David Swinson did all the usual stuff before he became a cop: attended Cal State as a film major; booked and promoted punk rock and alternative music in Long Beach CA: started a Wednesday night evening of conversation and spoken word at Bogart’s with luminaries such as Hunter S. Thompson, Dr. Timothy Leary, John Waters and Jim Carroll; developed and co-produced the spoken-word compilation Sound Bites from the Counter Culture for Atlantic Records; and, with Timothy Leary and friend Bill Stankey, conceived the film Roadside Prophets.
Then he spent sixteen years as a DC cop where, after working his way up the ranks to Detective, he received numerous awards including the department’s prestigious Detective of the Year Award for 2003; Meritorious Service Medals for significant, outstanding and sustained achievements; Achievement Medals of Honor for a significant case investigation and several Department of Justice, United States Attorney’s Annual Law Enforcement Awards for significant case investigations.
And then he turned to writing, so fuck him. Leave some juice for the rest of us, okay?
I might have left it there had I not met him at Bouchercon and scored a copy of his new book, The Second Girl. In addition to being as unassuming a person as one is likely to meet, he’s written a book that was as good as anything I read last year, or so far in 2016. (I’ll have more on The Second Girl next time.)
As you’d expect, what he has to say is worth listening to, so here you go.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about The Second Girl.
David Swinson: It’s about, Frank Marr, an ex-cop who was forced into early retirement because of a drug addiction. The department had to keep the addiction quiet because defense attorneys would have a field day if they found out. Marr worked some big cases as a narcotics detective. Now he works as a PI, but that is still not enough to feed his habit so he targets the homes of drug dealers for their stash. During the course of one of these burglaries he runs into something he can’t walk away from, and that is what propels the story.
It is also a book that freed me as a writer because I would always get so bogged down with proper procedure as well as putting a bit too much of me into the characters. Marr is nothing like me, and even though he does have a bit of a code, he is not bound by having to follow certain procedure.
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.)
DS: Right after I retired in 2011, and while still trying to get A Detailed Man published. I had a basic Frank Marr character in my head, but he was an actual burglar, not an ex-cop. He stayed with me for a while, and the more he developed the more I thought it would be stronger if he was an actual retired cop who committed burglaries, but only burglaries that he could justify in his head as necessity (for his habit) and because they were bad people. The story developed after the character.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write The Second Girl, start to finish?
DS: I like to work things out in my head, and then on paper for a while. That took almost one year for The Second Girl. After that I wrote it fairly quick, about nine months.
OBAAT: Where did Frank Marr come from? In what ways is he like, and unlike, you?
DS: Like I said, Frank Marr came into my head several years ago, but undeveloped. I loved the idea of an unrepentant, non-complaining good bad man or bad good man. I am a man of procedure, and rules. Everything is either right or wrong for me. Marr is nothing like that. He allowed me to break free from all that, and run a bit wild.
OBAAT: You were a D.C. cop and worked in the part of town where much of the book takes place. How much of what you did and saw there is in the book?
DS: There are no actual cases that I worked that are in the book. The crimes that occur at certain locations are based on the times I worked: 90s through 2010. I did try to stay true to the neighborhoods as they are today. The crime is not as rampant in most of the neighborhoods anymore, but the drugs are still there. Much of what I experienced as a detective, through debriefing defendants, interviewing witnesses, and interrogating suspects is what brought this to life. It is an accumulation of years of that kind of stuff, not based on anyone in particular or like I said, any case or event.
OBAAT: Frank Marr is as clearly delineated an antihero as I can remember. His heart is in the right place despite his best efforts to deny it. His life is in an inherently unstable state that has to either get better or worse. Are we going to see more of him?
DS: I’m working my way through book two now. We’ll see how the first book is received. Hopefully well enough that there will be a third book. I’d like to see how far I can take him.
OBAAT: How did The Second Girl come to be published?
DS: Cool story, actually. I finished the book a couple of weeks before Bouchercon 2015, in Long Beach. My incredible agent, Jane Gelfman, sent it to Josh Kendall, the editorial director at Mulholland Books. When I got to Bouchercon, Jane called me and told me that Josh Kendall was also there, and to feel free to introduce yourself to him if you see him. He found me first. After a panel I participated in. He introduced himself, and I said, “I know who you are.” In a friendly way, though, but I’m sure it came across like, ‘I’ve been stalking you.’ Well, he wasn’t scared away, and we chatted for a bit. He said he’s only halfway through The Second Girl, but really liking it. Apparently, both Chris Holm and Matthew Quirk, who are also on Mulholland, were talking me up to him. Chris and Matthew had not even read the book yet, but they know my background and love for music so they thought Josh and I would get along. We got together for drinks later that night at an Irish pub, and talked for about three hours over good scotch. I didn’t even talk about my book. We talked about our daughters, relationships, but mostly music. He kept telling me that Mulholland was like a big family, and all I could think is “Man, I want to be a part of that family.” I may have even told him that. Actually, I think I did. A few days later, when I was back home, Jane called and told me the Josh made an offer. She knew it would be a great home for me as an author so they worked out the deal. When it was done, I had a nice phone conversation with Josh, and he admitted that he was worried after we met because he had not finished the book yet, and he might have to reject it if it doesn’t follow through. Fortunately, it did. I’ve accomplished a few things in my life, but nothing has ever worked out as naturally as this did.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
DS: I go through phases, but I love character driven fiction, like Tana French, and Marilynn Anderson, and enlightening non-fiction, like Scott Stossel’s, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. When it’s something I want to read more than once, then it is something meaningful. Those are the books that find a comfortable place on my bookshelf so I can pick them up again when I need inspiration or just want to smell the pages.
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
DS: It wasn’t something I decided to do. It is something I always thought I was or rather, would be. I always loved to write. I wrote my first book when I was seventeen, and my first devastating rejection came a few months after. I continued, though, and always had hope that I would be a published writer one day.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
DS: When you surprise yourself, but mostly when the book is done.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
DS: There are so many artists who have had a great influence on my life. I’ve always been a fan of Nick Cave, and also the movies he wrote screenplays for, and composed the music for – The Proposition and Lawless. As far as a book, I would have to say Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was my greatest influence. I also spent a few years in Stockholm, Sweden in my teens, and got into Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. They are the mother/father of all police procedure. What I like most about their books is not only that it encompasses a ten-year span in the life of one detective, but it also captures all that is going on politically and socially in Stockholm at the time. Stockholm is just as much a character as Beck. I can’t go without mentioning Dickens because I grew up reading him. His character are so real and wonderful, and a lot of what he wrote is based on his life experiences.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
DS: I never outline, but I take a lot of notes. The pages for the notes are probably longer than the book. Everything is mapped out in my head before I start, but as you well know, things always change when it takes on a life of its own. Pants are important. It keeps my ass from sticking to my leather chair.
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?
DS: I will sometimes get myself caught up with continuous editing, returning to the beginning every day. I have to force myself not to do that most of the time, but even then I go back over the last few pages I wrote, and hopefully move forward. It is a tougher process, but usually pays off because the first draft is cleaner.
OBAAT: You have a background in the music business. 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?
DS: I never listen to music when I’m actually writing. I’ll usually listen to music at night when I’m thinking about the book or taking notes. I like to make playlists for the books. Music is important to me. Certain songs can really inspire me. I need a lot of inspiration because the process can be difficult for me. I have a couple of theme songs for The Second Girl; “To Lose Someone” by Taken by Trees, and “Fear is a Man’s Best Friend,” by John Cale.
OBAAT: You’ve had a career progression that sounds like a fictional character’s: concert promoter, cop, author. How’d that happen?
DS: Like I said, I’ve always considered myself a writer first. I just fell into other things along the way, mostly by accident. It’s as if one thing segued into another. A natural progression. Except for the decision to become a cop, and eventually a detective. That was a clear choice that I made after I gave all the other pursuits up.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
DS: Don’t quit. Also, once you realize how difficult it is you’ll cripple yourself so slap that thinking right out of your head.
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?
DS: I always come up with a character, and setting first. The character sets the tone. I develop the story when I feel good about the character, but it rarely turns out the way it’s supposed. Usually, that’s good. Frank Marr propels the story in The Second Girl. Without him, the story means nothing.
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?
DS: Without a doubt it would be To Kill a Mockingbird. I first read that book in my teens, and have since read it more than a dozen times. Usually when I need to be inspired. To me, To Kill a Mockingbird is everything a book should be - literary, mystery, and suspense. It’s all there.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
DS: Hanging with my wife and daughter, and our dog, Buster. Being outside. Definitely a good night’s sleep. Oh, drinking wine and reading too.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
DS: I’m deep into the second Frank Marr book, Crime of Music. I really love it, and I usually don’t like anything I write. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.
OBAAT: Assuming you like how The Second Girl came out, I’d say that’s good. I’ll have more to say about that next week.