Snow Leopard Sunday: Alexander Penn

So when did you begin writing?

My mother was actually a great writer in her day (unpublished of course), and she wrote grants for charities as her vocation. She’s always been the motivating factor behind my writing. She’d always tell me that it was my natural gift and that I should pursue it in college, where I ultimately opted for business school. The “writing gene” has always been at my fingertips. The “strong opinion gene” probably comes from my dad, though.

Probably in high school (about 6 or 7 years ago now, jeez) is when I realized I had an unnatural knack for writing. Ya know, I never kept a journal or anything like that, but my friends and I would write antiquated doctrines and corollaries back-and-forth to each other, basically commentaries on life itself, the rules of engagement with this world, and the like. It was really juvenile, but ultimately meant solely to be in jest.

The key to writing for me has never been to take it seriously. I remember writing a satire piece for my high school newspaper that was so controversial the dean of students had it stricken from the paper, which was high-class drama at the time. The piece wasn’t even malicious either, so I sent it out on the school listserv and every student received it personally in their inbox from me. Ultimately, I got suspended for that, but it’s kind of when my renegade personality began to flourish.

Tell us about You're a F**king Looter!

So, there’s this guy, right? His name is DeAnthony Black. Literally nothing good has ever really happened in his life. Then the hurricane comes. It wipes out the little he does have and all that remains are his two friends with whom he’s stuck riding out the storm. In the aftermath, the three friends realize they’re the only ones around and the city is their proverbial oyster. As they go on consecutive looting sprees, the ante gets upped over and again until one day it all goes south in the Motor Lot Massacre.

But the story is really about a burgeoning investigative journalist, Melissa Hawthorne. Almost a decade later, Melissa gets wind of DeAnthony’s story and ventures down to New Orleans to uncover the truth of what really happened that day at the car dealership. As Melissa digs deeper into DeAnthony’s story, she unravels an intricate web of deceit, malice, and racism with roots deep into the state & federal government.

Along the way, Melissa meets the vast cast of characters who had a hand in DeAnthony Black’s unjust imprisonment, suspicious trial, and the various murders committed throughout the book.

When you’re reading this book: expect thrilling action, expect dubious mystery, expect rampant excitement, and most importantly, expect a controversial commentary of it all. You’re going to love it!

How soon after Hurricane Katrina did you get the idea for the book?

Like my main character, Melissa Hawthorne, it was probably a decade after the storm. For a time, the storm wasn’t something I liked to think about. It was painful, destructive, and broke the city that I hold dearest. A lot of people suffered and it was something I kept furthest in the recesses of my mind. It wasn’t until earlier this year in January, actually, that an idea for this work began to creep into my brain. Then, one night in March, I couldn’t sleep. I sat up in bed and typed up an outline. From that point on, I was all in.

Why did you write your book?

The first thing you need to know about YAFL is that it is not meant to be like any other book. I didn’t want to write a book because I simply liked writing. I wanted to write a book about something that meant something to me. Hurricane Katrina was that something for me. It literally drives me crazy how afraid people are of talking about it. Hurricane Katrina was a HUGE deal. There needs to be more commentaries on it. I truly believe that.

Scanning the literary landscape, I found nothing, nobody who was willing to talk about it in a fictional way. A lot of the ideas for what I’ve written are based on semi-true happenings, rumors and articles from the time after the storm, and real New Orleanians thoughts about the matter. It’s a blunt, risqué topic to write about, but I thought it was one I could cover with genuine respect and honor for the victims of Katrina as well as authentic candor.

What were some of your motivations or triggers that sparked you writing YAFL?

There were actually two separate triggers I can remember and neither of them were books. The first was the Serial Podcast done by NPR. Like most, I thoroughly enjoyed the real life tale of Adnan Sayed as told by Sarah Koenig. In fact, I tried to mimic the way in which that story is told in YAFL from the point of view of the female investigative journalist diving into a potentially innocent man’s imprisonment. I found it highly en vogue and a style of story that I could try on for size. The second trigger was, strangely, the movie American Sniper, which I loved. I loved it so much, I read a lot about Chris Kyle’s story after I saw the film in January. There was one article (don’t know if it’s true) that talked about him being hired as an independent contractor to come to New Orleans with a kill-on-sight order to shoot looters and escaped convicts. That blew my mind, but got me thinking about looters. No one writes about looters or looting, so I did.

So what's with the controversial title? How do you think it will go over with people?

It’s an homage to one of the most dramatic scenes of the book. At the time, DeAnthony hasn’t fully comprehended what he’s done. He doesn’t realize he’s a looter and a criminal. As he’s being interrogated, the officer is yelling in his face the harsh reality of it all. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Further, authors these days write such passive titles for their books. It’s always “The (trendy or original noun)” or “A (basic adjective)+ (preposition)+(dramatic noun or place).” It bugs me how formulaic and boring they’ve gotten. Being a writer is about creativity, not conformity. One of the things I’ve always liked about musicians is that they are unafraid of naming albums wildly obscure phrases that coax you into listening to their songs. I’m more privy to listen to a song titled, ‘The Unintentional Death and Dismemberment of John Wayne’ than I am to listen to one called, ‘The Right Way.’ So, I thought maybe that could translate to the book world.

I really just wanted a title screams at you; a title that says, ‘HEY! PICK ME UP AND FIND OUT WHAT I’M ALL ABOUT!” It’s meant to read more like a headline. I hope people aren’t too offended by it, but I know it will turn some people off. Then again, the people that are turned off by it wouldn’t enjoy the contents of the book anyway. It paints a pretty clear picture of what the books about wouldn’t you say?

What specific challenges did you face when writing your book and getting a contract?

At first, finding the time is tough. You literally have to schedule out time just to put words on the paper. Then you get rolling and you can’t stop, so it’s about being disciplined in that regard. You also have to stop what you’re doing, any time of day, and write down any thought you have about the work, so you don’t forget. You can never assume you’ll remember a really clever line or sentence later on.

Getting a contract is miserable. I can’t tell you how many people turned down my work. It’s too gritty for a lot of mainstream houses to put their stamp on. The biggest challenge is researching thousands of agents and publishing houses to whom you’ll pitch. Then, once you’ve got a list of about 200 targets, whose interests align with yours, you send out queries and they slowly get rejected one after the other. It’s a defeating process. You’ve got to hear a lot of the word ‘no.’

Fortunately, Marc at Snow Leopard found me. If he hadn’t, this book would be sitting in a desk drawer collecting dust.

What has been the most rewarding part of writing and getting a contract?

Just knowing that someone read my work and thought, ‘This isn’t half bad. We can work with this.’ There’s really very little rewarding about writing. It’s a sacrifice. You have to give up some things you enjoy to put together a book worth reading. It’s a grind and marketing is a hustle. But, having a publisher have your back is mega. It gives you someone in your court, who will have your back and can support you after the grueling, support-less process of writing.

Who are some authors you’ve read that may have influenced your writing style?

Probably my favorite author of all time is Chuck Palahniuk for his work, Fight Club. The way he drops anti-jokes, running commentary, and different perspectives of his own work within his work is insanely brilliant. It’s a technique I try to imitate in my work. Walter Dean Myers is another author I greatly admire. The way he makes gritty details and grinding narratives read poetically is something I supremely enjoy. SE Hinton and Dennis Lehane are two more authors who I’ve read most of. The willingness both have to attack messy topics is a trait that inspired me with my work.

What tip or piece of advice would you give to unpublished writers?

Don’t call yourself a writer or author until you’ve actually written something. It’s a slap in the face to anybody who has ever sacrificed the time, thought, mindspace, effort, etc. to get published. You may be a “creative”, but you’re not a writer until you’ve actually done it and somebody has read it.

Also, take off the fucking training wheels and write something. People who want to be writers often act like their own lives need to be scripted in such a way that is conducive to writing a book. That’s really not how it works. If you want to write something, sit down at the keyboard and type until you get carpal tunnel. It’s not glamorous; it’s work.

The writer’s life is often solitary and lonely because it is hard to relate to. Your critics will always say, ‘Why is that guy drunk at two in the afternoon?’ or ‘How can somebody who smokes so much peyote be a functional member of society?’ Ignore them. It’s all part of the super-secret “process” we writers have. Oh, and did I mention not taking yourself to seriously through it all?