Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Conversation with Mystery Author Charles Salzberg

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Charles Salzberg
with Charles Salzberg

We are delighted to welcome novelist Charles Salzberg to Omnimystery News today, courtesy of JKSCommunications, which is coordinating his current book tour. We encourage you to visit all of the participating host sites; you can find his schedule here.

Charles's new Henry Swann mystery is Swann's Lake of Despair (Five Star; October 2014 hardcover) and we recently had the chance to catch up with him to talk more about it and the series as a whole.

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Omnimystery News: Swann's Lake of Despair is the third mystery in this series. Was it always your intention to feature Henry Swann in a series?

Charles Salzberg
Photo provided courtesy of
Charles Salzberg

Charles Salzberg: It wasn't so much my choosing to write a recurring character as much as him choosing me. In fact, Henry Swann was supposed to appear in only one novel, Swann's Last Song. But much to my surprise the book was nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel and when I lost I got pissed off enough to decide to keep writing Swann books until I either won something or ran out of catchy titles.

But once Swann came alive, and if you're successful all your characters are "alive," it was hard to leave him because I thought there was so much I could have him do and so much I could learn from him. Besides, I got to like him.

OMN: Has the character changed over the course of the series?

CS: I hope the character does change from book to book because as people, we change, even ever so slightly, all the time. If we don't change, if we don't grow, if we don't learn from our successes and failures, then what's the point? So Swann does change. For one thing, he grows a little older in each book. And since the world changes, Swann has to change with it. In the first book, the Internet was not so widespread and cell phones were not so ubiquitous. Now, Swann has caught up with technology, though he's still a feet on the pavement sort of guy.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in your books?

CS: When asked how he could possibly write a book in the voice and perspective of a woman, Flaubert replied, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." So, the answer is I'm sure there are parts of Swann that are me, but I prefer to think of him as the person I'd like to be: resourceful, adventurous, brave, all those qualities we'd like to have but often feel we lack.

I have gotten into the habit of basing, at least a little bit, characters in the books on people I know. In fact, I use real names much of the time. His sidekick and nemesis, Goldblatt, is named after one of my best friends, although he shares pretty much no characteristics of his namesake. Another featured character, Ross Klavan, is named after another one of my best friends, but the fictional character does share some characteristics with the real-life version, although I won't say which ones. And there are other minor and not so minor characters that also share their names with real-life people. My friends, by the way, seem to get a kick out of this and it's become a little bit of a competition to see who can get their name in my novels.

OMN: Describe your writing process for us.

CS: I do absolutely no outlining. In fact, I don't even know what's going to be in the next sentence, paragraph, page or chapter. I work entirely from instinct. As far as the story is concerned, I just put Swann in various situations and then see how he reacts. I don't even plan characters. Somehow, they just appear when they need to. This is the only way I can write. I like to be surprised, because if I'm surprised I assume the reader will be, too. At least I hope so. It doesn't work all the time, but I have to say that it does happen far more often than I could possibly expect. I'm happy to say I've never experienced writer's block, and you'd think I might without an outline or at least thinking out the plot beforehand. Let's call it magic and if it ever leaves me I'm probably in big trouble.

OMN: How do you go about researching the plot points of your stories? Have you come across any particularly challenging topics?

CS: Coming from the background of being a journalist, I do fact-check and research my books. I use the Internet when possible, but I much prefer to do primary research by interviewing people in the field or friends who've experienced what I'm writing about.

Here's an interesting story about that. I wrote Swann's Last Song almost thirty years ago, although it was only published seven years ago. When I wrote it, I had Swann visiting L.A., Mexico and Berlin. I'd never been to either L.A. or Berlin, and not the part of Mexico I wrote about. But I did the research, movies, TV, friends, books, etc., and after I showed it to my best friend who had spent considerable time in L.A. he asked me, "When were you in L.A.?"

But most of what I write about either I know something about or I want to know something about. For instance, in Swann Dives In, I felt like writing about the world of rare books, so I found a book dealer and interviewed him, as well as finding newspaper and magazine articles on the subject. In my latest, Swann's Lake of Despair, I "borrowed" the life of one of my students, Julia Scully (a wonderful memoirist, get her book Outside Passage and you'll see what I mean) who worked in the world of photography for close to thirty years. In fact, I made her a character in the book, although I obviously took some liberties with her. But the photojournalist I write about, Ed Feingersh, did really exist.
On the other hand, the Swann novel I'm working on now takes place partially in the world of movies, which I know a lot about, and the art world, which I know something about.

I haven't actually had a challenging subject yet. But I probably won't have one because I'm much too lazy to be challenged.

OMN: How true are you to the settings of your books?

CS: I try not to take liberties because readers are so smart and so knowledgeable and the Internet is only a click away that they'll catch you on it in a second and then tell you about it. So, as much as I can I stick to the real thing.

OMN: If we could send you anywhere in the world to research the setting for a book, where would it be?

CS: Well, I've recently been to Australia (I was the International Guest of Honor at the Crime and Justice Festival,) so that's one place taken care of. I'd like to go to Germany and I'd love to go to Ireland and Scotland — and I'd certainly not be averse to sending Swann there. Or possibly writing a different book using those locales.

OMN: What are some of your outside interests? And have any of these found their way into your books?

CS: I love going to the movies, I'll see almost anything but cartoons, and I read all the time, magazines, books, student submissions, and I love just hanging out with friends shooting the breeze. And yes, everything I do probably works its way into my books.

OMN: What is the best advice — and harshest criticism — you've received as an author? And what might you say to aspiring writers?

CS: I can't remember any particular advice but the harshest criticism I ever got was from a teacher in the Columbia MFA program (I quit after a week) who told me I didn't know how to tell a story.

Advice is easy: Read, read read. Write, write, write. And persistence. If you believe in yourself, never give up. Don't let rejections get you down. We all get them but only the true writers, the ones meant to be writers, ignore them and keep writing and submitting. Don't be afraid to submit because you think you'll be rejected. You probably will be, but as the father of my good friend from Alabama, Roy Hoffman, once said, "you can't catch a fish unless you put your line in the water."

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a mystery author and thus I am also&nsbp;…".

CS: … someone who is trying to understand how the human mind works and why it works the way it does.

OMN: How did Swann's Lake of Despair come to be titled? And were you involved with the cover design?

CS: I needed something to go with Swann and I'd already used "dive" and "song." And he is in a perpetual state of despair, but more importantly his clients are, which is why they come to him.

I think this is the best design I've ever had — thank you Five Star — and it refers to the first chapter of the book wherein Swann is cajoled into going to the Long Beach, Long Island boardwalk in the middle of winter in the middle of the night. And a third of the book takes place in that city.

OMN: What kinds of feedback have you received from readers?

CS: I enjoy hearing from readers no matter what they say. My favorite comment was about Devil in the Hole. One reader wrote, "I don't know what all the fuss is about." I couldn't help but laugh and I wrote him back, "I don't know what the fuss is about either, but I'm sure glad there is a fuss." He was shocked that I wrote him back.

OMN: If the Henry Swann mysteries were to be adapted for television or film, who do you see playing the part?

CS: Originally, I thought of either Alec Baldwin or Ed Norton. I know they're both very different, but I think they'd both do a terrific job. My first choice though would have been Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Too late for that, alas.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young? And do you think these inspired what and how you write today?

CS: I read everything I could get my hands on, but soon gravitated to very "literary" stuff like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Mark Twain, Norman Mailer and Vladimir Nabokov.

And anything and everything and nothing inspires me.

OMN: Create a Top Five list for us on any topic.

CS: Five Top Favorite TV Shows …

1. Naked City;
2. The Defenders;
3. The Wire;
4. Seinfeld; and
5. Mary Tyler Moore/The Bob Newhart Show (a tie).

OMN: What's next for you?

CS: I'm going to lie down for a while before I get back to writing the next in the Swann series which depending upon whether I can find another catchy title might be my last.

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Charles Salzberg Book Tour

Charles Salzberg is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Esquire, New York magazine, Elle, Good Housekeeping, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, GQ and other periodicals. He is the author of over 20 non-fiction books and several novels. He has also been a Visiting Professor of Magazine at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, and taught writing at Sarah Lawrence College, the Writer's Voice, and the New York Writers Workshop, where he is a Founding Member.

For more information about the author, please visit his website at and his author page on Goodreads, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Swann's Lake of Despair by Charles Salzberg

Swann's Lake of Despair
Charles Salzberg
A Henry Swann Mystery

When rare photos, a scandalous diary, and a beautiful woman all go missing at once, the stage is set for three challenging cases for Henry Swann.

It begins with an offer to partner up with his slovenly, unreliable frenemy, Goldblatt. The disbarred lawyer-turned-"facilitator" would provide the leads and muscle, while Swann would do all the fancy footwork. A lost diary by a free-loving Jazz Age flapper is worth enough to someone that Swann takes a beat down on an abandoned boardwalk. Pilfered photos of Marilyn Monroe propel him deep into the past of an alcoholic shutterbug, his wife; and he's hired to search for a lonely writer's runaway girlfriend.

The cases converge and collide in a finale that lifts the curtain on crucial, deadly facts of life for everyone … including Swann himself. Print/Kindle Format(s) Print/Nook Format(s)


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