Q&A with Laurence Shames
You’ve written fiction and non-fiction, short pieces and books, funny stuff and serious stuff. How difficult is it going back and forth among all those different forms?
It’s less difficult than you might imagine. In my opinion, there are only two kinds of writing: good and bad. Good writing rings true and sounds natural. Bad writing rings false and sounds labored. Categories like “fiction” and “non-fiction” are probably more useful to reviewers and booksellers than they are to writers. There’s truth in fiction; there’s storytelling in non-fiction. A piece of whatever length still needs a beginning, middle, and end. Funny stuff as well as serious stuff should have a point to make. The challenge is always the same–to entertain and to reveal something about human nature.
But what about collaborating? Isn’t that quite different from writing a book of your own?
Again, less different than non-practitioners might think. When I take on a collaboration, my central goal is to make my partner sound exactly like himself—but more so. This is a lot like creating a protagonist in a novel. The voice needs to be vivid and consistent. You need to make the reader care about this person and what he or she has to say. The other nice thing about the collaborations is that I have to learn at least a little bit about a lot of topics. If I collaborate with a physicist, I’m going to learn some physics. It’s like I’m getting paid to go to grad school.
Okay, but isn’t there one form or other that you prefer?
That’s a little like asking a shoemaker if he prefers making brown shoes or black shoes. Writing is my business; it’s been my sole livelihood for over 40 years now. I’m proud of that and I feel incredibly fortunate. But, as a professional, I write what I can sell. That may sound unromantic, but it happens to be the truth. Bernard Malamud once observed that no good writer writes exactly as he pleases. There’s a paradox here. You have to write in your own true voice; faking it just doesn’t work. But you also have to find the places where your own little talent intersects the marketplace. And the marketplace, now more than ever, is a moving target. So if you don’t have a trust fund and you like to eat, not to mention drink decent wine, you’d better be flexible.
Let’s talk about the Key West novels. You wrote eight of them in eight years, then took a 12-year detour into other stuff, then circled back to write six more. So we’re now at 14, and counting. That’s a lot of books. Did you start off with a plan?
There was no plan whatsoever. After many years of trying and failing, I was thrilled to have one novel published. I didn’t even let myself imagine there might be others. Honestly, the review attention and commercial success of FLORIDA STRAITS took me totally by surprise. I just thought of it as an amusing little beach read. But it kept going back to press, it was optioned for film. This was great, of course, but it also made me nervous. Suddenly I had something to lose. So what should come next? The publisher urged me to do a series, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. I was afraid it would start feeling like a job. So we muddled through to a kind of compromise—free-standing novels with a cast of characters who sort of drifted in and out of each other’s stories. Joey Goldman, Bert the Shirt, and of course Don Giovanni–the chihuahua in sunglasses and the predecessor of the heroic Nacho. I had a huge amount of fun with those novels, and I hope it shows.
So why the long time-out?
Couple of reasons. Again, I didn’t want the novels to become routine. Also, my wife and I had moved out of Key West, and without the day-to-day experience of the place, I was less inclined to write about it. We were living in Southern California and I was pretending to be in the movie business. Actually, I wasn’t entirely pretending. Several of the novels were under option for film, and occasionally I’d get hired to write the screenplays. Then I’d get fired. Then I’d get hired again. This happened on FLORIDA STRAITS, SUNBURN, TROPICAL DEPRESSION, and VIRGIN HEAT. The movies would almost get made. But then they wouldn’t. Typical but crazy stuff kept going wrong. The star we wanted would go into rehab. The director’s previous film would tank and he’d go into hiding. Once–seriously–our prospective financier choked to death on a piece of steak in a Beverly Hills restaurant. If he’d ordered the pasta special I might have had an Oscar by now.
There are six titles so far in what might be called the second set of Key West books. What made you return to that form? Do you see the second set as being substantially different from the earlier volumes?
As to the first question, blame it on a conspiracy between my wife and Amazon. My wife kept urging me–I won’t say nagging–to make the older titles available in digital form and also in new print editions. I resisted for quite a while, but eventually put them up on Amazon–and discovered, to my total amazement, that people were still reading them, reviewing them, recommending them to friends. A few readers even got in touch to say they’d thought I was dead–and were glad I wasn’t. So I thought, Jeez, I’m lucky enough to have an audience for books I really enjoy writing. I’d be an idiot not to continue. As to whether the newer batch is different, that’s tough for me to say, but I like to think there’s more of a quiet confidence in the recent titles. I trust the story and I trust my characters. I don’t have to try quite as hard to be writerly.
Last question. What advice would you give to young writers or to novelists just starting out?
Just this: If you want to be a professional writer, treat it like a job. Write every day, and preferably at the same time every day. If you wait until you’re in the mood, you’re toast. Also, unless you’re a flat-out genius, you’re going to do a fair amount of sloppy, self-indulgent crap before you get down to anything good. Write that garbage out of your system. Then get over yourself, stop showing off your vocabulary, and think about the reader for a change. Give the reader someone to root for and a reason to turn the page. Don’t ask the reader to do the work you should have done yourself.