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Man With Two Faces – Decopunk and Self-Reflection

May 15, 2018

An unexpected perk of writing is meeting other writers and learning what’s behind the tales they tell. One of the perks of this blog is that sometimes I get to share those stories with other readers. This week Don Swaim has very kindly agreed to tell us something about the genesis of his latest book, The Man With Two Faces.

From Don Swaim:

When I was seven, I often came across stuff I liked, little poems and stories, and would ask my mother to type them for me on the portable Remington she’d used during her two years at Lindenwood College in Missouri. As my jejune demands cut into her bridge games, dainty watercress lunches, and extended cocktail hours, she insisted I do my own typing.

So I taught myself to type using two fingers and a thumb, and became so boastfully proficient that by college some omnipotent journalism prof ordered me to display my technique, and promptly dispatched me to a touch-typing class before I could continue as a J-school student. I got an A in typing, and I learned that passing Mickey Mouse courses, like typing, would boost one’s overall grade average a lot more than flunking astrophysics.

Disclaimer: I never took a class in astrophysics. But I still type with two fingers and a thumb.

Which brings me to my book Man With Two Faces. A previous novel The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story took over twenty years to write, and was barely saved from extinction by a prominent scholar within the Bierce orbit. But Man With Two Faces, for better or worse, was put together in record time (for me), less than a year.

I’d always been fascinated by a decorative concept of the twenties and thirties known as Art Deco, and it was serendipity that led to my discovery of a minor literary genre, Decopunk, which combines the artistic sensibility of the period with action and suspense. Art Deco itself is personified by symmetrical and rectilinear lines suggesting movement and speed. In architecture, the famed Chrysler Building in New York is a prime example.

Man With Two Faces began as a short story, which was submitted to my local writers workshop. However, the members failed to appreciate the brilliance of my work to the degree that I did. Shallow, lightweight, unrealistic, and unreal, were some of the criticisms. Undaunted, I wrote a second story with the same characters, and then another and another until I covered the years with seven tales narrated chronologically from 1934 through 1940, the final chapter being placed in Algiers on the eve of World War Two.

By then, most, but not all, in the workshop, appeared to grasp what I was trying to do: fabricate a parody of a pulp thriller in the context of the Great Depression. It was also intended to be funny.

Within ten months, I had “finished” the story sequence — while rejecting an opportunity to publish the first chapter in a magazine because I didn’t want to cut the story by a thousand pages.

Believing the story collection was too short for a conventional publisher, and planning to self-publish it as an ebook, in early January I came across two or three independent publishers amenable to accepting shorter works. Not long after my query, Montag Press, Oakland, offered me a contract.

Montag is an impudent, small publisher that calls itself a collective, and takes its name from the fireman in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, thus Montag’s motto, “Books Worth Burning.”

The following three months, after acceptance, required intensive work to turn a collection of related stories into a legitimate novel, albeit one that remains episodic. My editor at Montag provided helpful advice, and graphic artist Rick Febre designed a gorgeous cover with a period design complementing the story.

The book saw print by April, barely more than a year after I wrote the first two sentences: “The Man With Two Faces had returned to New York. To kill me.”

The story involves, not a superhero, but a flawed protagonist and his blowgun-brandishing girlfriend who escort the reader through the Great Depression’s celluloid glamour and real-life agony. The 1930s were glamorized by Hollywood films in the form of incredible dance routines and romantic stars. But the superficial elegance was undermined by poverty and desperation. Man With Two Faces attempts to exemplify the vivid incongruities of the Depression era while exposing its gritty underside.

In writing the book, I found out a lot about the Great Depression and myself.

What was surprising, even frightening, about the era was the willingness of some Americans to accept the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The sight of Nazis goose stepping and openly flaunting their swastikas on the streets of the United States was a symbol that despotism lurked even in a democracy as it does now.

Particularly now.

What may not be apparent to the reader is that the novel’s hero, an ex-rum runner, diamond thief, and soldier of fortune, so physically unlike the author, is more like him than not, carrying many of author’s prejudices, fears, and inherent cockiness.

While there are too many literary influences for me to cite adequately, one stands out. As a child of science fiction and fantasy, I was led from raw pulp to an appreciation of true literature through the writing of Ray Bradbury. However, Ray also proved that even in pulp exceptional writing can be detected. The quality of Man With Two Faces may be assessed negatively or positively, but it is, without apology, Decopunk.

Ray Bradbury and I met twice and he was all I expected him to be.

One of my early readers, the Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, describes Man With Two Faces as “gonzo” writing, for which Joshi claims an affection. While gonzo may be interpreted in varying ways, particularly in relation to journalism, the form invariably delves into offbeat subjects and unorthodox writing styles.

How does an author determine if his work makes any contribution to literature? It is a ridiculous question for which the answer is both simple and futile. As one who aspires to write to succeed, my advice is for authors to forget contributing to literature: Do your best, write decently, avoid clichés, and take chances, big chances even if your work is labeled as shallow, lightweight, unrealistic, and unreal.

Man With Two Faces is available from in both print and ebook:

Don Swaim is a novelist, journalist, broadcaster, and a winner of the Pearl S. Buck International short story award. His novel, The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story, was published in April 2016 by Hippocampus Press, New York. Swaim’s literary thriller, The H.L. Mencken Murder Case (St. Martin’s Press), was republished as a trade paperback by the Authors Guild’s Back in Print program. His fiction and articles have been published in small magazines and on the web, as well as his ebooks Steampunk Electroblaster Romance and Bright Sun Extinguished: Ode to Norman Mailer. Swaim is a Kansan by birth, Ohioan by education, Manhattanite by inclination, and Pennsylvanian by preference. His long-running CBS Radio broadcast about books and writers, “Book Beat: The Podcast,” continues on the Internet. He is also the founder of the venerable Bucks County Writers Workshop, and edits the web’s definitive Ambrose Bierce Site:




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