Lanny Larcinese didn't begin writing fiction until his late sixties, but he has already established himself as a respectable noir writer. His two crime novels, Death in the Family and I Detest All My Sins, are prime examples of his talent. He is currently shopping a third novel and just completed his fourth. Lanny is also active in the writing community, helping other writers establish themselves in the market, particularly in developing the Crime Writers Caravan to coordinate public events for fellow authors. Interviewing him proved to be enlightening.
Your novels Death in the Family and I Detest All My Sins are excellent examples of modern noir. Why your focus on noir?
I'm philosophically and temperamentally prone to see the dark side of human nature, as reflected by the Seven Deadly Sins. Also, my work is character-driven. Combining those two things lead me to noir, especially a character who knows what he's about to do is wrong but does it anyway. He can't help himself. Or can he?
What makes your fiction unique?
Not unique but not typical in that my work is theme-driven via characters experiencing events created to bring out their conflicts concerning moral themes. The genesis of my stories in my head always begins with a character with a problem. Also, my writing voice is unique, a weird combination of highly articulate and "street," or vernacular.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
The art of expression. Knowing I can create sentences that have never been said before by anyone, ever—neither as to form nor content. Not all of course, but many. It's a combination of being well-spoken or having a facility with language and an otherwise moral/immoral take on life.
I'm interested in your next novel, Fire in the Belly. What can you tell us about it? What inspired you to write the book?
I lived in Philadelphia as the event it's based on unfolded. As a maven of all things urban, I saw it as a dramatic microcosm of governmental incompetence, racism, and the unintended ricochet of hostile militance by a group whose cause was otherwise worthy. In 1985, the Philadelphia police dropped a bomb from a helicopter on the rowhouse headquarters of an anarcho/primitive/Black liberation cult. The resulting fire, at first allowed to burn, got out of hand and killed twelve cult members including five children, and burned sixty-one adjacent rowhouses to the ground. The homes were mostly owner-occupied by middle-class Black Philadelphians. They had been vacated pursuant to the police action against the cult. Nobody involved had clean hands except the neighbors who were victimized by both the cult and the police—which is not to say death was justified by the negligence which caused it.
I wrote the book substantially modifying the facts yet capturing the pros and cons of the positions of each of the entities involved—civic authorities, cops, and cult victims. The original event was grim, with not much edifying about it. My book reflects that. In my effort to be non-judgmental about the controversial event, I wrote purposely in a flat, quasi-reportorial tone. I want the reader to make the judgments. Dialogue by my main characters hews closely to the actual principals which inspired them, though much is added.
What research was involved when writing Fire in the Belly? Did you talk with police officers? Former MOVE members or neighborhood folks who witnessed the conflagration?
I lived through it, read books regarding it, read the MOVE Commission report, and re-read contemporary news and magazine articles. I hesitated to interview MOVE members since one of the original principals is still alive. I sought to keep my story a work of fiction and avoid a "true crime" treatment. Fire in the Belly adds many fictional story elements, especially to characters, while conforming to the overall arc of the actual event and much of their rhetoric gleaned from actual public pronouncements. The "take" of each of the three groups involved were/are well-publicized, but I wanted the freedom to add my own take.
Who was the author who most inspired you to write?
Gosh, I was very well-read as a kid—fiction, history, poetry, classics, pot-boilers, philosophy, etc. so it's hard to pinpoint any one. I am partial to Faulkner, and more modernly, Cormac McCarthy, for the rhythm of their language. Crime-wise, George V. Higgins, David Goodis, and James M. Cain are inspirations. I'm not a big Chandler guy but respect his place in the canon. Peter Blauner is also a contemporary writing crime in a graceful fashion.
What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?
a) finding my writing voice; b) ignorance of online publicity techniques and social media in general; and c) getting my work out there.
What's your worst nightmare?
A book or story gets published and distributed laden with errors.
You've attended writers' conferences such as the Crimes, Creatures, and Creativity con. How would you convince writers to attend such events?
Community is so important, and writers are the most forthcoming, egalitarian group I've ever been associated with. Nobody asks you what your publishing credits are, what awards you've won, or who you know; rather will happily exchange with you from minute one as if you're one of them—which you are. Writing is a glorious gift, publishing a nightmare and not for the faint of heart. Hearing that the big guys endure the same stuff while happily sharing what they know is a vaccine against discouragement.
You do readings at events, such as Noir at the Bar. Many writers would like to participate in readings but are hesitant because they fear public speaking. Any advice?
Only what works for me, i.e., a mindset that this piece is really good. It is well-written, clever, unique, and unusual. No one else but me could have written it this way and the world needs to hear it.
Last book you read? What are you reading now?
Now: Fellow Philadelphian James McCrone's Faithless Elector. Recent: Prelude to Intimacy, a memoir by Ira Einhorn, Philadelphia guru and murderer and quasi-model for my work in progress titled Get Bek. That manuscript currently awaits editing.
Dashiell Hammett, James Ellroy, or Patricia Highsmith?
Hammett all day.
What five books do you think are "must-reads" for novice writers?
How-to? None. Just write your damn book. Otherwise, find and dissect books or stories which grip you. Try to identify passages that set you up for an aha-moment or gave you a thrill or warmed your heart, etc. Note how they were done, and how the author did it. Finally, write, write, write. It's like playing tennis—eventually, your body tells you the optimum muscles and angles for the best shot. IMO, encouragement to keep writing is much more valuable than any substantive technique or silver bullet some "expert" will impart. The novice needs to discover what works best for them.
Many fiction writers prefer to read nonfiction for pleasure. What nonfiction do you prefer?
What was the last movie you watched?
Pitch Perfect. Don't tell anybody, I have a macho image to maintain.
Let's talk for a minute about your memoir, Women: One Man's Journey. What inspired you to write the book?
As of the time I wrote it, a lifelong quest to understand my relationship with women, beginning with my mother, and theirs with me. Also, to reconcile my direct experiences of women with many of the pronouncements of the feminist movement as it evolved. For me, a lot of the signals were mixed. Writing the memoir helped me to deeper understandings. It forced me to make an honest evaluation of how I resonated with women as a condition of better understanding them.
Scotch, bourbon, or beer?
Scotch to drink around the bar with others, but also a martini guy.
Last question … what do you do for fun?
These days, social media. Ninety-eight percent of my 3,500 or so friends are writers who are interesting and clever. I also listen to a lot of music on YouTube and enjoy all genres from all periods.
Thanks for a great interview, Lanny. And good luck with your further writing ventures.
You can read more about Lanny at his website, lannylarcinese.com
(A version of this interview was published in the December 2021 issue of Suspense Magazine.)