Duane Swierczynski is one of the hardest working men in the writing business. He runs a fairly decent sized newspaper and has a wife and two very young children. He treats his writing career as a full-time job and is the author of three critically acclaimed novels. I received a signed advance copy of The Blonde, but I went out and bought the hardcover as soon as it hit the shelves.
I got a chance to talk with Duane over instant messager and it was a great talk. We talked about his city, the change in crime fiction that’s been taking place these days as writers get more experimental, comic books, and a whole lot more. Check out his great blog at: Duane Swierczynski: The Wheelman.
Forth, transcript. This is a long one, but it’s a goody, and ought to at least convince you to get in line for his upcoming novel Severence Package. Now, prepare for voyeurism! It’s like you’re really there!
Cameron: Get this party started now?
Swierczynski: It’s on.
Swierczynski: Or, as they say in Philly:
Swierczynski: "It’s on, motherfuckas!"
Cameron: So you’re a native?
Swierczynski: Yes, born in a neighborhood called Frankford.
Swierczynski: Now a really bad drug corridor.
Swierczynski: In fact, my parents unwittingly sold my childhood home to some heroin dealers. True story, There was a statewide bust called "Operation Macho." My old address was named in the press release.
Cameron: Of course. Must live the experience to write about it
Swierczynski: Personally, I’d rather read about the experience than actually have it… but I guess it does make for some nice first-hand research.
Cameron: What was Frankford like?
Swierczynski: Well, it used to be a quiet little country village.
Swierczynski: Then they ran an elevated train through it.
Swierczynski: When I was a kid, growing up in the 1970s, the avenue under the El was still a thriving place. You could buy suits, candy, records.
Swierczynski: But it really hit hard times in the 1980s. Now it’s tough to make anything work in the neighborhood, though people are trying hard.
Cameron: So you could buy anything growing up?
Swierczynski: More or less. Frankford Avenue was my universe.
Swierczynski: Just up the avenue was the newsstand where I’d buy comic books. And two doors up from that, a used book store where I’d buy paperbacks with the covers torn off for a quarter each.
Swierczynski: Now I know how despicable that practice is… (Says the author)
Cameron: Right, it usually means the books are stolen?
Swierczynski: Or, remaindered, and meant to be pulped.
Cameron: Did you write as a kid?
Cameron: Old books and comics would have an impact on any kid, at least as an escape
Swierczynski: I did. I was always putting together little comic books and fake newspapers–first with markers and loose leaf, later with a typewriter.
Swierczynski: Oh yeah.
Swierczynski: I also read my dad’s copies of Omni magazine, which contained some pretty weird stuff.
Swierczynski: I didn’t understand half of it (I was eight), but what I understood blew my mind.
Swierczynski: Like you said, it was an escape. Not that I had a Dickens-like childhood, but it was nice to sneak out into other worlds.
Swierczynski: There’s no movie quite like the movie you create in your mind.
Cameron: So writing was a natural thing that came to you, nothing where you said "I can do this!"
Swierczynski: I think it’s natural that, if you enjoy something, eventually you’ll want to give it a try. That’s how it was with writing.
Swierczynski: I knew I wasn’t any good, but I had fun doing it. And that feeling has honestly never gone away.
Swierczynski: Er… the last part of that, I mean.
Swierczynski: The fun.
Cameron: You have a degree in Journalism. Was that just at first a way to learn how to write better?
Swierczynski: Yep. Actually, I have a B.A. in English Lit and Communications–my college didn’t have a journalism track.
Swierczynski: But the idea was to get a lot of bad writing out of my system by writing for newspapers.
Swierczynski: I used to always obsess over my stuff, wondering if it was "professional" enough.
Swierczynski: As if there was a code to be unlocked.
Cameron: I think that stops a lot of would-be writers, lack of confidence, always one little thing that they don’t like that stop them from trying
Swierczynski: I agree.
Swierczynski: The trick is keep writing anyway. Because you eventually find a way around those hurdles.
Cameron: You had a long period between your first, Secret Dead Men, and The Wheelman. Was it your journalism career that interrupted it?
Swierczynski: Actually, no.
Swierczynski: I wrote Secret Dead Men while I was an editor at Details magazine. The reason for the delay: it didn’t sell, and I was a bit discouraged.
Swierczynski: So I focused on writing nonfiction books for a while, as well as oddball short stories that popped up here and there.
Cameron: I’ve noticed it mentioned a lot more these days
Swierczynski: I’m proud of the book. It’s not the kind of book I’d write today, nine years down the road.
Swierczynski: But I think it has its goofy charms.
Cameron: Its fun, very much a first novel, but there are themes in it carried on in The Wheelman and The Blonde
Swierczynski: That said, I’m tempted to go back and write a stand-alone sequel (figure that one out) that plays with the mythology a bit.
Swierczynski: Hmmm. What theme would that be?
Swierczynski: "No matter what, you’re fucked?"
Cameron: The old Rocky wisdom. Go the distance, even if they’re trying to fuck you up, especially if they’re trying to fuck you up
Swierczynski: Exactly. Sometimes, you win. Sometimes, you don’t.
Cameron: You play with genre a lot. Going back, is that just writing down the movies in your head?
Swierczynsky: It used to be, but now I put a lot more effort into feeding my head raw materials.
Swierczynski: When I was younger, it was just daydreaming, and I’d write down the more interesting daydreams.
Cameron: The Wheelman is probably your most straight-forward novel
Swierczynski: I think so–it’s probably the most traditional crime story I’ve ever written
Swierczynski: Which was on purpose. A lot of the rejections for Secret Dead Men said stuff like, "Nice, but where would we sell it? Mystery? Sci-Fi?"
Swierczynski: So I thought, "Okay. I’ll give you the most stripped-down, hardboiled story I can think of."
Cameron: In today’s market, it would sit comfortably by writers like Jim Butcher
Swierczynski: I know!
Swierczynski: Not to compare myself with these writers, but guys like Jim Butcher and Charlie Huston have done a great job blending these genres
Swierczynski: and have had a lot of success at it.
Swierczynski: I just tell myself I was nine years ahead of my own time.
Cameron: So you run a newspaper now? Does it get in the way of your writing?
Swierczynski: You know, I’m not sure.
Swierczynski: I’ve always had a full-time gig, be it school or work. And I’ve always written at night and weekends.
Swierczynski: It’s always been something I’ve squeezed in, for fun. Now that’s it’s becoming more of a second career, I do find myself spending more time with it.
Cameron: I put a gun to your head, and made you choose, would it be the newspaper business or novels?
Swierczynski: I would slap the gun out of your hand.
Swierczynski: Then I would press the gun to your head and say
Swierczynski: "No comment, punk."
Swierczynski: Okay seriously, I would love to write novels full time.