Such are these liberated and self-conscious times that we have laid claim to busting all manner of barriers: glass ceilings, color lines, class walls, and generational divides. Former constable-on-patrol turned literature professor and writer Laurie Lynn Drummond has done her part in busting down something or other with her debut story collection, Anything You Say Can and Will Be Used Against You.
Drummond, who spent a good part of her well-traveled life on the Louisana State University and Baton Rouge police departments, has brought her obvious intelligence and good ‘ol gal boisterousness to fashioning some riveting and revealing stories about women living life on the particular edge known as the Job. Ten crisp and well-lit stories grouped into five fictional portraits of Baton Rouge policewomen actually doing police work without the usual exaggerations and hyperbole. Needless to say, she made them work well, as a slew of very good notices can attest. Grand master Elmore ‘Dutch’ Leonard observes, ‘From now on I’ll read whatever Drummond writes. She’s awfully good: describes astonishing crime scenes with an ironic twist on the book’s title.’
Laurie Lynn Drummond currently lives in Austin with her cat Smilla and dog Rumi and teaches at St. Edward’s University. She is at work on her next book, a novel, and tending her garden. After I was able to wrest her attention from Rosie, my Labrador companion, Laurie Lynn and I had a fine time chatting away on matters literary and mundane.
Robert Birnbaum: We’re rolling. All right, you live in Texas.
Laurie Lynn Drummond: I do. In Austin.
RB: Austin, Texas.
LLD: Only place to live in Texas. [laughs]
RB: I am not going to digress.
RB: You grew up in the East—as had one of the characters in the stories in Anything You Say Can and Will be Held Against You.
LLD: Yes, although not Boston. We did live in Boston for two years. My brother was born in Wayland [Mass.]. My dad was working for the Smithsonian, helping set up the first satellite-tracking program. And I actually grew up in northern Virginia, in the Fairfax-Washington, D.C., area. So I am a Northeasterner. Although when I went to school in upstate New York, my nickname was Dixie. They all said that I was really from the South.
RB: Of course.
LLD: Which insulted the hell out of me. [laughs]
RB: That was the point.
LLD: Yeah, I know.
RB: Easterners are a clannish bunch, but it’s easily explained by pointing out the psyche experiment that they have been participating in since World War II. So you might forgive some of their excesses. So then you went to school in upstate New York.
LLD: Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. I was a theater major. Can’t you tell?
RB: You are very dramatic. But I can’t tell anything about anybody.
RB: And then you ended up in Louisiana?
LLD: I did. I had to look it up on the map.
RB: You moved again because of your dad?
LLD: I had dropped out of school. They had moved down there two years earlier, and I was working as a police dispatcher. This was in ‘78, when the economy was really depressed and I was told by a number of police chiefs and sheriffs, ‘Over my dead body I’ll hire a woman.’ And I was down visiting my parents—
RB: Meaning you asked about becoming a cop?
LLD: Oh yeah, I asked.
RB: You posed this question hypothetically, ‘What do you think about—?’
LLD: No, it wasn’t hypothetical. I went in to apply to different departments. And so when I went down to Louisiana to visit my parents, my dad said, ‘The chief of police there at Louisiana State University is from Oneonta, N.Y.; you should go in and talk to him.’ And so I did, and he hired me.
RB: What does that say about life?
LLD: It’s good to come from the New York-Northeast area. We do band together.
RB: More cronyism.
LLD: Nothing wrong with that when it works to your advantage.
RB: I am not sure there’s anything wrong with it at all. Who are you going to hire and work with?
LLD: You know what the new word for cronyism is? ‘Networking.’
RB: Not the same thing as nepotism.
LLD: Which is also very prevalent in police departments.
RB: Again, why not? Who do you want to cover your behind?
LLD: Well, not my mother.
‘Come down to Louisiana, we have cockroaches that fly.’ That was one of the hardest things to adjust to…You get down there and they are three inches big. They fly. They fly at you and they are not afraid of the light.
RB: So, we know that you applied to work at the LSU police department. We haven’t gotten to the fact that you were actually a police officer.
LLD: Not quite yet. At LSU I became a police officer. I worked as a plainclothes officer for two years as part of a crime prevention unit. One guy and two women. And we did surveillance and stakeouts—anything where they needed plainclothes officers, that’s where we were.
RB: Did you have to sign a confidentiality agreement?
LLD: Nope, not a thing. Maybe they didn’t know about them back then. We’re still talking late ‘70s.
RB: Right. But I am thinking about recent allegations at the University of Colorado and the football team and what goes on at a campus that has a big-time football program.
LLD: Oh, yeah.
RB: So you might have an exposé somewhere you might want to write?
LLD: Shoot yes. Even after police work I was a tutor for the Academic Center for Athletes, and actually my one claim to fame there is one day I tutored Shaquille O’Neal.
RB: Um huh.
LLD: He’s tall even sitting down. Let me tell ya. Huge guy. It’s unbelievable how big his feet are. I would not wanted to have to arrest him. [both laugh]
RB: They try during games. That’s another digression. You’ll have to come back.
LLD: I would love to come back.
RB: For your novel.
RB: You are no stranger to these parts. But living in Austin and visiting here [Boston], is this a totally different kind of a place?
LLD: Yes. I was commenting to someone about being here and seeing the buildings. You don’t see these old buildings. I just came in from New York City and I felt like a child again. These cool old buildings and the cityscape.
RB: What’s so good about that?
LLD: We don’t have that in Texas. We have cows and scorpions. Hey, in Louisiana we had cockroaches that fly.
RB: I am sure the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce will be contacting you to film a testimonial.
LLD: [laughs] ‘Come down to Louisiana, we have cockroaches that fly.’ That was one of the hardest things to adjust to. Living up here, I always heard from my mother that cockroaches were the sign of a dirty house, and you just saw the little ones. You get down there and they are three inches big. They fly. They fly at you and they are not afraid of the light. It was just—
RB: I knew someone who had a theory that pests and such were a good sign because they could go anywhere.
LLD: I took a car door off one time because of a cockroach. I kid you not. I was in uniform. I was getting ready to go to work. This was before we had our own assigned units. I come out and my car was parked off to the side of the driveway because of my two housemates—I had a Three’s Company in reverse. I lived with two brothers. I got in and started my little Mustang. Put it in reverse, went to close the door and there was this big old cockroach on the door. I’d been down there for a couple years and I was calm. I was in uniform. I had a gun. I went to brush it off. That thing flew right down the front of my shirt, in between my breasts. And I went, ‘WHAAH!’ and the foot came off the clutch and my hands went up and smashed the cockroach and the car rolled backward, caught something, and just tore the door off. And then I had to call work. And ask for somebody to come and get me. But it was after I had stripped off my shirt and was mopping up roach guts from my—yeah.
RB: Did you make an insurance claim on your door?
LLD: Actually, I did.
LLD: They laughed. Everybody laughed. But I got that door put back on.
RB: Hmmm. Where do I go from there? A stunning story of valor in the face of local fauna mayhem. [both laugh] You were on both the LSU and the Baton Rouge departments. Was that a graduation?
LLD: I don’t know if I’d call it a graduation. But the department was much larger, was urban, the campus had gotten small, and I was ready for more challenges. And boy, did I get them. To get into the LSU police it was a six-week academy. I was the only woman out of 50 men. The city police was a 20-week academy and I was one of five women and 47 men.
For me the impetus was really wanting to communicate with readers, ‘Hey, this is what it’s like,’ and I wasn’t seeing anything out there like that.
RB: I don’t know if this is worthy of commendation but in the stories there is barely a suggestion of the kind of trite men/women clashes that one sees, for instance on TV. The stories all get past that.
RB: You didn’t experience problems as a woman when you were on the job or you don’t think that’s a good story anymore?
LLD: Anything could be made into a good story, and yes, I did experience it. But to me it was something that came with the job. You just knew that as women you were going to have to prove yourself and you were going to have work harder than any of the guys coming out. I have always gotten along very well with men. And I figured out very early on a lot of it was a test. Their teasing and their joking and jokes—I had no problem telling those jokes right back. If they called me ‘Sweetie,’ I called them ‘Honey.’ What I needed to do, which I did very quickly, was prove to them I wasn’t threatened by their sexuality and my sexuality was not an issue to me and we were there to do a job and I could back them up very well. So, yeah, I had some problems. I had a real jerk of a lieutenant and [his behavior] definitely would be deemed sexual harassment.
RB: In the stories there is an unlikable lieutenant and it seems as if no one likes him.
LLD: No, and actually no one did like that lieutenant. That’s actually pulled from several different people.
RB: Perhaps that’s part of the pathology of a harasser—that no one likes them?
LLD: Yeah, and there were some male supervisors who were threatened by intelligent females and at that time I was unusual in that I had some college education. So that combination of being a Northeasterner, having some college education—
RB: They still held that against you?
LLD: The first week I was at LSU police I came out to my car, my little Mustang, same one I later tore the door off of, with New York plates, and there was a note under my windshield wiper that said ‘Yankee, go home.’
LLD: Oh yeah, you know. I walked faster than anybody and I talked faster than anybody and I got things done faster than anybody. I couldn’t figure out what was taking everybody so long to get things done. And the other thing was, I was very liberal. It was an anomaly. So I was threatening to some of the older Louisiana male supervisors. I didn’t hesitate to speak my mind.
RB: Right. At that time what was the appropriate term for such gentlemen? ‘Redneck’? ‘Good old boy’?
LLD: Good old boy, very much a good-old-boy network down there. Or was. Thank God that there were some that weren’t that way and I had a marvelous training officer when I came out of the academy. I had no issue with him.
RB: It’s a clichéd story—we do know a lot about those kinds of characters. What stands out about your stories is the women officers and their solidarity, which is very interesting, and you sketched out a good deck of people. As long as we are talking about your book, tell me about the story called ‘Acknowledgments.’
LLD: [laughs heartily] Yeah, that is a short story, isn’t it? Actually, I was mortified. I was telling people, ‘My gosh, I don’t think I have ever seen an acknowledgment this long’ except maybe in Dave Eggers’s book, and he did it deliberately. The book was 12 years in the writing. There were a lot of people who encouraged me and who supported me and who believed in me. It was a very tough transition for me from police work to civilian life and in choosing this particular [sighs] career path, passion of writing and the simple fact that most writers don’t earn a living just on their writing—so going into the teaching—there were just a lot of people I felt I truly needed to acknowledge who had believed in me and held the faith for me and this book, often when I couldn’t.
RB: Twelve years would be quite a stretch. Many things don’t last that long, marriages, clothes, cars.
LLD: Right. And the longest paragraph of course is acknowledging all my friends on the police department who really supported and believed and opened doors for me. Let me ride along, showed me case files that reminded me of things that I had forgotten.
RB: As I tried to put myself in your shoes—pop culture shows great evidence of the everlasting popularity of crime stories—
RB: So clearly there is a fascination. What is it?
LLD: Lots of people are fascinated with the whole life and death, this life on the edge. Also with the idea at any moment, things can change and crime can happen to any of us, the randomness of it. So who are these people who are supposedly, hopefully, making it a little less chaotic, little less dangerous, who are helping catch the bad guys? It’s one of the reasons I like the show Third Watch [on NBC]. It looks at New York City police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. I often wondered why don’t we have more about the firefighters and the paramedics who are also doing the same kind of life-and-death work. There seems to be that element of crime and mystery and whodunit that we have loved forever—that sense of mystery, and that feeds into the larger mystery of life and the mystery of human beings, the mystery of who we are. The writer Tim O’Brien said if you don’t have some sort of mystery in your stories you are missing what the whole human tale is about. I like Third Watch because it manages to bring in those three and they play off. You really do, as a police officer, interact with these other departments a lot. There is also a morbid fascination with—it’s the same thing that makes people slow down to 10 miles an hour looking at the fender bender because there might be blood. It’s also hooking in that ‘it could be me.’ There is also another piece of ‘we are all assaulted with images and information, it’s all coming at us’ [so] that the bar for titillation continually rises. And that one of the most available arenas for titillation is crime—specifically homicide, where there is blood and guts involved.
RB: In the confluence of your career as a police officer and now your devotion to the calling of writing, you could have gone other routes. One of them would have been to write a novel that was a big whodunit that probably could have been a vehicle to go to TV or Hollywood and then you would have been pegged a genre writer.
RB: Instead, although this is almost a novel, you wrote a collection of stories, which I suspect most people in the film biz don’t have the imagination to put together. So you didn’t really look past this written narrative, the stuff on the pages?
LLD: No, I was not. When I was writing this I was not going, ‘Oh, gee, good movie, good TV series.’ Although it is being shopped around and there seems to be some interest with a TV series, I wasn’t thinking that. It was really about these stories and wanting to show the dailiness of life as a police officer and the humanness of police officers. I had become so frustrated with the stereotypes and the depictions that you see on TV and the movies and a lot of the police procedural mystery books. I just wasn’t seeing female officers depicted accurately, realistically. Some of these stories are really more about the character and about what they are thinking and reflecting in her life as a police officer and what she has learned. For me the impetus was really wanting to communicate with readers, ‘Hey, this is what it’s like,’ and I wasn’t seeing anything out there like that. I also come out of a literary background. Literary fiction tends to move me and grab me more and the book that influenced my own writing the most was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. When I read that book about the Vietnam War, and depicting how soldiers dealt with it, I immediately knew how I could write my own book about police officers. It showed me the way. So that was the real model for my work. It wasn’t mysteries and thrillers, which I do read and which I enjoy. It just wasn’t something I was thinking about at the time. Maybe somewhere down the line it would be fun to try a detective series. A female detective series—
LLD: James Lee Burke?
RB: Not lately.
LLD: No, the earlier stuff.
RB: So I think there is some very skillful writing and storytelling in genre.
LLD: I agree.
RB: I am fascinated by the occasional outburst of animus toward so-called genre fiction by literary types.
LLD: I think that’s unfortunate. I don’t agree with that, ‘Oh, somehow she’s better, he’s better because she is more literary.’ I think that’s baloney; we’re both serving an audience and a readership, and as a writer it’s just the way it ended up being. I was going, ‘I am going to write a literary piece.’ Or, ‘I am going write a crime novel.’
RB: Have you been ghettoized as a writer? Are you being looked at as a literary writer because they are stories?
LLD: People don’t know what to call it. I have actually had several people say, ‘I think you are actually creating a whole new genre.’ They try to categorize, and I watch them stumble around.
RB: I’m sorry I brought up the inside business stuff—I thought of starting out by asking, ‘Do you care about Martin Amis?’ Or more specifically, ‘Do you care that Amis is currently without an American publisher?’
LDD: I just read about it in the New York Times today.
RB: Yeah, I saw it and I was nominally interested. Why all the seeming clamor and interest?
LLD: I don’t know—they need something to talk about? I read the whole article, yeah.
RD: Are you going to be talking to anyone about it?
LLD: No, I’ll talk about it if you want.
RB: I was more thinking about writers’ business seeming to be as much covered by the so-called literary press as what they write. So now your book is out and you probably have a film agent in Hollywood shopping it.
LLD: I do.
RB: And your agent and publisher are alert to shifting tides of book commerce—
LLD: And I’d love to sell it. And I’d really worry what they would do with it. It’s an interesting dilemma for me to think about. If they tried to take this book—one of the pitches I heard was, ‘A day in the life of a female police officer and in a southern town.’ I thought, ‘OK, what kind of southern town are we talking about?’ If you are try to put this in San Diego—is that a southern town?
RB: That’s high concept. How ‘bout Bakersfield?
LLD: Fairfax, VA.? Some people would consider that southern. I don’t know. I have been enormously grateful at how this book has been received. And how much my publisher has been behind me. I am so overwhelmed that a first book, a collection of short stories—yes, it has been set up so it has more of a novel feel—but it is at its heart a collection of short stories, about female officers, you can’t market in any specific genre. The publisher has been behind it and the reviews have been fabulous, and I am just grateful, grateful. And the response from police officers everywhere I have been, they have said, ‘You got it right.’ So whether I am in Seattle or New York City or Baton Rouge or Memphis, I am hearing, ‘You got it right.’ In some ways it transcends the setting in good ol’ boy Louisiana.
RB: I had to go very deep into that story, the last story, ‘Sarah,’ to realize that the narrator was a woman.
RB: For me there are not a lot of signs until at least halfway through the story.
LLD: You didn’t have sense that the narrator was female?
RB: That wasn’t something that you were trying to do?
LLD: No, I certainly wasn’t, but it brings up an interesting point of how the job can erase a lot of gender-specific characteristics and attributes. How really, for many women, you adopt a machismo, much more male way of walking, partly because you had that 15 pounds of gun belt on. You are wearing men’s shoes and men’s socks and men’s pants, a tie.
RB: You’re telling me that some smart person hasn’t designed a line of women’s officers clothing?
LLD: Not yet that I know of. They are working with bulletproof vests. They finally figured out we have breasts and we have cleavage. And if the vest is supposed to be flush against the skin, there is a problem in one of the most vulnerable spots on the body. But even then they don’t fit very well.
RB: Hey, let’s go into business.
LDD: OK. [both laugh]
RB: Your expertise and my whatever—
LLD: I can remember getting uniform pants and we’d all have them altered. We had to. We had to take them in. And these ties. I ended up having enormous respect for men who don’t like ties. I understand that. And in Baton Rouge by some judgment from on high that would go, ‘It is now winter and you have to move to your winter uniforms.’ Which would be long-sleeve shirts and ties. The first year I was in Baton Rouge it was 83 degrees on Christmas Day.
LLD: Good God.
RB: One of the stories has a mention of having woolen uniforms.
LLD: That’s based on truth. The chief was just out of his mind.
RB: A nice tropical wool can be better than polyester. [laughs]
LLD: I can tell you those uniforms were awful and not to mention, do you know how many people are allergic to wool? Makes ‘em itch.
RB: That’s a possible disability.
LLD: I hadn’t thought of that.
RB: Twelve years in the making, here you are on a book tour—
LLD: I have been on tour since Feb. 5. I have not been home since then. It’s astonishing. Twenty-five cities.
RB: Does the itinerary keep growing?
LLD: Actually, they keep adding media stuff. My days get more packed. I think they saw the writing on the wall yesterday when I was there [New York City] saying, ‘I can’t wait to get home.’ [laughs] I’m getting really tired of my clothes. OK. I am a girl at heart about my clothes—all right, I’m really tired of them. And I miss my dog. I miss my cat.
RB: You were in the world capital of shopping and—
LLD: I had no time. I was being dragged around to all these different PR places. I ate good though. I ate real good.
RB: Okay, so that’s your life to date. Normally you are ensconced in Austin, teaching at St. Edward’s. A Catholic school?
LLD: It is a Catholic university. Brothers of the Holy Cross.
RB: Excellent. And Tim O’Brien teaches across the way—
LLD: Southwest—oh no, they have named it, Texas State University in San Marcos. Which is about 33 minutes down the road. A state university with a very good MFA program.
RB: Is Dagoberto Gilb still there?
LLD: [affectionately] Dago, yes He is, and he just was nominated for the NBCC [National Book Critics Circle award] for Gritos.
RB: When did you meet Tim O’Brien?
LLD: I met Tim O’Brien in ‘89 at Bread Loaf I had already read his book and spent some time talking with him and then I saw him again in ‘90 at the Sewanee Writers Conference and again in ‘93 when I was there as a scholar and that was when he was kind enough—I could never get into one of his workshops, but I would just not go to workshops I was assigned to and sit in on his—that’s when he was kind enough to read one of my pieces, which turned out to be ‘Taste, Touch, Sight, Sound, Smell,’ and gave me some great feedback. He really impacted my writing a great deal.
RB: Alex Beam wrote a column about Charles Portis for the Globe and, if you don’t know him, he’s the Globe’s wide-ranging cultural columnist, very bright and funny. He mentioned Portis as a writer’s writer. Which may or may not mean anything. But Tim seems to be one of those writer’s writer types. He has been really, really generous with many people.
RB: And I have heard many writers say good things about him and on the other hand I don’t know about his book sales, I’m not sure they sell well.
LLD: They haven’t been. The Things They Carried, the title story is anthologized all over the place. I watch my students—I actually teach another story from that collection, ‘How to Tell A True War Story’—and so many of them then go out and get that book. That book continues to sell well. Going After Cacciato sells well. I am just remembering how I was introduced to Tim’s work. His very first book, which was a memoir, If I Die In A Combat Zone—I had gone back to school at LSU and I was taking a Vietnam War literature class. That’s how I was introduced to Tim O’Brien. I agree there aren’t enough people that have read him and discovered his incredible writing, Incredible. He writes about the human heart and human experience and does it in a compassionate and honest way. That’s what he taught me, was that I could write about police officers honestly, the flaws, and be compassionate. And the importance of being compassionate towards one’s characters. Even the despicable ones, you love ‘em. It’s like the ‘Sarah’ story. She makes some really bad judgments but I still understand and I love her.
RB: Invariably what is written about O’Brien drags him back to Vietnam. He is either writing about it or he is not writing about it.
LLD: Right. It’s the danger. You get pegged.
RB: I didn’t read Tomcat in Love, but I read July, July, which I thought was not generously received.
LLD: I read Tomcat, which I thought was hysterical. Very funny, and it’s something completely different [for him]. And my guess is it didn’t do well because it was so different and it was Tim being very funny and very ironic. July, July I have read pieces of, like, in the New Yorker. They are beautiful pieces. Again, I don’t understand the lack of generosity and close reading, with a lot of his work. There seems to be some kind of a backlash. I don’t know if it was, ‘Well that was his best book—’
RB: I was surprised when I recently spoke to him that he spoke of the writing in July, July being really good—I thought it unlikely for such a humble, self-effacing, unpretentious guy. And it turns out it pretty much disappeared quickly.
I always go back to Chekov. I go back when I am working on something myself that I am struggling with. When I want to get grounded.
LLD: It did. I don’t know. One of the things I was reading was he really tried to get more into female characters and depict them less stereotypically and his wife had read through the manuscript and helped him with that. Then he gets slammed for it. So, again I have just read excerpts but I didn’t find it offensive. But then you know I have hung around guys a lot. So—
RB: So what’s next when you get back?
LLD: I’m going to work out in my garden. I can’t wait to get back to my garden and play with my dog and my cat. It’s in the high 70s in Austin right now. So all my plants are budding out. Let me tell ya, it’s gonna look good. And that’s a lot of my great pleasure, working in the garden. Then I’ll see a bunch of friends that I have missed and get back to working in my novel. And oh yeah, I have to start teaching again in the fall. Damn it.
RB: What should I ask you about? [laughs]
LLD: I hope the novel.
RB: Uh huh.
LLD: I have about a hundred pages. It is also for Harper Collins. And it’s set in Baton Rouge, female police officer. There is a murder and a mystery. This woman has returned home to Baton Rouge and joined the city police. Her mother was murdered when she was four, was burned to death in a fire. Black man was arrested for it—
RB: Did we or have we talked about James Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places?
LLD: I had James to St. Ed’s. I watched the nuns and the brothers and I wasn’t sure if they were ever going to let me invite another writer. I read that. So anyway, a black man is arrested for it right about the time the Supreme Court decided capital punishment is cruel and unusual , and he commits a murder in prison about the time the Supreme Court says you can [execute] again. My character has come to believe that he is not responsible for this murder. So what she does is come back to Baton Rouge, join the police so that she can have access to records and she thinks, she thinks it’s her dad.
RB: You know the whole story. You’re just now writing it out?
LLD: I have pieces of it. There is a lot about family secrets. I am real interested on how family secrets can impact future generations and I am real interested in the issue of racism especially in South Louisiana, where you get the Cajuns and the black Creole and the white Creole. I knew that this is all going to come into play. I do know who has done it. But I have learned with writing that you can’t have too many things known for sure. Because the characters will take over and tell their own story.
RB: Are you at all concerned with being pegged as a crime-story writer? Do you look down the road and foresee stories without police and such? Or do you feel like you should always write about what you know?
LLD: My third book will be a memoir called Losing My Gun. A nonfiction about police work. And then who knows what comes next. And no, I am not going to be worried about being pegged, because I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. It doesn’t make sense to worry about it now.
RB: You’re going to write what you’re going to write.
LDD: Whatever seems to come up. I know that many of the books that draw me in, that I love, have so much to do with family and relationship and the relationship to the land.
RB: Name some titles.
LLD: Tim Gautreuax’s The Clearing.
RB: Oh yeah.
LLD: I just loved that book. Gosh. [yells] Everybody should read that book. It’s fabulous. I am not interested in the timber industry or the railroads, and he made me interested. On top of the fact there is a great family story, there’s that wonderful blind horse. A great mystery. Oh it’s just a great book. A great book.
LLD: Anything Andre Dubus Sr. wrote. He impacted me a lot.
RB: He was a Louisianian.
LLD: His cousin is James Lee Burke.
RB: Do you know Andre III?
LLD: I don’t know him but I think House of Sand and Fog is fabulous and I don’t know why they keep talking about the movie being so depressing. I thought it was a great book and I thought that they did a good job with the movie. I am in the middle of Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.
RB: What a great book!
LLD: Uch, gosh. There again another piece of history that I didn’t know much about. I didn’t know that free black men owned slaves and I loved the different perspectives. I’m loving the book. I have to admit I am a great fan of The Secret Life of Bees and The Lovely Bones, I thought both of those were fabulous. I loved the Mark Haddon book. Oh gosh, there are so many wonderful—Atonement Another great book. You give me a suggestion, real quick.
RB: Uh oh, I do this to people all the time—Erasure by Percival Everett.
RB: You teach what?
LLD: I teach creative writing, magazine writing, and writing on the World Wide Web, and business and technical writing.
LLD: I was an editor for a legal publishing firm and I love to teach that class because about halfway through the semester they get how important it is because we do résumés and cover letters.
LLD: And they love it. And I’m great. I get emails from former students saying ‘I just got a job’—
RB: You think a résumé makes a difference.
LLD: Absolutely. It’s the first thing they see of you. I really do. It can make a difference.
RB: What I was going to say was that interestingly you didn’t mention anyone from the early 20th or 19th century.
LLD: I always go back to Chekov. I go back when I am working on something myself that I am struggling with. When I want to get grounded.
RB: Reading contemporaries is distracting?
LLD: No, because Gautreaux’s book opened up all kinds of possibilities for me with my own work. If nothing else, I can go to it to get the Cajun accent right.
RB: That is such a wonderful book.
LLD: It is. Go buy The Clearing, it is a fabulous book. I’ll read science fiction.
RB: Is it still called science fiction?
LLD: What might it be called?
RB: Speculative fiction. When I stopped reading it in the mid ‘70s, people were trying to fancy up the name.
LLD: No, it’s still science fiction. Have you read any David Brin? The Uplift Trilogy. Can’t recommend it enough. So a lot of it is, ‘What is it I need right now?’ As a reader and as a writer. So Chekov grounds me. Edith Wharton grounds me. But I can also go to Dubus and he grounds me and I can go to Margot Livesey, she grounds me. There is some Barbara Kingsolver I go back to. It depends on what I need.
RB: How do you know what you need?
LLD: That’s why I have a bunch of books to be read on my bookshelf and some I have tried to like Atonement twice and now I am on it the third time and I am finally loving it. There are a lot of my books I’ll pick up and I’ll read the first chapter and I’ll know, ‘Not right now.’ It’s almost like I’m hungry and it’s like when you are literally hungry and you are trying to figure out what will satisfy this hunger. For me books are that way too. Sometimes I know it. If it’s a writer I am familiar with—Dennis Lehane. I am ready for that kind of a book.
RB: I feel that way about Leonard or James Carlos Baker. I always feel like I can take off a day from required reading to read their new books.
LLD: Have you read the latest Leonard?
RB: Loved Mr. Paradise, very interesting woman character—a Victoria’s Secret model who lives in Detroit, the best since Karen Sisco in Out of Sight and then a very interesting relationship between her and a homicide detective. And on top of it he takes the story back to Detroit. You mentioned Ian McEwen. Have you read Enduring Love?
LLD: No, I have not.
RB: Read the first chapter. It’s a very, very compelling piece of writing. So we’ll just have to wait for your career to blossom.
LLD: Further, further.
RB: Further blossom. Not that we have run out of things to talk about, but thanks very much.
LLD: Thank you.