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Swier Words: A conversation with Duane Swierczynski, Part I

Jul 26, 2011 in Books, Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors, Writing

Can’t get enough FUN AND GAMES? You’re in luck–Mulholland Books is pleased to present a conversation between David Schow, author of Gun Work, Internecine, Bullets of Rain, and screenwriter of The Crow, and our very own Duane Swierczynski. It begins…

DJS: Fun and Games.  One of my favorite Outer Limits episode titles, by the way.  But it begs the question:  How are you with titles?  Are they an afterthought, a nuisance, or essential?  Do you nail them before or after the process of writing a book?

DS: I obsess over titles long before an editor (or even my agent) see anything.  I pretty much have to have the right title on a novel before it’ll flow; I’ve never started one with TK Title at the top.

DJS: Have you abandoned working titles, or had titles changed on you?

DS:  I’ve got a pretty good track record.  I think I’m, what, seven-for-eight, in terms of my own titles ending up on the book.  My second novel was submitted as Smell the Roses, meant to be a sarcastic reference to that line about stopping and smelling them.  I also liked the idea of it becoming part of that small-but-proud hardboiled tradition of titles with flowers in them:  No Orchids for Miss Blandish, The Black Dahlia, and so on.

Of course, I was wrong.  Smell the Roses was a terrible title; sounds like a gardening cozy.  After submitting about sixty new titles — yes, sixty — we ended up with The Wheelman, which I like a lot.

If I had a do-over, I would have changed The Blonde to something like Blonde Poison or maybe even Bombshell.

DJS: Or Terrill Lee Lankford’s Blonde Lightning, which really grabbed my attention.

DS:  The rest I like, for better or worse.

How about yours? I’m especially interested in your short short/novella titles, which have always impressed me. Did editors mess with those much?

DJS: Short fiction, not much.  But some of them took years to resolve their titles.  Some of the working titles, in retrospect, were punishable.  I keep those to myself.

Novels, moreso, and only recently.  Bullets of Rain was conceived and written as The Party Next Door (you’ll understand if you read the book).  My agents changed it to Party Games, which sounded like a birthday book or softcore manual.  Publisher changed it to Bullets of Rain.  Later, a reviewer noted he loved my facility with titles regarding Bullets.  Little did he know.

I knew I had a fight on my hands with Internecine.  And god, did we do list after list of fallbacks.  They all sucked.  But try to make a dour marketing department comprehend why a book “just HAS to” be called Inter … Intre … Introneck … what?  (It’s fun to hear people mispronounce it at signings.)

I decided to cut them a break with Upgunned.  It’s a fresh word, it has velocity, and even more important, it has GUN in it!  I was a hopeful fool.  Result?  Upgunned is now called Negative Burn.

Which brings us back to Fun and Games.  Why?

DS:  Why that title? I think I was going for something a bit sardonic, because “fun and games” is exactly the opposite of what the novel’s protagonist (Charlie Hardie) experiences. The inspiration was that old line about how “it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye,” which I’ve always liked, because it makes me think of someone at a carnival actually losing an eye.

DJS: At which point I go, “Crap, Duane has already answered this question in a previous interview.”  Sorry, folks.  I’m making Duane repeat himself, just like on one of those mind-numbing junkets.

DS:  Just don’t take my photograph without permission, okay?  You’re supposed to be enthusing over my book.

DJS: Full disclosure:  I haven’t read Fun and Games yet.  No doubt this is an egregious oversight on the part of your normally on-the-ball publisher.

DS:  (acidly, with eye-roll) No doubt.

DJS: Then comes the part where you have to troll the internet to find out whether your latest spot-on title has already been hijacked.

DS:  I did a quick title search to make sure it wasn’t over-used, which is when I discovered it was the title of an Outer Limits episode. At the time, I think you and I were talkin’ Outer Limits, so I took that as a blessing and/or omen.

DJS: The Outer Limits “Fun and Games” — originally titled “Natural Selection,” by the way — referred to the bread-and-circuses aspect of gladiatorial combat meant to give cheap thrills to a jaded upper class.  Any such arena fighting to be had in your book?

DS:  If by “arena” you mean the “Hollywood Hills,” then yes!

DJS: Part of the whole title issue, now, is that so many things have the same titles.  Like movie reboots and remakes, you can now find four or five books called Hit Man, say.

Or lazy titling, what in horror I called the “Dark-Red-Black-Blood-Night” Syndrome.”

DS:  Crap, my next novel has the working title The Dark Red Black Blood Night. (… as Duane scuttles back to the lab …) No, I know what you mean. Maybe we should take it to the next level and repurpose old classic titles for real. I mean, I’d read David J. Schow’s Red Harvest: The Version You’ve Never Seen.

DJS: Oh-so-predictably, it turns out Negative Burn is already the title of a comic book.  I’m doomed.  There goes my search-engine advantage.  That’s the hidden trap of alternate titles.  I invented another title one editor swears-ta-god won’t be changed … but you have to prep anyway.  I wanted to use All Shot Up but I don’t want to arm-wrestle Chester Himes.  It’s all part of the title dance.  You generate substitute titles in the hope you’ll never have to use them — load the gun in the hope you won’t have to use it.  Because damned sure, they’re gonna ask for more titles no matter how cool your title seems to you.  I called dibs on one title which has been used for a movie but not a book; that to me seems fair game (and is so obvious I dare not speak it right now).

Amazing, isn’t it, that we’re talking books and we haven’t gotten past the title yet?

DS:  Hey, titles are important. Or we’re just really shallow.

DJS: Now for some hardboiled provincialism:  Would you call yourself Philadelphia-o-centric?  I know a huge part of the fun in writing my books is making them kind of back-handed Los Angeles historical tour-guides, dumping in information the reader might not know, like the history of the intersection of Hollywood and Vine (in Negative Burn) or why Hollywood is called that (in Internecine).

DS: I love the L.A. lore into your stories and novels. I remember reading the stories in Seeing Red and Lost Angels when they first appeared in paperback, and they helped form my fuzzy idea of Los Angeles, which I’d never visited. (Well, your work, and Less Than Zero.) Years later, after spending some time in L.A., I went back to those stories and appreciated the L.A.-ness of them even more.

DJS: My mission is that every single reader should come away with at least one factoid about the region they never suspected before.

DS:  Could you ever be talked into writing full-on L.A. history/tour book? Maybe if I backed up a van of full of cash and dumped it onto your front step?

DJS: Maybe if you and I decamped with the van and did a week’s worth of drive-around.  You know F. Paul Wilson’s book, Ground Zero?  Bronson Cavern makes an appearance because I dragged Paul up the hill to show it to him.  (And he, like many, took home a souvenir rock.)

DS:  Is it another mission of yours to have the Bronson Cavern appear in as many thrillers as possible? (If so, I applaud this mission.)

DJS:  Short answer:  Yes.  Why not?  It’s right in my ‘hood.

DS:  Actually, I tried like hell to squeeze it into Fun and Games, but my protagonists seemed to want to head in another direction. Though the Bronson Cavern is there in spirit.

DJS: That place is the best free film shrine in L.A.  Like the various historical aspects of Philly you frequently note on your blog. (http://secretdead.blogspot.com/)

DS:  I think I’ll always be Philly-centric by default, but I’m trying to stretch my legs a bit. Fun and Games (hereinafter, F&G) stomps around in your backyard (quite literally), and the next two in the series kind of jump all over the place. I have two novels lined up after that, and while one is extremely Philly-centric (it’s been in the works for a while), the other is very much not, and in the vein of those Gold Medal tough guy adventure novels that go hopping all over the world.

DJS: I don’t think the hardboiled Gold Medalers would ever have suspected that some date in the distant future, a whole subset of crime writers would aspire to write in their style.  It honors the past.  It also keeps us from writing tea-cozy mysteries.

DS:  You know, I would love some rich eccentric hire me to write a tea cozy just to see what I’d come up with. (I’m guessing it’s a no-no to include defenestration in cozies, right? Crap. I’m sure I’ll think of something…) Speaking of the Gold Medalers, do you have any unheralded favorites from that era? I mean, everybody talks about Jim Thompson and David Goodis and John D. MacDonald. But who are your obscure favorites, if any?

DJS: I find the cult aspect of Goodis acolytes to be a little creepy.  Jim Thompson left me cold.  Charles Willeford doesn’t really count as part of the “golden age,” but I love his work (he and I once shared the same agent).  Westlake, aces.  James Crumley, ditto — makes me kinda wish there was a Crumley cult with half the fervor of Goodis followers.  Bob Bloch wrote as much crime as he did horror — more, even — but it’s largely overlooked today.  Best quick answer I can think of:  Fredric Brown.  Read his stuff if you can’t understand why.

At which point I go, “Crap, Duane has already mentioned Brown previously …”

Now, remind me who I forgot … of whom I forgot …

DS:  You know who I really like, Gold Medal-wise? E. Howard Hunt. Yeah, the Watergate/CIA guy. He wrote some surprisingly great post-WWII action/adventure novels, as well as a series (under the pen name Robert Dietrich) of Washington D.C. mysteries featuring tough guy… and, er, certified public accountant Steve Bentley. (No, seriously, they’re good.)

DJS: Les Whitten broke the ice with horror novels (including a much-overlooked fundamental one, Progeny of the Adder, and Joe Lansdale called Whitten’s Moon of the Wolf a “definitive” werewolf novel).  Turns out Whitten’s principal occupation was as an award-winning columnist for the Washington Post.  He moved into political thrillers.  I wish he was more read, these days.

How about some insight into your working method?  For example, how long do your novels generally take, from start to finish?

Stay tuned for Duane’s answer in Part II, coming this Thurday…

Duane Swierczynski is the author of several acclaimed crime thrillers, including Severance Package (Minotaur, 2008), which has been optioned by Lionsgate Films. A regular contributor for Marvel Comics, he lives in Philadelphia with his wife and children. Learn more at www.secretdead.blogspot.com. His first book in the Charlie Hardie series, FUN AND GAMES, is in stores now.

DAVID J. SCHOW is the author of the celebrated shoot-’em-up Gun Work (Hard Case Crime, 2008) and the black ops thriller Internicine (St. Martin’s, 2010), as well as the Hunt Among the Killers of Men entry in Charles Ardai’s Gabriel Hunt adventure series (Leisure Books, 2010) and Bullets of Rain (HarperCollins, 2003). His 1987 novel The Kill Riff is still the high bar when it comes to mixing sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and gunplay. His work is seen frequently in films (The Crow) and television (Masters of Horror). His next novel, Negative Burn, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books in February 2012.

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