S.W. Lauden on his Greg Salem trilogy
Roped in with “Hang Time” author S.W. Lauden
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Some newspaper writers spend their entire career covering city council, community theater or local sports, while others use their journalistic knowhow and begin writing books. The South Bay has yielded a few examples of the latter, and among these is Steve Coulter who writes under the pen name of S.W. Lauden.
“Hang Time” is Lauden’s latest novel (the official publication date is Jan. 16), and it’s the concluding volume of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. trilogy, which also includes “Bad Citizen Corporation” and “Grizzly Season,” published by Rare Bird Books. In addition to these, Lauden is the Anthony Award-nominated author of the Tommy & Shayna novellas, “Crosswise” and “Crossed Bones” (Down & Out Books). Furthermore, he’s the co-host of the Writer Types crime and mystery podcast.
To employ an old cliche, “Hang Time” is a page-turner, and while it helps to have read the earlier installments it’s not really necessary, although one may briefly be confused at the beginning of the novel. And every so often, as with the mysterious “kid in the blue hat,” we know there’s a backstory that’s now poking up its head.
The title has a flexible meaning, along the lines of “Would you prefer hanging with Bruce Springsteen or hanging with Tom Dooley?” Get it? And if you drop the final “e” so that it reads Hangs Tim, well, okay, let’s not drop too many clues at the get-go.
Greg Salem, as noted, is a private investigator by day but his passion has always been music, and it’s pretty evident what kind of music by the names that are occasionally appear in the narrative: Black Flag, 98 Mute, The Angry Samoans, TSOL, and Pennywise. It’s no coincidence, of course, that many of these groups are local.
Greg’s older brother and band leader Tim committed suicide 20 years earlier, but now the reformed Bad Citizen Corporation wants to go back on the road. The heart of the group, Greg and Marco (who’s also Greg’s P.I. associate), seem to be in their early 40s. As we know, punk rock is a young person’s game, but some punkers managed to stick around for two or even three decades.
That’s what Bad Citizen Corporation is banking on, but their comeback tour is soon plagued with misfortune of a deadly kind. Meanwhile, Greg and Marco become entangled with the sexy young wife of a record producer. She’s the novel’s femme fatale, so keep an eye on her from the start.
Like Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” “Hang Time” takes place in the South Bay but eludes specifics. There’s a great deal more, of course, from the police and the tough bodyguards to Greg Salem’s uneven family life and how that plays out. But let’s learn more about Steve Coulter and what led him to become the novelist S.W. Lauden.
An author’s life and times
Q: You’re in Pasadena now. Where did you start out originally? Where did you go to school? How much time did you spend in the South Bay and why did you leave?
S.W. Lauden: I grew up in Redondo Beach and went to Mira Costa High School. I moved to Santa Barbara and Northridge for a few years while I got my journalism degree. I bounced in and out of the South Bay during my 20s, but haven’t lived there since the late ‘90s. Most of my family lives in the area, though, which allows me to visit pretty regularly. I still try to grab a Jr. Super burrito from El Tarasco whenever I’m in town.
You were the arts editor at The Beach Reporter for a few years. How did you end up in that position? What kind of writing did you do before? Did you leave The Beach Reporter for another writing job?
I worked at The Beach Reporter in the mid-’90s after a brief stint living in Europe. I was originally hired to do real estate advertorial, but my college newspaper experience led me to the arts editor role. I lived in downtown Hermosa Beach at the time and played in a few bands when I wasn’t writing for the newspaper. I left The Beach Reporter when my band Ridel High got signed. That’s pretty much what I did for the next decade or so, with that group and a band called Tsar.
Why did you opt for a nom de plume? Are you writing things under your real name?
I guess I wanted to protect the innocent, although I’m not sure how many innocent people I actually know at this point. I have not published any fiction under my own name so far.
I think we could say that “Hang Time” is a thriller or murder mystery. What got you interested in this genre? Are all of your books in this general category?
It’s a bit difficult to be sure, but the novel seems to take place locally. At one point Catalina is mentioned as being in the background. What area did you picture to yourself as you wrote this?
The South Bay backdrop is intentionally blurry and blended with other California beach towns like San Diego and Santa Barbara. I reference a few landmarks and drop the names of some famous local punk bands, but the stories are pure fiction—which is why I call the town The Bay Cities in the Greg Salem books. It gives me the freedom to talk about some of the culture elements of living along the coast without talking about a specific group of people, scene or neighborhood.
“Hang Time” is the third book of a trilogy. Did it start out as a trilogy originally? Numerous references are made to people and events in the earlier books. I think “Hang Time” stands on its own, but were you concerned about losing readers who hadn’t read the first two volumes?
That’s a great question, and actually something that I wrestled with a little. In my mind the difference between a series and a trilogy is that in a trilogy the stories are all interconnected. When I sat down to write the first Greg Salem book, “Bad Citizen Corporation,” six years ago I thought I only had one book on my hands, but the story kept getting bigger and bigger. Rather than try to cram it all into one huge novel, I broke it into three. Each of the three books, including “Grizzly Season” and “Hang Time,” has its own mysteries and resolutions, but the trilogy has the overarching storylines about Greg’s punk rock past, midlife crisis, and finally coming to terms with the death of his older brother.
Am I worried about losing readers? I think I’m still at the “trying to find readers” stage of my publishing career. But if somebody asked me where to start with the Greg Salem books, I would definitely encourage them to grab the first one and read them in order.
What do you want to convey to the reader of these books? Or rather, what would you hope that they get out of them?
The Greg Salem books are often billed as “punk rock P.I. novels,” and that’s pretty accurate. If you’re looking for high-energy, action-packed mysteries set in Southern California, these books will probably make you pretty happy. Or at least I hope so. I wrote them with punk music in mind so the chapters are short and the pace is fast. Beyond that, there are plenty of deeper and darker themes to explore, and a few violent little surprises tucked away in the shadows.
Music plays a key role in “Hang Time.” You’re a musician yourself and of course your hero (or anti-hero) Greg Salem is in a band as well. How much did you draw on your own experiences in music in creating his character and those of his sidekicks and bandmates?
I don’t think I would have written a series of punk P.I. novels if I hadn’t been in bands myself. Most of the descriptions of soundchecks in little clubs, band interactions in the tour van, and the backstage scenes rely pretty heavily on my own experiences—not the specific action or dialogue, but the little snippets of detail that bring those settings to life. There’s a certain rhythm to being in a touring band, spending almost all of your time with the same four or five people and making noise in club after club. It can be mind numbing, infuriating and exhausting, but I also found that it can be one of the most soul-quenching ways to spend your time on this planet.
This is already your fifth book. How did you make the transition from journalist to novelist? Was it an easy transition for you? Are you writing books fulltime now, or do you still need to supplement your income?
My transition from journalist to novelist was a slow one, and involved several other job changes in between. After leaving The Beach Reporter to pursue a music career, I never went back to full time journalism. I did a lot of freelance writing to make ends meet between albums and tours, but I also worked in catering for many years (it’s sad but true that I usually made more money as a bartender than as a journalist). Then, in my 30s, I set my drumsticks down, started a family and got sober. These days, I use my journalism background at a full-time sales and marketing gig.
What’s next for you, as we start this new year?
My agent has a brand new standalone novel that she’s currently shopping around. With any luck, that one will see the light of day sometime in 2019.
Hang Time, by S.W. Lauden, is available from Rare Bird Books. It’s the final volume in the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. trilogy. ER