In recent years LA crime writer S.W. Lauden has surged to prominence with a series of compelling novels and short stories. Tom Leins caught up with him to discuss his Greg Salem thrillers, Bad Citizen Corporation and Grizzly Season.
Grizzly Season pretty much picks up where Bad Citizen Corporation left off, but transplants Greg Salem into a drastically different environment. After going to such lengths to develop a convincing backdrop in the form of the Bay Cities, were you worried about comprehensively uprooting your protagonist?
Thanks for having me, Tom.
Great question. I think that going into the second Greg Salem book, I was much more concerned about writing the same story again. I really wanted to challenge him and his sidekick, Marco. So I was willing to take some risks, but I always knew they would get back to The Bay Cities eventually. They can never stay away from the beach for very long without going a little crazy.
Grizzly Season felt like a big step forward from Bad Citizen Corporation. How important is it to up your game with each book, and not re-tread old ground?
I always thought of these three books—including “Hang Time” (coming this Oct. from Rare Bird Books)—as more of a trilogy than a series, so I wanted to go somewhere else with this cast of characters in the middle adventure. I needed them to evolve in order to prepare them for what I had in mind in the third book. Staying at the beach wasn’t going to accomplish that in a radical enough way.
I hope that each of the books can be read and enjoyed on their own, but there are also some over-arching narratives that are intended to tie them all together. Matt Morgan at Crimespree Magazine likened “Bad Citizen Corporation” to an Indie album, and “Grizzly Season” to a major label debut. If that’s the case, “Hang Time” is shaping up to be the introspective solo album that comes after things have inevitably fallen apart. Rock and roll!
Which series characters do you enjoy reading?
The biggest influences on the Greg Salem books came from Don Winslow’s Boone Daniels (I wish he’d write more of them), Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole, and Arnaldur Indridason’s Detective Erlendur. I usually focus on story when reading—and those authors are obviously amazing storytellers—but I’d devour almost anything about those three characters.
In Bad Citizen Corporation – through the experiences Greg and his friends – there seemed to be a sub-text about aging, but remaining relevant. Is there any truth in that assessment?
Absolutely. I wanted Greg Salem to be vulnerable, and aging is his Achilles heel. So he has a bit of Peter Pan syndrome, but instead of flying he rides around on skateboards and surfboards. The Bay Cities is his Neverland. All of that is very much tied up with his history as a punk musician. It’s no secret that rock and roll is a young man’s game (at least from a commercial perspective), which can be hard to reconcile if it’s what you’ve organized your life around. We’ve all seen the old man in the slam pit, and it isn’t pretty.
Has crime fiction proven to be an adequate substitute for music in your life? Can book launches and Noir at the Bar events come close to replicating the thrill of a live performance?
They’re different thrills, but share some things in common. I was mostly a drummer, so being a writer is actually akin to “going solo” for me—I’m the one standing up at the mic now, with no cymbals to hide behind. That’s its own kind of thrill and it’s really unique to this period of my life. I’m doing my best to appreciate for what it is.
The biggest similarity to music so far is in the supportive community of writers and readers I have gotten to know. I can’t tell you the number of club shows I played to other musicians. That gives the crime writing universe a certain familiarity that, honestly, is one of the main things that keeps me hustling despite all of the usual challenges that writers face. That and this insane need to tell other people about the stories in my head.
You are a proactive member of the independent crime scene. Do close friendships make it harder to stand out in a crowded field, or do your peers keep you on your toes?
That’s an interesting question. I definitely feel more secure in a pack, which might be a drummer thing, but I do think there’s a need for up-and-coming writers to help each other out. And I love it when I hear about successful authors helping newcomers out.
As far as I can tell, commercial success in publishing might be even more elusive than in music—but neither is a cakewalk. So we might as well have some fun together while we’re toiling away. At least until Hollywood comes knocking, because then it’s every author for themselves!
Of the current crop of writers on the independent scene, who in particular inspires you?
I definitely have to tip my hat to Eric Beetner. The guy is a great writer, incredibly prolific, and probably one of the most supportive people on the Indie crime scene. He has given me and countless other new authors the opportunity to read at Noir at the Bar events in LA and at Bouchercon, and now that I’m working with him on the Writer Types podcast I finally understand just how hardworking and committed he is. Beetner is a force of nature and I’m lucky to call him a friend.
You have put out three books in the relatively short time that I have known you (with another on the way). Can you tell us a little bit about your writing routine? Is it tough to stay disciplined?
I’m not a “write everyday” guy. My family and my day job don’t allow for it and, to be honest, I’d just burn myself out. But that’s me. Plenty of other authors write every day and definitely seem to benefit from it. These days I write early in the morning and late at night—times when the house is quiet. The pace increases as the word count goes up, but that’s the general routine. By editing along the way, I eventually get to a first draft that I’ll read myself and mark up. Rinse and repeat two or three or eight times, and then I lean on a couple of trusted beta readers and an editor to help me make sense of it all. Slash and burn, suffer insomnia for a week or two, eat too much sugar/drink too much coffee, ponder the nature of existence, ride my bike around the neighborhood in a daze, slash and burn some more until—hopefully—I have something to submit. Then I hold my breath until the notes come back from the publisher before starting all over again.
Your books have an enviable mainstream sheen. Is a commercial sensibility part of your blueprint, or are you just telling the stories the way you want to?
Thanks! I really enjoy making stories up and trying to translate my thoughts onto the page in a way that is somehow entertaining—but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t care about selling books. I’m just not sure that it’s anything you can do consciously or we’d all be bestsellers.
Finally, what are your future publishing plans? Can you feed us any Greg Salem tidbits?
As I mentioned above, “Hang Time” is the final book in the planned Greg Salem trilogy. That one will be published by Rare Bird Books in October of this year. Before that, the second novella in my “Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper” series will be published by Down & Out Books in May. That one’s called “Crossed Bones,” and it’s the follow up to “Crosswise.” Beyond that? I’m cooking up something new right now that I hope will see the light of day in 2018.
Thanks for having me!