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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?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Josh Bazell: Part II”

A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Ed Brubaker: Part II

This week, we celebrate the publication of FUN & GAMES by Duane Swierczynski, a book that CNN.com says “reads like a Quentin Tarantino movie on speed, full of high-octane action, flying by at a breakneck pace, not for the faint of heart, but also with plenty of humor.” Here, we present Part II of a conversation between Swierczynski and award-winning writer Ed Brubaker, author of CRIMINAL, SLEEPER and INCOGNITO, among many others.

Missed Part I? Start reading it here.

DS: The idea for Charlie Hardie, the house sitter, came first, though he didn’t have a name for a long time. You think “house sitter,” you kind of think “burnout.” (My apologies to the many fine professional housesitters working the mansions of America today; I don’t mean you guys.) Anyway, at the very least, I imagined somebody’s who’s been through a rough patch. Someone who used to know how to handle himself, but maybe had fallen on hard times, and was more than a little rusty. Like you said, all of this stuff goes into a mental blender and spins around for a long time… and slowly, a character emerged.

See, I like your question a lot — and it applies to Charlie, because it’s clear he wants to escape from his life. Yet, life won’t let him. It keeps picking on him.

The idea for the… uh, female lead (don’t want to spoil anything) was more or less inspired by certain pieces of celebrity gossip. As well as the whole idea that you can easily bump into a celebrity in L.A., which I find interesting — would you recognize, say, Blake Lively in a very out-of-context situation? Like, if she suddenly broke into your hotel room and told you people were trying to kill her?

Question for you, along the same lines: Do you get starstruck at all? And if so, is it for actors, directors, writers, or musicians?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Duane Swierczynski and Ed Brubaker: Part II”

Ray Bradbury is my ‘Father’

Growing up in a small country town in Australia, my only experience of the wider world came through grainy black and white TV images and the magic of the books that I borrowed from the local library.

I remember being eight-years-old, in July 1969, when teachers assembled the entire school – barely a hundred students – into one classroom. They wheeled in a television and we watched Neil Armstrong emerge from the landing module of Apollo 11. We held our breath. One small step…one giant leap…

Everyone applauded except me. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the enormity of the achievement, but I had already been to the moon and walked on the surface of Mars and smelt the pungent odor of Jupiter. I had traveled the universe with a writer called Ray Bradbury, who is perhaps the reason that I’m a novelist today.

Bradbury was born in 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois, the son of a lineman for the local power company, who moved often for work between Illinois and Arizona. When very young he developed a passion for the books of Edgar Allan Poe and L. Frank Baum, while immersing himself in popular culture such as cinema, comic strips and traveling circuses.

There were tragedies in his early life. His beloved grandfather and his baby sister died of pneumonia – which could explain why a sense of loss haunts so many of Bradbury’s stories and novels.

At the age of fourteen he moved to California and has lived there ever since. After he graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1938, he joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction League, befriending writers Robert Heinlein and Leigh Brackett. In 1940 he sold his first story to a literary magazine – and a career began that would span more than seventy years.

Apart from numerous books and short stories, Bradbury wrote for years for both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. He has penned the screenplay for the classic 1956 version of Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck and directed by John Huston.

I wasn’t born until 1960, but I discovered Bradbury when I graduated from picture books to short stories. From memory, the first I ever picked up was The Illustrated Man a collection of eighteen short stories that opens in Wisconsin where two men sit down to share a meal around a campfire and one unbuttons his shirt to reveal a canvas of ink-decorated skin. In the flickering firelight, the images begin to breathe and move. Each of the tattoos tells a story and gives a vision of humankind’s destiny. There were tales of star-travel, Martian invasions, junkyard rockets and technology awakening our worst instincts.

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First Lines

Typewriter 5We’re all about page turning here at Mulholland Books and one of the things that really gets you reading is a fabulous first line. We’ve compiled a few that we like, but this is just a starting point. Really, we want to know YOUR favorite first lines. Please contribute your pick in the comments! We might even have Mulholland tote bags for those who particularly surprise us.

“Death is my beat.” –The Poet by Michael Connelly

“Clouds like gusted shadows of the dead moved past the Lenten moon, drifting west toward Jersey. Louie saw them.” –Cut Numbers by Nick Tosches

“I never knew her in life.” –The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Roll-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers.” –The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

“Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived he saw a man’s life change forever.” –The Hard Way by Lee Child

“Fuck you.” –Savages by Don Winslow

“Garfield Potter sat low behind the wheel of an idling Caprice, his thumb stroking the rubber grip of the Colt revolver loosely fitted between his legs.” –Hell to Pay by George Pelecanos

“Her stomach clutched at the sight of the water tower hovering above the still, bare trees, a spaceship come to earth.” –What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman

“You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a grand day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., with a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of Tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat and there’s two girls millin’ about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it’s three or four Sunday mornin’ and you ain’t slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain’t had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they’d taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, ‘cause with crank you just want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin’ to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation.” –Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

“When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell.” –The Hunter by Richard Stark

Keep the list going! Contribute in the comments.

The Deep Bottom Drawer: A Conversation with Lois Duncan

shadowy figuresI’m just beginning to realize the flickering presence Lois Duncan’s books still play in my imagination, decades after discovering them.

Most of my reading life, age nine to twelve especially, seemed to be in search of books that somehow conveyed for me, as movies did, a world as dark and tangled and mysterious as the one I glimpsed in my fevered girl head. These were books of shadows, books where the every day—banging school lockers, fights with siblings, sprawling out on the carpet and watching TV—could, at any moment, give way to darkness, beauty, terror, a Grimm’s fairy tale of precipice-peering and descent. The same things I found, and clung to, in true crime and noir.

It was not until a few years ago that I discovered her non-fiction recounting of her daughter’s (still officially unsolved) murder and its aftermath, Who Killed My Daughter?, which is wrenching, unforgettable book. It’s hard to talk about such a personal book, written by a grieving mother, in objective terms, but, to try, it’s also a fascinating book as Duncan undertakes her own investigations, both traditional and untraditional, including working with a psychic.

Now, with the reissuing and updating of ten of Duncan’s YA books, including my favorites, I was fortunate enough to interview the author herself. On a personal level, there’s something deeply satisfying and more than a little uncanny about it because, as with so many interviews, I came to feel I was revealing (or at least realizing) as much about myself (maybe more) as the author herself was. Most of all, though, I came away feeling deeply inspired by her path as a female author with such a long career in a famously punishing business. The author of 50 books, she has endured countless “revolutions” in publishing and never let any of it stop her from creating, from experimenting, from, well, telling the stories she wanted to tell.

Speaking via a series of emails, we began by talking about the new editions. She told me how exciting it was for her to update the new editions, adding, “I’ve been astonished to realize how well the characters and plots have transcended the years. All I really had to do was tweak the stories in order to change hair styles and dress and give my protagonists access to the technical toys of today—cell phones, computers, digital cameras, etc. That gave me a sense of power. It was like rebirthing my children and being able to provide them with wings.”

Megan: I am a tremendous fan, and have been since I first found your books in the early 1980s, as a young girl in suburban Michigan. It’s a big thrill to see these reissues and to get to revisit these wonderful books and also, somehow, the 10-year-old me who so savored them.

One of the things that strike me now, re-reading them, is how they managed to mingle the everyday (family chores, pesky siblings) and identifiable with the strange, the paranormal, darkness itself. I think it can speak to young girls’ sense that they want to be invited into a book (e.g., a heroine they feel is like them), but they also want to visit murky places. Explore, uncover the unknown. Was that “mix” one of your aims when you wrote them? How could you be sure the darker themes would be speak to readers?

Lois Duncan: I wasn’t sure. And, at first, my editors weren’t either. A Gift of Magic (my first novel that involved ESP) was rejected seven times before Little, Brown daringly published it. The other publishers were certain that young readers would not be interested. I get great satisfaction from the fact that the book, originally published in 1971, has never gone out of print and becomes more and more popular.

As far as my style goes—I think the fact that the books involve “normal” kids in “normal” life situations creates a realistic format that the average reader easily relates to. As paranormal events begin to occur, the viewpoint character finds them just as bewildering as the reader. Then, as that character begins to accept them, the reader does so also, because he or she is following the same thought process.

Continue reading “The Deep Bottom Drawer: A Conversation with Lois Duncan”

A Conversation with Marcia Clark and Sebastian Rotella

Criminal Courts buildingFormer Los Angeles deputy district attorney Marcia Clark, and reporter Sebastian Rotella, a former correspondent and bureau chief in Paris and Buenos Aires for the Los Angeles Times, both took the “write what you know” adage to heart when they sat down to write their first novels. Clark’s novel, Guilt By Association, out this week, features Los Angeles D.A. Rachel Knight, who takes on the case a young woman who was assaulted from a prominent family. Rotella’s novel, Triple Crossing, an August publication, is a thriller about the criminal underworld at work along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and a young cop who goes undercover to bring it down. Here, the two writers talk about how their day jobs have influenced their writing, in both obvious and subtle ways.

Marcia Clark: For me, one of the best parts of the experience of writing Guilt By Association was if I didn’t have enough evidence, I could back up and add more. “Backspace, backspace, backspace… and we found a fingerprint, a fiber, DNA!” I could make a case as strong or weak as I wanted to.”

Sebastian Rotella: There’s no doubt about that. When you’re writing stories about the Latin American underworld or terrorism, you’re so careful about what you can and can’t say. You might be using a document that tells the truth to a certain point, but then you have to limit yourself from making the connection. When you’re writing a novel, it’s good to apply those rigors, but then you say, “Hey, wait a minute, I’m in charge here!” It’s a good exercise to make it as realistic as possible, but there is the fun of having that creative control over how the action is going to unfold. I think both of us went through that.

MC: I think that’s where you and I come from the same place. We’ve both been limited by the truth and what can be proven in the past. But with a novel, you can say the things you suspect or even know, but can’t necessarily prove. But the experience of having been a prosecutor or a journalist makes you write fiction that’s logical; you build a case on the page that makes sense based on what you know could have been proven in a courtroom. Yes, you have the freedom from restrictions but you don’t want to stray so far that it becomes insane.

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A Conversation with Alafair Burke

BangAlafair Burke is a lawyer-turned novelist and the creator of two of the most memorable female crime fighters on the scene today: NYPD Detective Ellie Hatcher and Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid. Jen Forbus is a tastemaker in the crime fiction community and the force behind Jen’s Book Thoughts. Here, they discuss writing great characters, changing perspectives and the best bulldog on earth: The Duffer.

Jen: Hey Alafair!  I thought I’d start off by asking you how you define a great female character.

Alafair: Thank you for jumping back in, Jen. The greatness of a female character should be the same for any character. I like characters who feel real. Who have backstories. Who have good days and bad. Who have unpredictable and yet fully explained reactions to their environments. Who are flawed but likable. Whose voices ring in your head long after the book is closed.

When we see that kind of greatness in female characters, I think we admire it all the more because we sometimes get used to — and perhaps even expect — female characters to fall into one a handful of stock stereotypes: the supportive wife, the hooker with a heart of gold, the femme fatale. I like to think that the women I’ve created are the kind of women readers can imagine themselves knowing and liking in their own lives.

Jen: So do your characters evolve from women you know and like; do those real life women influence how you create characters? Do you feel other writers have influenced how you create characters? Or are they simply organic to the creation of the story?

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The Spaces Between Stars

Cité interditeMy name’s Warren Ellis.  I’m mostly a science fiction writer.  I’m sometimes also a crime writer.  These are essentially the same thing.

Let me try and explain that.

I don’t think HG Wells and Raymond Chandler ever met.  I don’t know that they would have had a lot to say to each other if they did.  Perhaps Wells might have gloweringly reprimanded Chandler for being mean about his friend AA Milne’s detective novel.  Or perhaps he might have asked for a go on Chandler’s wife, I don’t know.  But I like to imagine that an interlocuter bringing them together – perhaps in 1940, Wells’ twilight and Chandler’s emergence – would have explained why they should talk.

It was HG Wells, in large part, who made science fiction into social fiction.  You can trace back the roots of that movement to Mary Shelley and beyond, but it was Wells who both concretised it and gave it common currency.  Science fiction is nominally about the novum, the new thing that disrupts the world of the story.  But THE INVISIBLE MAN is not about an invisibility process, just as THE TIME MACHINE is not really about a time machine.  The great Wells fireworks were novels about the human condition, the sociopolitical space and the way Wells saw life being lived.

In crime fiction, of course, the story is nominally about the crime: the disruptive event introduced into the world of the story.  But THE BIG SLEEP isn’t about a murder, and FAREWELL MY LOVELY isn’t about a missing person.  Chandler’s great leap – and of course there were antecedents and even peers, but it’s Chandler who is indelible – was to make crime fiction fully an expression of social fiction.

These became the dual tracks upon which our mediation of the 20th Century ran.  Science fiction and crime fiction contextualised, explored and reported on rapidly changing and expanding modern conditions.  And they did it in ways that spoke to the felt experiences of our lives, to our hopes and our fears, in ways that other fictions, or even other reportage, couldn’t approach.  Science fiction and crime fiction explained to us where we really are, and where we might be going.

So when I write science fiction I’m a crime writer, and when I write crime fiction I’m an sf writer.  I’m talking about our lives, and the way I see the world.  I’m writing about the new thing, the disruptive event that enters that world, its repercussions and the attempts to deal with it.  But I’m talking about where I think I am today, and what I think it looks like.

In GUN MACHINE, I’m writing about a disruptive event: a small sealed Manhattan apartment filled with hundreds of guns, each one used in a single unsolved homicide.  But what I’m talking about is money, the acquisition of power, the deals we make in the name of security, the unique soul-killing exhaustion that comes of caring too much for too long, and the faces madness take in our lives.

Also quite a lot of people get shot.

I just have to trust that the good people at Mulholland Books will catch me when I get confused and give my New York City police detective rocket pants and a ray gun.

[Editor’s Note: We are proud to announce today that Warren Ellis is joining Mulholland Books for two books, the first of which will be GUN MACHINE and will be published in Fall 2012. Warren Ellis is more than just a writer. He is a movement. We are thrilled to be the publishers of GUN MACHINE.]

Warren Ellis is the award-winning creator of graphic novels such as TransmetropolitanFellMinistry of Space and Planetary, and the author of Crooked Little Vein. The film Red, based on his graphic novel, was released in October 2010. He has written a number of graphic novels under option for film and TV. He is personally adapting his series of Gravel graphic novels into a screenplay for Legendary Pictures. He lives in south-east England.

Mulholland Books will publish GUN MACHINE in Fall 2012.

Talking Titles

It’s either one step above or one step below judging a book by its cover, but say what you will – titles matter. They matter a whole lot in the noir fiction world since back when the stands used to be filled with the salacious come-ons of pulp fiction femme fatales in lace brassieres and a bold-type title announced the goings on inside, and they matter just as much today.

The old titles didn’t hold much back – Say It With Bullets, Dig Me A Grave, Kiss My Fist – and they succeeded in convincing people to lay out a dime for the tale that went with it. Quite often the book inside the lurid cover couldn’t deliver on the promise and therefore the pulps are littered with titles that are better than the 30 – 40,000 words that followed. There’s a reason not many of those books are around anymore and it ain’t the cheap paper.

Film Noir also loves a good title and they often follow the same rule of thumb that the more outrageous the sales pitch, the worse the movie. Double Indemnity isn’t as sexy as, say, I Wouldn’t Be In Your Shoes, but which is a better film? You guessed correctly. (not that I don’t have a sot spot for any movie based on a Cornell Woolrich story and starring Regis Toomey)

Speaking of James M. Cain, in addition to Indemnity he proved himself a really dull title-maker despite writing some of the best books of the era. I, for one, have never quite gotten the appeal of the title The Postman Always Rings Twice, even though I love the book. Mildred Pierce is just a name, and the name Mildred at that. Quite possibly the least alluring name in history. But I sure as hell would recommend it over something like A Dame Called Murder or Dames Can Be Poison.

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The Drowned Man

they dont make them like this anymoreIn our early 20s, my wife and I didn’t have any money or real jobs. We were going to college and doing day labor in Nacogdoches. What we didn’t have was a house we owned. The one we were living in rented for very little, but it had some drawbacks. One was an outhouse. The outhouse was a favorite hangout for snakes so big they looked as if they belonged in a Tarzan movie, not to mention spiders large enough to wear multi-legged pants. Every trip to the privy became worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. Another drawback was no inside water. There was a pump to a well outside and a water hose, but stripping off and taking a bath with the hose in freezing weather was, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. Our heat was firewood I chopped to burn in two large fireplaces. There was a small electric heater that whined like a small child and might have blown up had we tried to warm a marshmallow in front of it.

So we wouldn’t starve, we decided to move to Starrville, where my parents lived, and stay with them while we worked and Karen went to school part-time at Tyler Junior College. So in my oil-guzzling old Ford and Karen’s truck, we headed out, like two leftover Joads from The Grapes of Wrath, and went north to Starrville, which is about the size of a postage stamp. Actually, we ended up on its outskirts, so we can’t claim actual residence there.

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