Read Part One Here
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?
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.