'The Smack,' A Conversation with Richard Lange

07/18/2017 07:39 am ET

Richard Lange is the author of the novels This Wicked World and the Hammett Prize-winning Angel Baby.

He joins the company of other authors such as Raymond Carver, Richard Price, Elmore Leonard and Don Winslow as being viewed as a "writer's writer."

The Smack is the story of Rowan Petty, a con artist down on his luck who goes after the score of a lifetime. But things take a bad turn and everyone in Rowan Petty’s life runs the risk of ending up as collateral damage.

“The Smack” portrays Rowan Petty, a con man, as a likable character. Did you have that idea in mind while writing the novel?

I create a character who seems unlikable on the surface, and my challenge is to get readers to develop an understanding of his motivations, and in the process discover the character is much more like themselves than they're comfortable acknowledging.

Rowan is a complicated man. Talk to us about character development and about your characters evolving through the course of your novels.

I think that must happen in a novel.

I started out as a short story writer. In a short story, the characters can remain fairly static. It’s really more about capturing one moment in someone’s life rather than portraying the character over an extended period of time.

The novels I enjoy reading and those I write involve character progression. I think part of what drives a novel’s narrative is following a character and seeing how he or she reacts and changes. In The Smack, Rowan Petty makes some significant changes and gets in touch with a past he’s shoved aside. Circumstances force him to confront a softer side of himself than what his work life entails.

What about con men and grifters seems to attract so many of us?

I recently read The Confidence Man by Herman Melville, written in the 1840s. In America, there’s always been a fascination with con men and their games whether with the early stock market, or horse racing scams as depicted in “The Sting.” Most of the cons these days are Internet-based, and I think what fascinates people is the notion of getting something for less than its real value. The mark is somewhat complicit in getting conned. I read somewhere that what’s great about Americans is they’re not so cynical—they still have hopefulness and optimism—so they can be conned.

People are fascinated by the psychology of getting something over on someone else. I enjoy reading about the psychological manipulation used to con people and the mechanics of con games—how they’re pulled off. In today’s political environment, the issue of truth versus a bill of goods is more relevant than ever before.

You’ve been called a literary writer and a crime writer. Will you talk about that?

I don’t care what they call me, so long as they don’t call me late for dinner.

It’s marketing strategy. Now, the crime genre has evolved into ‘literary crime.’ I think those tags exist to sell books. When I sit down to write, I just think of writing the best novel I can. My interests tend to run toward the darker ends of society involving criminals, drug dealers and prostitutes. I think the literary tag came from my books of short stories which were more ‘literary’ in style—more like the accepted grad school definition of ‘literary.’

The main reason I got into writing crime novels is that my agent told me, ‘I cannot sell a book of literary short stories. I need you to sit down and write a novel.’ I was working a day job at the time and writing short stories for literary magazines. It was all very daunting to me.

I needed a structure in which to write a longer and more complex piece. I knew the structure of a ‘whodunnit’ and felt that would give me the signposts I needed to string together a narrative to place character, setting, and dialogue. I’m not very interested in plot and don’t feel I’m very good at plotting out a novel, but plot is a necessary device in a novel.

My model for writing is Elmore Leonard. I move the characters through various machinations toward a goal. I feel more comfortable not sticking rigidly to the ‘whodunnit’ model.

Speaking of plot, do you plot your novels in advance or let them evolve as the story unfolds?

I’m not a plotter, but I usually know what I think is going to happen, although sometimes the ending can change a couple of times. For instance, I might base a story loosely on something in reality, but as I’m hammering away writing the novel, I’ll reach a point where I can’t figure out the storyline’s direction. I make discoveries about the character which demand I go back and redo parts of the story; or require I come up with an entirely different and unexpected ending from the one I had anticipated.

Is there anything about your writing process that might surprise our readers?

It’s a day to day grind. It might surprise people that I write longhand with a pencil. I write in a notebook and then transfer the first draft to a second notebook where it’s edited. I get another pass at editing when I finally put the manuscript into the computer. After that, it’s pretty clean. Trouble is, it’s hard to find a good pencil sharpener these days. [Laughter].

I worked for twenty-five years as a magazine editor where I learned discipline. My first book was published when I was forty-five, and when I eventually became a full-time writer and gave up my nine-to-five job, it was initially scary to start writing as a profession. I didn’t have a schedule, which I found daunting, but my work habits from the past guided me as a writer.

What do you love about the writing life?

I love not having to commute to work every day and that I’m working for myself. But, that’s been both a good thing and a bad thing: I’m the owner of the factory as well as the laborer in the factory. If I want to take a day off, the owner says, ‘Get to work.’ [Laughter].

Will you complete this sentence? Writing novels has taught me___________.

It’s taught me the importance of structure in writing.

I’m self-taught, having never gone to workshops or writing groups. When I was writing short stories, structure didn’t play a major role, but it's critical to a well-written novel.

What I’ve learned from novel writing has made me a better writer in all spheres…short stories and screenplays.

What’s coming next from Richard Lange?

Like every other novelist in the U.S., I’m writing a TV pilot. Mine is about a crime family in Bakersfield, California. I’m sure there will also be another novel.

Congratulations on writing “The Smack,” a lyrical novel with memorable characters doing their best to struggle through an unpredictable and indifferent world.

Mark Rubinstein’s latest book is “Beyond Bedlam’s Door: True Tales from the Couch and Courtroom,” a medical/psychiatric memoir.

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