"DEAL WITH GRIEF ON ITS OWN TERMS": AN INTERVIEW WITH CALIFORNIA BEAR'S DUANE SWIERCYNSKI
California Bear is possibly Duane Swiercynki's most personal book. The first written about L.A. after being a resident and losing his daughter to leukemia. A character titled "The Girl Detective" works as a stand in for her in this story of several people including an ex con, sleazy ex cop, geneologist, and aging serial killer all closing in on one another. Duane was kind enough to talk about taking on this book and L.A. crime fiction.
SCOTT MONTGOMERY: This is the first book you wrote about L.A. as a resident. Did that affect how you portrayed it?
DUANE SWIERCYNSKI: Well, it certainly made location scouting a lot easier! Also, I’m obsessed with a sense of place in fiction — most importantly, getting it right. I wouldn’t want a longtime Angeleno to read the novel and think: This guy has no idea what he’s talking about. By the way, a lot of places featured in the novel are straight from my first trip to L.A. with my daughter when we were apartment hunting. So it wasn’t just a matter of picking a fun or quirky location; I had emotional connections to these places, too.
S.M.: How did the idea for titles and nicknames for most of the major characters come about?
D.S.: Names either come to me right away, or require weeks (or months) of trying one on for size. Retired cop Cato Hightower had that name from the beginning. It’s an in-joke, but one I don’t want to share at the moment. His reluctant partner in crime, Jack Queen, had a different name when I first started writing the novel, and I knew the name was ill-fitting. When it came time to give “The Girl Detective” a proper name, I ended up changing Jack’s to make it all fit together. For minor characters, I’ll often use the names of friends (with their permission). For example, slimy Hollywood producer David Peterson is named for a very kind librarian who used to work in Burbank. I know what you’re thinking: if this is how I treat friends, my God, what do I do to my enemies?
S.M.: The one major character who doesn't have P.O.V. chapters is Hightower, who jump starts the plot. Did you know that from the beginning?
D.S.: Hightower is pretty much chaos in human form, so I was reluctant to step into his head. Mind you, I had no such problems doing that with a retired serial killer!
S.M.: You incorporate some very emotional parts of your life into this book. Do you find there is anything to be aware of when you're doing that?
D.S.: This novel very much draws from real life, even in ways that may not be obvious. Throughout the writing process, I tried to be as emotionally honest as possible — deal with grief on its own terms, and not just as a convenient plot point.
S.M.: What other art form would you like to be good at?
D.S.: Tap-dancing. Just for the shock value.
S.M.: What are five other L.A. crime novels you'd recommend?
D.S.: Some of my longtime favorites:
ALWAYS OUTNUMBERED, ALWAYS OUTGUNNED by Walter Mosley
POINT DOOM by Dan Fante
THE HORSE LATITUDES by Robert Ferrigno
GOLDEN DAYS by Carolyn See
WHITE JAZZ by James Ellroy