Reviewed by Kevin Redding
In writing his first book “Wednesday Night Meeting,” a large novel of connected short stories tackling a wide range of topics from religion to baseball to surrealism to poetry to minor traffic violations, East Setauket resident Louis L. Lasser IV set out to create something unconventional and personal, wanting to, in his own words, “write a book I always wanted to read.” It’s clear when speaking to the 38-year-old North Shore native that the unconventional route has always been his preferred one, and his book, made possible by a Kickstarter campaign and available now on Amazon and at Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, is for those looking for something different.
The tap dancer-turned-math teacher-turned-bartender-turned-author, who grew up in Mount Sinai, got inspired in New York City, and spends his mornings writing and his nights serving drinks at Mario’s Italian Restaurant in East Setauket, recently spoke with me in the darkly lit, cozy restaurant about his upbringing, his complex relationship with religion, how film directors informed his narrative style and the influence Long Island and Manhattan have had on the book.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in Mount Sinai going to dance classes, tap and ballet, because my mom was a ballet teacher. I would hide it for a long time and didn’t want to tell my friends. I actually ended up studying a lot, started playing [sports like baseball and football] less and dancing more … I quit football in high school just to tap dance, which my coach didn’t really understand or like very much. He was like “what are you kidding me, Lasser?”
I started at Cheryl Rich Dance Studio in Nesconset and then when I went to Adelphi University, they didn’t have tap programs so I had to take the train into the city to Broadway Dance Center and started taking classes from the world’s greatest tap dancers, Savion Glover, Omar Edwards, and it ultimately led to me dancing on stage with Gregory Hines several years later, so that was a big part of my life and it still is.
What did you study in college?
I was a math major. Then I taught math for 12 years in the private school system. I taught in the city (La Salle Academy), Southampton and then in Sayville at Prince of Peace Regional School.
What got you interested in writing?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I liked writing poetry and I learned that I could save a lot of money on mom’s presents by writing her a poem, putting it in a frame, and then she’d cry — which I knew was an accomplishment for a gift.
What did you like to write about?
Everything from appreciation for life and the crazy chance that we even exist to seeing the good and bad in things. A lot of it came to question religion and the role it plays and whether people really think about their religion or whether it’s a religion of convenience. A lot of my life has been about religion. My grandfather was a pastor, my mom taught me to question things and be very accepting, and my own readings led me to be very skeptical about a lot of stuff, so a lot of my life has been trying to figure out what religion means and the book tackles that.
When Prince of Peace closed, a lot of teachers got reassigned to other schools or private schools and I liked teaching but I didn’t love it and I always wanted to write and wanted to take on something bigger than poetry. I wanted to actually put a novel together.
What is your writing process?
I treat it like a job. Every morning from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. is writing time. The pen wasn’t on paper at 6 but I woke up, made the coffee, opened the laptop, started taking notes. For three hours, I had to “show up.” Sometimes it would be really productive, and sometimes you’d regret it. Sometimes I’d wake up and say ‘this week this chapter has to be done or I’m gonna punch myself in the head’ or force myself to take a cold shower for an hour. Set some punishments, which isn’t a bad way to actually motivate yourself. I’ve heard a good way is to take a terrible picture of yourself and give it to someone else and, if you don’t meet that deadline, they post that picture on social media, so you better get it done.
Tell me about ‘Wednesday Night Meeting.’
There are four main characters and they all start out with their own short stories that alternate throughout the beginning and then become a cohesive novel halfway through, and the story arcs of each character are based on math equations where they eventually will start separately and meet in the middle and then their lives are altered from there. That’s kind of the math teacher background playing a part.
One of the main characters is a poet questioning what’s going on with religion and the book takes place about five years from now and it’s after a big breach where everything embarrassing — any sexual history that you’ve had, search history, keystrokes — is out there and no one knows exactly who knows everything but it, in turn, makes most of America become religious to at least publicly atone to say “I’m not that bad, I’m not that terrible, I’m gonna correct my life.”
There’s this Mafia-like group [in the book] going after people that question God because people don’t like when you have questions in this fictional world . So the secret group DOC (Defenders of Christ) is going after artists, writers, and will do anything it takes to kill or suppress someone who has influence in raising other people to question their superiority. They’re going after the main characters, who are openly questioning it and don’t know they’re being targeted.
A majority of the book takes place in Manhattan. What is your relationship with the Big Apple?
Living out here on Long Island I’d see the city as a big beacon basically, the center of the entire universe. You have all the skyscrapers and all these things. My grandmother, who was an opera singer who sang for a radio station in Chicago, would take me in all the time to see Broadway shows and go shopping.
Every once in awhile she’d wake up and want to go to the city and have no one to go with, and my mom would say “Lou, do you have any tests in school today?” and I’d always say “no, never, of course not, I don’t even think they want me there today.” And she’d say “I was thinking it would be good for your grandmother to go with someone” and I’d say “I can make that happen.”
So I skipped out on several days of school to go out into the city, and had a really great picture of the city and I wanted to just keep going there. I’ve always held it in high regard and I frequently go there, for dance or just to go out to dinner.
Has Long Island influenced the book?
Oh, a lot. I could argue this area is one of the best places to live anywhere — we have beaches five minutes from us to drive down and do some writing, it’s a short train ride to the city if you need further inspiration. Bartending here you meet a lot of locals [and] they’re very encouraging. I think Setauket gives you the space to really think, it’s a great town to live in. I use Setauket as a place to write. Before I started working [at Mario’s], I was writing here at the bar. If I go anywhere, the locals will expect me to have a laptop and a book and a beer just doing my thing.
Who are your influences?
Outside of writers like E.E. Cummings and David Foster Wallace, I like the way Quentin Tarantino puts a story together. He doesn’t stay in the same timeline. Spike Lee also does some really cool things and tells things differently.
The book was self-published thanks to Kickstarter. Tell me about that.
I didn’t want to go the traditional publishing route because I have no following … I’m a new author, and no publisher’s gonna say “let’s take on some guy from Setauket and bet on a book that’s really weird in layout with a lot of weird fonts.” I knew I had to do it myself and I figured Kickstarter would be a way to raise some capital for doing everything myself like editing, illustrating the cover, etc. There’s a lot of behind the scenes things that you don’t really think of that require money. I met my goal in about two weeks.
What’s next for you?
I have a really broad outline of what my next book will be about. The main character will probably be a tap dancer. I think I want to call it “Sky Ride Tap,” which is the name of a bar in Chicago under the Skyride, a World’s Fair exhibit. It’s just a dive bar but I want it to take place there so I’m anticipating going to Chicago in a few months and staying for a week, going to that bar everyday, talking to people, and figuring out how I can do it.