That Dark Place, an interview with author Les Edgerton

A fearless ex-con and writer of 18 published books, Les Edgerton has seen the elephant, friends, and he’s not going to varnish it for our sakes.

Court Merrigan: You say you’re holding out for a deal from Big Publishing. But you’ve already published eighteen books. What gives?

Les Edgerton: It’s the only real way to get work in front of people, other than a few thousand at the most. I’ve had legacy deals before and there’s no comparison. Look, the only books legitimate reviewers will look at for the most part are from the big presses. The NY Times isn’t going to look at books from Exciting Books, Ltd., no matter what the quality might be. Barnes & Noble and the other national brick-and-mortar stores aren’t going to carry books by Midnight Nifty Noir Books, no matter how good they are. Just ain’t gonna happen.

My desire right now was heightened via a discussion Joe Lansdale and I had recently where he told me flat-out (after reading my books) that I was “underpublished.” I’ve known that for a long time, but just never pushed that hard to get ’em there.

CM: Is that why you really want a big publisher to buy your memoir, then? To reach as many folks as possible?

LE: That’s a big part of it. It’s also a case of reaching the right readers. For example, the reviewers for the respected publications such as the NY Times, Paris Review, Washington Post, et al.

That’s the area I think independent publishers should band together and go after. Convincing those publications to review books by their quality, not by their publisher. What might help change is if the independent publishers and writers began to make their voices heard by the Times, Post, et al. If, along with the Amazon and Goodreads reviews, folks took it upon themselves to send a letter or an email to those publications that — hey, this is a book you should look at — I’ll bet that after they got even a few hundred of such letters their ears may perk up. A kind of grass-roots campaign focused like this I think might prove effective. If, say, some of the better indies included a brief note on the back page, urging readers who liked the book to write to these folks and urge them to consider reviewing them and provide their email and snail mail addresses to make it easy to do so, I wonder if they would begin to make a difference? I think they would. However, a big part of the problem is the lack of mass market distribution. It’s hard to blame a reviewer who knows that no matter what she says, people are going to find it difficult to get a copy of the book in a bookstore.

There’s another advantage to being published by a traditional press that very few talk about or even acknowledge, and that’s the fact that your chances are good that your work will be soundly and professionally edited. And even traditional publishing isn’t what it used to be with editing, by and large.

And there are still agents around who do serious editing. I had a personal experience to such a throw-back agent with my friend Janet Reid. A few years ago, she graciously provided me fantastic notes on my novel, The Bitch. Her edits completely transformed it and she wasn’t even my agent — just my friend.

Here’s what used to happen in publishing: I sent a novel in to my old agent Jimmy Vines that he loved. I’d rewritten it — by “rewrite” I mean a total, page one to The End that changed entire sections — eight times. In my mind, it was finished. Perfect. Well, ol’ Jimmy had me rewrite it for him… six more times. The editor who signed me for RH, Scott Moyers, then had me do six more rewrites.

All that said, I still have hope. It’s why I’m holding out my memoir for one of the big boys. I’ve also got an ace in my sleeve. The president of HBO read it a few years ago and wanted it instantly for his network for a movie. He called it “a Permanent Midnight but with balls.”

CM: So why write crime fiction? I take it you don’t don’t agree with those who say the genre is a touch limiting?

It’s just… writing. I really don’t pay attention to genre.

LE: I wasn’t aware it was limiting. It’s just… writing. I really don’t pay attention to genre. I agree with Nabokov who only recognized two genres — good writing and bad writing. Plus, I don’t just write crime novels. I write mainstream fiction, coming-of-age novels, existential and philosophical novels, YA’s, all kinds of stuff. Not to mention books on baseball, humor and black humor, craft books, etc.

I’ve always tried to follow one precept: I write the book I wish someone else had written but hadn’t… so I have to write it to get to read it.

CM: You know whereof you speak when it comes to crime. You did hard time as a young man. Care to tell us about it?

LE: Sure, Court. I did a couple of years on a 2–5 bit at Pendleton in Indiana. When I was incarcerated there, then-President Johnson commissioned a national panel to study prisons to determine which were the worst. A bunch of us were in the day room watching the only TV in the place when Johnson broke into the program and announced that his study had determined, categorically, that Pendleton was “the single worst prison in the U.S.” We all began cheering and hooting wildly, as if our team had just won the Super Bowl.

I went through eight riots during my years there, not counting the one that had happened the day before I arrived, even though I paid for the consequences of that one, also. The inmates had burned everything combustible, including all the mattresses, pillows, and blankets. The superintendant was pissed and he told the inmates that since they’d burned everything they’d have to live without it. He wouldn’t issue mattresses, pillows, any of that stuff. I woke up in the morning with my toes turned blue underneath the snow that came in the windows during the night.

A bunch of guys came down with pneumonia and several died. Don’t know how many. In the movies, they show prisons with all these great communication systems — somebody farts in the cell house two cellblocks over and in six minutes, everyone knows it — but in a real prison, somebody can die in the tier above you and you might not know it for a couple of months.

CM: How did your prison time affect you? What do you know that we who’ve never been inside don’t?

LE: What straights don’t know about the joint would fill a bunch of books. In fact, if folks watched that silly MSNBC program where they go inside joints, they’d think most guys inside were either weight-lifters or psychos. The weight-lifting part always cracks me up. Criminals are basically… lazy. It’s one of the reason we rob places. We don’t want a 9–5. We don’t even want to fetch our own beers while watching the tube. As for pressing iron, way too much work.

Getting busted now and then is the price you pay for a kind of freedom insurance salesmen will never experience.

Mostly, it was just boring as hell. I saw a lot of bad, bad shit, but I saw a lot of bad shit on the bricks. It was just the price you said for being an outlaw. Getting busted now and then is the price you pay for a kind of freedom insurance salesmen will never experience.

I will say the food truly sucks and you’ve got to be “on” all the time and can’t ever relax. You never ever know when the guy you’re just sitting there rapping with, decides to go all medieval.

CM: How did you cope with the boredom? Did they have a library or something?

LE: Yeah, Pendleton’s “library” consisted of about 20 copies of Zane Grey novels and maybe a dozen other books which were a snooze and intended for a third-grade level. When I go down to visit as I used to do a couple of times a year, I take a bunch of my novels I’ve already read and donate them.

As to coping with boredom, I ran a few games to keep semi-busy. Had an on-going crap game, had a loan business, did a lot of drugs and moved some drugs. Even with that though, there was a lot of time just sitting around the cell, naming your toes and teaching your trouser worm tricks… I wrote a lot, as well. Problem is, when I left they confiscated all my notebooks so I’m missing a few novels I wrote.

CM: So you wouldn’t say you were “reformed” by your incarceration?

LE: Well, I never had a “coming to Jesus” moment and still haven’t. I didn’t actually stop doing criminal acts when I got out. I just stopped getting caught.

That’s fairly easy to do. The only way I got caught before was because my rappies got caught and snitched me out. So, I just worked by myself. I can say that now as the statute of limitations has run out on most of the stuff I did.

Plus, when I was in, it was when they still believed in rehabilitation. I learned a great trade — cutting hair — and when I got out, I literally had dozens and dozens of job offers. The first week on the bricks I took home $500. That was good money in 1968. Very few of us who’d been through barber school went back.

CM: How much of your prison experience has made it into your fiction?

LE: Not as much as people think. It was only two years of my life. I always kind of looked down at those people who do something like spend a couple of years in the service and some war and that becomes their entire life — all they write about or think about.

In the memoir I’m trying to market, I left out a ton of things about say my Navy years and a ton of stuff about my hairstyling years and so on. I tell a few highlights, but left most of that stuff out. My childhood was a gas, too. For instance, I’d been bartending and waiting tables in my grandmother’s bar since I was eight, and on my 12th birthday she figured I was old enough to work as a dispatcher for her cab company, so I did. During the first two hours of that gig, I watched one cabbie shoot another cabbie in the throat and kill him — blood all over all of us.

And that wasn’t even the biggest thing to happen that summer.

CM: Eighteen published books over twenty years. Which do you like the best? Is it the best one?

It’s a truly scary place and it required more courage for me to go there than I’ve ever had to draw upon in any of the knife or gun fights I’ve been in…

LE: The Rapist was the most courageous book I’ve ever written. It represents the best advice I’ve ever gotten from anyone. My first mentor, Elaine Hemley, told me the very best writers reach way down deep inside to that dark place we all have but most of us studiously try to avoid exposing — both from others and from ourselves. That’s the place where truth resides and most writers are unable to go there. It’s a truly scary place and it required more courage for me to go there than I’ve ever had to draw upon in any of the knife or gun fights I’ve been in and I’ve been in more than one.

I’m not a rapist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m capable of a lot of sins and crimes and have committed quite a few but that’s just not in my makeup. But I can understand such a person.

I set out to do what Charles Bukowski did in his short story, “Fiend”, which is told from a child molester’s POV, albeit in the third person. What he did in that story was to achieve the very pinnacle of what it means to be a great writer in my view. To show that even the most depraved person on earth still retains a faint spark of humanity. This is what great writing is all about: “Martin’s eyes looked into her eyes and it was a communication between two hells — one hers, the other his.”

And this is what I set out to attempt in The Rapist. And, I wanted to beat Bukowski. So I cast mine in first-person.

I win.

CM: You’re 72 now. Recently, Cynthia Ozick said that young writers ought to wait their turn, as today’s old writers once did: “Aspiration is not the same as ambition. Ambition forgets mortality; old writers never do. Ambition wants a career; aspiration wants a room of one’s own. Ambition feeds on public attention; aspiration is impervious to crowds. Old writers in their youth understood themselves to be apprentices to masters superior in seasoned experience, and were ready to wait their turn in the hierarchy of recognition. In their lone and hardened way of sticking-to-it, they were unwaveringly industrious; networking, the term and the scheme, was unknown to them.” As an “old” writer yourself, does this strike you as hifalutin bullshit, or do you think the young folks ought to politely wait their turn — especially for you?

LE: Cynthia Ozick is a great writer but I suspect she’s had it pretty cushy most of her life. So, I take what she might say with a grain of salt. I disagree that younger writers should “wait their turn.” That’s bullshit. I do think they need to learn to be good writers before they gain success and that’s something different. That takes time in most cases but some learn how quicker than others.

That said, I do think writers would be better off (and there’d be fewer of them) if they had to go through what we once did to get published. My first novel went through 86 rejections before it got accepted. That was pre-internet — you had to snail mail everything and pay postage both ways. I was going to quit on that novel and the 87th house happened to take. It was taken by the University of North Texas Press (which shows where I was at in the submission game as I began alphabetically) and UNT Press had never before published fiction. Nowadays, writers shoot off half dozen or dozen email submission at no cost and without much effort.

CM: You published your first book in 1995, so you’ve no doubt seen a lot of writers snag big publishing deals, some at quite young ages. How do you handle the inevitable feeling of “Why the hell is it happening to them, instead of ME?”

LE: The first book I sent out got published. I should have been published years before that, but I didn’t have a clue how to get about it. Later on, when my second book came out, a collection of stories titled Monday’s Meal, one of the stories included in it I’d written when I was 12 and one when I was 10. Didn’t change a word of either. So, I’d written publishable work as a young kid, but just didn’t know how one got their stuff published. This was before I was even much aware there were things called agents.

Later I signed with Jimmy Vines and then wrote a crime novel and Jimmy took it to auction. Came down to two publishers — St. Martin’s and Random House. SM offered me $50,000 and RH $45,000. I went with Random House. I was on my way. I was one of those “young writers.” I quit cutting hair and became a full-time writer.

Wrong move. Three weeks later, Bertlesmann bought Random House and my book got jettisoned.

Jimmy told me to brush it off. That he’d get my next novel sold for a bunch of money and then we’d resell the R.H. novel for six figures this time. That would have been great except Jimmy got drummed out of the SAR and I was left high and dry.

Most of his writers quickly found other homes. I didn’t. I didn’t know how to do that. I went along agentless for some time and sold some other work, but not with big deals. I should have gone after a top, top agent and I could have then, but I didn’t know who the top agents were and I didn’t know how to glom onto one. Today, inside knowledge like this is all over the place. Back then, it wasn’t. Especially not to a guy living in the Great Flyover who didn’t hang out with other writers at all. I just stayed in my room and wrote.

They like to be known as the person who “discovered” the rising genius, but it doesn’t carry the same cachet for them to be known as the person who published the same guy’s second or third work.

It’s so little about the quality of the work. It’s mostly about a few key individuals in publishing who control the industry. When Jimmy took that novel out to market and the subsequent auction, he felt he had to tell everyone it was my “first” novel. Well, that was a lie. It was my second novel and my first novel and my first story collection were already out, but he didn’t dare tell publishers that. They froth at the mouth to publish a “first novel” but not a writer’s second novel. They like to be known as the person who “discovered” the rising genius, but it doesn’t carry the same cachet for them to be known as the person who published the same guy’s second or third work. Very little of the decisions made are based on actual quality. There are a hundred writers working today that I’m very familiar with their work and it’s as good if not better than most of the so-called bestsellers. You, yourself, Court, are a prime example. A mutual friend of ours — Neil Smith — is another one. I could easily name a hundred apt examples.

This is going to raise all kinds of trolls, I can guarantee you. People who will get pissed and call me everything in the book. No prob. It’s also going to irritate others who won’t respond publicly but when I see ’em at Bouchercon aren’t gonna buy me a drink. Whatever… I’m just tired of all this false hope that’s always paraded on the Internet by the chattering classes. Most of it ain’t reality.

Here’s what I know for a fact. That the editor of a major thriller imprint was told by his boss that if he signed a book that didn’t net a minimum of $50,000 he’d be fired. A net profit. By the chief editor of a major imprint. Not that he’d get his expense account limit lowered or he’d lose the corner office. Fired. I won’t say who it is, but this isn’t a guy who cares about quality, at least not in my opinion.

I’m not implying that the writers who get the big deals these days are hacks. Many of them are immensely talented. But, for every one who cops a great deal there are twenty others who are just as talented and oftentimes, more so. If a writer thinks it’s about the quality of the work and that life is fair, then the best place for that person is teaching grade school where they still tell kids that crap and the little saps believe ‘em.

CM: I have a second-grader, Les, that I think I’ll keep in the dark a little longer. Maybe until middle school? Thanks, Les.

LE: Thank you, Court. You ask good, tough questions and it’s rewarding when I encounter an interviewer like yourself. It’s what you get when the interviewer is a terrific writer himself.

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