This summer I pretended to sit down with good friend and acclaimed crime writer Preston Lang to talk about a few things. We covered the emotional intelligence of peanut eaters, the role of fire hydrants in the government’s summer emergency plans, and the collected work of Franklin W. Dixon, among other things.
Skipping the small talk and heading straight to it:
BE—You’ve published two novels. Why?
PL—Yeah, it does seem hard to defend the decision at times. I like to think they get out there into the world and people read and enjoy them.
That’s really all I can hope for, because my books aren’t particularly educational and they don’t exactly expand the boundaries of what a novel can do or anything like that. There might be a hidden agenda in my writing. If so, I’d love to hear about it.
BE—Sure, no hidden agenda, but still very fun, very entertaining to read. I thought The Carrier’s finest asset was its various shades of low-key humor, deadpan delivery, and bizarre juxtaposition. I liked the contents of sex offender Danny Chin’s apartment for example: “…Other than a clarinet and a red cape there was nothing that really indicated this was the residence of a pervert.” You should give yourself a little more credit.
PL—Fair enough. Next question?
BE—I understand you’re a talented pianist. So which gives you greater satisfaction: music or writing?
PL— I don’t play as much as I once did, so it’s pretty much writing at this point.
BE—Why is that?
PL—I’ve got issues with neighbors, and my fingers have become thick and oddly shaped.
BE—That’s troubling. I heard something this week about people aging at different speeds. Maybe they also age in different body parts. I wonder if your thickening fingers is part of the natural aging process for you. Or maybe its a factor of diet. What’s your favorite low-fat food?
PL—I like peanuts a lot. They’re a very important part of my life. Are they low in fat?
BE—No, not at all. They’re high fat, but it’s the good kind. I say that because peanuts are natural.
PL—I once read that there’s a sharp divide between people who like peanuts and people who like pecans. The pecan people are arrogant, disingenuous elitists. The peanut people are decent, emotional, but a bit cryptic.
There are more of us Peanuts, but the Pecans are wealthier and better supplied. When it all goes down, choose your side wisely.
BE—Sometimes I add crushed pecans to our Saturday morning pancakes, but I prefer and more often use walnuts. Never peanuts. I do eat a lot of peanut butter, though. Tell me more about what you’re working on. When are you going to write a book about cigarettes?
PL—Funny you should ask. I have a book that is pretty much done about traffic in illegal cigarettes. It’ll come out eventually. Sooner rather than later, I hope.
BE—I hope so, too. What else?
PL—I’ve got a few other novels that are complete or getting there. Some of them have characters who smoke. I once wrote a play about insurance fraud called The 385 Pound Smoker. The title character did not make it to the end of the play.
BE—I’d like to get my hands on that. The play, not the character. More on your books, though. If you could pull only one book of yours out of a fire, how would you describe your remorse over letting the other one burn?
PL—I would pull the switch so that the trolley changes tracks and runs over one man, saving the five people working on the other track. I’d always feel responsible for killing a human being, but I think it’s the right thing to do.
BE—Maybe I should switch gears a little, too. Tell me about some good books you’ve read lately.
PL—Cotton Comes to Harlem by Chester Himes. Incredibly vivid and detailed crime novel set uptown in the early 1960s with as good a setup as you could ask for (87,000 dollars hidden inside a bale of cotton).
Also the short stories of Isaac Singer, who was nearly incomprehensible when I first tried to read him in junior high school but now seems pretty straightforward—old men live in small apartments, eat at delicatessens, and meet the occasion dybbuk.
BE—I’ll admit, I had to Google that: a malicious, possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. From Jewish mythology. On a lighter note, will you escape New York this summer, or are you more of a fire hydrant type of guy?
PL—New York. Straight through to September. That’s what it looks like.
A lot of people think kids playing in NYC fire hydrants all summer is just a movie trope, but it’s real. I did it as a kid.
BE—No, I know. Can you believe that two weeks ago the federal government activated its Heat Emergency Plan for the District of Columbia? They urged federal workers in DC to “beat the heat without tampering with fire hydrants.” Actual language. “Unauthorized hydrant use can hamper firefighting, damage the water system and cause injury. It can also flood streets, creating traffic dangers…” Well, so what other hydrant-related issues did you observe as a kid?
PL—Sometimes people would yell out their windows that we were wrecking their water pressure. I was assured by an urban planner that this is a big lie. Some people just like to complain out an open window in the summertime.
PL—They’d also tell us to go play in traffic or go pet a rabid dog or occasionally that we should go fuck ourselves, which for some reason seemed more funny than threatening. We were eight and it was hot.
BE—Wow. Some people have no class. Also, I feel like ordering kids to do something like that should get them named on a law enforcement registry. Speaking of kids, how do you feel about the work of Franklin W. Dixon?
PL—I read some Hardy Boys when I was younger, but I never got too deep into that well. I read a lot of Encyclopedia Brown; I respected him but rooted against him. It’s something like how I feel about the New England Patriots.
BE—I’ll let that one go. Respect the Pats? Tell me more about crime books.
PL—If we’re talking about child detectives, I’d like to mention Andy and Willie Super Sleuths by Lee Sheridan Cox. Kind of a crazy book, written in the 1960s by a 17th century lit professor who mostly wrote about Shakespeare and Milton. Then she decided to write one detective novel for fifth graders.
A child playing Herod in a Christmas pageant takes things way too far, prompting a very disturbing abduction of an infant. Andy and Willie solve the mystery and teach us all a profound theological lesson.
BE—That reminds me. You’re a really well-read, and widely read guy. I remember hearing stories about the delivery of crates of books to your place in Malawi. So, sort something out for me. I really admire the gritty darkness of Cormac McCarthy’s work. But I have a tough time squaring that vision with a pastry-puff title like All the Pretty Horses. Can you help me out here?
PL—I’ve read a few of his novels and enjoyed them a lot. Never got to All the Pretty Horses, but I choose to believe it’s My Little Pony fan fic. Sometimes a writer just wants to do something completely different. Maybe it succeeds, maybe it doesn’t. I heard that after Samuel Beckett died, they found a teleplay for the TV show Golden Girls among his effects. Why not stretch yourself a bit?
We concluded with some idle chit-chat not suitable for publication.