Interview with Lou Aguilar

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I have the great pleasure in interviewing Lou Aguilar today! He is the author of Jake for Mayor.

Welcome to Layered Pages, Lou! Tell me a little about yourself and how you got started in writing.

Almost everyone who adores books has at some point thought about writing one. Most realize they’re better at enjoying literature than creating it. A very few have the discipline and talent to go the distance. By age 12, I knew I had the latter, which could lead to the former. Being the son of a renowned scholar certainly helped. I read very few children’s or young adult books (although a lot of comic books), instead devouring Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, the Three Musketeers, Greek mythology and ancient history. My first short stories featured an Ancient Roman secret agent foiling plots against Augustus Caesar. These underwhelming tales are thankfully lost forever, but the habit they engendered, and my desire to excel at it, remain.

Are there any boundaries you have pushed as a writer?

I find the current outpour of dark, edgy, morally ambiguous storytelling to be monumentally boring and, worse, artificial. Even masters of the form like Thomas Harris seem to have run out of tricks, judging by the last dud in his two-thirds brilliant Hannibal Lector trilogy. Three years ago, I realized that pleasant, uplifting fare with clear-cut male heroes and, gasp, femininely real women is as radical today as Vonnegut, Heller and Kesey were to the safe literature of their day. This was the countercultural direction I chose to take, starting with a screenplay about an anti-Christian legal case, and then my first novel, Jake for Mayor. Of course once you go this route, progressively correct censorship becomes an obstacle, more in screenwriting than fiction, yet notably there as well.

What is your writing process?

Raymond Chandler advised at least four straight hours a day for the professional writer. I’m not sure if any of my books will ever equal The Big Sleep, but one should emulate the best (minus the heavy drinking). I get exercise out of the way early, so that the need for it doesn’t haunt me when I’m writing, followed by a good breakfast. The subsequent cup of coffee accompanies my revision of the previous days’ work, while I make improvements. Then I start the new stuff. Before attacking the novel, I have written an outline of the plot in present tense (what Hollywood types call a “treatment”). I’ll naturally diverge from this as the scenes and characters take on a life of their own.

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How has writing impacted your life?

Becoming an appreciated author has given me the sense of fulfillment I’d sought since childhood. The verification that all my years of reading and philosophizing, and personal sacrificing, were not a solitary ego trip but the formation of an artist whose work gives readers pleasure and even intellectual stimulation. It has also introduced me to a wonderful new orbit of bright and beautiful book people. The only cost has been the absence of what I’d hoped to have by now – a family and financial security – but my life’s scale is now more balanced, and I can still make up for lost time.

What advice would you give a beginner writer?

A variation of my last answer. Know that by following your passion you’re deviating from the standard path to success. If you’re not good enough at this extraordinary craft, you’ll find out soon enough, and hopefully get back on a normal track. But even if you’re great, there’s no guarantee of success. You may instantly hit one out of the park, like my friend J Ryan Stradl with his New York Times bestseller first novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, or you may wallow for years in a bleak subsistence that makes even continuing to write difficult. You must stack the odds in your favor by blueprinting great literature of the genre you intend to enter. You don’t have to imitate it, only understand what makes it click while you find your own style.

Tell me about your story, Jake for Mayor.

It’s a Mark Twainish tale about a sophisticated political elitist with no sympathy for middle America (any resemblance to a recently defeated presidential candidate is not quite coincidental) who becomes entrapped by it then gradually enchanted. His guide from one viewpoint to the other is a delightful dog, whom he initially uses for his advantage, and pays the price for it before his ultimate redemption. The book is satiric, wholesome and short. It’s inspired by the true story of tiny Erie, Colorado, where a dog actually ran for mayor and got votes. I heard it when I was living in Venice Beach as a produced screenwriter. A stunning young woman came up to me and said she was from Erie, a writer herself, and would Disney be interested in a script about the recent mayoral race there. Looking her over, I of course said yes, and that we’d have to work closely on it at all hours. We wrote the treatment, then I wrote the script, which became one of the most popular unsold screenplays in Hollywood. I’m glad it wasn’t bought because it enabled me to elevate a cute tale into my notable first novel.

I am really big on character development. What are the habits of your protagonists?

At the beginning of the story, with everything going swimmingly for him, Ken Miller is a slick, cocky, superficial political operator to whom everything has come easily, including a beautiful rich fiancée. His reservoir of BS enables him to survive a first fall from grace relatively unchanged, knowing he can retreat to his previous comfort zone. But a second fateful drop begins to deconstruct him, and it takes a sweet animal and a strong beautiful woman to reconstruct him into a decent human being. Yet it’s his initial resistance to that redemption that creates more trouble for him, and almost dooms him.

What is the mood or tone your characters portrays and how does this affect the story?

This is a comedy so the mood and tone are humorous throughout. Even when Ken’s world is falling apart, he retains his sharp wit but turns it toward self-deprecation. For example, while sharing a jail cell with Jake the dog, he sees the animal get preferential treatment. “This is speciesm!” he says. “And I’m on the wrong end of it.” Clearly the second half of the statement bothers him more than the first.

What are the emotional triggers of your characters and how do they act on them?

The most blatant emotional trigger comes at the story’s climax, when everything is once again falling into place for Ken, but only due to his dishonest manipulation of trusting townspeople. The reappearance of his desirable selfish girlfriend, now willing to ride his train to success, even over friends, is like a mirror to his former soullessness, and an affront to his new better angels.

What is your current writing project?

 “Paper Tigers”, a politically incorrect, semi-autobiographical romantic comedy about two ambitious Washington Post interns (copy-aides), a cowboy conservative and a patrician feminist beauty, that answers the question, “Can chemistry trump ideology?” I’m a third of the way through, and can already promise heads will explode. Should be out in time for Christmas.

Where can readers buy your book?

The easiest way is online from Barnes & Noble. And thanks for the plug.

More About Lou Aguliar

Lou Aguilar was born in Cuba and lived there until age six, when his anti-Castro scholar father flew the family to America one step ahead of a firing squad (for his dad, not Lou). He attended the University of Maryland, where he majored in English, minored in film, and found both to be dependent on great writing. He became a journalist for The Washington Post and USA Today, then a screenwriter, and finally a novelist.

Lou has had three small movies produced, including the cult science-fiction filmElectra (33rd on Maxim‘s list of “The 50 Coolest ‘B’ Films of All Time”). He presently writes only “A” scripts and has a television legal drama and military thriller feature in development. Lou’s last short story, “The Mirror Cracked,” was published in a prestigious horror anthology, Kolchak: the Night Stalker Chronicles, which was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.

Lou is single, having postponed marriage until he either made the New York Times best sellers list or won an Oscar. But that stipulation has become less binding as the bird of youth flutters away. 

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