One of my favorite books released this spring has been Duane Swierczynki’s Canary, the story of a seventeen-year-old college freshman forced to act as a Confidential Informant. Duane fires on all cylinders in this one: Canary is funny, intense, gritty, and surprisingly moving. We caught up with Duane to talk about the book, its main character, and and her recruitment into the war on drugs.
MysteryPeople: Many of your books have a heightened quality, but Canary feels a little more grounded. Was that your intention going in or was that simply where the story took you?
Duane Swierczynski: Considering my previous novel featured a guy being shot into space, I thought it might be time to bring the action back down to Earth. But yeah, this was by design: I wanted to tell a street-level story that felt as real as possible, to the point where I was blending in true crime stories as background and writing the book in “real time.” (The story is set in late November/early December 2013 — I’m proud to say that even the weather matches!)
MP: Confidential Informants are a staple of crime fiction, but rarely as a protagonist. What made a lead in that position unique to write?
DS: Nobody loves a snitch, so I was determined to create one that readers might root for. One of the inspirations was a New Yorker article about the plight of young C.I.s who are often left to their own devices. Fellow comic book writer (and gentleman) Fred Van Lente pointed it out to me one day, saying that it would make an excellent subject for a crime novel. He was right. C.I.s straddle the line between the cops and the underworld, which is an incredibly precarious place to be.
MP: With a lot of the cop and criminal parts of the book, I couldn’t help but think of some of those gritty crime movies from the Seventies. Did you have any influences for the book?
DS: There’s one huge one—the 1972 L.A. drug noir Cisco Pike, which pits Kris Kristofferson’s pot dealer against a manic narcotics officer (played by the legendary Gene Hackman). I love this movie to death, and tipped my cap to it with character names. Sarie Holland’s surname is lifted from the Hackman character, and her sort-of boyfriend’s last name is “Pike.”
MP: Much of the story deals with Sarie keeping what she’s doing from her father and brother. What drew you to the family element of the story?
DS: I think being a father, and having children of a certain age — and worried about the choices they might make down the line. In my previous novels, I was usually throwing some avatar of myself into crazy situations. But I realized that it would be much more terrifying to have my children in jeopardy.
MP: This is your first female lead and also someone much younger than you are. Did you feel you had to approach Sarie differently or ask more questions about her during the writing?
DS: Dude, are you saying I don’t look 17? Thanks a lot, man.
I was very nervous about writing from the POV of a 17-year-old girl. But I tapped into my own memories of being an awkward, 17-year-old college freshman (like Sarie, I was pushed up a year) trying to figure out the near-adult landscape. Her journal entries, though, didn’t really take shape until I realized that she should be writing TO someone, instead of just recording her thoughts. That helped a great deal.
MP: You delve into the war on drugs with little judgement. What was the biggest takeaway from the subject after writing about it?
DS: It’s funny; I think I am fairly judgmental about it. Recently, Don Winslow (the authority in this area) tweeted a link to a piece about how the Mexican cartels are adapting to pot legalization in the U.S. — namely, by seeking other markets. That right there says it all: drug dealing is a business, and the drug war is no more effective than Prohibition was.
You can find copies of Canary on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.