It’s been a while for me. Fiction hasn’t been moving me much lately. And even my love of short stories had let me down. Nothing was exciting me.
Until I read Richard Lange’s Dead Boys: Stories. This wonderous literary collection has enough tint of noir to be thrilling and the author’s voice is undeniable. Full of hard-scrabble men, struggling to survive, to make sense of their existence, and often caught in seedy situation, the characters are memorable and likeable, even when breaking the law. The book has garnered rave reviews in outlets such as The New York Times, Time Out New York, and many others. And every single one of those compliments is deserved.
The best compliment I can pay to this collection is that I closed the cover, thought about what a tremendous amount of work I had to do on my own writing, and went to the desk. Richard Lange’s Dead Boys is inspirational in reminding you what short fiction can accomplish. And his personal work ethic and dedication to the craft is an example of hard work and determination that we can all follow. Lange was kind enough to talk to me about music, getting blurbs from literary legends, and his workman-like writing habits.
Slushpile: Let’s start with the usual biographical questions. Where did you grow up?
Lange: I’m a California native. I was born in Oakland and lived in Stockton (Fat City), Lamont (a small town outside Bakersfield, between Arvin and Weedpatch. Really.) and Los Osos (on the Central Coast, part of the Redneck Riviera). I moved to L.A. at 17 to attend film school at USC and have lived here pretty much ever since.
Slushpile: What was your earliest literary love? What book do you remember really grabbing hold of you and not letting go?
Lange: Probably 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. That and Marvel Comics. I used to scrounge Coke bottles to return for deposit in order to get money to buy comics. They were like crack for me.
Slushpile: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you grew up listening to Hank Williams and that you learned a great deal from music. Did Hank specifically influence your writing at all?
Lange: I grew up outside Bakersfield, so Hank Williams and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash were on the radio a lot around the house. I’m sure some of the loneliness, regret and fatalism that used to be a big part of country music seeped deep into my brain.
Slushpile: Any other musical influences?
Lange: I’m a big fan of all kinds of music. Some early favorites were Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon. Later, punk rock definitely twisted my aesthetic, specifically the Los Angeles school of it.
Slushpile: You eventually worked at RIP Magazine. How did that gig come about?
Lange: I had graduated college and was working in a bookstore. A friend of mine worked for Larry Flynt and got me an interview for a copy-editor position. I was hired and did that for about a year, and then the company started a heavy metal magazine called RIP. The editor liked me, so I came on as managing editor on the very first issue and worked on it for seven years, until Nirvana came along and killed metal. I was never a big fan of the genre, but the job was a lot of fun.
Slushpile: I’ve always wondered about music writers… If you’re writing about heavy metal do you try to write in some way that mimics or alludes to metal? I mean, would you take use a different tone and style for a blues article as opposed a satanic death metal article as opposed to a jazz article? Can the writing somehow be in the same vein as the musical genre being examined?
Lange: I wouldn’t know. I’ve always avoided writing jobs and served strictly as an editor. In my whole time at RIP I wrote maybe three reviews. I wanted to save my energy for my own work.
Slushpile: You’ve said you started writing short stories as a result of your admiration for Raymond Carver. What was the first story you completed where you felt like, “Okay, I got it.” Which story do you recall was your first sort of milestone?
Lange: Telephone Bird. That’s where everything finally came together for me stylistically and voice-wise. Loss Prevention was my first published story, but Telephone Bird was written before that one, and every story I wrote after it was published somewhere, so I have to consider it to be some kind of turning point.
Slushpile: Tell us about writing the stories that comprise your debut collection Dead Boys. How long did you work on these pieces? How did the writing process unfold for these stories?
Lange: The stories in Dead Boys were written over a period of about eight or nine years. The shorter ones took about six months to write, the longer ones nine or ten. I wrote at night, after my day job. Every time one of the stories was rejected, I’d go at it again and try to make it better. Some of these stories were rejected ten or fifteen times, which is probably why they are so tight now. On short stories, I tend to edit as I go, not moving on until everything is just the way I want it. That way, when I get to the end, I’m finished.
Slushpile: You’ve written about your steady, dedicated approach to writing short stories, in addition to maintaining a day job. “I worked two hours a night, four nights a week, distilling all the wild, tragic and funny things I’d seen, experienced and heard about into stories that cut so close to the bone that sometimes they scared me.” That’s a lot like Larry Brown’s advice to young writers to just “sit your ass in the chair” and do the work. But many aspiring authors get discouraged and give up. What kept you going? What kept you so dedicated?
Lange: Writing is what I do. I don’t know how else to put it. I didn’t get my first story published until I was 33 years old, but there was never any chance that I would quit. Of course, I always dreamed of being published and wrote with that goal in mind, but if I hadn’t been published, I’d still be writing.
Slushpile: Some critics have noted that the characters in Dead Boys are very articulate. For such a rough and tumble crowd, how did you decide to use such self-aware, articulate narrators? It’s certainly a change of pace from Carver, for example, where so many characters struggle to express themselves.
Lange: I like to think that everybody’s inner voice is a poetic one, and that’s what I wanted to re-create in these stories. These characters deserve to have their say as much as anybody else.
Slushpile: Many observers have commented on the noir aspect of your stories. But what I really enjoyed was that they aren’t too noir. Certainly, there are often criminal activities and seedy situations. But I didn’t think that many of the narrators were that different than “normal” people. They’re not criminal masterminds or cold-blooded killers. How did you balance the criminal elements with mundane, normal, day-to-day lives?
Lange: The situations the characters find themselves in may be somewhat extreme, and I often used “noir” constructs and language to heighten the tension, but I also kept in mind that these guys are just like everybody else, trying to figure out where they fit it in and what it all means. When you get right down to it, the big questions are the same for everyone.
Slushpile: Dead Boys features some pretty impressive blurbs from writers such as Daniel Woodrell, Chris Offutt, and T.C. Boyle. And those blurbs refer to Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and Tobias Wolff. Tell us what it’s like to have a book being published, to be waiting for blurbs, and then to see these amazing comments start rolling in.
Lange: I couldn’t believe that writers I admired would take time out of their busy lives to read my book and comment on it. It was such an honor, one of the greatest things about being published. In the space of a few weeks, I went from having no writers as friends to having a ton of them that I owe huge favors to.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Lange: Don’t waste your time noodling. Sit down and work on actual stories. That’s the only way you’re going to learn how to do it. I don’t feel that blog or journal entries count as real writing time if what you want to do is write fiction.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Lange: If you really want to be published, find a way to make your voice relatable to the reader. That doesn’t mean selling out, it means becoming so skillful technically that your work is undeniable. When you do that, all the people who have rejected you all along will be forced to deal with you.
For more information about Richard Lange’s work, check out his website.