Saturday, January 20, 2024

Duane Swierczynski Talks Moving Backstory of New Novel in Return to Houston’s Murder by the Book


Scott D. Parker

It’s been nine years since Philadelphia native Duane Swierczynski had a book signing at Houston’s Murder by the Book. In fact, as he told the folks who turned out last Friday night, this store was where he had his first book signing. What he appreciated, he told us, was how much the store had not changed. 

He, on the other hand, has.

Swierczynski is the author of over a dozen novels, numerous short stories, and dozens of comics. He is married and is the father of two children. One, however, his daughter, Evelyn, was diagnosed with leukemia back in 2018. Swierczynski and his wife took turns spending the night in the hospital so Evie wouldn’t be alone. It was during these difficult times that the genesis of his new novel California Bear, began.

Back in 2016, the Swierczynski family moved to Los Angeles, but it was Duane and Evie who scouted out the city. Father and daughter discovered great places to eat and fun and famous places they had only read about. As Duane told the story at the store in an interview format by owner McKenna Jordan Duffey, Evie loved food, and they ended up doing a food tour of LA. Food ended up permeating California Bear.

In October 2018, Evie succumbed to her illness and Duane set California Bear aside. In another recent interview, Duane stated “I thought, I’m not sure I can finish this.” He didn’t even pick it up for a long time. 

But when he did, Evie channeled her voice into the prose. One of the characters in the new novel is Matilda, a fifteen-year-old who is diagnosed with leukemia. She’s determined to find out the truth about her dad: was he a murderer or was he innocent?

There’s also a true crime aspect to California Bear, something McKenna asked Duane about. He answered honestly. Too much attention is focused on the sensationality of these stories and too little on the fact that real people are involved. “It’s someone’s bad day,” Duane said. “The focus should be on the people, the human beings behind the headlines.”

Working with James Patterson

Speaking of attention, Duane commented on the battle for the attention spans of people and how much effort a potential reader has to bring to the act of reading “symbols on a page to see the movie in your mind.” When it comes to TV, movies, or anything streaming, viewers don’t have to do anything. They just sit there and the story washes over them. Readers, however, are co-authors with the writer, and that takes work. 

One way to help people choose to be an active reader rather than a passive viewer is the pace of the prose, and there are few writers who write with such a propulsive pace as James Patterson. “He’s the hardest working guy in the business,” Duane said of Patterson, with whom he has collaborated a few times (including the wildly fun Lion and Lamb from last year). All the books that bear Patterson’s name pass through him.

Duane enjoyed working with Patterson, but he confessed that the small talk aspect of their relationship is vastly unequal. One time Patterson called up Duane and mentioned he was hanging out with Dolly Parton. Duane’s response was that he was walking his dog.

The Proust Questionnaire

McKenna ended the interview portion of the event with a few questions. Aside from the funnier ones (What’s an overrated virtue? “Chastity” and When do you lie? “I lie for a living”), it was Duane’s answer to “What do you most dislike?” that struck home for me. “Haters.” Empathy is important, Duane said. “You don’t know what people are going through.” Man, is that the truth.

Becoming Himself as a Writer Again

McKenna asked Duane about his writing process and schedule. He confessed that after Evie, he needed to ramp up his writerly skills and used short stories to do just that. He mentioned that last year, he actually wrote a novel in longhand, just him, a pen, and the paper. But through all the comics and short stories and the “roulette wheel” of grief, Duane said that California Bear is proof that he’s “back to myself.” 

I’m really looking forward to diving into Duane’s new novel, and I hope it won’t be another nine years before he returns to Houston.

The Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation

Evie was an avid reader and enjoyed the Literally Healing Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles where every patient is given a new book everyday. Every Christmas season, Murder by the Book and other independent bookstores participate in a book drive to keep the hospital filled with books. But you don’t have to wait until the holiday season to contribute. Head on over to the foundation's website to find out how you can help—including blood and bone marrow registry drive and the big goal of “Evie’s Bites”—and keep Evie’s spirit and Light bright.

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