It’s hard to spend time in the company of crime writers and not be know of Les Edgerton. I’d been aware of him for several years as one of those writers I’d like to keep closer tabs on if I ever gte the goddamned To Be Read List under control, but never had a literary encounter with him until Bouchercon in Albany last September. Les read a brief poem for those who attended the Noir at the Bar meeting held as one of the Author’s Choice sessions. I’m not a poetry guy—as will be made clear when my annual holiday poem makes its appearance in a couple of weeks—but this broke my hard-boiled heart.
My Father and Robert Frost/Les Edgerton
One day I found a volume of poetry by Robert Frost in the prison library at Pendleton and checked it out.
Back in my cell, I read: Home is the place where, when you want to go there, they have to take you in.
When I made parole, I called my mom to tell her my good news. I found out that my dad had never read Robert Frost.
At least not that poem.
(Used with the permission of the author. Originally published in Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Issue 6: Fall-Winter, 2010.
Included in Gumbo Ya-Ya: In the Zone and other Stories, Snubnose Press, December 2011)
This is not your garden variety writer of crime fiction.
Les took a few minutes to play Twenty Questions, with, as you may expect, some unexpected replies.
One Bite at a Time: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
Les Edgerton: I got the idea for it many years ago, when I read Charles Bukowski’s The Fiend. It was the most courageous story I’ve ever read. Bukowski’s one of my literary heroes and I thought I’d challenge him for that title. The Fiend is an account from the mind of a child molester, showing how he came to that point where he could rape a little girl and then gives a graphic description of it. That would have been gratuitous if he hadn’t inserted one line. The kicker for me in this story was a line as Martin is kissing the child, just before he rapes her, and the narrator says, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells--one hers, the other his.” When I read this line, it was as if I’d been struck by literary lightening. This was the bravest story I’ve ever read from a writer. Why? Because there are actual morons out there who think the character is the writer. Can’t get around that. Not everyone has an I.Q. over a hundred or even close in many instances… But, writers refrain from writing some stuff because they’re afraid the mouth-breathers will equate them with the character. Not Bukowski. Except, to my mind, he kind of hedged his bet. Most of his work is from a first person POV and I think this is the only one he wrote from a third person. Putting some psychic distance between him and the character. I saw if as a bit of a cop-out from him and decided I wanted to beat him so cast mine in first person. Scott Adlerberg, in his review of The Rapist, says: “…except that in, as Edgerton put it, even Bukowski pulled back a bit, forgoing his usual first person narration to tell the story in the third person. In other words, Bukowski didn't handle this material head on; Edgerton dares to.”
OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Rapist, start to finish?
LE: Probably about 2-3 months. Can’t remember as I wrote it over 30 years ago… Actually began it when I was in the joint, and celled next to a guy who was in for rape. He was my model for the book.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
LE: Doesn’t matter. Back story has no place in a novel, in my opinion. If it does, write another novel.
OBAAT: In what time and place is The Rapist set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
LE: Not sure. Not trying to be obtuse, but I’m really not sure. Had it in my head that it was around the turn of the century or maybe in the twenties… Maybe the fifties? Doesn’t matter. Make it where you want it. As far as the setting being important—well, the guy is on Death Row for murder and rape and it’s set in the prison, so it’s kind of crucial.
OBAAT: How did The Rapist come to be published?
LE: Because Cort McMeel read it. Cort was my best friend and I’d talked to him about it. I had shown it to one other person, Dr. Francois Camoin at Vermont College when he was my advisor for my MFA and Francois said it was “brilliant, a work of genius,” but that “I’d have a hard time finding a publisher for it, but that I would eventually and it would win awards.” He also said he thought I’d have a lot of trouble finding a U.S. publisher as U.S. audiences weren’t sophisticated enough to get or appreciate it and that he thought a French or German publisher would love it. As it turns out, I have a German publisher for it now (Pulpmaster) and he and his translator have both compared it to Bukowski.
Anyway, I showed it to Cort and he said he was thunderstruck by it. He wanted to publish it in his new press, Noir Nation, but then advised me to pull it because of his partner in that enterprise. I showed it to Jon Bassoff of New Pulp Press and he loved it. Actually, so did Brian Lindenmuth of Spinetingler Press and either of those guys would have been fantastic for it. I went with NPP for two reasons. They made an offer literally an hour or so before Spinetingler and the second reason was I’d read every single author on their list and there wasn’t a single book or author who wasn’t brilliant. I still think they’re the single best press in the world.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
LE: I like to read quality writing. Like Nabokov, I think there are only two genres—good writing and bad. I’m loath to begin listing writers as there are so many I like I’ll end up forgetting one and will feel awful about doing so. I’ll stick to dead folks for this. Camus is my all-time favorite. His The Stranger to me is the most perfect book ever written. In fact, I keep rereading it, looking for the flaw. So far, I haven’t found it. I think he wrote it with the Eastern philosophy of always including a tiny flaw in the work—quilt or whatever—so that the artist doesn’t challenge God. It’s there, somewhere, but I just can’t find it. If it turns out he has written the perfect book, we might all as well quit. It has to be there! Recently, I saw a Goodreads review of The Stranger and the person gave it three stars. Three fucking stars! For Camus? I looked up this lady’s list of reviews and it turns out she loves John Grisham and folks like that. Fifty Shades of Crap… It all makes sense now… There are perhaps a hundred writers working today that I get their books the instant they’re out. If you’d give me the space to list ‘em all, I will, but it’s going to make this too long. And, then, once it comes out, I’ll think of someone whose work I love that I forgot and I’ll be suicidal.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
LE: As far as writers, Camus, Balzac, Borges, Sarte, Celine, most of the Russians and most of the French, Flannery O’Connor, Ray Carver, some of Faulkner, Harry Crews, screenwriter Callie Khouri, James Crumley, Charles Bukowski, Chekhov… there are a bunch.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
LE: I wear pants but not underwear. Is that TMI? I’m kidding… sort of… And, I do outline, although not the kind of outline most are familiar with. I use an outline of 15-20 words that provide a road map that works. It contains five statements: the inciting incident, the three major failures of the protagonist to attain his goal, and the resolution. It gives me a road map but one with enormous freedom. And, if it takes an unexpected turn, I simply take a few minutes, rewrite the outline and I’m off again. If I was going to take a road trip to Adak, Alaska, having never been there, I think the smart thing would be to pick up a map. I could just start driving north but that doesn’t always work well… It saves me an awful lot of time. I kind of laugh when I hear writers say they “never outline.” Kind of like Hemingway did—he said that. Except… he did. He didn’t call them “outlines” however. He called them “Draft #1, Draft #2, Draft #8…” and so on. His “outlines” were 100,000 words long… Which is what I think most people who claim they don’t outline do. They just keep writing draft after draft after… you get the picture…
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
LE: Great question. And, this brings up something most of us suffer under. Most of us who write have been lifelong readers and have learned to write simply from the volume of our reading. The problem is, no “authority” has told us we know how to write, so we’re full of insecurities. A prime example is represented by your question. My instincts have always been to make it perfect as I went along. But… every damned article I read, every damn writer’s craft book I read, every damn lecture I attended—all of ‘em said that the writer “should get it down, lickety-split and then go back and rewrite.” Well, I did that because I didn’t trust my own instincts. After all, who was I to question all these writer folks? And then, one day I picked up a book and this guy said the opposite. He said if you wrote like that—just threw it down on paper and went back later to fix it, you’d end up with a bad product. He said, all those times when you’re rushing along and don’t have the perfect word and you think you’ll go back and find it later… don’t happen. He said all those places you were throwing words down and knew it could be better and you intended to go back and fix it—he said you wouldn’t. You’d forget what it was you saw as wrong, no matter what notes you might write in the margins. You’d end up not editing or rewriting—you’d end up copyediting at best. He advised to use the best paper (this was in the days of typewriters when lots of writers used poorer quality paper for their drafts) and to make each line, each page as perfect as you could before moving on. Well, for the first time in my life, I had an “authority” tell me it was okay to do what my instincts had been trying to tell me all along. Most of us are the same—we need someone we respect to tell us it’s okay to do something. This guy absolutely freed me up. I used to write 7-8 drafts and it took me at least a year to write a novel. These days, I can write one in 3-6 months and it’s infinitely better quality than the ones I used to rewrite and rewrite and… I rarely rewrite much at all these days. I’m rewriting as I go.
I’ve learned over and over again—if you’re a reader and have been all your life—you know how to write. Trust the instincts all that reading has honed. It’ll be on the money 99.9% of the time, no matter what the writing “wisdom” might say.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
LE: I’d steal what Jim Harrison said. His advice was to “read the whole of Western literature for the past 4,000 years. Then, if you live long enough, read the whole of Eastern literature for the same period. For, if you don’t know what passed for good in the past, you won’t know what passes for good today.” Perfect advice. Which most won’t follow these days. Too many want instant gratification and don’t want to do the work. And, e-publishing makes that seem possible. But, I think the writer has to ask themselves if what they’re putting out is good writing… or just typing…
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
LE: There isn’t anything else I like to do. That’s the truth. I’m doing one or the other 24/7 and it’s my choice. I read an average of five novels a week. The only thing else is several times a year I enjoy watching either the I.U. basketball team, the San Francisco Giants baseball team, and the Notre Dame football team play. That’s it. Occasionally, I’ll watch a movie. But, almost every waking minute I’m reading or writing.
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
LE: No question for me. The good review. And, I don’t mean one of those Amazon things—I mean the review by someone who knows what they’re talking about. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the Amazon review—I do—but sometimes they’re written by someone whose natural medium probably is crayons… And, sometimes, they’re written by folks who actually have a sound knowledge of and appreciation for literature. It’s kind of a crap shoot. But, a bona fide review by a respected publication is worth far, far more than any amount of money. To me, at least. I’m not like Mickey Spillane who said he didn’t have readers, he had customers. That was fine for him, but I have different goals. I’m the one who admired the writer who turned down Oprah’s selection of his book.
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
LE: Nope. Not even a temptation. I’ve walked away from many situations where I could have made a lot of money simply because I didn’t want to give up the time to write. No regrets in the least.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely?
LE: Not enough choices offered! Of the two offered, I’d go with Number 2. But, I’d much prefer to go with one of the Big Six or if not one of them, then a well-respected smaller press like Graywolf or Algonquin. Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not against money, but not at the price of quality publishing. This isn’t a good question, Dana. You’re guiding the answer. Those aren’t our only choices… J I’d rather be known as a good writer than a well-paid typist… If I could be Albert Camus or James Patterson… I’d learn to speak and write in French… I realize this may offend some, but if a writer doesn’t offend at least some people when he writes or speaks, he’s not really a writer. It’s our job to offend people…
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
LE: All of ‘em. Usually, I drink Jack and water. Occasionally, beer, but never that abomination called Coors Lite or any of its cousins… And, I’m all grown up, so I never mix my drinks with pop… I’m one of those weirdos who don’t drink to get high or drunk, but because I really like the taste of liquor.
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
LE: Baseball live and football on TV. I have a theory about sports on TV. Television decrees which will be successful and mostly because of the shape of the field. Baseball is difficult to televise and watching a game on TV is excruciating because mostly all they show are the pitcher, hitter and catcher. There’s much, much more going on in the rest of the field, but the shape of the field precludes it from fitting the screen well. Football and basketball are perfectly suited for the screen. Hockey suffers because the puck is too hard to pick up on the screen and that’s one reason it hasn’t become a major sport. Actually, football doesn’t fit the screen perfectly, but most people who watch it never played it and all they’re interested in watching is the quarterback and the receiver or running back. Plus, the lines can both fit the screen at the beginning of the play, and even those who understand football can see a lot of what’s happening. Camera work has improved so much that both football and basketball can be followed. Watch basketball and most of the time they’re televising half court action. That fits the camera eye perfectly. It’s why soccer will never be big-time in the U.S. The field’s too big for TV and the action is much more scattered than in football. If the sport doesn’t fit the camera eye, it’ll never be big in the U.S.
And then, there’s the ball itself. As George Plimpton said: “There exists an inverse correlation between the size of a ball and the quality of writing about the sport in which the ball is used. There are superb books about golf, very good books about baseball, not very many good books about football, few good books about basketball, and no good books on beach balls.” Just sayin’…
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
LE: Can I buy you a drink?
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
LE: Yes, indeed. I’ll have two… Doubles…
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
LE: This interview. Oh, you weren’t speaking literally. Actually, I’m working on a whole bunch of things. A new craft book, titled A Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Bijou, my memoir, titled Adrenaline Junkie, an edit on new black comedy crime caper (The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping) (that’s coming out first in a German-language edition from Pulpmaster), a couple of new novels (thrillers), one untitled as of yet and one titled The Fixer and some other stuff. The Fixer is fun to write. It’s about a guy who did time at The Farm (Angola, LA), and starts doing hits to pay his rent and buy his red beans and rice when he makes parole. The twist is he make his hits all look like accidents. One, he puts sodium hydroxide in a guy’s gas tank (old Skinheads’ trick) and it blows up. Another, he disguises himself as a black guy (in “real life” he’s a coonass) and shows up at the ATM where his target always goes on Friday night, dressed up in an old-time pimp outfit—wearing a Big Apple, a two-foot high ‘fro, banana-yellow leisure suit with lots of gold chains and other accouterments of the trade, and holds up the vic, along with two ladies and acts like he’s on PCP and blows the guy away—all on camera—so they’re looking for Super Fly. In another, he goes to the vic’s house as an invited guest (disguised as a Mexican-American businessman) and drugs her and while she’s under, injects live rabies between her toes. The cool thing about rabies is that when you find out you’ve got it, it’s too late for much except picking out your casket… assuming you can take time off from running from water… Another one, where he lays out shotgun shells (as the vic did all the time) on his dresser and then starts a fire where they go off. Actually, he shoots the guy first (never know if a shell will actually fire the right way), and then sets an “accidental” fire that sets off the other shells. Stuff like that. All good diagrams for perfect crimes if anyone’s interested in buying a good how-to murder book… He works for a woman in NOLA he calls The Arranger. He goes by The Fixer. And, he’s going to blackmail her list of the clients she’s sent him… The other is about a philanthropic hitman who does vigilante work. His vics are all folks who did heinous crimes but got off too light. He just watches ID TV and Court TV and finds folks like the guys who offed an entire family and ended up getting eight years. When they come out, they get to meet this guy and it isn’t much fun for them. If they had their druthers, they probably end up wishing they’d gotten heavier sentences… Kind of like the Death Wish movies, only he has a higher calling… Just talked to my agent about this one and he likes it a lot.
And, mostly, like Richard Brautigan, my biggest dream is to write a novel that ends with the word mayonnaise. It’s a lifelong goal…
Thanks for this opportunity, Dana! I thoroughly enjoyed it. And, sorry it’s so long but I didn’t have enough time to write short…
Many thanks to Les Edgerton for taking the time to share his thoughts with us today. The Rapist is available in paperback and as an e-book.