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A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Josh Bazell: Part II

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. When we last saw our heroes (see Part I), Duane had asked Josh how far he had gotten with his plan to become a comic book artist.

JB: Not far. When I was about ten I realized I didn’t have the talent.  All I had was How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which in retrospect was useless.  But until them my goal in life was to go to the Joe Kubert School, because it ran advertisements in comic books. It may be the saddest story ever told that’s not about a Boston terrier. What was your first idea of yourself as a writer?

DS: As a kid, I was inspired by comic books. I’d try to draw comic strips, but I realized at a young age that I wasn’t good at drawing. So instead, I remember cutting up an old Iron Man comic and using the art to make my own story. New captions, new dialogue. I knew I couldn’t draw for shit, but I could use someone else’s art to make my own story. I guess I was that kind of kid, who grew that interest in writing. Since I couldn’t draw, I decided that maybe a short story would be fun. I’m very inspired by comics, but also by movies, I caught the storytelling bug early. I’m not even sure I was aware of it, but it’s what I was doing.

JB: Was this your first job?

DS: Well, my VERY first job was, I was a keyboard player in a bar band when I was ten. My dad’s bar band, a wedding band. So my first paying job was playing Doors cover songs in dive bars in Philadelphia.

JB: Can you play the keyboard intro to “Light my Fire?”

DS: I can still do that! It took hours to learn, but it was worth it. It impresses the chicks.

JB: That’s badass!

DS: My dad actually made me spend a whole afternoon learning the organ solo for “In-A-GaddaDa-Vida”. Playing it over and over again. So, actually, I’m a frustrated musician too. You talk about wanting to do one art and sliding back into something else. I wanted to be a famous musician or a rockstar and I don’t have a good singing voice and I’m not very good at playing. So, I knew I couldn’t do it professionally. So, I fell back on writing.

JB: Do you still do it for fun?

DS: Not really. I mean, I love music. I listen to it. I write to it. But, I haven’t played in years.  How did you decide that writing was your thing?

JB: In the summer of 1980 I read Jaws and The Godfather. Partially it was the amount of sex and violence in those books that got me. It was a kind of golden age. There had been these 1st amendment trials around the work of Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs and so on — the Grove Press guys. And coming out of that era, these guys like Mario Puzo and Harold Robbins, who not only got to write this crazy, skanky shit, but got respect for it. I just couldn’t believe that that was their job. And that was kind of it for me. It took me a long-ass time to write a novel. I mean, I worked as a screenwriter for about seven years. But that was a sideshow, raising money for Med School.

DS: That’s very Michael Crichton of you, to write screenplays to fund med school.

JB: My goal as a writer was always to be a novelist.  Screenwriting is cool but it’s also a bit creatively frustrating. Possibly because it is a very expensive art form.  When you have a canvas that costs tens of millions of dollars, you’re not going to screw around that much and take the risk of having to throw it all out. Whereas with books, if you decide to never let it see the light of day, it’s your time, but that’s about it. At some point, we should talk about the 80’s movie themes in Fun & Games. First of all, how old are you, may I ask?

DS: I’m 39. We’re about the same age.

JB: Yeah, I’m 41. You look younger, I thought you were 5 or 10 years younger.

DS: Aww, you charmer.

JB: But you’re not one of those people who came to those 80s movies as a kind of retro thrill. You would have seen them in the 80s.

DS: My first moviegoing experiences were in the mid 80s. In the late 80s, I saw everything that was on the screen.  My life was that, pretty much. A lot of horror movies. Action movies. I even watched romantic comedies, just to get out of the house. It was a fun thing to do. Plus, the dawn of the VHS, where you could rent movies was a big influence, obviously.

JB: I have a kind of funny relationship to 80s movies. I did love them and see them in the 80s. But my first job as a screenwriter was working for Dino DeLaurentis.  I worked for him for a year writing many, many scripts. Mostly, 80s action movies. But this was in the mid-90s, so nobody was interested in them. I’ve probably written six movies specifically for Sylvester Stallone to star in at a very high budget.

DS: And what came of them? Did any of them happen?

JB: Certainly not in the way Dino wanted them to happen. Still, it led to some good theorizing about 80s movies around the office. Like, I remember Kurt Wimmer, a big screenwriter who was working there also at the time, coming in one day and saying, “You know, I was watching The Terminator. And, you know, they’re on the run. And they hide under a bridge. And they have sex. Nobody on the run has sex anymore.” And he was totally right. If you see an action movie now, the idea that they would stop and get it on is preposterous. But they used to do that.

DS: You could argue that as a plot point in The Terminator. There had to be boning, or else the future is lost. But only in the 80s could that be the formula. It’s almost like there was a checklist of things that had to happen.

JB: Like toplessness whenever possible.

DS: Of course. I should point out that there’s a topless scene in Fun & Games that is an homage to many topless scenes I’ve seen in 80s movies.

JB: So what’s your favorite 80s movie?

DS: My favorite movie of all time, which does happen to be an 80s movie, is Robocop from ‘87. It was action. Comedy. Politics.

JB: Fascinating. You know, it’s funny, I like that movie, it has a lot going for it, like Ronnie Cox. But I was such a nerd that the concept of him having his lower face unprotected really bothered me. You could just shoot him in the lower face.

DS: You’re so right. It never bothered me, but you’re so right.

JB: He could just get punched really hard in the lower face and take some damage.

DS: I think Frank Miller did write some sequels, they never got made, but they were adapted into graphic novels and I do believe there was some lower face abuse. I need to check on that.

JB: I’d like to see it.  I’m tempted to call it the Steve Austin Testicle Phenomenon. Sort of like, what happens when certain parts of your body are bionic, but other parts are not.

DS: Right, right. Also an influence: the Six Million Dollar Man was important for me. I don’t know if it was for you. But it was kind of a big deal.

JB: It was kind of on after my bedtime, but it looked cool.

DS: Apparently I had no such rules, because I watched it all the time.  That and Swat.

JB: See, I grew up in Canada. We didn’t get Swat. I saw the Swat movie. Wait, you know, I’m confusing two issues. I’m confusing the scene in Full Metal Jacket where the guy from Swat gets shot in the foot and Swat, which were actually quite different, I’m imagining.

DS: Yes, yes. I remember watching Swat as a kid and pretending I was a Swat team member. And I read an article years later saying that Swat was the most violent, bloody TV show ever made in the 70s. And of course, I watched it. That was what happened to me. It explains everything.

JB: I was very drawn to gore as a kid. But you know, what they never had when we were kids, were reasonable superhero movies. I remember being a kid and my father saying “there’s a TV show of The Hulk.” And being so excited. And there’s Lou Ferrigno, painted yellow, wearing a straw wig. And I wasn’t even disappointed. I thought it wasn’t even based on the comic. I thought, “Oh, there’s ANOTHER fictional entity called The Hulk. That they have made this loser-ass TV show out of.”

DS: That’s some powerful denial right there.

JB: It really was, but The Hulk! Remember, he’d jump and you’d see the map of America? He’d jump from Iowa to Texas? This was just lame, like maybe he could tilt a van.

DS: There was also that horrible Spider-Man live action TV show for a while. Remember that?

JB: I think I saw a 2 hour pilot of it, which was very, very bad. There was also a live action Captain America, which was slightly groovy. He lived in a van, I think.

DS: And he had a plastic shield.

JB: Yes, a transparent shield.

DS: No, it was not a good time for superheroes. I think kids today have a much better superhero buffet to dine at.

JB: So what’s next for you?

DS: I have ideas about the types of books I want to write. I want to keep going bigger. Things that blend genres in an interesting way. That hasn’t been done very often.

JB: You’re talking about a romance novel, right?

DS: Oh, absolutely, a pastoral romance, yes, that’s my goal.

JB: I believe farmgirl stuff is still banned in certain countries.

DS: Which is why it’s fun. Do you have certain things you want to accomplish? Types of books you want to write that you haven’t quite gotten to yet?

JB: Because I write so fucking slowly. I have ten books that I am just dying to write. And if things don’t go well, that could take the rest of my life just there. Plus, is writing fiction as a moneymaking gig even going to exist in five years?

DS: Good point, very good point.

JB: Or are we all about to be Napsterized?

DS: That is true. Although I do see an interesting future with eBooks in terms of shorter books. Back in the 30s a James Cain novel could be only 40,000 words and be a bestseller. I would love to see that return. On a Kindle, a book can be 40,000 words or 400,000 words and it doesn’t matter. So many stories I admire, Jim Thompson type stuff. Those guys did so well in so few pages. If I have hope for a renaissance, it’s with that sort of thing.

JB: I mentioned something along those lines to Patrick Rothfuss recently, the great fantasy guy. I kind of feel for him. You and I work in a genre where the tradition of short novels is at least kind of recent. Whereas, with modern fantasy, you’re expected to be putting out these 1200 page books all the time.

DS: And there’s a lot of world building that goes into it too. I like to take the real world and build on it. Creating whole societies and languages and cultures. That’s great. But I don’t have the aptitude for that.

JB: It’s the same issue as with historical fiction. The burden of exposition becomes higher.

DS: And it’s a balancing act because you don’t want to show your homework every page. For instance, Ellroy knows the 50s. He knows it so well. Part of his brain is still back there, so it works so well.

JB: He’s in some respects, my favorite living writer. For instance, White Jazz? It’s the Moby Dick of our generation as far as I’m concerned.

DS: So many people don’t like it. My first Ellroy was White Jazz. I read it twice in a row. You’re right, it is the Rosetta Stone for future crime fiction. It’s what we should be shooting for.

JB: Somehow the fact that it’s the 50s makes it more real because he has such a handle on it. He was there, he experienced it, and he talks to people who were there. But also, a lot of the secrets of that time have been revealed in the meantime, whereas your own era’s always going to be something of a mystery. The New Yorker profile a few months ago was the first time I ever heard of the Koch Brothers. And they run politics in this country? Who knew?

DS: I remember picking it up as a six dollar paperback and wondering “Who is this guy? What is he doing? Is he on thorazine?” I brought it home and devoured it. I really gravitate to guys like you, Charlie Huston, Don Winslow, Ken Bruen. They call it a telegraph style. It feels to me like the next step of evolution in crime fiction.

JB: Part of me, when I read 70s literary fiction is very jealous. Because these people, like John Fowles, could write small font, dense prose, and were working in a time when people would take you seriously and take the time to figure out a novel like that. That would be awesome. But that isn’t the case anymore. We can’t write stream of consciousness now, because nobody’s going to read that bullshit. And, fair enough, I don’t read that bullshit anymore either.

DS: Even the literary writers that I admire have the narrative drive that I like. It’s hard to read ponderous stuff.

JB: But the ponderous stuff is a bit of an anomaly, it’s a bit of a posture. Because the idea that literature that doesn’t really tell a great story is somehow truer art is sort of a recent and macho position. That you, somehow as the writer are such a great persona that someone’s going to consume your work despite it not going anywhere. I don’t think Robert Louis Stevenson felt that way about himself.

DS: Think about Puzo’s The Godfather. It’s hailed now as a classic, but its genesis was those cheesy men’s adventure magazines in the late 60s. He also wrote a ton of semi-sleazy war stories, adventure stuff, survival stories. That’s the primordial soup that The Godfather emerged from as the blueprint for the modern thriller. That and Jaws and The Exorcist.

JB: I’ve never actually read The Exorcist. Is it worth reading?

DS:  The movie is what brought me to the book and I actually liked it. The sequel is pretty good too, it’s called Legion.

JB: Unfortunately, I saw the sequel movie first, with James Earl Jones. Where he turns into a giant moth.

DS: Oh, that’s the first sequel, The Heretic? That’s awful.

JB: The Exorcist just slipped through my net. I’ve read all of VC Andrews though.  At least the ones that came out while she was still alive.

DS: I’ve never read those. I’ve seen them, but never dove in. I was a Clive Barker, Stephen King guy. The Splatterpunk People.

JB: They’re all from that weird small town in Pennsylvania. York?

DS: Yes. John Skipp and Craig Spector. They’re still writing cool stuff. They were my punk rockstars when I was in high school.

JB: Last Call by John Skipp, I particularly. Maybe it’s called The Long Last Call? That stuff, I feel like they never quite got the recognition that they deserved. They just hit at the wrong time, I think.

DS: For a while, they were pretty big, but it never became Stephen King big. But other than Clive Barker from that area, no one else really hit it big.

JB: What are you working on now? The rest of the Charlie Hardie trilogy?

DS: Yeah, Book 2 is done, I’m trying to finish book 3. It’s kind of crazy, but it was planned as 3 books. I know where they’re going, but I’m having a lot of fun with the spaces between the plot lines.

JB: Well I can’t wait to read it.

DS: Thanks so much.

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.