10 Questions with Duane Swierczynski
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a bit of a fanboy when it comes to Duane Swierczynski. I mean, can you really blame me? Philadelphia’s reigning king of pulp is a writing machine, churning out fifteen books since 2002. (And I’m not talking just novels, either. You can’t forget Swierczynski’s two fisted drinking manuals, The Perfect Drink for Every Occasion and The Big Book o’ Beer.) He writes some of the most innovative, off the wall, paranoid thrillers currently being produced—including his latest offering, the third and final book of his Charlie Hardie trilogy, Point & Shoot . Add in all the comic books Swierczynski’s done—including long runs on Iron Fist, Cable, Birds of Prey, Bloodshot, and Judge Dredd—and whatever secret writing projects he has in the hopper, and he probably ranks as one of the busiest crime novelists working. And on top of Duane’s steady diet of words, words, and more words, he’s somehow managed to find the time to teach a class at LitReactor: Like Your Life Depends On It.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
A three-page gore-soaked tale about an axe murderer written for my eighth grade teacher—who happened to be a Catholic nun. See, we had this weekly assignment to use 20 spelling words in 20 sentences, so I just wrote a single story using all of the words. Sister Marianne loved it, and I went on to write a dozen more installments. Not sure how I wasn’t expelled (or excommunicated), but that was my first taste of writerly success. I still have those stories, packed away in a plastic container somewhere. God, I hope my kids don’t find them.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
When I was 17 I sold a short-short story to a horror convention magazine and made something like $50. I’m sure I squandered it on horror paperbacks (scored at Marlo Books, a much-missed indie bookshop in Northeast Philly), as well as photocopying, envelopes and postage for inflicting more stories on unsuspecting small press editors all over the country. Back then, my needs were simple.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
I started out in grade school with a pen and pieces of loose leaf or a marble copybook, eventually graduating to a manual typewriter, then an electric typewriter, then a Commodore 64 word processing program, then one of those all-in-one word processors (with floppy disks and a built-in printer, which I thought was pretty hot shit for 1989), and then started writing on a computer in college. Though recently I’ve been tempted to grab a fistful of pens and a stack of legal pads and crank out a novel by hand. I’m blessed with the ability to write anywhere, anytime, pretty much—I have no “special place” or rituals. I just need to focus for a short while until the world fades away. Getting that focus, however, can sometimes be a bitch.
I always start a novel with two Word files: a journal to myself (to record stray plot thoughts, character notes, etc.) and then the actual novel file. The journals would probably be incoherent to anyone else… hell, they’re even incoherent to me after a while. I recently opened up a journal where I was planning a sequel to my first novel, Secret Dead Men, and it was almost gibberish. I have no idea what the hell I was thinking, and that frightens me a bit. Once the novel is well underway, the journal usually falls away, too. It’s like the set of training wheels I need to get started.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Agreeing to a deadline for the sake of pleasing an editor—only later to realize that I really needed more time. A reader doesn’t give a crap if a comic or a novel was turned in on time… they just want it to be good. I don’t mean to make it sound like editors are the bad guys; of course they want the best work possible. But it can be tricky balancing the art (giving yourself enough breathing room to do your best work) with the commerce (getting a product on a shelf by a specific date).
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
The latest is Point and Shoot, the third in a trilogy. I’m still mildly surprised I wrote a trilogy. I thought I’d always be a standalone kind of guy until my editor at Mulholland Books suggested I “go big.” Suddenly, I was excited by the idea of how much punishment I could dish out to my hero over the course of three novels instead of just one.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Raoul Duke, so that I could ask him what Hunter S. Thompson was really like.
Where do you buy your books?
Anywhere I can. I swear, I have some kind of mutant bookstore radar; I can spot ‘em blocks away even when in a moving car doing 45 mph. It drives my wife insane, because we have to stop, right away, on the off-chance that store might contain a holy grail find.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
I kill a person for every bad review I receive. SO THINK ABOUT THAT, REVIEWERS… (I can hear the heckler in the back row: Then you musta killed lots and LOTS of people!) Actually, I’ve trained myself to scan reviews cautiously. If it starts to go south, I stop reading and move on with my life. I have enough self-criticism and doubt in my head; I don’t need to give it more fuel.
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Authors who stress self-marketing above all else. (If you’re that into marketing, why not sell something useful, like toilet plungers or fly swatters?) I once heard a writer brag about writing only two to four weeks a year, then using the rest of that year to market the end result of those 2 to 4 weeks. You have to want to write, not just “have written.”
You’ve been writing both novels and comic books for the past six years. Of the two, which is the more difficult form to write in? Also, which character in both and your novels and comics has been the most fun for you to write, and who’s been the most difficult?
I wouldn’t say one is more difficult than the other. They’re just different, and I love being able to do both. With comics, you’re part of a team, usually working at issue-length sprints at a time. With novels, you’re going it alone, over a much longer period of time—but on the bright side, you get to play God!
As for characters… well, the most difficult novel character is always the one I’m currently writing, because it’s a long, sometimes awkward process of getting to know that person. I know better than to force the issue; sometimes they’ll just shut down and snap at me: “I would NOT do that.” I don’t mean it to sound all mystical or supernatural, but sometimes it is like wooing a ghost inside your own head. The toughest part about writing certain characters in work-for-hire comics is that you never know when the Big Boss will show up and take your toys away.
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