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December 14, 2013

Theresa Schwegel and the Greatest Gift of All

Posted by emily

Talk about beginner's luck: Theresa Schwegel's debut, OFFICER DOWN, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel from Mystery Writers of America. She is now the author of five crime novels set in the Chicago area. Her latest, THE GOOD BOY, is also her most emotional --- and ambitious --- work to date. It's a family epic about a young boy trying to follow his heart in an often heartless city. Theresa knows a thing or two about following her heart --- and a few well-timed words of encouragement. Here, she shares why she made the choice to pursue fiction writing in the first place, and how a mentor's faith in her proved to be the greatest gift of all. 

Shortly before Christmas 2001, my MFA film program’s semester over, I stopped into Professor Leonard Schrader’s office to say goodbye. That’s when he gave me a shelf-worn, mass-market copy of Janet Evanovich’s ONE FOR THE MONEY and told me I ought to write Officer Down, the screenplay I’d worked on in his class, as a novel.

“You’ve got a voice,” he said, though I was speechless. Len Schrader, a real writer --- an Academy Award nominee! --- telling me I had a voice. 

The truth was, I had no idea about popular fiction; I’d spent the past two years in the movie-dark. Before that, I was an undergrad at Loyola Chicago, where I began to think all adult reading material was inherently difficult to read. But Len said, “You can write, and this is the stuff people like to read.” I tucked the paperback in my bag and took it home for the holidays.

ONE FOR THE MONEY was a revelation. It was engaging. Entertaining. And it provided proof of possibility. This was the same sort of realization I’d had when I heard the term multiverse: my mental parameters were blown wide open.

And so, with Len’s guidance, I began to write the novel.

It was four years later that I stood in front of a crowd at Vrohman’s in Los Angeles and read from the newly published OFFICER DOWN. Len was in the audience, and signing his copy --- giving him back just a little of what he’d given me --- was one of my proudest moments.

The following year, Len passed away. At his memorial, I learned he had a collection of over 100,000 books in his home. I took heart knowing that both OFFICER DOWN and ONE FOR THE MONEY were among all those thousands, twinkling stars in his multiverse.

During the memorial service, his brother Paul spoke about the heavy feeling he carried; weight of the debt he’d accrued over a lifetime of Len’s mentoring. “Only his students can fully understand,” Paul said. I did. I still do. Because Len believed, and that was his real gift to me.