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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author Ed Davis talks about his writing career, and his personal experiences that inspired his latest book, The Last Professional.

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Written by JJ Barnes

I interviewed author Ed Davis about his career, what inspires him, and the work that went into his new book, The Last Professional.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I began my writing career over forty years ago, pausing in boxcars, under streetlamps, and in hobo jungles to capture the beats and rhythms of the road as I caught freight trains and vagabonded around the Pacific Northwest and Canada. My latest novel, The Last Professional, which began in a boxcar, will be released in January, 2022, and my short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals.

My novella, In All Things, and my collection of travel narratives, Road Stories, have both been Amazon Top Ten bestsellers, and my death row thriller, A Matter of Time, was written in real time, twenty-four hours, as the last day of the hero’s life unfolds.

Ed Davis on The Table Read
Ed Davis

My wife Jan and I have been married for forty-five years (Jan rode freight trains across Canada with me when we were in our early twenties), I have worked at every sort of job, from truck driver, to Carney barker, to coal shoveler, but for the last thirty-five years I’ve been lucky to work with my best friend from high school running a small manufacturing company that we are very proud of.

I have two children and three grandchildren (all in Portland, Oregon), Jan and I live in Glen Ellen, California — just down the hill from Jack London’s Beauty Ranch.  I am a world-ranked discus thrower at the Masters level, played bass for Cynthia Carr & The Carrtunes for thirty years, and can’t quite believe that I’m about to turn seventy!

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When did you first WANT to write a book?

In the mid-1970’s. I was not yet thirty, I’d fallen in love with John Steinbeck’s writing, and I set out to tell a story in that vein, based loosely on the small town where I grew up. I sent it off to the Scott Meredith agency, who would read for a fee in those days. Their response — not the worst I’ve ever received, but close — was crushing. It almost made me stop. Almost.

When did you take a step to start writing?

The letters I wrote to Jan, when I first caught freights across the country — and we were first together — did it. I was aware that a sort of alchemy was taking place, a blending of loneliness, and adventure, and love. My writing seemed to bind them into an entirely new and precious element. I have hungered for more of that element ever since.

How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

I was clerking at a feed store at the time, and would write furiously before work, during lunch, and whenever I could grab a few minutes. The writing probably took three months, start-to-finish. After the scathing review from the Meredith Agency, it went in a drawer and has not seen the light of day since.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

The Last Professional, which releases at the end of January, began in a boxcar over forty years ago, when I wrote the line: Somewhere a hobo is waiting. Over the decades it has been represented by multiple agents, gone through more rewrites than I can remember, gotten longer, gotten shorter, gotten illustrated (Colin Elgie did great work here), and finally found the right home, with the right publisher, in Geoff Habiger at Artemesia Publishing.

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What made you want to write The Last Professional?

I was fortunate to begin riding the rails when the last of the old Knights of The Road – Profesh, they called themselves – were still active. The code they lived by, and the personal sacrifices they made in service of their passion for freedom, seemed to distill for me the essence of our American character. Eyes always on the horizon, independent but not irresponsible, restless but reliable. Self-reliant, but not selfish. Honorable.

There was an archetypal quality to their lives and their world — the same world we inhabit but one that they see entirely differently — that was captivating. That, and the experience of the freights themselves. Majesty, drama, excitement, danger, all playing out against a backdrop of thundering locomotives and our extraordinary American landscape. Having experienced it first-hand, I felt compelled to try to share it.

What were your biggest challenges with writing The Last Professional?

It has been over forty years since I wrote the first draft, but my memory is that the experience was as cathartic as it was creative. I didn’t care about underwriting or overwriting, I just brought the best of myself to the process and let it unfold. Jan and I had scraped together enough money to allow me to focus on writing just when our son, Noah was born. I stayed home, wrote, and had the extraordinary opportunity to be a nearly fulltime presence in his life that first year.

The Last Professional by Ed Davis on The Table Read
The Last Professional

I found representation for that novel, and another, but publishing contracts never came together, and money grew short. I shifted focus, and have absolutely no regrets that I did. In the last half-dozen years my focus has been able to shift back, a welcome turn of events for which I am very, very grateful.

So, has the money been a challenge? Of course. I imagine it is, to some degree, for every writer. But the biggest challenge? That was finding the right editor, at the right time. I feel incredibly lucky that I did. The Last Professional is dedicated to him.

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Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?

Like Lynden, the protagonist, I was separated from my father at an early age, and only knew him as a vague memory– his absence was a presence.

Also like Lynden, I was sexually molested as a boy, though by a family friend, not by a tramp. When I first wrote the book, I was in my late twenties and identified with Lynden, the young man returning to the rails to confront his past. When I came back to it, after letting it languish for decades, I identified with The Duke, the old professional hobo who is clinging to his vanishing way of life.

Now, as The Last Professional is finding an audience, I find myself identifying with Lynden again; the boy who was never seen by his father, and who never allowed the wounds of his youth to heal. As a writer approaching his 70th birthday, finally facing those issues of my youth, rather than telling myself that they were behind me, is something I did not expect, but that I’ve come to understand is long overdue, and necessary.

Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?

Just as the Profesh adhered to an honor code, their counterparts on the rails — a loosely affiliated gang known as The Johnson Family — were their polar opposites. No code, no conscience. Fiction requires such contrasts; without the specter of Bob Ewell our appreciation of Atticus Finch cannot be fully realized. Short Arm, the antagonist in The Last Professional, is my Bob Ewell.

What is the inciting incident of The Last Professional?

Lynden, a topnotch Silicon Valley programmer, is sexually threatened by his boss, who has just given him a big promotion. The incident triggers flashbacks of the sexual abuse he endured when he was just eleven, and traveled on freight trains with a tramp who abducted him. He has spent all the years since suppressing those memories. Now he decides to return to the rails and confront them.

What is the main conflict of The Last Professional?

The only thing Lynden knows for sure about the tramp is that he wore a brass belt buckle in the shape of a fist, the badge of The Johnson Family. The Duke, who is the last of the Profesh still riding, takes Lynden under his wing. Lynden enlists the old hobo’s help in finding Short Arm, the last of The Johnson’s still on the rails. Unbeknownst to Lynden, Short Arm is pursuing The Duke, intent on killing him.

Ed Davis, author of The Last Professional, interview on The Table Read

Did you plot The Last Professional in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?

I did not plot in advance. I knew the setting. I knew the characters. I knew the conflict. I literally and figuratively set the train in motion and let it take me.

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Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did The Last Professional need?

It may be apocryphal that Max Perkins, a bonafide legend in publishing—and by all accounts an extraordinary editor—once mused: As editors, do we make writing better, or just different? Apocryphal or not, it’s a fair question. And the answer is completely dependent on the editor. I’ve had competent editors who showed me what I got wrong, and good editors who showed me what I got right.

The great editors I’ve worked with, and they are rare, have shown me potential in my work and in myself that I did not know was there. Coming from the wrong editor — — one who lets their ego get in the way — — that can be intimidating, infuriating, even stifling. Coming from the right editor, one who is as invested in the quality of your work and in you as you are, those constructive challenges can lead to writing that exceeds both of your expectations.

The Last Professional would not be the book it is without my friend and editor, Vince Zukowski. With his help and dedication, the book is both different and much, much better than it would have been otherwise. That is why it is dedicated to him.

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?

Write first, think later.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

When you are lucky enough to find the right editor, you owe it to yourself to do everything you can with them. Returning to my personal and literary roots, and working closely with Vince, I’ve completed a novel and short story collection set in the fictional town of O’Farrell, which anyone who knows me will recognize as very closely resembling Sebastopol, where I was raised.

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Yes, and yes.

In The Last Professional, one character posits to another: “So, we’re slaves to our dreams?” The other answers, “Yeah, if we’re lucky enough to have dreams at all.”

I have always felt lucky to be a slave to this dream of writing. Have there been costs? Absolutely. Was it worth it? You bet!

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