Interrogation—Stephen Jay Schwartz

Who: Stephen Jay Schwartz

What: Los Angeles Times Bestselling author who spent a number of years as the Director of Development for Wolfgang Petersen where he developed screenplays for production. His two novels, BOULEVARD and BEAT, follow the journey of sex-addicted LAPD detective Hayden Glass.

Where: Los Angeles

Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.

The protagonist from your two novels, BOULEVARD and BEAT, is a sex addict and LAPD detective named Hayden Glass. What was the inspiration for this character?

Of the characters I’ve written, Hayden is the easiest to write because he is most like me. We’ve been through similar struggles and we share a similar point of view. Hayden can be an asshole, and I have been an asshole, but the trait comes from the fact that we are damaged goods, little boys lost, searching for our fathers. A character is compelling when he is real in all dimensions, when he represents all aspects of humanity, regardless of the counterpoint that might present. Hayden is good/bad, handsome/ugly, sensitive/cold, loving/brutal. He came out of me at the core and grew into something fictional and separate.

BoulevardThere is a lot of specific detail in your descriptions of popular LA sex trade hot spots. What kind of research did you have to do for this series? Will there be a third book?

The research is the life I lived for fifteen years cruising the streets of Hollywood. I experienced some dark shit and I did my best to bring it to the page. Hayden’s experience was darker, however, since he’s a homicide detective and he’s seen much more than I have. If you want to get a good peek at where the story evolved from, take a look at this article I wrote for The Fix, which was picked up by Salon.

That pretty much covers the sex addiction stuff. My wife, who is an amazing story editor, teased the dark stories out of me and made sure I put them on the page. The series became this odd catharsis for us and it helped strengthen our marriage. As far as the police procedural research, I read everything I could about the LAPD, specifically Miles Corwin’s now-classic “Robbery-Homicide.” The LAPD never really let me in, however, so I made up for that in BEAT, where I spent a few months imbedded with the SFPD. The characters in BEAT are based on cops and detectives I met while I was doing research in North Beach. I wrote over a hundred pages of just research notes that I amassed from interviewing these guys, and tagging along on police calls. It was the best. I love boots-on-the-ground research.

As far as a third Hayden book–there will be a time. I definitely feel that Hayden’s story needs one more installment. I’ll get right on that…

BeatPrior to writing BOULEVARD and BEAT you were a screenwriter and developer who worked on major Hollywood productions. How did that experience prepare you to write crime thrillers?

It was the best experience in the world for writing a crime thriller. I was the Director of Development for film maker Wolfgang Petersen, and he directed a good many thrillers, including “Das Boot,” “In the Line of Fire,” “Outbreak,” “Air Force One,” “Troy,” and “The Perfect Storm.” We also produced a number of other films that Wolfgang didn’t direct. With Wolfgang, I read and analyzed thousands of screenplays. It placed the classic three-act structure firmly between my ears. The experience caused me to really feel story structure—it was basically boot camp for story. By the time I left Wolfgang’s office I couldn’t dream without citing act points and escalating action.

You are also a screenwriter and filmmaker yourself. How does your approach to those disciplines differ from your writing?

In my experience, screenwriters are never happy. They are never truly satisfied with the outcome of their work unless they also direct and produce their films. A screenplay is basically an outline for a director’s vision. Unless that director really, really shares the screenwriter’s vision, the film won’t represent what the screenwriter desires. However, writing prose satisfies the writer because what he or she writes is what is presented in the end. For better or worse, the writer writes something and sees it published and the work must stand for itself, with the writer’s blessing. I know Academy Award winning screenwriters who are frustrated because they don’t recognize any of their scenes in the film they wrote. I also know screenwriters who abandoned writing screenplays for novels and they are the happiest folks I’ve ever met. They might not be making a lot of money, but they are satisfied in their souls. Now I only write screenplays if I get a great assignment or if it’s a real passion project. I simply don’t have the time to become embroiled in the craziness of Hollywood unless it either benefits me financially or feeds me spiritually. Writing novels always feeds me spiritually.

The only feature-length screenplay I’m considering writing on spec is the story of the great electric bass player Jaco Pastorius, who played with Weather Report in the 70s. It’s kind of “Sid and Nancy” meets “Amadeus.” A good friend of mine who directs features is just as obsessed with the story and we intend to write the script together for him to direct. He is also a musician and had the distinction of having been a student of Jaco’s back in the day.

Kerouac tattooYour writing has been compared to James Ellroy. Who are some of your major influences? What new writers have you discovered in the last few years?

Oh, so many good writers. Jim Thompson is a big psychological crime influence. I’m also a fan of the Beat Generation writers (have you seen the Kerouac tattoo on my arm?) and I love Bukowski (die-hard Bukowski fans will see him referenced in BEAT). Other favorites are John Steinbeck, John Updike, James Joyce, Katherine Anne Porter and Jack London. Hemmingway’s short stories. Fitzgerald. John Fante for sure. Modern writers include Justin Torres, James Brown, Marcus Sakey, Rob Roberge, Tim Hallinan. There are dozens more.

You recently had a short story published in the JEWISH NOIR anthology, and have another story coming out in a collection from Red Hen Press in 2016. How often do you write and publish short fiction? Do you think it’s an important skill to have as a crime/mystery writer?

There’s a great history behind the piece that I wrote for the Jewish Noir anthology. It’s not a crime story at all—in fact it’s the first story I ever wrote, some thirty years ago. Rather than re-telling its history, check out how it came about in this essay I wrote recently for The Rumpus.

I started off writing prose, but jumped quickly to writing screenplays and then became lost in the Hollywood glaze for too many years. I love reading short stories, but I never thought much about writing them. “Yahrzeit Candle” came from the heart, and I was very young and unblemished. It would take me twenty years to find that essence again, and it really didn’t come back until I wrote BOULEVARD, even though I wrote about twelve feature screenplays in-between. By the way, you’ve never heard of those screenplays. That’s Hollywood.

Jewish NoirI love writing, whether it’s a short story, a poem or a novel. I like writing screenplays, but less so for the reasons I stated above. I love directing films, most definitely, but you need a lot of resources to do that. Someday I’ll get back into making films again. The short story is just another way to communicate. I like having options. I like the fact that I can actually finish a short story—that’s a big deal. A novel takes your life away. A short story only takes a couple months of your life. All writing takes you away. I have yet to figure out how to balance my writing with my family, marriage and day job. I’m currently getting my MFA from UC Riverside so that I can teach for a living. Turn my day job into something I love. Be creative 24/7. It would be nice not to have to divide my time and passions.

You were a judge for the 2012 Edgar and ITW Awards, and will be a 2016/2017 judge for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the mystery/thriller category. What’s the difference between good and great genre fiction?

Great genre fiction is literature. We might not realize that “Crime and Punishment,” “The Collector,” and “Lolita” would be judged in the mystery-crime category of the competitions we have today. There’s a wide range of novels that qualify. Megan Abbott’s “Dare Me” is a beautifully written story of high school angst that falls into this category. I never thought I’d be a mystery-thriller author, I just thought I’d write. Whatever came to mind. My two short stories being published this year are not what I’d consider thrillers, despite the fact that one is being marketed as “Noir.” But this genre opens the door to so much existential contemplation—what would you do if you could do whatever you could do? Would you take the money if it cost a single human life? In what circumstances? This genre makes us explore the really tough questions in life. It’s really my favorite genre, especially if the writer doesn’t think of it as “genre,” just good, solid writing.

rsz_screen_shot_2015-10-06_at_60956_am_2What advice do you have for newer writers trying to break into crime/mystery publishing? What is one killer tip you would give them? A bullet to avoid?

Killer tip. This might sound counterintuitive, but if you really think about it, it’s the truest thing you’ll ever do. Here it is: Don’t care about the reader. Don’t give a shit if he or she loves or hates your work. Write only for yourself.

I’ve got a lot of other tidbits to share, but I won’t. Because you need to realize just how important that one is. Everything stems from your opinion on that. An artist’s willingness to compromise his or her work comes from his or her relationship to that idea. And there are always, always opportunities to compromise your work. And those compromises will destroy you.

What are your other publishing plans for the rest of 2015 and 2016?

Oh, I don’t know. I just want to make it out alive…

Find Stephen Jay Schwartz: Website, Amazon

Previous Interrogations:

S.W. Lauden’s short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Dark Corners, Dead Guns Magazine, Akashic Books, WeirdBook, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published by Rare Bird Books in October 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.

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