Richard Lange is the author of the short story collection Dead Boys. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle called Dead Boys “one of the best short story collections of the past 50 years.” (Read my review of the book here.) The author graciously agreed to answer our burning questions. Read Part 1 (of 2) of our interview with Richard Lange below.
BGB: WikiPedia says that one of your early jobs was as a copy editor for Larry Flynt Publications. What was that experience like and how did it inform your fiction writing?
Richard Lange: It was the best job I ever had. Flynt is one of only a few publishing companies in L.A., and the people who worked there were smart, cynical and absolutely hilarious. Many good writers passed through those halls and went on to do great things in the “straight” world. Technically, it was a super place to learn copy-editing. The style book was exhaustive, and all of the editors were sticklers for accuracy and proper grammar, even on the adult titles. And what other style book has 100 different ways to refer to the penis?
I was a copy editor on a variety of publications for a year or so, then became managing editor of RIP, a heavy-metal music magazine the company put out. The editing chops I picked up there have definitely made my fiction better. I learned all the mistakes to watch out for. You can’t be a good writer without being a good editor.
BGB: Dead Boys is an incredibly cohesive collection of short stories. Did you intend for the collection to revolve tightly around a few central themes or did these stories evolve organically over time that just happened to have similar thematic elements?
RL: I’d like to say that I had some sort of overarching vision for the collection, but that would be a lie. Other people are much better at spotting that stuff than I am. It was actually quite interesting to read the stories one after the other for the first time and to discover the connections between them. Regret seems to be a big theme here, the difficulties of familial relationships, and there’s also a kind of yearning that whistles through a lot of the stories.
BGB: Many of the stories in Dead Boys focus on down-on-their-luck types that have fallen through the cracks of society. What made the collection compelling for me was that these characters seemed to have arrived at their current condition through a tough break (or two). The implication seems to be that these circumstances could happen to any of us. The stories are also somehow optimistic, i.e. their situations may not be entirely hopeless – with the right luck, things might turn around for many of these characters. In your writing, how do you find that fine line between the “down on their luck” and the irredeemable?
RL: I’ve often been one paycheck or one wrong turn away from disaster, so maybe that’s where the sense of precariousness in the stories comes from. That said, I also believe that many people in dire straits are one stroke of good luck, one good decision or one epiphany away from flipping things around. “Irredeemable” is a pretty loaded word, but a truly irredeemable character wouldn’t be interesting to me. Where’s the tension if the die has already been cast? I suppose you could chart the sad arc of such a character, but that would be like watching someone jump off a building. Some of my characters may end up dead or wounded, but if they go down, they go down fighting.
Tomorrow: Part 2