Charles Salzberg is the author of the Henry Swann detective series: Swann’s Last Song, which was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel; Swann Dives In; and Swann's Lake of Despair, the most recent of the series featuring Henry Swann. Charles has been a Visiting Professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, Hunter College, the Writer's Voice, and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member. He is a consulting editor at the webzine Ducts.org and co-host, with Jonathan Kravetz, of the reading series, Trumpet Fiction, at KGB in New York City.
His freelance work has appeared in such publications as Esquire, New York Magazine, GQ, Elle, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, The New York Times Arts and Leisure section, The New York Times Book Review, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.
He is also the author of From Set Shot to Slam Dunk, An Oral History of the NBA; On A Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place: Baseball’s 10 Worst Teams of the Century; and co-author of My Zany Life and Times, by Soupy Sales, Catch Them Being Good; and The Mad Fisherman.
Charles will appear at the Bouchercon conference in Raleigh, NC, where he is to participate on the panel, “Weaponry in Crime, Mystery & Thrillers,” on Saturday, October 10 at 10:00, after which he will be signing books. I’ve seen his panels at just about every Boucheronc I’ve been to, and always look forward to them. Given the topic and other panelists (Moderator John Gilstrap, with Dianne Emley, Seth Harwood, and Mark Troy) this year promises to be no exception.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Swann’s Lake of Despair.
Charles Salzberg: In Swann’s Lake of Despair I wanted to accomplished a couple of things. First of all, I wanted to move along and solidify the relationship between Swann and Goldblatt, a somewhat mysterious, shady, disbarred lawyer who is kind of a comic, almost Falstaffian character. I did this by getting Goldblatt to somehow insinuate himself as a partner to Swann. This may have backfired a little because now Goldblatt seems to have become almost as popular as Swann himself. The other thing I wanted to accomplish in this book was to push the envelope a little and have Swann work on three cases at once, none of them having anything to do with the other. Most detective novels don’t do this and it just seemed a little bit more realistic to have a PI, or in this case a skip tracer, juggle a few cases at once, in order to make a living. In the first, Swann gets involved in the search for a lost journal that might solve a decades-old death. It’s based on an actual case of a young woman, a party girl like Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, who was involved with some very rich and powerful men. One morning her body washed up on the shore at Long Beach, Long Island, and it wasn’t clear whether she fell, was pushed, or jumped from a yacht anchored off-shore during a wild party. In the second case, again used something from real life. A student of mine, Julia Scully who, by the way, wrote a wonderful memoir called Outside Passage, was writing another memoir and she told the story of a photojournalist she dated in the ‘50s named Eddie Feingersch. He was a daredevil photographer who was also an alcoholic and depressive. He died early, but not before taking a bunch of iconic photos of Marilyn Monroe, while she was in New York City. The photos were published in Redbook magazine, and then they disappeared, as did the rest of his work. Eventually, the Monroe photos surfaced in a warehouse in Brooklyn, but none of any of the rest of his work has ever been found. Swann is hired to find those photographs and negatives, if they still exist. In the third case, he’s hired by a young man who goes to visit his girlfriend one night at her apartment and finds that she’s missing. But not only is she missing but the apartment is completely empty of everything, furniture, clothing, etc. Swann is hired to find out what happened to the woman and, if she’s still alive, where she is.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
CS The idea came to me when I got a call from a friend, writer Kaylie Jones, who was editing Long Island Noir, at the time the latest in the Akashic series. She asked if I had a story that took place on Long Island. I said, “sure.” A flat-out lie. I had no such story, but freelance writers learn to never say no. So I figured the easy way out was to take a character I already had, Henry Swann, and some how take him to Long Island. The only place I knew well was Long Beach and when I started to research it I found it had a very sordid past, including a mysterious death of a party girl, think Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, who washed up on the Long Beach shore. It could have been an accident, suicide or murder. So I wove a tale around that, Kaylie accepted it for the collection and because we writers never let anything go to waste I figured I could tinker with it a little and make it the first chapter of the next Swann. To make things a little more difficult for me, because I love challenges, I decided to have him work three cases at once, none of them connected, and see if I could make that work. The Starr Faithfull death was one of them—and I was able to update it by creating a lost journal that might help solve the death.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Swann’s Lake of Despair, start to finish?
CS: I’m a very lazy writer. I’m embarrassed to tell you how little time I actually spend at my computer. But I’m a very fast typist, about 90 words a minute, and I can focus very well when I put my mind to it, so I’d say I wrote it in about a year.
OBAAT: Where did Henry Swann come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
CS: Years ago I was a magazine journalist and one of my assignments, for a very sleazy magazine, by the way, was to interview a skip tracer. I was fascinated by what he did and when it came time to decide to write a detective novel I decided to use that knowledge. He’s like me in that he shuns violence whenever possible, he’s curious, and he’s literary, but otherwise he’s the person I’d like to be. Brave, bold, and money hungry. Believe me, if I were really money hungry I wouldn’t be a writer.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Swann’s Lake of Despair set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
CS: It’s set in the present, even though one of the stories is nailed to the past. And it’s set in places I’ve actually been to, for a change. Setting is very important. I think you need to give a feel to a place, make it another character in the book. In Devil in the Hole I invented a town in Connecticut, because I didn’t want it to be set where the crime really happened, New Jersey. But Swann is set in New York City, Long Beach, Long Island, Boca Raton, Florida, and Austin, Texas (where I’ve never been, by the way).
OBAAT: How did Swann’s Lake of Despair come to be published?
CS: I had two other Swann novels that people seemed to like and sold enough so I had no problem having my publisher, Five Star (I think they like me to say a division of Gale/Cengage) accept it only a few weeks after I submitted it. Actually, the first, Swann’s Last Song, was written as a stand-alone. I had no intention of making it a series. But when it was nominated for a Shamus and I lost I got pissed off and told myself I was going to keep writing them until I won something.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
CS: My favorites are Vladimir Nabokov, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Thomas Berger, Stanley Elkin, I could go on and on. Now, I’m trying to read novels by my fellow crime writers, so I recently finished a novel by Terrence McCauley, and I’m in the midst of reading my first Laura Lippman. I learn a lot just by reading my colleagues’ work, I just wish I had more time, but with teaching three classes a semester and trying to write, it’s not easy. I usually have two or three books that I’m reading at the same time.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
CS: I had no choice. It’s the only thing I can do half-decently well.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
CS: I have absolutely no experience in crime. I’ve never been arrested. I’ve never even shoplifted. So it’s all in my imagination. I’m just fascinated with it because it’s really all about human behavior. I think all books, no matter what genre they’re in, are really mysteries. If they’re not, why would you bother to turn the page? That’s why you do, to find out what’s going to happen next. As far as life experiences helping, I think being a magazine journalist was a great help because it taught me to be economical with words. Writing to a word count is extremely difficult but it makes you very aware of choosing the right words and getting rid of anything that’s extraneous.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
CS: That I’m my own boss. I don’t have to go out when the weather’s really shitty. And besides, I actually get paid (not a lot) to make shit up.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
CS Nabokov, because of his incredible use of language, always choosing the right word, Hammett, for the grittiness. Carl Hiaasen, for the smart humor. And every other writer I’ve ever read, because I learn something, even if it’s what not to do. I had to read a lot when I was reviewing books for the New York Times, and boy did I read a lot of crap, which taught me what not to do. But I also got a chance to read people like David Simon, I reviewed his first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and was bowled over by it. (Editor’s Note: Anyone interested in crime and police work, whether you’re a reader or a writer, really needs to read this book.)
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
CS: I never, ever outline. In fact, when I sit down at the computer I don’t know what the next sentence is going to be, let alone the next page or chapter. I love doing it that way because I think it makes things fresh. I figure if I don’t know what’s going to happen next there’s a good chance the reader will be surprised, too. But then I don’t write traditional crime novels. Murders have played a part in a couple of the books, but they’re not murder mysteries. I find other crimes much more interesting. Broken hearts, for instance. In Swann’s Lake of Despair I just got the idea what if you went to your girlfriend’s apartment and not only was she not there but none of her furniture or her belongings? That was the start of a case, and it’s about a broken heart, not a murder.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
CS: Okay, here goes. I start with a sentence. Somehow that sentence leads me to another sentence. Then I have a paragraph, then a page. Then I go back and rewrite that page, after which I move forward. When I’m starting a novel each day I go back to it, and believe me, I wish I could be the kind of writer who’s disciplined enough to write each day but I’m not, I go back to the first page and read it through. That way I can get into the story and into the characters. I’ll do this until I have about fifty pages, and then I’ll just keep going ahead, but each time I write a chapter I go back and revise and rewrite it. And then, when I get near the end of a novel, I stop and go back to the very beginning and read through it again, revising, tweaking, etc. So, the answer is that I do edit as I go.
OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
CS: No, I have to have complete silence. Hey, I give in to enough diversions to keep me from writing. For instance, while I’m writing this I just stopped and checked my email, went to Facebook, then came back. So, no music. I do listen to music all the time, though, and it actually ended up in my changing the title of one of my novels. I was writing a novel based on a true crime, and I was calling it Skin Deep. But I never liked that title. I thought it sounded like a bad porn movie. So, one day I was walking around New York City, listening to my iPod shuffle, and Tom Waits came on singing, “Keep the Devil in the Hole,” and it just clicked. So, I changed the title of the novel to Devil in the Hole. Thanks, Tom Waits, and David Simon for using that as the theme of The Wire.
OBAAT: This is a digression, but you’ve also co-authored a non-fiction book (with George Robinson) titled On a Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place: Baseball's Worst Teams. As a confirmed seam head, I have to ask what got you interested enough to divert the time required to write this from your other work?
CS: At that time I was only writing non-fiction. I was a magazine journalist who morphed into a nonfiction book writer—purely to make a living (this was after I learned there was no way I was going to make a living as a novelist). I always loved sports and my friend, George Robinson, knew I’d written a couple of sports books, (From Set Shot to Slam Dunk was one—an oral history of the NBA—that’s gotten me mentioned in the obituary section of the New York Times on several occasions, without actually having to die) and George thought teaming up with me would help get the book published. I thought it was a great idea, and we sold it right away and worked extremely well together. I got five teams to write about and he got the same. Fortunately, I think I came out ahead because I got the 1962 Mets and the 1954 Pirates.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
CS: If I could just make that two bits of advice it would be, read as much as you possibly can because you’ll learn more about writing that way, and never, ever give up. My novel, Swann’s Last Song took twenty-five years to get published, but when it was it was nominated for a Shamus Award.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
CS: For me, character comes first and then I try to fit these characters into a plot. I’m most interested in motivation. Why do people do the things they do? And how inside us is the potential for even the worst of the things the worst characters so. That’s why I wrote Devil in the Hole, about a man who killed his family. The best compliment I’ve ever received was from a young woman, a college student. Her class had been assigned the book and I visited the class. She stood up and said, rather sheepishly, “I feel a little strange about this but I actually felt a little sorry for the killer.” This made me feel so good because I wanted to portray someone who was real, not a stereotype.
The reason character is more important to me is because I’m always trying to understand myself and others. What we do and why we do it. Plot is secondary to me, but I know it’s important because it’s what keeps people reading.
Sometimes a novel can start with a first sentence, just a line that comes to me. For instance, in the next Swann novel, Swann’s Way Out, I was walking down the street and the line came to me, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I gave that line to Swann, and then put him in the least likely place to say that and the least likely people to say it to—in the middle of a poker game. And then things just went from there—that’s where plot took over.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
CS: Easy. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I admire everything about it. The characters. The plot. The word play. The humor. The use of language. And this was by a man for whom English was probably his third language—after Russian and French.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
CS: Going to movies and having lunch with my writer friends.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
CS: I’m working on something very new. Right now, it’s called “Second Story Men,” and it’s very loosely based on the careers of two incredibly successful burglars. It’s told from three points of view. A Cuban-born Miami detective, a former Connecticut State Investigator, and the criminal himself. I’m almost finished, which is a time of severe self-doubt—like, why did I spend so much time on something that’s turning out to be a piece of crap?
Based on his track record, the odds of “Second Story Men” turning out to be a piece of crap are right up there with me getting a phone call from Live Schrieber to say he’s tired of wasting his time with this Ray Donovan crap; can he please play Nick Forte in a series? The links to all of Charles’s books are up there. What are you still doing here?