Author Interview:


Warning: Contents May Not Be Suitable For All. Some May Wish To Read With Their Eyes Closed.

By Sandra Ruttan

Sandra: Why didn’t you change your last name to Smith when you started getting published?

Duane: Swierczynski is Polish for Smith. So why change it?

Sandra: While we’re discussing names, what do you think of the fact that most lunatics in fiction are named Duane?

Duane: Funny you mention that. Every fictional Duane I encounter is either a redneck sheriff in some backwater, or a freshly-escaped psycho from a Southern correctional facility. Truth is, though, my brother Gregg and I were named after the Allman Brothers.

Sandra: What made you decide to use the scary photo on your blog? Was it to intimidate people to say your name correctly? (Bear in mind, most people mess up Ruttan as well.)

Duane: It cracks me up how many people think that photo is scary. I think I look fairly approachable. Maybe a little surly, but certainly not worth crossing the street to avoid me.

Sandra: How long have you been writing for?

Duane: I started putting together my own little comic books and magazinies when I was in second grade or so, and wrote my first horror stories when I was in seventh grade. But you probably mean adult stuff, right? I started taking writing seriously when I was 16 years old—that is to say, writing with the intent to sell this stuff somewhere. So I guess it’s creeping up on 18 years now.

I am proud of the fact that since 1993 (after graduating college), I’ve earned my living with words: either writing or editing them, or teaching others how to write or edit them.

Still, my mother wishes I were a lawyer.

Sandra: Do you ever worry about your parents reading your work? Any suggestion that they blame themselves for raising a monster or questions about what went wrong with you?

Duane: My mom’s not much of a reader. But my dad is, and the stuff he reads is far weirder than anything I could come up with. So I’m pretty safe there.

Sandra: I’ve heard some say that authors are fundamentally unhappy people using their writing to work out the problems in their lives. So, tell me about your problems. What are you trying to work out with The Blonde?

Duane: I don’t know if I was specifically trying to work out any problems with The Blonde. But it does play around with the idea of intimacy a bit. And its opposite: privacy. I keep telling people—this is my chick lit novel! (With exploding heads.)

Sandra: Did you channel every evil woman you’d ever known into the blonde?

Duane: Evil? I think the blonde in The Blonde is the heroine. So I modelled her after the resourceful, beautiful, ass-kicking women I know. Especially my wife.

Sandra: Was that a qualification on the spousal application? Must be able to kick my ass in a suitable fashion? Seriously, do you find it challenging to write female characters? What is the appeal of female characters as opposed to male characters, or the drawbacks?

Duane: I don’t find it tough to write female characters, but maybe I should. I’m a little nervous about something ringing false in The Blonde, since the titular character has much more screen time than my female characters in The Wheelman. So far, though, women who have read The Blonde haven’t smacked me upside the head or anything.

As far as appeal… well, certain types of characters appeal to me, but I don’t think of it in terms of gender.

Sandra: You’re a gifted writer with a way of grabbing the reader from page one and hooking them. Don’t you think it’s unfair that you’re so talented?

Duane: I think it’s unfair that every other crime writer out there has a sharp, short and memorable last name (Banks, Huston, Lippman, Guthrie, Mina, Rickards, Bruen, Starr) and I’m saddled with a monstrosity of consonants.

Sandra: You don’t think your good looks, amazing personality and charm compensate for that already?

Duane: You have met me, haven’t you?

Sandra: The check cleared. Now, you and Sunshine. Tell me how it started. Will this always be something on the side, or do you think things will change in the future?

Duane: Ah, Al Guthrie—my heterosexual life partner. We met when I submitted the first few chapters of The Wheelman (then called Smell the Roses) to his Noir Originals site and we just hit it off. Kevin Smith has Ben Affleck; I have Sunshine. And like the Smith/Affleck thing, Sunshine is destined for superstardom, while I suspect I’ll always be puttering around with the crime novel equivalent of dick and fart movies.

Sandra: “Smell the Roses?” Do you mean that The Wheelman was supposed to be introspective and life-affirming shit?

Duane: Hell, no. It’s a title whose meaning becomes clear about halfway through the book (it’s a riff on the old cliché “stop and smell the you-know-what”). But I also thought it fit nicely into the tradition of hardboiled novels with flowers in the title (Red Gardenias, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, The Black Dahlia).

But St. Martin’s (rightly) worried that it sounded a bit too cozy for a blood-and-bullets tale like mine. So after about 60 tries, we settled on The Wheelman. I think it was the right move.

Sandra: You’ve been described as “a walking innuendo.” Care to comment?

Duane: I have no idea what you mean. What do you mean? Who said this?

Sandra: The same person who said you were sensitive and paranoid…

Duane: That damned Guthrie**. I’d quibble with the “paranoid” part, though. It’s only paranoia if you think they’re out to get you. See, I know they are…

Allan Guthrie: I can't believe that sensitive, paranoid, walking innuendo would so unjustly accuse me of saying such things about him when it's clearly the sort of thing ... um ... John Rickards would say. Or Dave White.

John Rickards: Only someone as foppish and narcissistic as Guthrie could possibly have considered, emerging from the haze of Moroccan hashish and finest Afghan opium that permanently surrounds a wastrel like him, such a feeble attempt to pass his own blandishments about Duane off on someone else.

Everyone knows that *I* refer to Duane as "cuddly, yet disturbed" and "the biggest cock in the henhouse".

Dave White: Sensitive? Paranoid? A walking innuendo? Would I say these things? Come on now, Al... I would call Duane old, crotchety, grumpy, and 1,000 other unprintable things before I'd call him sensitive. Once I saw Duane have to choose between taking an injured chipmunk to the vet or eating a hot dog.

It was the easiest choice he ever made.

And he didn't even have a memorial for the late chipmunk later.

Sandra: Do you think you might need to write a cozy co-authored by a cat in order to make amends to animal lovers?

Duane: Oh that was priceless. Kind of a Q&A version of “This Is Your Life.” Or at least: “My Friend Duane, the Walking Innuendo.” I’ll get you for this, my pretty.

Sandra: What is it about writing that appeals to you?

Duane: I love entertaining people. Making them cringe and laugh. At the same time, if possible.

When I was in high school, I was dead broke, so I decided to write a short story as a birthday present for my best friend. It was a 10,000 word epic about a band of Satanic teenagers who try to kill this poor kid who made the mistake of stumbling across them. And, in proper horror tradition, it had a shock ending.

I forced my poor friend to read the whole thing on the spot (Happy frickin’ Birthday, right?) and when he reached the end, he let out this wonderful groan. “Oh man!” he said, and right then, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Making people do that.

I’m too shy to be a streaker, so writing it is.

Sandra: But in a way, isn’t writing about baring your soul? Isn’t it even more revealing than running around naked? Or do you not feel much of you comes through in your work?

Duane: Good point. A lot of me comes through in my work. Isn’t that true for every writer? But I do think I throw in a ton of in-jokes. In fact, there’s a whole subplot of the next book which is one big in-joke. The trick is to make sure it’s still entertaining for everybody who picks up the book. I hate excluding people.

Sandra: For you, what is the hardest thing about the writing process?

Duane: Not being absolutely crushed by my place in the literary universe (beneath the cement foundation of the sub-basement). Knowing that I’ll most likely die before I write everything I want to write. Indulging in a passion that takes me away from those most important to me (my family) for hours/days at a time. Otherwise, it’s wicked awesome.

Sandra: What inspires you to start on a story? How do you know that you have something you want to spend weeks, months, years working on? And do you plot your books?

Duane: I get inspired the old-fashioned way: with a “what if” question. Like, “What if there was this getaway driver who couldn’t talk, but had to figure his way out of a series of double crosses?” (Which became The Wheelman.)

As far as how do I know if I want to spend months on something—it’s just something I know by feel. I’ve had a few books die on me, and some even reached the 20,000 word point before I realized that, Uh uh, this ain’t working for me. Some I’ve cannibalized into short stories. “Hilly Palmer’s Last Case” (which appeared at Plots With Guns) is an example of this.

Do I plot? Depends on the book. The Wheelman was improvised, more or less, start to finish. I fooled myself into thinking I was plotting some of that time, but most times what I had plotted sucked, and the characters took me in another direction.

The Blonde, however, was plotted down to the minute. The whole takes place over one night, with characters criss-crossing, and I afraid I’d screw it up if I winged it.

So I guess the answer is: I plot when I have to.

Sandra: You’ve written short stories as well as books. What do you like about short stories? Which do you find more challenging – short stories or books?

Duane: Short stories are a little tougher for me. Which is funny, because I used to be Mr.. Short Story when I first started out. But these days, most of my ideas come in one size: Novel. So I have to fool myself into thinking I’m writing a novel… then stop around 5,000 words. Or 10,000 words. And hope it makes sense.

This is not to say writing novels is a snap. I’m still learning. As I mentioned earlier—I’ve had quite a few books die on me. If only someone could market a fiction defibrillator. “Crap—this novel is crashing. Clear!” ZZZZT!

Sandra: I know it sounds weird to talk about what’s next when The Blonde is just coming out, but what is next for you? You always seem to have a lot of irons in the fire – do you find doing a variety of different projects stimulating?

Duane: Next up is Severance Package, which I’ve been telling people is a cross between The Osterman Weekend and Office Space. It’s probably the bloodiest thing I’ve ever written.

I’m also about to sign a contract for a novella—one that will be published in book form, and one that will take many people by surprise. It’s a mystery, but I don’t want to say any more until I’ve signed on the dotted line.

I guess I do like having many irons in many fires. This past spring I wrote a original screenplay called The Cleaners, and I want to tackle another one over the holidays. Ray Banks and I have been swatting around an idea for a hardboiled caper/horror comic book. And the next novel is already beckoning. Actually, the next three novels are beckoning.

Sandra: Now, some random fun questions. If you were a Teletubby, which one would you be and why?

Duane: I’m not sure which one I’d be, but I’d tell you what I’d do. I’d figure out where my brains were—or, the Teletubby equivalent of brains—so I’d know where to aim before pulling the trigger. (My guess is the little television screen on the stomach.) Tinky Winky this, asshole.

Sandra: Your response makes me wonder if you have some anger issues.

Duane: No, no. Suicidal issues, maybe. I’d never hurt anybody else.

Sandra: Aliens conquer earth and remove all humans to space ships. They clone earth. Then they tell the humans they can go to Earth A or Earth B. On Earth A, people are not allowed to communicate verbally. Speaking is a crime punishable by death. On Earth B, people are not allowed to communicate through writing. Writing is punishable by death.

Which earth do you think would be most like our present earth and why, and which planet would you choose to live on and why?

Duane: You kidding me? I’d stay in the spaceship with the aliens and then figure out ways to fuck with the people on Earth A and Earth B.

Sandra: Again, I’m sensing a sort of twisted God-complex. Combined with the thing about the chipmunk, I’m starting to wonder. Have you ever had any professional therapy?

Duane: Aside from writing? Nope. I’m afraid that if I went to therapy, I’d break the machine, you know?

Sandra: Speaking of machines, if you were a household appliance, what you would be and why?

Duane: A Belgian waffle maker. (But everybody probably says this. Who doesn’t like waffles?)

Sandra: People with celiac disease? Okay, are you getting royalties for your cameo in Echo Park? Have you ever put a real person into your fiction?

Duane: No royalties for my cameo. Hell, I should be paying Connelly.

I mentioned Barry Goldwater in Secret Dead Men. Does that count?

Sandra: What does it feel like to be immortalized in fiction?

Duane: I wish I had some cool, detached-sounding answer, but the truth is, it’s pretty fucking amazing. I’m such a mystery nerd, it’s not even funny.

** It should be noted that it was not Al Guthrie, John Rickards or Dave White who referred to Duane as a walking innuendo.

The culprit has since inferred his guilt on his blog.


Sandra Ruttan is the Editor and Submissions Director for SPINETINGLER Magazine. Sandra Ruttan’s debut suspense novel, Suspicious Circumstances, will be released in January 2007. Read her interview in this issue.

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