Richard Lange‘s last book THIS WICKED WORLD hit in 2009, and his collection DEAD BOYS was before that, meaning: you may have heard of him already. I hope you have. If you haven’t already heard of him and gotten on board, fear not: now is your time. Lange’s new book ANGEL BABY has just been released, and I shit you not, dear reader: this is among the year’s very best books (which is saying a good bit, given that this year’s already had great stuff from Brian Kimberling and Jean Thompson and Bob Hicok and Jess Walter and Susan Steinberg and Holly Goddard Jones and there’s still stuff coming from Lindsay Hunter and Laura van den Berg and Paul Yoon and Alissa Nutting and the great Pelecanos and Robert Boswell and etc. etc. etc.). ANGEL BABY could real easily be pegged as a nice, pulpy beach read, a fizzy thing one gives to fathers to knock off their one-a-year book quota, but Lange’s latest is larger than the genre it’ll be tried to fit into. It’s a crime book, certainly, but you should approach this book the same as you would a Richard Price novel: crime’s there, but the world of the book is the size of the very world.
ANGEL BABY is one long chase: in the first few pages, Luz—a drug kingpin’s wife—makes a bloody escape from the life she’s been trapped within, and fleeing sets all other pieces in motion: folks are hunting her, folks are helping her, and all the characters swirl in a Tijuana-to-Cali cast that’s got as much breadth and flesh and blood among them as you could hope for in a book (for real: there’s a character who shows up for all of like maybe 5 pages—he’s loaning a car to one of the main characters—and there’s a moment that exposes precisely, perfectly who he is, and the moment’s devastating, and you’ll understand when you read it). Anyway, plenty: this is the book to be reading, people. I’ve got a free copy of the book to give away, so email me (wlcutter[at]hotmaildotcom) by Wednesday 5/29 and I’ll pick a winner thereafter (US addresses only).
And now: here’s an email interview conducted with Richard a week or so back. For real: put ANGEL BABY on whatever list it is you keep.
This might be a stupid question, but here goes: do you feel any sense of *anything* re genres—any sense of responsibility, or where you’d fall on a theoretical map, or whatever? My friends and I got into DEAD BOYS and read it as literary fiction. Sure, it was pulpy and dark, but ultimately it was offering the sort of sentence-level glories of lit fiction. I fear I’m dancing around it. Here: there’s Lahane and Price and maybe five other guys (they’re all guys, that I can tell) who write genre stuff that’s also considered ‘literary.’ Not that many. I’ve wondered lots about it. It seems the two—dark/crime/genre and literary—are antagonistic, to a degree. Does it feel that way, to you, from inside? How do you square that stuff? Is it something you’ve thought of, at all, ever?
I don’t put myself into any category as a writer, I just write. “Crime” “Literary crime,” and “neo-noir” are the terms most often used to describe the books, even Dead Boys, which has very little actual “crime” in it. I’m more about character, milieu, and language than plot. That said, however, I prefer novels with plot, or at least plenty of incident, something to pull me along. I never planned to write novels, so when I had to write This Wicked World in order to get a two-book deal with Dead Boys, I was nervous about writing long. I decided to take a structure I was familiar with, the murder mystery, and use that as a template to write about the people, places, and situations I was interested in. I was trying to make things easier on myself, and I figured that by having certain milestones imposed on me by the plot structure, I’d be reminded to keep moving along and have a road map to lead me through the writing of the book.
With my second novel, Angel Baby, I wanted a less-convoluted plot, something more basic, and I hit upon the idea of a chase. Once again, I was looking for something that would pull me and the reader through the book while allowing me to write about the characters I’d created and giving me some interesting and exciting situations to put them into. This Wicked World, yeah, I can see why they called it a crime book. It has the bones of one. But Angel Baby? I don’t know. What exactly is the crime in that one? To me, it’s a study of five desperate people going to desperate lengths to get what they want. I wanted to write about Tijuana. I wanted to write about La Mesa Prison. I wanted to write about Compton and Tecate and Luz and Malone.
Critics and editors and publicists can call the books whatever they want. It’s their job to shorthand stuff. I get the luxury of putting no labels on what I do. And if calling me a crime writer sells more copies, I’m all for it. If I can write what I want and actually sell books, that’s great!
What was the learning curve like between THIS WICKED WORLD and ANGEL BABY? I don’t want to venture too much—I liked the former well enough—but there feels like…there feels some massive, massive power unleashed in ANGEL BABY that I at least didn’t find as easily in THIS WICKED WORLD. Did it feel that way from inside of the writing as well? Was this novel easier than its predecessor?
With This Wicked World, I was feeling my way through the process as I wrote it, learning as I went along. I found myself wrestling with plot a lot, and vowed that this time, on Angel Baby, I’d simplify that aspect in order to concentrate more on the things I mentioned before, character, setting, and language. Perhaps that’s what you’re responding to. I also spent a year writing stories between the two novels, and I always learn a few new narrative and stylistic tricks from working shorter. Angel Baby wasn’t easier to write than This Wicked World, but I had more confidence in my ability as a writer and a real determination to assert more control over the tone of what I was writing.
More about this novel, as well: how long did it take to write? And how did it get its start—was it Luz, was it the actual opening of the book, with her making her get-away?
Angel Baby took a year and a half to write. This Wicked World took two years. The first thing I came up with for Angel Baby was the character of Malone. I read a story in the L.A. Times a number of years ago about a white American burnout who was driving illegals across the border for a Mexican pollero, and that stuck with me. Luz and the other characters came along later, as I started sketching out the story in my head. When I settled on a chase as the structure, Luz moved to the forefront and took over.
And this might be a silly, too-noodly question, but I’m real, real interested: how much did you know, and when did you know it, on writing through ANGEL BABY? I don’t want to give stuff away to readers who haven’t gotten through the thing yet, but I want to specifically ask about the characters who die in this story. How far into the book did you get before you realized who wouldn’t make it to book’s end? And (I apologize if this gets too nerdy or whatever) how do you decide who dies? It seems like a tremendously tough decision; part of me is frustrated that one of the characters who died in this book did, simply because his was a heartbreaking story that simply kept getting worse. It seems like a sort of moral calculus, and I can’t even imagine what goes on in that character-based number crunching, and any light you’d like to cast on that process would be deeply welcomed.
That character you’re talking about was set to die from the very start. He was doomed. Another character was also supposed to die, but got a reprieve as the book developed. When people used to ask what I was working on, I’d say I was writing the saddest novel ever written. Some readers bitched about the “happy” ending of This Wicked World, and maybe I was reacting to that. By the time I got about halfway through Angel Baby, though, I’d decided that it wasn’t going to be the saddest novel ever written, just a very sad one. So, in answer to your question, the story ended up dictating who lived and died. The book wouldn’t have worked like it does if I’d stuck to my original plan, and I was on the ball enough to see where things were going and adjust my course.
How is your stuff California literature, or does that even matter? It obviously is (CA lit), again and again, if for nothing other than the fact that it’s all set there, but is there something *Californian* about your stories, your characters, the stuff that goes down? I truly don’t know (and wouldn’t be able to hazard a guess, given that the CA spectrum includes TCBoyle, Sal Plascencia, Aimee Bender, etc.), but I’m curious if you’ve got any considerations on this (for the record: I’m from Minnesota, and I’m clueless about what midwest writing is, but a week doesn’t pass that I don’t wonder about what it is, or what it includes or is like).
I’m a California writer because I’ve lived here all my life and because I set my stories here, but I’ve never set out to write “California” stories. I like to have certain amount of “truth” when it comes to milieu, so I write about places I’m familiar with. That means Southern California, specifically. So, of course, my books will have beaches in them and Hollywood and the desert and glimpses of the various groups who have moved here seeking better lives (Latinos, Asians, Armenians, Midwestern beauty queens). Also, there’s this interesting mixture of hopefulness and bitter disappointment that fills the air in L.A., a byproduct of the dreamers of all stripes who make their way here. And that leads to a certain desperateness that shows up in my work in a lot of different ways. Like, “If I can’t make it here, what the fuck is wrong with me?” Southern California is the end of the known world for a lot of people, their last stand, and that makes it a great place to write about.
Do you have a preference between stories and novels? In an interview, you mentioned that after THIS WICKED WORLD you’d planned to go back to stories next, but now here we are, 4 years later, with another novel instead (though you’re publishing stories still, of course, in big literary journals, and getting in Best Mystery Writing, and etc.). I guess the question is: how much do you plan regarding what comes next for you, writing-wise?
As I mentioned earlier, after This Wicked World I went back to stories for a year, using my Guggenheim money to support myself. When that started running out, I decided it was time to begin another novel, because I might actually have a chance of selling a novel, whereas the stories weren’t making me a dime. As soon as I finished Angel Baby and got a check for it, I went back to stories and finished a new collection that’s about to go out to publishers. I’ve started another novel, and there will be another one after that. So, yeah, I do have a vague plan. A couple of years ago I would have told you that I prefer writing stories to writing novels because of the freedom the story form allows – no plots to contend with, no “connective tissue” to try to make interesting for the reader and myself, no months and months of slogging with no end in sight. As I neared the end of this collection, though, I found myself looking forward to beginning a new novel. I craved structure. So maybe I’m evolving, I don’t know. There’s also the career consideration. I write for a living, and you can’t make a living writing short stories.
Are there contemporaries of yours, or folks you’re reading at present, who blow your mind? I guess this is a fan-ish question along the lines of: I like your stuff a whole lot, and can find some aspects of your work in other places, but I’d love to know what you read, would love to trace through your own list of what you like.
My reading is all over the place. There’s always a classic. The last one was Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, and currently it’s The Odyssey. I’m also reading Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, whose Jesus’ Son changed my writing life, and I’m about to finish Long, Last, Happy, the Barry Hannah collection. There’s also Book 1 of Shelby Foote’s Civil War history and a Vietnam guidebook for an upcoming trip. I also read the L.A. Times from cover to cover every day. I just finished Jerry Stahl’s new one, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, which will be out in November, and George Pelecanos’ The Double, which is out in October. Both were excellent. The last book that really knocked me on my ass was 2666 by Roberto Bolano. I pooh-poohed him as a flavor-of-the-month until my girlfriend forced me to pick it up. It’s one of those books where the author has to teach you to read it (Absalom, Absalom comes to mind), so it takes a little time to get into, but if you stick with it, the rewards are immense and lasting. You feel like a gnat as a writer when you finish something like that. But in a good way.