Thursday, May 24, 2012

Interview with bestselling author Lawrence Block

In February 2011, Medallion Press had just released my debut novel, a thriller titled FINAL VECTOR, and in an interview I was doing to promote the book I was asked to name the five authors, living or dead, I would invite to dinner if I could. One of the folks I named in my answer was legendary crime-fiction author Lawrence Block.

A few days later Mr. Block searched me out on Facebook, leaving a very gracious message thanking me for the mention. I was stunned. I discovered it really was possible to be, literally, slack-jawed with amazement.

Lawrence Block thanking me? That's a little like Michelangelo walking across Rome to thank the guy spraypainting graffiti on a sidewalk because the guy happened to mention how great he thought that Sistine Chapel job turned out.

But that's Lawrence Block. He's written more books than many people will read in a lifetime, created memorable characters (including my favorite, the stamp-collecting assassin, Keller), won a dozen Shamus Awards, nine Edgar Awards (not including the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master status he achieved in 1994), four Anthony Awards, millions of loyal readers and thousands of glowing reviews.

But more than that, he's genuine and real. He's also busy as hell, but agreed to take a few minutes to e-chat with me. Here's the result:

I would be crazy not to start off with a question about the recent announcement that Liam Neeson has signed on to play Matthew Scudder in the film adaptation of your novel, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES. Any thoughts on the casting? As Scudder’s creator, how do you feel Liam Neeson compares to Jeff Bridges, who also played Scudder in a previous movie version of a different novel?

I think Liam Neeson’s perfect for the role. He’s been on my list since his magnificent portrayal of Michael Collins—a favorite historical personage of mine, as it happens. This said, I should stress that Jeff Bridges did a wonderful job with what he was handed. The script was lousy and unfinished, and the studio took the cut away from Hal Ashby, a director whose greatest strength was in the cutting room.  I’ve met Jeff a few times since, and he’s said how much he regrets the way the film came out.

Will you be given the opportunity to provide any input into the scripting of the film, or is that completely out of your hands?

I may have some sort of role, but I’m not uncomfortable leaving it in Scott Frank’s very capable hands. He’s been trying to make this film happen for a very long time now.

When your first Scudder book was published back in 1976 did you have any inkling he would still be struggling through life nearly forty years later? Was he created with an eye toward making him a continuing character or did it just somehow work out that way?

Crikey, I didn’t know I’d still be struggling through life my own self. I did know Scudder would be a series character, and the first three books were written under contract before the first was published. What I never expected, though, was that he would age or that his life would change. That was not often the case with fictional detectives.

Matthew Scudder isn’t the only memorable character you’ve created over the years. Is there one who stands out as your favorite? One character or book you would change if you could go back in time?

I’m embarrassingly fond of my own work, so they’re all my favorites. And no, I wouldn’t change any of them. There are some awful lines here and there, and I certainly would hope I’ve learned a bit about narrative and dialogue over the decades, but show me a writer who revises his early work and I’ll show you a person with too much time on his hands. It’s written, it’s published, leave it the hell alone.

As someone who has spent nearly six decades writing fiction professionally, there might be no one working right now more qualified to answer this question: how have you seen the business change? Is it better or worse for writers today than when you started back in the 1950’s?

Well, I wrote a blog post about that, and it’s gone bacterial, if not positively viral. Seems to have struck a chord with a good number of people.  Best thing is probably just to give you a link:

I’d say the business has changed more in the last two years than in the twenty before them. But is it better or worse for writers? Better for some, worse for others, I suppose.

After collaborating early in your career with the great Donald Westlake on a couple of titles, you did so again in the early 1990’s—along with Tony Hillerman, among others—on the novel, THE PERFECT MURDER. Those are some editing sessions I wish I could have sat in on. What was the collaboration like? Do you wish you had worked together on other projects?

The Perfect Murder was easy; Jack Hitt quarterbacked the project, and we more or less winged it. I had no contact during the writing of it with Peter Lovesey, Tony Hillerman, or Sarah Caudwell—I’m not absolutely certain I ever met Sarah, though I may have done. So there was really nothing to sit in on. The three erotic novels Don and I did in tandem were enormous fun, as we didn’t consult with each other at all, but just tossed chapters back and forth. I talk at length about the process in the afterword of HELLCATS & HONEYGIRLS; the book’s hard to come by, but the three individual novels (A Girl Called Honey, So Willing, and Sin Hellcat) are eVailable, as is my book Afterthoughts, which tells all about the process.

And one regret I’ve had is that Don and I never did a Dortmunder/Rhodenbarr novel. A fan suggested it to me at a signing, and I fucking hate ideas like that, which so many fans think are just brilliant. But I liked this one, really thought it would work and would be fun to do. I could never get Don past the fact that the Dortmunders were third person and the Rhodenbarrs first. Then at one point I realized I could write about Bernie in the third person, and Don said if he ever got clear of what he was working on, maybe he’d be up for it. I don’t know how genuinely receptive he was even then. But then he was dead, and that was the end of that. Among other things.

Was there ever a time in your career you were tempted to chuck it all and go paint houses for a living?

I was lucky, I never had anything to fall back on.

If you look back over your career, is there one book you’re most proud of? One book you feel best exemplifies you as an author?

Hypothetical situation: You are marooned on a desert island, but just before your ship sinks, you can grab any one book of your choosing. What book do you choose, and why?

In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust. Because there’s no other way I’ll ever read the fucking thing.

What are you reading right now? What’s next on your “To Be Read” list?

I’ve been reading and enjoying The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.  And I’m looking forward to Mission to Paris,  coming next month from Alan Furst. Hmmm, I seem to be on an Alan binge, don’t I?

Thanks very much for taking the time to visit A Thrill a Minute. Any last words of wisdom you’d like to share with my thousands hundreds dozens handful of readers?

Nah, scroom.


Thomas Pluck said...

Interviews with Larry- how shamelessly familiar that feels, though we've met at a few book events- are always a joy to read. You said on your own blog a while back that the appeal of Robert Parker was that we like the way he sounds, and there is a similar appeal in your own work. It feels as comfortable as if you were sitting there and telling us the story, and I'm not sure that's something that can be taught. I think you either learn it on your own, as a writer, or you don't.
I'd say yourself and Joe Lansdale are the ones with the voice easiest on the ears for me.

K. A. Laity said... me a writer who revises his early work and I’ll show you a person with too much time on his hands. It’s written, it’s published, leave it the hell alone.

Amen! So many more things to be written -- never look back. Great interview, terrific questions.

Al Leverone said...

Kate, I loved that quote, too. I think it's especially appropriate in this age of ebooks, when it so easy - almost too easy, really - to revise previously published work.