Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
“When you’re a writer you have to keep producing. When you’re a gambler you have to keep winning. You have to be comfortable with the uncertainty.”
“Every gambler is a neurotic with an unconscious wish to lose,” writes Beth Raymer, author of the new gambling memoir Lay the Favorite: A Memoir of Gambling . “And as for the rare professionals who are talented enough to beat the house, rest assured they will go to whatever lengths necessary to surround themselves with people who will lose their money for them.”
Raymer follows the lives of her gambling cohorts, most notably Dink of Dink, Inc. and éclair-gobbling Bernard of All Serious Action Players (ASAP), as they doggedly pursue “the best of it” despite thievery, FBI raids, and the perpetual threat of hitting rock bottom. Into the mix of fascinating gambler biographies, Raymer adds a personal narrative of an unlikely career trajectory from waitress to stripper, porn site owner, gambler, boxer, and finally (perhaps inevitably) writer. Fortunately for readers, Lay the Favorite offers a risk-free glimpse into the anxieties and thrills of Raymer’s seedy, private world.
Raymer recently spoke with SMITH about her memoir, the transition from gambling to writing, and the unique challenges of writing about gamblers. [Read an excerpt from Lay the Favorite elsewhere on Memoirville.]To place a bet, you can either lay the favorite or take the underdog. Of all the gambling phrases out there, why did you choose to title your memoir Lay the Favorite?
There’s something ironic about the title. What it’s saying is bet on the team most likely to win and invest yourself in the outcome that seems most certain. Nobody in the book does that. Also, it has a little to do with how erratic I am in my love life. I get very excited about people and then lose that excitement very quickly. I lay the favorite, except there are lots of favorites.
One of the most striking aspects of this memoir is the way it takes readers from one unstable situation to another. Would you say you crave the unknown?
I think that’s why I just fit in with gamblers. I always wanted to do things on a whim and go on adventures; in high school and college, I never had any friends who would do that with me, so I did a lot of things by myself. In the book, I’m very alone doing things until finally I meet this group of people who not only want to live that lifestyle but have the money to do it and have done it their whole lives. I was always trying to find out what I could learn from their lives–how they did it, how they avoided an office job, what the consequences were, and whether it was worth it.
Everything has to be thrilling. Some degree of thrill has to exist somewhere in my life for me to be content. I think I crave thrills just as the gamblers crave them. But writing every day can still give me that kind of thrill. In the end, I would risk jail time to not have to live a straight life.
In fact, some of your characters, including Dink, have been in and out of jail. Were they uncomfortable with this memoir? And did you change the names of most of your characters?
I changed very few names. One of the big reasons was that the names were so good. Dink Inc. really is Dink Inc. and I could not bring myself to change that. ASAP was the real name of the business. I let my subjects look at the book in galley form, and they were happy about the outcome of the book and the way I portrayed them, but it was nerve-wracking giving them the galleys.
What was it like interviewing paranoid gamblers? Did it help to be a woman in a man’s world?
Most of those guys basically dismissed me as an airhead pretty quickly and didn’t think for a second that I was picking up on their dialogue or really listening to their stories or thinking about their psychology. They would behave very naturally in front of me because they thought I was dumb. When I was interviewing them, they assumed nothing was ever going to come out of this. They were just throwing me a bone. Often, at these gambling operations, you are the only woman in the room.
So I had to stick up for myself a lot. I worked in an office for four years with men who were so loud, so obnoxious, and very bossy. Basically, even when I had a higher position than someone, he might say, “Be a spring dove and go get the pizza.”
You also write about boxing. Was boxing a natural offshoot of gambling?
I think I was comfortable being around a lot of men, but nothing in the world can prepare you for boxing until you actually start boxing. The fact that I was comfortable and confident enough to walk into a boxing gym did stem from being in the gambling world.
Most writers say they started writing at a young age, but you discovered your talents while working on the backstories for your girl-on-girl website, which featured photographs of you spliced together (the twins).
My website was the very first creative thing I ever did and the caliber of writing on my porn site was out of this world! I’m kidding. I really did enjoy writing and I’ve always dated creative guys who have said, ‘You’re a funny writer.’
And it’s your reporter boyfriend, Jeremy, who turns you on to the idea of writing about gambling. Can you tell us more about his role?
I was always writing Jeremy letters and he basically kept them and retyped them. That’s what I used for my application to get into the Columbia MFA program. Jeremy gave me a lot of confidence and said this would be a nice transition for you to get out of gambling.
But while I was at Columbia, I still didn’t think I had anything to write about. It was through learning how to write a book proposal in my last semester at Columbia that I was finally confident that I had enough material to write an actual book.
You never told your parents or sister about your stripping, porn-site, gambling life. What have their reactions been?
My dad and sister still haven’t read it, but my mom read it. I just didn’t know how to prepare anyone because they had no idea whatsoever what I had been doing. No one did. Even some close friends of mine didn’t know about all of that stuff. I chose not to prepare them at all and just send them the book.
My mom’s final reaction was pretty good. She said she was proud of me and that there was some stuff that was shocking and that was about it.
What has the transition from gambling to writing been like?
My life has changed, but not that much. In the book, even though it seems I have a very carefree lifestyle, I was working a lot and training for boxing. Like writing, those things take a lot of time, discipline, and focus. I’ve always been used to getting up very early in the morning and doing my work, and that’s what I do as a writer. I’m also used to the inconsistent money. When you’re a writer, you have to keep producing. When you’re a gambler, you have to keep winning. You have to be comfortable with the uncertainty. How do you ride out your advance? You’re always thinking about money and how much you can get by on because you might not win again. Even if you get an advance, you’re just watching your money go down.
Do you still work in gambling?
I don’t work in gambling anymore but I’m friends with all the guys and keep in touch with them. I love Las Vegas and I did a couple of readings there. My first morning in Vegas, Dink called me. He said, “Where are you? I thought you would come and work this morning.” On the morning of my reading, he thought I would make bets on his behalf. I said, “No I’m retired.”
So are you definitely committed to the writing life?
I’m so grateful that I have writing and was able to write that book. I spent almost two years writing Lay the Favorite full-time and it was amazing, and I want to be able to spend another two years writing my next book. I don’t know how practical that will be. It’s the best feeling in the world to write when it’s going well. Even when it is going poorly, it still feels pretty good.
What do you hope your readers will come away with?
Grace Slick from the band Jefferson Airplane always said: I never regret anything I did. I only regret the things I didn’t do.
I want the book to inspire people to break the rules sometimes–go off the path they’re on if they’re feeling even the littlest instinct to–because all my characters and I go on this unorthodox path and, in the end, it’s pretty great that we did. We become more of ourselves. We own our lives. We do things that are not very respectable and in the end it all still works out okay.
Grace didn’t fuck Jimi Hendricks when she had the opportunity. I think about that all the time. So if you have the chance to fuck Jimi Hendricks, go for it.
Finally, Beth Raymer, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Flunked, stripped, boxed, gambled; then wrote.
BUY Lay the Favorite.
LISTEN to an interview with Beth Raymer on NPR.
READ an excerpt of Lay the Favorite on Memoirville.