Category Archives: Stephen Jay Schwartz


Stephen Jay Schwartz

My first novel, Boulevard, would not be what it is if I hadn’t discovered Miles Corwin’s brilliant nonfiction book Homicide Special. As a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, Miles was given unprecedented access to the elite Robbery-Homicide Division unit of the LAPD where he spent a year of his life shadowing the homicide detectives on their daily call-outs. Homicide Special became my Robbery-Homicide bible and by the time I finished writing my novel I had read Corwin’s book at least five times. His writing is so lean and vivid that I jumped at the chance to read his other nonfiction books, The Killing Season and And Still We Rise.

All of his work captures the daily lives of hardworking detectives, cops, teachers and social workers as they navigate a dark, uncertain world few of us will ever observe first-hand. Miles brings you to the heart of it. His prose is fantastic and he knows his stuff. When reading his nonfiction work I thought that if this guy ever tackled fiction he’d be one of the best. Well, he’s done it. His first novel, Kind of Blue, came out last year to rave reviews. And, as I suspected, his novel leans heavily on his experience with the Robbery-Homicide Division. I was fortunate enough to share the dais with Miles and Marcia Clark recently on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and I loved hearing him talk about his journey from journalist to nonfiction author to fiction author. He’s a fascinating and talented man and you’re going to love getting to know him. Please welcome Miles Corwin…


The day I received permission from the LAPD to write a nonfiction book about the elite Homicide Special unit was the day I began thinking of writing a novel.

The chief of police agreed to give me complete access and allow me to shadow the detectives from the time they received the homicide call-outs, to crime scenes, death notifications, autopsies, witness interviews and, finally, to arrests. I knew this was a remarkable opportunity to write a compelling nonfiction book, but it was also a great opportunity for a crime novelist. During the year I tracked the detectives I always carried two steno pads. On one pad I took copious notes for the nonfiction book – Homicide Special.

On the second pad I jotted random notes for a crime novel I intended to write – Kind of Blue.

I included amusing dialogue, humorous anecdotes, unusual things I saw at crime scenes, mannerisms of the killers and the cops, or anything else that I thought would give a crime novel a sense of verisimilitude.

During the course of that year I had lunch every day with homicide detectives and listening to them swap stories was also a great source of material. I stole a few of those anecdotes and reshaped others. One detective said that when he worked Hollywood Homicide, he’d frequently get a call in the middle of the night, awake from a deep sleep, pick up the phone, and always hear the same question: “Are you naked?”

It was a supervisor’s greeting before he dispatched the detective to a homicide scene.

I filed this away and figured this could provide a light note in a dark novel.

By the end of my year with the unit, I had filled numerous notebooks with material. I had a lot of ideas about plot and dialogue and forensics, but I still didn’t have a main character – the most important element of any crime novel.

One morning, the great crime novelist James Ellroy arrived at the unit. He was researching a cold case for a GQ magazine article. Ellroy took a group of detectives to lunch at the Pacific Dining Car near downtown Los Angeles and I joined them. Ellroy, a terrific raconteur, told us he’d been arrested a number of times as a young man. One night, he said, he was busted after breaking into an apartment and he happened to look at the metal name plate of the LAPD cop who was handcuffing him. The cop’s name was Moscowitz. Ellroy said that he thought to himself at the time, “What’s a Jew doing as a street cop?”

I thought this was an interesting question. And I figured if this question intrigued Ellroy, it might interest readers. So I decided that my protagonist would be a Jewish detective. This clicked because I’m Jewish and I got to know a few Jewish cops during my year at Homicide Special. One told me that when he graduated from the police academy, all the other families seemed so happy and proud of their sons and daughters. His family, he said, was not particularly pleased. I thought this was interesting and could provide some good conflict in the novel between my main character and his family, particularly his mother.

I now had everything I needed to begin the novel. I was faced, however, with a great challenge. In some ways, I felt I was hamstrung because I knew too much. I discovered that much of detective work is, frankly, boring – examining records, perusing documents, tracking down witnesses, sifting through forensic reports, and other elements of the paper chase. A novel dominated by this kind of detective work simply wouldn’t interest readers. So I had to find a way to keep the book realistic, but insure that the narrative was compelling enough to keep readers reading.

When I started writing Kind of Blue, I felt a bit insecure because I had never published any fiction. But I also realized that I had a great advantage over most crime writers because I had a fount of specialized knowledge to draw from. I had worked as a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times for a number of years. And before writing Homicide Special, I spent six months following two homicide detectives in South-Central Los Angeles for the nonfiction book The Killing Season. I learned a tremendous amount from the two detectives, Pete Razanskas and Marcella Winn, and I was able to transmogrify some of their knowledge and experience into passages for my novel.

Most reporters believe there is no such thing as too much access. I discovered that there is a downside to an abundance of access. When the Homicide Special detectives began investigating the murder of Robert Blake’s wife, I was with them every stop of the way. At the time, this seemed like a serendipitous opportunity. During the trial, however, when I was cross-examined by Blake’s attorney for more than five hours, and he tried to use me – unsuccessfully, I believe – to sully the reputation of the LAPD, I had second thoughts about the access I had pursued. But after writing Kind of Blue, I realized that being grilled in a criminal trail by a defense attorney, just as the LAPD officers had been, provided me with more insight into what detectives endure, insight that I could parlay into realism for my fiction.

Corwin, a former crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of three nonfiction books: The Killing Season, a national bestseller; And Still We Rise, the winner of the PEN West award for nonfiction and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year; and Homicide Special, a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Kind of Blue is his first novel. The next book in the Ash Levine series, Midnight Alley, will be released in April 2012.

Corwin lives in Altadena with his family and teaches at the University of California, Irvine.

(Please give Miles a hearty Murderati welcome.  I am still traveling overseas and will do my best to pipe in with comments in-between stops)

The Muse, When She Want to Dance, You Dance

 By Stephen Jay Schwartz


The title sounds better when said in a Jamaican accent. I don’t know why, but it does.

Lately I’ve been sitting down to write and I stare at the current scene and instead of moving forward I look at the people in the cafe and I think something completely off-track, I think about how everyone has an orifice or two in their body that leads to the inside of their body which allows them to consume solids and liquids and evacuate liquids or semi-solids (gross) and they walk around like this doesn’t bother them, like it’s normal to have these holes in their bodies, and for some reason their bodies don’t cave in around the holes, they stretch and compress and the holes remain, and the people act as if nothing about this seems odd and, I don’t know, if it were me I’D GO MAD.

After which time I focus on the page and re-read the sentence I wrote and discover it looks strangely dyslexic and I delete and start over again.

Where has my mind been lately?

I don’t remember writing like this when I was under deadline. On deadline I move forward confidently with the fear of legal consequences guiding my hand.

Even as I sit here now, at another favorite cafe, I stare at the fish in the aquarium, not because I’m lost or have nothing to do, but because the fish are staring at me, and I find this disturbing. I do not know what it is they want nor why they’ve chosen me as their target.

Am I just finding excuses not to write?

Why is writing my favorite and least favorite thing to do in the world? How can light be a particle and a wave at the same time?

Whatever’s going on in my head, it’s all good for the book, I tell myself. And then I think that the book has been outlined and I’m forty-thousand words in. I know the book I’m writing and there is no place for catostrophic abstract nonsense.

But is it really abstract, when the tilt of the earth’s axis adjusts a degree every ten thousand years and the resulting Ice Age could destroy us before we’ve gained a foothold on planets capable of sustaining human life? WHY IS THAT FISH STILL STARING AT ME?


I think it’s a stalling tactic. I don’t want to dive into my writing each day for fear that the best I can do might not be good enough. It’s a common trap. The fear of failure. When I was working a full-time job I had the excuse that there simply wasn’t enough time to produce good work. Therefore, if my work was lacking in any way I could simply point to the fact that I had been rushed.

I’m not rushed now. I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. I don’t know exactly how long, and I’m not going to run the numbers.

When I’ve talked about this before people have sent emails saying they hope I get past my writer’s block. But I’m not blocked. I know the story, I’ve written my outline, I’m ready for action. What slows me is that I want every paragraph to represent my very best work. And why shouldn’t it? I’ve done all this background stuff so that I can concentrate on writing a “finished” scene. And that’s where I stop. That’s when I get the fear. With all the time in the world, with the outline, with the research books by my side…will my best be good enough?

It’s so much easier to do ANYTHING else. I could clean the apartment, because I know the apartment CAN be cleaned. I can write a blog, because I know I can finish my blog. I could do some terrible, menial day job, five days a week, hating it every step of the way, and I could do it well because I know I can do it well.

Most things I do don’t require that I do my absolute very best. The problem is that I expect that from my writing.

And that’s scary.

Fortunately, this week, a beautiful woman whispered in my ear. “I’ve got some words for you,” she said. “Would you like to dance?”

The muse, when she want to dance, you dance.

I’ve had three good days so far. My knees were a little weak at first, and I’d forgotten how to lead, but she’s helped me along.

The best piece of advice she’s given me is this…”Don’t think. Write.”

And look…the fish are staring at someone else for once. Maybe now I can get a little work done.


by Stephen Jay Schwartz


First of all, I want to thank Murderati for delivering Indonesia. I never know what’s going to come from writing this blog. Those three hours I spent on a bus with James Ellroy came after someone read my blog. I was invited to teach at the Omega Institute in New York as a result of my posts on this site. Through Murderati, I’ve been invited to contribute poetry and essays for publication and speak at conferences and workshops. But, until now, I had never been handed a country.

It seems my last blog, Synergy, was re-posted on various Facebook walls across Indonesia and now I have twenty-five new Indonesian Facebook friends. I don’t know if any of them have read my books, but they’ve all read my blog. So – thank you Murderati, thank you Internet, thank you Facebook. Whatever comes of the rest of my career I will always know this–there was a day when I was big in Bali.

That said, I’ll return you to our regularly scheduled post.

Magical Optimism…

My eleven year old boy opens his eyes and sees the world he wants to see and magically it is there. I remember I was once like that, when I was a boy younger than his years. The magical optimism slowly faded as I encountered adults who knew better, men and women who’d correct me when I was wrong. As the years advanced I grew up to become an optimistic realist, but a realist none-the-less. Although it is easy to slip into the slough of the cynic, I’ve generally fought to keep a “glass half-full” attitude.

My son re-booted my operating system recently when two things occurred.

Thing One: Noah’s favorite flower is the bright yellow sunflower. My other son, Ben, saved a couple seeds from destruction and planted them and they sprouted. Their little green stems grew and dangled and needed help and I convinced Noah, who had taken over the project, that we should tie their little vines to a tongue depressor with a fuzzy little pipe-cleaner from his arts and crafts supply kit. He trusted me (I’d taken a class called Greenhouse Management when I was in high school, which was really the slacker’s way out of taking Biology II) and I tied one of the nascent plants to the wooden stick and just about broke it in two.

The plant was a goner. I’d broken it in such a way that just a sliver of green connected the top to the bottom. It was only a matter of time before it would turn brown and shrivel up like a sun-stroked earthworm. I put a little Scotch tape around the break and prepared my son for the worst.

“It’s not going to make it, I just want you to know.”

“Maybe it will,” he said.

“I’ve lived a lot longer than you, kid, and I’ve seen things. Experience tells me that plant is going to die.”

“I’ll just keep watering it,” he said.

And sure enough, somehow, that plant sprang a sliver of green glucose cells and built an elbow to tie the two halves together. Now this little plant has grown thick and strong and healthy. It continues reaching for the sky today. In all my year of Greenhouse Management I never saw such a miracle.

At approximately the same time, Thing Two occurred.

Thing Two: While cleaning our fish bowl I accidentally let the fish (a beta) fall into the sink among the dirty dishes and general scum. I tossed the dishes to the floor, yelling, “Shit! Shit! Shit!” until I’d found the flopping creature and, after several tries, grabbed and tossed it back into the fish bowl.

Experience told me this story wasn’t going to end well for the kids.

Sure enough, a couple weeks later the fish developed a brown scab on the left side of his body. A couple days after that the scab appeared on the right side as well. It took another day for one side to eat into the other, creating a gaping hole.

There was a hole in our fish.

Experience told me this was not a good sign. The hole grew larger in the coming days and soon the fish stopped eating.

“I’m sorry, Noah, but this doesn’t look good. I think you should say your goodbyes.”

“Don’t give up,” he told me. “We can save his life.”

“I don’t know, I’ve lived a long time and I’ve seen things. My gut tells me it’s time to pull the plug.”

Taking a stab in the dark I suggested that maybe the local pet store had something to “fix the hole.” Sure enough, my son came back with a bottle of what I considered to be voodoo googlygock with instructions to add ten drops to the bowl, twice daily. We began treatment immediately.

The substance seemed only to blacken the water, creating a charcoal haze in which our fish would spend his final days. And the hole remained. I mean, I could see the toaster oven through the fish. I was surprised the thing had lasted this long.

And then the fish began to eat.

Days later Noah said that the hole was growing smaller. Ah, life through the eyes of a child, I thought as I peered down to study the beta. But he was right, the hole was smaller.

It’s been a month since this thing began and the hole is nearly gone. The fish, which was old to begin with, is older still, yet appears as healthy and playful as a young fishling. Maybe the playful part is my imagination talking, but he sure looks fit.

The point, if I may return to the purpose of writing this blog, is that my “realism” was really cynicism in disguise. If I had gone with my instincts, i.e. my experience, I would have seen that sunflower sapling strangle our fish in a whirlpool of toilet water as they made their way to the city sewer. I would have euthanized them to save myself the trouble of watching them die slowly, over time.

I didn’t know there were any other options. An eleven year old boy told me there was.

I think these two occurrences illustrate the fact that we occasionally need a paradigm shift. In my case, I needed to adjust my concept of what is and isn’t real. The way I lived my life had been tainted by negative experiences I accepted as truth. Noah did not have those experiences and he was strong enough to resist them when I suggested they were universal truths.

Maybe optimism is just a way of seeing life as it should be, and then participating in its positive outcome. Maybe a person’s good fortune is anchored by his positive attitude.

My boys will encounter great struggles in their lives. It’s unavoidable. They’ve already experienced the loss of their home. The negative effect this has had on their personalities has thus far been minimal — they veered toward the positive. Life in an apartment isn’t tough, it hasn’t stopped them from doing the things they love, like hanging out at the beach and enjoying their music and art classes. If anything, it’s removed some stress from my life, which removes stress from theirs.

I hope their optimism continues to flourish. I hope the people they encounter, the ones who thrive on gossip and negativity, won’t have an impact on their development. And I’m glad as hell my boy was there, like a young bodhisattva, to teach me the ways of the world.



By Stephen Jay Schwartz

That was the buzzword when I worked at Disney Studios. I was the assistant to the Director of Marketing for BVI, or Buena Vista International. Disney had just established its own network of international distribution, where I had worked as a long-term temp (three months) before getting a real job (with real benefits) in the marketing division. This was right when Aladdin came out, to give you a point of reference.

Synergy, synergy, synergy. It was the era of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s famous internal memo about what was broken and what needed to be fixed in Hollywood. The memo targeted Disney Studios in particular. At this point, Katzenberg was best known for putting Disney’s animation films back on the map and, when he didn’t get the number two spot (behind Eisner) after Frank Welles died, he left Disney Studios to form SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

Synergy was about getting all the different departments to “work together” for the common good of the studio. We were encouraged to stop inter-office bickering and do what was necessary to create an environment of success. Lines of communication were opened and barriers to progress supposedly eliminated. There wasn’t an inter-office memo that crossed my desk that didn’t include the word “synergy” in paragraphs one, six and eight. There was a bit of a cultish feel to it and there were a few subversives, present company included, who felt we’d stepped into the pages of a George Orwell novel.

The whole thing didn’t really mean that much to me. I had my own agenda.

Behind my new boss’ back I wrote my own inter-office memo and I addressed it to Jeffrey Katzenberg himself. Before getting my temp job at Disney Studios I had been struggling away as an independent film maker, which meant that I was cash-advancing my credit cards and beg-borrow-stealing my way through a maze of production services in an attempt to make 16mm and 35mm films. I had just finished shooting a half-hour film (the last film that Chuck Connors ever did) and it had completely broken me and drained all the resources I never really had. By this time my fellow producers (aka college buddies) had moved on to find normal jobs capable of sustaining normal lifestyles and I was left to carry the weight of the project on my worn-out shoulders.

I needed to re-shoot a couple scenes before going into post-production, and I made a desperate plea to Jeffrey for help (Hollywood encourages its members to call the big guys by their first names – Jeffrey, Steven, David, etc. Of course, I was to be called “Mr. Schwartz” the day HR escorted me from the premises, but we’ll get to that).

A few days after I rolled the dice I received a phone call from the President of Production at Disney Studios.

“Jeffrey received a memo in his inter-office mail yesterday,” he said.

“Yes?” I replied.

“I have to admire your balls for sending it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Jeffrey wrote a note on the memo that reads, ‘See if you can help this guy out.'”

I was ecstatic. The President of Production at Disney Studios was going to help me finish my film with Jeffrey’s approval! That day I went into my boss’ office (remember, I was a lowly assistant–although he allowed me to use the title “Executive Assistant” to make me feel powerful– to the Director of International Marketing) and told him what I had done.

“I’m glad you told me after you sent the memo,” he said.

I knew he’d be cool with it, he was a renegade, too, which became much more evident months later when he “accidentally” sold the same promotion to McDonalds and Burger King simultaneously. He then announced he’d be leaving the Land of the Mouse for a studio on “the other side of the street.” His actions caused me to become the Executive Assistant to No One, which did not instill in me a particularly hopeful sense of job security.

But I digress.

I started getting my ducks in a row with the President of Production and discovered that they actually rented all their production equipment, so I wouldn’t be able to get any free services. If I’d only needed post-production I might have been able to make it work, but since I had to do some reshoots I was out of luck. They could get me some great discounts and take a budget of around $100,000 down to $20,000 or so, but by that time I was about $60,000 in the negative. In the meantime, the cast and crew had disassembled and entered the great Hollywood diaspora, which means they all went looking for jobs. And my big star was getting older.

One day I got a call from him – “You gonna finish this film before I die, Schwartz?”

“I’m trying, Chuck!” I said, full of youthful bullshit.

Chuck Connors died before I could finish the film. He gave me the best performance that no one will ever see.

So, the whole memo thing ended up being just a neat little anecdote left to dissolve in the lore of Hollywood history.

After the Director of International Marketing (my boss) left, the President of the Marketing division took me and another marketing person to lunch to see what there was to work with. Ever clueless, I told him about my big unfinished, thirty-minute film and my experience with the memo. The President spent the rest of the lunch talking about Synergy, ending with the memorable quote, “At BVI we market films, we don’t make them.”

I went to my little cubicle and printed his quote in Times New Roman 80 pt and slapped it on the wall next to my computer. It was a way to remind myself that I didn’t belong here and I wasn’t going to let myself slip into the “machine,” further away from my dream of writing and directing films. The little note did it’s job because about a week later I was downsized from Executive-Assistant-to-No-One to So-This-is-Unemployment.

Apparently, I was not the most synergistic cog in the machine.

I’ve always had this self-destructive tendency. I’ve lost or quit numerous jobs in an effort to advance my career.

When we work for people we give them our most valuable asset – our time. I’ve always known this, even while working piddly summer jobs during high school. I can put almost no dollar value to my time. And yet we all have to, we can’t help it. We have to make a living. And so I’ve taken the jobs I’ve had to take and the jobs I’ve been lucky to get and I’ve demanded that I get more in return. Not necessarily more money. Instead, more education, knowledge, access. It might take years for me to acquire the skills I need from a job — the skills that will help me in my own efforts to become a better writer or film maker, but once I reach the saturation point, once I’ve got the job down and I’m not learning anything new, I have to leave.

This was a lot easier to do when I was young and single.

I’m just happy I’ve been able to jump off the treadmill for a while. For now my time is my own. I’m writing a novel and a screenplay. The screenplay is an assignment, but it’s fun and it’s exactly what I want to do. It isn’t causing any pain. And the novel is what I have to do for my soul, regardless of what other work I need to do in order to survive.

When I worked at Disney I didn’t know that, twenty years later, I’d be using the things I learned there to help manage my future career. Things like Synergy.

At Disney I learned that everything needs to be working together if the company is going to succeed. Now I’m the company. So I have a literary agent, a film agent, a film manager, an accountant and an intern. I’ve got a publicist and a publisher and an editor and a publicity department working behind the scenes. My job is to get everyone working together for a common goal. It’s not so easy, as many of you know. It’s not like these people wake up every morning thinking about me. They’re not paid to think about my career 24/7. Neither am I, for that matter. But I do it.

What’s cool is that it’s working. Not in a Big Disney sort of way, where Aladdin hits two thousand screens simultaneously world-wide and every department in the Disney Universe claims they played a part in its success. But in a smaller, still-effective way, where Stephen writes a blog and it posts on Murderati and all the folks who work to help grow his career read it and think, “Well, it looks like Stephen is still out there. Maybe I’ll make that call and get him that deal he’s been wanting.”

Now, that’s Synergy.


by Stephen Jay Schwartz


I’m not suggesting that rage is the healthiest way to deal with your problems. In fact, it’s probably pretty high on the list of worst options out there.

Rage isn’t for everyone. But there was one time, just once, when it felt just right.

What got me thinking about this, what brought the memory back, was watching the Charles Bukowski documentary, Born Into This, and seeing Hank (they called him Hank, Charles was his pen name) visit the house where he grew up and was forced to endure his father’s violence. From ages six to eleven Bukowski was beaten with a razor strop three times a week. His father gave various reasons for the beatings, but most times it was justified because Hank had allowed a single hair of grass to stand above the rest when he mowed the front lawn. His father would lean into the grass and study his son’s work with a ruler, then stand up, excited, yelling, “Aha! You missed one!”

He was six years old when it started. His mother stood in the doorway, watching his father beat him until he cried, until he bled. When it was over, he asked his mother why she didn’t try to stop it. “The father is always right,” his mother said, and walked away.

I’ve read this account in interviews with Bukowski, seen it in documentaries, watched it unfold in his novels, which are highly autobiographical. All I can say is…no wonder. If you’ve read his work, no wonder.

It fills me with rage. Bukowski never really got back at his father, except for the one time when he was around sixteen and his father tried to force his face into his own vomit on the floor, “This is the way we teach a dog not to shit in the house,” and Hank turned around and punched him, knocking him to the floor. His mother lunged at him, yelling, “You cannot hit your father!” She scratched his face with her nails until he bled. He left after that.

I keep wishing he had done more. I want vengeance. If I were writing this in a mystery novel I’d have the teenage boy tie up his father and beat the man so hard he’d be maimed for life.

Fiction allows us to live out our fantasies. The real world is complicated. Hank never did beat the living hell out of his dad. And, in his poetry he says, “later in life I made him pay somewhat. but he still owes me. and I’ll never collect.”

Bukowski never got the closure he sought. There’s tremendous anger when he writes about his father. Every time I read his work I see it. It makes me see red.

I’ve had a few rage moments in my life. There was one that stood out, however, for the good it did. For me, at least. I’ve never regretted it and it gives me a sense of satisfaction to this day. I don’t know what the therapists would say. I guess it depends on what school of psychology they practice.

It happened when I was seventeen years old. And it involved my father as well.

My parents divorced when I was fourteen. My father, a pediatrician, left my mother to marry his nurse, who was ten years his junior. They had been secretly seeing each other for six years before the split. In the divorce settlement my father said he would send me to the college of my choice.

When the time came my father reneged. My mom fought back, which prompted my father to try a different tactic. He invited me to lunch.

I pulled up to his pediatrics office and he peeked in my car window and suggested that he do the driving. He wanted to drive his new Mazda RX7. He used to have this old 280Z which I loved and I asked him if he would sell it to me when he bought something else and he said, “No, I don’t want you driving that car, it’s too dangerous.” So he traded it in and got his hot little RX7. I ended up purchasing an old Mustang for $500. It broke down consistently every other week. One of its deficiencies was that it lacked handles to open the doors from the inside. You had to find the little metal device I left on the floorboard and slip it into a mechanism under the arm rest then jiggle it until the thingy caught and the door popped open. It was a pain in the ass, but you got used to it.

“That’s all right, dad,” I said. “I’ll drive.”

He stepped into the death-trap warily and closed the door. I followed his directions to the restaurant he’d chosen. In all my life I’ve eaten in very few actual dives. I did have one favorite joint where my room-mates and I ate during college; a greasy place where a decent scrambled egg and toast could be had for under five bucks. The restaurant my father chose was worse than that.

We sat in a booth and ordered whatever. I don’t remember the meal because I never touched it. The moment the waitress left our side my father began.

It was a long, rambling, monotone speech. The words came out rehearsed, dull, orchestrated. They weren’t his words. He’d been coached. It hurt him to say the things he said; I could see it in his eyes. But his eyes didn’t stop him from saying it.

He said things like, “You’re being selfish, Stephen, wanting to go to college out-of-state. You’re being selfish for making your mother take me to court over this.  It’s time for me to be selfish. I’ve always done what others have expected me to do and now it’s time for me to do what I want to do. I really don’t believe you’re doing everything in your power to keep your mother from taking me to court.”

It went on and on the things he said. My mother wanted to take him to court about the college thing but I wasn’t on board. Her lawyer said I’d have to testify against my father on the stand and I wasn’t about to let that happen. And yet my father blamed me.

When he left my mom he moved in with his lover whom he married and was suddenly father to her three young boys. I don’t know what had become of the fathers before him. After he left, my dad said he wanted me to move in with him and his new family.

“I have everything I ever wanted now, except for you,” he said.

“My mom has nothing now, except for me,” I answered.

“She has that house,” he corrected. Yes, she had the house that she would sell and it was her life insurance policy for the next many years.

And then he offered me a deal. He would buy me a new saxophone if I came to live with him. I was using an old Conn alto sax and it was pretty good but I couldn’t really hit the high or low notes and it was beginning to hold me back. I could have used a new horn. Even then, though, I knew this was wrong. “I can’t believe you’re trying to bribe me with a new sax,” I said.

At that moment I knew what it was to lose respect for your father.

After I rejected his offer he made a decision in his mind. He figured if I wasn’t trying to be part of his new life then he didn’t need to be part of mine. I know his wife was instrumental in helping him arrive at this conclusion. It made it easier for him to say the words he said later, when I was seventeen, at the restaurant near his office.

He droned on and on at the restaurant and I noticed the other diners growing quiet. I saw them silently chewing, placing utensils gently onto their plates, trying not to miss a word. I felt their sympathy in the curves of their backs and their sideways glances and bowed heads. He continued talking but I didn’t understand what he was saying. It was water over rocks. I floated up and away and saw us both from above. I saw my father balding at the top, speaking his monotone speech to the boy slumped in his seat, staring across the table and not seeing a thing.

And still his words came out. They rolled on and on, hitting the points he had practiced. This was not the man I knew. I remember a doctor who loved his patients, who loved other children if not his own, but I also knew him as someone struggling to love and not knowing how. He was a child in the world, he knew nothing of its ways. He fell for every scheme, invested in every stupid venture, believed every advertisement. He was too kind and trusting and there was always someone around to take advantage of his naivete. Sometimes that someone was a woman.

At once it came to me. He didn’t have to play the victim. He didn’t have to agree to be manipulated. He could have turned to his wife and said, “No. I will not do this. This is my son.”

I decided I’d had enough.

I felt it rise from my feet, into my legs and my gut. I looked into his hurt eyes and heard his soft-spoken words and I felt the rage rising higher, into my chest, my arms, my back, and when it reached my head I stood up.

I walked away. I left the restaurant. I looked back and saw my father nervously paying the check, hiding his face from the diners around him.

I went to my car, my five hundred dollar Ford with the doors that didn’t open from the inside. When he came out I had it idling. He opened the passenger-side door and sat down. I didn’t wait for him to close the door or buckle in.

I took off.

I was a pretty good driver at seventeen. There wasn’t much to do in New Mexico, but drive, and when you had an old Mustang with a V8 engine you could really open things up.

I took that car to seventy, turning corners, hearing the bald tires squeal through intersections and stop signs. I saw my father’s shaky hands struggle to pull the seat belt over his shoulder, to force it into its latch. I smiled to myself, I knew that seat belt was a bitch.

I worked that fucking car like Steve McQueen in Bullitt. The moment was mine, and it was beautiful. From somewhere off to the right I heard the sounds of his whimpering, or yelping, or protestations. It sounded so much more alive than the speech I’d heard at the restaurant.

I returned my father to his office in less ten minutes.

I came to a hard stop. He stuck his hand where the door latch should have been, his fingers fumbling wildly under the arm rest in a desperate attempt to escape.

“You have to use the little metal thing on the floor, if you can find it,” I said quietly, calmly, a little rehearsed. He finally stuck his hand out the window and opened the door from the outside. He leapt out and turned around to face me.

“You’re terrible! You’re selfish! I’ve never seen anyone so self–“

His words were lost in the sound of the gunning engine when I hit the gas, his figure disappearing in a puff of swirling, black smoke. I saw him there for a moment, the well-respected pediatrician standing in the parking lot of his office building, shaking, screaming at the dangerous boy in the not-so-dangerous car. There were patients leaving their cars, heading to his office, observing the scene like the diners at our restaurant observing mine.

I had other moments of rage as the years went on. But he never saw those. They were directed inward, anyway, and didn’t have quite the same dramatic effect.

But that day in the car was magic. It felt right. It was me sticking up for me. It felt like it was enough, maybe enough, to make up for all that would come.

Bukowski had it worse. Beaten with a razor strop from ages six to eleven. And all he did was throw a punch, in the end, to knock the man off his feet. If it had been me…

But we never really know what we’ll do in a situation. Bukowski did what he could and internalized the rest. It made him the writer he became. “It was great literary training,” he said. “The man beat the pretense out of me.”

I hold my rage in my heart, sometimes right near the surface, and I use it when I can. I tap it for my writing, when the time is right. Like now.

I’ve known everyone I’ve never met


by Stephen Jay Schwartz


I had dinner the other night with my friend Robert whom I met in fourth grade. We were very best friends for two years until we left for different schools and then it was only sporadic visits, really, just a few times through high school and then a twenty year gap and then one afternoon in Los Angeles for about an hour and then another fifteen year gap and finally dinner last week in Hollywood.

Robert lives in New York now and he’s in town to produce and edit a documentary for the Discovery Channel.

We sat down at my favorite Thai restaurant and were instantly transported back to elementary school. The best of friends, remember. We were making films again in our heads with his regular 8, spring-wound motion picture camera. Thirty-eight years had not passed. It was very Einsteinian – we folded time to reconnect our lives.

This is not a unique occurrence. I remember attending a wedding, sitting down with a friend from high school to talk for a short time. Later, his wife asked him how it was seeing me again and he replied, “It’s like the conversation never stopped.” He meant the “conversation” that was our friendship, which had been set aside for twenty years.

It works conversely, too. Sometimes you meet someone for the first time and the conversation is so open and honest that you know you’ve made a friend for life. Or, perhaps you’ve known this person through eons of previous lives and the opportunity to meet again has just occurred.

I can’t help but feel that I’ve known most everyone I haven’t met and then I meet them again. It’s comforting. Here we are again, rolling through the stages of human existence, seeing the world anew with all the fears of children entering the forest. Here we are again, hello, do you need a hug, can I hold your hand through this next step, will you hold mine? Don’t worry, we’re going to make it. And then we’ll forget everything all over again. It’s heartbreaking to lose a friend but there’s the chance that we never really die we just start fresh for another go-around. But the memories, it’s a shame to lose the memories.

I see people and I know they’re on a journey and everyone must face it alone even with friends and family at their side. And we’re all so brave until we crack and then sometimes we’re braver.

It can be really terrifying and maddening and unfair, sometimes cruelly unfair, the things we are made to endure through the adventures of our lives. It can also be terrifically unique and joyful, too, seeing the world through our own set of eyes.

I have a special walk I take to the cafe where I write most days. It gives me the chance to see the world through my joyful eyes. It’s a tree-lined slice of woods near the beach and I watch butterflies and hummingbirds and crows and sometimes wild parrots flit about. And the Jacaranda trees shed their lavender flowers. And I smell the Jasmine and Society Garlic and there’s even a touch of Rosemary which I touch and bring to my nose. There’s always the sound of kids at play and dogs barking. I pet every dog I can except the short-haired ones which my wife is allergic to and sometimes I even pet the short-haired ones, too. As I descend the hill to my cafe I see the ocean spread before me.

The walk grounds me.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I find it necessary to stop, open my eyes, and listen. The world has plenty to say. And every single person I know or have just met after having met before has a story to tell.

Writing has been wonderful in that it gives me an excuse to slip between the cracks of people’s lives. To ask the really pertinent questions. Why did you go into this line of work? What makes it special? How does it make you feel? Was it the right choice? What do you really want to do? Are you happy?

Not exactly the kinds of research questions one expects to hear from an author. There’s an art to it; you work your way up to the tough ones. You start with things like, “How many quarts of blood typically drain from a human body?”

That’s a detail question. Anyone can pull the answer from a quick Google search. “Are you happy with the decisions you made in life?” Try Googling that one.

I’m really struggling with my current work-in-progress right now and I’ve determined the reason I’m flailing is I’m trying to tell an entertaining story and not a story about LIFE.

I don’t want to be remembered as a plot-meister. Plot is important and I’m a devout plotaholic. But plot without purpose is pointless. And, while a character’s purpose is not always known, his search for purpose is everything. The most interesting stories I’ve read involve the hero’s search for purpose while he’s busy chasing the murdering sons-of-bitches who did him wrong. I’m not interested in the chase unless I’m interested in the character.

Oh, I have babbled on today. I’ve decided that my blogs will take me where they must. Their primary purpose is to keep me engaged because if I’m engaged then maybe you’ll be engaged, too.

So, here’s a few good questions to throw off your day. For those of you who chose a career separate from writing, why did you go into this line of work? What makes it special? How does it make you feel? Was it the right choice? What do you really want to do? Are you happy? And, if any of this makes you feel uncomfortable, how many quarts of blood typically drain from a human body?



by Stephen Jay Schwartz

 I just celebrated another birthday and I realize I’m fourteen years old.

I was fourteen last year, too. And the year before that. In fact, I’ve been fourteen years old since I was fourteen.

Not that fourteen is the perfect age. Fourteen is a pretty rotten age. It’s in-between everything. You want to be big, you want to be a man, but you’re still a punk. When I was fourteen (as I am now) I was a freshman in high school. Ninth grade. Bottom of the food chain. Thirteen was better—I was in eighth grade and the oldest kid in middle school.

When you’re fourteen you think you’re gonna live forever. You think you might be a doctor or movie director or the president of the United States. You think you’re going to make a huge amount of money so you don’t really need to save. You live for the moment.

I realize I’ve never left this mindset. I know I’m going to make a huge amount of money, one of these days. Probably when I’m twenty-five. I know I’m going to direct a feature film, too. I intend to do that before I’m forty, because I hear Hollywood’s a pretty young town.

There are drawbacks to living fourteen. Like, you might buy a house without any money, using something the grown-ups call a zero-downpayment loan. But they have this great feature called a negative amortization payment and that’ll help, for a while. And then they got this even greater thing called a short sale. I guess there’s always something to look forward to.

Other things come up that are tough, you know, when you’re fourteen. Like, those things they put on bananas in the sex education class? You might want to wear one. Otherwise, well, all these crazy things happen that are just a bit too much for a fourteen year old deal with. I didn’t wear one and now I’ve got kids and a wife and I had to get a job for, like, a really long time, and I had to do what people said without talking back and the times I did talk back they said I was fired and when I went back the next day they said what are you doing here we fired you and I said oh.

Now I’ve got two kids. One is eleven and one is thirteen. The eleven year old is thirty-two. The thirteen year old is fourteen. We say the eleven year old is the wise one. He tells the rest of us to save money. We don’t know what he’s talking about.

My wife is fourteen, too. So, that’s cool. I think my thirteen year old will be fourteen for a long time as well, but then I think he’s going to get older and end up around twenty-one. And I’m hoping that our eleven year old becomes fourteen someday, maybe after his fiftieth birthday.

It’s not for everyone. I’m not even sure if it’s really that healthy, you know, in a psychological sense. I read in a book in my freshman something class that it’s called “arrested development.” You get stuck in the year where you had some kind of trauma. When I think back on it I remember that fourteen is how old I was when my dad left my mom. I remember waking up one morning to find my mother in the kitchen crying over a bowl of cereal. She’d been up all night. I asked her what was wrong and she said, “Your father left us.” I told her not to joke around. “Your father left us and he’s not coming back,” she yelled. Later that day my dad picked me up at soccer practice and cried, telling me he was leaving my mother to marry the woman he’d been seeing for six years.

Fourteen was the year the world came crashing down. It was the year I was expected to grow up, to take it like a man. I did all the things they told me to do. Things got really hard after that. I tried and tried and tried and tried.

What’s great, though, is that you have this awesome imagination when you’re fourteen, so you can fall back on your dreams and ideas and stories and the little movies you keep in your head. I think that’s how I got through it all. It’s a good thing I wasn’t the age they said I was or I don’t think I would’ve made it.

So, now I’m fourteen again and I have no idea how the rest of my life is going to play out. I know I’m going to direct a feature film someday and I know I’m going to make a lot of money so I won’t have to worry about how to pay the bills they keep sending me for all the things I like to do, like watch TV and go to movies and eat at restaurants (that’s really cool, I LOVE eating at restaurants!) and taking road trips with my fourteen year old wife and our kids. I know I’m always going to live near the ocean because I’ve wanted to live near the ocean since before I was fourteen and it’s one of the things that everyone told me I couldn’t do until I had enough money and I always thought hell why not. Come to think of it, that’s what I’ve thought about pretty much everything everyone told me I’m not supposed to do. I guess that’s why some people call me Peter Pan. That’s okay, he always was my favorite.

But a couple years ago I found this really cool group of other fourteen year olds. They all write books and together we call ourselves “authors.” I always thought I was strange and out-of-place and doing things the wrong way and then I met these other people and they’re just like me. It’s like camp for fourteen year olds forever. Thank God most of us have children to take care of us when we get into trouble. Because we can get into some real messes.

Anyway, it’s really good to finally have this figured out. Now when my accountant yells at me for spending money on things that don’t make sense I say, “Why would anyone trust a fourteen year old with that kind of money?” Or when my lawyer says disagreements should be handled in the courtroom I say, “Why do you think God gave me fists?” I’m starting to talk this way to all the grown-ups in my life. It’s really fun but I find their responses disturbing. I like hanging out with the authors the best.

Anyway, I feel a lot better now that I know the reason I do the things I do is because of my age. It doesn’t make things easier, I still get in a lot of trouble, but it explains a lot.

It’s funny how you gotta wait until these later birthdays to figure out the really obvious things in your life. I guess that’s why they say that youth is wasted on the young.


by Stephen Jay Schwartz


The first rule about writing a blog about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

The second rule about writing a blog about Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

Therefore, this blog has nothing to do with Fight Club.

Let’s start at the beginning. Not the wee beginning, but a more recent beginning. A beginning that began just before I read Fight Club for the sixth time. (I thought this wasn’t about Fight Club?) Let’s start after I finished my novel, BEAT, and was preparing for whatever my next book would be. This was, I don’t know, a year and a half ago. The mistake I made is that I didn’t read Fight Club again, immediately, after writing BEAT.

When I wrote my very, very first blog for Murderati, which was also my very first blog ever, I called myself The Newcomer. As part of that blog I said I would check in from time to time to document the journey of my debut year. When I wrote that first blog I was three months away from pub date for my first novel, BOULEVARD.

Since that time I’ve gone through an incredible rite of passage – from being unpublished to being published. I blogged about the excitement of going to my first Bouchercon, then to Thrillerfest, then Left Coast Crime, then RT, then Bouchercon again…meeting hundreds of published authors, soon-to-be published authors, readers, book-sellers and the ilk. I had an amazing debut year.

I really didn’t have much trouble going from the first to the second book. I had a two-book deal with Forge and I had deadlines to meet. And, although writing that second book was a bitch, it was also quite doable, as it was a sequel. I didn’t have to create a new world or write a new protagonist from scratch.

But things change. And I don’t think I’d be doing my job as a Murderati if I didn’t tell the story. Because everyone’s story is different, and everyone’s story should be told. Not necessarily as a map, but as a guide. I’m not writing this for the folks who have written three books or more. I’m writing it for the folks who haven’t been published yet, or who have published a book or two, like me. I don’t know if it’s a cautionary tale, but it is a tale of caution. The caution being that one must not think that getting published opens all doors immediately. There’s a saying in the film business: “You’re an overnight success, twenty years in the making.” After having two books published I find that I am still “in the making,” and perhaps will be for quite some time. That’s okay, it’s part of the process. I’m good with it.

So, BEAT was in production at Forge and it was time for me to think of book number three. I was getting the impression from my agent that Forge might not want another Hayden Glass book, so he suggested I write a proposal for a standalone. I was eager and excited to try something new. But I’d never had to write a proposal before. I sold BOULEVARD as a completed novel and, in the publishing deal, my commitment for the second book was simply written as, “Hayden goes to San Francisco.” My editor didn’t see any portion of BEAT until I turned it in. And he was good with that. How lucky I was!

But now I had to write a proposal. I came up with a cool idea and jumped into the research, which took me a couple solid months. I did a ride-along on a fire-boat in the L.A. Harbor and a four-hour, top-to-bottom tour of a container ship, escorted by the captain himself. I did interviews and read books and got enough to know what the story would be. I wrote the proposal, sent it to my agent, and he promptly killed it. He didn’t feel it would sell. So, I tried again. Had an idea, spent less time on research, wrote the proposal and, again, he shot it down. Then he suggested that maybe my editor would in fact be interested in another Hayden Glass novel. We talked over some ideas—he suggested I make the story bigger, broader, international.

About this time my editor suggested that I write a short story tie-in that could introduce readers to the world of Hayden Glass and help sell both books. So, I took about two months to write CROSSING THE LINE, which was a prequel short story to BOULEVARD. It introduces a younger Hayden Glass, just one year into his job at the LAPD, getting an opportunity to work the Vice Squad. He ends up arresting a prostitute and, while bringing her in, crosses the line. It’s marks the moment his sex addiction first appears. This is a story we gave away as a free ebook on Kindle. It was a nice little detour, but a detour just the same.

Now, months had passed and I still wasn’t writing another book. It took a while to perfect the proposal for the Hayden novel and when I gave it to my agent he loved it. But we thought I should have a back-up, standalone proposal, so I wrote the same Hayden proposal as a standalone with different characters and a few different twists and turns.

My editor loved the Hayden proposal and pushed for it, but Forge didn’t bite. I asked my agent if we should submit the standalone proposal and he told me just to write the book without a contract and we’ll sell it (“for a million dollars!”) when it’s done.

By this point about six months had passed. And suddenly I was writing without a contract.

Most people say the second book is hardest to write. For me it’s the third. And maybe that’s because it’s a standalone. And it’s a tough one. It takes place mostly overseas and involves FBI characters with very specific character traits and job specializations. It has required a ton of reading as well as “boots on the ground” research. For many months I floundered, trying to find a path to the characters, trying to justify story points. Struggle, struggle, struggle.

I wrote the first fifty pages two or three times and completely threw them out. My wife, a wonderful story editor, was relentless in her attempts to keep me on track, to follow that “one-book-a-year” schedule. But she wasn’t seeing the magic on the page.

As 2010 came to a close I got the opportunity to meet for a screenwriting assignment on a 3D, zombie action film. I read the draft of the project they had and I knew what needed to be done to get it working. I met with the producers and director a number of times and then the gig was mine. I realized I couldn’t hold down a full-time day job, write a novel a year and write the screenplay, so my wife and I decided I would quit the day job.

I began writing full-time in January. I knew I’d be juggling the screenplay and the novel, but I still felt I’d get the novel done by June. I tried juggling, but the screenplay took precedence. And I just wasn’t feeling the new story for the novel. Which was frustrating as hell, since I’d spent a good deal of time beating out a detailed treatment for the book, and there’s a ton of cool action and some deep, intriguing psychological twists. It’s a book I want to write, a story I’d like to read. But I just wasn’t feeling it, and my writing reflected that. I didn’t have my mojo on.

So now it’s June. This is when I was supposed to be delivering the book to my agent, according to my “quit the day job” schedule.

I’ve been writing the first ten pages over and over for the past two months.

It wasn’t passing the wife-test.

And then she asked the magic question – “Why don’t you read Fight Club again?”

Yes, why don’t I. It seems I need it.

Didn’t I say this would come back to Fight Club?

I started re-reading Fight Club and I was about a third of the way in when I saw through the mist. I saw the rhythm. The wit. The bite. The grit.

My wife had an interesting idea. “Would you be able to capture your character if the book were written in first person?” Fight Club is written in first person.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think I might.” I was having a real hard time getting inside the head of this character, because he’s new, he’s FBI, he has a very obscure field of specialization. First person would force me to make some decisions.

I took those first ten pages and rewrote them in first person. Hmmm. This seems to be working. I was forced to take chances, to make some shit up. But something was still missing.

“I think I’ll write it in present tense,” I said. Fight Club is written in present tense. I’ve written eleven feature screenplays, and screenplays are written in present tense. I “get” present tense. In fact, it was hell getting my head into past tense for my first two novels. Once I figured it out I didn’t want to touch present tense again for fear I’d lose my sense of the past.

I went back and rewrote those first ten pages as present tense, first person, and…there it was. My voice. I found it again.

That was about a week ago and I’m up to page 35, which I’ve already polished. The wife read it last night and said it felt like a novel. Finally, it’s there.

I figure if I can write fifty pages a week I’ll have a strong first draft in three months. That’s seven pages a day, seven days a week. Ugh. Yes, I know, there are those of you out there who can cut that time in half. However, I still have another draft of the zombie movie to deliver. And then I’ve got another one or two screenwriting opportunities on the horizon and I hope to get at least one of them going in the next month or so. So, it is what it is.

The point is, I found my voice again. And I’m indebted to Fight Club for helping track it down. As I said, this was my sixth time reading Fight Club. I read it once a long time ago, then twice while I was writing BOULEVARD, then twice while I was writing BEAT. Whenever I’m lost and banging into walls I read Fight Club.

This is not to say that I’ve stolen Chuck Palahniuk’s voice. That is really not possible. I would never try to become, nor would I succeed at being, a Chuck Palahniuk imitator. But reading Fight Club helps me find my voice, which sometimes gets buried in the muck of everything that mucks us up in life. I get a similar boost from reading Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac.

I think it’s really interesting that I have a touchstone. Something that shakes me to the core, “reboots” my creative self so that I can continue working at my peak performance.

Fight Club is the plumber’s snake that unclogs my drain.

Does anyone else have a “touchstone?” Is there a book or an object you can count on to keep you centered, to keep you writing at your creative peak? Shout it out, baby.

Writing Through The Madness

by Stephen Jay Schwartz


I’m not particularly sociable today. If I had my way I would have stayed in bed. All day. Curled into a ball.

I’m writing through a particular madness. It’s had me for a few days now. I feel like I’m floating through a numb dumbness, answering questions when asked, nodding appropriately, making eye contact when necessary. I’m dodging decisions and putting off the things that should be done today but can wait until tomorrow or the week after.

I’m absolutely no help to anyone, except when I look directly at my wife and children and tell them I love them. With watering eyes. I’m as sensitive as a bee sting. I don’t trust myself to watch commercials because I know I’m easily manipulated by images of babies and puppies.

I have to be aware of when I get like this. I have to watch for the signs. The shortness of breath, the thousand-yard stare, the anxiety. I can pull the shit together if I have a story meeting or an interview or if I’m on a panel. I just compartmentalize the crazy and go with what I imagine appears normal. This is complicated by the fact that I know that normal doesn’t really exist.

Watching babies and petting dogs helps. Maybe that’s why I write at cafes. I see a lot of babies, I pet a lot of dogs.

I suppose I feel too much. I remember my mother telling me when I was in high school that I was too sensitive. This was when I was supposed to testify against my father in court for not coming through on sending me to college, as he had promised in my parent’s divorce settlement three years before. I guess that whole thing must’ve made me just a little bit…sensitive.

I often feel shame for feeling too much, when I know that others deal with a kind of pain I’ve never encountered. The pain of war, of losing a child, of homelessness and absolute poverty. The pain of hunger. There are so many things that bring a person down.

One cannot discount one’s own pain, however. We cannot assign a point system to compare our pain against another’s.

I’m a “day later” kind of guy, when it comes to shock. It hits me the next day. And then it lasts, well, as long as it lasts. I’m having a hard time writing through this one.

My wife tells me the moment of impact was Monday night, when my thirteen year old son had an earthquake-sized meltdown. He has Aspergers Syndrome and the worst case of OCD the specialists have ever seen. My wife and I have been fighting the special needs battle for seven years now. But Monday night was a watershed moment, because I was forced to face my helplessness in this battle. I came away from it knowing we’d be looking for a respectable, affordable outpatient or residential program somewhere that can provide my son with the tools he needs to live in this world. And, while that realization marks a positive step in my evolution as a caring parent, it also scares the hell out of me and makes me feel, somewhere deep inside, that I’ve failed. I think I’m smart enough to know that I’m stupid to make this about me. And, intellectually, I know that this does not represent my failure as a parent. But intellect and emotion don’t always agree.

I think I’m just scared. I want my son to be whole. He’s sweet and caring and unique and smart and oh-such a character. I want to see the best of him encouraged. I don’t want madness to envelop him.

Then Wednesday morning my wife’s father died. He was in the hospital and I wanted to visit him and I didn’t. Theirs was a complicated relationship, so it brings up complicated emotions for her. He was almost 90 years old – a man from a different era. He was a professional jazz pianist and composer, and he also painted and wrote short stories. He had given up writing decades ago, but his early short stories were published in an O’Henry collection. I read them and was blown away. I was going to ask him if I could publish them as ebooks. That’s what I was going to ask him, when I was going to visit him in the hospital, when I didn’t.

I spent the day yesterday with my boys while my wife was with her mother. We visited the university where I graduated from film school and I tracked down John Schultheiss, my old film criticism teacher, a man whose influence on my writing and film making cannot be over-sold. I hadn’t seen him in over twenty years. Me and the boys sat in the back of the lecture hall as he administered a final exam, and I was thankful as hell that I would never have to take another one of his tests again. Ultimately, we came face to face and I went all fan-boy. It was great, but it was sad, too. Because time ravages us. And my mentor has aged. I’m sensitive, remember. I’ve also been told that I’m nostalgic and sentimental. How the hell did I ever end up writing noir? It might have had a little to do with John Schultheiss, who taught me and Brett Battles the elements of film noir.

I was also babbling like a groupie, with mile-a-minute recollections of every wise word he had imparted, and how and where I’ve taken his advice into my own worlds of writing and film. I was like a silly teenager. Only later did I realize this was the trauma talking. Like I said, I have to watch myself when I get this way.

Maybe writing will bring me out of this funk. Like therapy, writing turns us inward. And, if we’re honest with our emotions, we’ll teach ourselves a thing or two.

I think this is why I’m struggling so much with my third novel. I don’t want it to just be a fun ride. Boulevard and Beat explore the world of sex addiction. I feel like they had something to say. I’m searching for what needs to be said in my third book. I’m trying to connect with what is true and human and honest. I’m turning inward, which is the only way I know how to do this shit. But it’s painful and I just want to zone out. I want to stay in bed. All day. Curled into a ball. I don’t want to face the hard stuff, and yet I know I’ll have nothing to write about if I don’t.

Living is madness. Writing is madness. Living, however, is easier than writing. I guess the only thing harder than living and writing is making a living writing.

“And that’s the way it is…”




by Stephen Jay Schwartz

It was Wednesday of this week, in Santa Monica, at a new cafe across the street from my usual cafe.

I went outside for a little break and to make a phone call. I called my wife, talked story points for the new novel.

It had been an exceptional day. Filled with serendipitous moments. A great meeting at Sony Studios with the director of the film project I’m writing. A great meeting also with the guy who will be revamping my alto saxophone, enabling me to play music again, after a fifteen year hiatus. And then a new cafe, filled with the promise of new cafes, where I know no one and can focus on focused writing. It was a good day.

I turned off the phone and seconds later saw the decorative Christmas lights, which hang year-round between street signs, suddenly swing and shake wildly. I thought we were having an earthquake.

Which brought a strange memory, of telephone wires swinging wildly a few years ago. I thought that was an earthquake as well.

I asked a guy beside me what it was and he said there had been a naked woman dancing on the rooftop of the building next to us. It dawned on me that something might have hit those Christmas lights to make them shake so wildly.

I looked up the street a ways and saw a small crowd gathering. I walked up and saw the woman’s body on the ground. People hovered over her, passersby compelled to stop. They touched her shoulder tentatively. Someone found a sheet and draped it over her.

She was breathing. An occasional, deep breath. But no movement. Her head was completely shaved. People were saying she was a transient, that she was doing drugs, that she was crazy.

The police cars came. A woman said she was a nurse and a cop gave her a pair of blue, rubber gloves. She checked the woman’s pulse. A fire truck appeared and eight paramedics leapt into action. They did a quick visual examination. I heard one of them say, “agonal breathing.”

Crime scene tape went up around us quickly. The street filled with police cars. Cops rushed into the building where she had jumped—there was word that someone had been up there with her, maybe another jumper. I heard a cop say they were treating it like a crime scene. A forensics van pulled up.

The woman was put on a gurney and rushed away. Cops began taking statements. Blood remained on the asphalt where she had landed. It was a five-story fall.

I walked back to the cafe.

People were talking. It hit everyone differently. It hit everyone the same.

We were soothed by the fact that she was alive when they took her away. That she was breathing. I had seen her back rise and fall from the breaths.

Everyone who came into the cafe asked the barrista what happened. I sat at the counter, piping in when he fumbled for words. I said she was breathing.

A man came in and asked the question. We told him and he nodded. He’d seen a lot of these. He was a fireman. He said it might have been agonal breathing. I said, yes, that’s what the paramedics said. The fireman frowned. She won’t make it, he said. Agonal breathing is what the body does when there’s nothing left to do. It’s the body’s survival mechanism after intense trauma. It meant she was circling the drain. This is what the fireman said.

I worry that I’ve disassociated. It frightens me that I can talk about the details. I observed so closely the work of the police and paramedics. I took it in as if it was research to be used in my never-ending quest to get things right, to make things real in my writing. I wonder if I’m callous or if I’m simply in shock.

I remember that other day, a few short years ago. When I saw the telephone wires swaying. If I had left work thirty seconds earlier it might’ve happened to me. The wires were swaying because a telephone pole had been severed. This happened when the tow truck, traveling sixty miles an hour, tore into it. This was after the truck plowed through a dozen people waiting at the bus stop.

I drove into this scene, thirty seconds after it happened. A Hieronymus Bosch landscape. There were bodies in the street. And people rushing by. Children from the school next door staring through a chain-link fence, tiny hands gripping metal. A man running in his underwear, his arms waving.

It happened next to a police station, so the cops arrived quickly. I was told to stay in my car, drive on, clear the scene. I drove on, into the normalcy of the city streets beyond. I heard sirens, watched emergency vehicles pass, going the other direction.

And I thought to myself…did that happen?

I was in shock, although I didn’t know it. I would find out six months later in my doctor’s office when he told me I’d been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This, after a five-month crusade to convince everyone I knew that the Bird Flu was the new Armageddon. That the Bird Flu would destroy us all. I had reams of research to back me up. I bought the face masks and emergency supplies and I was considering getting a shotgun to protect my family for when the System collapsed.

I was delivering my litany to a good friend when he asked the question, “Has anything strange happened to you recently? Have you experienced anything traumatic?”

Nothing, I said. I’ve been a bit stressed. This Bird Flu has really got me down. I haven’t been eating that well. There was this crazy accident I drove through a few months back where I saw three dead bodies and one of them could’ve been me if I’d been there a few seconds earlier and…

That’s it, he said.

The doctor gave me some anxiety pills and I took one and hated it and didn’t take anymore and gradually, during the course of the next few weeks, got better. That heavy feeling in the back of my head began to lighten. I think it was just the identification of the source of the trauma that set me straight.

As I sat at the counter of my new cafe, clinically replaying the images of the woman lying in the street, the cops arriving, the blue rubber gloves, the paramedics set into action, the police taping off the scene, I wondered if this was shock.

The barrista kept getting the question, with each arriving customer. Gradually his ability to explain what happened slipped. Soon he had trouble saying anything. I stepped in to fill the blanks. Something in me fed on their moment of reaction. I absorbed it, tried to process it, wondered why I didn’t react as they did. Was I desensitized?

The barrista was quick to explain that he had not intended to see the body, that he had only been walking to the grocery store for items for the cafe. That, when he saw the body on the ground, it had taken a moment for him to understand what it was. He was not the kind of person to go running to the scene, he insisted. It seemed very important that he communicate this.

I was one of the people who went running to the scene. I was there thirty seconds after she landed. I was there seven minutes before the police arrived. Thirteen minutes before the paramedics. I was aware that I could do nothing to help her. I observed, only. I was there, perhaps, to watch her die.

We write about these events, in our fiction. We visit the morgue and the coroner’s office and occasionally go to crime scenes. I’ve been to the morgue. I’ve seen autopsies. I’ve been in a room with three hundred bodies. They looked like empty gloves.

To be where a life was, just moments, seconds after that life has been extinguished…this is another story. This is sadness. I have been here a few times before. I’ve seen the bodies of two jumpers who leapt to their deaths from the clock tower of my college campus. I’ve stared at the body of a college student attached to his motorcycle on the ground in a pool of thick red blood as I hugged the shoulders of the friend who had driven the car that hit him. I passed the bodies of the men and women who were standing at that bus stop…

These are the tragic moments, the ones we remember. We linger on them. The inherent message is that life is fleeting, that at any moment the rug can be pulled out from under. In that instant, the bucket list comes out. What can I do with the time I have left? How long do I have? Have I said everything I need to say to my mother/father/wife/children? Have I left them enough to get by? (Money, guidance, wisdom, tools?)

I think this is why I run to the scene. It’s not to witness gratuitous violence. It’s not because I yearn excitement or that I find things morbidly entertaining. I run to the scene because I want to live. I want everyone to live. I want to understand life, and to understand life one must accept what is not-life and attempt to understand that as well.

I spoke with a friend of mine, later that night. She had seen this woman at the cafe the day before. She remembers staring at her for no apparent reason. She remembers thinking, “What is it with that girl?” There was an energy, a something-something about her that got my friend’s attention. Did my friend somehow know that this woman would be leaping to her death the very next day?

I remember the documentary I watched about the Russian theater attack in Moscow back in 2002. This was when the Chechen terrorists stormed a theater, planting women wearing suicide bombs in the seats, holding eight-hundred and fifty theater-goers captive for two and a half days. The Russian police pumped a chemical agent into the theater ventilation system to put everyone to sleep, but the gas was deadly and a hundred twenty-nine people were killed in the process. In the documentary, theater patrons were interviewed and many said they saw something strange in the eyes of the people who ultimately died. It was a distant look, something that suggested their lives were already over. As if they knew their time had come.

Perhaps this was what my friend saw. The day before. The woman leapt.

Sometimes I wonder, when we write in our fiction that a man has been shot dead, do we know what we have written? Have we considered what we’ve done for the sake of story? What does it mean when a woman jumps from the roof?

I run to the scene, to learn what to write.