Monday, March 15, 2010

First Blood: Duane Swierczynski

Welcome to First Blood, the continuing feature here at American Frankenstein where we’ll talk to writers, editors, and other creative folks about how they got their starts in the business. The subject of this week’s special origin issue is: crime thriller writer and ace Marvel Comics scribe, Duane Swierczynski.

A few years ago, Duane happened to drop me a nice email about Dark Harvest just about the same time I was hearing great things about a heist novel called The Wheelman by some guy with an unpronounceable last name. Next thing I knew we were talking about trading some books through the mail. Couple days later -- thump! A package from Philadelphia hit my doorstep. I devoured The Wheelman and chewed my way through The Blonde, too. Conclusion? This guy Swierczynski was the real deal. I loved the way Duane kicked his stories into gear, loved too the hard way they charged to the finish line. In short, it was my considered opinion that Mr. S’s work kicked ass in a multitude of ways.

Since then Duane’s written a couple more books, including Expiration Date and Severance Package (St. Martin's Press). Most of his novels have been optioned for TV and film. His work for Marvel includes tales featuring the Punisher, Cable, the Immortal Iron Fist, Werewolf By Night and Deadpool, and he is collaborating with CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker on a series of "digi-novel" thrillers called Level 26. You can visit him at or

PARTRIDGE: First off, I love the fact that you named your son “Parker” in honor of a couple of fictional characters. So here's the big question: who'd win in a throwdown between Richard Stark's hard-boiled badass and Marvel's Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man?

SWIERCZYNSKI: Spidey might win the first round, but Parker would up with a revenge plan that would most likely leave the Webhead in traction.

PARTRIDGE: You started off by writing a few nonfiction books. How did you get involved in that, and was your ultimate goal always to move into fiction?

SWIERCZYNSKI: My first nonfiction book proposal came out of a failed magazine story pitch. I had been an editor at Details Magazine, and I suggested a service piece called “The Perfect Drink for Every Occasion” where we'd suggest cocktails for particular situations. My editor didn't go for it; I kept the idea in my back pocket anyway.

A few years later, after my first novel (Secret Dead Men) failed to find a home, my agent suggested I try a nonfiction book, considering my journalism background. So I dug out “Perfect Drink,” worked it up into a book proposal. My agent sold it to Quirk Books, and then I spent about year doing heavy boozing. I mean, researching.

My main goal, though, was to write novels.

PARTRIDGE: Your first published novel was Secret Dead Men. What do you remember about writing that book, and what were some of the upsides and downsides of the experience?

SWIERCZYNSKI: I remember it vividly. After years of starting then abandoning novels, I decided to finish one -- no matter what. Even if it sucked. Even if I could tell it was a flaming wreck 5,000 words in. I just needed to finish. So during summer 1998, I came home every day from work (at Details) and cranked out at least 1,000 words.

By summer's end, I had a novel. And that's when I learned the trick to keeping your mind in a novel: work on it every day until it's habit. The longer you keep it up, the easier it is to slip back into that world.

PARTRIDGE: What piece of work established you -- creatively, critically, commercially (or all three) -- in the marketplace, and what changed after you published it?

SWIERCZYNSKI: I think it was The Wheelman, which was my first pro sale -- to St. Martin's Press. (Secret Dead Men appeared a few months before it, but I didn't receive an advance for it.) I wrote it for fun, never thinking in a million years that it would sell -- like the world needs another heist novel? But that was the trick, I realized. Write to entertain yourself, and act like nobody's looking over your shoulder.

PARTRIDGE: You've done quite a bit of work for Marvel. How'd you get involved in the comics field?

SWIERCZYNSKI: I'd written a fan letter to Ed Brubaker (gushing about Criminal, still my favorite comic) around the same time he'd picked up a copy of The Wheelman. He recommended me to one of his editors at Marvel, Warren Simons, who in turn mentioned my name to Axel Alonso. The whole time I'm thinking: God, I'd remove my spleen with a pair of rusty nail scissors for the chance to write even an 8-page backup story. I mean, this was Marvel! I'd grown up gorging on Marvel Comics.

Happily, we hit it off, and I ended up doing not just a one-shot or two, but a few series. And they didn't even ask for any internal organs.

PARTRIDGE: I grew up reading Marvel stuff, too. Loved Mike Ploog, and I used to buy his Ghost Rider and Werewolf By Night off the rack as a kid. What's it like to work with iconic characters you remember from your youth, and how do you approach those projects?

SWIERCYZNSKI: Writing Werewolf By Night was a dream come true. My father gave me a Werewolf By Night book and record set for Christmas back in the 1970s, so you could read the comic as you listened to it being read (with sound effects and all) on 45 rpm. It scared the living crap out of me...but I loved it. That one gift probably kick-started both my love of horror and comics.

So the chance to go back and tell a Jack Russell story for Marvel? It just doesn't get any better. My approach was to take what I loved about the original (the fusion of horror and crime and mystery) and recast it in the present. What I ended up doing is a weird kind of locked room mystery...which was a lot of fun.

PARTRIDGE: What's your best advice for writers starting out today?

SWIERCZYNSKI: It's the same piece of advice I keep telling myself: It's the work that matters. Don't get caught up in the rest of the nonsense -- the business and marketing and trend-watching and all of that. Sure, it's important. But the work comes first. Sit your butt in a chair and keep writing. When you're not writing, read your eyeballs out.