Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Epic Interview with Les Edgerton, Part One


I was very happy when Les Edgerton accepted my interview request, because I had about a thousand questions to ask him about his latest novel, THE RAPIST. When he answered my first question, though, the thoroughness of his answer lead me to believe he thought the interview consisted in one question only. After clarifying the situation with him, he reassured me that this is how he answered every question and that he could make it short for me if I wanted.

I didn't. I decided to let him loose and it made this interview something quite special. I discovered in Mr. Edgerton a vibrant, ageless soul with a passion for literature and a million stories to share. Talking with him truly was a humbling experience. Over the next two weeks, I'll post this interview in separate parts. It's kind of a long read, but if you like literature or just like stories in a by-the-bonfire kind of way, give it a shot. I believe it has appeal to everybody.


Rapists are the most abhorred criminals in our society, next to pedophiles. What motivated you to write a first person narrative about one of them in your latest novel? Why did you decide to give a rapist a voice?

I have to warn you—my answers aren’t going to be politically correct and I’m going to piss some people off.

First, it was never my goal to give rapists a “voice,” at least not in any significant way. I think of rapists pretty much as most folks do—as almost totally reprehensible beings. In fact, I don’t see it as a book about rapists at all, but rather a book about time and space and God and human beings. I thought about naming it THE MEMOIR OF JESUS CHRIST but didn’t as that would take away the power of the last line, which is what the book is really about. I did and do fully expect most people to see it as a book about rape and a rapist and prison and all that stuff, but there will be a few who I think will see it for what it was intended to be which is a book about the universe and God and how human beings fit in there and how it’s really all fucked up and there’s not much we can do about it. I don’t want too many of those folks, though. I hope most won’t be able to “get that.” If many did, I wouldn’t have achieved what I set out to do. The people I really respect and who I wrote it for—people such as Cort McMeel—understood it immediately and that pleases me to no end. Jus about every one of the 31 blurbers got it perfectly and it’s those kinds of people I wrote it for. I would never write something intended for everybody. I write for my spiritual and intellectual twin and like most of us, don’t have many of those. I wrote it for Cort and I wrote it for Charles Bukowski and people like that. I didn’t even send it out for publication for over twenty-five years (wrote it in the late eighties) as I was pretty sure it didn’t fit any commercial guidelines. I just kept it in a drawer until the right guy came along. That guy was Jon Bassoff of New Pulp Press. There are others I would have happily published it with, like Allan Guthrie or Brian Lindenmuth, but Jon was the best for this book, I felt.

The idea for his book came from a Charles Bukowski short story, THE FIEND.  It is the most powerful, most honest, and most profound story I’ve ever read. The instant I finished it, I knew then that to write a story this courageous would be the best thing I could ever do and I also knew I would have as hard a time in finding an audience for it as he did for his work before the Germans discovered him and published him when America wouldn’t. In fact, I didn’t even consider a U.S. publisher until I met Jon. I always thought it would find a home some day with a French publisher. It’s a French book, you know. Intellectually. Perhaps Russian. The Russia of two centuries ago, not today.

What Bukowski did in that story was, to use an overworked word that in this case is precisely correct; brilliant. He took that person you spoke of at the top—the odious pedophile—and showed through his literary, insightful, particular genius that no matter what depths a person has sunk to (or risen to), he is still one of us. He is still human, no matter how grotesque and misshapen and evil his mind is. In this story, he wrote the single most illuminating line that has ever been written in literature. I’m not even going to use a qualifier for that statement such as “in my opinion.” It is just simply the clearest sentence ever written in literature. An early line in the story, spoken by the protagonist Martin as he is kissing the child, just before he rapes her, and the narrator says, “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells--one hers, the other his.” When I read this line, it was as if I’d been struck by literary lightening.

Bukowski reached out from beyond the grave and touched me with his hand with those words and I knew then what I had to write.

And, that’s how THE RAPIST came to be. My effort to write something as stark and honest and true as Bukowski had.

And, he’d already taken a “short eyes” as the character for his story, so all that was really left was a rapist. Never considered a serial killer or mass murderer as a character—most are really boring—all they do is keep repeating the same-o, same-o until they’re caught.

The rape and the trial and all that are only the window dressing. It’s really a novel of how I see the universe. It’s a story about a God who is omniscient, but who is also really old, and has all of the infirmities of age. After all, he made us in his image, according to the text, and I presume that means he endowed us with all of the same things as he himself is endowed with, including frailties and shortcomings along with all the strengths. It a novel explaining how time and space work. It’s chronological and at the same time, it’s not. It’s here and it’s there and it’s somewhere else that we can’t see because God hasn’t allowed us to see yet. It’s forever and ever and has always existed and it hasn’t yet begun and it’s already ended and that implies a circle. I see it as a ball of yarn, not of one continuous strand, but composed of countless strands, all woven together. It’s the past, the present and the future, all happening at once and yet not. It’s about a definition of time that we don’t yet possess, beyond the three most recognize.

What really struck me during the editing is that the copy editor, Alice Riley, got what I was trying to do. She pointed out that I vacillated between present and simple past and perfect past tense and wanted to know if that was on purpose as she suspected it was. Because of the time element, you see? It told me that she got it. That was an exciting moment for me. Most copy editors I’ve worked with probably wouldn’t have. They get the grammar and the spelling and syntax and all that stuff, but they often don’t really get the literature. She got that it wasn’t intended to be a chronological story at all. That the “parts” weren’t meant to fit neatly. They were like the pieces of string the old man explained to Truman on the mountaintop. I hope I get some readers like Alice. She understood that this was one of an unlimited number of memoirs that Jesus wrote. Is still writing. Hasn’t written yet. And, that he, like his father, got the pieces of time string mixed up sometimes. After all, they’re the same guy. That the parts that are mixed up are from the pen of the third party of the triune—the Holy Ghost. That poor guy never gets to get on stage, so I gave him some lines.

Tried to show that God had/has/will have a sense of humor. Probably a French sense of humor…

One more thing about Bukowski that I thought of because of something you said in your question. That first-person thing. I thought that while his story was the bravest thing I’ve ever read, he kind of copped a deuce with it. In almost all of his work, he writes from the first-person pov. In THE FIEND he uncharacteristically employs a third person. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a third-person story from Bukowski other than this one. I think he got nervous at the last and wrote it in third because he was afraid someone would think he had that pedophile, hidden somewhere deep inside him, and he didn’t want people to ever think that about him. Because he didn’t. But, I think he was afraid that he might be viewed that way. I think maybe he saw what happened to Nabokov with Humbert Humbert where Nabokov had to come out and make public proclamations that, no, he wasn’t hiding a little Humbert deep down inside that he drew from, and Bukowski didn’t want people to think the same kinds of things about him about his character Martin. I decided I’d use first-person for that reason. It’s like Bukowski and I had one of those bar fights he was famous for and this was my secret weapon to knock him out. It’s the brass knucks I hid from him and brought out when he wasn’t looking. And, since he’s room temperature and can’t do anything about it, I can claim I won.

Tell us about the long, hard road to publication for THE RAPIST. I'm sure finding it a home wasn't easy at all.
  
Well, it was and it wasn’t. It was infinitely easier to find a publisher for this than it was for my first novel, THE DEATH OF TARPONS, which collected 86 rejections before it found a home. And, that was by accident… On the right desk at the right time—the only five minute period it could have been there and been read. And that book won literary awards, which always makes me wonder about editor’s and agent’s acumen… As does THE RAPIST. I mean, it got 31 blurbs from some of the best writers in the world and yet not a single Legacy 6 editor wanted it? Okay… 

I most likely would have found a home for it years before I did, but you have to send it out for that to happen. I wrote it over 25 years ago and it’s sat in a drawer, metaphorically, until now. I just didn’t think a U.S. publisher would see it as publishable. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking that once I got “established” (whatever that is), that I’d have work translated and through that I could interest a foreign publisher in it. I’ve always thought it fit the French mind better than anyone’s.

When I found myself in the MFA program at Vermont College, my last-semester advisor was Dr. Francois Camoin, a bona fide Frenchman. And, a bona fide literary genius. He was the first person I’d ever showed it to. He read it and then we had a drink together. He told me it was one of the most brilliant things he’d ever read, but that he felt I’d have trouble finding a publisher. He delivered the same exact thought that I had always had. He said he didn’t think it fit the sensibility of the American reader. He felt they were more attuned to Stephen King and John Grisham and the like and just wouldn’t “get it.” Too dark. Too intellectual. He went on to say that he thought though that someday if I got lucky I would find a publisher—like me, he thought it would be a European publisher—and that, even though it would be hard to get it published, once it was he predicted it would win all kinds of awards.

Well, over the years since then, I showed it to a few people. Mostly whoever was my agent at the time. The thing is, most agents—even though they’re nice folks, usually—are pretty much attuned to the top of their quality scale being commercial stuff like James Patterson, and none of them understood the book. So, I stuck it back into that drawer. And then, I became friends with a guy who I think has the best literary mind of anyone I’ve been privileged to meet. A guy named Cort McMeel. It took a lot by that time for me to trust anyone. Certainly not an agent! Most of them—while being nice people—could just as easily be selling Florsheim shoes—they’re salesmen and like the Ford salesman mostly want to move the latest car that’s hot. There really are no more Maxwell Perkins out there… That’s not a bad thing and agents aren’t bad people. They’re just not the sort of people you want in charge of something that’s intellectual, as a rule. That’s a type of product that’s outside their familiarity and comfort zone. They don’t want to represent Camus—they want to represent James Patterson.

Anyway, for the first time since Dr. Camoin, I met someone who I felt had a genuine literary mind. So I asked him if he wanted to read it. You’ll have to read the foreword which Cort graciously provided for the book to see how that went.

But… well. It went well. He loved it. In fact, he wanted to publish it under the imprint he’d just begun, Bare Knuckles Press. And, we had a deal until he ended his association with the press. Without Cort, I ended my own association with it. And, I happened on a new publisher. New Pulp Press. I chanced on a book of theirs that just blew me away. Jake Hinkson’s HELL ON CHURCH STREET. Blew me fucking away. I went to their list and went down the row and read every single book publisher Jon Bassoff had published. Not a single clunker in the bunch. Not one! I know of no other publisher who has the record Jon does. Probably Allan Guthrie—don’t think he has a single book that isn’t brilliant. And Brian Lindenmuth. But, nobody had it like Jon did. That’s the guy I wanted to publish this book and it’s because of who he had already published. It was clear he was a guy who could read silently without moving his lips. He wasn’t much interested in moving Florsheim or Stacy-Adams shoes to make a buck… He actually understands and loves literature. Kind of a contemporary John Martin. I’m so glad I found him. And, like Martin, he even designed my cover himself. Damn—he really is John Martin!

I sent it to Jon, he liked it and he’s publishing it. I’m as happy as a clam before the clam learns there’s a thing called clam sauce… Pretty fucking happy… I’m hoping he likes two other works of mine he has on his desk and will want to publish them as well.

*The interview will continue next Thursday, where Les and I will talk about shock value in literature and why he was driven to write dark stories.

2 comments:

  1. I always enjoy finding an interview with Les, but I especially liked this one. He has a unique voice and it came through. You gave him free rein, and I loved it.

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  2. Thanks, Judith. But it's not done. We got three more posts of Les, at least!

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