An Interview with David Swinson and Sam Wiebe

By Rob Brunet

Last year, I had an opportunity to share a perfect writers’ conference moment with two authors on the brink of launching new PI series. You could tell things were off to a good start when a friend handed us each a warm beer wrapped in a paper napkin.

This June, I read their books back-to-back. David Swinson’s THE SECOND GIRL and Sam Wiebe’s INVISIBLE DEAD spoiled me for the rest of the summer. Their first-person character voices are authentic and what they share with their creators is the gravitas that made spending a couple late nights with these guys so memorable.

When I learned it will be at least another year before David Swinson, Sam Wiebe, and I find ourselves in the same place at the same time, I thought maybe I could convince them to conjure up the experience in the ether. Happily, they agreed.

RB: You’ve both written protagonists who are former cops turned PI investigating crimes set in the sex industry where young women with addiction issues are victimized. Both THE SECOND GIRL and INVISIBLE DEAD are series openers and each is firmly set in a well-known city with a reputation for a well-scarred underbelly. What was it about this particular crime that made it the right place to start for your protagonist? What did it allow you to reveal?

DS: I spent sixteen years with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC. About ten of those years as a detective.  I wrote based on my experiences as a cop in the 1990s and 2000s, but THE SECOND GIRL is present day. Sort of a mash-up, I guess. Even though many of the locations I used now have million dollar homes, crime is still prevalent. Also, DC is unique in that it is not a state and does not have suburbs. Virginia borders it and allowed me to get into the suburbs where I knew certain gang members were actively recruiting high schoolers.

SW: I started writing INVISIBLE DEAD during the Oppal Commission hearings into murdered and missing women. As I was talking to people involved, I was struck by how different the official narrative was from what I was hearing.

The survival sex trade isn’t separable from drugs, from colonization, from racism and sexism—it’s all connected, all part of what makes up our day-to-day lives.

With that in mind, I wanted to write a book about one missing woman, which would hopefully elucidate some of the social problems that are perhaps overlooked. It’s very easy to point fingers, and very hard to look at yourself and realize your own complicity.

RB:  You take us down streets a casual visitor to Washington or Vancouver would likely miss (or hope to). How important is it to love a place if you’re going to set a series there? What is it about the dark streets that turns your own crank?

SW: I definitely love Vancouver, but it’s a city that makes itself tough to love. On the surface it’s very tourist-friendly, very beautiful–but real estate has pushed out a lot of people, especially low-income people and young families. It’s a difficult place to find a sense of community.

DS: Exactly what Sam said. Gentrification can be good and bad. The bad part is that a lot of the good families got pushed out. Like Marr said, “You have to know what to do with the collateral damage.”  Being a former cop I saw/still see things that ordinary citizens don’t. Millions of dollars have been put into building up certain areas, but crime still exists. I love DC, but sometimes I wish I didn’t know all I know, that I could walk through the city with fresh eyes.

RB: Each of your protagonists has parts of them that are broken. Did you start there or did they reveal themselves to you as you wrote? As the creator of Frank Marr and Dave Wakeland, respectively, are these guys fully formed in your mind? Do you have a lot in the drawer already or are you looking forward to discovering them over time?

SW: I loved THE SECOND GIRL, by the way. I think that part of why Frank Marr is so compelling is because despite his severe alienation from law enforcement, he’s still immersed in the culture of law enforcement–he’s a cop at heart.

Wakeland is decidedly not a cop—he’s someone who floundered in that culture, and discovered himself outside of it, as a private investigator and security consultant. He’s much more successful in his new career, despite his young age, but the case jars something loose in him–he’s forced to come to grips with how fragile and conditional that success is.

DS: Thank you, Sam. As soon as I get done editing the second book in the series I’ll be reading INVISIBLE DEAD. I did read LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS and absolutely loved it.

My protagonist, Frank Marr was fully developed in my head before I began to write. I wanted him to be broken, but not realize how broken he is so he wouldn’t be a brooding, whining detective. I wanted him to be okay with who he is and accept the fact that he’s the one who screwed up his job. The hard part was to take this amoral, violent, drug-addicted character and make him likeable. I think that worked out because, unlike Sam’s Wakeland, Marr is and always will be a cop at heart. He loved the job and being a detective meant a lot to him. He wants to do the right thing, but usually doesn’t because he can’t help himself.

RB: Your writing styles are very different but share a realistic grittiness. A big part of what made them a pleasure to read was the authenticity of the dialogue. How hard do you work at that? Does most of it come as naturally as it winds up sounding on the page?

SW: Thanks! I feel like good dialog is about rhythm and character. It’s a lot of work—each line has to carry a lot of information without seeming forced.

DS: Definitely a lot of work, but sometimes it just flows naturally. If it seems forced, I delete it right away. Get it out of my head.

RB: Dave, have you been to Vancouver? Or you, Sam, to Washington? There has to be a tour in there somewhere.

SW: Never been, but hoping to! You both have a standing invitation to my couch, if you want it.

DS: I’ll probably take you up on that one day, Sam. I’ve never been to Vancouver, but have always wanted to visit. My house is open to the both of you, too. We should do a DC Noir at the Bar.

RB: Packing my bags. And I’ll keep room for the book two in each series. Thanks for doing this, guys.

David Swinson is a highly decorated member of the Metropolitan Police Department, having received numerous awards including the department’s prestigious Detective of the Year Award for 2003; Meritorious Service Medals for significant, outstanding and sustained achievements; Achievement Medals of Honor for a significant case investigation and several Department of Justice, United States Attorney’s Annual Law Enforcement Awards for significant case investigations. He has also received to major awards from Target Corporation for outstanding community service.  Swinson’s forthcoming book, THE SECOND GIRL, is due to be released in Summer 2016 by Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company.

To learn about Swinson’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

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Sam Wiebe’s novel LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Novel, and is slated for publication in August of 2014. Set in Vancouver, LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS tells the story of an iconoclastic PI’s search for a missing child. Sam’s stories have appeared in THUGLIT, SPINETINGLER, and CRIMINAL ELEMENT’s e-collection, THE MALFEASANCE OCCASIONAL, among others. He lives in Vancouver.

To learn about Wiebe’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

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ROB BRUNET writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.

To learn about Brunet’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:

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