I still remember walking into Barnes & Noble one Tuesday in 2007 and finding a small, unassuming hardcover story collection called Dead Boys. I’d never heard of the author—some serious-looking cat named Richard Lange—but the dust jacket boasted enticing blurbs from the likes of Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Scott Smith, and Daniel Woodrell. All of them favorites of mine. I loved (and still love) discovering and supporting new writers, and so I purchased the book. That night, I dove in and was instantly absorbed by Lange’s precise language and his provocative vision of Los Angeles, bringing to mind the southern California that I knew all too well, having grown up near there. Most of all, it was his characters that made their mark on my mind, leaving last impressions. It would be these aspects of Lange’s fiction that carried forward into several novels and another story collection, each of them spellbinding in its own way. Recently, Lange released his first foray into supernatural fiction, Rovers, and it feels like a natural fit. I had the opportunity to interview Lange about his career and his books. Read on!
Jason Bovberg: The first thing that has always fascinated me about you is your background copy-editing for Larry Flynt, and your later editing gigs, too. I myself came up through magazine editing, both copy-editing and substantive, and it certainly informed my style and process. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how your background influenced your writing, both from the angle of working for Flynt and simply working from the perspective of a “deconstructive” editor? Was it natural to move from that realm to the creative side?
Richard Lange: I was a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications for a year, then took over as Managing Editor of the company’s startup heavy-metal fan magazine, RIP, and did that for seven years. LFP was a great training ground for an editor. Instead of being a hotbed of sleaze and depravity as I’d imagined (hoped?), it was a completely professional environment where you were expected to show up on time, sober, and ready to work. Even on the porn titles, they were sticklers for proper grammar, punctuation, and spelling. The company stylebook was an inch thick, and we followed the Chicago Manual of Style.
The writers whose stories I edited on RIP and, later, after leaving Flynt, during my decade as Managing Editor of Radio & Records, often had more enthusiasm than skill or experience, so it could be a lot of work to wrangle their scribblings into coherent prose. I got very good at cutting fat, creating solid story structures, and distilling the rambling quotes of various musicians into straightforward responses.
Meanwhile, at night I was writing my own stuff, short stories, most of which ended up in my first collection, Dead Boys, and my experience as an editor definitely helped me make those stories better. They were as tight as a drum when I sent them out, had been reworked over and over, and when they were rejected and returned to me (often many times), I reworked them again before sending them out once more.
To this day my editor and the copy editors who work on my books say they’re some of the cleanest manuscripts they’ve ever seen.
Jason Bovberg: Dead Boys was my introduction to your work. It was a case where I judged a book by its cover (and title). Loved the gritty, noirish, atmospheric but totally relevant takes on southern California, where I grew up. Later, you’d also publish Sweet Nothing, another short-story collection mapping similar geography of losers seeking redemption in the southwest. What appeals most about the short form?
Richard Lange: Short stories were my training ground. I spent ten years writing them and sending them out to literary journals. All thirteen stories I wrote during that time were published in journals, and all thirteen were in Dead Boys. My story drawer was empty after that. Dead Boys is basically me learning to write. I started writing stories again after publishing my first novel, This Wicked World, and those stories eventually became Sweet Nothing. Again the drawer was empty, and I haven’t written a story since.
My short stories are different from my novels in that they’re not really plot-based. They’re more a collection of moments that somehow fit together. I’m trying to evoke a feeling in the reader rather than “entertain” them. Often, when I’d finish a story, I’d have to go back and figure out how to tie everything together, add a sentence or paragraph here or there to give it some cohesiveness. The novels are much more structured, and it was difficult to make the transition from stories to novels. I had to learn to write all over again in a different way.
Jason Bovberg: I imagine a collection of stories is a tough sell to a publisher, so how did your initial break happen?
Richard Lange: My first agent contacted me after seeing a story in a journal. He asked if I had enough stories for a collection, and I said yes. He then said I’d also need at least the first third of a novel before he could make any kind of deal, because big publishers wouldn’t buy just a collection. I spent a year writing the beginning of a novel, but when the agent went to make the deal with it, nobody wanted that novel but still wanted the stories. I ended up pitching the vague idea for This Wicked World over the phone to different publishers and got a couple of offers for two-book deals, Dead Boys and the novel. I went with Little, Brown, then had to sit down and actually write the book. It was a scary time—I’d just failed at writing a novel—but everything worked out.
Jason Bovberg: Your progression from short stories to novels is certainly unique! I’m interested in a little elaboration on your statement “everything worked out.” Considering your first “failed” effort at a novel, what made the difference for This Wicked World? Can you describe the moment when you knew you had it nailed, and were now a novelist?
Richard Lange: The difference between the “failed” effort (actually, there was another failed novel before that, in my late-20s, before I’d written any of what would appear in Dead Boys) and This Wicked World was my acceptance of the fact that I needed a strong plot structure to pull me through writing a novel. The failed effort was a multi-character, multi-POV epic about a major earthquake in L.A. and its aftermath (my private title for it was Earthquake 2; Electric Boogaloo). I bit off more than I could chew at that stage of my development as a writer and kept getting sidetracked and losing momentum.
I never intended to be a “crime” novelist. It’s just that when it was time to do the first novel, the easiest plot structure to lay over it was “someone dies in the beginning, then we find out who did it and why.” I needed some guidance, something to pull me forward, to provide movement, and the “crime” skeleton was what I chose. I then proceeded to screw things up by revealing in the third chapter or so who the killer was, then actually writing chapters from his POV, but that initial set of plot points at least got me started.
Once I had the “murder mystery” template as a basic structure for This Wicked World, I was able to focus on things like character development, scene setting, and sentence-to-sentence rhythm. I liken it to the great automobile designer George Barris building the Munster Kart on the chassis of a couple of Model Ts: You start with something basic and layer all the special stuff, all the original stuff, on top. I knew I had nailed it as a novelist when I sent over the manuscript for Wicked World and my publisher accepted it. My experiment in structure had worked.
As for Earthquake 2: Electric Boogaloo, all that work didn’t go to waste. I used many of the characters and elements of that manuscript in the stories that became my second collection, Sweet Nothing.
Jason Bovberg: Did your editor help in the process of finishing that first novel?
Richard Lange: I’ve never gotten any editorial input while writing my books, don’t want any. Only my wife is allowed to read work in progress. When I’m done, I send the manuscript to my publisher, and they decide if they’re willing to publish it. Luckily they’ve been willing to publish all my efforts so far. My editor then sends notes on the book, which I’m free to address or not. They’re usually suggestions for minor changes, little tweaks to tighten up the book and make things clearer for the reader, and I’m happy to incorporate them and grateful for the second set of eyes.
Jason Bovberg: Was the crime fiction angle something that happened as a result of a love for that genre? Or did it come naturally out of the setting you wanted to write in? Did you find inspiration in any of the classics, any contemporaries, or was your inspiration simply Los Angeles, the southwest, and its personality/history? Both?
Richard Lange: While I’d enjoyed crime fiction before writing This Wicked World, I wasn’t a super-fan and certainly not an expert in the genre. I wrote a crime novel because the “murder mystery/investigation” template offered enough ready-made structure to keep me and readers going for an entire book while also allowing for a more literary approach. My models were Robert Stone, Richard Price, and Graham Greene. And Elmore Leonard. I owe a lot to Elmore Leonard. The story itself was inspired by a newspaper article on counterfeiting. Everything else spun off that. I didn’t have an outline. I just started writing, and it went where it went. I tried to stick to the murder mystery underpinnings, but in the end it’s the tangents that made it unique. It wouldn’t have been a successful novel without that structure, but it wouldn’t have stood out without the tangents. It’s a balancing act, for sure.
Jason Bovberg: I’m a big fan of Angel Baby, mostly for its title character and the cinematic nature of the chase narrative. You seem to really dive deep into these characters, and the book captures your favorite setting perfectly. What are your thoughts, looking back at the process of writing Angel Baby as a sophomore novel?
Richard Lange: That was a long time ago! I remember I didn’t want too much of a plot, just a basic skeleton to hang the book on, even more basic than the “murder mystery” plot of Wicked World, and settled on a chase that begins in the first chapter and ends in the last, almost in real time. I started with the character of Malone, basing him on a guy I’d read about in the Los Angeles Times, a white guy who lived in Tijuana and smuggled undocumented people across the border to fund a drug habit. As usual, I didn’t have an outline. I just dove right in and got going. The other characters were born and developed as I needed them to tell the story.
I’d been going to Tijuana all my life, so writing those bits was pretty easy. I’ve also done some backpacking along the border, visited Tecate (the motel room in the novel is basically the one we stayed in) and Imperial Beach, and made the drive up from San Diego lots of times, so I had all those locations down. I drove around Compton and Anaheim to get the lay of the land there, and I did a lot of online research for the prison stuff, finding video of the inside of La Mesa shot by a religious group.
Jason Bovberg: Angel Baby was a breakout for you. Do you have any stories/recollections about that time, when Angel Baby came out?
Richard Lange: Angel Baby got more reviews than my first novel, sold more copies, won the Hammett, and got optioned by Warner Bros., but it was by no means a best-seller, or even a medium-seller. James Patterson’s books pay for my advances. Rovers looks like it’ll sell more more copies than my other books thanks to a recent tweet from Stephen King, but again we’re not talking best-seller by a longshot. And because I haven’t sold a ton of books, I don’t get the promotional budgets of a best-selling author, although, truthfully, I’m not sure a big publicity campaign is what sells books. Seems to me that a book catching on is more like hitting a royal flush in video poker: Sometimes you just get lucky. My humble hope is that each book sells more copies than the last. And that Hollywood keeps sending option checks.
Jason Bovberg: I really enjoyed your quote at the time of Angel Baby’s debut: “I don’t call myself a crime writer. I’m more of a grime writer.”
Richard Lange: The “grime writer” quote still applies, and Rovers is proof of that. All my work to date has been focused on a certain gritty milieu, the edgy side of society, rather than on a specific genre. And, honestly, it’s because setting stories there comes easily to me. I’ve known more than a few scoundrels and wastrels in my life and spent time in places where those types congregate. That world is much more interesting to me as a writer (and as a reader, and as a person) than the straight world. You can push emotion and action to extremes when writing about extreme people and situations, you can get operatic.
Jason Bovberg: And that’s as good a segue as any to your next story collection: Sweet Nothing. This second collection of stories gives me a chance to ask you another question about your short work. Are there stories in either Dead Boys or Sweet Nothing that are especially close to your heart, or particularly representative of what really interests you? What stories might you point new readers to that capture the Essential Langeness of Richard Lange?
Richard Lange: The stories in Dead Boys are basically me teaching myself to write over the course of fifteen years. I haven’t gone back to them since the book was published, but it would be interesting to someday read them in chronological order and note the progression. The earliest story, I believe, would be “Telephone Bird.” That or “Loss Prevention.” The stories in the book are now postcards from the past. I just picked it up and looked through it, and I could still recall writing certain lines, where I was and how I felt. A lot of my day-to-day life from that time is contained in those stories. The story from that collection that got most attention was “Bank of America,” but the ones where I got closest to my definition of success are probably “The Bogo-Indian Defense,” “Blind-Made Products,” and “Long Lost.”
When Dead Boys was published, it contained every story I’d written and published to that point. There was nothing left in the drawer. I went back to writing stories and sending them out after publishing my first novel. The challenge I set myself was to write from other points of view than the straight white disaffected males that dominated Dead Boys. I worked on those stories over the course of five or six years, while also writing Angel Baby and The Smack. These stories became Sweet Nothing, and again, when I published that one, the drawer was empty. My favorites in that book, the ones that capture best what I was trying to do, are “Must Come Down,” “Baby Killer,” and “To Ashes.”
Jason Bovberg: Do you ever see yourself returning to short fiction?
Richard Lange: I don’t know that I’ll ever write stories again. It was tough getting my publisher to accept the second collection. They want novels, because novels have a chance of making money. I make my living writing, so I need to write things that have a chance of selling. Meaning novels.
Truth is, I haven’t written a short story in years. Haven’t felt the need. People say they love my stories, but they don’t buy the collections. If I did go back to stories, it would be a labor of love, and I need to shore up my bank account before taking on any more labors of love. Maybe if I hit the jackpot and don’t need to worry about paying the mortgage I’ll do more stories. I’d certainly like to be in that position.
Jason Bovberg: On to The Smack! This book made quite a splash. I really enjoyed the story, which I gather was taken from the headlines at the time. What did you take away from the publication experience on that book?
Richard Lange: The Smack did very well. It got lots of great reviews, it attracted a lot of new readers, and it brought back people who didn’t buy Sweet Nothing. I like to remember each book for something that happened to it that didn’t happen to any of the others, and in the case of The Smack, I’ll always remember it as my first book translated into Spanish. That made me happy because I taught English in Spain for a while and speak a little Spanish myself. Everything new that happens is a step forward, and the goal is to keep moving forward.
Jason Bovberg: Something you said in an interview at the time really resonated with me: “Even the villains in my stories are treated as fully rounded characters. You may not like them, but at least you will see where they are coming from and why they do what they do. I’m all about empathy. There’s too little of it around these days.” I’ve been saying something very similar about my own recent book, because it seems empathy is in even shorter supply after the past five years. Convincing the audience to empathize with “unsympathetic” characters is definitely a facet of your fiction. Was that a driving force for you with The Smack, and is it for your writing as a whole?
Richard Lange: I don’t necessarily set out to induce sympathy or empathy. Empathy arises naturally if you fill your stories with well-rounded characters and not cardboard heroes and villains. My work is populated by people you probably wouldn’t want to know in real life, so I’ve got to find ways to get readers to relate to and maybe even root for some them. To do that, you’ve got to give glimpses of a whole person. Maybe have your villain sit down to a big breakfast of pancakes. The guy is starving, and these are the best pancakes he’s ever eaten. Have him rhapsodize for a couple sentences, internally or through dialog, about how great these pancakes are, how they remind him of his grandma’s pancakes or something, something that humanizes him. I mean, we all love good pancakes, right? Right there you’ve brought the reader closer to someone they know they’re supposed to hate. It’s fun to fuck with perceptions.
Jason Bovberg: Speaking of “fucking with perceptions,” Rovers is that book—your first foray into supernatural fiction! There are plenty of interviews you’ve done about your inspirations for Rovers, from Dracula to Near Dark, but I’m curious about the jump to supernatural in the first place. As successful as Rovers has been for you already, was there any initial wariness about moving to a new genre? Or did you have confidence from the start?
Richard Lange: I was a little nervous about venturing into supernatural territory, but I’ve always been willing to take chances like that. I had never written any horror fiction, or even read much, when I started Rovers, but I also hadn’t written or read much “crime” fiction when I wrote This Wicked World, Angel Baby, and The Smack. Those books turned out okay, so vampire bikers in the desert? Why not? If you’re a good storyteller, you can probably get away with anything. That said, I don’t think I’ll be diving into hard sci-fi anytime soon.
Jason Bovberg: Does the success of Rovers mean you’ll write more in the horror genre, perhaps even in the same universe as this book? (In other words, what’s next?)
Richard Lange: I’m almost finished with the next book, and it’s neither horror nor crime. It’s more like one of my short stories carried to novel length. I’m still not exactly sure how it’s going to come together, but I’m plugging away. As for more supernatural stuff, I do have a few ideas in that realm. I also have some ideas for more stories set in the world of Rovers, but I’m saving them right now for the possible TV series.
If that doesn’t go, maybe I’ll turn them into some sort of book somewhere down the road. Never say never.
Jason Bovberg: Thanks, Richard, for taking part in this interview! I also want to point readers to your excellent photographic work by providing a few samples below.