Friday, November 23, 2007

Q & A with Richard B. Schwartz

This time we interview Richard B. Schwartz of the Jack Grant novels.

Q: What makes your P.I. Jack Grant different from other fictional private eyes?

Jack’s military experience is based on that of a real officer with whom I had the privilege to serve. Both were hit by Chinese grenades in Vietnam. The difference is that Jack retired after twenty years of service and became a PI. My friend stayed on, commanded a Corps in Operation Desert Storm, and recently retired as a four-star general. Jack has a master’s degree in History and sees things both from a realistic/military perspective and a thoughtful/historical perspective. He lost his wife during the war and his memories of her (which he never discusses) positively affect his relationships with women.

Q: What are your thoughts on the psycho sidekick in PI novels?

In Nice and Noir I call this figure the ‘avenging angel’; he (or potentially, she) is now a genre mainstay and represents many things. One is the invincible side of the PI. It is very interesting to see how this figure is used. For example, Robert Crais has been showing us a softer/more sensitive side of Elvis Cole’s sidekick, Joe Pike. Spenser’s friend Hawk remains largely inscrutable as well as (largely) invincible. Jack Grant’s friend Charles White serves this function in the Jack Grant novels—a short, wiry and very lethal retired noncom.

Q: Do you do a lot of research?

Sometimes. It depends on the book. I believe (following Samuel Johnson) that you absolutely must have seen that which you are attempting to represent. Sometimes I’ll return to the places that I’m describing just to get a feel for their sights and sounds and smells. I believe that setting is very important in genre fiction and much of my research involves familiarizing myself with the places in which my narratives are set.

Q: Has your writing changed much since the first novel?
No, I don’t think so. Each book is different, so the writing changes to that degree. The first is a classic case of detection, the second a revenge story, the third a love story and the fourth a broad-canvas international thriller. Each type of book presents its own challenges.

Q: Could you tell something about your book Nice and Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction?
Nice and Noir is a study of around 700 recent novels, with special attention to common themes and motifs (like the ‘psycho sidekick’ referenced above). A number of individual novels are used as exemplars. The book focuses on crime and detective fiction rather than English mysteries or cozies. Though it is built upon some scholarly materials it is not a book written specifically for scholars. Readers of crime and detective fiction will find it accessible and, I hope, interesting.

Q: What's next for you and Jack?
I haven’t said good bye to Jack, but I’ve been working on a new series. Chronologically, Jack would be in his sixties now. While these heroes can be presented in a timeless fashion, many of the key events in his life are increasingly distant in time. The new series features a figure in his early 30’s. I’ve also just completed a nonfiction book—a sequel to my earlier memoir The Biggest City in America. This one deals with my military experiences, particularly the time I spent teaching at West Point. It’s tentatively entitled Accidental Soldier.

Q: Do you have any favorite Sons of Spade yourself?
Many. Most of them are probably also the favorites of your readers. Check out the list on the FAQ section of my website:

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI-writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation and in what way?
Chandler and Hammett, along with some other key Black Mask writers, established the form, so their influence endures. Macdonald continues to inspire the so-called ‘softboiled’ school. I love Lehane and Parker, who are both very influential, particularly Parker. I think for raw, jackhammer suspense there’s no one quite as effective as Lee Child and for setting and atmospherics no one better than James Lee Burke. The crime writers all love James Crumley and everyone loves James Ellroy, though his staccato style is very hard to imitate without being obvious about it. I’m a huge fan of Don Winslow and Robert Ferrigno, both of whom have developed into world-class writers. For economy of style there’s no one like Lawrence Block, for broad humor no one like Carl Hiaasen, and for a darker narrative no one like Andrew Vacchs and his pal Joe R. Lansdale. I still love Joseph Wambaugh, Charles Willeford, and the master of genre fiction, Elmore Leonard. For procedure there are few as effective as Ed McBain, Thomas Harris and Jeffery Deaver. Tom Holland is an impressive new voice in this field (and, with Jim Burke and Jeffery Deaver, a University of Missouri graduate). I miss Neal Barrett’s crime writing, though I respect his science fiction and I always look forward to new books from April Smith and Sandra Scoppettone. Donald Hamilton just passed away recently. I loved the Matt Helm books as well as his standalones. All of these writers will continue to be influential because they’re all so expert at what they do.

Q: Declan Burke, author of the Big O and Eightball Boogie came up with the following question: Is it absolutely essential your writing is published, and why?
It certainly doesn’t hurt. I love to write and can’t really live without doing it. The crime and detective fiction market is very tough, but where there’s a will there’s ultimately a way. I also enjoy writing nonfiction; that is much easier to place. It’s very important to me to reach a receptive audience. The audience doesn’t have to be huge, though we would all like it to be so. I have received the most personal responses (letters, emails, even phone calls) on my memoir about my adolescence in Ohio, because it deals with a particular place which is very important to the twenty thousand people who live there. My book Daily Life in Johnson’s London has sold over 10,000 copies and still sells briskly more than two decades after its publication. We all write alone and it’s very gratifying to hear return voices in the darkness.

Q: What questions should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
Crime and detective fiction is an identifiable, carefully-delineated genre. What is it about that genre that enables you to discuss the kind of things that are important to you?

Readers of this kind of fiction expect your novels to be faithful to the genre but also to stretch the genre in fresh ways. Each book has to be new and different, but also take its fundamental inspiration from the genre as established by Hammett and Chandler. This presents special challenges and attracts writers who have a special affection for craft. Chandler also specified a set of attitudes with regard to politics and society (in “The Simple Art of Murder”) and these issues and attitudes have not lost their interest or relevance. These issues interest me deeply. Also, as a historian of eighteenth-century England my stock-in-trade is an understanding of the way that high ‘civilization’ coexists with gritty reality. Eighteenth-century women used ivory-handled scratchers to relieve themselves of the work of insects within their carefully-powdered wigs. They used mouse skins for artificial eyebrows. The men loved blood sports and bet on whether or not the victims of street accidents would live or die, sometimes keeping the physicians at a distance until the bets were settled. We still carry our hunter/gatherer brains along with our iPods and cell phones. This kind of fiction is the perfect vehicle for discussing the fine line between ‘civilization’ and barbarism.

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