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Flashback: THERESA SCHWEGEL INTERVIEWED BY BLAKE CROUCH

From Crimespree 21

THERESA SCHWEGEL

INTERVIEWED BY BLAKE CROUCH

Blake: You won the Edgar for best first novel for OFFICER DOWN…tell me about that night, that moment, and how your life has changed since then.

 

Theresa: That night–honestly? I felt like I’d been called up from the farm team. When I arrived at the reception, one of the first writers I spotted was Michael Connelly. I couldn’t believe it  Michael Connelly, in the same room? I was terrified to meet him  I actually snuck off to the bathroom when a friend offered to introduce us. There were all kinds of big leaguers there, and at dinner the weight of the nomination really hit me: I was a *real* writer. People had actually read my book and liked it.

At dinner, Linda Barnes sat two seats away from me  she was one of the judges. I spent the whole night trying not to look at her. Then, she went up to the podium…and what happened next, physically, is exactly what happened when I went through tactical situation firearms training a few months before: I could see everything perfectly, but I couldn’t hear or understand, and I couldn’t move. And then suddenly my editor was saying, “Theresa. You have to go up there.” I don’t know how many times she said that. I don’t know what I said when I got up there. I am glad it was not a tactical situation.

My life hasn’t changed much since I won, though Edgar is definitely looking over my shoulder (literally) from my bookcase. My aim has always been to write a better book, and Edgar isn’t proof I can do it. He’s a challenge, reminding me I can do it better.

Incidentally, after the Edgar ceremony, Michael Connelly came up and introduced himself to me. Talk about unbelievable.

 

Blake: I hear you’re relocating from LA back to your quaint home town of Chicago …why the move?

 

Theresa: I’ve been in Southern California for almost ten years; it’s time to go home. When I was in Chicago over the summer, it was the first time I couldn’t find a reason not to be there. The city is alive  not in the same way Los Angeles is alive. You see L.A. from your car. From the freeway. You watch it, just like on television. And in Chicago, you live it. You walk the streets. You are with other people. There’s a rhythm that is bigger than you and it isn’t your own, which is what I find in California: everyone doing their own thing. I’m ready to be rained out, snowed in; wind blown. Just like everyone else.

 

Blake: Interesting…I sometimes feel the pull to go back to North Carolina, where I grew up (I’ve been in Colorado the last four and a half years). My family is there, and there’s something about the Blue Ridge Mountains that I can’t quite shake off. I feel like there’s a book waiting on me to write back in NC, but I have to live there to tap into it. Do you think living in Chicago again will influence the way you write the city? Didn’t writing from the outside have its benefits?

 

Theresa: I think living there will be the best thing for my writing. Since I’ve been away for so long, I’ve been working from notes and photographs, quick research trips and, sadly, Google maps. But what’s been great about looking in from the outside is that I’ve never taken Chicago for granted. I pay attention to and write through every scene, every setting. I make the city a character, and use the streets and buildings and landmarks like adjectives. As I said, I look forward to returning, getting immersed. And, as before, I plan to bring the city to the page as best I can. I just hope the romance doesn’t end when it snows in April.

 

Blake: What are you reading these days?

 

Theresa: I just finished David Lawrence’s DOWN INTO DARKNESS. So dark, and so complex; the main character, Stella Mooney, so unsettled. I think she’s what makes the series great: Stella has problems none of us have and problems all of us have, but the only problems she actually solves are other peoples’, in her policework. The other book I just blazed through: Goerge Pelecanos’ THE NIGHT GARDENER. I save his books for when I’m jonesing in between seasons of THE WIRE. I wish I could write like Pelecanos. His cops, kids, thugs  across the board, the characters are so authentic that I feel like I’m right there, my own surveillance going.

Currently, I’m splitting time reading Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN and Dean Koontz’s INTENSITY. Just to make sure I have good bad dreams.

 

Blake: Wow, BLOOD MERIDIAN is one twisted piece of work…and also happens to be my all time fave. How far into it are you, and what’s your impression so far?

 

Theresa: I’m only about halfway through. I’m taking my time, though this is not a book to savor so much as it is to process. It’s extremely violent; tough to take. The characters aren’t likeable, but they’re in such awful circumstances that likeability isn’t at all relevant. I feel like I’m trying to survive with these people. A blood bat feasting on a wounded companion while he sleeps? Jesus.

I’ve always admired McCarthy’s writing for word choice: his prose is sparse, specific, selective. I think BLOOD MERIDIAN could be used as a thesaurus for the doomed.

 

Blake: The blood-bat freaked you out? Wait till you get to the baby tree. There is something so spare about his prose, but at the same time, so extravagant. Works perfectly with his subject matter.

I’m reading your 3rd book, PERSON OF INTEREST, (due in stores 11/27/07 ), and loving it. What’s interesting about this one is that it’s written from two very strong points of view—a cop and his wife. Was it difficult nailing down multiple POVs and going back and forth?

 

Theresa: Of course you ask me this question: it’s the same one I asked you prior to writing the book, when I was tearing out my hair over the POV issue. Since you’d done such a brilliant job in LOCKED DOORS, I thought you might have some brilliant advice. I think you said something like, “You’ll have some throwaway material until you find the voices. Write through it.” Hey thanks a lot: that didn’t sound as brilliant as it did like a lot of work. You were absolutely right, though… finding the voices made all the difference. Most of the writing I tossed, though, was a surprise: it was all Leslie. I assumed it would be easy to write a woman, a civilian; her character turned out to be one of the most difficult I’ve written. When I started, I had chapter upon chapter in her voice  I thought she was funny, snarky, tough. My first readers didn’t think so: they thought she was pathetic and mean. Once I realized her ‘cool’ wasn’t cutting it, I knew her character had to come clean; I couldn’t cover her up with attitude like I did with Samantha Mack in Officer Down.

As for Craig, the main cop character, he was in my head from day one. I’d been spending a lot of time with a police officer who was very specific about the way he ‘shelved’ the job in his head, the bad things filed away and forgotten, so he could keep a) doing his job and b) maintain a reasonable personal life. I’m telling you, few of us can fathom what cops deal with on a daily basis. Even if they’re working traffic in a small town speed trap: they get lied to all day, every day, by everybody. And worse, they can’t stop crime  they can only stop it up once in a while. I think I carried all that with me while I wrote Craig  the responsibility, and the futility. The sadness. The strength.

 

Blake: Are we going to see Samantha Mack again (Smack) from your first novel, OFFICER DOWN?

 

Theresa: I don’t think so. I haven’t read the book in a long time and I don’t know if I should; it might stir some unwanted feelings. She’s kind of like an ex boyfriend to me: I hope she’s doing well, I wish her the best, but I don’t really want to get involved again. I don’t really want to know what she’s up to.

 

Blake: I can understand that. You bottomed that character out and walked her through some situations I imagine were very difficult to engage. It’s what I loved about that book though…I can’t really think of another female protagonist whose life implodes so completely on the page. I’m still trying to figure out how you made her sympathetic.

Something that fascinates me isn’t where writers, or any artist for that matter, get their ideas, but how easily they come and under what conditions. Do you feel like you’ve got this bag full of great ideas and your only concern is that you’ll have enough time to get to them all? Or are you like me…I hate 99% of the ideas that occur to me and my struggle is finding something new, that I’m going to be passionate about for the duration of the first, second, and third draft.

 

Theresa: Even if I had the proverbial bag, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Like you, I have to be fully invested, slay one beast at a time.

Ideas most often come to me in questions I can’t answer. And, it takes months to figure out which characters will have the most interesting journey finding their own answers. It also takes me a long time to decide how I can best communicate the truth of those characters, especially when they aren’t honest with one another, or themselves.

Sometimes I think I might be taking it all too seriously, but I would never use the word fun to describe the creative process. And I have to say, I’m baffled by prolific writers. I can’t imagine having an arsenal of ideas, or even enough confidence to be ready to write some premise that isn’t fully formed. In film school, I was no good at the pitch driven approach to storytelling: I can’t boil a thing down to its best ingredients until I have everything in the pot, soaking and softening and affecting whatever else is in there. I need time.

 

Blake: Do you feel your background as a script reader, film school graduate, and screenwriter has anything to do with why you’re drawn to write in the present tense? Your books strike me as having more immediacy than a lot of what I read.

 

Theresa: Absolutely. A script is essentially an action template: it’s who does what now that forces the question now what? Plot has never been one of my strengths, so screenwriting’s structured approach has been extremely helpful. Writing in present tense is also done in screenwriting, and I think it’s a logical choice for crime fiction because it puts the reader right there with the main character, in the moment, in the same action space. When I’m writing in present tense, I am continuously streamlining to stay relevant to the scene. That’s where the immediacy comes from: if the main character isn’t kicking over a chair, there’s no reason to write about it. It’s just furniture.