In the early 19th century, a young Spanish scout named Rafael Rivera wandered off from Antonio Armijo’s trading expedition – en route to Los Angeles – and came back to report he had just discovered a breathtaking oasis in the middle of nowhere. Though long traversed by Southern Paiutes, the Patayan and even the Anasazi, “The Meadows” (as it would be named by European adventurers) would soon become a happenin’ hot spot and refueling venue in more ways than one. We simply know it as Las Vegas – the backdrop for debut author Jesse Kaellis’ gritty collection of real-life stories about the gambling capital of the world.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: What prompted you to write a book about the twilight glitz that is the casino subculture of Las Vegas?
A: I wasn’t really planning on writing a book. I started writing stories that I was posting on an online writers forum that was connected to a free dating site. I developed a following. When I had a body of work together my girlfriend helped me proof it and I started making submissions mostly to Canadian publishers. My girlfriend found out about a contest, the Simon Fraser University/Anvil Press 1st Book Contest. This was under the auspices of the SFU Creative Writing Department and the winner got a contract with Anvil Press, a mid-level lower mainland publisher. I shortlisted and I came in third place. The head of the department, John Mavin, kindly sent me comments from the reviews. I realized that I had a lot of raw talent and a strong voice. My style was unique; that was the feedback that I received.
Q: You’ve indicated that the book is a memoir about Vegas, boxing, violence, sex, love, grief, narcotics, the death industry, irony, despair, surfacing, humor, black humor, arcane jobs and subcultures, and the alchemy of transforming pain into empathy. Traditionally, autobiographies about people who aren’t well known to the general public are a tough sell in the publishing industry. What was the thought process that made you pursue it anyway rather than opting for a straight work of fiction?
A: Because some stories are stranger than fiction? People of notoriety have stories but can they write? Those stories are usually ghost written. I don’t read fiction and I only ever wrote one piece of fiction which was transparently my alter ego. My stories were earned the hard way, I lived them. But I have a voice; I have a style, a style that is not contrived in anyway. I wrote a story, it’s in my book, and it’s called ‘A story about nothing happened’ and, of course, the point being that there is always something happening if I have eyes to see and a voice to describe my perceptions. To sum it up, I wrote about what I know; if nobody wants to read it, then that’s just my hard luck.
Q: How much creative license did you take in relating real-life events?
A: Zero; no embellishment and I didn’t spare myself at all. People call my book painfully honest. It didn’t pain me, or I should say the pain was already there. The surcease for me was in writing about it. For instance, giving up in a fight, a boxing match, that’s never going to be okay. I made a decision at a moment in time; I took the back door because I wanted out of there and I did it in front of friends and strangers, and I didn’t have to do that and it was not remotely worth it. I learned the hard way.
Q: What do you feel distinguishes your book from the competition?
A: I do believe that I have a unique style, one reviewer, an online magazine I did an interview with years ago; she said I have a gift for literary simplicity. The first thing I do is figure out what I want to say, then I want to get there fairly directly. At the same time, I’m writing and remembering and getting insights as I write. The story is pulling me along. I’m also looking for that payoff, and it could be a sentence or even just a single word.
Q: Tell us about your choice of title and what it means to you.
A: “Early Out” is a term that any casino dealer is familiar with. All it means is that you get to go home early. Let’s say you have a dead dice game, no action, and there is another game with a little bit of action. So let’s say it’s a six pm to two am shift. Around midnight you are on a dead game and, “Who wants to go home?”
I always did because I wanted to get home and party, a party at which I was the only guest. They count the bank, get a fill, if they need it, bring up the lid and lock it and then the crew goes home. We maybe stop at the back bar to get a drink. See the casinos pay dealers minimum wage. Most of your income comes from tokes, tips. Casinos have a rock hard bottom line. Why pay dealers to stand around, even if it’s just at minimum wage? These joints count every penny.
As well, “Early Out” has a more sinister connotation, given how hard I pushed it over the nine years that I lived in Vegas. “I got so high this time that I never came down, never came back.”
Q: Is Early Out your first published work? If so, how difficult was it for you to construct?
A: It is my first published work; no—wait, I had three pieces published in SubTerrain Magazine, a quarterly literary magazine, published by Anvil Press. That was a couple of years ago. Writing it was not difficult. I wrote it one story at a time. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have to develop characters, I mean all I did was remember and write. I started with the Vegas stuff and after a while I felt I should provide motivation for the protagonist, I mean, why was I such a lowlife? I didn’t alibi, but I did delineate a bereft childhood. I figured that was fair enough. Everybody comes from somewhere. Nobody is born a monster, or perhaps they are, I don’t know. Maybe I was concerned with being a sympathetic character. One of the reviewers from the SFU Creative Writing Department wrote that in many ways I was not likable but he did like me and he had empathy for me.
I wept when I read that because I knew I was doing my job. This is what I’m saying, honesty is not just in the facts but it is in the tone, the “feel” of my narrative. My character came through as authentic. And I may be a sympathetic character because of my flaws and deformities, because we all fall short.
Q: Did you start with a working outline or simply let the creative juices flow from one day to the next?
A: I just wrote it one story at a time. The more I wrote, the more I remembered.
Q: How long did it take you to write Early Out?
A: About ten months.
Q: Were you editing throughout the process or did you wait until the whole thing was done?
A: I was proofing it. I have little formal education. I didn’t complete grade school. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic as a child. I didn’t read until I was eight years old. I have taken no creative writing classes. Just the same, I’m articulate and I write the way I talk. I wrote on instinct and I improved as I went along. I believe that my book gets stronger and ends strongly.
Q: Tell us about the audience you’re hoping to attract and what the book’s takeaway will be?
A: I have no idea—how about anybody under the sun? Naturally I’m hoping that I can touch everybody, anybody. I wrote a story, or dozens of stories and I stitched them into some kind of intuitively non linear order. I didn’t write it to an audience, how could I know, and I still don’t. What’s the takeaway? That the book is interesting? Many people read it in one or two sittings. There is nothing that I could ever write that would fundamentally change this world, and how about this? The world doesn’t need changing. Be careful how you hear that. This is a perfect world. Careful.
Q: How did you go about choosing a publisher for your book?
A: I took whoever wanted me and I was grateful for it. I was resigned to dying in complete obscurity. There were more than a few people that knew I would find a publisher, “You’re too good.” They believed in me more than I ever did my own self, particularly my ex girlfriend. I got Mountain Springs House, got a contract that I signed last March, and I was happy for it. At one point, at what seems like a lifetime ago, I thought I was going to get one of the Big 6 publishers. That story is partially told in my book.
Q: What do you know about the publishing industry now that you didn’t know when you started?
A: This has been about three plus years now. I was warned about how tough it can be but it takes going through it yourself to really know the vagaries of this business. The publishing industry is in upheaval at this time in particular. It really hasn’t shaken out yet, if ever. It has been painful at times and difficult, it has also been exhilarating and moving for me. My book has touched people. I wanted to be known, that’s why I wrote it. That’s why guys fight, as well, by the way. Fight in the ring. They are making a statement: I am. There is no higher expression of individuality in my perception. And women also fight as well, especially now a days.
Q: What would you have done differently in your journey to publication?
A: I wouldn’t have alienated one publisher in particular. I didn’t need to do it. There was nothing but a loss in it for me, I had a bi-winning moment and I burnt this guy down and maybe every other publisher on the lower mainland, but live and learn; and I got a second chance with another publisher.
Q: What are you doing to promote the book?
A: Not enough really. You can always do more—I’m doing online stuff, using my blog, interviews…
I found a service that places books in Nevada and Northern California for a nominal fee. They put paperbacks in casino gift shops and at the airport, convenience stores. They are based in Reno and Las Vegas and I expect to move books through this venue.
I am at number 3 on the Smashwords bestseller list in my genre. I broke the Amazon top one hundred about ten days ago; I had some really low numbers.
Q: Were you a voracious reader growing up? If so, what are some of the books and who are some of the authors that most influenced your style of storytelling?
A: Once I was able to read, yes, was an avid reader. My reading wasn’t restricted and my parents were left wing types, so: Mailer, Baldwin, Claude Brown, Alex Haley, George Orwell, Upton Sinclair, Jerzey Koszinski, Primo Levy, Joyce Carol Oates, Nick Touches, many more.
Q: What are you currently reading?
A: I’m not currently reading a book.
Q: What would your fans be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I don’t leave much room for speculation in my book. I’m not sure. My left eye is smaller than my right eye – noticeably. Seriously, I don’t know. I’m standing naked in my book, pretty much, but I don’t tell everything and I never will. God knows all, nobody else.
Q: If Early Out were turned into a movie, who would be in your dream cast for it?
A: I would like Daniel Day Lewis to play me, just because he’s a great actor. I don’t think you could turn my story into a movie—the scope of it. It could be a cast of thousands. However, any one story could be turned into a screenplay.
Q: What’s your best advice to aspiring writers who want to get published?
A: I am probably the worst person that could give advice. When publishers that allow unsolicited submissions give you submission guidelines then you better obey. But I didn’t and I don’t. I mean if you follow their guidelines it can be very time consuming. I’ll advise this; make multiple submissions. Tell the publisher that you have multiple submissions out there and you don’t have to list them by name. It’s an industry practice no matter what they say. You can’t wait on each single submission. You have an average six week turnaround. Be careful with contests, they can get costly. They generally charge an entry fee. Use your instincts if you have any.
I’m not organized, I’m not patient, I have thin skin, and the whole process has been inordinately painful for me, so, take heart. If I can do it, you can do it. Just don’t give up.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: My biggest problem with this business is that it is a business. I wanted the deal where I would be discovered and be transformed into an overnight star, something like what happened to James Frey. I know and I have known that I need to publish more material, and I do have a good deal of stuff that I can use, I think I have a book’s worth already. Now I just have to light a fire under my rear end and do it.