Charles Salzberg is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, New York magazine, Elle, Good Housekeeping, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, GQ and other periodicals. He is the author of over 20 non-fiction books and several novels, including Swann’s Last Song, which was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel, and the sequel, Swann Dives In. He also has taught been a Visiting Professor of Magazine at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, the Writer’s Voice, and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.
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How Did You Get Started
Guest Post from Charles Salzberg
The other day I was at lunch with fellow writer and good friend—that’s how we freelance writers fill our days: lunches with each other. We got to talking about writing and, while we awaited our iced teas—not all writers drink their lunch, you see—she asked me, “how is it you got into crime writing?”
A good question because the answer is that it was purely accidental.
I love crime as much as the next guy. There’s not a crime show on TV or a crime movie I don’t see, whether it be The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, Goodfellas or my latest, A Walk Among the Tombstones. My favorite show as a kid was Naked City, which was based on the movie of the same name. I’ve now rediscovered them as reruns and believe me, they still hold up. Each story focuses on the human aspects of crime, while the crime itself is often incidental to the story. As the end narration, which still sends chills up my spine, announces, “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
Which brings me back to why I write crime novels and to the kind of crime novels I write.
With several unpublished novels languishing in my file cabinet, I decided perhaps I was doing something wrong. Here I was a well-read English major whose heroes were Nabokov, Bellow, Roth, Mailer and Malamud, and although I was receiving plenty of praise for my writing, I couldn’t sell a damn thing. Maybe, I thought, it was because I was too focused on character not plot. Maybe if I wrote something very tightly plotted I’d have better luck.
Nothing is more tightly and intricately plotted than a detective novel, so that’s what I decided to write.
As a teenager I loved mystery and detective novels and used to haunt a downtown second-hand bookstore picking them up for a buck or two. But I hadn’t read any since then and I decided if I were serious about writing one, I ought to re-introduce myself to the genre. So, I devoured as many crime novels as I could. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Nero Wolfe, Agatha Christie, even the so-called pulp writers like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson.
What I found was that most of them were pretty much cut from the same cloth. There was the crime then the detective was called in to solve the crime, usually a murder. He or she followed the clues and inevitably those clues led to the perpetrator. It seemed pretty simple, a formula I could follow fairly easily. I started to write one, but after a few chapters it just didn’t sit right with me. Frankly, I was getting a little bored writing to a pre-designed script and entering myself into a neat almost religious world, where following the clues inevitably led to the solution of the crime. It’s pretty simple: There is chaos and then there is order. The world is put back into its proper place by the detective. But what, I thought, if the world wasn’t so neat? What if all the clues didn’t actually lead to the perpetrator? What if the crime was totally random?
It wasn’t long before the non-conformist in me won out and I wound up writing what a friend called an “existential mystery” where the detective follows all the clues then finds that none of them had anything to do with the actual crime, that in fact the crime was totally random.
The result was Swann’s Last Song, with Henry Swann being a down and out skiptracer and it was meant to be a stand alone because at the end Swann, who is a rational man who believes in a rational world, is so disillusioned he leaves the profession.
I was happy with what I’d written but it seemed no one else was because no one would publish it with that ending. And so it languished in my desk for two decades until I finally unearthed it, sent it to an editor who said he’d publish it if I changed the ending. I was twenty years smarter, so I did, but I still kept the title, still having no intention of writing another one.
Much to my surprise the novel was nominated for a Shamus Award. I lost, but that spiked my competitive side and I vowed to keep writing them until I either won something or ran out of catchy titles.
Now the third in the series, Swann’s Lake of Despair, is just about to be released and I’m almost finished with a fourth. But in each of them I try to bend the genre a little bit. In Swann Dives In, you’re not sure what the crime is until the halfway point of the novel and by the end of it you’re not even sure a crime has been committed. And in Swann’s Lake of Despair, Swann tackles three separate cases, none of which concerns a murder. Why? Because I’m much more interested in how and why people act the way they do. I’m more attracted to the petty crimes we commit each day, betrayal, theft, fraud, lies we tell others and ourselves to get us through the day.
Those are the real crimes, the crimes all of us can relate to.
ABOUT Swann’s Lake of Despair
When rare photos, a scandalous diary, and a beautiful woman all go missing at once, the stage is set for three challenging cases for Henry Swann. It begins with an offer to partner up with his slovenly, unreliable frenemy, Goldblatt. The disbarred lawyer-turned-“facilitator” would provide the leads and muscle, while Swann would do all the fancy footwork. A lost diary by a free-loving Jazz Age flapper is worth enough to someone that Swann takes a beat down on an abandoned boardwalk. Pilfered photos of Marilyn Monroe propel him deep into the past of an alcoholic shutterbug, his wife; and he’s hired to search for a lonely writer’s runaway girlfriend. The cases converge and collide in a finale that lifts the curtain on crucial, deadly facts of life for everyone including Swann himself.
Number of Pages: 284
Publisher: Five Star
Publication Date: October 22, 2014
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