A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Ed Brubaker: Part I

Suffering from post-Comic Con withdrawal? Get your fix with the below conversation between award-winning writer Ed Brubaker, author of CRIMINAL, SLEEPER and INCOGNITO, among many others, and Duane Swierczynski, originally appearing to celebrate the publication of FUN & GAMES. Hardie endures!

Ed Brubaker: So, Duane – FUN & GAMES, am I right in saying this is your first non-Philadelphia book? (Not counting any co-writing) Did you leave your hometown behind in life and fiction?

Duane Swierczynski: You’re right — this is my first book set in a place other than Philly. I still live in Philadelphia (for the time being), and my fictional heart still lives here, too. But I do cop to a little bit literary wanderlust. The idea for FUN & GAMES, grew out of repeated visits to the Hollywood Hills over the years, and even though I tried (at one point) to set it closer to home, it refused to work anywhere but L.A.
Ed, how important is “place” in your work? You’ve created this brilliant fictional location in CRIMINAL‘s “Center City,” but was that on purpose? Why not, say, Chicago, or Seattle, or NYC?

EB: I think with CRIMINAL, it was to make it like the city in Walter Hill’s The Driver, or to use Chandler’s Bay City and Macdonald’s Santa Teresa as location names. Also, I was a Navy brat, so I don’t have that hometown thing a lot of writers have. I lived in DC (or right across the bridge in Arlington) in the summer of 1979, so I get Pelecanos’ views of it from the little I experienced at age 12, but I think one of the reasons I’m drawn to a lot of crime writers I love is the way their books inhabit a city, in a way I never could, as the always traveling outsider.

I thought you left Philly for the wilds of Florida? Didn’t I read that somewhere?

Okay, so onto FUN & GAMES more in depth. For me, all my stories start somewhere – usually with a character, but sometimes with a story I heard or read, or some little fact that just won’t stop bouncing around in my head. Where did this one come from, Duane, and how quickly did you realize you were writing a series, which is something you’ve never done before?

DS: No… maybe that was Michael Koryta, who divides his time between Indiana or Florida? Or perhaps one of the other personalities in my head has taken up residence in the Sunshine State…

I remember vividly what sparked FUN & GAMES. For a while, Michael Connelly kept a place at the High Tower Apartments… in fact, the *exact* apartment where Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe resided in Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE. Back in 2006, Connelly was kind enough to let me stay there for a few days while I did a few book signings in support of THE BLONDE, and the place just amazed me. To access the place, you took an old-fashioned elevator up a slender tower, then used an outdoor walkway to the front door of the apartment. (If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about — remember Marlowe, offering to buy brownies for the nude hippy chicks on the landing?) There are stairs somewhere in the vicinity, but I never used them.

Anyway… at some point I wondered (and I do this often): what if a team of hit men were trying to kill me in this apartment? How would I escape? What would they try to do to force me out? That was the seed that bloomed years later as F&G.

(In fact, the earliest story notes for this novel use the title, “High Tower Drive.”)

I thought I was writing a stand-alone, but realized that it could be a series the moment I sat down with my editor, John Schoenfelder, and we started talking about how the story could be bigger. That the siege of the house in the Hollywood Hills was only the *beginning.*

Interesting you say you start with a character. How does that process work? Do voices “speak” to you? And once you have a character in mind, how does the plot unfold from there? Do you devise the perfect scenario for that character?

EB: I doubt I’ve ever devised the perfect scenario, but yeah… that’s sort of how it goes. I generally start with an idea, say – a bank heist, or a pickpocket… and then the character starts to take shape as I do other things. At some point in the mulling over process, they feel real to me, or I get what part of my mind they’re coming from, and their history starts to take shape and make sense. One of my characters from CRIMINAL, Tracy Lawless, was inspired by wanting to write about brothers and the military at the same time. And his character grew from research and my own past, from growing up on military bases, and from hearing about rape-camps in the former Yugoslavia from my wife’s best friend, who was for a long time an investigator for Human Rights Watch. All those things went in the blender and a few years later, this character came out. But you know, as you write, more details always occur to you. I don’t know everything about any of my characters, but I generally know how they’d react or what they think.

As for plot, those are more difficult to pin down where they spring from – I say from the character, generally, but I’m not sure I know always. It’s a chicken/egg situation, a bit. I know a lot of writers have a character and they go “what do they want?” and that’s where the plot comes in — with me, I look back and see my stuff is more like “what do they want to get away from?” Although, really, they’re the same question.

What about you, with FUN & GAMES, you had your initial inspiration in Connelly’s apartment (and by the way, Elliot Gould, Philip Marlowe, and Michael Connelly, you better have come up with a story while staying there or you aren’t a writer) so how soon did your characters take shape and what did you know about them first?

Find out the answer in Part II of this interview.

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 & GAMES, hits bookstores this week.

A one-time cartoonist, Ed Brubaker has been working as a writer since the early 90s, and in that time his work has won several awards and been translated into eleven languages around the world. He primarily works in comics, but has also written screenplays, and will soon write both story and script for a video game. He currently resides in Seattle, Washington with his wife, Melanie, and many pets.