Among the treats of writing crime fiction is getting to meet and become friends with people like Les Edgerton. He’s a raconteur, gentle and generous soul, and hell of a writer who always has something going on. What that is one never knows. Les has written noir (The Bitch is as good a classically-oriented noir book as I’ve read in years), comedy that’s actually funny (The Genuine, Imitation, Plastic Kidnapping), and books other writers keep near their desks for the wealth of writing advice in them (Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go). That list scratches the surface; there are over fifteen others listed on his Amazon author page.
These days, he's working on a memoir, a new writer's how-to, several novels, several nonfiction projects, and appearing at various workshops. He invites readers of his work to contact him. His contact info is on his blog at www.lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/ and he has a website at www.lesedgerton.net. His newest release, Bomb!, dropped on March 20 and is why he’s here today. (See what I did there? Bomb? Dropped? That’s two weeks in a row. Yay me.)
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Bomb!
Les Edgerton: When criminal genius Charles "Reader" Kincaid accidentally alerts a retired
OBAAT: Readers love to ask where authors get their ideas and most authors reply with something along the lines of “we’re tripping over them. The trick is to find the idea that works best for me.” What made this idea worth developing, and how much development from the original germ was required?
LE: I came up with the crime first and then figured out who I could get to pull it off. I sit around dreaming up perfect crimes all the time. Have a bunch of them at present—all for sale… I’ll give you an example. I have the perfect way to murder someone and not get caught. If you had someone visit you or vice versa, for a meal, and drugged them, and when they were out, injected them with the rabies disease, say with a tiny puncture between the toes or in their butt—something they wouldn’t notice when coming to, when they finally learned they had the disease it’s too late to cure. I’m using that in a book I’m currently writing…
You hit upon something that exists—that “ideas” thing. I feel the reason many writers never finish their novels is that they hadn’t thought about it for long enough. They have perhaps a glimpse of an idea, but it’s just not close to being realized. They probably have what Blake Snyder called “the smell of the road at dawn” kind of image. The start of an idea, but that’s all they may have. The thing you might tell Letterman once your novel is out and he asks where you got the idea. But, that’s all. For me, it has to germinate for years in my mind before it’s ready to become a novel. At that “smell of the road” stage, it’s just an image. A t-shirt. Just not ready to become a novel.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Bomb! start to finish?
LE: First draft, about four to five months. But, I wrote two complete rewrites for my agent and then another three or four complete rewrites for my first publisher. Each of those took at least a couple of months to do.
OBAAT: Where did Reader Kincaid come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
LE: Reader is kind of a guy I’ve been at times. Long time ago…
OBAAT: In what time and place is Bomb! set and why was this time and place chosen?
LE: It’s set mostly in New Orleans and the surrounding countryside and the time is the early 80’s.
OBAAT: How did Bomb! come to be published?
LE: That’s a long, convoluted story! Rather than repeat it, I’ll just refer folks to the material at the beginning of the book as that tells it in detail.
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… good writing. All genres. I have literally dozens and dozens of writers I love. I always hate to list any because I always leave off people I greatly admire and just forgot at the moment and I don’t want them to feel slighted.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
LE: When I was five, I read my first book and decided then I wanted to be a writer. I’ve never wavered or had any other goal or dream. At the time, I thought I could write a better story than the one I read (it was something by Guy de Maupassant) and I couldn’t then, but I think I’d come close now.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
LE: Beautifully! Great question. As I said, I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life and I remember thinking when I was very young that if I got lucky, I’d end up being 80 and sitting in a nursing home with that blanket over my lap… and at that point, all the money, cars, houses, possessions, in the world would mean very little, but what would have meaning would be memories, so my entire life has been a quest to attain memories. And, that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do. As far as crime fiction, I was an outlaw for a long time and did a lot of criminal things which were all an adrenaline rush. Spent a couple of years in prison and I knew I’d end up there but it never bothered me. Just more material.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
LE: Creating stories that get people’s attention and affect their emotions. I don’t care if they laugh, cry or whatever, just so long as they have some emotion when reading my work. A stone-faced reader is not my idea of the person I want reading my work.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
LE: Mostly writers. A great many have influenced me and I can’t name them all, but chief among them would be Camus, Sartre, the aforementioned Du Maupassant, Honore Balzac—most of my early influences came from my grandmother’s library when I was very young and I just loved their writing. All except Dickens who I always thought was boring. Took too long to get to anything good… Camus is my biggest influence. I’ve always wanted to challenge his talent and just can’t.
Other people play a role in influencing me. Gordon Ramsey, for instance. If you watch his shows, and just pretend he’s talking to writers, he’s telling us what we’re doing wrong and how to fix it. It’s always the same. With chefs, usually the food sucks. If he was talking to writers, he’d just say the writing sucks. Or, the restaurant isn’t clean. To a writer, he’d probably say their manuscripts are sloppy and improperly formatted. I think he’s one of the truly great writing teachers.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?
LE: Oh, outline for sure. If I wanted to drive to Adak, Alaska, I’d grab a map and if I want to write a 350-page novel, I want a map as well. I suppose I could get there by just driving, but just seems like I’d waste a lot of time and gas. However, I don’t outline like most people probably do. None of those Comp outlines with Roman numerals and all that crap. My outlines consist of a total of 15 – 20 words and five statements. The first statement describes the inciting incident, the next three the three major turns most novels make, and the fifth, the resolution. The outline I use fits just about all forms. I used the same outline to write a short story, a novel, and a screenplay—all the same story. It gives me a sound map and a lot of latitude. When I used to be a pantser, it’d take me a year or longer to write a novel. Using my outline, I can now write a better one in a third the time. Just makes sense to me to use one.
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: I hardly ever rewrite except when an agent or editor requests it. Dana, I’ve been doing this for so long, I can just write a novel without trying to remember hundreds of details—it’s all just there and I just have to write it down. I have to think about a novel for about ten years before I write it. When it’s ready to be written, I’ve already done all the hard work and I just have to sit down and type. That doesn’t mean when I finish a novel I have to think about one for ten years! At any given time, I’ve got six or seven novels rolling around in my head and they’ve been there for years and years. To be honest, I don’t do a lot of the things I advise my students to do. I don’t think it would work for most of them (could be wrong!), but it does for me.
OBAAT: Endings are hard and can make or break a book. Americans as a whole tend to like happy endings, and those are the books that tend to sell best. What do you look for in an ending?
LE: I don’t know if that’s a fair statement, Dana—about “Americans as a whole…” I think we’re a pretty diverse people. The folks who like happy endings I think are the same ones who like movies better than books and commercial fiction better than truly good fiction. Granted, there are a lot of those folks, but I don’t think that’s a particularly American trait. I think the same kind of people are in every culture. And, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t write for most folks. The ending I end up with is the only ending that makes sense to me for the characters. My only requirement is that it not only be true to the character but that it has to have both a win and a loss for him/her. I like Flannery O’Connor’s description of the perfect ending—that it be a complete surprise at the time for the reader, but upon reflection, the only perfect one.
OBAAT: Who is your intended audience?
LE: My twin. Someone who’s read the same books as I have, seen the same movies, is the same age, has the same life philosophies, same life experiences, etc. My twin. If I ever approached an audience any differently, I think I’d end up not trusting the reader’s intelligence to get it because I wouldn’t be using the same shorthand I do with someone I know very well. If some get it and some don’t, I don’t care. The readers I trust will. The rest really don’t count. There are plenty of other folks they can read. My readers are extraordinarily smart. I’m very proud of my readers. Nary a one of them move their lips while reading.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
LE: Sit your ass down and write. And read everything you can get your hands on. I’ll borrow Jim Harrison’s wonderful advice for the same question. He said that if you wanted to be a good writer, to read the whole of Western literature for the past 400 years. And, then, time permitting, the same period of Eastern literature. For, if you don’t know what passed for good in the past, how can you know what passes for good today? Seems to me to be perfect advice. I read 5 – 7 novels a week and have for most of my life. I’ll never read the whole of literature but it won’t be for lack of trying.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
LE: Really only two I much consider—character and story. There are only two rules to good writing. 1. Be interesting, and 2. Be clear. The most important is the first. Tell a good story. Everything else will fall into place if you can do that. Plot is necessary but kind of overrated, in my opinion. After all, there are only 6 – 8 plots, depending upon whom you talk to. It has to be there, but I wouldn’t waste a lot of time studying it. Plot is easy—it’s just a series of causal actions that the protagonist takes to resolve his problem against increasing obstacles. Setting can (or can not be) important. It’s secondary, in most cases, to the actual story. And narrative and tone are just the writer’s voice and my views on that are in my first craft book, Finding Your Voice. I wrote a whole book on that subject, but it all distills down into… be yourself on the page, Honey, warts and all.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
LE: That’s easy! Camus’ The Stranger. It’s the most perfect book ever written. In fact, I keep rereading it because I’m convinced that Camus wrote it under the influence of an Eastern philosophy—that you always include a flaw on purpose in any work of art, so that you didn’t challenge God. There’s a flaw in it somewhere, but I’ve yet to find it. If there isn’t, we might as well all give up… The primary thing about it for me is the powerful emotion it arouses in me. Camus did it better than anyone with something powerful—he didn’t elevate the prose or shout it out—he turned down the volume. It affected me deeply when I first read it and since I’ve re-read it half a dozen times each year for fifty plus years, it still affects me deeply.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
LE: Wow. I don’t do anything except read or write these days. Well, I watch a handful of sports teams I love and follow—the I.U. Hoosier basketball team, the ND football team, and the S.F. Giants baseball team. Other than that, I read and write. Seven days a week.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
LE: About six or seven new novels and other books. I’m blessed with ADD, which is a fantastic thing for a writer, as it allows me to compartmentalize and totally focus on each project. I get a lot done, because if I get bored or whatever with one book, I just close the file and pull up another one and there’s no wasted time. I don’t believe in that myth called “writer’s block” so I’m able to get a lot done. Writing’s a job, like any other, and I’ve never heard of a plumber getting “plumber’s block” or a brain surgeon getting “brain surgery block” and I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing for writers either. I think it can be a great excuse for not doing the work sometimes… I think that sometimes writers want to have written a book, but as far as doing the actual thing… If I feel like being lazy, I’d rather just pull out a bottle of Jack and… just be lazy… Call it what it is, rather than make up a kind of pseudo-intellectual affliction…
Just got back from four days in Iowa, researching material for a rewrite of a baseball book I wrote years ago. The market for it has just ballooned and we think it’ll be a very big seller, so working on that as well as several novels and final edits for a memoir.
Thanks so much for having me on, Dana! It’s always a gas!
OBAAT: As always, Les, the pleasure was mine.