An Interview with Steve Lerner

Hekate was lucky enough to be introduced to Steve Lerner through Cindy Rosmus, the Editor of Yellow Mama Web-zine. We took an immediate liking to his style of writing: Smart, funny, with a Noir uppercut, a difficult combination of punches to throw.

Who or what influenced you growing up?

I liked typical books for boys: books about sports heroes, adventures, Encyclopedia Brown. But my dad was in the habit of giving me a book every so often, and these books became important to me. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn all come to mind. I thought that Lord of the Flies was great. I was going to be Ralph, whatever happened in life, and maintain my integrity among the savages. Serious reading continued in ninth grade English when Mr. Hanson (father of film director Curtis Hanson) had us read Homer, Shakespeare, Plato and Sophocles. Since then I've always tried to read great literature in between the Travis McGees, Jaws and the like, James Bond, etc).

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was fond of pool.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was fond of pool.

How were you drawn to music?

I could play piano by ear when I was six or seven. My family would come home from a movie and I'd go to the piano and play the soundtrack themes. It's not a brag, it's just weird. Truth is that, technically, I could never get past the intermediate level, while other pianists I knew were able to. I remember listening to the slow movement of a Bach or Vivaldi concerto when I was very young and thinking: that's a language, like English or Spanish or Russian. Music could speak to everyone, continents and centuries apart. Then I heard Oscar Peterson, and got interested in jazz.

Not certain J. S. Bach played tenor sax. Will have to ask Steve.

Not certain J. S. Bach played tenor sax. Will have to ask Steve.

How were you drawn to writing?

I had an active imagination, and loved books and movies, so I wanted to try. I wrote a short story that I read to my third grade class, and got one good laugh in the middle. Fantastic. I sometimes wrote during class in junior high and high school when I should have been listening to the teacher. I made a commitment in my twenties to try different genres and see what I was best at. Nothing much came of it back then, but I thought I was getting better.

Who were your influences in both of these disciplines?

In classical music, it's Bach. He took all the best music that came before him and brought it to its zenith, and provided a foundation for all music to follow. Also, Beethoven, Mozart, Scarlatti, Shostakovich, I could go on. I also began to appreciate film soundtracks: The Conversation, Ragtime, scores by Morricone, Rota, Herrmann. In jazz, Oscar Peterson led to Art Tatum and Ben Webster, and I just kept going. My dad introduced me to Duke Ellington. Mom was more a fan of George Gershwin. For my recital, as the last requirement of my degree in music composition, I wrote an Ellington-type piece for my Dad. He picked the instruments: two trombones, two clarinets and a tenor sax. It really swung and was a big hit. For my mom, I wrote Three Preludes (for piano), a la Gershwin. The pianist on them played them in his own concerts afterwards. My Dad said that the Prelude number 3 was one of the best things he ever heard. Wild, minor-key syncopation. Nothing much else I wrote for that recital proved very memorable.

In writing, I was a fan of so many, but the first writer who I considered a strong influence was William Goldman, notably with The Princess Bride. His ability to achieve a conversational tone is rarely equaled. Also Ira Levin, with his outlandish plots and quick-moving style. Donald Westlake and Robert Crais also wrote the kinds of books I hoped to emulate.

Ira Levin, author of the play  Deathtrap  as well as novels  Rosemary’s Baby  and  The Stepford Wives  . . .

Ira Levin, author of the play Deathtrap as well as novels Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives . . .

Ben Webster, “The Frog,” one of the greatest . . .

Ben Webster, “The Frog,” one of the greatest . . .

How do you see music and writing fitting together?

In music there's melody, harmony, counterpoint, instrumentation, but the most difficult thing for me was form. Theme or motif, development, contrasting sections, recapitulation, all put together to form a meaningful whole. Striving for this in music, though often failing, I think benefited me when I returned to writing. Mostly what I found was that music, form aside, has two fundamental elements: tempo and mood (mood consisting of melody and harmony). These evoke all: excitement, contemplation, joy, sorrow, mystery. That's what I listen for, and why the improvisational element of jazz can be so interesting. In writing, you tell a story. But the way you tell it can evoke far more than that story. Musical tempo and mood have their analogs in writing. I'm deeply aware of this because of my musical background.

What is your writing method, your routine?

I think about the plot and characters, jotting down ideas on paper, and then plan the sequence of scenes as best I can. Then to the computer for scene one, and make it as real as I can. I try to write quickly, to keep it feeling natural, but rarely produce a paragraph or dialogue that doesn't benefit from a little rewriting. The original outline might change as new insights and inspirations present themselves.

Steve’s latest novella, The Book of Jake, is available in Ebook formats through various online sources such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Nook. Paperback edition is available through Amazon.