Wednesday, December 13, 2017

A Conversation With Les Edgerton, Part Two

Welcome back for Part Two of my conversation with Les Edgerton.

OBAAT: I’m not a fan of a lot of neo-noir, where I think some writers like to revel in their characters’ depravity. To me, Jake is the classic noir protagonist. Someone who makes a bad decision for what might seem like a good—or at least excusable—reason to him at the time, after which everything turns to shit. It’s not that he makes bad choices as the book progresses. He makes the best choices available to him at the time. Damn right I rooted for him. What makes you pull for a character when you’re reading?
LE: I didn’t know what neo-noir was before your explanation, but I’m with you in not being a fan of that, Dana. A few years ago, I was sent a novel by a newer writer for me to blurb and there was no frickin’ way. It read like this guy just picked up on all the salacious and stereotypical elements of bad guys and gave them all to his character and his story. It was clear he hadn’t read much and mostly it looked like he’d read a lot of so-called noir that had lately sprung up and thought that was his secret to success—just have his guy do every nasty thing in the world and that’s what noir was. I turned him down and told him why. I also told him that I thought he had some talent and that if he ever wanted to I’d be happy to read a new work if it wasn’t like that first one. To his credit, he did just that and the next novel he sent me was much better and very unlike that first piece of crap he sent. Nowadays, he’s a regular member of the “noir community” and shows up at the bar at B-Cons and has even served as a co-publisher with another writer for a small indie press. He’s not the best writer in the world, but he does pen a craftsman-like novel these days and I like most of his work.

Now, to your question—what makes me pull for a character I’m reading. First, that he has a story problem I feel is both interesting as well as compelling. If his story problem is some bullshit thing, I’m out of there quickly. If it looks like something that could happen to any of us then I’m in. I want to see him make intelligent choices. Those choices may turn out badly (and probably will), but the first time he makes a dumb decision, I’m outta there. Like I preach to my students, “Your protagonist should always make the decision or choice a person of at least average intelligence would make.” Amen. Someone who makes a choice that no logical person would make will have to carry on without me. That’s just a lazy, unimaginative writer behind that character.

There’s a movie I use to illustrate this. This was an actual movie that opened in theaters and later made the late-night TV circuit. I saw it in the theater and walked out halfway through it and asked for my money back. I didn’t get it, but did see the rest of it on TV a few years later and saw concrete proof that I was right.

The setup of this godawful movie was that there was this new-fangled office building in town that had a unique security system. The entire building was shut down on Friday evening and didn’t open back up until Monday morning. That established, the movie begins with this couple trapped inside this building with a bad guy after them. Why he’s after them I forget but it doesn’t matter. He is and that’s all that counts. The first half of the movie is mostly what my wife calls a “chasey-fighty” movie. This couple is all over this building—up and down staircases, elevator shafts, whatever. They keep barely escaping his evil clutches each time until—halfway through the movie—they run into this large office space that’s being remodeled. There are stacks of lumber all over, building supplies and tools everywhere they look. The guy finds a nail hammer and they hide behind a pile of lumber to wait and bushwack the bad guy. Which he does. It works out perfectly. The bad guy walks around the lumber pile and the good guy whacks him on the head with the nail hammer and he’s knocked out. The couple kiss and embrace, clearly with tongues and at this point one assumes the movie’s over. But, it’s only been going on for less than an hour! What the heck?

Here’s where the movie completely falls apart and where I walked out and asked for my money back. (Note to younger, less-experienced readers: Theaters never give refunds, no matter how pathetic the product they just sold you is.)

I use this movie in my classes to illustrate just how stupid Hollywood can be at times. I simply ask them if this was you and your significant other, what would you do at this point? You know this guy is out to kill you both and you know you’ve got the drop on him and he’s clearly knocked out. It’s only Saturday so you know you’ve got another day and a half before the building can release you. So, what do you do?

I get the same answers every time.

1. I’d kill him.
2. I’d find something to tie him up with (clearly possible as they’re in a room with all kinds of building supplies and tools and plenty of things to tie him up with.
3. I’d take turns with my partner in watching him, and every time he begins to stir whoever is watching him would bop him on the head again and knock him out.

That’s about the extent of the suggestions. All of these answers represent what a person of at least average intelligence would do. The litmus test of what to base your protagonist’s actions on. Never does anyone suggest what these movie geniuses actually do. Which is to throw the nail gun down and run away to hide again.

This is when I made my way to the lobby. That I was the only one to do so was discouraging. It kind of told me where our educational system was and where our country was headed…

The rest of the movie is the resumed chase which they “miraculously” win at the very end. Too late for me. My fear is that these mesomorphs will mate and it’s for sure their progeny is going to emerge from the shallow end of the gene pool and probably end up running our educational systems. Anyone who sat through the end of this if they have any active gray matter left, simply has to begin rooting for the bad guy. He’s the only one with any living brain cells left.

This was a for-real movie and what’s sad, this kind of thing isn’t that rare in movies or in novels. Too often a writer isn’t really much of a writer and opts for manipulating a plot like this guy did instead of doing the hard work of actually writing. Life’s too short to waste on these clowns.

OBAAT: More than most writers, you’re someone whose next book might be about anything. Crime, comic crime, memoir, writing instruction. (Note to aspiring writers: If you haven’t read Hooked, stop reading right now and get thee a copy. It’s not Les’s only instructional book, but it starts at the beginning, where all books should start.) How do decide which of the ideas that are pushing for attention gets written next?
LE: That’s easy, Dana. It’s the book that I’m most interested in at the time. Just about all of my agents have thrown up their hands at the way I work. More than one have begged me to create a series and I could never do that. I know it hurts my so-called career as that’s the way you build an audience, but I just can’t work like that. Writing to me isn’t just my “job”—it’s my life, and I have the rare opportunity to do what I enjoy doing in life. Writing the same character over and over just seems… what’s the word?... oh, yeah… boring. That’s just me and I don’t have anything against those writers who write series. It’s just something that’s alien to my world.
For one thing, if you write a series based on a character, it’s very difficult to create a character arc for the protagonist and that’s important to me. A novel series is more like a TV series than anything else. The protagonist in a television series remains largely unchanged. They’re more akin to short stories than novels. A contemporary short story only reveals a small truth, unlike the structure of former eras. The same for series television. Sam, the bartender in Cheers, learns a small lesson each week and seems to be somewhat transformed, but when the next week’s episode rolls around, he’s the same old Sam. To me, that’s boring writing and while I enjoy that kind of thing somewhat, it’s all surface entertainment and not anything profound. I’d rather try for profound and fail than have as my goal a lot of readers and money. I never want to be that shallow. And, I feel that to create monetary success in writing means writing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. surface entertainment, and that’s not something that interests me in the least.

Money has never been my goal. I’ve walked out on several opportunities to make a lot of money only because it was boring and I viewed it as an artificial way of living a life. I sold life insurance at one point and walked away from a job that would have made me a millionaire. I stuck it out for a year and was at the top of the game and saw how ridiculously easy making money was if I just kept doing the same thing, but just couldn’t face another day of doing something just to make my life comfortable. After all, how many cars can one drive at once, how many houses can one live in at the same time, how many possessions are enough? None of those things have ever mattered to me. I’m sorry, but my personal opinion of those who settle for this kind of life is that they’re basically cowards. (This isn’t going to win me many friends, is it? Like I give a shit…) Nowadays, I have to confess to a bit of regret as I have no income other than Social Security and the bit I make from book royalties and from the online class I teach and if I can no longer teach I’ll probably end up homeless, but that’s not the worst fate in the world. I’ve been homeless at various times of my life and it wasn‘t all that bad and I survived. I firmly believe I’d still not trade a bit of security at the end of my days for selling my soul to work at something I didn’t enjoy or believe in. And, I just don’t believe in being Salesman of the Month. I do believe in creating a book that affects people’s lives. And, not just “people’s” lives, but intelligent people’s lives. I confess to not have much interest in the average person. The average person is largely boring and I think that most are average by choice. Often, they simply don’t want to take any chances in their lives so their averageness isn’t being average at all, but being a coward. Who needs people like that? Other than politicians and ministers…  I’ve been blessed to have impacted the thinking of extraordinary people with a few of my books and that means far more to me than any pension plan or late-model car. And I realize that’s a rare philosophy and one that most would be unable to follow, but that’s all right. I never want to be like most people. Most people I think aren’t all that happy and have a bunch of regrets. I don’t have many regrets at all.
My next book is always going to be the one that interests me the most.

I’ve consistently enjoyed the new format of these interviews, but none has made me want to sit down with an adult beverage and discuss writing and the world more than this one. I hope you’ve enjoyed this time with les Edgerton as much as I have. Thanks, Les. You’re The Man. 

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