FAQs for Richard B. Schwartz

Frequently Asked Questions

 

Who are your own favorite writers?

When I finished writing Nice and Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction, I realized that I had a frame of reference of some 700 novels, so I probably read between 50 and 75 crime writers regularly. There is something I like very much about each of them, so it is very difficult to rank them. Some are quite unique, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which is unlike any book I’ve ever read (with the possible exception of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn). Given the level of creativity among contemporary writers we have an incredible array of riches at our disposal. Of course, I love James Ellroy, Thomas Harris, Charles Willeford, James Crumley, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Jeffery Deaver, Robert B. Parker, Andrew Vachss, Carl Hiaasen, Lee Child, Lawrence Block, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, T. Jefferson Parker, Robert Ferrigno, Jonathan Kellerman, Joe R. Lansdale, Walter Mosley, Ed McBain, Tim Willocks, Norman Partridge, Neal Barrett, Jr., Dennis Lehane, Sandra Scoppettone, Joseph Wambaugh, April Smith, Don Winslow, and last but certainly not least, Donald Hamilton—the writers that everyone loves.

What are you reading now?

The best way to answer that is to recommend that you check out the mini-reviews that I write for Amazon.com. I review crime fiction there as well as books in the other areas in which I read.

You teach creative writing. Can someone really learn to be a creative writer?

There’s no question that the vast majority of classic writers did not hold advanced university degrees in creative writing. English literature as an academic discipline was not institutionalized until the 19th century and the English Ph.D. in America was more philology than literature until well into the 20th century. In some ways creative writing (like other performance-) instruction contributes to appreciation. I once took guitar lessons. There is no way I will ever be dangerous on the guitar, but the formal instruction which I took contributes materially to my appreciation of the skills of real professionals. Certainly, formal instruction in creative writing can bring a deeper understanding of literary forms and models. It is a truism that ‘if you wish to be a writer you should write 1,000,000 words, to start.’ Formal instruction requires you to write. It does so in an ethos that is stimulating, supportive, and, hopefully, mutually-reinforcing. I spend a lot of time in my classes discussing comparative technique. For example, James Ellroy outlines extensively, Robert Parker does not. Robert Campbell constructed background data on all of his characters, including the minor ones. Different people create in different ways. An awareness of those ways can be helpful. I also spend a great deal of time on professional lore: What is the relationship between series titles and standalones? How does one secure an agent? How do writers market themselves as well as their work? This sort of information cannot all be intuited and the advice of professionals is very useful. Tenacity and self-confidence are essential. To some degree these can be inculcated. They can certainly be described.

How do you write?

Like P. D. James, I spend about half of my time planning and plotting and half writing. I tend to write in short spurts, with a daily page quota of no more than 4-5 pp. I begin with a broad outline involving major plot arcs, but I allow the characters and story to go their own way once I’ve started. I rely heavily on the internet for factual material, but always to confirm what I’ve first seen with my own eyes. My novel Into the Dark, for example, includes scenes from the caves in the Dordogne with the upper-paleolithic paintings. I’ve seen all of what is described there. One thing I would never do is describe something I haven’t—to some degree—experienced. A famous writer (who shall remain nameless) who has achieved great success with mystery and crime fiction is afraid to fly and describes certain scenes (vividly) through the use of pictures and maps. I would not attempt that, though the writer of whom I am speaking does it very well. I believe that setting is very important in fiction, while most classic discussions tend to focus on character, theme, and plot, with setting getting relatively short shrift. I try to convey a sense of the feel and flavor of interesting settings. This is one of the reasons why I so admire Jim Burke, whose descriptions of Louisiana, Montana, and Texas are always memorable.

Is Jack Grant based on a real person?

Yes and no. He looks like Pat Riley and his core experience—being hit by a Chinese grenade in Vietnam—happened to a friend of mine with whom I taught at West Point. That wound ended Jack’s career and everyone expected it to end my friend’s, but luckily it didn’t. He recently retired as a senior general officer, with major command success in Operation Desert Storm. The other aspects of Jack’s life and experience are all fictional, though I—like Jack—spent time at Fort Knox and have spent a great deal of time in Pasadena, so many of the incidental details of place and setting are founded on real experience.

What is the difference between crime writing and mystery writing?

Basically, crime fiction comes out of the romance genre, while mystery fiction emerges from classic comedy. Crime is more ‘west coast’, mystery more English and ‘east coast.’ Crime fiction is dominated by male voices, mystery fiction by female voices. Having said that, there are then hundreds of exceptions to the general outline. New York editors distinguish the two by describing them as noir or cozies. Those are very useful terms in capturing their feel and ethos. See my Nice and Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction, for more discussion and see especially John Cawelti’s wonderful book, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture.

What do you think of the distinction between 'escapist' fiction and 'serious' mainstream fiction?

Most crime writers resent it, of course. I find that nearly all great literature contains ‘mystery’ elements to some degree and all great crime fiction contains ‘serious, mainstream’ elements. The subject matter is often different, of course. “Seriousness” as a norm is distinctly American; it is part of our Puritan heritage. Samuel Johnson thought that providing what he termed ‘harmless pleasure’ (i.e. pleasure which will neither send you to jail nor to hell) was one of the most important things that a person could do. I don’t know of any better way to go broke, quickly, than to disagree with Johnson. I worry that many today do not really know how to ‘enjoy’ themselves in ‘harmless’ ways. Their lives alternate between immensely ‘serious’ activities and forms of entertainment that are crude and even decadent. I sometimes see students who study to the point of endangering their health, their goal being material success. At the same time, they do not read or exhibit curiosity beyond the boundaries of the required curriculum. Lionel Trilling has a famous essay on the ‘decline of pleasure’ in our time. I don’t agree with all of it, but I believe that serious readers of crime and mystery fiction run counter to some of these trends. They have learned one of the secrets of life. My late friend Frank McConnell used to say that ‘stories save our lives’ and he was a skilled writer (and voracious reader) of mystery fiction. Any popular form can rise to the level of art; most instances of classic literature were examples of the popular literature of their time. Homicide: Life on the Street was one of the most brilliant things on television in its time. Crash was one of the finest movies of 2005. Both were crime narratives and both were ‘serious’. Such examples could be multiplied.

Can we expect more novels, including some with a different protagonist?

Yes and yes.

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