Blonde on Blonde
Those who know me best understand that I seldom miss journalism. I'm better suited to working alone, making stuff up. But, like Michael Corleone, just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in.
"They" in this case were Jon and Ruth Jordan, editors of Crimespree Magazine, who asked me to step in and interview James Crumley when the original interviewer, Duane Swierczynski, had to beg off because of an avalanche of deadlines. I enjoyed the interview with Crumley so much that I decided to do more interviews for my own website. And what better first subject than Duane, whose third novel, The Blonde, has just been released to rave reviews?
The interview took place Nov. 2nd, via IM. It has been edited for clarity. Duane was drinking a Vitaminwater Formula 50, while I had a glass of Fess Parker Pinot Noir in honor of the release of Daniel Boone on DVD. Plus, it has that resveratrol stuff that everyone's so excited about. You see, I'm a blonde who's going to live forever, as long as I can get a steady supply of the grape, sort of like The Leech Woman crossed with The Grifters. Just have to remember to limit myself to red wine and male pineal glands. Gee, it sounds like a set-up straight out of a Swierczynski novel. Which may be called Return of the Love Lobster. If so, you heard it here first. Read on for more Swierczynski scoop.
Laura: What kind of kid were you? Horror and science fiction were your early influences, right?
Duane: I was a quiet, small bookworm-ish kid. My first influences were superhero comics. Go figure, right? I was painfully shy and honestly, pretty damn skinny and of average height. Which is why I'm stunned when people call me "big guy." My self-image is frozen at eight years old.
Laura: Well, the small part is a little surprising.
Duane: I have photos to prove it.
Laura: What was the first book that changed your life in any way?
Duane: The first book I remember devouring was a book about the Hammer Horror movies -- you know, those bloody (for the time) horror flicks like TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA? My dad was a huge horror fan, and he had the book lying around. I used to read it, and it would petrify me, give me nightmares, but I kept going back to it. I don't think I read the text so much as stare at the photos, and try to imagine what was going on.
Laura: Were your parents big readers?
Duane: Dad was (is) a huge reader -- but mostly freaky nonfiction stuff about UFOs and ghosts. Hal Lindsey was huge with him -- you know, the ancient astronaut stuff? Mom's not a reader at all.
Laura: And horror was your gateway drug?
Duane: I think so, after the Amazing Spider-Man. The first novel that knocked me out was Stephen King's IT. Probably not the best novel for an impressionable 13-year-old, but it did the trick.
Laura: Why is IT so scary? I've thought a lot about that. I read it at age 30 and it terrified me.
Duane: IT is scary, I think, because of that goddamned clown.
It's a book that says, "You know the monsters under your bed? Or in your bathroom mirror? Or inside your dad, when he's mean? THEY'RE REAL."
Later I discovered Richard Matheson, who also did a great job of fusing ordinary suburban family life with the odd and fantastic. Not that I grew up in the 'burbs...
Laura: You grew up in Frankford, right? Would you talk a little about that? I remember being enormously moved by the piece you wrote about the old neighborhood for City Paper.
Duane: Yeah, it was a tough neighborhood when I was born, and then drugs hit the area hard. There was also considerable racial tension. I remember being six or seven, and an older black kid sucker punched me in the stomach. Of course, I ran home to mom, tears streaming down my face. My mom talked to his mom -- he lived three doors down. His mom claimed that I'd called him a "black nigger." I'll never forget that. Because I didn't even know what the word meant, at the time.
It was a time when moms still talked to each other, which was cool. But things did grow worse. That said, I'm tremendously lucky, because my parents kept me protected from a lot of this stuff -- scraping together money to send me to Catholic school instead of the public school.
Laura: I've wondered . . . what did mom and dad think when you decided you wanted to be a journalist? (At age 19, right, while reading Hunter S. Thompson?)
Duane: My mom thought it was a waste, especially when I insisted on doing a non-paying internship. Thought I was wasting my "talents." My dad didn't say much at the time. (He's a quiet guy.)
Laura: So you decide to be a journalist and then -- brief resume?
Duane: I first wanted to become a journalist because I knew that you couldn't make a living writing fiction. (At least, I knew it was incredibly difficult.) So I figured that working a journalism job would help me improve my writing. My first job was a fact-checker at our city magazine, Philadelphia. Just like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, minus the cocaine and models. From there, it was just me desperately trying to find a way to write for the magazine full-time. Finally, I was promoted, and not long after that, was recruited by Men's Health to edit their upfront section.
My career is one odd boomerang: from Philly Mag to Men's Health, then to Details. Back to Men's Health, then Philly Mag, and then to my alma mater (La Salle) to teach. The next stop was going to be elementary school or my mother's womb. City Paper saved me from that, fortunately.
Laura: I always inferred -- don't know why -- that you weren't exactly happy in lad mag land.
Duane: Actually, I had fun, even though I was always the minority hire. At Men's Health, I was the doughy, out of shape one. At Details, the unstylish one. The toughest part was the instability -- I watched four editors get the axe at those magazines. Which is why I always assume editors in chief have the shelf life of yogurt.
Laura: So why did you leave?
Duane: I left Details because Meredith, the Bride, really hated New York. And I couldn't blame her: it's a city to endure, most days. And then I left Men's Health for the chance to move back to Philly, which I desperately missed. But it's almost always been for a better job. (Or situation)
Laura: I read recently that it's not money that makes us happy, but our relative stature. Which means everyone in New York is miserable.
Duane: That's great. And absolutely true. Did you catch Sara Gran's piece about being a writer in Brooklyn? Same idea... I can say with certainty that I'm the only crime writer in Rhawnhurst (my neighborhood in NE Philly). I rule Rhawnhurst!
Laura: Were you writing fiction all through your twenties?
Duane: Dave White just IM'd me to make sure we mention him. Best to get it out of the way: Dave White. Dave White. Dave White.
Yes, I was writing short stories -- horror and SF, mostly. Stories with twisty endings.
I was still working up the courage to write a novel.
Laura: Were you sending the stories out?
Duane: Not at first, but then when I finally joined the 20th century and bought a computer with a modem, I started subbing to online horror and SF webzines. And many stories found a home, which was fun. I kept trying to crack the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but no dice. So up until that point, my fiction career consisted of horror stories in places like Gothic.Net.
Laura: Didn't an online submission lead to your friendship/partnership with Al Guthrie?
Duane: Yes -- I heard about Al's site, Noir Originals, on the Rara-Avis mailing list. I sent him the first few chapters of what would become THE WHEELMAN (it wasn't finished yet), and we just hit it off. I remember being vaguely worried that he was a serial killer. Who's this nice?
Laura: He could be a serial killer. The niceness, the vegetarianism. Hitler was a vegetarian.
Duane: See! I knew it. Al has an entire decade he doesn't talk about. Seriously. Someday, I'm going to do some digging.... But I love him to death.
Laura: Now, here's where my famously bad memory fails me . .. Didn't AL edit SECRET DEAD MEN for Point Blank?
Duane: Yes, he did. We'd hit it off, and he casually mentioned he was editing novels for Point Blank. He asked if I had anything hanging around, and I told him yes, but you're going to hate it. It's a SF/horror/mystery set in the 1970s.
Laura: Casually, as in . . . "Duane would you like to come upstairs and see my virtual etchings?"
Duane: Exactly, Laura. It was very creepy. Well, the crazy Scot liked it, and off we went.
[SECRET DEAD MEN was published in 2004. That fall, St. Martin's offered Duane a two-book deal and has since re-signed him to another two-book deal.)
Laura: Ten years ago, it was really, really rare to meet twenty-something writers who wanted to be crime novelists. As a result, there were very few crime writers in their thirties. That's changed a lot. Do you have any theories about this?
Duane: I know I wasn't reading mystery fiction in the 1980s or early 90s. I presumed it was all stuffy whodunit type stuff. I came into the field through a back door -- one of my favorite horror writers, Joe Lansdale, wrote a hardboiled novel called COLD IN JULY. Blew me away.
Laura: Now see, this is fascinating to me, because I know only Joe's crime work.
Duane: Ah, Laura -- you've got to check out his other stuff. THE DRIVE-IN is sick genius. He was notorious for his over-the-top horror stories. [But] I remember when I saw the cover of THE WHEELMAN for the first time and it said, "A Novel." I was like -- no lie -- "Are you sure? I didn't want people to think I was pretending to be something I'm not. "A Novelist" versus "A crime writer."
Laura "Literary" fiction is the high school cheerleader that we can't be/get.
Duane: Yep, I'm afraid you're right.
Laura: It's all Sharks versus the Jets. And the Sharks were cooler.
Duane: And get reviewed in the NYT. I'd rather be a Jet, though.
Laura: Really, which one? Action? Riff? Diesel?
Duane: Wasn't there one called Leatherface? Wait, wrong movie.
Laura: By the way, I think the Sharks are the crime writers because they're the new arrivals, trying to claim territory that the Jets have held without contest for many years.
Duane: Shit. I answered wrong. (I don't know my WEST SIDE STORY very well.) I'm a Shark! I'm a Shark! Fuck the Jets.
Laura: Well, no one expects you to know musical comedy. You're not Bryon Quertermous, for god's sake.
Duane: Zing! (It's time again: Dave White. Dave White. Dave White.)
Laura: By the way, I don't know why they call you LeBlanc. For the longest time, I assumed LeBlanc was Dave White.
Duane: It was a very obscure in-joke. I once told Al I wanted to write comedic noir. "White noir," he said, laughing. Hence, Leblanc Noir. Hence, Leblanc.
Laura: In the fall of 2004, you a) inked a two-book deal with St. Martin's b) took over as editor of the Philadelphia City Paper and c) entered the blogosphere. That must have been one heady autumn. Did you have a great Jacqueline Susann-esque starlet moment in which you bit your lower lip, then gnawed your knuckle and said: "It happening too fast. I was supposed to suffer!"
Duane: The fall of 2004, it's interesting in a Dickens way: best of times, worst of times, and all that. . . . There was a family tragedy in the middle of all of that. So here I was, two of my big dreams coming true (publishing a novel! editing a newspaper!) and at home, the world was falling apart. It took a while to work a lot of that out. These kinds of things make me believe in God, you know? As in: "Hey, don't get too happy there, champ. Things can go either way." Somebody is writing this shit. Somebody must be writing this shit, I mean.
Laura: I was just reading Time's demographic snapshot of America, about what kind of believers we are. Can you define your spiritual beliefs?
Duane: Ah, a softball question! I was raised Catholic, but now find myself at odds with a lot of the church's teachings (mainly in terms of intolerance). I believe in God, but I also believe in having a moral compass. Treat people well because you should, not because you'll go to heaven.
I'm disturbed by politicians who invoke God and do some really horrible things. Plus, good Catholics can't watch horror movies. So fuck that shit.
Laura: Okay, back to your work. I also didn't know that THE WHEELMAN was supposed to be called SMELL THE ROSES. I'm not great with titles myself, but in hindsight - do you have any regrets over the change?
Duane Actually, no. I think titles are part of the whole promotional package -- the advertising. The readers I wanted to reach would pick up a book called THE WHEELMAN. But SMELL THE ROSES? I don't know...
Laura: Having read THE WHEELMAN, I get the original title, but it does sound a bit . . . twee.
Duane: If someone were to tell me that RETURN OF THE LOVE LOBSTER would sell a million copies, my next book would be called RETURN OF THE LOVE LOBSTER . . . And yeah, SMELL THE ROSES is a bit twee. I fooled myself into thinking I was fitting into the whole hardboiled flower tradition NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH. THE BLACK DAHLIA. RED GARDENIAS.
Laura: Yes, but has there ever been a great crime novel with a flower AND a verb?
Duane: You got me there. See, you saved me from another bad title.
About 11 months ago, I stood in your kitchen and said I was thinking about calling my next book PROXIMITY. You pretty much told me no -- The Blonde was so much better. You were so right.
Laura: Did you have a role model or archetype while working on The Wheelman? Did you say to yourself, "I want to write something like A, or in the style of B?"
Duane: I definitely had Richard Stark on the brain when I first came up with the idea. But then I also wanted to play around with how fast I could move a story. Just to amuse myself -- I didn't think it would sell.
Laura: The Wheelman and The Blonde are pretty furiously paced, and very lean. Do they start out fatter and get tighter in the rewriting?
Duane: I seem incapable of writing a book longer than 60,000 words at this point. It's just my natural length these days. (WHEELMAN was 54K, BLONDE 57K, and the new one is 62K, but I'll probably cut some.) What I do is write and edit furiously at the same time. An average day of writing is me revising what came before, getting back in the zone, then writing the next 1,000 words. Sometimes I'll sit and edit like 40 pages before writing a new one. (And those are 40 pages I've already worked over.) So it's not as if the books are given a chance to grow fat. I'm like a veal master, or something. Keep them penned in and miserable.
Laura:I was going to save this question for later, but . . . when do you write, Mr. Fulltime Job, Father of Two?
Duane: Good question. I write at night. I'm blessed with a wife who's usually asleep by 10, and I've always been a night owl. Lately, I've taken weekend mornings to write, too.
Laura: I haven't read SECRET DEAD MEN, but I know the concept, about the brain hotel. So two of your three published works have this speculative, science fiction edge. Coincidence?
Duane: It's my father's damned Hammer Horror book raising its ugly head. It's not a coincidence, you're right. But I do like to vary things. The next one, SEVERANCE PACKAGE, is more pure horror and espionage. No speculative junk. And then the one after that -- the one I want to tackle next -- will be utterly real-world. A good old-fashioned down in the alley crime novel.
Laura: Can we know a little bit more about the one you just finished?
Duane: The basic set-up: A guy's been on paternity leave for a month. He's a PR flack at a Philly financial company. His first day back is a Saturday morning -- an emergency meeting, called by his boss. During this meeting, the boss announces that the company is actually a CIA cover company. And now, everyone must die.... Hijinx ensue, as they say. I've been saying it's a blend of THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND and OFFICE SPACE.
Laura: You edited DAMN NEAR DEAD, an anthology of "Geezer Noir," in which you arranged the stories according to the writers' ages -- and as the oldest woman in the book, I just want to take this opportunity to say: Fuck you. No, seriously, what was the impetus for DND?
Duane: You're welcome, Laura. I blame DND on David Thompson, the owner of Busted Flush. It was his idea, no matter what he says. But once I heard it, I thought: that could be a lot of fun. I love limitations in fiction. With WHEELMAN, it was a character who couldn't talk. In THE BLONDE, there's something else missing in 90% of the story.
Laura: How do short stories fit into your writing life? Necessary evils? A chance to do something different? Short stories provided your entr�e into fiction, right?
Duane: Ironically, short stories were all I wrote. I was all about the short story. I was Mr. Short Story... when it came to horror and SF.
With crime, I have a hard time conceiving an idea that doesn't come in size Novel. So stories are tough. I have to fool myself into thinking they could be a novel, then kill them early. (Then again, my novels are so damned short, some may consider them short stories.) I wish I knew how to write longer.
Laura: Are you fast? As a writer, I mean.
Duane: I think so. (Good clarification.) I spend a lot of time staring out of the window. But once I'm in the zone, things go fast.
Laura: Do you consider yourself ambitious? I'm not asking you to divulge the most grandiose dreams in your own brain hotel, but are you aiming pretty high? Would you like to support yourself as a novelist?
Duane: Hell yes. That, or writing scripts and novels. The moment THE WHEELMAN sold was literally a few weeks after I announced to Meredith: "I need to do this seriously. Meaning, take it seriously, and not putter around with it like it was a hobby. That made all the difference. You know, being more focused. And yeah... ambitious. It also means cutting out some of the stuff that distracts you from writing. Be it TV, getting drunk with friends.
Laura: "Ambition" is an interesting word.
Duane: Ambition is interesting. I think the moment I stop wanting something, that's the time I should die. Wouldn't you agree?
Laura: I don't disagree with that. But it's often used as a criticism: He's ambitious, she's ambitious.
Duane: That's probably a way of saying, "Too big for his/her breeches."
I'd rather read a novel that reaches and ultimately fails than a novel that plays it safe. Bring on the ambition!
Laura: Okay, here's a prepared question. In the wake of Murdaland's rather, um, brash call-to-arms, there was a general discussion that broke out about this punk sensibility, in which the new guard announces itself by declaring war on the old guard. I participated in the back-and-forth about this, but as one of the only commentators old enough to drink legally at the dawn of punk, I'm not persuaded that this kind of posturing is constructive, or even healthy, and I know some writers - now very successful and edging into middle age - who regret their youthful pronouncements about who was washed up or no longer vital. So is all this Oedipal drama essential to the creative process? Do we have to kill our literary fathers? And, if so, do we have to be vocal about it?
Duane: I remember a quote from David Schow (another favorite horror writer of mine) that went something like this: "You know you're successful when you've pissed off your parents."
Laura: Well, then I've been successful FOREVER.
Duane: Hah! But now that I'm older...
Laura: (Yeah, 34.)
Duane: I think that's kind of mean. See, this is why I'm a lousy op-ed writer. I can see both sides too easily I understand the need to declare yourself as different, as the new thing... but I can also see how that's way disrespectful. And it's not what the mystery/crime community is really about (from my pov) Almost everyone gives the freshmen a hand up -
Laura: Oh yeah, my turn: Dave White, Dave White, Dave White.
Duane: Nice! And it seems like these particular freshmen are slapping the hand. I do think there should be a whole range of mystery/crime magazines. But does one have to piss on the others to make a mark? Nah. Just be good. Which Murderaland is, I should say.
Laura: No disagreement on either score. Okay, almost done -- four more questions. Lightning round, answer as quickly as possible. Worst trend in crime fiction?
Duane: Armadillo cozies.
Duane: Short novels. (Like DRIVE, by James Sallis. CALIBRE by Bruen.) Of course, that's a bit self-serving, being Mr. 50K....
Laura: I just need to point out that it's long novels that make you stop and SMELL THE ROSES. (And that my next book is 107,000 words.)
Duane: You're the exception. And... Stephen King, too. Shit. Can I change my answer?
Laura: No. Best thing about the blogosphere?
Duane: The friendships.
Duane: That you're not often speaking to someone, face to face. And things can be misunderstood. Or worse. Oh, and it's a HUGE TIME SUCK. But I love it. Especially when Rickards posts something that make me want to claw my eyeballs out.
Laura: Wonderful. Duane, we're done! And one more time: Dave White!
Duane: Dave White!