Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How I Stumbled Into Crime Writing and Why I Stuck Around

Meet Charles Salzberg, a wonderful writer and an eloquent champion of fine writing and writers. Charles is the author of the Shamus Award nominated Swann's Last Song, and the sequel, Swann Dives In.  His latest novel is Devil in the Hole, based on a 40-year old true crime.  The third in the Swann series, Swann's Lake of Despair, will be published next fall.  He also teaches writing at the Writer's Voice and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.

 I once heard Charles describe why he prefers pantsing to outlining.  Until then, I always thought I should be outlining carefully alla Agatha and my heroine Ann Perry. I just couldn't make myself do it.  Every time I tried, my fingers just started typing out the real story instead.  Then at the launch of the his second Swann novel, Charles said, "If I already know what's going to happen, I'll get bored."  Bingo! I thought.  I need to keep myself guessing in order to keep the reader guessing.  Now when I get that scary feeling that I don't know where my story is going, I think of Charles's words, take heart, and then surprise myself.  Here is the story of how Charles surprised himself by becoming a crime writer.

Annamaria Alfieri

I never meant to be a crime writer and in fact, I still don’t see myself that way.  But I am.  Three novels published with a fourth on the way.  All crime.  So yes, I guess I am a crime writer.
            As a young wannabe writer I was partial to authors like Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Henry Roth, Djuna Barnes, Margaret Drabble, Fitzgerald, Twain, Dostoevsky.  But writing in that vein, with a heavy emphasis on character and inner dialogue, although satisfying, was getting me nowhere.  I became too involved with character and not enough with plot. 
            And so—I would like to think it was late one night as I hunched over my typewriter, but I doubt that was the case—I came up with a plan.  I would force myself to write plot.  The best way to do that, I decided, was to write a detective novel, because there is nothing more tightly plotted than a good detective tale. I would write a mystery novel that seemed to be in the tradition of masters of crime, but with a twist.  In preparation I gorged on the genre.  Everything from Hammett’s The Continental Op to Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley, and Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, even throwing in a little Mickey Spillane and James M. Cain. Once I finished, I knew what I would do.  I’d shake things up a bit.  I’d start with the requisite missing person, progress to a murder, have the detective follow all the clues looking for the killer, but in the end, he would not solve the crime.  A friend called it “an existential detective novel.”  I liked that.    
I finished that novel, but although praised by agents and editors, no one wanted to publish it.  “You can’t disappoint your audience.  You’re writing a detective novel, you have to have the detective solve the crime.”
            That kind of ruined the point I was trying to make: that the world isn’t tidy, that things didn’t always add up, that sometimes chaos rules over reason. So, I tucked it in a drawer—yes, those were the days when you had an actual manuscript—and moved on to make a living as a magazine journalist.

          Years passed.  I got older.  And somewhat wiser.  I pulled out the manuscript, tinkered with it a little (on a computer, this time), changed the ending, and the book was published.  The title, which I loved, didn’t quite make sense anymore—Swann’s Last Song, because the detective is so disillusioned to find that the world is not necessarily knowable and logical that he quits the business—but it was too good to let go. 

         That was going to be it. I had written what is called a stand-alone.  I had no interest in continuing to write crime novels.  I would go back to what I loved, writing character driven, literary novels. But to my surprise, the book was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel.  I lost.  I got ticked off.  I’d show them.  I’d write another. (Get it: revenge). And so Swann Dives In was born.  I had so much fun writing it, that I wrote a third, Swann’s Lake of Despair.  In the next two Swann books there are no murders.  That would be too easy.  There are way too many more interesting crimes to write about.
            Sounds like I was hooked on crime, but really not so much.  At least not as in the conventional crime novel that focuses on murder and robbery.


  1. The agents and editors were right, you know. If you had ended a detective novel without the detective getting anywhere with his case the peasants would have come after you with pitchforks and torches.

    1. But I wouldn't have minded that, Kate, because at least they would have read the ending of the book. And in the paperback version, the original ending is included, so people can see for themselves

  2. I love this, I guess you showed them!! The world isn't tidy, that's for sure. But in fiction, well, that's another story.

  3. Though I sympathize with your wanting to recreate the real world, Charles, I think our genre attracts so many readers because people weary with the lack of justice in the real world long for stories where some wrongs are righted. That's the way my stories seem always to turn out. The good guys don't win on a broad scale, but justice triumphs in small ways. I see that in your stories too. I guess that why I like them so much.

  4. Charles, after reading Devil in the Hole, I'd say you fulfilled your desire in writing an unusual and creative piece of fiction. Peter.
    Peter Bernhardt, Author: "The Stasi File," Quarter Finalist 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award; Sequel: "Kiss of the Shaman's Daughter." -

  5. I went to Charles' launch event for Swann Dives In. Huge crowd and we were laughing ourselves silly. Though as I remember it, Charles did his reading from another Swann book. You just can't make that guy do it the traditional way!

    1. Yup. I'm a rebel and I'll never die, Sheila.