Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Q&A: Duane Swierczynski

Duane Swierczynski is a busy man. He writes novels and comics. A few weeks ago he picked up an Anthony Award for his book Expiration Date. His latest, Hell & Gone, is a follow-up to Fun & Games and will be published on Halloween. Duane not only took time out of his schedule to submit to a VKDCQ&A, he was also gracious enough to provide the prize for this website’s first-ever contest. Details follow Duane’s wit and wisdom below.

Q. What can you tell us about Hell & Gone?

I can tell you it's the first sequel I've ever written. Well, besides Dark Prophecy, which was a sequel to Dark Origins, my collaboration with CSI guy Anthony Zuiker. But that was Zuiker’s idea; I always thought I'd be writing stand-alones. But when I pitched Fun & Games to John Schoenfelder at Mulholland Books, he took me out for whiskey at this Irish pub near Grand Central Station and asked, “What do you think about turning this into a trilogy?” I’ll admit, I responded to the challenge of it. (I’ll pretty much write anything on a dare.) And the more I plotted, the more I realized that this story was itching to be bigger, badder and weirder, and that it absolutely *had* to be three books. Then again, it could have been the whiskey.

Q. H&G is the second part of the Charlie Hardie trilogy, with all three books being released in less than a year. How did this old-school pulp publishing schedule affect both the structure of the books and your working method?

As I started thinking Hardie’s story as playing out over three novels, I was adamant about one thing: that each had a specific reason for existing on their own. I didn’t want to write two carbon copies of the first novel -- that would be boring. (And it’s one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of long-running series.) Once I embraced the idea, though, I started having fun with the idea of recurring elements in all three books. For instance, each installment opens with a sequence featuring a woman in jeopardy. Each installment is roughly 33 chapters. (There’s an extra chapter in F&G because I wanted the total trilogy chapter count to be 100.) The quotes at the beginning of each chapter follow patterns ... and so on. I also wanted to follow proper movie sequel traditions -- where the second installment is almost always darker than the original, and the third tends to be the most bugfuck insane.

As for working methods... well, writing three novels back to back was more of a challenge than I anticipated. I learned that I really need mental downtime between projects like these. Especially while writing comic books and those Zuiker novels and a bunch of other things at the same time. If I could go back in time, I might have suggested that I give myself a bit more time with the trilogy; as of right now, I'm running behind.

Q. Fun & Games introduced “The Accident People,” assassins who specialize in staging the deaths of public figures. What did you think when, just prior to F&G’s publication, Randy Quaid and his wife started talking about the “star whackers” out to kill Hollywood celebrities? Have you read much about their take – or seen their movie?

When I heard about the Quaids, I was very bummed that F&G was so many months away from publication -- it would have been a great news hook for the novel. I haven't seen their movie, but I did read quite a bit about their ... um, “case” ... while I was writing H&G, and it had a direct influence on the plot. Life is so wonderfully weird sometimes.

Q. While Fun & Games is a thriller, Hell & Gone introduces science fiction elements with the finale, Point & Shoot, going even further. Blending genres isn’t new to you. Do you worry about how your novels will be categorized? Do you find readers are more accepting of these kind of mash-ups than the publishing industry?

Actually, there's nothing sci-fi about the finale – it’s all grounded in real science, honest! As for genre-blending, I used to worry about it... especially when my first novel, Secret Dead Men, didn’t sell for that reason. (Editors said they wouldn’t know where to put it in the bookstore. And they were probably right.) But as you say, I *do* think readers are more open to genre-blenders these days. Guys like Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont and Fredric Brown were blazing the trail back in the day, followed by Stephen King and Dean Koontz -- and they were almost always marketed as “horror” or “fantasy” authors. I think it was acceptable to blend genres in that direction -- meaning, you could write a horror novel with elements of hardboiled crime and mystery and science fiction. But a hardboiled novel with huge dollops of horror or sci-fi? That used to be a much tougher sell.

I used to love the idea of being known for a certain genre (“Hey, it’s that Polish guy who writes hardboiled stories!”), but now I’m starting to realize how limiting that can be. Especially considering the next few novels I have in mind ...

Q. As usual with your work, the Charlie Hardie books feature a strong Philadelphia connection. What do you want to impress on readers about the City of Brotherly Love?

I’m not trying to preach the good gospel of Philly so much as I'm trying to satisfy my own curiosity. The more I dig, the more I discover how much I *don't* know about this crazy town. One of those future novels I mentioned will be a proper historical novel, set in Prohibition-era Philadelphia -- an era that fascinates me on multiple levels. I started doing serious research about two years ago, and I've been revisiting that time on-and-off ever since. I wrote 100 pages of the novel before I realized I was going about it all wrong, but that's fine, because now I know *exactly* where it went off the rails. (I also wrote a related story from the same era, “Lonergan's Girl,” which appeared in last year's Philadelphia Noir.)

Movie Q. You’re working on Birds of Prey as part of DC Comics’ “The New 52” relaunch. What is the most underrated comic book adaptation?

The original Punisher (1989), with Dolph Lundgren. Pleasantly dark, violent and at times very funny. I used to quote Dolph’s Punisher speech to friends out of nowhere: “Come on, God, answer me. For years I’m asking why, why are the innocent dead and the guilty alive? Where is justice? Where is punishment?” (Oh, I was great fun at parties.)

Baseball Q. Five straight NL East titles for the Phillies. Does that matter to you at all?

*rouses self from a deep sleep* I’m sorry, you started talking about sports there, and such talk drops me into a coma within seconds. It's better than chloroform!

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

I’ve been on this rye kick lately, and really enjoy a good Manhattan. But I’d be open to the bartender suggesting something else rye-based. Especially a concoction that hasn't been in vogue for, say, 50 years. What can I say? I relish any chance to get buzzed *and* feel like I've slipped into a time machine.


I promised a contest, didn’t I? Rye drinkers will never let you down. I am pleased to give away, with Duane’s help, a signed copy of Hell & Gone. Simply send your name and postal address to, with Hell & Gone as the subject line. The contest is open to U.S. residents only, and entries will be accepted through noon PST on Wednesday, November 2, 2011. Which, aptly, is the Day of the Dead. The winner will be selected at random and announced here. Good luck!

UPDATE 11/2/11: And we have our winner, Bill Simms of California. Thanks to everyone who entered.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Movie: Margin Call (2011)

No doubt a slew of Occupy Wall Street movies will be in release next year. Odds are they won’t do as good a job of explaining how we got into our current fiscal morass than J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call. And it makes its case the hard way, showing compassion for those on the other side of the desk.

In 2008 Peter Sullivan, a young analyst at an investment bank (Zachary Quinto, who also produced), celebrates surviving another corporate bloodletting by wrapping up a project begun by his downsized mentor Stanley Tucci. Peter adds up the numbers only to discover the numbers don’t add up. He spends the rest of the night explaining to his superiors just how screwed the firm and the economy will shortly be.

Chandor’s compression of the financial collapse into a critical day and a half allows him to do the unthinkable: he humanizes the Masters of the Universe who currently find themselves occupied. His script, full of smart dialogue and galvanizing scenes, is by turns darkly comic and deeply terrifying. The higher Peter goes in the bank’s structure the more he has to simplify what he says. A bland HR rep apologizes to Tucci for what seem like punitive measures when he’s terminated only to have those precautions, like shutting off Tucci’s phone, render him inaccessible at the very moment he’s needed most. The film approaches Joseph Heller levels of absurdity when bank president Jeremy Irons decides to stage a fire sale of toxic assets knowing it will trigger a meltdown (“It’s not panic when you’re the first one out the door”) and you find yourself agreeing with his sensible approach.

A top flight cast makes the most of the material, particularly a stiletto-sharp Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey as a salesman clinging to the belief that there’s still honor in his profession, and Irons, who closes out the proceedings with a chilling rationale of how we got to this point, what will follow suit, and why it’s destined to happen again. Margin Call is in theaters and for rent via iTunes and on demand, so you’ve got no excuse for missing one of the best movies of the year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book: The Night and the Music, by Lawrence Block (2011)

I could begin this post by talking about how essential Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder books were to getting me hooked on crime fiction as a teenager, but I won’t. In part because I’ve mentioned it almost every time a new Scudder title comes out – Block’s still writing ‘em, so I’m still reading ‘em – but mainly because screenwriter/director Brian Koppelman does a better job covering the same ground in his introduction to this new collection of Scudder short stories.

The pieces appear in the order of publication. The first entry, “Out the Window,” has a strong 1970s vibe, while “The Merciful Angel of Death” vividly captures the desperation of the early years of the AIDS crisis. But the stories ultimately mirror the arc of the Scudder series, with the ex-cop and occasionally licensed private investigator making peace with his alcoholism and reflecting on his past. The last two, “Mick Ballou Looks at the Blank Screen” and “One Night at Grogan’s,” have the unmistakable air of valedictory about them. But then I’ve thought that Block was bringing down the curtain on Scudder before only to be happily proven wrong.

In fact, if I have a complaint about The Night and the Music it’s that it comes hard on the heels of A Drop of the Hard Stuff, a particularly strong outing published only a few months ago. A year from now I’ll be desperate for more Matt and would have paid a king’s ransom for this collection. But who knows? Maybe there’ll be another Scudder book by then. Stranger things have happened. In the meantime, pick up The Night and The Music right now for a song.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Miscellaneous: Words of Cocktail Wisdom

... we are still of the opinion that decent libation supports as many million souls as it threatens; donates pleasure and sparkle to more lives than it shadows; inspires more brilliance in the world of art, music, letters and common ordinary intelligent conversation than it dims ... We view the subject with clinical interest, continued joy and extreme toleration. We feel that so long as it is an existing part of human life, too strong and too important for prohibition, we should make the enjoyments as apparent and as controlled as possible; the tastes crisp, the compounding as intriguing as far ports of the world can afford.

Charles H. Baker, Jr., The Gentleman’s Companion, Vol. II (1939)