“I poisoned your drink.”
Thus began the opening of Duane Swierczynski’s latest noir crime thriller, THE BLONDE, and the ride Swierczynski took the reader on was fueled by an edgy explosion of hare-lean prose and rapid-fire dialogue. By the time I finished THE BLONDE I felt like I’d been in a NASCAR race without a seatbelt. And all done in 220 pages, slim by genre fiction standards. After I closed the page, I had the inexplicable craving for a cold beer and a cigarette, and I don’t like either.
That’s a compliment to Swierczynski’s keen sense of place (Philly’s mean streets) and time (about two years into the future from whenever you read the book). His genius is to evoke the hardboiled crime novels of the ’40’s and ’50’s, but to keep the story firmly grounded in the 21st century.
We are pleased to bring you the first of a two part interview with Writer Unboxed.
Q: Tell us about your road to publication
DS: It was the usual road: in dire need of resurfacing, full of confusing signage, and populated by violent highwaymen who’d just as soon carve out your liver as siphon your gasoline.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad. But it was a long road. This December will mark 20 years since I started writing fiction for real. I remember the exact date: December 27, 1987. That was the night before my best friend’s birthday. I was 15 years old, and broke, so I wrote him a horror novella as a gift. It had a shock ending, and when he read it, he let out this great yell. That’s when it clicked for me. I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life trying to do that again, for as many readers as possible.
Hundreds of stories and novel fragments and half-baked ideas later, I wrote THE WHEELMAN as a lark, to see if I could write a stripped-down, fast-moving heist novel. I honestly thought it had no chance of selling–I mostly wrote it to entertain myself. It sold in two weeks. Nobody was more stunned than me.
Q: Did you think that it was never going to happen? How do you keep the drive to write alive, especially after a 20-year wait?
DS: I don’t really think I had a choice. The drive refused to go away, no matter what. The funny thing is, I remember saying to my wife at one point, “Look, I may never get published I may end up with 20 novels in my trunk that my grandkids discover someday, and have a good laugh. But that’s okay.” And a month later, swear to God, THE WHEELMAN sold to St. Martin’s. It’s almost as if I had to admit it out loud: I was in it for the long haul.
Q: Your novels are violent, wacky, and fiendishly plotted. What drew you to writing noir/crime fiction, and why?
DS: As a teenager, I read a lot of horror, and during the late 1980s/ early 1990s some of my favorite writers were writing crime and noir, too. The two novels that really turned me on to crime fiction were Joe Lansdale’s COLD IN JULY, an excellent Gold-Medal style thriller (though I had no idea what Gold Medal was at the time) and Robert Ferrigno’s THE HORSE LATITUDES. That led me to Jim Thompson and James M. Cain and David Goodis… and before I knew it, I was living in Noirville, and loving it.
I think the fascination with horror and crime and noir comes from the same place: I’m fascinated by characters experiencing the worst days of their lives. With crime and noir, however, the characters often bring it on themselves.
Q: Both THE WHEELMAN and THE BLONDE are set in Philadelphia. Is place important for your inspiration?
Philadelphia is where my imagination runs free. I wrote my first novel, SECRET DEAD MEN, during the summer of 1998 when I was living in Brooklyn and homesick for Philly. Setting it in Philly was almost like spending the summer there.
But yeah, I think this city is a character in itself. There are so many contradictions, so many extremes. It’s the perfect playground for a series of crime novels.
Q: Joe R. Lansdale called THE BLONDE “Lean as a starving model, mean as a snake, fast as a jet.” I agree. The pace is blistering, the tension unbearable, and characters memorable. Can you share with writers your secret to milking tension and quicken pace?
DS: This is going to sound obvious, but whenever I get bored, I move on. And I try to leave myself on the hook, because if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, then there’s no way the reader will, either.
I’m also a big fan of short chapters and/or section breaks. It’s my potato chip theory of writing. A reader will happily gulp down 300 to 500 words, then look to gulp down another. And before he/she knows it, it’s 2 a.m. But if you’re faced with a 5,000-word chapter, it’s far easier to say, “Screw it… I’m going to bed.”
Q: Bio-terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security, a cop’s sex club—these are just a few of the disparate threads you weave together in THE BLONDE. Do you let plot unfold organically, or do you plot heavily in advance?
DS: All of the books live in my mind for a long time before I write a single word. The original plot germ of THE BLONDE, for instance, has been banging around my skull since college. (And it wasn’t just the cheap beer, I swear.)
Funny thing is, I’ve written four novels now, and I’ve approached each one a different way. SECRET DEAD MEN was a failed screenplay I overhauled completely and turned into a novel. I even wrote it out of order, like movies are often shot. THE WHEELMAN was complete improv, from start to finish. THE BLONDE was outlined down to the minute. The one I’ve just finished, SEVERANCE PACKAGE, was largely improv, too, but I kept a file of notes that helped a lot.
I think I’m going to write the next one with a Ouija board, see what happens.
Part Two of our interview with Duane goes live March 23.