Monday, October 11, 2010

Interview with Stephen Jay Schwartz

Friday I reviewed Stephen Jay Schwartz's BEAT as part of his blog tour promoting the new release. He graciously granted me an interview in conjunction, and I'm happy to reproduce it for you here:

Jared Case: Stephen, the last time I saw you was at Bouchercon in Indianapolis, whe
re you were pressing flesh at the new author merry-go-round and the Free Book Bazaar. In retrospect, how was that experience for you, and how has your life changed since then?

Stephen Jay Schwartz: Now THAT was a great experience! For one brief moment I got to know what it’s like for Mick Jagger or Bono when they step on stage, or when they hail a cab, or go to the grocery store. No bras were thrown my way, however. But it’s a start.

I am definitely loving the ride. And while I dig being recognized in book stores, and I love the dialogue I’m having about my writing, I know this kind of stuff is fleeting. I worked in the film business, so I’m very familiar with the concept of “fifteen minutes of fame.” It’s taken years, but I’ve learned to be grounded, that it’s all about the work, about sitting down and writing the next book. Fortunately, I love the process, every part of it.

JC: San Francisco is the setting of your newest novel, BEAT. Bouchercon is being held in San Francisco this year. Are you going and are you doing anything special to mark the occasion?

SJS: The synchronicity is astounding. My book just came out, in perfect time for Bouchercon. So I’m planning a San Francisco launch on October 13 at 7:00 pm – the night before Bouchercon. It’s taking place in a place called the Beat Museum in North Beach, just across the street from City Lights Bookstore. There should be a big crowd of Bouchercon attendees as well as loads of San Francisco locals. I was practically embedded with the SFPD during my research phase, so a lot of the cops who helped bring my characters to life will be attending. The Beat Museum is a monument to the Beat Generation writers, like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. I’m a big fan of their work. In addition to my reading from BEAT, I’m happy to be hosting poet Kim Dower, known in the industry as the publicist Kim-from-L.A., who has just had her first book of poetry published. Her work is outstanding.

JC: When reading your books, I’m reminded of Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor novels, in that both series deal with policemen that have addictions. But it goes deeper than that. Jack Taylor is an alcoholic, who happens to be a cop in Ireland, where people are known to have a drink. Hayden Glass is a sex addict, who happens to be a cop in LA, where sex is a business. In essence, both deal with the dark side, or negative impact, of what at some level is considered normal behavior. Can you talk a little about that?

SJS: That’s the big question in Hayden’s world. What is healthy sex? It’s the big question in America, too. If sex is compulsive, if it’s damaging to one’s psyche, if it infringes upon the rights of others, if it is abusive to oneself or others…it probably isn’t healthy. Hayden doesn’t know what a normal, healthy sexual relationship looks like. There’s a hole in his life and he’s developed an addiction. An alcoholic fills this hole with booze, a meth addict fills it with drugs, a person with eating disorders fills it with a surplus or denial of food. Each of these addictions causes the brain to release chemicals that provide some sort of comfort. In Hayden’s case, it releases Dopamine that dulls his pain. That comes from just cruising, from entering the “bubble” of addictive behavior. He doesn’t even need to ejaculate to fall into that place. He gets glimpses of what a healthy sexual relationship looks like and, especially in BEAT, we sense that the future holds some hope.

JC: What made you want to write about an addictive personality?

SJS: I’ve struggled with sexual addiction myself and didn’t know what it was until a counselor suggested I go to a Twelve Step meeting. That meeting began the road to healing for me and my family. When I decided to write my first novel I thought about what would’ve happened if I had read a popular novel with a character like Hayden Glass, whose life was in shambles, but who had resources and support through the meetings. I would have seen my life in the pages and I would’ve seen that there was a place to go for help. I would have stopped my addictive behavior years earlier. So, in a sense, I’m hoping Boulevard and Beat find their way into the hands of men and women who are struggling with these issues, people who have yet to identify their problem as the behavior of someone with an addiction.

JC: So these books could be considered a part of your own Twelfth Step, “to carry this message to others”?

SJS: I hadn't really thought of it that way, but I suppose what I'm trying to do with the books comes from that place. Some might not choose to take it that way, however. Some might just see it as a dark, psychological crime novel filled with sex and violence. Hayden indulges in the sexual images we see in the book, and I have to indulge in it for the reader in order to
see the world from Hayden's point of view. You have to look deeper than what's on the surface if you want to catch the message

JC: Despite the fact that Glass is the protagonist in both books, there is a different feel between BOULEVARD and BEAT. There is a definite mystery at the heart of BOULEVARD, and a procedural format, whereas BEAT is much more of and urban adventure. Can you talk about the shift in focus and how it reflects on Glass’s growth as a character?

SJS: I made no conscious effort to write Boulevard as a mystery or a thriller or a genre piece at all. I began with a protagonist whose dilemma held him in a vise. I wanted to explore his devolving psychology, see what lines he would cross, see if he would emerge whole at the end. As I thought about the addiction and what the consequences might be if someone knew his secret, I imagined the worst-case scenario. This emerged as a vice cop with a sex addiction, hiding it from his superiors. Hayden is now a Robbery-Homicide detective, at the top of his game, but the addiction remains. He begins to unravel when a sadistic sexual predator begins killing people around him and he discovers that the killer knows his past. So he has to make a decision – do I tell my captain that I’m the thing that connects these murders, or do I keep my head down and pursue this guy with everything I’ve got? Hayden feels so much shame for his addiction that he chooses to go it alone. And the consequences are severe.

So the piece became a mystery (who’s the killer?) and a thriller (who’s next?) and a work of psychological fiction. When we published it, Forge wasn’t sure if it should go out in the Fiction or Mystery section. We decided on Mystery because the readers in this genre are so supportive. It was the best decision. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Beat is a very different animal. Hayden’s history and dilemma has already been established and now I throw him into a very fast-paced scenario and raise the stakes. It’s more of a traditional thriller. He feels he’s put someone at risk and he’s not going to stop for anything to get that someone back safely. He’s willing to risk his life because he doesn’t think his life is worth nearly as much as the life of the person he’s trying to save. It’s so fast there’s not much room for psychological reflection. At the end, Hayden has to make a critical, character-defining decision. His choice reflects the kind of person he truly is.

JC: The setting is also very important to the feel of your books. BEAT is set in San Francisco, where you make great use of the fog on the bay that represents the mental fog Glass pushes through, and the uphill streets that emphasize his role as the underdog and the physical challenges he faces to achieve his goals, not to mention being hit by a streetcar!

SJS: You nailed it, Jared. I love to treat the setting as a character. In Boulevard, Los Angeles was Hayden’s accomplice and nemesis. In Beat, San Francisco is revealed as a vicious seductress, a femme fatale, perhaps.

JC: In your writing you deal a lot with personal responsibility, especially in one’s personal life, and often reference the twelve steps of recovery where personal responsibility is the goal, but in BEAT it is also a motive to keep Glass moving forward. Is this a theme that you consciously weave into your narratives, or simply a function of the character, that is, an addictive personality in recovery?

SJS: Everything comes from character. Story comes from character. The character and his dilemma define the pace of the story, in that this character will respond to certain stimuli differently than another character. It is how he reacts that produces our story. If Hayden had been able to save Kennedy he might not have had such an unstoppable desire to save Cora. It is his guilt that moves him forward at such a frightening pace, it is his guilt which puts him in situations that neither the SFPD nor the FBI would place themselves. It is this drive the others recognize, this drive that makes Hayden the perfect person to go in to save the girl. Because they need someone who might be sacrificed in the process. And Hayden is willing to be sacrificed.

JC: The titles of your books are very evocative, especially in retrospect. BOULEVARD denotes a geographical location, familiar to most folks primarily through LA connotations of Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard. But in your book it is also an indication of where Glass’s addiction lives, as there are several boulevards in LA and all seem to have prostitutes, so johns “cruise” the boulevards. BEAT is a familiar term to fans of procedurals as the designated area that a cop patrols, but in your book Glass is a defeated anti-hero: beaten by his inability to protect, beaten physically, exhausted and repeatedly beaten by his addiction. Are the titles yours? And how do they play into how you write the book?

SJS: The titles are mine, and again you nailed their meaning. Boulevard IS the addiction. And you explained Beat perfectly. Additional meanings for Beat: the story takes place in San Francisco, the city of the Beats (there are Beat Generation references throughout), and Hayden, as a sex addict, tends to beat-off. The title was too perfect to dismiss.

JC: As I see it, a noir narrative has to be anchored by a noir protagonist, so that the audience sees the darkness through their eyes. In a classic sense, this means a character that travels the distance between light and darkness as it relates to some crime, but as it has evolved, has come to include the distance between moral and immoral actions and what leads the character to commit those actions. Hayden Glass walks both lines. Can you talk about how much film noir and noir fiction have influence you in the creation of Glass? And whether or not you even think of him as a noir character?

SJS: I suppose I do think of Hayden Glass as a noir character. I hadn’t intended to, only because I had not read much noir before I started writing the series. I was reading Hemmingway, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Updike, Chuck Palahniuk, Charles Bukowski, John Fante. The Beat Generation writers could certainly be identified as noir characters, I suspect. I don’t think you can read William S. Burroughs without seeing a dark character. I like frail characters struggling in life, struggling with addiction, trying to figure things out. Life is big and scary and the real tough guys are usually the real sensitive ones. Hurting, they build a wall around their emotions. Or they drown in alcohol and drug addiction. Disassociate. I know, I lived two lives myself, once upon a time. I try to capture that journey in my writing.

I did read a lot of Jim Thompson as I was writing Boulevard, and that gave me a good model for complex, dark characters in tensely amoral situations.

JC: In BOULEVARD, I noticed a reference to Jim Thompson’s “Pop. 1280.” Can you talk about his significance in your life? And are there any other references that I haven’t yet caught?

SJS: I’m so glad you caught that. Man, you’re a focused reader. I love “Pop. 1280” for many reasons. The thing that really, really impresses me with Thompson’s work, especially “Pop. 1280,” is his sense of social responsibility. While the protagonist in the book is a dark individual, a killer who justifies his actions, he encounters characters who refer to African Americans as if they were only half-men. Thompson’s protagonists always challenge that way of thinking. And most of his work was written before the Civil Rights Movement. The title, “Pop. 1280,” refers to the population of the little town that the protagonist works in as the Sheriff. But a sheriff in a neighboring town says, “1280? What’s the real population, since the niggers only really count as half a man?” (I’m paraphrasing). And Thompson’s protagonist responds, “It’s 1280.” Jim Thompson challenged his times, he was forward-thinking. That’s probably my favorite Thompson book, although he’s written so many great ones – “The Killer Inside Me,” “After Dark My Sweet,” “The Getaway,” “The Grifters.” He also wrote to screenplays for Stanley Kubrick – “The Killing” and one of the best films ever made, “Paths of Glory.”

The other very big literary reference you didn’t catch…what is Tyler’s last name? Where does it come from? What about the Slough of Despond? There’s another literary model for Hayden’s journey…

JC: On a slightly different note, the last 15 years of television have been fertile ground for noir characters, from THE SOPRANOS to THE WIRE, from THE SHIELD to SONS OF ANARCHY and even into shows like LIFE and DEXTER. Are there any shows you currently watch to get your weekly noir fix?

SJS: I so wish I had time to watch television. It’s been books, books, books for about five years now. I read a book a week while I was writing Boulevard. I had to stop everything else.

However, my film/TV agent and manager are shopping Boulevard and Beat as a TV series, something like “Dexter” meets “Californication.” If we get the right showrunner then maybe we’ll be off and running. These things take a long, long time, generally.

On another note, my editor asked me to write a “Hayden” short story for us to give away on Kindle and other eBook venues, a little something to introduce people to his world. So I wrote a cool little ditty called “Crossing the Line,” which takes us back to Hayden’s younger days in the LAPD, just as he starts a stint in Vice. It marks the moment when Hayden first “crosses the line” with a prostitute he is supposed to arrest. It reveals the moment his addiction first pokes through. It should be available any day now.

Thanks for a fantastic, perceptive set of questions, Jared. It’s been a great dialogue.

JC: Thanks for the time, Stephen. I’m disappointed we won’t be able to continue this conversation at Bouchercon in San Francisco, but there’s always St. Louis in 2011. And for those reading, if you enjoyed this conversation and can make it to Philadelphia, don’t forget about NoirCon, November 4 – November 7.

No comments: