David Swatling’s debut thriller CALVIN’S HEAD, set in Amsterdam, is suspenseful, atmospheric, violent, and yet playful. Literary while very much accessible. Using rotating points of view, the story is about what happens when a young homeless man with a dog attempts the riskiest gambit imaginable: trying to manipulate a calculating, conscienceless killer.
After a career of acting followed by journalism, Swatling, who has lived in Amsterdam since the 1980s, branches out into fiction with impressive results. He sold his novel to Bold Stroke Books.
You grew up in a small town. How did you land in New York City?
As a kid I dreamed a Disney agent would discover me mowing the lawn and whisk me away to Hollywood to be the next Huckleberry Finn. That never happened. But when I got to Syracuse University to study theater, I had no intention of remaining in rural upstate New York. My new destination: the bright lights on Broadway. That never happened either. I did play the butler in an Off-Broadway hit, The Passion of Dracula.
Did anything in your acting career help you later on with your storyteller craft?
Absolutely—everything from theater history to acting class! It’s all about story, whether it’s Shakespeare or Sam Shepard. From classics you learn about structure, pacing, conflict, climax, all the elements to keep an audience on the edge of their seats. As an actor you get inside a character’s head, create his back story, figure out how he moves, how he thinks. The playwright provides dialogue but the rest is up to you and your imagination. I think that’s why many thriller authors have a theater background.
What motivated you to move to Amsterdam?
As a skinny young-looking actor, I kept being told I’d get a lot of work when I hit my early thirties. I thought: Why bang my head against a wall for the next few years? So I stopped going to classes, auditions, everything. This was the ‘80s in the East Village. There was a lot of trouble you could get into back then. I got into all of it. One night a friend in a bar asked: “Does anyone want to sublet a place in Amsterdam?” In three weeks I quit my job, left my apartment, and made my escape.
What’s it like to be an American abroad for so long? Do you miss us much?
I miss your food! The Dutch have many talents, but culinary skill isn’t one of them. Seriously though, as a writer I miss snippets of overheard conversations. You know those little gems, such as a teenager in a NYC bookshop: “He wrote something else back in the era of the typewriter.” My Dutch isn’t great, so in public I tended to turn off the sound, so to speak. I’ve become aware of this as I spend longer periods in the States. Listening is as important to a writer as observation, so I’m trying to break the habit.
Like myself, you worked in journalism for years before turning to fiction. What made you want to write a novel specifically?
I love fiction and I’d always had the idea that some day I might try to write a novel. Then a strange thing happened in 1995. For reasons too dull to go into, I became homeless and spent a few weeks during the summer living in my jeep with my dog, Calvin. One morning in Vondelpark we came across a crowd gathered behind crime scene tape. Police were questioning bystanders, divers were pulling debris from a pond. I asked what was going on. Apparently, someone’s dog had pulled a garbage bag from the water. It contained a severed human head. All I thought at the time? Thank God, it wasn’t Calvin. Golden retrievers do that sort of thing. But later I began to think: What if it had been Calvin? And the idea for a story was born.
How long did it take you to write your novel and what process did you go through in selling it?
I wrote a couple of chapters in ’98 for a writers’ group. They were very encouraging but before I got further, a bizarre chilling scene played out in my head, a scene I couldn’t imagine writing. So I threw the pages in a drawer, where they stayed for thirteen years. I retired from Radio Netherlands in 2010, traveled for a year, and decided it was time to get creative again. I wrote the first draft in a month and attended ThrillerFest 2012. I learned how much I still had to learn, but also had a blast pitching the story at AgentFest. To my surprise, almost everyone wanted me to submit it. I quickly finished a second draft and sent it off. Too quickly I now realize. A series of “rave rejections” was followed by another draft, another submission, another rejection. So I looked hard at what was (or wasn’t) being said by the agents and decided to go a different route. I sent it to small LGBT press Bold Strokes Books. The weekend of ThrillerFest 2013 I received a contract offer.
What makes Amsterdam a good setting for a psychological thriller?
A friend who visited Amsterdam recently told me she was shocked that the house where Anne Frank and her family hid for two years was on a picturesque canal in the city center. Tourists have this image of pretty tulips and windmills—but secrets lurk behind the Old World facades. My story actually takes place on the outskirts, where people are more likely to fall through the cracks of the country’s well-oiled social system. And in a city without basements, every house has a dimly lit attic, or zolderkamer, often without windows. Creepy enough?
Definitely. What drew you to noir fiction? What do you enjoy most about writing it?
When I was very young, I saw a black-and-white film on television that terrified me. The last line, and title of the film, still chills me to the bone. Sorry, Wrong Number. I’ve been a fan of noir and crime fiction ever since. When I get so involved in writing a scene that I lose all track of time, and even manage to scare myself, that’s what I enjoy most. It usually happens late at night. And sometimes when I sleep… Don’t we all write our own nightmares?
If you had to compare CALVIN’S HEAD to three other contemporary novels, which would you pick?
Interesting question. I need to think about that.
1. SIMPLE JUSTICE by John Morgan Wilson (’97 Edgar Award) .The deeply troubled protagonist’s bad decisions make his situation ever more dire.
2. THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY by Patricia Highsmith. Classic! Her psychological thriller written from point of view of the murderous sociopath set the bar very high.
3. THE DEMONOLOGIST by Andrew Pyper. (‘14 ITW Award). The first-person present POV of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances and strong sense of melancholy. (There’s nothing supernatural in CALVIN’S HEAD, but I finished Pyper’s book two days ago so it’s fresh in my mind.)
What kind of research did you do for the book?
Aside from actually being homeless? I guess twenty-five years of producing arts, culture, and history programs helped. It’s like having an encyclopedia in your head—but with no index. A detail pops out and I look it up to see if it’s accurate. As for Dekker’s thesis on Van Gogh, I’d made several programs about the artist, including one on his reading habits called Vincent’s Bookshelf. I have vivid memories of a road trip through the south of France, which came in handy. When the story demanded I learn about bullfighting, I read Hemingway’s DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON—a book so fascinating it never felt like research.
Why did you decide to write the book in rotating points of view, and which one was the easiest to do?
I’m not sure it was a decision, at least not a conscious one. I’ve always liked novels written in multiple points of view. Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY had a profound effect on me in high school. The distinct voices of Dekker, Calvin, and Gadget all turned up on the pages of Chapter One. I wasn’t sure where they were headed, and yet it never occurred to me there was any other way to tell their story. Once the twists in the plot became apparent, I began to understand why multiple points of view were necessary. Each presented different challenges but—and I’m reluctant to admit this—Gadget came easiest.
Gadget is a dark, dark soul. How did you get into that mindset to write his POV?
It’s like when E. T. points his finger to Eliot’s forehead and says, “I’ll be right here.” That’s where Gadget lives, in a very dark corner of my mind. Some writers refuse to access their inner demons, or even admit they exist. I’ve had to grapple with mine, sometimes quite publicly. So all I had to do was open a door and let him strut his conflicted stuff. I did begin one chapter from Dekker’s point of view, and while typing the first line realized immediately it was Gadget, not Dekker. I’m glad that only happened once!
Would you call Calvin’s POV poetry—and how did you come up with that idea?
At first I considered it poetry. The form seemed best to express how a dog might think. In early drafts he was all over the page like poems by E. E. Cummings. But I took to heart early suggestions to trim his sections, focus on the action. Dogs aren’t poets, and neither am I. My Calvin was a very clever and concise communicator. It was important to stay as true to him as I possibly could. I’m not crazy about anthropomorphizing in any genre, although I may be accused of that anyway.
What do you think of the trend of Nordic noir, and though Amsterdam is not part of Scandinavia do you see CALVIN’S HEAD as part of that?
I’ve been a fan of Nordic noir since I started reading Henning Mankell when his books were first translated into English in the late ’90s. By the way, he has a theater background, too. Do most Americans know Amsterdam isn’t part of Scandinavia? After all, some people ask if I speak Danish. I’d love to see CALIVIN’S HEAD as part of the Nordic trend. Last year I attended the first Iceland Noir festival in Reykjavik. I’m going back in November, so I’ll see what Nordic writers and readers have to say.
David Swatling grew up in rural New York, studied theater, and escaped to Amsterdam in 1985. He produced arts & culture documentaries for Radio Netherlands and is three-time winner of the NLGJA Excellence in Journalism Award, among other international honors. He continues to blog about the arts and LGBT issues. CALVIN’S HEAD is his first novel.
To learn more about David, please visit his website.