This week I get to interview one of my heroes. What can I say about Lawrence Block that hasn’t already been said elsewhere?
In his own words: “Lawrence Block’s novels range from the urban noir of Matthew Scudder (A Drop of the Hard Stuff) to the urbane effervescence of Bernie Rhodenbarr (The Burglar on the Prowl), while other characters include the globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner (Tanner on Ice) and the introspective assassin Keller (Hit and Run). He has published articles and short fiction in American Heritage, Redbook, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, GQ, and The New York Times, and 84 of his short stories have been collected in Enough Rope. In 2004, he became executive story editor for the TV series TILT. Several of his novels have been filmed, though not terribly well. His newest bestsellers are Hit Parade, his third Keller novel (July 2006 in hardcover), and All the Flowers are Dying (April 2006 in paperback), the sixteenth Matthew Scudder novel. Larry is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America, and a past president of both MWA and the Private Eye Writers of America. He has won the Edgar and Shamus awards four times each and the Japanese Maltese Falcon award twice, as well as the Nero Wolfe and Philip Marlowe awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Private Eye Writers of America, and, most recently, the Cartier Diamond Dagger for Life Achievement from the Crime Writers Association (UK). In France, he has been proclaimed a Grand Maitre du Roman Noir and has twice been awarded the Societe 813 trophy. He has been a guest of honor at Bouchercon and at book fairs and mystery festivals in France, Germany, Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Spain, and, as if that were not enough, was presented with the key to the city of Muncie, Indiana. Larry and his wife Lynne are enthusiastic New Yorkers and relentless world travelers.”
ANTHONY: I have to admit I’ve been dragging my heels on this interview because I’ve been a bit daunted. Everyone has those folks they’re just star-struck around. I’d be equally as tongue-tied if I had the chance to interview John Glover (even after having met him twice), or Neil Gaiman, or Michael Emerson. So that got me to wondering: who gets Lawrence Block star-struck?
LAWRENCE: Hmmm. There must be someone, but I can’t come up with anyone offhand. I think age is a factor here, along with life experience. You reach a point where you don’t have heroes anymore, and no longer get star-struck. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but it happens.
ANTHONY: Part of my problem was in trying to come up with questions you’ve never been asked before. And then I realized with a career like yours there probably aren’t any questions you’ve never been asked. I don’t have to be original, I just have to be interesting! Is there any single interview question you just dread hearing? And am I about to ask that question in this interview?
LAWRENCE: I don’t like hypothetical questions about my characters. “What would Bernie do if he met a werewolf?” That kind of crap. I also don’t like to be asked what I’m going to write next, because I don’t know.
ANTHONY: You’ve covered a lot of genres in your career: the light, comedic mysteries of Bernie Rhodenbarr, the more noir-ish Scudder books, Jill Emerson’s lesbian erotica and literary novels. I’d even go so far as to categorize Killing Castro as alternate history. Is there any genre you haven’t tried yet that you’d like to take a crack at?
LAWRENCE: No, I’m not really looking for new worlds to conquer—or to be conquered by.
ANTHONY: In Afterthoughts, you talk extensively about the reasons for using pen names and how your career has really moved beyond that now. Last month, you brought the “Jill Emerson” name back for Getting Off. Any chance that your other pseudonyms will make similar comebacks?
LAWRENCE: I wouldn’t think so. The others were just names of convenience. Jill has been something rather more than that, though I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. (And if this were one of those LB/JE dialogues, she wouldn’t let that last line pass without a comment.)
ANTHONY: Do you think there’s more of your early pseudonymous work still out there “undiscovered?”
LAWRENCE: Well, not undiscovered. In fact, people are forever discovering books that weren’t mine at all, convinced they’ve unearthed a previously unacknowledged pen name. Lots of luck.
But there’s old work I haven’t brought back yet, and probably will sooner or later, avarice and ego being such powerful motivators. In fact, two old books of mine, 69 Barrow Street (as Sheldon Lord) and Strange Embrace (as Ben Christopher) will be Hard Case Crime’s #69 sometime next year, produced in hard cover by Subterranean Press as a double volume, bound back to back or belly to belly, as you prefer.
ANTHONY: Getting Off is the first hardcover book from Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime imprint, and along with new work by Christa Faust and Max Allan Collins the book is the face of the HCC relaunch. Was there any extra pressure associated with that?
LAWRENCE: No, hardly that. Charles really got Getting Off, and his unqualified enthusiasm was a key factor in my decision to do the book with Hard Case. If there was pressure, it was temporal; I had to hurry it in order to be done in time for his fall list.
ANTHONY: What is it like working with Charles? How does the relationship differ when you’re re-issuing an old title versus publishing something completely new?
LAWRENCE: It’s a pure pleasure. I’ve had good luck with editors over the years, esp. in that the right editors have often been linked to just the right books. Joe Pittman edited the Burglar books at Dutton, and had such a feel for them that I wasn’t surprised when he went on to write London Frog. Many fine folks have edited the Scudder novels, and John Schoenfelder was a joy to work with on A Drop of the Hard Stuff. I worked particularly closely with Charles, and showed him work as I went along, which is something I never do; it would seem to indicate a high level of trust, and it was in this instance justified.
ANTHONY: Okay, last HCC question, I promise: If Charles ever decides to bring Gabriel Hunt back for another set of books, would you consider writing one? I’d enjoy seeing your take on Gabe’s womanizing, globe-trotting, modern Indiana Jones ways.
LAWRENCE: No, I don’t think so. I like the books but I don’t want to write one.
ANTHONY: You make it clear in Afterwords that you’re not really a fan of going back and rereading your early work to prepare it for re-issue. Between HCC and the e-books, there’s a lot of older material available again, but certainly not everything. Has there been, or will there be, any kind of organized “roll-out” of older titles? You’ve come close to refusing re-issues for a few titles, I know — are there any that are on the “absolutely not” list?
LAWRENCE: The only books I know I don’t want reissued are ones I didn’t write in the first place, books that were ghostwritten under a pen name of mine. With that exception, my feeling is a paraphrase of an old T-shirt: “Publish ’em all and let the readers sort ’em out.”
ANTHONY: Okay, time for some questions about craft. (Maybe I can learn a thing or two?) You’ve said that you rarely know what you’re going to write next, hence not being able to predict when a new Rhodenbarr or Scudder or Keller book is going to come out. Does that mean you’re also a “seat of your pants” writer once you’re into a project, or do you outline heavily before beginning?
LAWRENCE: Haven’t outlined in years. How much I know about a book before I begin is variable. Sometimes quite a bit, sometimes next to nothing. And I’ve always liked a maxim I’ve heard attributed to Theodore Sturgeon: “If the writer doesn’t know what’s going to happen next, he needn’t fear that the reader will know what’s going to happen next.”
ANTHONY: Have your writing habits changed over the years, other than changing writing locales?
LAWRENCE: Oh, probably, but I’m not sure how. Very early on I’d put on a stack of records, jazz or classical, and have music playing while I wrote. Now I cannot imagine why anyone would do something like that.
ANTHONY: Do you approach the creation of a short story differently than that of a novel?
LAWRENCE: I don’t think so.
ANTHONY: What’s your self-editing procedure? Do you edit as you write, or do you put out a full draft and then go back and tear it apart?
LAWRENCE: Well, I try to get it right the first time. And when I type THE END, I mean it.
ANTHONY: Okay, this one’s a little morbid, but I have to ask. Mickey Spillane left instructions for Max Allan Collins to complete his unfinished manuscripts. You once put the finishing touches on an incomplete Cornell Woolrich mystery. How do you feel about other authors completing any work you leave behind?
LAWRENCE: Well, if I keeled over fifteen words from the end of something, I wouldn’t mind if someone supplied the fifteen words. But I would hope that any old crap lurking in the corner of my office or some back room on my hard drive will be allowed to decompose.
And I certainly hope no one comes along and writes about any of my series characters. Just because readers would like to have another book about this one or that one is no reason to pander to them. Fuck ’em, I say.
I’m quite certain Bob Parker would find a continuation of his series by other hands perfectly appalling, but the man’s dead, and the living can almost always find ways to rationalize acts that bring them money.
OTOH, who cares what the dead want? Being dead means it’s no longer any of your business. Personally, if there’s no afterlife, what do I care? And if there is, am I really going to spend it giving a rat’s ass what happens to some moldering old books down here on this godforsaken planet? What kind of an afterlife would that be?
ANTHONY: Getting Off is out in hardcover. The Matt Scudder short story collection is available. What releases do we have to look forward to in the near future?
LAWRENCE: There’ll be a new novel from Mulholland sometime next year if I ever finish the damn thing. I told you about HCC #69. I’ve got 20+ sex-fact books by John Warren Wells waiting in the wings, and might bring them out as eBooks. I’ve got two years worth of my monthly column for Linns Stamp News, enough material for a book if I think anybody might want to read it. What else? Beats me.
ANTHONY: And my usual final question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
LAWRENCE: I don’t know that I have a favorite. For many years I’ve acknowledged John O’Hara as my favorite author—so many years in fact, that I have to wonder if the statement’s still true. But all I’d suggest to anyone is that they pick up one of the books and read a few pages. Either they’ll like it or they won’t—which, come to think of it, is true of just about anything, isn’t it?
ANTHONY: Thanks again, sir!
LAWRENCE: You’re welcome!