Swier Words: A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski, Part II

Mulholland Books is pleased to present a conversation between David J. Schow, author of Gun Work, Internecine, Bullets of Rain, and screenwriter of The Crow, and our very own Duane Swierczynski.

Missed Part I? Read it here.

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

DS: Every book is different, but the process is close to pregnancy — I brood for a bunch of months, and then it’s usually three months of labor pains (the actual writing). Sometimes I’m brain-pregnant for years; Expiration Date, published last year, was something I’ve been kicking around for at least a decade before I wrote the first word. Sometimes, I’m knocked up quick and the next thing I know somebody’s handing me a cigar—which was the case with Hell and Gone (the sequel to Fun and Games). The Wheelman was written between semesters of teaching college journalism 101, and just for fun, not to sell — I wrote it to convince myself that I could write a “straight” crime novel in the vein of Richard Stark and Dan J. Marlowe.

Fun and Games was a fairly easy birth: I was playing around with the idea for about six months before Mulholland bought it on a partial manuscript (50 pages), and then I spent a few months simultaneously writing and researching. (This was last summer, when you gave me that amazing tour of the Hills and — what else? — Bronson Cavern.) I knew where the story was headed, but I mostly winged it. As I drove back across the country that August, Fun and Games started to just gush out of me and delivered by mid-September.

What about you? Do you have a “typical” process, or does each book demand its own?

DJS: The only general rule is for me to write the first draft at a white heat, superfast. You can always refine later, once you have a string around the whole thing. The biggest stumbling block is the notion you’re writing something crippled — a conscious “first draft.” But you have to carve out a general shape before you can do microsurgery with a scalpel. The book will tell you what it wants as you proceed. If it doesn’t, take two steps back to see where the momentum derailed. Then three. For this reason I prefer not to outline. Outlining steals the heartbeat of an individual book and skews it toward a cookie-cutter sameness. It’s okay to scribble down beats (that’s fallout from working in other media), and I usually write the ending early, so I have a target to write “toward.” It can all change massively in revision, and should. Unfortunately, there’s no limit to how deeply you can rewrite something, so you have to know when to stop.

Take Gun Work as an example. I wrote it start to finish in six weeks flat, thereby boggling Charles Ardai’s mind. But Charles is a very conscientious editor (and a joy to work with); he offered suggestions that required a certain amount of time to sink in, for me to “think” them into the book. Like, “cut the first 2000 words.” Turns out he was right!

DS: Isn’t that funny how that happens? I’ll sometimes hear editorial advice and think, “No way. That’s completely fucking wrong. That will ruin my masterpiece.” But once it’s had time to sink in, it’s usually, “Wow, that’s actually pretty good.”

DJS: This goes for script revisions, too, by the way. Your first answer is always “no.” It usually takes less than twenty-four hours of pondering the change before you go, “say, that might actually work …”

DS: Yes! A few years ago I co-adapted my novel, Severance Package, with director Brett Simon. Early on, a producer responded to one of our drafts with a suggestion that struck us both as bone-headed, completely wrong, and destined to ruin the project. But after it sunk in, Brett and I emailed each other cautiously with the same thought in our heads: You know what? This may be the thing that pulls it all together. And that turned out to be the case.

DJS: Having become a duly unelected champion of firearm fiction, I have to ask: How do you feel about guns? Do you shoot / Have you shot? Gun owner? Guns with kids around the house? As the character Poe says in Walter Hill’s Hard Times, “Somebody always shows up with a gun” — which could handily describe both of our, ahem, canons. Do you relate to guns purely in terms of fictional usage?

DS: My firearm experience is very limited. I once shot a .357 Magnum for a magazine and loved it—probably a little too much—and once used a shotgun to do some serious fuckin’ damage on a flock of clay pigeons on a Maryland farm.

My Grandfather's GunDJS: Okay, it’s settled, then. Next trip to L.A., you shoot.

DS: Part of me would love to own a gun and go target shooting for the same reason I enjoy grilling: sometimes it’s nice to stop thinking about words and writing and just burn or shoot something. But with kids in the house… let’s just say the notion has been met with serious disapproval. What about you and guns? Have you always been into them, or did your lust for lead begin after you moved to L.A.?

DJS: As Crumley wrote of Sughrue, I fell in love with the hardware. In my first novel I wrote a long scene where someone obtains a gun during a chase, but cannot figure out how to use it to defend themselves. People delude themselves about firearms almost as much as they do about love. Don’t think that with no training you can suddenly morph into Dirty Harry if your puppies are threatened. So the covenant became: Know the devices and their workings. Learn the idiosyncrasies. One last cliché: Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

I just read that John Woo claims he has never held a “real gun” in his entire life. His relationship to firearms is strictly fantasy-based.

DS: I get that, because so much of what I write is fantasy-based. People often ask me if I put myself in my books, and the answer is always yes. I’m the guy who gets killed fairly quickly. (Completely serious here.)

DJS: Having idly perused a few other interviews of your’n, they dance a bit around the topic of the “series character,” which seems first a consumer mandate, and thus second, a preference by publishers, and eventually third, a crushing burden upon writers because a character that has to continue from book to book evaporates the possibility of real suspense. Jeopardy has to occur to an imported hit list of second-stringers, because the principal has to survive to the next story.

Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls and had to resurrect him. James Bond originally died at the end of From Russia With Love. And Hannibal Lecter, honestly, never should have gotten past The Silence of the Lambs. Do readers, you think, really-truly love “The Further Adventures Of,” or is it just the result of vendors seeking a brand, a franchise? And is it my imagination, or is the pressure to do series books more pronounced in hardboiled and crime fiction?

DS: As for true love vs. cold hard branding when it comes to series characters, could it be a little of both? Some readers like knowing exactly what to expect from their thrillers, just like they know what to expect from a Big Mac or a bottle of Miller Lite. Me? Eh, not so much. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy certain series characters—John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is a longtime favorite, as well as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. But I’m not a big fan of the reset button. If a series character is shot in book #2, they’d better still be feeling it in book #3, and if possible, having flashbacks about it in book #4. If a series can be read in any old order, then that’s usually not the series for me. For a long time now I’ve wanted to pitch a five book series. The first book would introduce the hero; in the opening pages of the second, he’ll be killed off. The rest of the books? Sheer aftermath.

DJS: The last time you were in L.A. I actually mentioned to you a similar idea — in Book #4, the victim of Book #2 actually reappears because #4 is a flashback to a whole other job, a setup you did not know had previously happened.

DS: What about you? Have you ever been tempted and/or pressured to come up with a series character? (Besides your classic “Scoop” cycle.)

DJS: To conflate two more clichés, I think you and I are on the same page insofar as riding both sides of the fence.

I’m working on a project right now where each chapter reads like a severely-compressed Parker novel. But I wouldn’t want to do more than one book in that style.

Some of the characters from Internecine reappear in Negative Burn, but in different contexts — like the film director, Andrew Collier, is seen on location, actually directing a movie that is, at once, a big part of the plot and a whole separate “story” that mirrors certain aspects of the main plot. Trivia time for close-readers: See if you can spot the Gun Work reference in Negative Burn.

DS: You mentioned that compressed Parker novel to me last year, and I’ve been drooling for it ever since! As for repeating characters, I had great fun with it at first. A minor government assassin from The Wheelman showing up in The Blonde; a security guard from The Blonde returning in Severance Package… well, almost. I drive my film agent crazy when I have recurring characters pop up in stand-alone novels, because that creates rights-conflict nightmares when you go to option them somewhere. So “Charles Lee Vincent” in The Blonde suddenly became “Charlie Marella” in Severance. I’ll admit that there’s a little bit of Charles/Charlie’s DNA in Fun and Games’s protag, Charlie Hardie. (There’s a very small part of Fun and Games that was cannibalized from a failed attempt at a “Charles Lee Vincent” novel.)

DJS: Crumley, of course, optioned all of his books to film. He also wasted a great deal of time writing screenplays that never got made, much to my disappointment. Walter Hill blew a decade trying to get The Last Good Kiss off the ground, and that would seem to me to be a no-brainer. Crumley realized he had “sold” his character Milo Milodragovitch to one studio, and Sughrue to another. Being a smartass, aware of the “rights conflict,” he said, “I’ll write a book where they MEET!” That was Bordersnakes (a terrific book, by the way).

And poor ole Scoop … he gets one new story every time I do a short story collection, since no one in their right mind would buy them. The problem is, now enough Scoop stories have amassed that a Scoop book seems the logical next step. I am doomed. Again.

I talked with John Schoenfelder about rounding up all the survivors from previous books and forcing them into some kind of labyrinthine plot, and you know what? It’s such a goofy challenge that I can’t stop thinking about it.

DS: Schoenfelder’s the devil that way. That’s a brilliant idea. Makes me want to round up all of the people who have been killed in my novels (and that would be most of them) and pick up their stories… IN HELL!

DJS: I notice you backing toward the virtual door … be honest, you’ve already hit the road, haven’t you?

DS: Yes indeed. I’ve been slurking westward for the past week, hitting indie bookshops along the way and soaking up the country for future novels, stories and comics. I usually only write about places I’ve actually seen with my own eyes, so I’m consciously trying to see as much of this crazy country as I can. To bring this rambling conversation full circle, then: Philly will always have a claim on my heart. But there’s so much fun and mayhem to be had all over this weird country.

DJS: I love invented words. Argot. Language evolution. And new compounds. If I can use “slurking,” I’ll lend you “flobulent.”

DS: Deal.

DS: Looking forward to grilling some animal flesh and shooting some guns, good sir.

DJS: I’ve got a morgue apron that’ll fit you. Come ahead on.

– the end –

Or IS it?

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.