I first encountered Les Edgerton at the Albany Bouchercon, where he read a brief poem at a Down & Out Books event. It was my first encounter with Down & Out, too, so that may have been the most fortuitous half hour of my life. (Certainly of my writing life.) Since then we’ve gotten to know each other and spend some time together, notably in Long Beach, where he joined me (along with Tim Hallinan and John McFetridge) in a reading.
Les is a fine man, a wonderful writer, and someone I’m proud to call a friend. When I heard he had a book coming out and realized how it’s been since we chatted, I hit him up right away. As always, he graciously agreed.
One Bite at a Time: Les, I can’t decide which is the bigger treat: having you on the blog or hearing you have a new book out. Let’s start with the book. Tell us a little about Just Like That.
Les Edgerton: Good question, Dana. The reason I wrote Just Like That was that I just got tired of watching movies and reading novels that without fail got the criminal mindset wrong. I know it’s not their fault; they just aren’t criminals themselves and like a lot of people, many novelists and filmmakers are perhaps a bit lazy. By that, I mean many don’t bother to do the work of research and therefore depend on their idea of the criminal from the books and movies they themselves have experienced. In other words, they simply keep perpetuating the same inaccuracies and myths and stereotypes over and over. And, today’s authors as a group are lazier than in any other era in literary history, in my opinion. It’s not just about criminals. Here’s an example of what I see as a universal reluctance to do much research. Just yesterday I was reading a novel from a bestselling author who had his character smelling cordite. This is the eighth novel I’ve read this year that has character smelling cordite. Jesus! Each time, I think the same thing: Moron. And, each one was from a well-known author and most were from legacy publishers with supposedly quality editing. It’s just a case of writers who seem to believe everything they read to be true or accurate and never questioning anything. Research today is infinitely easier than at any time in history with the Intergnat, and yet none of these writers could spend ten seconds Googling “cordite?” If they had, they would have learned that the manufacture of cordite ceased shortly after WWII and that it was a component of British ammo, not U.S. And, what editor worth his or her title doesn’t do the research these writers couldn’t be bothered with? The answer is the same kind of editor who is just as lazy as the writer they’re editing… We simply live in an age of lowered expectations and quality.
I’m just using cordite as a good example of how many contemporary writers are either lazy or just plain sloppy in their writing. When I began writing, it was considered a terrible thing when a writer made a factual mistake in their novels. The consensus was that once a fact was wrongly presented, the reader couldn’t believe anything else in the novel. Nowadays, that mindset of quality seems to have largely disappeared.
I’ve only been approached by a handful of writers who wanted to know the truth of the criminal mindset or the veracity of their jail or prison scenes. The first was Ray Banks and the other one who springs to mind is Anthony Neil Smith. I seem to remember another writer who bothered to ask me about the veracity of a criminal action or setting but can’t recall who it was. Probably Paul Brazill—that’s the kind of thing Paul would do.
And, that’s it. That’s kind of sad, I think, that so many writers writing crime novels never do any actual research about the characters or the milieu they’re creating. It seems to be common for most writers to research how cops work and all that, but it seems to be okay with most to base their characterizations of criminals and outlaws along the same flawed characterizations in previous flawed books and movies.
So, that’s my long-winded answer to the question you posed, as to what was “the point of the book and how I approached it.” Simply put, the average outlaw or criminal often doesn’t expend a lot of time or energy in pondering a crime, but more often than not just does it on the spur of the moment. Just like that…
Cathy Johns, then the assistant warden of The Farm (the state prison at Angola, La.) read the book and told me that it was “the truest depiction of the criminal mind she’d ever heard.” That meant more to me than any other comment about the book. It told me that I’d succeeded in what I set out to do with it.
OBAAT: You saved me from myself when you read the ARC of my next book and pointed out a mistake I made regarding handwriting analysis, for which I’m grateful. You do quite a bit of teaching. What’s the toughest thing to get through to a fledgling writer?
LE: Another easy question, Dana. Without fail, it’s the lack of knowledge of story structure. Most beginning writers seem to be at least basically proficient in things like description, characterization, dialog, and those bits and pieces of the craft, but are often clueless as to what a story consists of. They know the pieces of writing, but not the structure and how to apply those pieces properly. Think about it—you don’t get to Carnegie Hall with your name on the marquee by knowing how to play the oboe only—you get to Carnegie by creating a symphony. In writing, that symphony is a novel.
In our class, we require everyone to create a short outline for their novel, consisting of five statements and 15-20 words. None of those Roman numeral monstrosities that go on for page after page. The reason I insist on this is that past experience tells me that if they don’t have a basic plan for their book and don’t begin in the right place, we’re all going to end up wasting our time. Their “novel” is most likely going to peter out after 60-80 pages and from that point on they’re going to be desperately trying to resuscitate a corpse. The first week of class they can only send in their outline and the first five pages of their novel. Two things I’ll look for. That their outline clearly begins with the inciting incident and that their first five pages are on one thing only—the inciting incident they’ve described in their outline. If clear evidence of that isn’t there, they’ve just begun what students have termed our “Inciting incident hell.” I’ve only had one student in over ten years of these classes ever escape inc inc hell. And that was a person in our present class.
Occasionally, I’ll get a new student who seems proud that they’re a “pantser.” That seems to mean to them that they’re the captain of their destiny and that creating an outline somehow makes them less creative or something. Often, they’ll quote someone like Hemingway who also claimed to never outline. Only… he did. He didn’t call them outlines. He called them “Draft 1” and “Draft 2” and “Draft 9” but in truth, they were all outlines. Just kind of longish ones, at around a hundred thousand words…
Our outlines consist of five statements. The first describes the inciting incident. The next three describe the three major turns almost all novels go through. The fifth describes the resolution. Personally, I wouldn’t start driving to Adak, Alaska without a map, having never driven there before. With my sense of direction I’d probably end up in L.A, and…no thank you… I like flavor in food too much to want to join the ruminants in California…The outline we use is the barebones but it accomplishes several things. It gives us a roadmap for a lengthy novel. If the novel decides to take a major turn as they sometimes do, no problem. We just take ten minutes and adjust the outline and we still have a good map. It used to take me a year to two years to write a novel—with this kind of outline I can write a better one in three months. I’m not wasting time driving down back roads…
And, it works for all forms. I used the same outline to write a short story, a novel, and a screenplay all on the same story—The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping. Didn’t have to change a word of the outline and all three are very different in many ways. However, they all share the same skeleton. (Editor’s Note: This book is laugh-out-loud funny. I shit you not.)
I had a student come to us years ago with an already-completed 400-page novel. (Not uncommon). She ended up spending ten weeks in inc inc hell before I’d allow her to be passed into writing beyond that. This was when our class was twelve weeks and I was teaching it as an accredited class for Phoenix College. She had two weeks left to go in the class and was still trying to get her first five pages written. She finally nailed it in the eleventh week. She went on in subsequent classes to finish that novel and when done, I helped her land an agent and that agent helped her get a three-book contract. That 400-page book she’d come to class with was long-ago buried in her back yard where it belonged. It was one of those episodic messes that beginning writers often create. She’s currently penning her fifth and sixth novels for Midnight Ink and you may have read her. Her name is Maegan Beaumont. We have many similar stories in our class—more than two dozen of our students have ended up publishing their books and publishing legitimately—not via some vanity or self-publishing venue, but with real publishers.
So, understanding what the inciting incident is and how important it is to a novel’s success is the single toughest thing to get across to a beginning writer. And, often to a writer further along in the process.
OBAAT: I tend to roll my eyes when people talk about “important books,” or “books that had an influence on your life.” Your novel The Bitch is one of two exceptions that come to mind. (David Simon’s The Corner is the other.) In your context The Bitch refers to habitual offender statutes, better known as “three strikes and you’re out” laws. I could go into this at length but I’d rather you give everyone the point of the book and how you approached it.
LE: Another great question. I wrote The Bitch for the same reasons I wrote Just Like That. And, I’d like to include The Rapist in that group. I couldn’t find a book that accurately portrayed the criminal or outlaw realistically. The closest I found was Charles Bukowski’s short story, “The Fiend.” Just about all other writers I’ve read who write about criminals I can’t see as really knowing or understanding the criminal mind. When I was getting my MFA, one of my advisors, Diane Lefer, asked me what I thought about the writer Denis Johnson. My reply was that I thought he was a fine writer but didn’t have a clue how criminals thought or their motivations. His writing made me think this was a college guy who spent a couple of nights in the drunk tank and now thought he understood outlaws. And, sorry, but that’s how I see a lot of writers who write about crime. It’s not a crime not to understand the criminal mind, but I think it is a crime not to try to find out how we think and why we act in the ways we do. Most writers, if they’re not cops themselves, take the time to research police procedures and cops’ mores, but seldom do they bother to do the same with the criminals in their books or films.
Most seem to approach crime the way most social workers do. They try to fit statistical observations into a picture of the criminal mind. That’s why you get these cockamamie theories like “poverty creates criminals.” And, create programs to do away with poverty and then wonder why the criminal rates don’t go down that much. Or, they see abusive parents and how some of their offspring end up being outlaws and assume that’s the cause and feel if they take the kids away that’ll solve the problem. The problem with that is that it only accounts for a portion of the reason some turn to criminal activities. They don’t seem to wonder much why others from the same backgrounds of experiences turn out not to be criminals.
This seems to be the mindset of many crime fiction writers. That the criminal’s background is what led them to their lives of crime. Conveniently, they “forget” the other members of that criminals same family who turned out to be law-abiding citizens.
If social workers and novelists investigated further than most do, they might discover the real reason some turn to crime and others with the same backgrounds don’t.
Almost all criminal acts are the result of a sense of loss of control in some aspect of their lives. The armed robber is in control of his fate when he holds a gun on a store clerk. For that moment, he has reached a place where he’s in control. The rapist feels in control when he’s raping a girl. And, so on. The same experience affects similar people in diverse ways. The child who was sexually abused by his father as was his brother, might grow up to feel out of control in his life and discover the only way to regain control is by imitating what his father did to him. His brother, while experiencing the same abuse, may have found another way to regain control in his life.
The child who grew up in poverty might discover that by taking wealth from others, he at least momentarily regains control over his world. His sibling, undergoing the same experiences in childhood, might have discovered another means of gaining control over his life and not feel the same need to rob others as his brother does.
The thing is, it’s almost always a matter of a sense of control or the lack of control in a particular segment of their lives. This is why most social programs have limited success and why novelists writing criminals also experience limited success in creating characters. They’ve simply ignored or been unaware of the other factors creating individuals.
That’s what I was interested in showing in The Bitch. When it begins, Jake does what he does because he thinks he believes in the concept of loyalty. As events transpire, he eventually learns that what drives him and his actions isn’t his sense of loyalty, but of his sense of survival. Once he learns that about himself, he is then able to change. Which he does in the final scene. He willingly enters a situation—actually, he creates a situation in which he’ll be killed. He’s come to discover through his journey that there is something more important than survival and that he’s built his entire life on a false value. And, that’s what a novel should be about, in my opinion—a significant change in the protagonist’s life as a result of his struggle to resolve a problem. Jake’s not going to end up like Sam in Cheers, but as a completely changed person. Albeit… room temperature...
What was rewarding to me was the tremendous amount of emails and letters I received that all said the same thing. That they couldn’t help rooting for Jake throughout the story, even though at every single turn he was doing horrible things to others. While they didn’t condone the things he did, they understood that he was almost forced to do them and they understood why and all throughout the read they kept hoping he’d find a way to not only survive but end up as a good person. That the only thing that made him do bad things wasn’t that he was a bad person but that he was only given bad choices. That told me that I’d succeeded in creating a real character who was a true criminal but not a one-dimensional cardboard character. Jake wasn’t a Snidely Whiplash, but a real human being.
Come back next Wednesday for Part Two of my conversation with Les Edgerton.