Theresa Schwegel, interviewed by Michael Koryta
Over the years, the NorCal East Bay chapter of Mystery Readers International has had many "At Homes"—intimate evenings with favorite mystery writers. We've hosted Anne Perry, Lawrence Block, Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George, Janet LaPierre, Sharan Newman, Laurie King, Rochelle Krich, Carolyn Hart, James Ellroy, Steven Saylor, Janet Evanovich, Eddie Muller, Taffy Cannon, and many others.
These events are held in private homes, and they're similar to Literary Salons. Since so many of our cyber members and friends aren't able to attend these intimate evenings, I thought it would be fun to have a "visiting" author each month interviewed by another "visiting" author. This month we feature Theresa Schwegel, interviewed by Michael Koryta.
Theresa Schwegel was born and raised in the Chicago area where she received her Bachelors in Communication, Magna Cum Laude, from Loyola University. During her undergraduate studies, she interned for an independent commercial production company, which sparked her interest in all things Hollywood. In 1998, she moved to Southern California and soon after pursued her Masters in Film/Screenwriting at Chapman University.
While working on her degree, Ms. Schwegel also co-founded a small theater company. She wrote, produced, directed and acted in a number of shows, her favorites always David Mamet's. During this time she also covered scripts for an Academy Award-winning production company.
In 2002, under the guidance of her teacher and mentor Leonard Schrader, she began rewriting her thesis screenplay Officer Down as a novel. Three years later, Officer Down was published by St. Martin's Minotaur and went on to win the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best First Novel. Probable Cause, her second book, was a New York Times Editor's Choice in January 2007.
Before her books were published, Ms. Schwegel worked as a personal trainer, a director's assistant, a freelance writer and a bartender. Today she writes full time, and her third book, Person of Interest, will be released in November 2007.
Michael Koryta: One of the things that stands out to me about your work is that
written three standalone novels that have all been in the present tense,
something that is a bit unusual for this genre, and yet seems to be the
norm for you. What's the reasoning behind the choice, and what do you
like about that narration tense? Anything you don't like about it?
Theresa Schwegel: Writing in present tense is, in effect, screenwriting: it's
what's happening on the page/on the screen—what's important, now. I
think the tense is a natural choice for crime fiction because the
reader is right there with the main character—not neccesarily in
the character's head, but in the same action-space. I'm always a
little unmoved when I start a story in the past tense. Especially in
first person: it means the character already knows how it ends, and
has survived, and has had time to reflect/judge/regret.
I also like present tense for the immediacy of it, though writing
can be a little tough when it comes to detail and backstory. Since I
write cops, I get away with a little more than I would if I wrote
about, say, ordinary citizens. A cop walks into a room or meets a
person and notices far more detail than most of us. Still, it's
important to be there with the character: it'd be awkward for a
detective to describe a building for fun, or to talk about a distant
memory that isn't related to his case. In any tense, backstory is
never easy—I always feel like I'm dumping information. But, in the
present tense, I'm forced to be disciplined: I always have to stay
relevant to the scene and the character's voice.
MK: You earned an MFA in screenwriting at Chapman University. So when
novelist thing begin? Was it something you turned to after a few years
of work on scripts, or had writing a novel always been the main goal,
even as you pursued a screenwriting education?
TS: Actually, I never thought I'd write a novel. Honestly? I always
say I moved to California because I was looking for something. I
thought I'd find it in Hollywood—piles of cash for ninety pages of
action. Five-star lunches on producers' tabs. A-listers begging me to
write their next mega-role. Instead, I answered phones. I covered
scripts. Mostly, I sat in traffic on the 405. And finally I realized,
after the kind intervention of Leonard Schrader (my thesis advisor at
Chapman), that what I should've been looking for—the something—was my voice. In my last year at Chapman, Len sacrificed hours of his
free time to help me find my voice: outside of class, we tore apart
the Officer Down script. We knocked it clear off of its structure and
I was ready to trash it but he said, "Just write it. Write Sam's
point of view." After a week, I brought in the first few pages. He
read it out loud; he loved it. And he said, "This is it. This is
going to be a book."
MK: You know, it occurs to me that I don't know your first-novel
writers don't succeed in selling their first novel—or at least I
didn't—but for some reason I feel like you did. Am I wrong? How did
you break in?
TS: See the above Hollywood experience and add the serendipitous
answering-of-the-phone when Scott Phillips called. His book Ice
Harvest was in production at the company and I did coverage work in
the development stages—comparing drafts, drawing plot maps, etc.
After I wrote Officer Down as a novel, I emailed him, said, "hey, remember me?" He graciously agreed to read an early ms and was
probably surprised he didn't hate it. He turned me on to a private editor; I worked with her for a while, and then Scott guided me
through the two-year search for an agent. So thank God I looked for
that something in Hollywood, after all.
MK: You've written two novels with police protagonists, but now, in
of Interest, you're working with a protagonist who is a cop's wife and
one of the more emotionally available characters you've written,
probably because she doesn't need that police mentality. What drew you
to working with a non-cop lead?
TS: I knew, after Probable Cause, that I had to write a female
protagonist, but I was afraid I'd wind up with some watered-down
version of Sam (from Officer Down). I'd researched all kinds of
character options within the police department—community liaisons,
detectives, CSI's—but I kept running into the same issue: a woman
in a man's world. And I didn't want to write about that.
A short while later, I wound up talking to the childhood friend who
inspired Sam's character (who is not a police officer and does not
drink, let alone Jameson). She's now married to a cop. Two kids.
Picket fence. She suggested I write about a cop's wife, though I
wasn't sure how I'd rope someone like that into a crime, unless she
was hunting down the neighborhood kids for playing ding-dong-ditch.
Then, I spoke to her husband. About the way cops "leave it on the
street." The way they protect their families from their own
hardships. And I wondered: how can a marriage stay together with such
a disconnect? Is it tolerated? Overlooked? Understood? In Person of
Interest, I aimed to find out what happens when the answer is none of
MK: Tell us a bit about the experience of switching from writing a
world to one of a wife and mother. Any rewards/challenges to it that
took you by surprise?
TS: Since I'm not a wife or a mother or a cop, I continue to write on
the edge of believability. This time I thought much of it would be
easier—writing a woman, a civilian. But, surprisingly, Leslie's
character was more difficult; maybe because, as you say, she's
emotionally available. When I started writing her, I had chapter upon
chapter that to me sounded like something out of Desperate
Housewives. I thought she was funny; I thought both her logical and
emotional reactions were sharp and witty. Readers had a different
take: they thought she was just plain sad. Once I had that feedback,
I knew her character had to come clean; I couldn't cover her up with
What surprised me even more was how easily I was able to write
Craig's scenes. I could see him; I could hear him. I had him right
away. I'm not sure what that says about me. Am I emotionally
MK: How do you construct your novels? Do you have a clear sense of
outline, or do you wander into the darkness with your characters?
TS: I do outline, as per my contract, and also because of my
screenwritten-brain. I do this mostly because I am no good at plot: I
get these great characters in my head and it takes a long time to
find the perfect ways to screw them all up. Having said that, I do
tend to wander: the scenes that don't forward the plot are usually
the most interesting to me. And, of course, sticking to an outline is
a bigger challenge than writing it. The great characters I just
mentioned—they tend to wander as well.
MK: You've lived in southern California for as long as you've been
publishing, but all of your books are set in Chicago, your hometown. Now
you're moving back to Chicago. What sort of impact do you expect/hope
this will have on your writing?
TS: My agent worries that I will move back and have so much fun
there'll be no time to write at all... but I think, once I get
settled, living there will be the best thing for my writing. I'll have the city at my fingertips instead of in photographs and memories. I'll be able to go outside and brave the weather, walk the
streets, listen to the people. And I'll be able to get into the rhythm, and stay in it. Sitting down and writing will be an integral
part of that.
MK: Many crime fiction writers begin with a series character and then
out into standalone novels. You've always written standalones. Is there
a part of you that would like to have a series character, or can you not
imagine returning the same protagonist book after book?
TS: I think it's a writer's job to make the reader know and care
about a character in a single book, and to do that well in a series
would be difficult for me—if not repetitive. Besides, I'm more
interested in how a character reacts to an event at a certain point
in his life than how it causes him to act later, during another
event, in another book. We all know life experience builds on itself,
and that we learn and change as we go; I'd rather write about the
experience than the learning and changing.
And, if it's true most writers tend to tell some story variation of
the same theme over and over again, then I'd like to be the one using
the most interesting characters to do so.
MK: How did you land in crime fiction, anyhow? Who were the literary
TS: I'm not sure how I landed in crime fiction. Trust issues, maybe.
But the first crime writers who made me believe there's something
great about reading characters fight and flail are Charles Willeford,
William Caunitz, James M. Cain and Dorothy Uhnak.
MK: Officer Down won the Edgar for best first novel. What sort of
that have on your career and on your psyche? Did it add any confidence,
add any pressure, or did you just tuck ol' Edgar away and forget about
TS: I was lucky with Edgar's timing: when I won, I was just about
finished with my second book, so I was still writing in a somewhat
ignorant vacuum. I didn't think I was going to win and even after I
did I couldn't believe it, so my third book was written in denial.
Edgar's a big deal. I know that more now than ever. But from the
beginning, my aim has always been to write a better book next time.
So, the pressure I feel now has more to do with what I accomplished
in Person of Interest than it does with Edgar. Though he still sits
on my bookcase, looking over my shoulder.
MK: I'm always reluctant to talk about what's coming next, but I'm
happy to ask other writers to do so. So, what's coming next?
TS: I'm also reluctant. How about some enticing keywords?
Corporate Real Estate
I realize that kind of looks like the Sun Times' headlines. What can
MK: After a careful perusal of the ARC for Person of Interest and your
photograph on the back cover, I have to ask: do such provocative poses
come naturally for you, or did that require a photographer's coaching?
TS: Provocative? I was trying to look tough.
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