Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Down Mean Streets With Lawrence Block Part III

Welcome to the next installment of our Lawrence Block interview.

JA: You seem to be a quintessential New York writer. What is it about this city?
LB: It's home to me in a very important way, I guess. That's been as true even for the times I haven't been living here. I grew-up in Buffalo, but I visited New York off-and-on starting with my college years. I love it. I find it terribly energizing.
Lynne and I got our "Golden Years" out of the way early. We moved to Florida in the mid 1980s and discovered that it was manifestly not for us. So now we feel that we've had a retirement to look back on! But, down in Florida, I figured that now that I'll be here for the rest of time, I'll start writing novels set down here. And then I thought, gee, I don't know if I can do that, because I don't know what human lives are like down here. Intuitively. I do know that in New York. I somehow always have, and I can't say that about other places.
New York's not only my home, but will always be my spiritual home. That makes it nice to be living here and writing about it. A lot of people have said that the city is almost a character in the Scudder books. And I suspect that's true. I've written books set elsewhere, of course, and will undoubtedly continue to, most probably short stories than novels. But you can never tell what the future holds. But I think I'm advised to keep most of my stuff in New York, because that's what I handle better.
JA: Your series reflects very different New Yorks. The city in the Scudder books is another world from Bernie's.
LB: Same streets, but very different. Every once in a while I get the question, could Bernie and Scudder ever be in the same book? My answer is always -- they're don't live in the same universe! They're both in New York, but they're very different.
JA: You mentioned short stories a moment ago. Like a Lamb to the Slaughter is a wonderful collection. What are the different demands of the short story? Do you have a preference?
LB: Hmm. I don't know what the difference in the form is. I know that any number of novelists don't write short stories, or can't write them. I've always found myself comfortable with the shorter length, as well.
Short stories are enormously satisfying. They come a good deal closer to instant gratification -- about as close as writing comes. You sit down with one idea, pretty much hold the whole thing in your mind at once, and that day or the next you get up and you're done. It would be nice to write books that way, but one can't.
JA: Unless you're Edgar Wallace!
LB: Right. They're also satisfying because there are any number of things for myself that I can do in a short story that I wouldn't be inclined to do in a novel. Settings I wouldn't use, or write from the point of view of characters that I wouldn't be interested in sustaining for a whole novel. All sorts of things like that.
Someone asked if there would be an Ehrengraf novel, and the answer has to be no. He couldn't sustain a novel, but he's perfect for short stories. Lots of things like that. They're fun that way.
JA: The Ehrengraf stories are tremendously satisfying. What was his genesis?
LB: Ehrengraf came about as the result of an adventure in creative plagiarism. Not the obvious plagiarism, that he is a lineal descendent of Randolph Mason,  Melville Davisson Post's character. I can see where one could come to that conclusion, but I never read those stories so I couldn't plagiarize Post exercising all the will in the world.
There was an element of a Fletcher Flora story in an issue of Manhunt sometime in the 1950s where a friend saves her friend from a murder conviction by committing another similar murder while the guy was in prison. I thought there had to be something I could do with that that wasn't actionable plagiarism. Then I thought of a defense attorney who did that, and the character just evolved. Fred Dannay at Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine was very taken with Ehrengraf because he immediately thought it was a homage to Melville Davisson Post, and made it clear that he would be pleased to see more stories about Ehrengraf. I found that more ideas accrued, but there were a limited number of variations one could work on this theme. And I didn't want to write the same story over and over, and I think there is a total of eight Ehrengraf stories. It's very frustrating, because publishers said if I got a book-length collection of them, they'd publish it. But there was no way that was going to happen. Happily, Jim Seels in California did that small press, limited printing of the eight stories collected.
JA: Are they still available?
LB: I think he has some left. It's a hefty price. I think he gets $125 for it. It's a very limited edition and beautifully produced. His phone number is (714) 455-1319.
JA: You were talking about the genesis of Ehrengraf. Now for the question that all writers dread: where do you get your ideas?
LB: I keep up with the newspapers, and read things that pass in front of my eyes. I don't specifically seek anything out. An idea only works if it somehow resonates with a writer at a particular time. There are ideas that cross my mind that I shrug off, and years later they have something for me that they didn't the first time.
JA: Can you think of one?
LB: (Laughs.) No.
JA: Favorite mystery writers? Preferably dead, so you won’t get anyone mad at you.
LB: So many. I did a piece for American Heritage years ago that I think mentioned 16, and...
JA: I have trouble answering questions like that, myself. People ask your three favorite movies on Monday, and on Thursday you come up with three different.
LB: Right!
JA: But there are no mainstays that come to mind?
LB: No. I read less now than I used to. I hesitate to...
JA: I'll let you off the hook. What about authors you recommend to other writers. I know you have a great affection for P.G. Wodehouse and Somerset Maugham.
LB: And John O'Hara, whom I continually reread. I can't think of anyone in particular that all beginning writers should be advised to read. I think beginning writers should read what works for them. I have any number of writer friends who recommend Faulkner, and he has clearly been an important influence on fiction. But you know what? Faulkner never really worked for me. This is not Faulkner's fault; I don't know that it's my fault. But there are books that may have little to recommend them, but when I read them they were alive to me in a certain way that made them more significant.

More tomorrow!

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