MARRIED FOR THE MATERIAL: AN INTERVIEW WITH LES EDGERTON ABOUT HIS MEMOIR, ADRENALINE JUNKIE

Les Edgerton’s crime novels careen through humor, heartbreak, and harrowing situations with a voice that seems often worn and and lived in. It comes from the fact he’s lived a lot of what he writes about. When his memoir Adrenaline Junkie came out last year, many of us couldn’t wait to read it, wanting to know what he hasn’t shared. It turns out, there was a lot. His life as outlaw, convict, hairdresser, husband to a few wives, and writer has given him a lot to draw from. I was lucky enough to interview Les about Adrenaline Junkie and get a few stories from him. Warning, Les isn’t a politically correct writer and neither is this interview.

Adrenaline Junkie: A Memoir Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: You’re someone who always has lived an interesting life and you continue to do so. What made you think this was the time to write your memoir?

Les Edgerton: Actually, I wrote it several years ago, Scott. I was just waiting for the right publisher. I’ve had several publishers who wanted to take it, but I wanted one who could get it reviewed in the right places and get it placed on bookshelves nationally.

MPS: You’ve used a lot of your experiences in your fiction. Did you notice anything changing in the tone or style as presenting them as actual personal occurrences?

LE: Not at all. I use my same writer’s voice on everything I write, be it various fiction genres or nonfiction. That was the primary concept I voiced in my first writer’s craft book, Finding Your Voice, and I believe that today as much as I did when I wrote that book years ago.

MPS: I’ve told some people that many of the more dangerous and exciting times you had weren’t in prison or as a criminal, but as a hair dresser. What was it it about that life style that put you on the edge?

LE: Yep. You’re exactly right. I was single much of the time I did hair and that means I was getting into lots of women’s knickers. Here’s a true story that illustrates the times. I was working at a salon named Snobs in New Orleans when the movie Shampoo came out one weekend. When I walked into the salon on Monday, there were all these guys in the lobby. I asked the owner, Tony Jones, what the heck was going on, and he laughed and said these guys had seen Shampoo and for the first time realized that not all hairstylists were gay—they were here to check out where their wives and girlfriends were getting their hair done. And, they were right to be suspicious—we were nailing lots and lots of women who came in to get their hair done. In fact, Warren Beatty was really mild in the movie. We daily did a lot more than he did in the movie. He was kind of a piker. There’s something kind of magical that happens when you lay a woman back into a shampoo bowl and begin shampooing her hair—it just creates a sexual bond immediately. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of sexual experiences with women whose hair I did.  Their husbands and boyfriends were right to check us out…

Here’s a fairly typical experience. I had just opened up a salon in a small Indiana town and was cutting the mayor’s wife’s hair. I was just about finished and we were just talking about everyday things, when out of the blue, she reached over and grabbed my johnson. So we had sex and then she started to leave and I asked her if she hadn’t forgotten something. What? she said, and I said, you forgot to pay. You want me to pay after what we did? she said. Well, yeah, I said. You don’t want me to think of you as a prostitute, do you? She saw I was right so she paid me. She didn’t tip though…

Another time, I had a shop in South Bend, Indiana, and was going to college at IUSB. One day, I’m cutting this woman’s hair and one of my friends, Bob Wensits, was sitting on a waiting couch when the phone rang. It was a man with a pronounced southern accent who began accusing me of screwing his wife. The truth is, I was doing exactly that. I began saying things like, I think you’ve got the wrong number, sir, and I’d never do anything like that—lame-o stuff like that—and finally, he said, I’m coming over there and I’m bringing my gun. I hung up and immediately swung the lady in the chair so she was between me and the front window and hurried up, finished her cut, hustled her out the door and locked it. The instant I locked it, Bob fell off the couch, laughing so hard he was crying and then revealed to me the caller was one of our friends, Fred Sulok. Bob said, I don’t believe what you did—you got that woman between you and the window. Well, I said, do I look like I’ve got a low I.Q. to you?

There were many, many experiences like that… I’ve been shot at and had women try to disembowel me with knives and lots of things like that…

MPS: You devote an entire chapter to the rape you experienced in prison. It feels raw and true, because it came across as you were still processing it. I’m assuming it was the toughest thing to write, so how did you approach it going in?

LE: Well, it was raw and true, so there’s that. I just approached writing it like I do everything else. Just tell it the way it happened. Any writer worth his salt has that “piece of ice” in their heart that Graham Greene talked about and I’m no exception. I can compartmentalize anything that happens to me and separate out my reporting from the emotion of the experience itself. I wouldn’t be much of a writer if I wasn’t capable of doing that.

I guess I could wear a “MeToo” button, couldn’t I?

MPS: The thing I admired most about you in reading Adrenaline Junkie is that you almost always had a close friend around, whether they helped get you into trouble or out of it. Did you learn more or view them any differently when they became part of your writing?

LE: Not sure what you’re asking here, Scott. Do you mean do I view my friends differently when they become part of my writing? If so, the answer is no. All of the people in my life fit what one of my ex-wives said to me after we divorced. She said, you just married me for material, didn’t you? To which I replied, yes. And, that’s the way I’ve always viewed anyone I come into contact with. As material. It’s just what writers do.

MPS: I’ve often heard you say the two things you love the most are writing and talking about writing. What is the most important thing writing has given you?

LE: My life. I wouldn’t care to live a life without writing. What would I do? Mow my lawn and sit around watching TV? No thanks… Have you watched TV lately? Have you ever mowed a stupid lawn? There’s just never been anything else I’ve done that compares to writing. Nothing.

 

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SCOTT BUTKI’S INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS HAMMER

In Scrublands, Australian author Chris Hammer writes about a journalist, Martin, sent to a drought-ravaged town in Australia where the one year anniversary of an event is coming up: A year earlier a priest, minutes before a weekend service, stood on the church steps with a gun and shot several people before being killed himself.

Scrublands Cover ImageMartin finds things are not as it seems as far as the story told about the incident and, while investigating, there are fires, a fatal car accident and he falls in love with a local resident.

The old journalism rule about not becoming part of the story is broken repeatedly. This book has twist after twist including Martin publishing stories that seem accurate at the time, but soon turn out to be otherwise. This is great writing that will keep surprising you.

Hammer was a journalist for more than 30 years before becoming a full-time novelist with the success of Scrublands.  He served as an international correspondent, the chief political correspondent for The Bulletin and a senior political journalist for The Age. His first nonfiction book, The River, was awarded the ACT Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Walkley Book Award.

As a lover of good mysteries and a former journalist myself, I recommend this book

Hammer agreed to let me interview him via email.

Scott Butki: How did you come up with this story?

Chris Hammer: I have no idea where large parts of the story came from. For example, mass shootings are rare in Australia – those that do occur are typically domestic murder-suicides. I know of no real-life basis for the homicidal priest Byron Swift, here or in the US.

I was a journalist for 30 years, including extensive stints as a roving foreign correspondent, so those helped inform protagonist Martin Scarsden – for example, I did report from Gaza.  But character-wise he is unlike me.

I travelled through large parts of inland Australia about ten years ago at the height of the ‘Millennial Drought’ – the deepest and most prolonged since European settlement – researching my non-fiction book The River. I visited towns where the river had literally run dry. So the setting for Riversend is based on that.

There was a case some years ago involving Australia’s most infamous serial killer, a man named Ivan Milat. He would pick up hitchhikers, torture and kill them. It’s likely one story line grew from that seed.

There are other bits and pieces that may have origins in real life but much of it has bubbled up from the imagination. Which is good – it encourages me to think I can write more books like this!

Scott: Which came first, the priest and other characters, or the plot?

Chris: The idea of the priest, Martin and Mandy came first. The plot changed and changed again, evolving over time. Entire plot lines and several characters were thrown away and new ones developed. I reckon I discarded more than 200,000 words before settling on the final manuscript.

Scott: The press release for your book states, in part: “The ever-growing popularity of Australian authors like Liane Moriarty, Hannah Kent, and Kate Grenville proves that American readers are hungry for stories about the land down under, a country that feels remarkably familiar while remaining a world away. Interestingly, it turns out that Australia has a wild west, too, and it’s strikingly similar to ours.” Do you think this is the case? Also, are Australians interested in America’s “wild west?

Chris: Australia is a large country, but our population is relatively small. In the past, we have been wholesale importers of culture: movies, tv, books, music, particularly from America and Britain. We still are. So Australians are far more familiar with American culture than vice versa. For example, my dad was a big John Wayne fan and his favourite movie was Shane. So yes, Australians are/were interested in the wild west, as they are with other aspects of American culture.

I’m not sure there is anything particularly wild about the west in either the US or Australia nowadays. Certainly not in the sense they are lawless.

I think Australia does capture the imagination of Americans, who might see it as simultaneously familiar and exotic. I have met Americans who hold an almost nostalgic view of Australia: they see it as a more innocent version of the US, like America used to be. They often warn me: “Don’t do this or that, or you will end up like us.”

Scott: As a former journalist myself, I found myself cheering along journalist Martin Scarsden. Is Martin based on journalists you have known and/or aspects of yourself?

Chris: Scrublands is certainly informed by my past as a journalist, although Martin isn’t based on any particular person(s), and certainly not myself. Certainly, much of the journalistic process in the book is familiar to me, as is the way journalists act and the way they view the world and their craft. However, Martin is no exemplar: he is constantly getting stories wrong! This was one of the ideas I had from the start; a protagonist who gets things wrong.

Scott: How has your career of journalism helped you when writing this novel?

Chris: The discipline of writing is there. While some aspiring writers may wait for inspiration and struggle with writer’s block, no journalist can tell their editor that they aren’t feeling inspired and may not file!

I don’t get too attached or sentimental about what I’ve written and I don’t get precious during the editing process. Particularly in television, editing material and parring it back is all part of the process.

For many years I made long-form television reports of around 30 minutes in length. I think this has helped me with pacing and structure and developing through-lines i.e. leading a reader through a story.

Scott:  Do you have any thoughts or questions you hope readers will take away from this book?

Chris: Not really. I hope they enjoy it and that it might fire their imaginations. There is a theme there of inter-generational trauma, but the book is not meant to be didactic.

Scott: Was it hard switching from non-fiction to fiction?

Chris: No, I found it liberating. Now I get paid for making stuff up. How good is that?

Scott: How do you feel about your writing being compared to Jane Harper and James Lee Burke?

Chris: It’s a compliment, of course. I guess it’s natural for debut novelists to be likened to established writers. That said, I certainly haven’t modeled my writing on any other author, at least not consciously. I hadn’t heard of Jane until I’d finished the first draft of Scrublands, but I’m honoured to be compared with her. And grateful. I think the success of The Dry has almost certainly helped other Australian crime writers, myself included, to find publishers and readers in the US and elsewhere.

Scott: Are you hoping this will be the start of a series?

Chris: Yes. I am well into the follow up to Scrublands (which was published July 2018 in Australia). We have a tentative Australian publication date of late 2019 for the next one. It again features Martin and Mandy. And there’s likely to be a third book as well.

MURDER IN THE AFTERNOON DISCUSSES AN EARLY DON WINSLOW

January’s Murder In The Afternoon goes to sunny California to deal with some dark souls in Don Winslow’s earlier crime novels. The Winter Of Frankie Machine is a unique mob story in its approach and setting. It also shows the talent Winslow had early on.

The title character is known in his San Diego community as Frank Macchio, the affable older bait shop owner and surfer. When he comes home from a long day, he finds two men from his past, when he was enforcer Frankie Machine, standing in his driveway. Soon, he is chased by mobsters with no clear idea why. While alluding those after him, he examines his sordid past to figure out who is all behind this.

The Winter Of Frankie Machine will give the group a lot to discuss, the mob in Southern California, how the past is never past, reinvention. There is also a possibility Don will call into the club. We will be meeting on BookPeople’s third floor, at 1PM Monday January 21st. The book is 10% off for those planning to attend

3 Picks for January

The New Iberia Blues: A Dave Robicheaux Novel Cover ImageNew Iberia Blues by James Lee Burke
Dave Robicheaux has to contend with the body of a dead woman found floating on a cross, a wunderkind film director with plenty of secrets, and a new partner he’s falling for with her own history. Burke brings his sense of place, people and poetry to one of crime fictions most tortured cops.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Psychotherapist Leo Faber’s obsession with the case of Alicia Berenson and artist who refuses to talk after she murdered her husband takes him to the run down psychiatric hospital she was put in. with only her art and a diary to lead the way, Faber unlocks what really happened that night. A thriller with one hell of a reveal.

Take Out by Rob Hart

Hard boiled author Rob Hart gives us a collection of stories involving crime and food. All of Hart’s pathos, humor, and style are on display here. The story “Creampuff,” about a bouncer at a pastry shop, is worth the price alone.

FINDING CHARACTERS IN A PATCH OF DEAD LAWN

Patricia Smiley was kind enough to write a piece for us about creating characters for her books. She’ll join us in the store January 9th for a panel discussion with Matt Coyle & Puja Guha to discuss their various subgenres.

Writers are curious people. We obsess about human behavior and construct theories about what motivates it. Sometimes our stories are personal. Sometimes we use newspaper articles filtered through our own sensibilities. Sometimes we simply make stuff up. That works, too.

The Second Goodbye (Pacific Homicide #3) Cover ImageWriter curiosity is never more important to me than when I create characters on the page. Finding depth and poignancy in each one is important because I want readers to care about the people in my books. Like many writers, I create a biography for all my characters, even the minor ones, which usually includes a sociological and psychological profile, a back-story, descriptions of speech patterns, gait, quirky habits, and a history of successes and failures that drive his/her behavior.

The essences of real people I know often inveigle their way onto the pages of my novels. This is especially true for Davie, her grandmother, and her boss Frank Giordano. The gender or appearance may change, but the core attributes remain. Character inspiration isn’t limited to friends and relatives. Strangers often make an impression, as well. Once long ago I was stopped at a red light on my way to work. I glanced over and noticed a homeless man on a bus bench, dressed in grimy clothing, gently brushing lint from the shoulder of his well-worn coat. That gesture was a poignant lesson I never forgot—that we can maintain our dignity regardless of our circumstances. Years later, that man’s ethos made its way into the character of Rags Foster, a homeless junkie in Pacific Homicide. When I began researching the second novel in the series, I used the war in Vietnam as a plot element. I interviewed former veterans, fictionalizing the pathos of their stories to craft Outside the Wire. I used the same process for The Second Goodbye, the third novel in the series, and had particular fun with a minor character named Gerda Pittman, a comic version of a former boss.

I’m always on the lookout for characters to populate my stories. For example, several times a week, I walk to the grocery store past a few remaining post WWII bungalows dwarfed by flashy new construction. Along the route I often see a wiry older man with slicked-back gray hair, working in his front yard. I’ve never noticed anyone else with him. Even on the hottest days, he wears a tidy wool suit jacket that has seen better days. The jacket is dark blue with wide lapels, outdated padded shoulders, and is paired with mismatched trousers. His dress shirt is buttoned to the neck without benefit of a tie. The ensemble seems from another world, possibly Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

In this Westside L.A. neighborhood, the summer-ocean breezes once cooled the houses. But the days have become hotter, even in winter, so his front windows are often open to catch any random puff of air. The exterior of the house needs paint and repairs but the gutters along the street are clean and tidy. Many days I see him bent over, sweeping away the debris with a battered kitchen dustpan and brush. Later, when I walk home with my bag of groceries, the area is spotless and any residue that may have crept onto his walkway has been swept away. He never looks up from his task to nod or say hello. I accept his terms.

What piques my curiosity is his front lawn, which is a patch of hard-packed soil except on the rare occasion when it rains. He apparently doesn’t like the look of the weeds that sprout in the aftermath, because he plucks each one out by hand until the area is once again a tidy field of brown dirt, raising all kinds of dramatic questions: Was there ever a lawn? Did the high price of water force him to let it die? Nonetheless, the compulsive weeding tells me he has a keen sense of order. I want to know the story behind his dignity and pride: where he’s from and what’s happened in his life that allows him to find purpose in a small patch of dead lawn.

Someday I’ll answer those questions in a book. The character may not be this man. It may be a woman. Her part may be small but she’ll be a metaphor for something important in the book. I’ll give her a happy ending. Maybe after all she’s been through she deserves that much, at least.

Puja Guha on writing spy fiction

Puja Guha has just finished her Ahriman Trilogy that deals with a spy and assassin in love with each other as world events, government plots, and despots not only tear them apart, but often pit them against one another. Puja will be joining private eye writer Matt Coyle and police procedural author Patricia Smiley to discuss their subgenres at BookPeople January 9th at 7pm. Here she discusses what draws her to spy fiction.

Ahriman: The Spirit of Destruction Cover ImageWhen people first learn that I write spy fiction, I get two reactions. The first is surprise, bordering on shock. How could this five-foot-three Indian woman write something like spy novels? Once they get over the fact that I’m a writer, the question that follows is, wouldn’t I be better suited for non-fiction books about economics or international development? That question always makes me chuckle, since the thought of writing a book on that makes my stomach turn.

The second, and more fun one, is from those who know me a little better, or at least know about my travel schedule (especially if they know about my trip to Afghanistan a few years ago). That reaction tends to go something like this—“Oh, you write spy fiction – because you’re secretly a spy!” I have to admit I love that reaction. There’s something about their perception that changes, as if they start to see me as a lot more bad ass. I may not be a spy, but I certainly like to think of myself as someone who could be, at least in terms of the fun portrayal of what that life is like that we see in a lot of movies and books. Obviously, the reality is far from the action sequences of The Bourne Identity but it’s fun to think that there are people like that around the world.

Perceptions aside, I love spy fiction. I grew up reading all sorts of thrillers, devouring the books off my Dad’s bookshelf, including Tom Clancy, Frederick Forsyth, Michael Crichton, Robert Ludlum, and John Grisham. Spy fiction was a sizeable portion of that, offering action and adventure combined with mystery and investigation. Those books also gave me another opportunity to travel and explore nuanced characters, including the cost of deception on an emotional and personal level. I read so many of them I guess it’s no wonder I ended up writing in this genre. Sometimes I use it to explore new places that I haven’t gotten to visit yet, like Iran, in my first book Ahriman: The Spirit of Destruction. More often, writing spy fiction gives me an opportunity to showcase a place that I’ve already been—to bring readers to it, to see the sights and experience the culture, the sound, and the smells, all within a “web of intrigue”. That last phrase makes me smile, I love the twists and turns that greet me when I’m plotting out one of my novels. A lot of it takes me by surprise, when the characters draw me in a direction that I didn’t anticipate. Being able to share that journey with readers is something that I cherish.

In this day and age, I also relish the opportunity to expose bits and pieces of culture from the places I’ve visited and later write about. People have a lot of different ideas when they think of countries they’ve seen in the news like Kuwait, countries they often know very little about like Madagascar, or even places they may have seen a lot in TV or movies like Paris or New York. My parents gave me the travel bug when I was little, and I’ve taken it to a whole new level, having now visited 55 countries and counting. Certainly, a ton is different between each of these places, but at a human level, it’s more incredible how much is the same. I love being able to show that to my readers when I take them somewhere new, or to expose some endearing detail of a place or culture they might not have expected. Putting that into a mystery or an adventure just adds to it, they get to have as much fun reading it as I do writing when they go along for the ride.

That’s enough about me and why I write spy fiction. If you’re a reader in this space, I’d love to hear from you. What draws you to it? What keeps you coming back?

GOOD ANTHOLOGIES, GOOD CAUSES

Anthologies serve crime fiction fans in several ways. For those new to the genre, it’s a quick way to get a survey of authors you like. For experienced fans it’s a way to find new voices and see what your favorites can do without the constraints of a novel. If you’re holiday shopping for someone or getting an anthology for yourself, here are three great ones that fit the season of giving with the proceeds going to some fine causes.

Blood Work Cover ImageBlood Work edited by Rick Ollerman

This collection was put together as a tribute to the memory of Gary Shultz, the owner of Once Upon A Crime, a mystery bookstore that championed many a writer. A lot of big name talent, including William Kent Kruger, Randy Wayne White, and Duane Swierczynski payed their respects with a story that had to involve a book, bookstore, or tuba, which Gary played. Money goes to The Memorial Blood Center Of St. Paul, which is credited for saving his life many times. The book will also introduce you to some great new talent like Jen Conley and Nick Petrie.

Protectors: Stories to Benefit Protect Cover ImageProtectors and Protectors 2 edited by Thomas Pluck

If you like rough fiction these two volumes of over forty stories each from the likes of Andrew Vacchs, George Pelecanos, and Roxane Gay is right up your dark alley. Glen Grey’s story in the first hits you like a gut punch and the people are still talking about Joe Lansdale’s in volume two. And these dark stories help fight the darkest of crimes with proceeds going to PROTECT an organization funding and lobbying for the fight against child abuse.

 

Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns Cover ImageUnloaded edited by Eric Beetner

This book, which helps fund States United To Prevent Gun Violence, used its cause as a challenge to its writers to each write a crime story without a gun. This didn’t stop many from finding other brutal ways to commit homicide. Allison Gaylin’s dark look at fandom is a standout. Other contributors feature the like of Joyce Carol Oates (who also appears in Protectors), Joe R Lansdale (also in both Protectors volumes), and MysteryPeople favorite Reed Farrel Coleman (appears in Blood Work and Protectors 2).