By Stephen Jay Schwartz
Chris Ransom and I were brought together by our agent, Scott Miller, when Scott sent him a copy of my novel, BOULEVARD, to blurb. And then I read THE BIRTHING HOUSE, Chris’s novel, and it blew me away. I loved the dark, tense prose and his brilliant depiction of a common man passing through what could either be a deep psychological crisis or the scariest haunting you’ve ever encountered. The psychological ambiguity and torment in his book brought comparisons to “Crime and Punishment” and “The Turn of the Screw.”
THE BIRTHING HOUSE was first published in the U.K., where it became an instant bestseller. It has subsequently been released by St. Martin’s in the U.S.
We come from a similar background, Chris and I. We both struggled as screenwriters in Hollywood, became disillusioned with the process, and turned to writing novels. I ran from the Biz to take a “day job” and he ran all the way to Wisconsin. We are at the same place in our careers, having just finished our second novels.
We decided to meet in a virtual pub today to share a drink and a conversation about our experiences. I’m not much of a drinker, so on the rare occasion that I do drink, I do it right. I’m having a Macallan, aged 18, on the rocks.
Stephen: Good to see you again, bro. What can I get you? I think you had a beer when we met in Hermosa Beach a while back. You gonna wuss out again or can I get you a real drink?
Chris: Hey, buddy. Good to see you again. Where did you get that leather jacket? You look like Serpico in that thing. Every writer needs a leather jacket like that, but most of us can’t pull it off. It really works for you because you’re the guy who wrote BOULEVARD. I guess I’ll have another Guinness. It’s either Guinness or a Moscow Mule, sometimes a Manhattan. I’m not tough enough to drink straight scotch.
Anyway, I wanted to correct you on something first. Scott (our agent) didn’t send me your novel soliciting a blurb. I swear. What happened was, I asked him if he had read anything good lately. He told me about BOULEVARD and I said that sounds like something I would love. Then, being the busy agent he is, he forgot to send it to me, so I reminded him again, because I really wanted to read a novel about a homicide detective who is also a sex addict. Who doesn’t want to read that, right? So he mailed it to me, and I devoured it in two nights. So I wrote back telling Scott how much I loved it, and thus the blurb. You pulled off a minor miracle with that book, I think, walking that thread-thin line by taking Hayden to very dark places without ever succumbing to the gratuitous. It was very controlled and just a searing novel. So there, just wanted to clear up any notions of, whattaya call it, same-agent nepotism or whatever.
Stephen: Well, it’s very cool how that all worked out. When I read THE BIRTHING HOUSE, I found myself getting lost in the rhythm and poetry of your style. I really couldn’t put your book down. I remember when I had just finished the second draft of my second book, BEAT, I suddenly had the fear that, if I were to die right then, the book would never be realized. Right now my two-book deal is my only “life insurance policy,” and I need my second book to be published in order to at least leave my family with something. And your style just seemed to speak to me—it came to me in a flash – that’s when I wrote to you and asked if you would finish my novel if something terrible happened to me. I thought it was very cool when you asked me to do the same for you. Fortunately, we both survived writing our second novels and we can each enjoy sole writing credit on our works. But, hey, if I fall out of an airplane before I finish Book Three, you know your assignment…
Chris: Awesome. We are each other’s life insurance policy. Our wives will be so relieved.
Stephen: So, what the fuck are you doing in Wisconsin? You ever coming back to L.A.?
Chris: I doubt it, though I do miss it. I have a strong love/hate relationship with the City of Angels. The tacos, burgers, weather, bookstores, and whole mess of the place are great. It’s so vibrant and glossy here, so gritty and freaky there, which is fun. But the traffic and housing prices and wannabe-a-movie-star scene of it wore me down. Ultimately I need more peace and quiet to write. Spending an hour in the car just to go to the post office drove me fucking nuts. I grew up in Colorado, you know, so I need the open space that LA lacks.
But strangely I can’t seem to let it go, either. My second novel, THE HAUNTING OF JAMES HASTINGS, is set in LA. I have some very vivid memories of living in the historical neighborhood of West Adams, where we bought our first house, and that proved to be fertile ground for my second book. It was a lot of fun to “go back there” for the nine months I spent writing the Hastings book. Some of my favorite novels are these great, gritty LA stories, like ASK THE DUST, most of the Bukowski canon, and so much of the best crime fiction. So maybe I wanted to steal some of that down-and-out atmosphere, dink around in with the dark side of the “scene”.
Stephen: I’m a big John Fante and Bukowski fan, too. My favorite Fante is BROTHERHOOD OF THE GRAPE. I’ve never read such charming, seemingly effortless description of intergenerational feuding. And, of Bukowski, I prefer his novels. My favorite is HAM ON RYE. I also love POST OFFICE and HOLLYWOOD. It’s more than just gritty stuff, it’s perceptive, lyrical, humorous.
Chris: Absolutely. I think you recently told me that your second novel is not set in LA, is that right? What was your decision with that? Did you find it harder to jump cities? More liberating? How would you describe the effect of setting in your work? For me it’s hugely important. The setting helps set the tone for the entire novel, and I am very wary of getting the tone just right before I begin. Do you feel the same?
Stephen: I did switch locations for my second book, even though it is a sequel to BOULEVARD. I’ve always loved San Francisco and I felt it would be a great place for Hayden Glass to find himself. It’s a city filled with sexual triggers. And I like making him a fish-out-of-water, his tough-guy LAPD tactics slamming up against the often subtle, more complicated tactics of the SFPD. I did a lot of research with the SFPD – lots of ride-alongs and late nights doing beat patrol in North Beach. Most of the locals think I’m an undercover cop, and I did get a lot of “Serpico” comments. It was a fucking blast and I wish I could do it every day of the week.
To me, the city becomes another character in the book. It absolutely sets the tone, and my characters are either in sync with the city or at odds with it. In some ways, the cities are the most complicated characters in my books.
Chris: I get so much pleasure from Colin Harrison’s novels for the same reason. Reading him always takes me back to the pulse and throb of New York. Harrison said something once about sitting in coffee shops to steal conversations and get ideas for his books, because in your average New York diner you might eavesdrop on cops, captains of industry, or some 80-year-old Chinese woman who’s husband has disappeared. And I just love that man-on-the-street quality in fiction.
Reading BOULEVARD is like traveling the underbelly of LA, taking a tour through the massage parlors, the deadbeat motels, the twisted clubs. I didn’t see much of that while we lived in LA (I promise, honey, ha ha…), but you always sensed it there. The drugs and sex and danger lurking around every corner… the cops who have more important things to do than bust you for jaywalking.
Stephen: I’ll take another Macallan, by the way, and an Evian. Christ, you’ve barely touched that Guinness.
Chris: (Glug, glug, gluh . . . aahhhhh.) Excuse me, bartender? Can I get another pint? My friend here is trying to put me into an early grave. Thank you.
(Eyeing his new beer) Bukowski makes a compelling case for living through something in order to have something to write about. I just reread POST OFFICE for the 3rd or 4th time, hadn’t looked at it for years, and I too was struck by the elements you mention. But what I really took away was a reminder of the value of writers going out into the world and doing something, finding something real to write about. We can’t just sit behind our desk, writing in our own echo chamber.
Bukowski worked for the post office for some 12 or 13 years and that novel, his first, was the result. Amazing. It’s a hundred and ten pages or something, but it’s a whole life, you know? If he had never written anything else, you could hold that book up and say, “Well, if you want to know what it was like to be a half-crazed mailman in mid-century LA, here it is. Humanity at its most bureaucratic, absurd, and raw.” He lived it, he earned that book as much as anyone can.
You mentioned riding along with cops and doing all kinds of real-life research for your follow-up. I think that’s very valuable and probably a survival tool for a crime writer. My work is a little more domestic and I probably need to get out of the house more. A lot of my stuff is set in the average suburban home, the bedroom, stuff between neighbors, and so forth.
Stephen: I know you’ve got another U.K. deal for THE HAUNTING OF JAMES HASTINGS. What’s happening in the U.S.? And how are you proceeding with Book Three?
Chris: My second novel dips a toe in the cesspool of celebrity a bit. It features a celebrity look-alike, a guy who doubled for a fictional Eminem. My character has no talent or artistic qualities himself, but basically made a living for several years pretending to be someone else. I am a huge Eminem fan, and had read much of his biography, dissected a lot of his lyrics and so forth. I actually met one of Eminem’s doubles when I lived in LA, and this guy really stuck with me. Here was this young kid who helped Eminem with videos, awards show skits, and god knows what else–all because he had “won” some kind of weird genetic lottery and looked exactly like Marshall Mathers.
What would this do to the average person, over time? Pretending to be someone else? Of the three main characters in my book, none are who they claim to be. And it is ultimately a story about one man coming to terms with who he was–and who his wife was–before she died in this terrible accident.
Do you wanna do a shot? Oh, I guess you’re already doing a shot. Of scotch. OK, fuck it, I’ll order one. Grab her when she comes around again.
Stephen: Yo, bartender! So, will readers in the States get to read this Hastings novel?
Chris: I hope so. I was fortunate that Scott was able to secure us a two-book deal with my British publisher, Little, Brown, after they brought out The Birthing House. Our man is currently shopping the Hastings novel to St. Martin’s and other US publishers as we drink, so I don’t know if and when it will be released here. But Hastings and his group of false identities will be released in the UK on July 1, 2010. In this economic climate, my friend, I’m just happy someone wants to publish it somewhere.
What’s going on with Hayden after the sequel to BOULEVARD? By the way–can we bill this all to Scott? If he were here, we could easily make him pay the tab.
Stephen: Scott’s too busy drinking with the other writers at Murderati. He represents half of them already.
I’m absolutely fascinated with your idea about the “Eminem” impersonator. What a cool character. It’s a fresh idea.
Book Three for me will be a standalone, and I’m currently bouncing ideas around in my head. Have no idea where the “wheel of fortune” will stop. But I think Hayden’s journeys will continue. There’s at least one book left to complete his psychological through-line. Despite the raucous ride he’s on, there’s a path to healing, and he’s on it. The first book is just the first act.
Chris: I think a trilogy for Hayden sounds about right. That’s a nice journey and stopping at two books might have felt incomplete, or short. Healing is a long process, and the guy we met in Boulevard was pretty messed up!
I’m really looking forward to writing my third. The writer’s emotional state is very different than with the first two. With your first book, you’re just out to prove you can do it, right? It’s you writing in the dark, the writer against the world. That’s very freeing and gives you great reserves. You have no deadlines.
I don’t know if you felt the same way, but the second novel was, for me, much more difficult, more frightening. You’ve got a deadline. You did it once, but what if it was a fluke? You’re afraid of repeating yourself, or doing something that’s too far off the radar for your readers, whoever they are. Dan Simmons told me that Harlan Ellison told him that “any fuckhead can write one novel. Real writers make their names on the second novel, third novel, fourth, fifth . . .”
Stephen: Nothing like getting advice straight from the source. I’m in total agreement with you about the different stages of approaching our first few novels. I’m on the same trajectory.
Chris: But now that we’ve done it twice, there’s a certain sense of (relative) calm. Like, OK, this is a habit now, not a fluke, I can do this. And yet, I find that the saying is true–every novel teaches you how to write a novel all over again. Because every novel needs to be written in its own way, right? It never comes easily.
Stephen: I think my third novel is going to be a bitch. I expect it to be more difficult than the second, since the second was a sequel. And I still haven’t managed to shake that day job, so I still have to fit the whole process into evenings and weekends. Well, brother Ransom, we’ve got twenty minutes to get downtown to hit that burlesque show you’ve been begging to go to. Research never stops, I guess. Go ahead and finish that shot, I’ve got Scott sending a town car to pick us up.
Real quick, what’s your third book about?
Chris: My third novel is called THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE. It’s about a struggling American family confronted with a set of very, uhm, abnormal neighbors, another family who seem to have it all. The Beautiful People are both more and less than human, hiding a horrible secret, and their fates are intertwined with my normal family. It features two patriarchs going head to head, the children getting mixed up with each other, out of control wives. It’s about health, appetite, and security. How far will you go to provide for your family? To keep them safe? At what cost this American life?
I’m challenging myself with a bigger cast of characters on this one, more points of view. I can’t wait to see how it turns out, and since I have another deadline looming . . .
Stephen: Check it – Scott sent a stretch limo instead of the town car…go ahead and grab that bottle.
Chris: Why’s the bartender smiling at you?
Stephen: She said she loved my work on Godspell and Wicked. Left me with her resume and an 8 X 10 glossy. I won’t tell her I’m the other Stephen Schwartz. Let’s blow this joint.
Chris: Catch you on the other side of book three, amigo. Don’t forget your jacket!
Murderati folks – I’ll be at Left Coast Crime all day and it won’t be easy for me to make comments. I’ll try to sneak in during breaks in the panels, if the Omni Hotel doesn’t charge me $15 every time I log on. But Chris will be hanging out to chat with you throughout the day. And, check out his website, it’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.