Noir crime fiction has been around forever, and yet it’s beginning a renaissance in genre fiction. The wheel never gets invented the same way twice, however. Duane Swierczynski’s latest release, THE BLONDE, is a good example of the fresh spin novelists are bringing to an old classic. The novel’s pacing is bullet-fast, the characters weird and compelling, and the prose tight. We are pleased to bring you part two of WU’s interview with Duane Swierczynski.
Q: Last week you mentioned that you’d turned one of your screenplays into a novel. Do you think writing screenplays helps when it comes to writing novels?
DS: To a certain degree. Screenplays are essentially action and dialogue, and those are a fun set of limitations to play around with. I think some beginning novelists forget that a story has to move, that every word has to count, and writing screenplays can help you learn that. But then again, novels can do a lot of things screenplays and movies can’t, which makes it exciting. Special effects are dirt cheap with a novel. No CGI required!
Q: The namesake protagonist in THE BLONDE literally possesses the kiss of death and leaves a trail of bodies to prove it. A secondary protagonist is a hit man working for the Department of Homeland Security, and he’s engaged in his own private vendetta. Both are potentially unsympathetic characters, yet the reader ends up rooting for them. Are you drawn to anti-heroes as a rule, and why? Can you share any tips for making an unlikable character likable?
DS: I love anti-heroes. In fact, I find it hard to write about the ordinary schlubs–even though, in real life, I am one. It’s probably geek wish-fulfillment.
One way to make an unsavory character someone you want to spend some quality time with is to give them really good motivation. Somebody who dressed up in black rubber and beats the hell out of people would be considered a violent deviant; but throw in a pair of dead parents, a pearl necklace and a botched robbery, and you’ve got Batman. We know why he’s doing it. And we love it.
Q: What books or writers influenced you?
DS: I’ve mentioned Lansdale and Ferrigno–they’re still among my favorites. I spent a lot of time with Chandler, Hammett, Cain, Goodis and Thompson. But there are three books that really showed me how fast a novel could cook without sacrificing depth or emotion: WHITE JAZZ by James Ellroy, RUN by Douglas E. Winter, and THE WHITE TRILOGY by Ken Bruen. Each of those showed me that in crime fiction, less is almost always more.
Q: We asked Jason Starr this question: why do you think genre fiction receives so little respect in literary circles, despite the fact that the majority of fiction sold is genre?
DS: There’s always been this idea that if it’s popular or entertaining, it’s not serious or worthy of critical attention. That’s crap.
But honestly, I could care less about respect in literary circles. I just want to reach readers and entertain the living hell out of them.
Q: How has your work as editor-in-chief for the Philadelphia City Paper, an independent newspaper, influenced your fiction?
DS: Funny you ask. The novel I’m writing now (which won’t be out, most likely, until late 2008) is set in the world of a Philadelphia alt-weekly. I’ve been telling friends it’s like an action movie version of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.
But beyond that, editing at the City Paper has been great for a million little details about life in Philly, which I file away in my brain and use as needed. And I learn every day on the job. Editing someone else’s words teaches you cool tricks, as well as what to avoid in your work.
Q: Such as?
DS: Some writers insert a lot of needless detail into their stories. Just like a car should have no extra parts, a novel should have no extra detail. You can write a detail-rich story, but I think every element should point to something important–such as help you understand a character or a situation more vividly.
When I’m editing a piece of journalism, I can definitely tell when a writer is inserting a bunch of extra details just for “color.” And nothing drives me crazier.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
DS: The best advice I ever heard is from Joe Lansale, and it’s the formula for writing success: WRITING = ASS + CHAIR. That’s really what it is: the willingness to sit and spend countless hours, days, weeks, years working on your craft.
I also think it’s important to continue to be a writer who aspires, even after publication. My goal is to improve with each book, learning new techniques and flexing different muscles along the way. I’d like to think that I’ll be 85 years old, and still wrestling with the opening of a new novel, trying to come up with something fresh. And then, realize that I left my teeth in the microwave again.
Q: What are you reading now?
DS: I’m halfway through a Comic Journal collection of interviews with Frank Miller. I’m also dipping in and savoring the columns in Pete Dexter’s new collection, PAPER TRAILS. And I’ve just finished Tom Piccirilli’s DEAD LETTERS, which is a brilliant blend of horror and noir. Would that be noirror? No idea. But it’s great.
Thank you, Duane.
THE BLONDE and THE WHEELMAN are on currently on sale at online and bricks n mortars retailers nationwide.