What I loved so much about this book, beside the story itself and the terrific portrait of my beloved NYC, was the voice--this guy quotes poetry even as he's looking for the net cash flow. How did that voice, and this quirky character come about?
Thirty years or so ago, I began reading the classic detective writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet, Ross MacDonald, a well as the noir pulp writers like Jim Thompson. They were not only well-written, but tightly plotted, which appealed to me, since I was writing mostly character driven fiction. I decided to try my hand at it, but with a twist. I saw that basically, the world of the detective was very well-ordered and theological in nature. He (or she) would follow the clues and then solve the crime. But what if the world wasn't so ordered--what if it were chaotic and unpredictable? And so, I decided to write a detective novel where the hero does not solve the crime a crime that as it turns out, is totally random. For that, I needed a protagonist who believed totally in reason and order. And yet, he had to be a little cynical and beaten down by the world to the point where the only thing that holds him together is his belief in a rational world. When that belief is challenged, so is he. But to do this, I had to use a familiar archetype, and thus, Swann was born. Of course, as it turned out, the original ending I had for the book has been changed...but the title remained.
You've been called genre-twisting Where do you think the modern mystery is going and where do you see the pitfalls?
I think the modern mystery is very tough to write today because of all the technological advances. People watch TV shows like CSI and they think that DNA and forensic evidence solves all crimes--this takes away from the individual, and it's part of why I sent my book in the late 1990s. Also, today we have cell phones and email and everyone's constantly in touch, which results in another problem for the mystery writer. For me, the answer might be to write a sequel to Swann that's a detective novel where nobody gets killed, meaning the crime is not deadly. I can probably pull this off because Swann is a finder of lost things, not necessarily a solver of crimes.
Can you tell us something about the New York Writers Workshop, which you founded? Does teaching writing help your own work?
the New York Writers Workshop was founded seven or eight year ago by a group of writer/teachers who had been teaching at the Writer's Voice. Many of us were disappointed at the way things were going and so we decided to start our own organization that would create a nurturing environment for writers and writing teachers.
Yes, teaching writing definitely helps my own writing. I learn something new about writing every time I critique a student's work and when I hear other students critique the work of their classmates. I think I'm a much more careful writer now Another thing that helped my writing was when I began writing journalism. Because you have to adhere to a strict word count, it teaches you to make every word count, a good lesson for all writers
You've also done some ghostwriting. Do you feel that takes away from your own writing process and requires you to bend to another's voice, or is it liberating in some way?
Again, ghostwriting has probably helped me to be a better fiction writer, because it really necessitates taking on someone else's voice and point of view. Sometimes it can be a pain, but it's also really liberating because it allows you to create a voice for another person--rarely, is it really that person's actual voice. If it were, they'd probably be able to write the book themselves. But it has to be a reasonable facsimile, or else it doesn't work at all. My most recent example was The Mad Fisherman, by Charlie Moore. Charlie's a great character and he has a very distinctive voice, which I tried to capture and enhance. And if you're really successful, they actually think it's them.
What's your working day like? And what are you working on now?
My working day is usually spent trying to avoid writing--and I've become very creative at that--writing and answering email, reading the newspapers, magazines, students' work, seeing movies, meeting friends. But fortunately, when I do sit down to write, I'm able to focus very well and I'm also a very fast typist.
I'm working on, or should be working on, a sequel to Swann. It's called Bad Reception and it takes place several years after Swann's Last song. Disillusioned, he's left the skip tracing business and he's working as a cable TV installer--making the connections he wasn't able to totally make in the first book. Of course, he gets sucked back into the biz and his case takes him into the world of rare books.