Bestselling author Stephen Jay Schwartz spent a number of years as the Director of Development for film director Wolfgang Petersen (whose credits include Das Boot, In the Line of Fire, Air Force One, The Perfect Storm) where he worked with writers, producers and studio executives to develop screenplays for production. Stephen's own film work has exhibited at the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, the Directors Guild of America, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California.
Schwartz's debut novel Boulevard introduced his protagonist, the gifted LAPD robbery and homicide detective Hayden Glass, who also happens to be a sex addict and goes to 12-step meetings for his addiction. The follow-up novel is Beat, in which Glass, who suffers from a deep desire to connect with anyone, seeks refuge in the seedy world of strip-clubs, prostitution, and Internet pornography. He becomes obsessed with Cora, a web-cam vixen and prostitute operating out of San Francisco. While on leave from the LAPD, Glass soon finds himself making weekly trips north in attempts to save Cora from herself, but his quest leads him to a massive sex slave trade run by the Russian mafia and protected by a group of powerful and corrupt San Francisco cops.
Stephen took time out of his busy book promotion schedule to do a little e-mail back and forth chatting with "In Reference to Murder":
Q: The wonderfully talented author Michael Connelly said that "just when I thought there wasn't an original take left on the detective novel, along comes Stephen Jay Schwartz and [Hayden Glass]." How did you decide to feature such a complex and tortured hero, a sex addict, as your protagonist?
Hayden’s journey really stems from my own struggles with sex addiction, which existed as a shameful secret for far too many years of my life. I didn’t know that my compulsive behavior was actually an addiction until a counselor suggested that I go to a Twelve-Step meeting. There I learned what was behind my actions and I was given a chance to heal and change. As I began to consider the topic for my first novel, I thought about my history and I realized that if I had read a popular novel about a protagonist who struggled with his sex addiction (as opposed to the typical cop-alcoholic) I would have recognized myself in the pages, and I might have found help sooner. That’s when I realized that I should dig deep into myself to present a painfully flawed and unique character who, despite his transgressions, really wants to be good. He goes to the meetings, he has a sponsor, he struggles for sobriety. But he’s human, and when the world comes crushing down on him, he buckles. I believe that we are all frail creatures, and that most of us want to do good. But life has a way of beating us down and sometimes we react by lashing out to hurt others, and sometimes we react by turning inward to torture ourselves. Most addicts are incredibly sensitive people who’d rather hurt themselves. It’s interesting to note that Hayden Glass does not hurt women – he uses women to hurt himself.
Q: I was interested to read a posting you wrote about how deeply you immerse yourself in research (a/k/a "going native"). For Beat, you spent time embedded with members of the San Francisco Police Department, rode with narcotics officers and patrol officers, interviewed captains and city councilmen and went on vice calls and foot patrol. What was that experience like?
Man, I love research. Sometimes I think I’m a writer as an excuse to do the research. With BEAT I started by meeting a San Francisco patrol officer who worked the North Beach beat. We hit it off, and he brought me into the Central Police Station to meet his sergeant, lieutenant, and all the other patrol officers. Before long I was interviewing police captains and doing ride-alongs. Soon I noticed that the residents and business people in North Beach were treating me as an undercover cop. I noticed that I was getting special treatment at the cafes and restaurants. And I heard a few “Serpico” comments along the way. And, seriously, if I weren’t a writer I’d want to be a San Francisco police officer working the North Beach beat. It’s community policing at its best. By “imbedding” myself with the officers I was privy to their world, as seen by the people who work the streets every day. I came away with almost a hundred pages of single-spaced, typed notes detailing every aspect of their jobs, with particular emphasis placed on the unique nomenclature used by the SFPD. It’s hard to get this kind of detail from doing only book research. And it’s fun. Research is kind-of like method acting—I get the opportunity to live in their shoes, to fill my world with their experiences, until those experiences are mine. Then, as I write, I reach into that vast storage space to pull “memories” and “experiences” to enrich my characters. I got so lost in the research for BEAT that I almost forgot to write the book.
Q: You've also said that when you tell people you're a writer, they'll tell you the most amazing things, since everyone wants to be remembered. What is one of the most unexpected or outrageous tales you've encountered from these "confessionals" and did you end up using it your writing?
Being a writer is like being a bartender. People need to be heard, they want someone to hear their story. And everyone has a story to tell. I can understand how you’d tell your innermost thoughts to a bartender, who most likely won’t even remember it the next time you meet. But to tell that story to a writer? It tells me that people really need to be heard. San Francisco is a city filled with scandal. The policemen, the city council members, the folks on the street—everyone has a vibrant point of view. I’ve heard some high-ranking people tell me stories that I’d never repeat, and yet they seemed to be giving me permission to use the information anyway I see fit. And I realize that I don’t really need to use the stories per se, because the knowledge they impart tends to influence the background of my character’s world. If I hear a story about how the Chief of Police ruined the career of an up-and-coming officer I can take that idea and weave it into my story as motivation for why a particular policeman bends the rules. He might fear the repercussions that could come if he reports an incident as it actually happened. These stories, these “confessionals,” help me design a realistic environment for my characters to inhabit.
That said, I did hear many great stories and I used as many as possible in the book. A lot of them add levity to what would otherwise be a very dark journey into the bowels of San Francisco’s underworld.
Q: On Murderati, you posted photos of your "office" — a writing cafe — and said that you can only write in cafes, because your home or the library is too quiet. Other than spending a certain portion of your advance on lattes, how do you think such an environment inspires your work and why is silence such a barrier?
Yes, I titled that blog post “Too Lonely to Write Alone.” As writers we spend so much time in our heads. It can be maddening. My solution is to take that lonely world out into the public. The café experience is the only way I know how to write. I need to see people, living their lives, having fun, engaged in conversation. It reminds me that the world exists beyond my own little story, and it helps me capture the nuance of human interaction in words. Also, there’s a point in my writing day where I hit the wall. It helps to look up from my computer screen to see other writers, friends of mine, hard at work, or drifting off because they’ve hit the wall themselves. That’s my cue to stand up, grab another coffee and engage. It gives me the opportunity to talk with other writers, to discuss their project or mine, to go on about the news or weather or politics. It gets me out of my head for a while. Then, when guilt grabs me by the throat, I step back to my table and tackle my story with fresh eyes.
Q: Some of your favorite literary authors (who also spent their days in Parisian cafes) are Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin. What influence, if any, do they have on what you write, and are there any crime fiction mentors who inspire you, or would you say you're more influenced by your film background?
Lots and lots of influences on my writing. Music is a huge contributor, since I began studying music in the fourth grade. I started on clarinet then moved to saxophone in high school. I spent my first college year as a Jazz Studies major at the renowned music school at NTSU. To me, a sentence is a musical line. The consonants and vowels create syncopation and staccato or legato and pianissimo. I read my sentences out loud as I write them to make sure they sound right to my ear. When I heard Jack Kerouac reading his work I realized that he had fused music with writing. He reads his work like Charlie Parker plays “Donna Lee.” And his sentences are written for his specific performance. You should really listen to Kerouac reading “On the Road,” accompanied by Steve Allen on piano. It opened my eyes. And so I tend to lean towards writers who have this sense of musicality and who are playful with words on the page. People like James Joyce, who is unsurpassed in his ability to mimic sounds with words. Or Gertrude Stein, who uses alliteration to emphasize her statements. I seem to be drawn to American authors of the Twentieth Century – Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Katherine Ann Porter, Flannery O’Connor. But I’ve been influenced as well by a number of modern writers like Chuck Palahniuk, Jhumpa Lahiri, John Updike, Charles Bukowski and Jim Thompson. Thompson’s work is amazing – lean, efficient, shocking. I read about eighteen of his novels as I was writing BOULEVARD. I learned to tighten and cut by studying his work. I’ve also fallen in love with the works of Elmore Leonard. There are so many crime writers I’ve yet to read, since I really didn’t discover the genre, or my passion for the genre, until a few years ago. And, of course, now that I’ve found them, there’s simply no more time to read…
Q: As part of your movie/documentary past, you wrote "Inside the Space Station" for the Discovery Channel. As a big of a space-nut myself, I was wondering if you have any science or astronomy in your background? Even if not, perhaps we'll be seeing a Stephen Jay Schwartz astronaut detective one of these days...
An astronaut-detective sounds intriguing. You’ve got me thinking now.
However, I earned a C in my college astronomy class—perhaps because my classmate, author Brett Battles, didn’t let me cheat off his tests.
I do love space. I love reading Scientific American and all the science magazines. When I had more time to read I was checking out String Theory and the Theory of Relativity. It’s all fascinating stuff, but requires more mental attention than I have to spare. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for science as I’ve grown older. I would love to take a trip to space one day, just to get the feel of zero grav and see the contours of our planet from above.
I did a ton of research for that Discovery Channel project. I really had to come up to speed quickly, just to have a conversation with anyone at NASA. Once I could hold up my end of the conversation, I was talking to astronauts, cosmonauts, program managers and scientists from around the world. I went to Edwards Air Force base where we shot the drop of an X-38 emergency landing vessel from a B-52 bomber. The X38 was designed to take six astronauts back to Earth in the event of a disaster on the International Space Station. I learned so much and I’d love to put this knowledge to use in a story or screenplay someday. I combined forces with a film director friend of mine once and we wrote a detailed treatment for a film about one man’s journey to a planet, where he is forced to make a crash landing. We pitched it as “Cast Away” in space. It was a really great concept, filled with surprises that could only come from outer space. Hopefully the project will be resurrected some day.
Q: What other literary projects do you have in the pipeline?
Well, I’ve got a “Hayden” short story that will publish on Kindle for free soon, something my editor suggested I do to introduce new readers to the world of Hayden Glass. I take us back to Hayden’s first year in the LAPD, when he’s doing a stint in Vice. It documents the moment he “crosses the line,” after he picks up a prostitute and fails to arrest her. It marks the beginning of his addictive behavior. It was fun to write a short story, to know that I could capture an element of his world in 7,000 words.
I’m doing research now for my third novel, which is a standalone. The protagonist is a young FBI agent who gets in over his head chasing a hit-man through Europe. The hero is an everyman, someone who hasn’t yet considered the vastness of the world, hasn’t been forced to make the really tough decisions in life. He’ll face them in this book.
After that, I’d like to do a third Hayden book, perhaps placing him in the San Fernando Valley, the porn capital of the United States. I think that just might offer a little challenge to his sobriety.
Beat was released September 28th and is now available in stores. You can also check out Stephen's web site linked above and his blog posts over at Murderati.