Author J. Eric Laing joins The Object today to talk about racism in the American South, what inspired him to write Cicada, and how a failed publishing company drove him to self-publish.
WELCOME, J. ERIC LAING!
Author of Cicada and Seep
Winston: Today J. Eric Laing joins us. Eric is the author of Cicada, the story of “a family and community . . . swept-up in a tempest of violence and tragedy.” With a recent surge in sales, a 4.7 customer rating, and being listed by Kirkus Reviews as a “new and notable” book, Cicada is one of the more exciting recent releases in the self-publishing stratum. Eric, thanks for stopping by The Object. Let’s start off by talking about Cicada. I’m a big fan of the book, and I wanted to ask you what inspired you to write about deep-seeded racism in the American South?
Eric: I was born and raised in Florida. Not the Florida a lot of folks who’ve never gone there might imagine from television, but more the lesser populated, and less well-known, can we say, swamp regions. Think not so much Miami Vice but more Dukes of Hazzard meets Deliverance. While I don’t want to disparage the communities where I lived in my youth (there were several…and some far, far better than others), I’ll just leave it well enough alone by saying that to this day, a Cadillac-sized Confederate battle flag flies a little too proud, for this proud son of the South, over the city limits sign in the small town where I did most of my high school. Suffice it to say that that part of America has always been satisfied and unrepentant in its embrace of more than its share of this nation’s racial unrest.
I was apprehensive at first to broach the topic, even while I felt compelled to after witnessing the very ugly racism that took place in my youth. The memories had calloused over after leaving it behind—I suppose—but the more I considered the book, and then truly began it, the suppressed emotions festered like a splinter, demanding to be dug out.
My initial fear was the “been there, done that and by far superior writers” aspect. I have no delusions about my place beneath the quality of the greats who had already beat this path down before me—giants like Faulkner and Lee—but, after a good deal of soul-searching, I realized that while all too many folks may feel we’ve covered this ground, healed that wound, climbed that mountain and we’ve all moved on, been there, done that…well…we haven’t. I went back to that small town just a few years back and was unpleasantly reminded of the fact. Same shit, different decade. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole on my part…things have gotten better than the 1950s—when the book is set—but still…. And so I wrote the story I had for the longest time been compelled to tell.
Winston: I’m a fan of books that tackle controversial subject matter, and hailing from a southern state myself, Cicada really hits home for me. The writing is so beautiful at times I just want to pluck out passages and put them in my pocket. You’re also a multi-genre writer. Seep, for example, is a horror story. Which of your novels do you like best and why does it stand out to you?
Eric: Winston, that’s such a loaded question! The cheat answer, the default answer, the marketing myself answer is always, “why the book I’m working on now, of course.” *cough* The Night Watch, out in a few weeks. *cough*
But the truth of the matter is that it shifts around on the currents of my swirling moods. I suppose that’s why I have dipped my toes across genres. Books—reading or writing—are like music. Some nights I want quiet, oldies from blues to soft jazz. Other nights the speakers are set to eleven and you’re going to need to scream to be heard over the punk and indie rock.
But if I have to pick honestly, and if my other books have their little ears’ plugged and you swear they won’t hear it, Cicada is the work I am most proud of. I think it has the most depth, the finest moments of honesty and insight as far as my understanding of the human condition runs.
By the gods but that sounded pretentious. See, I knew it was a loaded question.
Winston: Your work has its share of violence. If you were going to kill someone, how would you go about it? What would you do with the body? Would you write about it? Have you . . . written about it?
Eric: I’m actually a very gentle sort…albeit with a rather warped sense of humor, a gross appreciation of irony, and all too close relationship with fear, curiosity, and insomnia. I don’t really know. What can I say? My mind goes to places I suppose it would be best they…I mean, it…didn’t. But it does. Who among us can fully explain the playground of their mind? Not I. I just let the madness out to run from time to time. After all, every animal needs its exercise.
As for the specifics: For the perfect murder…. I’d watch a marathon of Columbo and The X Files, taking copious notes…this time around.
Winston: I like to ask authors a little about their history. Can you tell us how you decided to be a writer, where you’re from, what you do, etc.?
Eric: My history? I’m sure I blabbed and babbled enough about that. As for my decision to write…I couldn’t tell you. I hear writers talk about being driven, or needing to get the stories or voices out, or how some defining moment on their grandmother’s knee in a late night kitchen…. While I’m sure that’s true for them, it’s not for me.
I was a born liar and told all manner of tall tales as a kid, and all too often for no good reason. I sport a slightly tanned backside to this day to prove it. Perhaps that’s it, the need to keep telling more lies…. Oh, okay, none of that is true.
Winston: Back to Cicada for a moment. If it catches on and becomes an international bestseller, what actor do you see playing John Sayre? Do you cast your characters sometimes when you’re bored? I know I do.
Eric: Jon Hamm. Done in one.
Winston: You were with Night Publishing for a while, but recently you left them and self-published your books. Why did you make that decision?
Eric: Let’s talk more about Jon Hamm. The man is “Mad” among “Men” talented. I even had the briefest encounter with him just last year. And, while it was very brief, it was substantial enough to prove he was a genuinely, down-to-earth, really nice guy.
Call me, Jon.
Okay, funny business aside…. Night is no more, and failed ultimately because, in my opinion, Tim got in deeper than he could handle and just imploded. He wasn’t evil or stupid…just foolish and ultimately a man with a poor business model. Unfortunately, there are still some folks who are counting on him to ferry their dreams as he has ventured off with a new brand. Between you and me and the pecan tree, my experience with Night was troubled enough that I saw the truth of the matter soon enough to get out of that boat while the getting was good. While I don’t want to piss in the pool for those who have or will take the plunge with Tim, I hope they’ll keep their eyes open if they choose to swim those waters.
But Perhaps I should justify the above with facts. Yes. So here they are:
To say that the editing was poor would be kind. It was virtually non-existent. I went through the book again and cleaned it up before putting it back out myself. Emails often had to be repeated not twice, but three or four times to get a response. After my very positive Kirkus review, I asked and then pleaded with Tim to post it on the Amazon page. Nothing. It’s there now because I put there when I put the book back out. And, lastly, and far and away most damning, I never received one word of my sales record and I have yet to see one thin penny of my royalties from my stint with Night.
Winston: We already promote Cicada around here, and your other books are on my reading list. Do you have anything new in the works?
Eric: Yikes! And here I was already schilling back at the top. But yes, I am very excited about my latest book, The Night Watch. While on the surface this will appear—out of the gate—to be an almost old school, hard-boiled detective noir, I think I manage to pull off a nifty little number switch-a-roo (see, I’m still in hard-boiled mode) making it so much more by the end. At least, that’s what most of my brain has agreed upon.
The short pitch: a serial killer is doing what a serial killer does—collecting body parts from the gladiators of Rome. It falls to a very troubled man, the Prefect of the Night Watch, to bring the madness to an end.
Winston: We’ll be keeping an eye out, and in the meantime we’ll continue to recommend Cicada to our readers. Thanks again for talking to us today, Eric.
Eric: Thank you, Winston. And in all seriousness, you, my friend, are the one to watch.
Winston: DISCLAIMER: Mr. Laing was not paid to say that.
J. Eric Laing was born and raised in the South but now lives in New York City with his wife and their two wonderful boys.
To learn more about Eric, visit http://jericlaing.com/