The Beatrice Interview

Edward Bunker

"When you're not locked up, you're locked out..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Edward Bunker knows the criminal world with an immediacy that other crime writers can only dream about. For nearly thirty years, beginning at the age of eleven, Bunker was in and out of state and federal correctional facilities. It was during his first stay in San Quentin, as a teenager, that he first discovered the power of literature and became determined to make it as a writer, one of the few legal career choices his criminal record would allow him to pursue. His first novel, No Beast So Fierce, was published in 1973 while Bunker was doing time at Marion for attempted bank robbery.

Paroled in 1975 in large part because of his literary talent, Bunker has spent the last twenty-two years devoting himself to writing novels and screenplays, with the occasional acting job here and there (younger readers, in fact, will recognize him more easily as Mr. Blue from Reservoir Dogs than as a writer). His fourth novel, Dog Eat Dog, was released in hardcover in 1996, followed a year later by the reissue of Little Boy Blue, which had been out of print for over a decade. William Styron identifies Dog Eat Dog as "a novel of excruciating authenticity, with great moral and social resonance;" James Ellroy calls it "the best novel about armed robbery ever written." Countless other readers have come to agree that when it comes to crime fiction, Edward Bunker is the real thing.

RH: If it weren't for writing, in all likelihood you wouldn't be alive today.

EB: That's true, I wouldn't. Even then, it took many years, because I didn't have anybody to teach me to write or to give me feedback -- when I was getting started, my only feedback was from other convicts, and what did they know about writing? So I would read how-to books and writer's guides in the prison library, and sometimes out of a whole book I'd get one little piece of advice I could use. But it was worth it, even though it took seventeen years and six unpublished novels before I finally got published, because I wouldn't have been allowed to do anything else. "When you're not locked up," I tell people, "you're locked out." I discovered in my early twenties that the only legit way I was going to make it was by writing. I'd been locked out of society and I wasn't willing to accept the situation they were going to allow me as an ex-convict.

RH: Despite the decades by which the stories in these two novels are separated, the core conditions they describe are identical.

EB: It's the same basic problem -- ex-cons only have a small amount of freedom, freedom within a circle out of which they can't move. That's true of criminals today the way it was true of criminals thirty or fifty years ago. The difference is that criminals today are more violent; when I was young, we preferred finesse. Only fools committed violent crimes.

RH: With Dog Eat Dog, you're moving away from the semi- autobiographical nature of your earlier novels. What motivated that change?

EB: I always followed the dictum, "Write what you know about." I took that to mean writing about your life, the way that Hemingway was essentially an autobiographical writer. Then William Styron said to me once that he envied me the story material that I had to work with, and that opened my eyes to the stories I knew about other people besides myself. Although Dog Eat Dog goes over the same territory as my earlier books, it's based on stories that I've heard over the years; part of the main plot is a true story I was told thirty years ago.

James Ellroy, one of my favorite writers, says that he makes everything up; I make nothing up. I memorize, I analyze, I move things around and fit them together in different ways, but I'm working with stories that I already know really well.

RH: What have you been working on lately?

EB: I've written a screenplay for Suicide Hill, one of Ellroy's novels, for the guy that produced True Romance and Killing Zoe. It's a pretty good screenplay, but it's a hard book to adapt because it's so convoluted. Ellroy gives you great scenes, tremendous characters, but his structures are so difficult to get a movieline out of -- but I did it, and it's way better than I thought it would be when I started.

RH: How did you get started on screenplays?

EB: When I was in prison, Alvin Sargent -- "Two-Oscar Alvin," they used to call him -- came down and we wrote the first draft of Straight Time, the movie based on No Beast So Fierce.

RH: How about Runaway Train, your most famous script?

EB: Kurosawa had written the basic story thirty years before and never made it. Eventually it was translated and they started shopping it around Hollywood. Andrei Konchalovsky was trying to get it made, and Robert Duvall was thinking about acting in it, but he didn't like the dialogue, he wanted the dialogue between the convicts to be more authentic. The guy they originally had in mind to rewrite the dialogue had just gotten busted for possession of coke, so they called me. I was living in New York, and at the time I was discouraged about the initial response to Little Boy Blue, so I said sure.

Anyway, they flew me out, put me in a hotel suite, gave me a driver, the whole standard Hollywood treatment. They gave me a basic plot -- they gave me the train going through the tunnel, those kinds of things, but the dynamics between the characters, the dialogue, that's all my work.

RH: What discouraged you about the reaction to Little Boy Blue?

EB: It had gotten great reviews, but it came out around the same time that Jack Abbott was released from prison and killed that guy. Abbott ruined things for a lot of ex-convict writers...hell, the peripheral effect still damages me. People still use it, or just the fact that I'm an ex-con, to dismiss me. I go on radio shows and people call in telling me, "They never should have let you write, who do you think you are," all that. They want to put me back behind a hot dog stand or in a car wash, they want me to be punished forever. America's not a very forgiving culture. It may profess Christianity, but it doesn't practice Christianity. The basis of Christianity is redemption, and we don't allow criminals to redeem themselves.

RH: One of the themes of Dog Eat Dog, in fact, is how the 'three strikes' rule fucks over a lot of people's lives by throwing away their shot at redemption.

EB: They're going to wind up with people killed over that. You steal some kid's bicycle from a garage, it's worth six months, but if it's going to be a third strike, the crook might kill anybody who tries to stop him just so he can get away. If you make every punishment the same, you're making every crime the same. It's the stupidest law I've ever seen.

And believe me, I'm really harsh. If a youngster's doing drive-by shootings, I say you lock him down until he's forty. But not just for punishment -- you quarantine him, sanitize him and train him for his benefit and the benefit of society. Certain personalities, they're formed by the time you're thirteen, fourteen, and after that, you're not going to reach that guy until he's forty and he's burnt out... They've got the whole process messed up. They're letting crooks get away with their first two crimes, and then the third thing may be nothing, but they'll still put him away from twenty-five years. They put a guy away at forty, he comes out at 65, what's he going to do except go on welfare? It costs a million dollars a case to keep one of those guys locked up all that time. It's stupid.

RH: Quick change-up question: how'd you get the part of Mr. Blue?

EB: Sundance has a director's school, where they teach you about directing by making you watch a film and dissect it, see what makes it work. Quentin had been there and the film he used was Straight Time; he'd seen the film, read the book, everything. And Quentin hasn't just seen every movie in the world, he remembers every scene from them. I'd made my acting debut in that film, in a scene with Dustin Hoffman, so when they were casting Reservoir Dogs, Quentin wanted somebody that really looked like a bank robber, and Chris Penn asks him, "How about Eddie Bunker?", and Quentin says, "Oh, yeah, he was in Straight Time, he was good!" So boom, they call me up, and I don't have to read or anything. The reason you never find out what happened to Mr. Blue is that there was a scene in the script where I'd gotten killed, and they ran out of money before they shot it.

That film's really what got me over in England. It's so big there, they mobbed Quentin so bad there when he came over with it, he had to leave the country. And it got them to bring my books back into print in England, bring me over to do readings and screenings of Straight Time and Runaway Train, the works.

RH: When you were a teenager, you felt you were going to die before you hit thirty. How's it feel to have lasted this long and "made it" as a writer?

EB: I'm getting more action now than ever before. I'm writing my memoirs, and they're bringing all my books back into print here. Cyril Connolly once said that you could tell if you were a success as a writer if your books were in print twenty-five years later, and here I am. And I've been places I never would have dreamed I'd be, met all kinds of people. I have a great wife, a great kid. It's amazing.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
James Ellroy | Stewart O'Nan

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan