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A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Josh Bazell: Part I

In our ongoing celebration of the publication of Fun & Games we matched Duane Swierczynski up with Josh Bazell, author of the acclaimed novel Beat the Reaper. Josh called Fun & Games “Insanely Entertaining.” Here is Part I of the result of their conversation which touches on entertainment, series material, Aquaman and Die Hard.

Josh Bazell: Duane. Fun & Games. Awesome book. I think that when they first gave it to me to blurb, I said something about it continuing your experiment, as I saw it, as to how far you can push the entertainment value of a novel. I don’t know how you feel about public discussion of technical stuff. But what I’m curious about, as a writer, is how conscious of that are you? How much of your career is about coming up with a book that is a perfectly pure action novel?

Duane Swiercynski: Good question! I mostly try not to bore people. That’s my goal. Get them turning pages no matter what.

JB: That’s actually my philosophy also. It’s probably the #1 thing I think about as a writer.

DS: I feel like, if I’m bored writing it, I should cut it or move on quickly. I also really focus on voice as a writer. That greases the skids for people and keeps things going. I’ve done both, but I want to ask you if you plot in advance or outline, or just explore the plot and figure it out as you go?

JB: I am an obsessive outliner. Of the Harry Wittington school, that I would rather build a house without a blue print than write a novel without an outline. I find in my own work that I have plenty of room to be creative on the page without having to worry about whether the scene is going to end up where I want it to. That said, there are people who I respect, Thomas Perry and Elmore Leonard come to mind, who say that they don’t outline and that outlining would remove a lot of the fun they have. On the other hand, both of those people have developed plotting techniques that make it easier to plot on the fly, like Thomas Perry when he uses a cat-and-mouse format. And both of those guys have been in this game for long enough that they are clearly doing a good amount of planning subconsciously that a lot of us are doing on paper. I don’t really know how to do it without outlining. But it has occurred to me to try.

DS: What you say rings true. When I do plot, with guideposts to leave enough room to have fun on the page. And you can always change the guideposts. You’re not locked into it. But I do like having a plan.

JB: You always can change the goalposts and you always have to. So, Charlie Hardie is a series character and you do a masterful job of leaving some things unexplained in the book. I wondered if this had something to do, possibly, with your work in comic books.  The book succeeds as a book, at the same time that it feels like it is going to succeed in a larger series. The issues that are left hanging are not even things you realize until you’ve thought about the book for a while. You clearly have an idea of where this series is going.

Cliff Edge...DS: Or so you think! But yes, I do. And comic books are a good comparison. Because every comic book you write, even if it has a 4 or 5 issue arc, has to have a beginning, middle and end and end on a cliffhanger. So I did use that as Jedi Training, or Jedi Nerd Training, for writing the series. And, I’m glad. Because this is my first series and it is a little nerve-wracking. I always just kill off all of my characters or they are left very wounded. But when John Schoenfelder and I started talking about this book, I first had a standalone in mind. And he said, but what’s the larger story here? What else could happen to this character, he kind of gave me permission to think larger about it, I kind of went crazy and had a lot of fun. I thought of it like: if I had a three-movie deal to make a series of action movies and each one had a bigger and bigger budget, what would I do? Book 1 is like the “indie” movie, Book 2 has more special effects and Book 3 is just nuts. So that was my guiding principle.

JB: Even in the first book, you do get that feeling of expansion because it is, after all, a story about a housesitter.

DS: Right.

JB: And then it very quickly becomes a story about something else. But the comic book question.

DS: Comics were also a big influence another way. You know that Spidey isn’t going to die, unless it’s a “Spidey Dies Event” which they do every year or so. But, the character has to live, so it’s a creative set of handcuffs.  If you can’t kill your character, how do you heighten the tension? What can we put this guy through?  And that’s what I thought about with Charlie Hardie, as a kind of challenge to myself. What if there’s a character that just can’t die? Not supernaturally. But, action heroes don’t go to their graves, so what do you do to have fun with that convention and push that to an extreme?

JB: You cut off one hand, make them lose an eye and grow a beard like Aquaman.

DS: Exactly. Place a giant trident hook on their hand

JB: What I love about Aquaman, I mean, I read Aquaman in the 70s when it was the only depressing comic book. I don’t know if you read this issue, but essentially Karshon bites his biceps off at one point. It’s a most horrifying thing. And Karshon’s already killed his entire family. Which you just didn’t see in the 70s. But what they’ve done to Aquaman is such a visual piece frustration about working in a format where you can’t kill the character. The guy’s going to be a brain in a fishtank if they keep going with that. Although he probably doesn’t need a fishtank…

DS: That’s actually why I always loved Spidey. In one of the first Spidey comics I remember vividly was Spidey versus Juggernaut. Remember him?

JB: Right, of course.

DS: So, he’s fighting him. And Juggernaut is on his back, just pounding on it, and Spidey must be in kibbles and bits by now. And I remember, this is not bullets bouncing off Superman’s chest, this guy is getting the crap beat out of him and it was kind of neat to see how they went about that.

JB: Is that the issue that he ends up putting Juggernaut into wet cement?

DS: Exactly! You know that one! You just keep thinking: how is he going to stop this thing. He does everything to stop him and he just keeps coming. That was the most exciting comic book I ever read.

JB: Let’s talk for a second about your evolution through your books. You don’t have any juvenilia that’s available publicly. In the sense that The Wheelman is a perfectly formed book. I don’t know if you had written books before that that you had elected not to publish. But you started out very strong.

DS: Thank you. There was, though, one book that was published before that by a small press called Secret Dead Men and that’s a weird little book.

JB: Are you going to re-release that?

DS: I was thinking about that, maybe as an eBook. I still like it. But it’s very much me figuring out how to write a novel. And it’s a blend of influences. Part science fiction, part detective fiction. It’s set in the 70s. It’s a freaky little thing.

JB: I’d be curious to read it. So, let me attack this one more time. It seems to me that you have a specific agenda with, say, Expiration Date and Fun & Games, where it seems like you are trying in different ways to come up with the perfectly action-packed action novel.

DS: I think that’s fair.

JB: For instance, what’s the meaning of the title “Fun & Games,” if it’s not Duane Swierczynski has just produced a book that is all fun and games?

DS: It was actually meant sarcastically, because the most awful things happen. I was thinking of that quote “it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye.” But it is a carnival of violence, so I guess the word “fun” does apply.

JB: I don’t mean to imply that it is somehow simple to do a book that is all action but at the same time is engaging.  In fact, I think the opposite. I look for that type of thing, constantly. And it drives me to weird places. Like, I recently went through a 70s vigilante period. I read a lot of those books about people who keep going back to Vietnam for MIAs. I just read this series called The Punisher, not the Marvel Punisher. These books all try to be 100% action. And they all get boring really quickly, like as soon as the exposition starts and you realize you don’t believe in or care about the character. They’re a sort of great example of how hard it in fact is to produce something that feels like a nonstop authentic joyride, without feeling like a sort of tiresome, thin, two-dimensional series of physical gags. But if you tell me that a perfectly balanced piece of pure-as-it-can-get action wasn’t your intention with Fun and Games, I accept it.

DS: Well, with Fun & Games, the Hardie character is kind of a tortured guy. I find the concept of housesitting fascinating. I have a secret goal of writing a Charlie Hardie novel where he housesits and nothing happens to him. He watches a movie. We’re in his head for 300 pages. That’d be fun. Maybe just to me, but my method usually is: here’s my situation, what kind of characters can I throw in this situation or torture in this mix. Who would be fun to watch and write about for a while? So it’s situation plus character equals mayhem.

JB: Which is hard to do well also.  I don’t know if you remember Wayne Wang. He has a movie where every other scene is a chase scene. It takes place in Hong Kong. The guy is forced by the Yakuza to eat his own shit at the end.

DS: I did miss this one…

JB: He takes a bite and says, “that’s good shit.” I mean, it had its moments. But overall it got tedious. And literally every other scene is a chase scene. It was one more fail at the holy grail of actually sustainable continuous action.

DS: Well, why is Die Hard so great and so many direct-to-DVD action movies suck so badly? To me, it’s all about the character of McClane. What he wants. How you root for him. How far he’ll go to get it.

JB: And Die Hard is an extraordinarily clever movie. I always think about the fact that the boss at the corporation gives McClane’s wife a Rolex early in the movie. And at the end, when Alan Rickman is falling off the building, he pulls the Rolex off her wrist. There’s a level of operation in Die Hard that is entirely opposite to what people think of when they think of that movie, which is they think it is just a bunch of explosions. It’s much more about the redundancy of the white male working class hero in the era of the cerebral classically educated guy. But, at the same time, it’s a very solid action movie.

DS: It’s inventive. I give big points for inventiveness. In Beat the Reaper, you’re doing inventive things on every page. Things I’d never seen before in a thriller. You’ve fused two very different genres: a medical thriller with a mob story and have it move like crazy. I was in awe. Because I had never seen that weird little creature you’d built before.

JB: I have to say on this one, it all goes back to boredom. I feel boring in person. I feel boring on the page. I’m sufficiently untalented that I need to work my material over and over again. Particularly the comedic stuff and it gets really boring. There’s only so many times you can tell a joke to yourself and have it be amusing. And I think a lot of what I do that works, when it works, is compensation for that.

DS: I am about as interesting as a lawncare salesman. But do a lot of reworking until the parts that don’t belong there, aren’t there anymore. A writing teacher once told me, it’s like a car, you don’t build a car with extra parts. There are a lot of books where I can see the extra parts, unfortunately. There are some writers who are so masterful that I’ll read the extra parts, but they are few and far between.

JB: That concern shows in your work.  One thing I often stress to people who are starting out is: I tend to learn a lot more from books that are flawed or imperfect. One can read a book that really works, like Fun & Games and enjoy it as entertainment. But, to a certain degree, a book like that is just going to make it look easy and not explain how it happens. If you’re reading a book that’s almost there, but it’s a fifteen degree misfire. That’s actually what you want as an instructional item.

DS: There’s always a moment in a young writer’s life where they read a book and think, “I can definitely do better than this.” And you turn a corner, and get some confidence in yourself and what you’re doing. And that’s a great thing. So, yes, young writers should read crappy books.

JB: And everything.

DS: One of my favorite writers is Fredric Brown.

JB: Oh my god, I love Fredric Brown!

DS: Isn’t he great? He always said, you should read above your station. That’s what I try to do. Read writers who are so far better than you, so you have something to aspire to. He said don’t read your contemporaries. So that’s why I read you, Josh, because I am reading above my station.

JB: I love him too, and it’s frustrating because he has had a real renaissance, particularly in Europe, as a science fiction writer, but that isn’t the work of his that I’m personally interested in. It remains difficult to get his crime stuff. The full Uncle Am and Ed series hasn’t been in print since the 1960s.

DS: There was a specialty collection of them, in hardcover, but otherwise it’s been gone. And so many great standalones. Black Lizard had a few, but then it was forgotten.

JB: I agree, I am a huge fan. And I also agree with you…one has to settle into one’s art after attempting to overshoot that art toward some higher art. My first professional ambition was to be a comic book artist, and I used to wonder if I failed at it because all great comic book artists start out wanting to be painters or something.

DS: Wow. How far did you get in pursuing that goal?

Come back tomorrow to find out the answer to this question, and many more!

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 His first book in the Charlie Hardie series, FUN & GAMES, hits bookstores this week.

Josh Bazell is the author of the national bestseller Beat the Reaper and holds a BA in writing from Brown University and an MD from Columbia. He lives in New York. His next novel, Wild Thing, will be published by Reagan Arthur Books in February, 2012.