Interview with Charles Salzberg

Jen: Today our guest at Book Talk is Charles Salzberg. Charles, will you please share a short bio with us?
Charles: I’m a freelance writer whose work has appeared in magazines like Esquire, New York, Elle, Redbook, Travel and Leisure, and newspapers like the New York Times, the L. A. Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Miami Herald. I’ve written over 20 non-fiction books, including From Set Shot to Slam Dunk, and oral history of the NBA, Soupy Sez!: My Life and Zany Times (with Soupy Sales.) My latest is The Mad Fisherman, Charlie Moore, and in the spring Bison Books will be re-issuing On A Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place, Baseball’s 10 Worst Teams, co-authored with George Robinson. My detective novel, Swann’s Last Song, was just nominated for a Shamus Award for Best First PI Novel. I’ve been a Visiting Professor of Magazine at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and I now teach writing at the Writer’s Voice and the New York Writers Workshop, where I am a Founding Member.

Jen: Tell us about Swann’s Last Song and where it’s available.
Charles: Swann’s Last Song, came out hardcover last year (Five Star Mystery) and will be reissued this Fall, by Greenpoint Press ( It’s still available on or, or it can be ordered through bookstores.

It’s about a down and out New York City skip tracer, who makes his living repoing cars and finding people who’ve skipped on their bills. One day, a rich beautiful woman comes into his seedy office in Spanish Harlem and hires him to find her missing husband. This quickly turns into a murder case which has Swann traveling across two continents to not only find the killer but also the true identify of the woman’s husband, who seems to have led many different lives under many different identities.

Jen: At what age did you discover writing and when were you first published? Tell us your call story.
Charles: I’ve loved books since I was old enough to read and that’s probably when I decided I wanted to write. I used to browse the paperback book racks at a local drugstore and, when I was old enough to go out on my own, I haunted several discount bookstores where I grew up, in New York City. I probably wrote, or at least started, my first novel when I was 12, a roman a clef about summer camp. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get more than 10 or 12 pages into it. I was first published in my high school literary magazine—as I recall, it was a story very much influenced by Freud’s “death wish,” because it concerned standing on a subway platform and having the urge to jump. Fortunately, that darkness hasn’t spilled over into what I write now.

Jen: How do you approach your writing? Do you plot or go with the flow?
Charles: I’m more interested in character, so my books always start off there and then the plot follows. And I don’t like to know where it’s going. I like to be surprised, because I think if I am the reader will be, too. And if I know exactly where I’m going, then I kind of lose interest. So, I’m one of those who does not outline his books. I just create a set of characters and let them take over. In that sense, I’m much more like Norman Mailer who didn’t want or need to know the end of his book, as opposed to Truman Capote who once said he couldn’t start a book unless he knew where it was going to end.

Jen: What kind of research did you do for this book?
Charles: For Swann’s Last Song, I did a lot of incidental research, which means I’m a voracious reader and so whenever I come across something that strikes me as interesting, I tear out the article or mark the page and somehow it often comes up in my writing. Swann, for instance, takes place in various parts of the world, some of which I’d never been to at the time. So, I research them by reading, asking friends who’d visited those places, and watching a lot of TV and movies. My new book, the sequel to Swann’s Last Song, called Bad Reception, takes place partially in the academic and book world, so I’m researching that by interviewing people. That’s the beauty of writing, you can research subjects that interest you and still feel that you’re working.

Jen: What’s the most challenging aspect of writing? Easiest?
Charles: The most challenging part of writing is actually sitting down at the computer. The easiest, besides avoiding writing, which is amazingly easy, is actually sitting there and writing.

Jen: What’s the most rewarding aspect?
Charles: Seeing the words mount up on the page and then having them make sense and, one hopes, be entertaining.

Jen: Is there a genre that you’d like to write? Is there a genre you’ll probably stay away from and why?
Charles: I never thought I’d write in the detective genre, and I’m much more comfortable writing literary fiction (which doesn’t sell,) but I think I’ve managed to combine the two. I’ve just finished another book that’s based on a true crime—it’s called, Skin Deep—but it’s not a who-dunnit, but much more of a literary why-dunnit. I’ll definitely stay away from Science Fiction, Romance and women’s fiction (which used to be called “chicklit,”) each of which I know absolute nothing about (actually, there’s an awful lot I know nothing about, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying it), but these genres don’t really interest me.

Jen: If you could travel back in time for one year, what time and place would you choose? And if you could only take 3 things with you, what would they be?
Charles: Great question. Probably the 1920s, in Paris, with the writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller, Picasso, Stein, and their gang. I probably wouldn’t fare too well, since I don’t drink—but I’d still like to hang out with them. Or, maybe New York City in the ‘50s, with the Beats and the folksingers down in Greenwich Village.

Ipod. Computer. Credit card. I’d really seem like I was from outer space.

Jen: What has been your highlight of your career to this point?
Charles: That’s tough, because there are so many milestones along the way—like selling my first article, or seeing my first article published, or getting my first book contract and seeing my name on a book for the first time. All those were great, but lately I’d say it was having Swann’s Last Song published—because I first wrote it 25 years ago, and just finding out it was nominated for a Shamus award for Best First PI novel.

Jen: Most people only dream of becoming a published writer. Now that you’ve accomplished that goal, is there anything else you dream of doing?
Charles: Actually making a living writing and selling fiction. Playing professional baseball. I don’t know which one is less likely to happen.

Jen: What’s next for you?
Charles: Working on that sequel to Swann’s Last Song, moving into a new apartment, maybe working on another non-fiction book, continuing with teaching writing, which I love doing.

Jen: Where can you be found on the web?

Jen: Is there anything you’d like to ask our readers?
Charles: Sure. I’d like to ask them why they read what they do; how they hear about books; and what they think the future of books is. And I’d also like to thank them for reading this far.

Jen: Readers, Charles is giving away a copy of Swann’s Last Song to a random reader. To enter the drawing, first you need to leave a comment on the post, either asking a question of Charles or answering his. Then you must either leave your email address in your comment or send a message to If we don’t have a way to contact you as our winner, you won’t be entered in the drawing. The winner will be chosen on Thursday, September 24.