Thursday, March 14, 2013

Epic Interview with Les Edgerton, Part Two


Read Part One Here

After we talked about his latest novel THE RAPIST and its difficult path to publication,  we tackled the issue of shock value in fiction and Les' career choices that lead him towards crime fiction and darker themes. Enjoy!

I think most of Dead End Follies' readers understand the purpose of true, groundbreaking shock value in fiction and THE RAPIST has a mouthful of it. What are the novels that shocked you and redefined your boundaries as an artist?

Great question! First and foremost, Camus’ THE STRANGER has influenced me more than any other single work. One of the biggest things that struck me was how absolutely perfect it was. I think Camus practiced Eastern philosophy upon it as he wrote it. That trope about how you always include a small imperfection in any art form so that you don’t challenge God. There’s a tiny imperfection in it, but I haven’t been able to find it yet. I keep looking though, because if it is, indeed, perfect, we may as well all give up as what we’re after has been attained and that makes it a second-place thing and who wants that?

Second, there are a handful of novels that taught me how to write a novel. At least the kind of novel I wanted to write. Among those, I count KILLSHOT by Elmore Leonard, A FEAST OF SNAKES by Harry Crews, any and all of the collections of short stories by Ray Carver, and THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley. Most of Faulkner’s novels. More than any other novel or book though, has been the King James version of the Bible. It’s the basis for just about everything we experience in our culture, even for the agnostics and atheists. It’s where our civilization comes from. I don’t know how anyone can pretend to know who they are if they don’t know the Bible. Doesn’t matter if you believe what it says or not. I’m not talking much about the religion in it in terms of its value. It’s the other things. The cadence of the poetry, for example.

None of these “shocked” me in any sense of the common definition. I can’t think of any book that has ever done that. I’ve seen things in my life that are beyond anything I’ve ever read in a book. I’ll give you an early example. When I was 12, I had already been working in my grandmother’s bar and restaurant ever since I could remember. It was a rough bar, what you’d call a honky-tonk, and I saw pretty much everything you can think of in such a place. On my 12th birthday, Grandma thought it was time I learned her cab business, so she appointed me the night dispatcher. On my first night on the job, it was a slow night and the cabbies were all gathered outside the little shack where my phone and clipboard and assignment sheet and all that stuff was. My little desk and chair. Well, they got to screwing around after awhile and one of them found a dead rattlesnake—or maybe it was alive and he killed it—I don’t know. Anyway, he started waving it at another driver who didn’t know it was dead, and he was terrified of rattlers and kept telling the guy to keep that snake off him, but the other guy thought it was funny and kept tormenting him. Finally, the guy with the snake threw it at the scared guy and that man pulled out a pistol and shot him in the throat. About six feet away from me. Blood spurted everywhere and I got my share of it on me. Since I was the dispatcher, it was my job to call the cops, which I did. That was in the days before 911, so I had to get the phone book out, look up the number, and dial it and then tell the cops what had happened. All without looking like some kind of pussy kid. Later, I was called to the witness stand to tell what I’d seen. After you see something like that, what can be in a book that will shock you? Pretty much nothing. And, there’ve been lots and lots of experiences like that and far worse. So, I don’t anticipate ever reading anything in a book that will shock me in that way.

BTW, the guy was acquitted and left town immediately. The dead guy had a lot of friends and relatives who didn’t like what had happened.

That same year I got whipped bloody by my father with a live king snake and I tried to kill a group of older Mexican kids with a .38 I stole from a sporting goods store when they attacked me and my best friend down on a submerged barge down at the Brazos River by the shrimp docks. Witnessed a lynching in a way. By that I mean I was present when the sheriff was notified on the phone in our bar and knew from what he said what was going down. Remember watching him eat another piece of pie with tiny bites after he got the call and told us what was happening and how when he finally left to go “stop” them, he drove away at about five miles an hour. How you gonna stay down on the farm once you’ve seen Paree? By which, I mean how are you going to shock me with lines in a book?

What those books did was shock me with their beauty and with their power. Their ability to show a deep understanding of the human heart and the human soul. They gave me a standard to shoot for and one that I knew wouldn’t be easy to attain.

I have to take it back. I did read a book that shocked me and I just remembered it. A collection of Bukowski’s stories. THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN TOWN AND OTHER STORIES. It wasn’t the content that shocked me. The content was just about drunks and whores and stuff like I knew about since I was little. It was learning that the kind of stuff I wanted to write could be published. I had just assumed it couldn’t be because I’d never read anything like he wrote. He didn’t write anything very shocking, compared to real life. That it could become published; that was what was shocking. And liberating. And sad. Sad, that I was in my thirties before I found out the free society I thought I had been living in, wasn’t. That there was censorship everywhere and had been going on for a long time. Bukowski is the primary person who opened up the boundaries wide for me as a writer.

Thanks, Chuck.


You made no secret that you've had a hard life. In fact, you seem pretty candid about it. How has it brought you to writing? What made you sit down and write seriously for the first time?

It’s the other way around, Benoit. It’s writing that brought me to a hard life, for the most part. I’ve actively sought out the dangerous places in life and for one reason—material for my writing. It’s only when you’re close to death that you come fully alive.

I sat down and began to write seriously when I was around four or five years old. Immediately after I was able to read the first book on my own, I decided at that moment that being a writer was the only thing I ever wanted to do and I haven’t wavered one iota from that moment. At that time, I thought I could write a better book than what I’d just read. I couldn’t then, but I think I can now.

I actually taught myself to read. My mother would read me those insipid children’s stories and I’d ask her to trace the words with her finger as she read so I could see where they came from on the page. They were really boring stories for the most part and trying to figure out the marks on the paper kept my interest better. Actually, they were more than just marks. My grandmother had taught me my alphabet and how to spell and write my name when I was about three and as half, so I had somewhat of an idea what words were. One day, I just continued out loud what my mother was reading—finished the sentence ahead of her. At once, she taught me phonics (the key to being a good reader, in my opinion). I was off to the races at that point.

The first book I read on my own was a book from my grandmother’s library. A collection of short stories by Guy de Maupassant. The first story I read was his TWO FRIENDS. He was imminently accessible, even to a small child. He just wrote plainly and clearly. I loved that book! My grandmother came in one day when I was reading it—actually, I’d stolen it from her library—and she took me up to the attic where she kept all of her books and told me I could read any of them I wanted to. She had a wonderful library. Most of the great French and Russian writers and that’s who I began with. She also had some Dickens but I couldn’t get into him at all.

This kind of ruined school for me from the start. The teacher would have us reading these really godawful books—stuff by James Fennimore Cooper in junior high, for instance—quite possibly the lousiest major writer in U.S. letters—it’s no wonder his work was made into early movies—it was “direct to video” writing. I loved Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, but Cooper was purely boring and his language was juvenile and just plain bad. When we had English classes, we were required to read books that were infantile and I couldn’t stand plowing through them. I’d bring in my own books and hide them inside the crap we were supposed to read. I remember being caught in second grade—we were all supposed to be silently reading some kiddie crap and I had secreted a copy of a Stendhal book inside the book we were supposed to be reading, probably his THE CHARTERHOUSE OF PARMA which I loved, and the teacher went ballistic. She called a meeting with my mother and told her I was defying her by reading a book not on the reading list—and that I couldn’t possibly “understand” it. We went back home and she told my grandmother who became incensed. She said she knew my teacher all her life and she’d always been a moron and thought everyone else was on her level. She called her up and read her the riot act and the upshot was I was allowed to sit by myself in a corner and read whatever I wanted while the rest of the class read the “approved” books. My grandmother, Louise Vincent, was one of the biggest businesswoman in town—she owned and ran a hugely busy bar and restaurant and a cab company, as well as owned a fortune’s worth of gas and oil and sulphur stocks and rental properties—and if she said something, people in town listened. I remember every year we’d go to New Orleans to Maison Blanche and they’d close the entire store while my grandmother and mother and my sister and I spent the day as the sole customers while models paraded the new fashions before them for Grandma and my mother to buy. Some little twit of a grade school teacher wasn’t going to make her grandson read The Hardy Boys Punk Ass Clubhouse or whatever.

In summers, we’d go to Louisiana to stay on my great-grandmother’s ranch which was the world’s largest Brahma bull-raising enterprise in the country. Those were great summers! My grandmother’s first cousin was U.S. Senator Allen Ellender and he was often there with other politicians and dignitaries. She was Louise’s mother and had an even bigger library than my grandmother’s and also gave me full access to it. She had more contemporary writers on her shelves than Grandma did—writers like Faulkner and Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who Grandma considered “sensationalist” and “trashy.” I couldn’t stand Fitzgerald (still can’t), but loved Faulkner when I first read him when I was I think, nine years old. Hemingway, I recognized as he seemed to write a lot like Stephen Crane who I also liked a lot. She also had a lot of good European writers like Balzac.

I’ve gone far afield of your question, haven’t I! Sorry. The thing is, I began reading very early, decided instantly that all I ever would want to do was to be a writer, and decided the best way to do that was to adopt the Jack London School of Writing. To always seek out new experiences. And, that’s what I’ve done all my life. I had one of my five wives after we’d divorced say, “You only married me for material, didn’t you?” To which, I replied, honestly, “Yes.” She was my first wife, a black woman I’d married in Bermuda where I was living at the time in the sixties.

I joined the Navy and afterwards began a life of crime, both for ostensibly the same reason. Experiences for material for my writing. Just about everything I’ve done in life was toward the same end—to accumulate material for my writing. And, since I had little interest in writing about the life and times of insurance salesmen or college professors, that pursuit usually led me to more nefarious environments. Who in their right mind wants to live in the suburbs and mow their lawns when they could be breaking into Joe’s Bar and Grill at one in the morning? Or working for an escort service and vacationing in Puerta Vallarta on some rich lady’s dime? Well, more accurately, what writer would opt for the ‘burbs over that?

*Next Tuesday, Les will elaborate on the challenges and hardships of the Jack London School of Writing and tell us a little bit more about his job as a creative writing teacher.

2 comments:

  1. WriterBob StewartMarch 14, 2013 at 5:46 AM


    Whoever reads this is lucky. Les is one of the world's characters and a writer second to none. Both snake stories were new to me -- hint, hint memoir -- and I look forward to learning more. Great interview with a great writer. Look forward to the third installment.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Bret Easton Ellis' book "American Psycho" shocked me back in the early nineties. I'd never read anything like that before. Now, however, I'd be hard-pressed to say anything shocks me. There are just no taboos left.

    ReplyDelete