Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Meet the Baddest Citizen - Interview with S.W. Lauden

by Holly West

By now, you've probably heard of S.W. Lauden. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, dropped on November 3 and people are digging it. I dug it myself. But prior to publication of the novel, he made a name for himself around town by writing bad ass short fiction and blogging, interviewing and promoting other authors. He even interviewed me once, announcing that mine was "probably" the first historical fiction book he'd ever read.

Now it's Steve's turn to wear the princess tiara. He was kind enough to stop by the blog today to answer my insightful questions. Here we go!

HW: Your debut, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION (BCC), is fast-paced, creepy and atmospheric straight out of the gate. Greg Salem, a cop/surfer/punk rock singer, is under investigation for a shooting in the line of duty when his best friend is murdered. In the book, Greg’s past intersects with his present as he searches for the killer. The murder aside, it reminded me of the different phases of my own life over the years—how they overlap and intersect, and how they’ve contributed to who I am now. To an extent, is Greg’s story a reflection of your own life?

SWL: Thanks for having me, Holly! BCC isn't autobiographical, but it's absolutely informed by my own experiences. Like Greg, I spent the early part of my life chasing a career in music, which meant doing a lot of side hustles in order to eat and live indoors. Mostly slinging food and drinks, but I also worked as a journalist here and there.

Once I stopped pursuing music as a career (what's Einstein's definition of insanity again?), I started sifting through the ashes a little. I discovered that I hadn't been particularly successful at any one thing, but I had done some pretty interesting things—at least according to me. That kind of reckoning is really what Greg is dealing with in this book. He's haunted by his past, conflicted about choices he's made and forced to make some tough decisions about his future. It just so happens that he is surrounded by part-time punks, thugs, drug addicts and murderers. Once I had worked through those internal struggles and external influences for him, I knew that I had a book I could relate to and could get excited about writing.

HW: Having lived in South Bay for a couple of years in the early 90s, I can say you captured the feel of the area remarkably well, noting, of course, that it’s changed quite a bit in the last twenty years. What inspired you to write about this location and how did it inform the plot?

SWL: Growing up near the coast in SoCal was amazing, but my life has taken me in different directions since high school and college. After twenty years of mostly living inland I feel like a tourist whenever I visit my old stomping grounds these days. From that perspective, it allows me to compare the blue-collar beach towns of my childhood—filtered through my faulty, romantic memories—with the exclusive, high-end communities many of them have become.

Unlike me, Greg never really left his hometown so he's forced to experience those dichotomies on a daily basis. He's a SoCal native who feels like he's living behind enemy lines, but he's also a punk musician who grew up to be a cop. So I couldn't imagine setting this particular story anywhere else, although in my head The Bay Cities is a fictionalized combination of several SoCal towns including the South Bay, Santa Barbara, Venice, Silverlake and Los Feliz.

HW: BCC has been out for about a week now (two weeks when this interview posts). Tell me, is being a published author all it’s cracked up to be?

SWL: I think that my experiences in the music business—for better or worse—really prepared me for being a "published author". There's always a big difference between the dream and the reality. That said, publishing a book has been a lifelong dream and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I actually did it. So, for the time being, it's pretty mind-blowing. Is there anything better than killing yourself for something you love so much? Ask me again in a couple of years. For now, I'm pretty stoked.

HW: You recently wrote a blog post about being surprised to learn that BCC was, in fact, a mystery, as opposed to a straight crime novel. Brings a (modified) quote from the film Withnail and I to mind: “I’ve written a mystery by mistake!”

SWL: First of all, thank you for reminding me of Withnail and I. What a fantastic movie. I don't remember that specific quote, but the first time I watched it was in a tour van as my band drove across England on a club tour. Our roadie was a really cool English dude who was blown away (gobsmacked?) that we hadn't seen it. I was really hung over that day, like most days back then, and almost threw up because I was laughing so hard. Good times!

Anyway, I knew that murder was going to be a main plot device in BCC from the beginning, but I was honestly more concerned with the character development and their motivations. What I didn't know when I started writing it was that there were so many sub genres within the greater crime/mystery world. Looking back I feel lucky because my ignorance, at least at the onset of this project, kept me from being beholden to any particular genre. More than anything, I wanted BCC to have the energy, intensity and darkness that I've always loved about my favorite punk songs.

HW: Anyway, I think that’s kind of hilarious since I’ve had a similar reaction to people assuming my books are cozies because they’re historical mysteries (which I realize is somewhat different than your situation but overall it’s about genre and our perceptions of it). It’s not that I have a problem with cozies, it’s that readers have certain expectations about the label and my books don’t meet them. I don’t want anyone to be disappointed or offended.

I personally consider mysteries crime novels in the general sense so I refer to myself as a crime fiction writer. If the conversation goes further I say I write hardboiled historical mysteries.

All this to ask: How do you really feel about the fact that you wrote a mystery and not, as you say, a crime novel? Does it even matter? Also, can you ever see yourself writing a cozy?

SWL: Genre matters to me more as a reader than as a writer. I like to have a general sense of what I'm getting into when I choose a book. Of course, it's also fun to be surprised. I thought I was digging into some literary fiction when I picked up Robin Sloan's MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, but it ended up being one of the best mysteries I have read in the last few years.

Could I write a cozy? I honestly have to say that it looks much harder than what I currently do. I'm no expert, but anything with that many specific rules seems like it would be difficult for a writer like me. So instead of giving you a straight answer, I'll just quote Romeo Void: "Never say never."

HW: Obligatory geeky writer question: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

For BCC, I started with a plot that I quickly abandoned. My novella, CROSSWISE (coming from Down & Out Books in March, 2016), started as a short story that just didn't want to end. So...I guess I'm a "plotty pants." Is that a thing?

HW: You’ve quickly become known in writing circles as an indie publishing advocate. Is that by accident or design?

SWL: I have always been a fan of Indie music, and I think that transferred over to Indie publishing once I started exploring this world. I love the DIY aesthetic in general, and find it hard not to root for anybody who decides to go their own way instead of seeking out, or waiting around for, the approval of perceived gatekeepers. I also respect writers who take chances, push boundaries and generally make decisions that the mainstream may not fully understand or embrace. Hell, I don't always understand what they're trying to do, but I try my best to support it. Call it a punk rock hangover.

But just as with music, I'm definitely not somebody who scoffs at mainstream success. Get in my car sometime and you'll be treated to anything from Taylor Swift and The Rolling Stones to Ty Segall, Black Flag and Thao Nguyen. Likewise, I'm perfectly content reading HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY KIDNAP STRANGERS by Max Booth III and DIRTBAGS by Eryk Pruitt back-to-back with ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr and THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins.

All excellent books, by the way. And they all started out the same way, as far as I know—with somebody sitting down in front of a computer and making shit up. From there it's up to the market to decide. Mostly, I would encourage people who think they want to do it to just go ahead and do it. Start a band, write a book, create a podcast, shoot a movie, go to clown school—whatever. Get weird.

HW: You’ve written quite a few flash fiction and short pieces that are published online. Tell me your favorite, why it’s your favorite, and provide a link.

SWL: Interesting question. I think the answer would vary wildly depending on when you ask, but at this exact moment I would pick "Fix Me." It’s about a bicyclist getting chased by a muscle car through some of my favorite East LA neighborhoods. My violent little love letter to Los Angeles.

I submitted it to a contest for Criminal Element earlier this year and was thrilled when it won. Then a friend who is a director approached me about turning it into a short film. We have been going back and forth on ideas for adapting the script, which has lately allowed me to consider the story from a different perspective. I always try to picture the scenes that I am writing—taking into account the peripheral action that's indirectly influencing the outcomes—but writing for a visual medium is something else all together.

HW: What’s up next for you?

SWL: Late lunch. And maybe a mani/pedi, if I think my boss won't notice that I'm gone for two hours...

I already mentioned that my novella, CROSSWISE, is coming out next year. That one's about an ex-NYPD cop who chases his coke-addict girlfriend to her hometown in Florida. She leaves him shortly after he gets a job as head of security at a sprawling retirement community filled with a colorful cast of septuagenarian characters. He's sad, drunk and lonely until the murders start.

I'm also writing the second Greg Salem novel. BCC was always meant to be the first installment in a three-book series. I'm a little over half way through book two and I have to say it's been fun reconnecting with some of the characters again. It's sort of like a high school reunion, only with a lot more violence.

S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION is available now from Rare Bird Books. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.


Al Tucher said...

Good, illuminating discussion.

I'm always amazed by how many ex-musicians there are among writers of fiction, and especially crime fiction. I'm one, although I was pursuing a career as an operatic tenor. Like Steve, I consider that career good preparation for the writing business. For one thing, after all the auditions I sang for German theatrical agents, nothing an editor or literary agent can do scares me.

And I have learned that no experience is wasted on a writer.

Unknown said...

Great interview! You did well with the tiara, S-Dub! Loved learning about your influences and process!