds. They defined “professional” writers by the definition of professional—someone who made their entire living from writing. They discovered that about half had a college B.A. or higher… and half had a high school degree or less. Formal education has little to do with writing success, at least in my mind. I was writing publishable work while in junior high school. In fact, two of the stories in my story collection, MONDAY’S MEAL were written when I was 12 and 13 and the NY Times compared the work to Raymond Carver. I do think the best writers are naturals at it, but I also think a person can learn enough to write marketable books. I don’t think any program can train someone to write a book like THE STRANGER. A program can, on the other hand, train a writer to write a book like THE FIRM.

Also, “natural” is perhaps the wrong word. I think one is seen as a “natural” because he writes compelling, interesting stories and I’m not sure if anyone is “born” knowing how to do that. I do think that those considered naturals were avid readers at a very early age and have continued to read constantly all their lives. Those are the people who’ve taught themselves how to write, simply because they’re smarter than the average bear and have read much more than others. This is what makes a “natural” writer, I think. If that person had lived in another culture and didn’t learn to read until he or she was twenty, I don’t think they’d ever write at a level where people would call them a natural. I don’t think such a person could write THE STRANGER, but I’m pretty sure they could eventually write THE FIRM. And, make a lot of money…

7.  In your writing classes (let's get down to the nuts and bolts of the thing) what do you emphasis to your students the three main ingredients which makes for a great novel.  Or do you tackle that concept at all?

Never thought of novels in those terms, B.R., but that’s an interesting concept. And, I imagine, a viable one. I have two elements which I consider necessary for successful writing. Be interesting and be clear. Of the two, being interesting is the more important.

To be successful in the market with a novel (not necessarily the same thing as writing a good novel), I do think there are three things that contribute. One, write with a voice that people want to hear. That’s usually your own voice that hasn’t been ruined by paying too much attention to English classes. You can write the dullest story in the world if you write it with a voice that’s compelling. It’s like back in high school—we all know the guy who can tell a joke and no one laughs… and then, another guy comes in and tells the same joke and people are crying they’re laughing so hard. It’s delivery… or voice. Second, write a good story. That’s all novels are—stories. Third, write in the current accepted fashion. If you write a novel in the Victorian style, with long setups and loads of backstory in the beginning, you’re probably not going to get read. Doubtful you’ll even get published, unless you’re related to an editor or have incriminating information on them, or you own a press and they’ll publish you if you’ll publish them… which happens…

There are some other tricks and stratagems. I’d advise including at least five watercooler moments in the book. Same as movies. It’s what creates word-of-mouth and, in the final analysis, that’s what sells most books.

8.  Your writing career has stretched across several decades and covered a lot of different subjects.  What's out there in the writing world you haven't yet accomplished?  And more importantly, do you think you still have the drive in you to go after those accolades?

I’d love to win some accolades. Or the lottery. I probably have a better chance at the lottery…However, there are some awards I don’t much covet, which may surprise you. For instance, I’d love to win an Edgar, but don’t much covet a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize. Mostly because those have become very political. If you’re a rabid liberal and write a book that blasts conservatives, you’ve got a shot at those things. That’s who’s on the committees to select them. Think of the folks Kurt Vonnegut was speaking of when he said, “Literature is in danger of disappearing up its own asshole.” Bingo… Besides, those folks haven’t gotten the word that “literary” fiction is over. Who reads it unless they have to? Or have some burning desire to impress some academic nimrod with their reading list? A Spinetingler Award means something to me. The Edgar, though, is my Holy Grail. I wish I lived in England or Scotland or Ireland or one of those countries—they have some awards I’d kill to win. Those guys are writing on the edge and are the real deal. They don’t play it safe and those are my kind of folks…

B.R. I realize some of my remarks may piss some folks off. Good! The older I get, the more honest I’m willing to be in public. Life’s too short to placate people. If one’s writing doesn’t irritate some folks, it’s not much good—same with interviews…

Thanks for having me on, guy!


  1. Great interview, but then it's two great guys doing the talking, so I'm not in the least surprised!

    Thanks for the mention Les, appreciated a lot!

  2. Thanks, Luca and Paul. It's always interesting to talk to Les.

  3. Thanks Paul and Luca and B.R.--you guys are the folks I judge my writing by-none of you are bullshit artists and if you say you like something I know you're being honest. If you don't like it... you just don't comment on it. I like that approach and use it myself for reviews. It really does mean a lot... and I mean a LOT more to me to have someone like you guys and several others I respect say they liked my work than it does to sell a bazillion copies. Some of those bazillion people may know good work and some may not, but I know you folks do. That's why I jump up and down when you note a book of mine is good and just smile when I see a healthy royalty statement. The money eventually goes--besides how much does it take to keep supplied with Jack?--but those magic words that "This is good" by someone who really is smart and knows the difference between crap and good stay with me forever.

  4. Ah, my friend . . . . I think you way overestimate my talents as a critic. But I'll nod my head and admit to the public I have an astute eye for talent.

    Nevertheless, brilliant or not, I do like the way you slap words down and shake'em up into eye grabbing prose.

  5. Great interview, and thank you for the mention.