Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Down Mean Streets With Lawrence Block Part II

Today, we continue our marathon interview with writer Lawrence Block, first conducted in April 1995.

JA:  With Scudder, or Bernie or Tanner, to what degree are any of your characters autobiographical?
LB:  Well, every character is, including all the villains! They are all who one would be if one were that character. And certainly the ones that I've chosen to write more than one book about are probably aspects of self to a greater degree than others.
JA:  Are you more Bernie, or more Matt? Or more Evan, for that matter?
LB:  I don't know. If I had a clue to who I was, I wouldn't have to sit around and write about other people. It's probably just a cost-effective form of therapy, don't you think, as it is for most writers.
JA:  One of the things that make your books so successful is the rich supporting characters. Mick Ballou, or Jan, or Carolyn -- they are so vividly drawn. Do you find them taking over a book mid-way, and you have to keep them in line?
LB:  No, not as such. But there are occasionally executive decisions that I find I must make. For example, in A Walk Among The Tombstones, I sent Ballou to Ireland because I didn't want to find myself writing buddy books where he was a major force each time. There is a danger in any on-going series, I think, when there are sufficient supporting players accumulated over the years that you find yourself burdened with them. Like a repertory company where everybody has to shuffle on-stage and do his particular bit. It's the great temptation, I see it a lot in other people's work, and try to guard against it in my own. It becomes a shortcut; you can do that instead of having real stuff happen. It's much easier to fall into that in the Burglar books, which are light anyway and no one would necessarily object. You can have all tail and no dog very easily, and you find there's no room for story.
JA:  Do you think that's what happened with The Burglar That Painted Like Mondrian?
LB:  I liked that best of the books until then. There's nothing in or about that book that explains why there wasn't another one for eleven years. It just happened that way. I certainly wasn't aware of that problem in the book.
JA:  Was it easy to take Bernie up again?
LB:  Well, it took a while to do, as you know.
JA:  I know, but once you got started, was it hard to bring him back?
LB:  No. Bernie was right there. Bernie was there, how he sounded was right there. That part was easy. What was difficult was just the plot. The plot was difficult.
JA:  The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams has one of the best openings in the series.
LB:  Thanks. I was afraid while I was doing it that it wouldn't have an ending! But it all fell together to my delight and surprise.
JA:  There is the standard cliché about starting to read something and not being able to put it down, but here it's true. No one can read the opening chapter and not go immediately to the second. Staying with Bernie, what about the movie version with Whoopee Goldberg?
LB:  Well, I haven't a whole lot to say. The casting was the most curious thing about the movie, and Whoopee was certainly one of the best things in it. She gave a pretty good performance.  A thankless task! I thought the movie was close to working. If only it had a lighter hand to give the script a polish, and if they shot that director and hired another one, it might've been much better. It wasn't bad.
JA:  What was your involvement with the film, if any?
LB:  None. None at all. I saw it in a theater when it opened.
JA:  And probably said to yourself, "Did I write that?"
LB:  Actually, they were rather more faithful to the plot than they needed to be.
JA:  It seems inexplicable to me, when there is a built in audience, to buy the title, buy the plot, but not use the character.
LB:  Well, that wasn't the original intention. The original script was for a male lead. At one point Whoopee was going to play Carolyn, and Bruce Willis was one of several people booted around to play Bernie. This was when Moonlighting was on, and he had a somewhat softer screen persona before Die Hard. He would've been fine; it was a good casting choice. But either he turned it down, or they couldn't come to term with him, or whatever it was, and then, as I understand it, either Whoopee suggested herself for the role or someone else did. They had a three picture deal with her, and they needed something to stick her into between Jumpin Jack Flash and whatever the hell the other picture was. They gave the script a sex change operation and shot it.
As I said, it comes close to working even with all that's wrong with it. Ultimately it doesn't. People laughed a great deal while watching it, and on the way out said: "That wasn't much good, was it?"  If you listened in the theater, it sounded as if everyone was having a good time. They just then told their friends not to go.
JA:  Staying with film for a second, you wrote the screenplay for one of the most interesting horror films of the 80s: Funhouse.
LB:  No I didn't. It says Larry Block. I don't know who that is. I've never written as Larry Block and I don't know who that is.
JA:  I have a few reference books that say, "respected mystery novelist Lawrence Block!" And the magazine Cinefantastique also said it was you.
LB:  I'm glad to know it's interesting. I've never even seen it. There's an actor who uses the name Larry Block, and he may write as well. It may be his work; it may be somebody else's. There's another film, Captain America I think, with the credit line Lawrence Block, and that's not me either.
JA:  Do you have screenplays to your credit?
LB:  I'm not sure credit it the word we're looking for! No, I haven't done any screenplays. But there are a couple of things that make it look as if I have.
JA:  Sorry about the mix-up.
LB:  No, it's a very understandable one. When Funhouse came out, I was getting calls from people and I didn't know what the hell they were talking about! I hadn't seen an ad for it at this point.
JA:  Rent it. It's a good film -- take credit.
LB:  (Laughs.)
JA:  For me, some of your most interesting work has been your books for writers: Telling Lies For Fun and Profit, or Spider Me a Web. Could you talk a bit about your efforts to teach people how to write, and to what extend people can be taught?
LB:  Well, I don't know if I was trying to teach people how to write. I was trying to write a column on the subject of fiction writing. I did that, remarkably enough, for fourteen years. A long time. I don't think I was specifically trying to tell people what to do as much as discussing problems I dealt with, or didn't deal with. I thought, early on, that it wouldn't be long before I ran out of things to write about, and then I discovered, empirically, that I could just take it for granted that once a month I would think of something to write. I never had trouble getting the column written, it was never late.
And, of course, it led to the two books you've mentioned, which were collections of columns. And also, I've done a book on writing the novel. It was a great experience for me. It was instructive in that it focused me in a particular way. Just as you read a differently when you're a writer, somehow you read a little differently when you're writing a column about writing. It was helpful, I think I learned a lot doing it.
JA:  And you've done seminars as well.
LB:  Yeah. My wife Lynne and I put on a seminar for a couple of years in the mid-1980s. It was like a traveling road show. We called the thing "Write For Your Life!" but a better title might've been "The Inner Game of Writing," or "Working on the Writer Within." Something like that. It had very little to do with what ended up on the page, and as a result, we never knew if the people who took it had written or were writing, or how good they were at it. It was immaterial. And it was a wonderfully successful seminar. I keep running into people who said they had taken it and they published this or had done that. But it was enormously demanding: it was a full day, an eight-hour one day seminar. It was draining to do it, because I had to be "on" all the time doing it. I understand there are people who make a profit doing that,  I don't know how. I know the hotels made money, and the airlines made money, and the direct mail house made money, but it took all our time, and we were making about 50 cents an hour! But it was fun to do, though.
JA: I can tell you from experience that your books have been a great help.
LB: Thank you.
JA: I just finished my second novel, and I think the best, and the most, help that I had was found in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit.
LB: Great! I'm delighted to hear that!
More tomorrow!

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