Here is a special treat for Jade Sphinx readers. Those who follow this blog know of my addiction to quality detective fiction. Well, many years ago (1995!) I had an opportunity to interview one of America’s greatest mystery novelists, Lawrence Block. The interview was scheduled to run in a magazine now defunct; and it has been languishing in my files ever since.
So, here is the interview in its entirety, spread out over the course of this week. Enjoy!
The creator of tough guy Matt Scudder has a great smile.
Author Lawrence Block talks with measured deliberation: he's a man who chooses his words with care. The eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses are affable and benevolent. His close-cropped hair and iron gray mustache are more mindful of a career military man than a journeyman writer. A battered green felt hat rests at his side, the kind of hat that inspires wild speculations of dark nights and rumpled trench coats.
But it is his smile that is most striking. It slowly creeps up on him, and he smiles with his whole face. His grin is disarming. Smiling, Larry Block looks like the classroom dreamer, the kid we all knew in school who easily made up stories.
And make up stories he does! Lawrence Block is one of the most popular and well-respected novelists working in the mystery field today. He has created three series characters that have had particular resonance with mystery readers for more than twenty years: private eye Matt Scudder, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, and secret agent Evan Tanner.
Mr. Block is also responsible for several books on the craft of fiction, which, along with his seminars, have helped aspiring writers nationwide.
He has won virtually every award a mystery writer can receive: three Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, four Shamus Awards, a Nero Wolfe Award, and two Maltese Falcon Award. He has also been awarded the highest honor a mystery writer can receive: the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award.
The writer lives in Greenwich Village, and we caught up with him in a local coffee shop.
JA: Well, let's start with your latest, and work our way back. Tell us about your latest book.
LB: Well, the latest book, of course, is the re-issue of Burglars Can't Be Choosers, which is just out. The latest Scudder came out in November, A Long Line of Dead Men, from Morrow. And, I don't know what to tell you about it, exactly...
JA: Were you pleased with it?
LB: I was quite pleased with the way it came out. The central element of the book: the idea of a survivors club of that sort, is an idea that got planted in my consciousness 30 or more years ago. I was reading something about a club of that sort somewhere; I don't remember where I read it...
JA: Could it have been Stevenson's The Wrong Box?
LB: No, this was an article. It wasn't anything fictional. And it took a long time before I thought of using it in a book. And when I did get the idea of using it as the central element of a book, my first thought was to use it in a multiple-viewpoint sort of book and not a Scudder novel at all. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to resonate with Scudder. So I went with it.
JA: And the upcoming Scudder?
LB: Can't talk about the upcoming book.
JA: Not even a title?
LB: Sorry. Promised.
JA: Going back to the beginning. When did you decide to become a writer? Was it what you always wanted?
LB: Well, I don't think it was always what I wanted. I think there was a time when I was four and I wanted to be a fireman.
It was sometime during 11th grade in high school that I realized that it was what I wanted to be. It wasn't that long after that I was doing it professionally.
JA: And your first published book was?
LB: Well, the first published book was anonymous. The first book under my own name was in 1961, Mona.
JA: Can you telling us what some of your early, pseudonymous work was?
LB: Not in any detail. I will be writing about that in a memoir that I'm going to be publishing in the next couple of years. I'm doing some work on it now, an autobiography of my writing life. So, when I bring that out I'll talk at length about the pseudonymous stuff, which I've always declined to discuss. But I was writing various paperback novels, but not for terribly long before using my own name.
JA: You worked for a time at a literary agency.
LB: That's right.
JA: Reading the slush pile. Was that very instructive?
LB: It was wonderful! It was enormously valuable. I was reading no end of inexpert manuscripts every day. And you learn much more reading bad work than good work. Studying expert writing is not valueless, but it's not terribly instructive. You look at it, and know it's good, but it doesn't show much. But when you're reading something not that good, and you can see why, it's enormously instructive. You learn much more from it.
JA: Did you start writing mysteries because it was the genre you most appreciated?
LB: I don't really know. That's not terribly easy to answer. The first short story that I sold was not written to be a crime story initially, but it sold to a crime fiction magazine, Manhunt. Over the years, it seemed to me, that the work that I found satisfying and seemed to have some aptitude for, was in the crime fiction field. So, it was gradual. There was never a decision made that "I will be a mystery writer," or even that I am a mystery writer.
JA: Do you think of yourself as a novelist, or a "mystery writer?" Do you pigeon-hole yourself when you sit behind a typewriter?
LB: No, not necessarily. I just work.
JA: The character Scudder progresses throughout the series. The Scudder in A Long Line of Dead Men is a different man from the Scudder in A Stab in the Dark.
LB: Oh yeah.
JA: Both are equally satisfying, but you're approach is more a slice of life than the average detective story. Not that I'm taking a swipe at detective fiction, but--
LB: I know what you mean. I don't know if that has been a progression as much as the series keeps changing. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I have a very low boredom threshold. I think I tend not to repeat myself too much. Not because I have any moral objection to doing so, but because I can't write something that I find tedious. I think I stopped writing books about Tanner because it seemed to me that I was repeating myself. I don't think readers objected too much on those grounds, though.
JA: I miss Tanner.
LB: A lot of people had said that.
JA: I missed Bernie Rhodenbarr, too. Glad he's back. Getting back to Scudder for a second, if I can. A great many readers of detective fiction like the comfort of coming back to a place that doesn't change. I think Somerset Maugham said that you know no more about Sherlock Holmes after sixty stories than you do after one. But Scudder has evolved a great deal: starting out as an alcoholic, and then his going to Alcoholics Anonymous, meeting and finally marrying Elaine. Has all of this alienated readers who want the mixture as before?
LB: I don't know. Traditionally, books in a series have not varied much and the character has been the same in the beginning as the end. And I had no intention of Scudder's changing in the course of the series. But, it just seemed to me that the books were operating at a level of reality in which he had to be affected by what he experienced. And he couldn't come out of the books unchanged. And this just sort of happened, I write more intuitively than intellectually. I go a lot by how it feels, and it began happening that way.
A Stab in the Dark was the first significant change. The first three are pretty much of a piece, but not entirely for even there is some kind of a shift. But by the time A Stab in the Dark was finished, Eight Million Ways to Die was inevitable. And he's continued to evolve. He has also aged. I've never been specific about his age, but with A Long Line of Dead Men it would've been wrong not to be specific. The book was so much about other people's age that it would've been coy for him not to be specific. It would've been inconsistent. So I figured, all right, let's go on the record and give him a specific age.
So he has grown and changed and evolved.
JA: It think that gives the character the great vibrancy that he has. Much as I admire them, if you've read one Nero Wolfe book, you've read them all.
LB: Yeah, which I never objected to in the Nero Wolfe books, and I happily went on to read them all. I don't think I could've written twelve books about Scudder if he hadn't changed. I would've gotten tired of him.
JA: What event in Scudder's life drew the strongest reader response?
LB: Probably when he cheated on Elaine. I really heard about that, got lots of mail.
JA: Why'd you have him do it?
LB: Don't know. Maybe I think that's the way men really are.