Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Meet Author Stephen Jay Schwartz

Please welcome Stephen Jay Schwartz, author of BEAT. Sit back and prepare to enjoy this insightful view into his writing journey. 

Schwartz grew up in New Mexico and traveled the Unites States extensively before settling down in Los Angeles. There he became the director of development for Wolfgang Petersen, helping develop films such as Outbreak and Air Force One. This is his second novel. For more information, please visit

Q. When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

A. It’s funny, but I didn’t think I’d be a writer when I was growing up. And yet I always wrote. My first story was a little thing I did when I was eight years old called “Sammy the Dinosaur.” I typed it up with two pudgy fingers and my mom sent it to Readers Digest, where they promptly rejected it. When I got to high school I took English classes where the teachers showed us how to diagram sentences. That ended any ideas I had about being a writer. I figured it was all about diagramming sentences. So, by quitting, I was free to play around, to write whatever I wanted to write, to break the rules I never learned. And that, as Robert Frost said, has made all the difference.

Q. How would you describe the writing that you are doing?

A. Exploring.

Q. What motivated you to start writing in crime-thriller genre?

A. I didn’t know I’d be writing in a genre. I started off writing about a character and his psychology, and I wanted to put him in an impossible situation. A sex-addicted homicide detective chasing a sexual predator created the kind of dilemma that excited me, and that just naturally fell into the crime-thriller genre. I do love the pacing of a really good thriller, and I’m a fan of Hitchcock. Having been the director of development for Wolfgang Petersen, I was in a unique position to study the mechanics of thriller screenplays, which guided my efforts as an author.

Q. What would you say has influenced you the most?

A. Music. I’ve studied music since the fourth grade, when our teacher started a band at school and the kids were asked to bring whatever instruments their parents had at home. My dad had a clarinet, so that’s how I started. Clarinet was a bitch. And it wasn’t sexy. In high school I picked up the sax and suddenly I was in business. I played in the jazz band through high school and spent my first college year at the renowned jazz school at NTSU. At that point I realized that I really wanted to study film and writing. But music had made its mark, and I’m constantly aware and appreciative of the musicality of a sentence. I read my sentences aloud and hear the rhythm, syncopation, staccato and legato of every paragraph. A sentence is a series of vowels and consonants that forms rhythm. That rhythm can either be clunky or smooth. If you listen to recordings of Jack Kerouac reading from On the Road you can hear the musicality of his words. He writes like Charlie Parker plays. So, Jack Kerouac is an influence. My big influences are John Steinbeck, Kerouac, Chuck Palahniuk, Charles Bukowski, John Updike and Jim Thompson. Others on the list include John Fante, Walter Tevis, Katherine Ann Porter, and Amy Hempel.

Q. What are your main concerns as a writer? How do you deal with these concerns?

A. That’s a good question. In the things I write, as in the things I read, I’m interested in more than just a good story. Just because a story fits together well and provides an exciting ride doesn’t mean that it’s a contribution to our world. I like when a book makes me think about my life, makes me ponder the decisions I’ve made in my life. I like when a book challenges my convictions. In the same way, I like to challenge the convictions of others. How does one make a selfish, sex-addicted cop sympathetic? Well, he’s human, and he’s frail, and he’s hurting. Like all of us. None of us are perfect. So, should we judge him? Yes and no. Who is willing to throw the first stone? I like when readers tell me they are still thinking about my books weeks after they turned the last page.

Q. How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?

A. My personal experiences have guided every step. Two major events in my life influenced my growth as a writer. The first was my father’s suicide, when I was twenty years old. I suddenly had things to say that were too important to be masked in poor writing. So my writing matured. Instantly. That was a major factor. The next big event was the discovery that I had a sex addiction. It almost destroyed my marriage, almost tore apart my family. Through marriage counseling and twelve-step meetings I managed to repair my life and Boulevard was the catharsis. My wife, incidentally, joined my process, and the book became the event that brought us together. She’s a brilliant story editor and an amazingly creative partner. So, the experience forced me to dig deep and write from my soul. It produced a writing that touched on universal themes, themes that speak to anyone who has ever doubted themselves or struggled in a marriage or with issues of addiction or compulsive behavior.

Q. What would you say are the biggest challenges that you face?

A. Finding time to write every day. Finding ways to feed the family, keep a roof over our heads, and still produce a book a year.

Q. How do you deal with these challenges?

A. One day at a time.

Q. Does that mean you write everyday? How does each session start? How do you proceed? How, where and why does it end?

A. I work a day job, so I have to write evenings and weekends. There have been times in my life where I’ve written full-time, for a series of months or a year, and I’ve loved the experience. When I can, I write a twelve-hour day, which generally consists of three four-hour shifts. I still do that on weekends when I can. Otherwise, I go straight from the day job to a café and write from 6:30 pm to midnight. It’s hard to keep the continuity of the story going in my head with a schedule like that, so I outline my work carefully before getting into the writing. My writing day usually ends when I wake up at the café with keyboard impressions in my face.

Q. Stephen, this sounds all too familiar. :)  So, tell me what your latest book, BEAT is about and how long it took you to write it?

A. BEAT is the continuing story of LAPD Homicide Detective Hayden Glass. He was introduced in Boulevard as a sex-addicted cop chasing a serial sexual predator. Hayden’s vice is that he picks up prostitutes, goes to strip clubs and massage parlors. He’s in a Twelve Step program and he has a sponsor, so he’s trying to find some sobriety. But the chase takes him down some dark paths, and he slips. Ultimately, he beats the villain, but at a high personal cost. In BEAT, Hayden is on a leave of absence and, with time on his hands, he begins fiddling with Internet pornography, and his addiction evolves. He falls for a call girl he meets on-line and travels to San Francisco to have regularly scheduled visits with her. One day he arrives to find that she has run away from the club where she works. He’s concerned for her safety, so he tracks her down, intending on “saving” her. In the process, he inadvertently leads her pursuers to her doorstep, and she is kidnapped. He spends the rest of the novel trying to get her back, learning that others have a great interest in her as well. Hayden falls into a world of police corruption, FBI investigations, sexual-slavery and a brewing war between rival Russian mafias. All he wants is to save the girl, but through the course of the story he discovers that his motivation is not entirely altruistic. In the end he comes face-to-face with himself and his own intentions, and must make a critical decision.

I had one year to write BEAT, but I spent about six months doing research. I love, love, love research. I ended up delivering the book about five months late, so it took just under a year to write, balancing it with my day job, family commitments and the marketing I needed to do to get the word out on Boulevard.

Q. I thoroughly enjoy researching my work as well and to finish the book in less than a year is amazing!  Where and when was it published? How did you chose a publisher for the book? Why this publisher? What advantages and/or disadvantages has this presented? How are you dealing with these?

A. BEAT just came out – September 28, 2010. Boulevard was published exactly one year earlier, in September of 2009. I feel very fortunate to have been published by Forge Books, which is an imprint of Macmillan. They’ve done a great job of presenting my books to the market place. And I’ve loved working with my editor, Eric Raab. He gets my vision and he’s made some perceptive, inspired contributions to the process. He also suggested that I write a “Hayden short story” that we can give away for free to help introduce the Hayden series to people who might not readily read the thriller genre. The story is called “Crossing the Line,” and it takes us back to when Hayden was a young Vice cop, when he picked up a prostitute he was supposed to bust, then ended up “crossing the line.” It marks the moment his addiction first came to life.

Q. What do you think sets this book apart from the other works you have written?

A. I’ve mostly written screenplays, so simply writing a novel sets it apart from my previous work. Screenplays are a great foundation for writing novels, since screenplays are basically 110 pages of pure, tightly written plot, with a well-defined three-act structure. It made it an easy transition, in some ways. I didn’t have to wonder if I’d ever finish the book, since I’ve managed to finish about ten feature screenplays already. But I’ve never written anything as dark as Boulevard and Beat, and its been fun exploring the gritty crevices my characters inhabit.

Q. In what way is it similar?

A. It’s similar in that all of my writing emphasizes character and character growth. Character comes before plot. Plot cannot exist without character to inhabit it. That character can either be well-defined or poorly-defined, but the story doesn’t exist without a protagonist. I strive to reveal character through the dilemma my protagonist faces. I like putting him to the test. Will he run or will he fight? Will he sacrifice himself for others? And why would he do that? Is it because he values the lives of others, or is it because he has no value for himself?

Q. What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

A. Writing that first novel to the best of my ability. And seeing that now, after so, so many years, the best of my ability is good enough.

Q. How did you get there?

A. By paying attention to the writing. By falling in love with the process, the hard work. By reading other great writers and letting their voices and their styles influence me, while at the same time developing a voice of my own.

Q. Words of wisdom to aspiring writers?

A. It’s about the book. It’s not about the genre or the marketing or being famous or making money. It’s about the craft. Read, read, read. Never quit. If you aren’t good enough to get published now, you’ll be good enough later. As long as your mind is open to growth and constructive criticism. It’s a long battle—it can last a lifetime. But there’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing your book on a shelf, or listening to someone talk passionately about the characters that had, at one time, existed only in your head. And…explore.


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Stephen, thanks for being a guest on MB4 today. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your interview, and thank you for your candid revelations and advice. I'm with you on character - the greatest plot can't sustain itself without living, breathing, slightly tortured characters... Best of luck with the next book, and come back again when you can.

s.w. vaughn said...

Interesting that music has influenced you the most! Music always inspires me to write, so I'm glad I'm not the only one.

Some day, I am totally going to write that horror novel based on the Eagles' Hotel California, even though I'm not so sure Stephen King hasn't already done so with 1408. *G*

Kim Smith said...

OH WOW! This is going up on my computer.... "pay attention to the writing". Thanks very much for being here today, Stephen!

Shane Gericke said...

So sorry about your dad, Stephen. My condolences, truly.

I liked what you said about writing being music. The poem The Raven lends itself perfectly to that. Just read it, and it's all right, a story about a weird bird. Speak it aloud and it soars to an entirely different, fun, plane.

See you at Bouchercon.