Author Larry Strauss ~ Interviewed

Larry Strauss grew up in New York City. He earned his MFA from Antioch University and has published three novels and more than ten books of non-fiction, including Defend Yourself for Avon. He is the head of the English Department and head basketball coach at a high school in South Los Angeles.

Tell us a bit about your current project.

Two novels are currently competing for my attention. One is mystery about identity, gambling, and musical memory. It is my jazz follow up to Now’s the Time. This time jazz is not so much at the center of the plot as it is in the bones of the story.

The other is a story about the intersecting lives of people trying to get back the missing parts of their internal and external lives. It was inspired by a line in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues: “It’s always at the hour of trouble and confrontation that the missing member aches.”

We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.

My first published book was a ghost writing job. I was tutoring the author’s 6th grade son and the author had gone through a few writers. I had really hit it off with the boy and the family and when the father found out I was a writer he offered me the job.

My first published novel came out of a meeting I had with an agent team. They handled celebrity clients and were looking for writers to potentially team up with some of them. They didn’t like my writing samples—except for one, a failed book proposal about a couple’s odyssey trying to conceive and then adopt a child. Mostly the agents and I just chatted during the meeting and we all shared an interest in basketball. They suggested I write a novel about basketball. I went home and just tore into the idea—a college coach, a missing player, mystery, redemption and a lot of wild twists. In six weeks I had a draft. Not long after I sent it to them. Six months later, they sold the movie rights to Sony for six figures—but they never got it published and when the movie didn’t get made that was the end of that. Until I met the editors from a small west coast publisher at the ABA in Los Angeles. Holloway House changed the title—from Recruiting Violations to Fake Out—and published it.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

For me self-doubt is a good thing, a necessary thing. If I start getting too confident about what I’m writing, it usually gets self-indulgent and sloppy. I need to worry. I need to fuss. What helps me is the confidence to know I can make the sentences good, eventually, can find the truth of the story if I let my characters be who they are and pay attention to and respect who they are. I let myself write it rough, write it wrong. It’s all part of writing it right. Like Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

Probably the biggest mistake I’ve made is sending my work out before it was ready. Of course, it’s hard to know when anything is ready. Youthful arrogance made it especially difficult for me.

But I’ve learned, at least a little, from reading my work years later and being dissatisfied with it. To avoid such feelings in the future about Now’s the Time, I revised it like a maniac. I read the entire manuscript aloud to myself and listened for the small stumbles of language. I also listened with mistrust to the best-sounding passages. Sometimes it is those favorite passages are hiding deeper falsehoods that need to be purged.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

Mostly stories come to me. Sometimes they come out of my outrages at the world. Other times they come from listening to people. Now’s the Time was inspired by a story a guy told me in the Used Jazz aisle of a record store in the early 1980s.

Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.

I once spent a morning walking around the streets of the South Bronx writing down sensory descriptive details for a novel I planned to write. I was the subject of much incredulity, suspicion, and not a small amount of trepidation. I think the criminals thought I was a detective and the cops thought I was a newly arrived lunatic.

With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?

Enjoy the creation. The rest of it is designed to disappoint. The publicity machine thrives on generating new hype every second so even if you to spend some time in the spotlight glow, it isn’t going to last long. It has to be about the work—the joy of invention, the satisfaction of sculpting a narrative, rearing characters, and then sharing it all with someone, even if only friends and a few others ever read it. And don’t give up. Not giving up may be the greatest accomplishment anyone ever achieves as an artist. In a way, that is what Now’s the Time is about—Didi Heron does, at one point, give up on her own artistic dreams but never stops loving the music and it is the love and the courage and passion she finds that reinvent her as a jazz musician. That and a deeper connection with her musical roots.

What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?

My wife has made me smarter, more insightful about people and about life. My children have deepened my understanding of the human experience.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)

I’m particularly proud of the essays I’ve helped my students write over the years—reading, critiquing, editing with them—to help them win acceptance to competitive universities, scholarship money, and just as important, helping them realize the power of words and the value of insight about their experiences.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

It’s a business—and as long as I remember that it’s easy to keep from getting too peeved. Obviously, it bothers me when I see books being published and promoted based upon some celebrity element or some highly exploitative aspect of the material. But I understand that phenomenon. Corporations have share-holders—I certainly want the companies held in my retirement accounts to turn the biggest profit they can. If I have a beef, then, it’s with readers who want books I don’t think they ought to want—and who the hell am I to tell anyone what they ought to want to read?

Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.

Inspire a few people to deepen their humanity—or reaffirm the deep humanity they already have—and overcome the discount values of our consumer culture and the poverty of desire. I hope Now’s the Time helps, even just a little bit, to enhance our appreciation for jazz music and even to go out and discover this national treasure and pass it on to our children.

What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?

It really does come from the work itself—the inspiration of creation, a way to make some fleeting sense out of this crazy world.

One of the really great accomplishments of Now’s the Time has been getting to perform the work on a stage with musicians. We did it at the book launch with a jazz quartet and I’m looking forward to performing with other jazz musicians. It’s a dream come true being up on the stand with my heroes.

What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?

I’m lucky, I guess—there are so many. Read my Imaginary Finish Line blog, about the school where I teach and how we fought to keep it open a few years ago and all the crazy and wonderful years of creating the school and helping at-risk kids reinvent themselves. I’ve also had the writer’s benefit of growing up with an autistic and schizophrenic brother and alcoholic parents—from them I’ve developed the frantic desire to be heard.

Describe your special or favorite writing spot or send a picture if you’d like.

The idea of a writer’s den is still appealing to me but I do not need it—and certainly don’t have it. My space is wherever I can sit or stand in relative quiet and relative comfort, or just the right kind of discomfort. There was a time when I was flying a lot and did some of my best writing on airplanes while the battery on my computer was running out. Other times I’d find myself kneeling in front of my bed with the computer propped up on the foot of the mattress, as if praying for my imagination. I did a lot of my best work on Now’s the Time on the floor of a hotel bathroom late at night while my wife and son were asleep on the other side of the door.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

It has all been pretty hard for me—as it should be. It’s always a challenge for me to resist the path of self-indulgence and swim out to the deep waters.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

Outline like crazy. Then I rough it in. I write pages of notes. I tell myself they are nothing more than notes so that there is no pressure to get the sentences right—but often these render some of the best passages.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I wish. I’m a full-time teacher, basketball coach, athletic director with a family. My only ritual might be falling asleep mid-sentence at one in the morning.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

Plot it out—then rebel against my own plot. Usually the best twists happen in the midst of the writing and render the original plot banal and make me feel silly for ever having thought it was worth following. Still, I find that I have to start somewhere with a belief in something.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

In the outline stage, it’s easy to connect the plot elements without really considering the credulity of them. Sooner or later one must get real about it.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.

Got a letter from an 8th grader in Arkansas telling me I was his favorite writer and Fake Out (my first novel) was his favorite book.

An independent movie producer told me that she wanted to option Unfinished Business (my second novel) and that I was her favorite African American writer (though I am not African American, except in the anthropological sense that we all are).

Rand Singer, a friend and professional tenor saxophonist was upset with me after reading Now’s the Time. Said the descriptive passages in the novel made him want to go out and hear some Lonnie Baylor records. Then he remembered that Lonnie Baylor was just a character in the novel.