Category Archives: Stephen Jay Schwartz


By Stephen Jay Schwartz

I was going to call this blog “Moonwalking in New York,” and it was going to start off something like this:

“Are you guys all dancers?”

“Excuse me?” I said, to the girl in the elevator at the Hyatt Regency, New York.

“It’s about Michael Jackson, right?”

We had almost reached the lobby by the time I figured it out.  She was looking at my badge.  Thrillerfest.  I imagined a thousand thriller authors taking over Grand Central Station, doing the moonwalk to cuts from the Michael Jackson album “Thriller.”

“No, oh-no,” I said, but the doors had opened and she had already gone.

True story.  But then I thought, ugh, really?  I’m going to blog about Thrillerfest?  My God, I’ll never do it justice.  It was like a whole universe unto itself, a crazy, wonderful mystery-thriller love-fest that just simply cannot be represented accurately in a blog.  It’s like Rashomon, where everyone’s perception of the event is different.  It’s really a thousand Thrillerfests seen through a thousand different eyes.

I mean, if you really want to read a good blog about Thrillerfest, check out Jason Pinter’s article in The Huffington Post.  I took one look at that and said, “Well, shit, I can’t top that.”

Of course, if I did talk about Thrillerfest I’d talk about all the things that made it special for me, the things that stand out in my mind as simply exceptional experiences.  Things like meeting Heather Graham, then drinking “car bombs” with her and F. Paul Wilson and Eric Raab, my editor, at the Irish pub two blocks from the hotel, I could talk about the tsunami high school reunion feeling of that first night when all the authors bumped one into the other and in one moment I was arm-in-arm with Sophie Littlefield and the next Ken Follett and then Jamie Freveletti and Allison Brennan and Alan Jacobson and then I escaped for a breather and it was just me and Gar Anthony Haywood chilling out in the hallway, two cats in love with a world of words.  I could talk about the excitement of being handed a copy of the trade paperback version of BOULEVARD weeks before it hits the stores, or my rush to the Mysterious Bookstore for yet another Thrillerfest cocktail party and how excited I was to be able to thank Michael Connelly in person for the blurb he gave BEAT, or the fun I had at our Murderati lunch where I finally got to meet Tess and hang with Allison and Alafair and JT and her husband Randy and Neil Nyren and his wife.  Or how I kept going back to that pub for more “car bombs” (Guiness plus Jameson plus Bailey’s Irish Crème) with Heather and Paul and now Keith Raffel and Marcus Sakey and Jason Pinter and more, and how I roomed with Josh Corin and he was great and sweet and wonderful and he talked like a madman in his sleep, and how I loved the Debut Author’s Breakfast where I pitched Boulevard in sixty seconds or less and saw my books sell out of the bookstore during my signing, how I ditched the big banquet to eat pizza with my editor and debut author John Rector and we rode the Stanton Island Ferry while others gave speeches and received awards, and when we returned all was good and everybody and everything simply glowed with enthusiasm and glee.

But that’s not the blog I chose to write.

So I started a different blog, and called it “Newbie No-Mo.”

The concept being that, despite the fact that I’m still in my debut year, I feel more like a veteran than a newbie.  Newbie, No More.

Despite its catchy title, the blog was a college thesis documenting my rise from naïve newcomer to worldly author.  I wrote about the fact that I’ve been a Murderater (Murdermarauder?) for more than a year now, my first blog having been posted on May 22, 2009.  (So where was my one-year chip?  Shouldn’t someone have given me a one-year chip on my “birthday?”  Who’s running this meeting, anyway?)

The blog detailed the three different conferences I’ve seen:  Bouchercon, Left Coast Crime, and Thrillerfest.  There were graphs and pie charts showing the progression of my maturity in the business, beginning with those first sloppy attempts to pitch my book (in twenty words or less), and ending with the pinnacle of my success as represented in my ability to hand-sale Boulevard to the guy in the seat next to me on the airplane home, and how the momentum escalated further, climaxing with a slam-dunk pitch that sold my book to the Supershuttle driver who delivered me to my doorstep.

But there just wasn’t enough PASSION in these topics, so I bailed, I shut down, I closed out Microsoft Word and opened iTunes and I listened to a song by Aimee Mann called “Wise Up.”

Passion.  Why is it always music that takes me there?  Words are too wordy, they sometimes get in the way.  Music cuts right to the soul.

Aimee Mann… I love her voice and her phrasing and her range and control.  Her music brings me back to the core of what I’m feeling these days, and that feeling is passion.  That’s what got me here.

And where is here?  Here is two weeks away from the release of Boulevard in trade paperback:

See, that’s the cover I was passionate about from the start, and then Barnes & Noble had us change our cover to the one with the gun on it.  Which I love, too.  But this one really spoke to me.  My editor knew it, so he fought to get it for the paperback.

And then, two months after that, this little ditty hits the stores:

(Do me a favor and CLICK HERE – I couldn’t get the image to load up.)

Can you see why I’m such a nutcase over here?  I’m living my dream! 

So, I guess what I’m saying, at 2:30 am when my blog goes up in two hours, is that it’s all about passion.  When I start bitching about the bills and the dues I’m-a payin’, I better just chill out and…wise up.



By Stephen Jay Schwartz

Teaching is an art.  I sometimes wonder if I’m up to the task.  I believe that I am, but I also know that knowing how to do a thing and knowing how to teach someone how to do a thing are two very different things indeed.

Like, for instance, when I took private saxophone instruction as a teenager.  I was lucky to study with the best saxophonist in New Mexico.  This guy played every woodwind ever made, had recorded numerous solo albums, and was considered a jazz virtuoso.  One day I asked him why I had trouble hitting the lowest and highest notes on my alto and he said, simply:  “I don’t know.  Just do what I do.”  He played the low and high notes and I watched, and I tried, and I honked.  Nothing had changed.  He shrugged his shoulders.

I figured I had a bum sax.  I played first chair in the jazz band through high school and I pretty much just faked the notes I couldn’t hit. 

I spent my first college year at North Texas State University, which had an amazing jazz program.  My saxophone performance instructor was also a student at the school, and he wasn’t nearly as accomplished as the teacher I had before him.  The first thing he said after hearing me play was, “Ouch!  Stop!  Enough!” 

When I recovered from the shock of such wonderful praise, he explained, “You’re not breathing from your diaphragm.” 

I’m not say what?

It seems I had never learned to breathe.  I was shamefully using my lungs when I should have been using my diaphragm.  Before we could proceed with my musical instruction, I would have to learn how to breathe.

It required that I relearn everything.  Worse, actually.  Because I had to unlearn my bad habits first.  If you’ve ever had to unlearn something and relearn it right, you know how difficult that is.  And I wasn’t sure I could trust the guy because in the process of unlearning and relearning I found I’d lost the confidence to play.  I had been reduced to a musical infant. 

I stuck it out, and gradually my confidence returned.  And, as I became more comfortable with…breathing…my musical “voice” came back, stronger than ever.  Within a few months I could play the low and high notes equally well, and I had better intonation all around.  When I returned to Albuquerque for winter break the friends I jammed with couldn’t believe the improvement.  It was the result of spending three months with someone who paid attention, saw who I was, saw where I was at, and knew how to get me where I needed to go.  A teacher.

I have tremendous respect for teachers who can do this, who can take something that no one else sees and turn it into gold.

Recently I’ve been thinking that I should play a more active role in this process.  When I’m working with young writers on their story ideas, when I’m talking about plot and structure and character development, I realize that I’m teaching.  It’s hard for me to see it that way because I prefer to think that two creative people are simply sharing ideas.  But the fact is, when the things I’ve learned from years of working as a professional writer or development executive come into play, when I’m describing things I’ve learned that appears new to someone else, I’m teaching.  And I realize that I love that.  Teaching makes me feel good. 

I did have one teaching job I can look back on to help determine if I’m the stuff that teachers are made of.  It was traffic school.  Not your parent’s traffic school, I’m talking Comedy-Magic Traffic School. 

Now, understand, I am neither a comedian nor a magician. 

Imagine you’ve received a speeding ticket and have been FORCED to attend traffic school.  You are required by law to pay attention to every moment of the eight-hour class.  An ad in the newspaper gives you hope – Comedy Magic Traffic School!  And you figure at least you’ll be entertained.  As the day closes in, you actually look forward to spending your Saturday laughing at jokes and watching death-defying magic.  Take a moment now and imagine how you would feel after discovering that, well, you’ve been duped.  To avoid lawsuits, my employers made sure I knew a trick or two…they gave me a wand and a deck of cards.  They supplied me with inoffensive jokes that somehow managed to incorporate the basic laws of traffic.  They taught me a traffic school version of The Hollywood Squares. 

Now imagine me, trying to teach and entertain fifty pissed off traffic offenders trapped in a banquet room for eight hours.

But the most amazing thing happened…I enjoyed myself.  I had fun.  By the time those eight hours were over I had people coming up and shaking my hand, telling me they actually learned something, that traffic school hadn’t been a tremendous waste of time after all.  That comedy and magic were overrated.

If I can do that with traffic, can you imagine what I might do with something I love?

I bring this up now because I’ve been invited to teach a course at the Omega Institute in Upstate New York called, “Story Development:  How to Write Compelling Novels and Screenplays.”  It’s not until June of 2011, so I’ve got a full year to prepare.  However, I’ll be teaching a continuing class to the same attendees for a period of TWENTY-FIVE HOURS, over just seven days. 

It might seem crazy, going from teaching traffic school twenty years ago to leading a twenty-five hour creative writing workshop at the Omega Institute.  And I wonder if, somewhere around hour twelve or fifteen, I’m going to end up walking circles near the classroom door, scratching imaginary itches, twitching, and screaming, “Why are you all looking at me?!  Don’t you people have better things to do?!” 

And what if my students come back, years later, and say that they’re really doing fine now that they’ve managed to unlearn everything I taught them?

But I want to give it a shot.  I want to be the teacher that I would want to have. 

My fear is that I’m an intuitive writer, that the choices I make are mostly subconscious, that I will not be able to teach my process.  I don’t want to be the guy who says, “I don’t know.  Just do what I do.”  

I want to be the guy who teaches people how to breathe.

Many of you have taught workshops, many of you have attended them.  As writers, what do you expect to gain from a workshop?  As teachers, what do you hope to impart?


By Stephen Jay Schwartz

I once worked with a producer who told me he loved hiring writers with day jobs because they wrote with mad determination in an effort to lose those jobs.  Basically, they worked their asses off.  And, by “hiring” writers, I mean of course that he wrote up contracts that said something to the effect of: “We’re working on this screenplay together and we intend to sell it to a studio when it’s done, at which point, you’ll see piles of money.”  I think I only wrote a couple screenplays in this fashion, before I learned what the word “exploited” means.

Now I find more creative ways to ditch the day job.  And by that I mean I’d never be so irresponsible as to leave my job before the big money arrives.  And so the “ditching” becomes wish-fulfillment in the form of fiction. 

While I was on my ten-minute walk around the building where I work, a city bus pulled up beside me and opened its doors and the driver sat there, waiting, and my mind took the following journey…

                                               Afternoon Walk

                                        By Stephen Jay Schwartz

            He stepped out of the office for a quick walk around the building.  He didn’t know why he had taken his sports coat and briefcase.  Just a force of habit, he guessed.  He’d gone about twenty yards when the city bus pulled up beside him and opened its doors.  He looked at the driver who stared back at him.  He could hear the footsteps of two men, a half-block away, running to catch up.  They darted in front of him and up the steps to take their seats.

            The door remained open, the driver giving him a look.

            Terrance stepped onto the bus, fishing two dollars from his pocket.  He didn’t wait for the change.  He took a seat near the front as the doors came together with a hiss.

            He placed his briefcase on the empty seat beside him, loosened his tie.  He stared blankly at the city rolling past his window.

            His phone rang.

            She said, “Honey, I’m going to need you to pick Stewart up from the Brosnans at six-thirty, I’ll be with Wendy at her sister’s shower.  You got that?  Six-thirty.”


            “And you can stop off at Sprouts on the way home, I need Echinacea with Goldenseal, and some rice milk, you know the brand.”

            “Okay.  I don’t think I’m going to be home.”  He pulled the tie completely off his neck and rolled it into a ball.  He stuffed the ball into his briefcase.

            “Why don’t you gas up the Beamer, too.  I’ll take it tomorrow.  You can have the Lexus.  What did you say about tonight?”

            “I don’t think I’ll be home tonight.”

            There was a pause on her end.  He almost forgot he had the phone to his ear.  He stared for a moment at a bag of groceries held in the hands of a very dark woman, a small woman, Terrance thought she might have been Guatemalan.  She stared at him, but through him as well.  Her body seemed to fit the hard plastic seat.  He wondered if she had been sitting there all day.

            “Honey, why don’t you think you’ll be home tonight?”

            “I’ve stepped onto a bus.”

            “What do you mean, aren’t you at the office?”

            “I left the office.”

            “What’s wrong with the car?  Why are you on a bus?”

            “I was taking a walk around the building and it came.  I haven’t been on a bus for as long as I can remember.”

            “Of course, Terry.  This is L.A.  And you have a car.  Listen, I gotta get going, enjoy your bus ride.  Get off at the next stop, I’m sure there’ll be a bus going back the other direction.”

            He looked around and didn’t recognize the neighborhood.  The bus stopped and people got on, and they weren’t the kind of people Terrance knew.  They looked him hard in the face as they passed.

            “I don’t think I can get off here.  I’ll have to take the bus to the end of the line.”

            “What?  Where are you?”

            “I think…Watts.”

            “Watts?  Jesus, Terry.  Well, wait until you get to a safe place and take a taxi back to the office.”

            Terrance leaned forward in his seat and addressed the bus driver.

            “Excuse me.  Where does this bus go?  Where’s the end of the line?”

            “Norwalk,” the bus driver said.

            “It’s Norwalk, honey.  I have to go to Norwalk.”

            “Terry, Norwalk is like two hours away.  Just get out of Watts and find the next safe place to get a cab.”

            “I think I’ll be going to Norwalk, Rachel.”

            “It’s three o’clock, by the time you get to Norwalk it’ll be five.  You’ll never make it back to the office in time, they’ll lock your car in the parking lot.”

            “I don’t think I’m going back to the office, no, I know I’m not going back to the office.”

            “Not tonight you won’t.  Jesus, I’ll have to use the Lexus tomorrow and you’ll have to borrow Tom’s Jetta for the day, if he’ll let you.  You’re not going to be home until after seven, Terry.  This really screws up my evening.”

            “I don’t think I’ll be home tonight.”

            Terrance leaned forward in his seat again, addressed the driver.  “Where do the buses go from Norwalk?”

            “Ain’t no buses from Norwalk.  Done for the night.”

            “Terry?” she said, her voice sounding small on the I-Phone. 

            “How do you go east from Norwalk?” he asked.

            “I don’t know, brother.  There’s a train station a mile from the bus depot.”

            Terrance considered it.  “Is it walk-able?”

            The driver shook his head in disbelief.  “Yeah, if you can walk a mile.”

            He didn’t know the call had disconnected.  He forgot all about his wife until his phone rang again.  “Hello?”

            “Terrance, what the fuck are you talking about?”


            “You walked away from the office and stepped on a fucking city bus and you think you’re spending the night in Norwalk?”

            “No.  I’m not sure where I’m spending the night.”

            “I don’t have time for this.  Don’t call me again until you’ve got your head straight.”

            “I didn’t call you,” he said, but she had already hung up.

            He walked the mile in Norwalk and it felt refreshing to actually walk instead of pretending to walk on the treadmill at the gym.  The concrete sidewalks were broken in places, making his dress shoes dirty and scratched.  There wasn’t much to see except asphalt and old warehouse buildings, but the Jacaranda trees were in bloom and the world around him was covered in delicate lavender flowers that fell like snowflakes as he passed. 

            His phone rang when he sat down at the train station.  “Hello?”

            “I hope you’re back at the office.”

            “I’m at the train station in Norwalk.”

            “Good.  You can take a train back to downtown L.A.  I’ll check the Internet and get you the next one going out.”

            “I bought a ticket to Jackson, Mississippi.  It leaves in ten minutes.”


            Terrance rode the train for five days.  When he grew hungry he bought food from a snack cart.  He slept in his seat and in the clothes he wore.  He’d never been shaken so much in his life and for the first two days he had to resist the urge to throw up in his lap.

            When he stepped off the train he was aware immediately of the way the light filtered through the sycamore trees, the way the little oval leaves made shadows dance across his face and the ground and every surface he saw.  He was aware that the air passed easily through his lungs and it had a scent he’d never known.  He left the train, forgetting his briefcase, and tie, and phone.


This, of course, is fiction.  I do not fantasize about leaving my wife and children.  But I can imagine someone else who might.  How do the other authors here deal with everyday frustrations?  How do these issues show up in your writing?



By Stephen Jay Schwartz

Next week I’ll be looking down the barrel of my forty-sixth birthday. 

And I honestly don’t know how I feel about that.  When I turned forty a wise cop told me that Life Begins at Forty.

He was right.  Everything in my life changed around that time.  My marriage which was in the early stages of collapse came to the intersection of Right and Wrong and my wife and I both chose to take a Right.  It was an unpaved road with bumps and potholes and sinkholes and it’s gotten so much smoother since.  We’ve poured a lot of concrete.

Early forties is when I decided to write my first novel.  And in 2009, at 45, the novel was published and the New Life began.

The thought that comes now is…how many good years do I have?  I should have written that book when I was in my twenties, dammit! 

And then it occurs to me that I couldn’t have written that book in my twenties.  I wasn’t fully formed.  I wrote my first screenplay in my twenties and look where it is now.  I mean, really, you have to look, hard, in some forgotten storage unit.

So at 45 I’m ready.  And those next fifteen, twenty, thirty or forty years are going to have to do.  But how much can I really do from 45 to 80?

Let’s talk about one of my favorite characters.  You’ve seen his face before.  If I open my wallet I’ll see him on a five-dollar bill.  I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen his face on a higher denomination bill.

Benjamin Franklin.  Died when he was 84.  Lifted weights right up until the end.  When he was 81 he was the oldest delegate working on the U.S. Constitution.

He didn’t really do anything we remember him for before the age of 42.  Sure, he ran that printing press.  Had his own paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.  Printed Poor Richard’s Almanac.  All great things, of course.

In 1748, when he was 42, he placed the printing business in the hands of his partner and turned to other interests.  There was so much more he wanted to do with his life.

And then he did them.  He wanted to figure out the nature of lightening.  He was a curious fellow.  So he put his mind to it and, well, you know the kite-and-key story.  He captured lightening in a jar, then created the first electric battery.  Then he came up with the lightening rod, which saved many houses and many lives.  

He was interested in the currents of the ocean and he studied them, and discovered and named the Gulf Stream.  He created the Franklin Stove, a device which directed heat from a fireplace into a room.  He invented a better street lamp, one that would burn all night.

I’m sure many of you appreciate the fact that he invented bifocal glasses.

He invented the glass harmonica.  He invented an artificial arm.  He founded the Library Company of Philadelphia.  He founded the Union Fire Company, which was the first volunteer fire department in the U.S.  He became Philadelphia’s postmaster and then was named acting postmaster for America.  He founded the Philadelphia Academy and the Pennsylvania Hospital. 

In 1751 he ran for an Assembly seat and won.  He was 45 years old.  He raised troops and served as a general in the French and Indian War.  He served in the Continental Congress to win the war against England.  He was working 12-hour days in Congress at the age of 69.

He helped write the Declaration of Independence.  He became governor of Pennsylvania.  At the age of 70 he began counting his age backwards every year, so that by the time he was 82 he was telling people he was 58. 

He tried to end slavery and served as president of an anti-slavery society.  He was trying to pass a bill to end slavery when he died. 

Okay, then.  My second book will be published when I’m 46.  Hopefully I’ll write a book a year, so by the time I’m 80 I’ll have…oh, you do the math.  And I still want to have a film directing career.  If I direct my first feature when I’m 49 then I can pump out a few films before I die.  Ten sounds like a good number.  Damn, I also want to get up to speed on the saxophone again, and I want to learn to play guitar and maybe electric bass.  I want to learn at least three languages – French, Italian and Spanish.  I’ve had an interest in sword-fighting for years, so that goes on the list.  And, as long as I’m writing and directing films, I might as well do some acting.  I kind-of like that whole Bono scene, you know, being a world diplomat, saving the planet, stopping wars, feeding the hungry.  Really, that’s always been on my list.  As long as we’re talking about Bono, I wouldn’t mind learning how to sing.  I still think I’ve got a shot at being a rock star. 

What, you don’t think I can do it all?  Do I need to go over Ben Franklin’s list again?  At least I’m not trying to invent anything.  That’ll free up some time.

So, what do you guys want to do with the rest of your years?




By Stephen Jay Schwartz


We’ve experienced some loss here recently.  It was hard for all of us to learn that Louise’s wonderful, talented, charming husband Bruce had died.  I think we’re all experiencing that same kind of shock after hearing about Cornelia’s father, who died from suicide last week.  We’re all thinking about them, and caring about them, during this very painful time.

Cornelia’s post about her father brought instant memories of my own father, who took his life twenty-five years ago.  I was twenty years old. 

I want to be careful not to detract from their losses by rattling on about my own ancient history.  But, in many ways, it’s never ancient history.  Although things are easier, I still live with this loss every day.  Last night I woke from a dream that I was certain was real.  I dreamed that, after many years thinking my father had died, I discovered he was alive and well, having faked his death and assumed a new identity.  I dreamed that we were close again, that I had forgiven him for disappearing and making us think he had killed himself.  I sat for twenty minutes awake in bed before I realized that I had it all wrong.

Everything that has happened in my life since the day he died has been influenced by that moment.  Every sentence I’ve written flows from that place of wonder and anger and passion and curiosity and pain.

I’ve always written stories and by the time I was twenty I was in the middle of writing my first screenplay.  A crucial relationship in the story involved the eighteen-year old protagonist and his estranged father.  The father didn’t know how to love his son.

So, while I’m writing this screenplay, my dad up and kills himself.  He accomplished this using Demerol, which he had easy access to.  He was a doctor.

My writing changed instantly.  Suddenly I had feelings and questions and an anger that needed to be communicated.  Feelings so strong they couldn’t be buried in immature writing.  The writing would have to mature if I was going to be heard.

When my parents divorced I was just fourteen years old.  I was in shock for a year, thinking things were just hunky-dory.  And then—Wham!—it hit me.  Hard.  I had wild fits of anger, punched walls until my knuckles bled, kicked boulders, screamed epithets into the sky. 

Remembering this, I knew my father’s suicide would hit me harder.  This time I wasn’t going to be caught off-guard.  So I dove in, writing, writing, writing.  I wrote whether I had something to say or not.  Most of it was free-verse poetry, not my forte.  But it tapped the emotions, the anger, the grief.  I also explored my father’s last days, trying to get a handle on why he did what he did.  I went to the hotel room where he ended his life, where he spent a long three days and nights before committing the act.  I sat on the bed where he was found.  I stared into the bathroom mirror, as I imagined him doing, hour after hour. 

I wrote my first short story at this point, called “Yahrzeit Candle.”  It was about a little Jewish boy who wakes up one morning to find his father sitting in front of this ominous candle in the living room.  When the boy goes to the candle the smoke from the flame gets in his eyes and he is suddenly overwhelmed by memories of his grandfather.  He doesn’t realize it yet, but his grandfather has died, and his father is engaged in the seven-day ritual of Yarhzeit.  But the father, seemingly hypnotized, never leaves the candle, and the boy sees his daddy falling apart, bit by bit, day after day.  The boy comes to believe that the candle is causing his daddy’s pain and he decides to snuff it out.  But, as he gets closer, the smoke fills his eyes and the memories force him back into his father’s arms and the two finally connect, father and son, and they rock back and forth in their bear hug and the flame finally flickers out on its own. 

It was my first short story and I hadn’t even really considered myself a writer yet.  I submitted it to two national contests and won both.  I sent it to Elie Wiesel and he sent back a note saying it was “Shining, evocative and penetrating.”  I don’t think I could’ve written that story if I hadn’t gone through the trauma of my father’s death.  I don’t think I could have written anything “evocative.” 

I also wrote a screenplay for a short film.  It was really just a ten-page poem, a description of visuals without dialogue, representing the relationship between my father and I from my birth to his death.  I had to enroll in film school, and it would take another five years before I had the skills to do it, but eventually I made “Meditations on a Suicide.”  I needed the help of dozens of professionals, and I didn’t have a dime to pay anyone.  They all worked for free.  Everything was donated.  The budget would have probably been around thirty thousand dollars, but it cost me just about nothing, except for what I managed to cash-advance on my credit cards and the cash donations I received from people who believed in the project.  It all came through at the eleventh hour.  A film that should not have come together was somehow made, and I can’t help but think that my dad was there helping it along, getting people to make the right decisions, making sure I got what I needed to realize the vision in my head.  The film went on to garner awards and accolades, at least as much as it could for being a short, black-and-white, 16mm student film.  The process forced me to reach deep inside myself to do something I hadn’t known I could do.  I don’t think I would have accomplished it if my father hadn’t been at my side.

The film was supposed to be my catharsis.  That’s how I saw it.  But in the process of making the film I became desensitized to the subject matter and I found that I was directing what felt like a fictional story.  In a sense, it was.  I mean, how do you whittle down a twenty-year relationship into a twenty-minute film? 

Every time I think I’m over it, it reappears. 

A good friend of mine whom I met when I made the film (twenty years ago) told me, after reading Boulevard, that he felt I was still dealing with my father’s suicide.  Of course I am.

The anger has gradually subsided, although it has never really gone away.  I’m mostly sad and upset that my children will never know their grandfather.  He was a pediatrician, he loved children.  It would have been great to call him up in the middle of the night as the kids were growing up, ask for advice on how to crack a fever or soothe a sore throat. 

But he did leave me with something.  A reason to tell stories.  Through his own story, his pain and suffering.  His suicide took me by the shoulders and said, “Wake the fuck up.  Look around.  What have you got to say about this?”

As Mr. Hemmingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places.”



By Stephen Jay Schwartz

I know I’m not the first Murderati to talk about music.  We’ve shared numerous blogs about the kinds of music that inspire us.  Some of us find it essential to listen to music while writing, others get too involved in listening to the music to get any good writing done.

I myself cannot listen to music when I write, except when it is piped into a café and presented as background noise.

Of course, to all hard-and-fast rules, there is always an exception.  A few years ago I faced a two-week writer’s block.  I had never experienced anything like this and I was stymied.  I broke through by putting the ear buds in and playing classic rock at volume level “eleven.”  It was a con-job on my conscious self, creating a diversion that allowed my subconscious to sneak on through.  All my conscious mind knew was that my fingers were typing.   I had no idea what was coming out.  I broke through the block in two nights, and ended up with some pretty inspired stuff.  It was an exhausting experiment and one that could not be sustained for long.

The thing is, I find music so alluring, so all-encompassing, that when I listen I just want to dive in.  I can’t focus on the writing.  For me, music is the alpha and omega.  It is the everything.  And I tell you what, I would not be the writer I am if music wasn’t in my life.

Strong statement, I know.  But I truly believe my writing is indebted to the music I studied as a child, from fourth grade into my twenties.  I played classical clarinet early on and moved to jazz when I entered high school.  Once I segued to saxophone, music became downright sexy.  I continued private instruction in classical and jazz and my world opened up when one of my teachers introduced me to the fusion artists of the Seventies.  Chick Corea, Al Dimeola, Herbie Hancock.  I studied jazz performance for a short time in college, at what was then called North Texas State University.  There I was introduced to the masters of bop — Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon (whom I saw live at the Kool Jazz Festival), and Oscar Peterson. 

But I started skipping my Sight Singing and Ear Training class (the class was pure punishment and I was failing it anyway) to follow my English teacher to his office to continue the argument we’d been having for weeks.  He was a nationally renowned poet and he knew instantly that I needed some literary ass-kicking.  My writing was rife with clichés and it was his job to stamp them out.

At the same time I began discovering writers whose words read like music.  I found writers who satisfied my love for music with the music they created in their words.

Authors like, well, James Joyce.  How many here have sat transfixed by the words and sounds that roll off the pages of “The Artist as a Young Man”?  And, while I’ve never been able to get more than a few pages into “Finnegans Wake,” just listen to this first paragraph:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

Sir Tristram, violer d’amores, fr’over the short sea, had passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggly isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war:  nor had topsawyer’s rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County’s gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time:  nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick:  not yet, though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old Isaac:  not yet, though all’s fair in vanessy, were sosie sethers wroth with twone nathandjoe.  Rot a peck of pa’s malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.”

Okay, so let’s not worry so much about what the fuck this means.  Just read it.  Out loud.  Listen to the music: “…while they went doublin their mumper,” “nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick…”  Avoice from afire is “a voice from afar,” but is also the voice of God from the burning bush.  There’s a lot more in Joyce than just lyrical sentences and I’m certainly not studied enough to blog about the dimension of his writing.  But I can talk about the musicality of his words.  And do you hear the Irish accent?  Look at the word “thuartpeatrick,” which is “thought Patrick.”  Now, read the paragraph in your best brogue.  It’s beautiful.

When I read words on a page I hear consonants and vowels that form rhythms of staccato and legato.  I hear triplets and eighth notes and the ghosting of jazz riffs leading into melodies and cadences.  Words cannot help but create rhythm.  Words spoken are sounds and sounds are percussive.  Or melodic.  And then a combination of both that leads to the phrasing of symphonies.

And we have so many wonderful words to choose our sounds from.  We have combinations of words that roll with onomatopoeia, words that click and cough and bend upwards and down, words that modulate into fevered meters, alternating four-four to seven-four to three-four and back to measure one. 

The authors whose works I love have an innate sense of the music of words, whether they are conscious of this fact or not.  Dickens has his own musical style, which is different from the musicality of Steinbeck.  And yet I can be lulled into a state of catatonic stasis from the reading aloud of either.

And maybe that’s why I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time I heard Jack Kerouac read his work.  I was watching this hip little documentary called “Whatever Happened to Kerouac” when his voice emerged reading “Doctor Sax.”  What I heard was a saxophone solo in spoken words. 

I picked up the seminal Beat Generation novel “On the Road” and read it straight through.  What surprised me, however, was how slow it seemed to read.  There were moments of literary genius, but mostly I felt it needed an editor’s touch.  Too many long run-on sentences.  It just wasn’t working for me.  But then all these Kerouac recordings began to surface and I ended up listening to him read from “On the Road.”  And I got it.  Once you’ve heard him read you can’t help but read his work with the same energy and rhythm.  I soon saw that no word was wasted, each and every word was an eighth or half note that emerged from the intricate, never-ending bebop solo in his head.

It’s no surprise that folks like Zoot Simms and Steve Allen liked to jam with Kerouac, trading musical “riffs” with his musical words.  I pulled a You Tube clip from the Steve Allen Show to give you a sense of what I’m saying here.  Check it out.  It’s about a five-minute segment.  Listen to it all the way to the end.  If this is your first introduction to Kerouac, then let me now say THANK YOU for letting me be your guide.

And songwriters can be musical poets with their words, too.  I can think of a dozen songs by The Beatles and The Doors that include poetry capable of singing on their own, without instrumental accompaniment. 

How about this gem of a lyric from Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”:  

“Little old lady got mutilated late last night.” 

The alliteration is to die for.  Then listen to Zevon singing the line, hear his phrasing, his dragging out of “late last night,” (the dotted-eighth note coming off the upbeat of the first note of the next measure with the word “last”) and you get the full sense of how the sentence works rhythmically.  The performance gives the line its true punch, just as Kerouac’s writing comes fully to life through his readings.

It’s interesting how even musical notes on a sheet of staff paper need the musician to complete the picture.  I remember my first lesson in jazz performance in college.  My instructor put a Charlie Parker solo in front of me and told me to play.  Before I got ten bars in, my teacher said, “I can’t believe you’re reading the notes.”  I said, “Uh, yeah.”  “Don’t read what’s on the page,” he said.  “Interpret it.”

It took me a few weeks to get what he was saying.  I was reading the notes, but the music required a performance. 

Although I always read my work aloud while writing, I never really knew if things were working until I heard Ray Porter read the audio book version of Boulevard.  This man, an accomplished actor and veteran audio book reader, performed my work.   He took notes on a page and turned them into music. 

I stopped studying music because I wanted to communicate in a more direct way.  I wanted to deliver cleaner, more thought-provoking messages.  Writing seemed to be the answer.  So, it’s kind of funny that I’ve come to value the way sound and music have influenced my writing.  It’s funny how I needed to hear Jack Kerouac reading his work before I really got the message. 

What “musical” writing—from poetry, prose, or song lyric—has captured your eye, and why? 



by Stephen Jay Schwartz


“The important thing is this:  to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.”

Charles Du Bos


I can’t find the quote now, but I remember Augusten Burroughs saying that his only regret in life was that he stayed as long as he did in the advertising job he hated.  It kept him from being what he was born to be—a full-time author.

I’ve been writing for a very long time now.  Things got serious when I was in college, after I placed well in this big screenwriting competition and I suddenly had a film agent.  I didn’t want to call myself a writer until I was sure it would stick.  I waited until I heard other people say it before I made it my own.  I remember the exact moment it happened.  I had gone to this advertising agency to watch a rough cut of the movie “The Abyss.”  I had somehow talked my way into getting hired to write copy for the film’s trailer.  I was in a room with the advertising producer and he was on the phone and I heard him say, “I’m with the writer now.”  I looked around—there was no one else in the room.  I realized that I was the writer.  I was the writer!

What a moment.  This was how I wanted to be defined, forever.  A thought, an idea that I’d had in my head had actually escaped into the real world and had been accepted by others.

Of course, what I really wanted to do was direct films.

I pursued these two passions side-by-side.  And, like a person who studies to be an actor, I took expendable employment.  Flexibility was important.  I did not pursue a career other than writing and filmmaking.  Which meant that I had a lot of jobs I actually hated.  They were merely jobs, not passions.  In the meantime, life happened.  I fell in love, got married, had kids.  And the “expendable” jobs became what others might call “careers.”  They became the kind of jobs that others fight to get.  But they weren’t the careers of my choosing.  They were only supposed to be links in a chain.  Disposable.

If I had chosen a career outside of writing and filmmaking, I might have chosen law.  Maybe environmental law.  Or I would have worked for Greenpeace or the Sea Shepherds.  Teaching seemed like a great idea, and yet teaching was something I always figured I’d do later, after I learned something worthwhile to pass along.  It was a “later in life” goal.  For, like, when I’m older, like…in my forties.

I look around at many of the authors on Murderati and I see people who had valuable careers either before they became full-time authors or in conjunction with their writing careers.  I guess if you intend to be an author you figure you better have a job you love, because it will be a long time before you’re living off your writing.  But when you go to film school you think that every shitty screenplay you write is going to make a million bucks.  So, you’re always just a few months from living the dream.  And the jobs you take in-between end up as “filler work.”

On Murderati I see people who love that other thing they do for a living.  Dusty seems passionate about his work in law.  I don’t get the sense that he’s waiting for an opportunity to leave his “day job.”  Tess is a doctor and, although she might not be practicing anymore, she chose a noble profession to pursue before becoming a full-time author.  We have business-owner authors here, photographer authors, active-mom authors.  What I see here are people who are themselves one hundred percent of the time.  24/7. 

When you have a day job, and it’s not what you’re made of, what you live is a lie.  You compartmentalize yourself to death. 

The times I’m a full-time writer are the times I’m a fully realized participant in this wonderful thing called LIFE.  Those times I am 24-hour Schwartz.

For the most part, however, I’ve let these day jobs define me.  Ninety-five percent of the writing I’ve done has occurred in the evenings and weekends, after the nine-to-five of whatever job I’ve got to keep food on the table.  I wrote ten screenplays this way.  I wrote Boulevard this way.  I wrote Beat this way. 

Even when I worked for Wolfgang Petersen, an exciting, high-profile job as his Director of Development, I still considered it a day job.  Especially so, since I didn’t even have time to write evenings and weekends.  It was 24/7 D-guy work.  I had to leave the job just so I could find myself.  Find the writer.

After I left the film business, I worked my way up to a steady, well-paying sales job that had nothing to do with writing.  I continued to compartmentalize my life, being one person forty hours a week and another on evenings and weekends.  And the resentments I’ve had over making this compromise has led to addictive behavior and, at times, depression.  For the “me” I had given up, I felt entitled to certain compensations.  I used the money I made to buy the things I thought I deserved—a home I couldn’t afford, a car I couldn’t afford, family vacations.  Consolation prizes.

Maybe subconsciously I wanted to fail.  Maybe I didn’t want the personal possessions to own me.  Gradually, things reached a boiling point, with the economic crisis, with the outrageous loan on my house.  And now that the house is slipping away, I see an opportunity.

I mean, is there anything really keeping me in Los Angeles?  My kids are home schooled, so we’re pretty much mobile, without too many strings attached.  No house, no complicated school entanglements. 

Still, there’s that pesky day job. 

I’ve had so many mature, responsible business associates tell me that I’d be a fool to leave it behind.  “Just stick it out, until that movie deal comes around.”  Guess what?  I’ve been waiting for that movie deal for twenty-five years.  That movie deal…sure, it might come.  But I’m done waiting for it.

I remember when I was making around thirty-thousand dollars a year and I asked a friend if he thought it was wise for my wife and I to try to have a baby.  I was worried that I wasn’t financially ready.  “If you wait until you’re ready you won’t ever have children.  You’ll never have enough money, you’ll never be prepared.  But if you do it, you’ll find a way, and then you’ll realize that you had enough to make it work.”

I didn’t have enough money, but we had our first little boy.  And we made it work.  And I ended up making more money, just enough to take care of the one boy.  So we decided to have another.

I’m looking at my job the same way.  If I’m not Stephen Jay Schwartz 24/7 then I’m dying.  If I can’t support my family as a writer, then I have to shed the overhead, and simplify my life.  And if I still need a day job, I’ll find something that speaks to my heart. 

Thankfully, my wife and kids are behind me.  In fact, they’re pushing me to make a change.  The scariest thing is the not-knowing.  Where will we be in three months?  Eureka, California is looking pretty good.  There’s an ocean close by.  It looks affordable.  I could do some farming, maybe.  You know, Humboldt County and all.  And there’s a university close by.  Maybe it’s time to explore that teaching thing.

Or I could wait for the film deal to come through…


PS – I’ll be on a panel at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at UCLA tomorrow (Saturday) called “Dark Tales from the Golden State” at 3:00 pm in Dodd Hall.  I’ll also be signing from 12-1 tomorrow at the Mystery Bookstore booth (#411), and on Sunday I’ll be signing from 11-12 at the Book Soup booth (#330) and at the Mysterious Galaxy booth (#614) from 1-2.  Come by and say hello if you’re in town!





By Stephen Jay Schwartz


If you only read American crime fiction you might not be familiar with Neil Cross, but, trust me, he’s a big deal in the U.K.  A successful television writer and the author of a growing number of tight, psychological crime dramas, Neil is currently enjoying the excitement of seeing his latest novel find publication in the U.S. 

BURIAL, a compelling, psychological story of one man’s descent into the darkness of his own conscience, was published by Forge Books in March of 2010.  It has been called ‘Terrifyingly scary . . . brilliantly written in taut, humorous prose, while being exceptionally well observed and paced’ by the Daily Mirror, and, ‘His scariest and most satisfying yet . . . What it doesn’t tell you about the perverting, abasing power of guilt isn’t worth knowing’ by Time Out.

Neil was lead scriptwriter for series six and seven of the acclaimed BBC spy drama series Spooks and is the creator of the forthcoming BBC crime thriller Luther, which is scheduled to appear on BBC1 in 2010, starring Idris Elba.  I’m very happy to host Neil here today.

Stephen:  Neil, I have to apologize for not having read your work until recently, when my editor handed me an advanced copy of BURIAL and said, “You HAVE to read this author!”  I read the book and I truly could not put it down, nor did I want to.  What makes BURIAL different from the rest of your work, and do you think these differences built the bridge that enabled this book to “cross the Pond?”

Neil:  Well, thanks for the generous words. To be honest, in some ways Burial is typical of what I write.  Perhaps the cardinal difference between it and my earlier novels is actually how I’m perceived as a writer.

For quite a while I was marketed as, and therefore considered to be, a“literary” novelist. But I never accepted any distinction between “literary” fiction and “genre” novels, just between good books and bad books.  I wanted to ensure that readers knew me for what I am, which is a suspense novelist. I’m proud of that.

All that aside, with Burial I felt that I’d learned to tell the story I wanted to tell in the best, most suspenseful way I could.

People keep telling me it kept them awake at night, which is immensely gratifying. I love to think that I can frighten a reader, move them, excite them….make them think: Just one more chapter before I go to sleep.  I can’t think of a higher calling than that.

Stephen:  The plot of BURIAL is launched from one simple mistake, an assumption on the part of the protagonist, Nathan, that he shares the guilt of murdering a young woman with a man he barely knows.  I won’t spoil the incident for our readers, but I can certainly see how Nathan has been led to believe that he is equally responsible for the death.  The story then becomes a psychological examination of Nathan’s sense of guilt, and all of his actions going forward, for many years, are predicated on this terrible secret he keeps.  What drew you to this material?

Neil:  In general, I’m fascinated by how easily we make the transition from one moral realm to another; by how effortlessly an ordinary human being, almost any human being, can behave like a monster. It really doesn’t take much. Ask Stanley Milgram.

But what really horrifies and fascinates me isn’t so much that wickedness happens…it’s what comes after. It’s that you somehow have to live with yourself.  Everyone knows how it feels to lament their own behaviour — things they did or said in the heat of the moment, perhaps after one drink too many; things they now bitterly regret.

So how must it feel, to wake up and remember not that you insulted your best friend or were unfaithful to your spouse…but that you did something truly horrifying, something that could never be justified or forgiven?

Simply by committing such an act, you became another kind of being. But you still have to get up and shower and go to work. You still have to lead a life, one in which you hope nobody ever knows, or ever finds out what you did: not because you fear for your freedom, but because you couldn’t endure the shame of the people you love knowing what you’ve become.

This happens to real people, every day. It’s happening to somebody in your town right now, maybe the person behind you at the lights this morning. I wanted to write a book about it, and that’s the place Burial came from.

Stephen:  Bob, Nathan’s “partner in crime,” is an eerie individual.  What was the inception for this character?  Have you ever met anyone who so fanatically studies the paranormal?

Neil:  I’m a rationalist with a mechanistic world view….in the daytime.  At 2 a.m., alone in the dark, with the wind in the trees outside, my thinking is entirely different.  Basically, for reasons I can’t guess at, I grew up fascinated by and terrified of ghosts. At forty-one, I’m still fascinated by and terrified of ghosts.

I’ve spent a lifetime studying the subject, and I can happily recount the most rigorous and plausible scientific, psychological and cultural interpretations for most apparently supernatural phenomena. But that doesn’t stop me being scared of the dark.

So although I don’t write autobiographical fiction, there’s definitely a fragment of me in Bob.  And Nathan’s guilt-ridden, obsessive fear of the dark is entirely mine — an autobiographical  sketch from my own life as it was, twelve or fifteen years ago, when I lived alone in a fifth floor apartment in a London tower block.

Stephen:  Despite all the unnerving things that Nathan does—his uncomfortable stalking and wooing of Holly, the dead girl’s sister, and the duplicity he exhibits at his workplace—I still end up liking him and wanting him to succeed.  I want him to be happy.  Why do you think that is?

Neil:  I’m fascinated by how certain novelists beguile the reader into becoming a kind of accomplice — a shudder of confederacy I experienced first and most utterly when I read Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley.  In that remarkable novel, the author makes no attempt whatever to excuse Ripley’s homicidal behaviour…but we still want him to get away with it.

Ever since, I’ve been trying to work out how and why — and I’ve been trying to replicate that feeling of complicity in my readers, so I’m very happy you felt the way you did.

I don’t think I can give you a definitive explanation of how, not yet —I’m still learning this stuff. But one thing I’ve learned is that making it work on the page requires a deep trust in the reader. Another thing I’ve learned is that the reader is smarter than I am, and usually at least one step ahead of me.

Stephen:  There’s a real tempo to BURIAL, and I don’t think it’s all represented in the plot.  I think you’ve created a dilemma that drives the psychology of the story beyond the confines of a simple three-act structure.  The stakes are much greater than whether Nathan goes to prison or not.  Because of the trusting relationship he’s built with Holly, we sense that the consequences of his failure would absolutely crush her, and this would be worse for Nathan than if he were incarcerated.  So, your psychological dilemma and your plot crisis intersect in the climax.  First of all, could you comment about the way you approached handling the psychological versus plot elements of the book, and secondly, do you outline and plot your books carefully, or do you just sit down with a concept and write until you’re done?

Neil:  I think psychology and plot are the same thing. Nathan is who he is and he did what he did. The way those two things intersect is the story called Burial which, in the end, is all about love.

At the outset of writing a story, I’ve got a moderately good idea of where it’s going, or at least where I want it to end up. But in order to keep me excited the route I take has to be flexible.  If I outline too much, things start to feel kind of fixed…and once a story feels fixed, it’s a short hop to stagnation. So usually I scribble down a few notes — a rough beginning, a rougher middle, a downright crude end.  Then I just dive in and get on with it. If there’s research to be done, I do it on the fly, often trusting it to coincidence. ( I always seem to stumble on the right article or hear the right news report at exactly the right time.)

I’ve settled on this working method — if you can even call it that — by way of a lifetime’s trial and error. Unquestionably, it’s not for everyone: I get lost, I get stuck, I get sleepless nights. I stare at my laptop with a baleful eye.

But somewhere, right at the back of my head, part of me seems to know where I’m headed, if not quite how to get there.

Stephen:  Do you think your experience writing television has in any way influenced your style and technique? 

Neil:  Writing  screenplays is a much more methodical and structured affair; but not quite as structured and methodical as some of those “how to” books would have you believe.

Each discipline informs the other — for instance, learning to write for the screen taught me a lot about the frugality of structure. But writing novels taught me a great deal about the practicalities of characterization…which is equally significant.

Actually, in the end it seems to me that character, action and structure are essentially the same thing.

Stephen:  When did you leave the UK, and how did you end up in New Zealand?

Neil:  When I was young, I read (and re-read, and re-re-read) the science fiction novels of Harry Harrison. In those cherished, used paperbacks, the author’s biography listed some of the places he’d lived:  America, England, Italy, Denmark, Ireland. It also listed some of the places he’d visited, which seemed to include pretty much everywhere.

Having at the time been pretty much nowhere, this notion dazzled me. I grew up thinking: that must be the best part about being a writer…you get to live anywhere you want to.

Although my wife and I met, married and had kids in London, she’s a New Zealander. She and I visited New Zealand several times together, but I only needed to be here about ten minutes before I fell in love with it.

At the same time, I’d grown wholeheartedly sick of London. By then I was a full-time writer. Remembering that childish fascination with the nomadic Mr  Harrison, I thought: I’m a writer. The best part about that is, I get to live anywhere I want to.

So we upped sticks and emigrated.

We’ve been here for seven years now. I continue to set my books and TV dramas in England, and work takes me home several times a year. I’m always happy to be there; being away from London rekindled my love for it.  The secret to maintaining that relationship is that, London and I give each other plenty of space. It’s a long commute, but a good compromise.

Stephen:  Are you planning on doing a U.S. tour for BURIAL?

Neil:  I’d love to; any excuse to spend some time in the U.S. But I don’t think it’s going to happen this time round — not least because I’ve got so much work to do.

Stephen:  Will there be other Neil Cross novels published in the U.S.?

Neil:  I certainly hope so. Captured was published in the U.K. this year.  Hopefully it’ll be available in the U.S. sometime soon.

Stephen:  What’s in store for Neil Cross in the future?

Neil:  Luther, my new BBC crime drama, is due to screen in Britain very shortly— and hopefully in the U.S. shortly thereafter. It stars the Wire’s Idris (Stringer Bell) Elba, who you won’t be surprised to hear is truly extraordinary in the title role. I can’t wait for people to see it.

I’m working on a number of movie projects — one in England, one in NewZealand, one in L.A. My adaptation of M.R James’s classic Victorian ghost story Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is about to go into production, screening in the UK Christmas 2010.  I’m writing a six-hour sequence of historical dramas for the BBC, and developing a number of other returnable series. Plus, I’m about half-way through, and very excited about, the next book.  (It’s still just “the next book” because I’m damned if I can think of a good title.)

Stephen:  Thanks, Neil!  I can’t wait until “Next Book” hits the stands!

Okay Murderati, let’s give Neil a little love…


By Stephen Jay Schwartz

Left Coast Crime was a blissful chaos.  I threw myself into the experience with the fervor of the newbie that I am.  I attended just about EVERYTHING.  Every panel, every walking tour.  I even extended the conference by participating in the Forensics Day at the LA Crime Lab. 

This was only my second conference.  My first was Bouchercon in Indianapolis, and I barely knew anyone.  This time I knew most everyone, and the folks I didn’t know I met through introductions.  I cannot say this enough – the mystery/thriller community is the greatest, most enthusiastic support group I’ve ever encountered.

I haven’t been myself since the conference ended.  Or maybe, I have.  Maybe I’ve been exactly myself.  The self I choose to be as I contemplate my next book.

See, I’ve been staring blankly into space a lot and walking into walls.  This, believe it or not, is my process.

My brain is on mush-mode.  I’m letting everything enter and nothing escape. 

At the same time, I’m narrowing the field.  I’ve found my setting, the physical environment where I’ll be placing the action for my novel.  That’s a big step for me, because the locale influences the tone and the tone influences the story.  The next big issue I’m grappling with is “theme.”  Motif.  It’s hard to distill the central theme from the bedlam of action and plot swirling around in my mind.  I’ve got flashes of scenes in my head, moments of emotional conflict, visions of deep-seated relationships unraveling.  And cool themes, like betrayal and abandonment and greed.  There’s no real structure to it at the moment.  I’m avoiding structure, just going with the feelings first.  I’m trying to find the emotion that will remain with the reader after the story is over.  If I can capture that emotion and sustain it for 375 pages, I will have done what I’ve set out to do.

I think of music, of symphonies, where there is a central motif and numerous leitmotifs.  The central motif leaves its mark on every scene, every character.  It doesn’t need to be obvious or heavy-handed, but it influences everything, it drives the narrative, escalating to a climax that comes to a satisfying, organic resolution.  Counterpoint, dissonance, pizzicato, rondo.  And there’s an emotional state of being one is left with after hearing a satisfying symphony.  It resonates, for a time.  I want my stories to resonate.

I forgot that this is how I get at the beginning of a project.  My mind goes somewhere else.  The only time I’ve ever really taken advantage of this was when I wrote my first screenplay, at age nineteen.  I had just arrived in Santa Cruz, didn’t have a job, my mom was paying my rent for a few months.  I had nothing to do but write.  My mind went to this place, this place of emptiness, and I would wake up at four o’clock in the morning and write frantically for eight hours, then pass out and sleep for four more hours, then wake up and write for fifteen minutes, then wander in the woods or at the beach, then end up at a café on the pier during a rainstorm but warm and comfortable among wood furniture and classical music and hot tea and croissants and honey.  It was a blissful time for writing.  I didn’t have a care in the world.  It was all about the writing.

I haven’t had that opportunity for many years.  Now I carve out time where I can.  And so I let the mind-mush continuum play out in my daily life, my life at the day job or while I’m doing my taxes and paying my bills.  I find it hard to do these monotonous tasks, this necessary shit, because nothing really seems quite as important as just letting things go, letting my mind find its way.  I feel like I’m only fifty percent here one hundred percent of the time.

I’ve noticed that I stopped reading fiction.  I’m tapping into a different source.  I’m reading “Columbine,” by Dave Cullen, and it’s giving me a sense of reality, of real human suffering in a real world.  And I’m reading the writings of inmates from the California prison system.  Letting it all filter in. 

I’m also setting up interviews with the people who people the world where my story exists.  Adding their experiences to the mix.  I don’t know what story I’ll eventually tell, but I know it will come from the combination of everything I’m doing, all the stories I’m gathering, after I’ve taken an egg-beater to the assembled ingredients. 

I can feel it settling.  This process.  It feels good.  It’s my very favorite part of being a writer.  Easier than facing that evil white page, trying to capture an emotional scene or a complicated bit of action.  I practically buried myself in this phase on my second novel, losing about six months to the research I did with the San Francisco Police Department.  I ended up with a hundred pages of typed, single space notes from interviews and observations.  I used about two percent of it, but the work I had done became the invisible backbone of the book.  It kept each vertebrae in place.

I’m going through some challenging things in my life right now, too.  Everything’s competing for a place in my head.  I could easily spend all my time doing the things required to remain a solvent member of American society.  But I don’t think I’d end up with a decent book if I did.

I’m protecting that place in my head where the stories come to life.  If that means I’ll be walking into walls for a while, so be it.  I’ll be walking into walls.

Does this sound familiar?  How do the other writers here tap into that core of creative thought?  And how do you balance that with your daily, real-life responsibilities?  For Christ’s Sake, how does Allison Brennan do it all?



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.