Les Edgerton is an ex-con who has turned from living a life of crime to writing about that life. Just Like That is his tenth published book and he has several others forthcoming this year, including The Perfect Crime coming soon from StoneGate Publishing. Les spent a couple of years in prison at Pendleton. During his sojourn there, then-President Johnson came on national TV and proclaimed Pendleton the “single-worst prison in the U.S.” Les was watching TV in D Block when the president made his announcement, and says, “Our entire cellblock stood up and cheered as if our ‘team’ had just won the Super Bowl. In a way, we had.”
At various times in his life, Les has been a burglar, armed robber, dope user and dealer, an escort in a service that catered to older, wealthy women, a pimp, a womanizer who went to bed with over 1,000 women, was married five times, has been involved in high-speed chases with the cops(and got away), has been shot at and shot back several times, lived with one of New Orleans’ leading call girls who stabbed another girlfriend of his and tried to stab him—and also shot at him and tried to run him over with the car he’d bought for her, was involved with various Mafia figures in New Orleans and been involved in dozens of other nefarious pursuits. He has also obtained his B.A. from Indiana University and his MFA in Writing from Vermont College, been happily married for the past 25 years, has three beautiful children, and his writing has been nominated for a bunch of awards, including the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry Award, Jesse Jones Book Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Violet Crown Book Award, Edgar Allan Poe Award, and others. He’s also been the Visiting Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toledo (3 years) and Trine University (1 year). He currently teaches creative writing online for Writer’s Digest and Phoenix College.
Chris White (CW): Les, is your protagonist in Just Like That, Jake Mayes, based on anyone in real life?
Les Edgerton (LE): Well… yes, he is. He’s based on moi. The novel is a thinly-disguised memoir in many ways. About 80% of it is taken directly from my own experiences. His friend, Bud, is also taken from a real-life person, a guy I spent time with in Pendleton (also named Bud) and with whom I took a real-life road trip during which some of the things in the novel took place.
CW: You say it’s “80 %” from your own experiences. Which parts are true and which fiction?
LE: Without a rubber hose and a couple of guys playing “good cop-bad cop” I’m afraid I won’t reveal that. And, even with those stereotypes in the room with me, I still won’t say. The reason is that there are crimes which don’t have an expiration date—in other words, no statute of limitations.
Also, while most of it is based on my own life, the way it’s written isn’t in a literal fashion. For example, I took three different road trips with buddies and more than one by myself—there were times when I’d just jump in the car and drive to wherever and other times when I’d jump on a bus and head off in a vague direction (usually south, but not always) and then get off when the place I was at appealed to me--and the novel is an amalgamation of all those trips.
Almost all of my fiction is based on my life. I had an interesting experience with my first novel, The Death of Tarpons. That one was probably more than 90% autobiographical and the first publisher who wanted it asked me to present it as memoir. Even though it was almost entirely autobiographical, I couldn’t bring myself to do so. After all, ten percent wasn’t and I felt it would be dishonest to do so and so I turned down his offer of publication. I have no desire to be another James Frey. Actually, I do have a memoir that is 100% true that I’m still rewriting, and I’ll have no trouble at all in affixing my name to it. It’s presently titled Adrenaline Junkie, and that’s a fairly accurate and descriptive title. As readers will see from the character Jake in Just Like That, adrenaline is really my drug of choice.
CW: Interesting that you should drop the dime on that dirty little secret about how there’s so much autobiography in novels—that we write, perhaps unavoidably, our lives in so many ways. Alan Heathcock shares that sentiment with you, as do I.
Just Like That is a prime example of an honored novel form—the road novel. What attracts you to that form?
LE: Most of my own life has taken the shape of a road trip, so it just feels natural to me. Since birth and up until the age of 40, I’d never lived in the same place longer than two years. Sometimes I lived in the same places more than once, but never more than two years in a row, max. And, most of my “stays” were of much shorter duration—mere months or even weeks at a time. And I love the idea of being on the move. I think that’s a particularly American more. We are a nation of nomads. Even today, after two years of being in the same place, I get extremely antsy. Now that I’m older and have been stuck in Indiana for a long time, it’s the biggest negative in my life. Unfortunately, once you have a family, it becomes much harder to just pick up and leave. You may wonder if it’s such a bad thing why I do it and it’s simple—I love my family more than I love moving. Life’s a tradeoff and this is just one of those tradeoffs. I’ve made worse…
Road novels are just classic and I believe they’ll be a viable form for fiction forever. However, and at the risk of offending some of my writer friends, there’s one road novel I feel is vastly overrated and that’s Jack Kerouac’s seminal On the Road. I’m in the Truman Capote camp on this one where he speaks of Kerouac’s novel, “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” At the least, he could have used a good editor. (I expect responses to that… and that’s fine. If I ever write or say something that everybody agrees with or likes, I’ll consider it a failure.)
CW: Having lived in Indiana myself for quite a few years, I know what you’re saying about being stuck there. I guess sometimes it’s different if you’re born somewhere versus moving there from somewhere else—it’s all about perspective. Speaking of which, is there a theme for Just Like That, and if so what would you say it is?
LE: Good question, Chris. First, let me give you my take on “theme.” I don’t see theme as entering into the writing of a novel until after the first draft is finished. Basically, I feel that theme is mostly something lit profs invented to justify their existence and to help them look smart. It’s not anything writers think about much. All theme is is the TV Guide logline. Works well for high-concept books, not as well for low-concept books.
However, that said, there is a place for theme. Since theme is simply “what the book’s about,” ergo, the TV Guide logline definition (this novel is about two guys who broke a mountain in two and found out they didn’t like girls as much as everyone else…), it does serve a purpose in rewriting novels. After I finish the first draft, then I ask myself, “What’s it all about?” (I rarely add “Alfie”…). In the case of Just Like That, it’s all about an individual’s control of his life.
Which, incidentally, is the theme of almost all accurate accounts about criminals—it’s always about control. Almost all crime—theft, murder, rape, kidnapping, burglary, armed robbery, check-kiting, you-name-it—it’s always about the person feeling they have little or no control in their lives and the crime they commit—even momentarily—gives them at least a brief moment of control. It’s why most of us who are or have been criminals keep repeating the crime—it’s the only time in our lives when we’re in control of our universes. In fact, Cathy Johns, the Assistant Warden of The Farm (the state joint in Angola, LA) read this and said it was the “best account and understanding of the criminal mind” she’d ever seen. It’s all about control.
So… that’s the theme. The value of theme to the writer is that after he or she identifies the
theme, then during the rewrite everything in the novel must relate to the theme or it should end up on the cutting room floor. The writer who makes the mistake of trying to write a novel based on a theme is going to find out that doesn’t work well. He’ll be forcing the narrative to fit that theme and will end up fairly well blocked and soon on. If, on the other hand, the writer writes the first draft and then figures out the theme and then rewrites it according to the precepts of that theme, then it works. The author ends up with a tightly-focused and entertaining book, one that’s “all of a piece” as somebody important once said—probably Emily Dickenson.
CW: What are high concept and low concept books, Les?
LE: High concept refers to a story premise that can be boiled down to one or sometimes two sentences that set it apart from other stories because of its angle or hook. The one or two sentences need to clearly describe the story. Screenwriter Steve Kaire defines it even closer, citing five elements high concept stories need to possess:
- an original premise
- mass audience appeal
- story-specific pitch
- easy-to-see story potential
- a pitch no longer than three sentences (I’d disagree with this last one. If it takes three sentences to express it, it’s getting dangerously close to a low concept idea.)
Low concept refers to more diffused stories that can’t easily be distilled into such a description as high concept. An apt and high concept description of a low concept story might be: noncommercial. When a writer talks to an editor or an agent and begins by saying, “I can’t explain my book in just a few sentences. It’s just too complicated for that.” The gatekeeper realizes at that point that what that writer is describing is… noncommercial, most likely. These kinds of books are why vanity publishers flourish.
Both Hollywood and publishers much prefer high concept story ideas in general. They’re easily understood and they’re quickly judged as to their originality and marketability.
The best sources of examples of high concept stories come from The TV Guide and the newspaper descriptions of movies. The folks who write them completely understand high concept and how to express it.
CW: Outstanding, Les, and interesting answers. Thank you.
LE: The answers can only be as interesting as the questions, Chris. Thank you for the opportunity—it was fun! Now, I’m that much closer to my ultimate goal—appearing in People Magazine, a photo of me at the seashore gazing soulfully out to sea and having some kind of pithy quote under the pic, something like: Les often thinks about the starving children in Ft. Wayne, IN and only wishes he could do more for them. Or not … Laizzez le bon temps rouler…
CW: (That means “Let the good times roll,” I think).