10 Questions with R. P. Lester
One evening, between gentlemanly conversations about the news of the day (arguing about comic book movies), Thuglit editor and bartender extraordinaire Todd Robinson showed me a book he had recently acquired. The opening line: "Let me tell you who the fuck I am."
The thing clearly had verve—as well as a gun, a hypodermic needle, and a goat on the cover. It went on my Books I Should At Some Point Read list.
Fast-forward a few months and I'm at Bouchercon in Long Beach, California, hanging out with Todd and the other cool kids, up to all sorts of shenanigans (arguing about comic book movies), and this guy wanders up. Big, mean lookin' dude—the kind you'd want on your side in a bar fight. And if he was on the opposing side, you would sit that round out.
And he's holding the book with the goat. Turns out, this mean lookin' dude is R.P. Lester, and he's nice as can be. We chat a bit and he gives me a copy. I'm glad our paths crossed. The book is a trip.
The Life and Times of Innis E. Coxman is the non-linear tale of an awkward kid turning to a life of crime, and it has a voice so strong and immediate it practically digs a thumb into your eye-socket. It's brutal and dirty and gut-laugh funny. The tone is like Ron Burgundy telling tales of his exploits after a long stretch in the joint for manufacturing meth.
Given that, I figured Lester would make for a good interview. If for nothing else than to find out how many of the stories in the book are true...
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
I wrote my first story when I was eleven years old. At least, that’s the first story I vividly remember crafting. I was such a caged talent that the introductory sentence killed an hour of my youth. The damn thing still doesn’t have a title. It was about a Frenchman named Pierre who took a boring walk through a stagnant park where all the people were kind to one another and not a goddamn thing of interest took place. When it was done, I showed it to my mother, an English teacher with over twenty years in the classroom. And, boy, did she lay it on thick; the only reason the story never made it to a billboard was because she operated on a teacher’s pay. I knew it was a masterpiece, of course, but she made it out to be a magnum opus akin to Green Eggs and Ham.
Regarding its whereabouts, alas, no shit has been given. Considering this was over twenty-five years ago, that story’s probably pushing up a landfill outside New Orleans.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
Well, that would be when I sold my first eBook, I think, though I didn’t really celebrate that so much as I did the book’s publication: My girlfriend and I went to Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin. I’d always wanted to go, we had the opportunity, and I don’t regret one second or Euro spent in any country.
Paris was exactly what I expected. It was noisy, dirty, fast-paced, and I loved every minute of it. We hit the usual sights and landmarks, but for me, the highlight was visiting Shakespeare and Company, a required pilgrimage for any author or avid reader.
It was such a treat to walk the nooks and crannies of that place, surrounded by more stories than I could conjure in a hundred lifetimes. I heard the ghosts of literary minds bitching and laughing with one another. I looked at the aisles of work all cloistered together, smelled the dust and looked at the fingerprints on book covers, wondering who they belonged to. When I passed the funky little writer’s hutch, I could just about hear a man clacking away at the typewriter, driving himself mad and loving it. Looking out over the Seine from upstairs, I thought of all the history enveloping me. And I inhaled the June breeze, knowing that I was someplace very special, indeed.
Berlin was mediocre. I don’t need to see it again. It’s a beautiful city and the people were great, but it’s never held the same fascination for me as Paris or Amsterdam. We mainly stuck to food and shopping. One thing we did was travel to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing between East and West Berlin. And, of course, I had to sample the beer.
(Perhaps “sample” is a generous term. My girlfriend took me to a Bavarian beer garden where I did my damnedest to drink the remainder of their stock. I was so hammered I smoked twenty-five cigarettes in ten hours, half of which were out of our third-story window where we most definitely were forbidden from doing that shit, clad in nothing but socks and a raggedy-ass pair of drawers as I heckled people on the street. My girl feared for my freedom; I feared running out of cigarettes. Thing is, I don’t even smoke anymore. The beer is that fuckin’ good.)
Amsterdam is private. Because no matter what they say about Vegas –
What happens in The Dam, stays in The Dam.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full… How do you write?
For my first book, there really wasn’t much of a process at all. It was simply a matter of blending fiction with the truth. I had no clue that that “technique” would be my Achilles heel for a bit.
I was having a rough time beginning my second book. I was lost and don’t mind admitting that now. That period lasted longer than I care to say. Then, I had a peculiar idea: Make an outline. It’s a practice that’s drilled into our heads in school, but some authors stray from it when they’re out on their own. Hey, whatever works. For me, though, this book is all the better for it, and I’m adopting that habit for novels in the future.
I don’t write outside or at coffee shops. Not my thing. I’m lucky in that I own a comfortable desk chair which doubles as a bed if you have a foot stool. Occasionally, though, I like to flop on the couch with the laptop. Regardless, there’s going to be some type of jazz on YouTube, preferably Coltrane or Miles. Bitches Brew, maybe. Nothing with lyrics, though.
As for environment, I prefer to write at night with a single lamp and vodka doubles. My life, however, dictates that I work during the day with Community Coffee Dark Roast.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a writer?
It’d take a CPA to recount them all, but thus far, the biggest was wasting so much energy on marketing and promotion. I knew the book wouldn’t magically sell itself, and I thought I had to spend every waking minute spreading the gospel. My output suffered so badly it didn’t matter if it sold or sank like a stone.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me with that last statement. I’m not that pretentious asshole who’s going to sit here and say he doesn’t care about sales. I do like everyone else. But if I wanted to be a Koch brother, I wouldn’t be doing this. Output and quality are what’s most important, and I won’t make that mistake ever again.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
Some years ago, there was a commercial for the United States Navy in which the narrator asks, “If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone wanna read it?” In December of 2012, I decided to see how the world would answer.
The Life and Times of Innis E. Coxman is a fictional memoir, if I may use the term. It’s my life as told through the eyes of a jaded but cautiously optimistic malcontent. Even though I bill it as a work of fiction and rightfully so, every story in there is based on things that have happened in my time thus far. Save for name and scene changes, some stories occurred exactly as written. Others are rooted in things I’ve done or seen. Despite a handful of these tales being filled with obvious mounds of horseshit, each one contains a slice of truth, at the bare minimum.
So, what kind of catharsis did I achieve? I discovered that, armed with profanity and a middle finger, I could garner a sense of release from the anger and guilt that’d plagued me for years.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Easy: Henry Chinaski, Charles Bukowski’s beloved alter-ego.
I’ve felt a kinship with Bukowski ever since I discovered his work. I remember it well, too. I was in a local chain bookstore when Ham on Rye caught my attention. As I stood in the aisle and read a page, I knew I’d found an author like I’d never seen. Next came Post Office, and I was a stone cold Buk junkie, man, especially when it came to stories of Henry Chinaski. He was into drinking, women, gambling – three avenues of depravity that’d held my interest for an outstanding portion of my life. A celebration of vice, if you will. What appealed to me most was the fact that, no matter what his troubles, he continued to write.
Say Hank has to sleep on a park bench tonight; he probably wrote a story on a pizza box before doing so. You’ve got to admire that kind of balls in a person.
Taking a picture at Buk’s resting place in San Pedro with Tom Pitts during Bouchercon was the peak of my trip to California. Just had to throw that out there.
Where do you buy your books?
Amazon is the no-brainer. They’re, what, the largest book retailer in the world? And that’s cool. They’ve had many items that weren’t available anywhere else, internet or otherwise. But you’d be surprised at the new-but-mostly-used bookstores here in Austin. If you peruse their stacks, you’ll find they have buried treasures of their own.
I’ll seek out bookstores when I travel, as well. Europe, in particular, produced a number of great finds. I know people who’ve had luck at donation sites, though I’ve never been one of them. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter. I’ll buy a book from anywhere if it looks good enough.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
I suck back forties until I’m slobber-crying in the fetal position.
At the risk of sounding aloof, I don’t think about them much, though it all depends on the circumstance. As with anything else in life, I consider the source and whether it’s an intelligible, lucid judgment. Should the review point out flaws or ways I can improve my contribution to the craft, I’m all eyes and ears, man. If it sounds like cousin Cletus pontificating over the texture of his bean dip, they better try again.
What’s the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Well, I’m not sure if this falls under the “advice” category, but one thing I’ve read more than a few times that genuinely sends me over the edge is some rich, entitled douchebag saying that you shouldn’t write without an education, be it an MFA, English degree, etc. Whomever you are, I’d like for you to seriously ponder that statement and what it means. Now, imagine all the great stories we would’ve missed out on if it was actually applied…
As the son of college graduates, I unwaveringly believe that an education is important to one’s development and personal growth – despite not having a degree, myself – but to imply that a person shouldn’t write without the benefit of an education is pompous and ludicrous. If one keeps reading, learning, and refining their raw talent, they can fuckin’ write.
Why did you self-publish, and how has the experience been? Would you do it again?
I self-published primarily because I knew the book didn’t fit into any specific category. There’s crime, drug use, smartass, alcoholism, guns, domestic violence, laughter, death, a horny mountain goat verging on madness… It spans more genres than most publishers would be willing to support. My feeble attempts to find an agent proved me correct. In the end, it came down to working on my own terms. I hired two editors, one of which owns a publishing house – a little thing called Broken River Books up in Oregon – and the other who runs an editing service here in ATX. After loads of research, I found a designer in the U. K. who produced an outstanding cover. Once formatting was completed, I hit the button. (I have since been informed by vets of the industry that it was the right decision. Many have said they loved the book, but that I would’ve played hell securing a deal.)
For the most part, the experience has been wonderful. Due to my loathing in facets of business, maybe sales aren’t what I’d like – I’ve given away so many more books than I’ve sold – but I’ve gotten to meet and/or establish a rapport with many of my favorite authors. Their lessons and guidance have been invaluable to me. As for self-pubbing in the future…?
Presently, I split my time between writing and scouring the earth for an agent.
To leave a comment