Music & Mystery: Schweizer does both wellPublished 10:38pm Sunday, November 24, 2013
Mark Schweizer speaks in a light, lilting baritone, and he sings in a deep, bold bass. When he speaks from that deeper place, the sound can linger like a blessing for hours afterward. He used to be an opera singer, and it shows.
The author’s mystery books contain that same chiaroscuro blending of dark and light. On the surface, they appear to be jovial mysteries, humorous cozies with no overt violence.
Beneath the soft surface of human kindness in the town of St. Germaine, N.C., the setting for his twelve liturgical mysteries, danger lurks and leaps.
“I’ve worked in churches for 35 years, from 1974 to 2009,” Schweizer says. “Most of this stuff in my books has happened to me or to someone I knew. Of course, there’s also the stuff I make up.”
Schweizer embellishes to intensify the humor, which can be dark and address serious topics.
In one book, a woman leaps through the open moon-roof of her car to her death when she thinks that a man in a toga is Jesus and the Rapture has begun. In another book, a flaming baton causes a power outage for an entire town.
In Schweizer’s deft hands, these calamities become not only amusing, but downright side-splittingly hilarious.
He perceives the potential for humor in everyday events and he creates a community where these events can happen. The delight’s in the details, as a little boy in a mouse suit brings down the house at a Christmas pageant singing, “I’ll give my sole to Jesus, ‘cause my bass is heading south.”
“You have to work to be funny when writing; it isn’t always easy,” Schweizer said.
His lead character, Hayden Konig, combines investigative skills of a police detective with the musical sensitivities of a church choir director and the literary ambitions of a mystery novelist.
Schweizer himself has the literary acumen of a seasoned writer, four decades of experience in liturgical music and opera, and a peculiar penchant for creating and solving mysteries.
“I don’t decide who the killer is until the book’s over,” Schweizer said. “I leave three or four options, and enough clues, and then give the book to my wife, Donis. She tells me who she thinks it is, and then I change it to someone else. Then I go back through the book and tweak everything to fit.”
Konig, the main character in the liturgical novels, directs the choir at the fictional St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. He has a special passion for Raymond Chandler and pecks away on the mystery writer’s old typewriter, even as he solves mysteries in the Appalachian town of St. Germaine.
“I wrote newsletters for choirs for many years, silly mysteries and filler, and there were these leftovers I could incorporate into books,” Schweizer said. “In 2002, I had a music publishing business but I knew I had a book in me, and I asked myself, ‘How hard can it be?’”
Many of the Konig character’s sentences could be from the Bulwer-Lytton competition, a popular humor contest that challenges participants to write the worst possible opening sentences for novels.
In fact, Schweizer’s most convoluted and creative sentences have received many Dishonorable Mentions in that whimsical competition. In 2013, he received yet another Dishonorable Mention in the popular Purple Prose category.
Schweizer travels to numerous conferences every year. As a featured speaker at the Carolina Literary Festival, he described the town he created as Mitford gone bad, referring to the sweetness of a town created by author Jan Karon. He travels to conferences not only as a featured writer, but also as an independent music publisher for church choir music.
“Our website has 1,600 pieces or more since 1992,” Schweizer said. “I got my first royalty check from another publisher and immediately said I think I can do better than this.”
Schweizer’s music publishing company, St. James Music Press, operates from an office across from the post office in Tryon and has a web presence at www.sjmp.com.
The site itself demonstrates Schweizer’s irrepressible wit, stating, “Church choral music you’ll love! We’re good, we’re cheap, and we’re snooty!” Schweizer maintains artistic and entrepreneurial integrity, and he has a commitment to being fair to composers while supplying his subscribers with the best possible liturgical music.
“At first, I paid a set fee to composers, but now I pay a royalty, and don’t hold their copyrights,” Schweizer said. “I license the composition for the composer for two years, and the composer can have it back and have royalties on paid downloads. I don’t hold any mechanical rights; I believe the rights belong to the composers. In my business, most people want to get their piece out there and performed, and I like a certain style that’s consistent.”
As an opera singer, a choir director, and a music publisher, Schweizer has developed both an eye and an ear for what will make an effective and meaningful composition in music.
“If someone sends me music, I can tell in 30 seconds if it’s something I’m going to use,” Schweizer said. “I can see if it’s well-crafted, or if there are mistakes in music theory. We have so many pieces now that one piece never will make or break us. With our subscription service, a church can download anything in our catalogue, and we suggest songs for different points of the year.”
Schweizer said he liked to challenge himself to stretch in directions he hasn’t tried, to reach for new adventures.
“How hard can it be? That’s my motto,” Schweizer said. “Sure I can compose a cantata. How hard can it be? You never know what you can do until you actually do it.”
Schweizer has created his life on the principle of loving everyday living. He has taught in college music departments, hosted a classical music radio show, written opera librettos, and directed stage productions. His wife, Donis, shares his enthusiasms, and they have two grown children, ages 33 and 31. Schweizer has a whole-hearted commitment to enjoying life.
“If it’s work, I don’t want to do it. As soon as something becomes work, I quit, and I always make sure there’s something else to fall back on,” Schweizer said. “When a church job changed significantly, as when there’s a new minister or whatever, I didn’t have to stick around and could move on. I always had something else going. I never had fewer than two or three jobs.”
Schweizer enjoys the diversity, flow, and pacing of his self-made life. In addition to his liturgical mysteries, he has written Dear Priscilla, a detective novel set in Chicago, and he doesn’t know yet what his next book will be.
“Now I write, sing, travel, compose for my publishing company,” he said. “I’m building a cabin in the woods in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Every once in a while, I will put on a room or build a treehouse.”
Mark and Donis Schweizer moved to Tryon in 2009, and his books can be found online at his website, www.sjmpbooks.com, at amazon.com, and at the local independent bookstore, the Bookshelf, in downtown Tryon.
“I do like Tryon. There’s lots of arts and concerts, and people are friendly here right away,” Schweizer said. “We moved to Tryon four years ago, right after I met up with Jay and Betsy Goree, and I have known Jay since sixth grace. We hadn’t seen each other in 30 years when we ran into each other in Knoxville. My wife and I had spent 18 years in Kentucky, and we were ready to try something else.”