Tuesday, April 6, 2010

It's Always Bloody in Philadelphia


Duane Swierczynski is a genre unto himself. His sense of pulp fiction is keen and uh, weird. The books are ridiculously fast paced, bloody, twisty and funny as hell. His informal crime trilogy, The Wheelman, The Blonde and Severance Package are the new standard bearers for all of those adjectives and his new one Expiration Date re-enters the head-trip space of his fiction debut Secret Dead Men. I don't know what they're putting in his wheaties, I just hope he don't stop eating them. Duane graciously took a moment to answer some questions, then shot back to his cave where he writes his Polish ass off.

I recall when Secret Dead Men came out it was shelved in the Science Fiction of local bookstores. Wheelman jumped to mystery, The Blonde could've easily followed either one to their respective spots. Does this sort of arbitrary assignation of genre bother you?

Not really. In fact, it's kind of fun to see what kind of labels people apply to your work. (I keep waiting for someone to recognize that I've been writing pastoral romances all of this time.)

That said, there is a risk in losing readers if they don't read across various genres. You may have written a brilliant noir SF epic, but try getting the attention of a reader who specifically avoids all things SF.

So yeah, genre labels can be limiting. Ideally there would be only two sections of any bookstore: True Shit and Made-Up Shit. (And okay, maybe a few subsections of these two, like Made-Up Shit for Teenagers, True Shit for Toddlers, etc.) But I do appreciate and understand the need for genre labels. When I'm in the mood for a specific kind of story, and I sometimes wish the little description on the spine of the paperback would say BLOOD-SPLATTERED HORROR or TOUGH GUY STUFF FROM THE 1930s.

What descriptions would you tag your own novel's spines with?

Let's see... SECRET DEAD MEN: Private Eye/SF/Historical Crime (Al Guthrie told me that setting any book in the past, even 1976, qualifies as "historical fiction.") THE WHEELMAN: Heist/Crime/Richard Stark THE BLONDE: Thriller/SF/Chick Lit. SEVERANCE PACKAGE: Espionage/Horror and the forthcoming EXPIRATION DATE is probably the same as SECRET DEAD MEN, with a dash of "Serial Killer" and "Comic Book Superhero" thrown in.

Are there plans for more novels set in the universe of Secret Dead Men and Expiration Date?

Glad you noticed that. I have plans for at least one more, but it might take a while. SDM was written 1998-1999, and Expiration was written 2008-2009. If I'm going to keep the pattern going, I won't get started until 2018.

While, Expiration Date is one of your wilder conceptual novels, it's easily your most personal at the same time. Were the familial details in the original idea or did they manifest later?

The first glimmer of this idea dates back to 1999, when I was playing around with a potential follow-up to SECRET DEAD MEN. (Which was still unpublished -- but a boy can dream, can't he?) Back then I was calling it SAND IN MY GUN, and it was more of a genre mash-up about a time traveling detective. I wrote a few chapters, then moved on to other things -- but I never completely forgot the idea.

I tried another version of it around 2003 or so, calling it THE GOLDIFSH POOL for reasons I can't really remember. Back then I started to introduce more personal details into the concept, but still, it didn't quite gel.

An editor named Ilena Silverman contacted me back in September 2008, and wondered if I might want to pitch some ideas, (for a serial.) I pitched like crazy, and the story we both liked best was this one. I realized the father-son stuff was central to the story. That was the piece I'd been missing all along Sadly, the NYT Magazine did away with their serial a few months later. But I was already too far into the story to just abandon it, so I finished it off as a short novel. If you squint, though, you can see the faint lines where it could have been a serial.

Where did the unique laws of Mickey's out of body experiences come from? Or for that matter, the weird stuff in any of your books? Guess I'm wondering which come first, the rules or the plots?

It almost always starts with a situation, out of which comes the plot, followed by the rules to keep it all in line.

With EXPIRATION, I was trying to find a new way to do time travel/out of body experiences. For a while, I was playing around with the idea of a time tunnel in the bathroom -- step over a certain point, and boom, you're transported back in time. (And your soul is housed in a specially-created cyborg, in the past.) But that felt way too cumbersome, weird, and maybe too much like the Brain Hotel stuff in SECRET DEAD MEN. Instead I came up with what you see in the novel.

How fulfilling is it to you to step into a character created by someone else as with Cable, or Punisher or Sqweegel? Or maybe a better way to put it is - do those projects satisfy something different for you, the writer, than your original works?

They definitely scratch a different itch. It's a lot of fun to play in someone else's sandbox, be it the sick, twisted world Anthony Zuiker created, or the pantheon of Marvel heroes. But the biggest difference is that all of these projects are collaborations, either with another writer, or editor, or artist(s), so it's not like I'm doing all of the heavy lifting alone. My original stuff is all on me. And while that's a lot more work, it's also more deeply satisfying.

How about the Anthony Zuiker project, Level 26: Dark Origins; while the concept came from outside, anyone familiar with your work could see your stamp all over that book. How much latitude did you have there?

Actually, Zuiker plotted the book out in great detail -- a 60-page outline. So the road map was there; it was up to me to do a lot of the driving. And I guess that's what you see, in terms of my "stamp" -- bits of my driving style sneaking through.

I see - what notes were supplied for anus shaving?

Okay; that was me.

There's almost always a ticking clock of some sort or very specific spatial limitations placed on your characters. Is that mostly to build tension for the reader or focus you as the writer?

It's both. I love ticking clock stories -- there something about them that tells the reader, "Look, there will be no fucking about with this one. We're on a tight schedule, so buckle up."

But like you said, it also helps me focus. Creative restrictions (be they temporal, or spatial, or otherwise) are a huge help to me. Every novel so far has had some set of handcuffs. That said, my next big novel project will be different in that there will be no ticking clock, and it will take place over a (relatively) long period of time -- which is something very new for me.

Was that a conscious decision or simply what the story demanded? Is it something you were working up to?
The story demands it. But it's also something I've been wanting to try for a while now.

What else have you wanted to try for a while?

Oh, I have a long list -- but nothing I want to reveal now. I tend to brood on ideas for insane lengths of time. (Like I said) EXPIRATION DATE goes back to 1999, right after I'd written the first draft of SECRET DEAD MEN. Of course, I had to idea that it would take a decade for the damned story to finally claw its way out of my mind, but that's how these things work, I guess. I've come to terms with that.

When did you get the first idea you've used in a novel or short story?

I've had a piece of SECRET DEAD MEN -- the betrayal at the center of the story -- kicking around my head since I was 12 or 13. It was part of an entirely different story, but that small bit stayed with me... I guess 14 or 15 years before I used it.

Did you know you wanted to write way back then?

Yeah -- that's when I was writing my first stories. I was in eighth grade, and instead of writing a single sentence for each spelling word, I use the list of words in a short story. Usually, horror stories.

When presented with a standard character or beat of a genre, rather than run from cliche, you seem to press into them till they burst - your tough guys are near superhuman, your femme fatales are sexy and deadly beyond anybody's, your killers are machines of preternatural skill or thrill seekers of bottomless depravity, blood splatters in technicolor... Yours are not books of half-measures.

I do enjoy the extremes, and for whatever reason I seem drawn to writing about people on the worst days of their lives -- and watching how they deal (or don't deal) with it. These kinds of things fascinate me.

But I think you're missing all of the subtle, life-affirming stuff going on in the background...

Speaking of 'life affirming', where'd the idea for Damn Near Dead - the anthology of 'geezer noir' you edited for Busted Flush Press a couple years back come from?

That was the total brainchild of David Thompson, head honcho at Busted Flush. I met him in the spring of 2005, when I did a "Noir Night" signing with Allan Guthrie, Ken Bruen, Jason Starr and J.D. Rhodes at Murder By the Book in Houston, Texas. (David is a manager at the store.) Afterwards, we all went to a Texas BBQ joint, and then a Scottish pub (swear to God, in Houston) and, uh... well let's just say many drinks were consumed. At one point I remember David telling me about this anthology he had in mind, and that I'd be the perfect guy to edit it. Mind you -- I'd just met David the day before, and this was my very first fiction signing. But I was pretty drunk, and the rest is... well, a minor footnote in noir history.

What David has against geezers, I don't know. You might want to ask him.

What's up with The Wheelman movie?

No news at the moment. The script (written by Allan Guthrie and the director, Simon Hynd) is finished, and we're all waiting for the next step. Somebody slaughter a goat for us.

Have you read the script or avoided it?

Not only have I read it, but I think it's pretty damn fantastic. In fact, Al and Simon came up with a very cool twist that makes me downright jealous that I didn't come up with it myself.

(read more about Duane and Expiration Date at Ransom Notes)

1 comment:

Keith Rawson said...

Great interview, Jed.
And, Duane, great novel.

As far as the Wheelman script is concerned, I can't wait for that to happen!