Block, Lawrence 1938- (Chip Harrison, Paul Kavanagh)
BLOCK, Lawrence 1938- (Chip Harrison, Paul Kavanagh)
PERSONAL: Born June 24, 1938, in Buffalo, NY; son of Arthur Jerome and Lenore Harriet (Nathan) Block; married Loretta Kallett, 1960 (divorced 1973); married second wife, Lynne (a painter), 1983; children (first marriage): Amy, Jill, Alison. Education: Attended Antioch College, 1955-59. Hobbies and other interests: Travel.
CAREER: Scott Meredith, Inc., New York, NY, editor, 1957-58; Whitman Publishing Co., Racine, WI, editor, 1964-66; freelance writer, beginning 1958. Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY, instructor, 1981-82.
MEMBER: International Association of Crime Writers, International Narcotics Enforcement Officers Association, International Association for the Study of Organized Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Players Club.
AWARDS, HONORS: Nero Wolfe Award for Best Mystery of 1979, for The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling; Shamus Awards, Private Eye Writers of America, including Best Novel, 1983, for Eight Million Ways to Die, Best Short Story, 1985, for "By Dawn's Early Light," Best Novel, 1994, for The Devil Knows You're Dead, and Best Short Story, 1994 for "The Merciful Angel of Death"; Edgar Allan Poe Awards, Mystery Writers of America, including Best Short Story, 1985, for "By Dawn's Early Light," Best Novel, 1992, for A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, Best Short Story, 1994, for "Keller's Therapy," Grand Master designation, 1994, and Best Short Story, 1998, for "Keller on the Spot"; Maltese Falcon Awards (Japan), for When the Sacred Ginmill Closes and A Ticket to the Boneyard; Anthony Award for Best Anthology/Short Story Collection, 2001, for Master's Choice 2; Lifetime Achievement Award, Private Eye Writers of America, 2002; Grand Maitre du Roman Noir (France); Societé 813 Trophy (France).
Mona, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1961, published as Sweet Slow Death, Berkley (New York, NY), 1986.
(Under pseudonym Andrew Shaw) $20 Lust, Night-stand, 1961, published as Cinderella Sims, Subterranean (Burton, MI), 2002.
Death Pulls a Doublecross, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1961, published as Coward's Kiss, Countryman (Woodstock, VT), 1987.
Markham, the Case of the Pornographic Photos, Belmont Books (New York, NY), 1961, published as You Could Call It Murder, Countryman (Woodstock, VT), 1987.
The Girl with the Long Green Heart, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1965.
Deadly Honeymoon, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.
After the First Death, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
The Specialists, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1969.
Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, Geis, 1971.
Ariel, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1980.
(With Harold King) Code of Arms, R. Marek, 1981.
Sometimes They Bite (short stories), Arbor House (New York, NY), 1983.
Like a Lamb to Slaughter (short stories), Arbor House (New York, NY), 1984.
(With Cornell Woolrich) Into the Night, Mysterious Press (New York, NY), 1987.
Random Walk, Tor (New York, NY), 1988.
Some Days You Get the Bear (short stories), William Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.
Ehrengraf for the Defense (short stories), ASAP, 1994.
Hit Man (short stories), Morrow (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor) Master's Choice: Mystery Stories by Today'sTop Writers and the Masters Who Inspired Them, Berkley (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor) Death Cruise: Crime Stories on the OpenSeas, Cumberland House (Nashville, TN), 1999.
Hit List (novel), Morrow (New York, NY), 2000.
Collected Mystery Stories of Lawrence Block, Trafalgar Square (Pomfret, VT), 2000.
(Editor) Master's Choice 2, Berkley (New York, NY), 2000.
(Editor) Opening Shots, Cumberland House (Nashville, TN), 2000.
(Editor) Speaking of Greed, Cumberland House (Nashville, TN), 2001.
Enough Rope: Complete Short Stories, Morrow (New York, NY), 2002.
Small Town, Morrow (New York, NY), 2003.
Contributor to Murder on the Run, 1998, Opening Shots, 2000; contributor and guest editor, Best American Mystery Stories of 2001, edited by Block, Tony Hillerman, and Otto Penzler, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
"evan tanner" series
The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep, Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1966.
The Canceled Czech, Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1967, first reprinted, Otto Penzler, 1995.
Tanner's Twelve Swingers, Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1967.
Two for Tanner, Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1967, published as The Scoreless Thai, Subterranean Press (Burton, MI), 2001.
Tanner's Tiger, Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1968, reprinted, Subterranean Press, 2001.
Here Comes a Hero, Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1968.
Me Tanner, You Jane, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1970.
Tanner on Ice, Dutton (New York, NY), 1998.
"matthew scudder" series
Sins of the Fathers, Dell (New York, NY), 1976, reprinted, Dark Harvest, 1992.
In the Midst of Death, Dell (New York, NY), 1976, reprinted, G & C Books, 1995.
Time to Murder and Create, Dell (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Dark Harvest, 1993.
A Stab in the Dark, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1981.
Eight Million Ways to Die, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1982.
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1986.
Out on the Cutting Edge, Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.
A Ticket to the Boneyard, Morrow (New York, NY), 1990.
A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
A Walk among the Tombstones, Morrow (New York, NY), 1992.
The Devil Knows You're Dead, Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.
A Long Line of Dead Men, Morrow (New York, NY), 1994.
Even the Wicked, Orion (London, England), 1996, Morrow (New York, NY), 1997.
Everybody Dies, Morrow (New York, NY), 1999.
Hope to Die, Morrow (New York, NY), 2001.
"bernie rhodenbarr" series
Burglars Can't Be Choosers, Random House (New York, NY), 1977.
The Burglar in the Closet, Random House (New York, NY), 1978.
The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, Random House (New York, NY), 1979.
The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, Random House (New York, NY), 1981.
The Burglar Who Painted like Mondrian, Arbor House (New York, NY), 1983.
The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, Dutton (New York, NY), 1994.
The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.
The Burglar in the Library, Dutton (New York, NY), 1997.
The Burglar in the Rye, Dutton (New York, NY), 1999.
under pseudonym paul kavanagh
Such Men Are Dangerous, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969, published under name Lawrence Block, Jove (New York, NY), 1985.
The Triumph of Evil, World, 1971, published under name Lawrence Block, Countryman (Woodstock, VT), 1986.
Not Comin' Home to You, Putnam (New York, NY), 1974, published under name Lawrence Block, Countryman (Woodstock, VT), 1986.
"chip harrison" series; originally published under pseudonym chip harrison
No Score (also see below), Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1970.
Chip Harrison Scores Again (also see below), Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1971.
Make out with Murder (also see below), Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1974.
The Topless Tulip Caper (also see below), Fawcett Gold Medal (New York, NY), 1975, published as Five Little Rich Girls, [England].
A.K.A. Chip Harrison (includes Make out with Murder and The Topless Tulip Caper), Countryman (Woodstock, VT), 1983.
Introducing Chip Harrison (includes No Score and Chip Harrison Scores Again), Countryman (Woodstock, VT), 1984.
(With Delbert Ray Krause) Swiss Shooting Talers andMedals, Whitman Publishing (Racine, WI), 1965.
Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print, Writer's Digest (Cincinnati, OH), 1979.
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for FictionWriters (collected Writer's Digest columns), Arbor House (New York, NY), 1981.
(With Cheryl Morrison) Real Food Places: A Guide toRestaurants That Serve Fresh, Wholesome Food, Rodale (Emmaus, PA), 1981.
Write for Your Life, Write for Your Life Seminars (New York, NY), 1985.
Spider, Spin Me a Web: Lawrence Block on WritingFiction (collected Writer's Digest columns), Writer's Digest Books (Cincinnati, OH), 1988.
(With Ernie Bulow) After Hours: Conversations withLawrence Block, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1995.
Former columnist, Writer's Digest. Contributor of articles and short fiction to American Heritage, Red-book, Playboy, GQ, and the New York Times.
ADAPTATIONS: Several of Block's books were adapted for film, including Deadly Honeymoon, Eight Million Ways to Die, and The Burglar in the Closet. Screen rights to Hit Man and A Walk among the Tombstones have been purchased. The short story "Cleveland in My Dreams" was adapted by BBC-TV as Bradford in My Dreams.
SIDELIGHTS: Lawrence Block has entertained millions of readers with his stories of adventure and mystery. A winner of the coveted Grand Master designation from the Mystery Writers of America, Block is immensely prolific without sacrificing the quality of each individual novel or story. He is the author of several successful series, and has also written numerous books about the craft of writing. His novels are action-driven, but reviewers have frequently pointed out that Block's skillful prose and strong characterizations set his work apart from many books in the genre. A writer for the Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service commented that Block "works literature's nearly forgotten middle ground. His novels aren't Tom Clancy-inspired pulp stories where the hero is more intimate with violence and political conspiracies than with any real human emotion. Nor are they . . . introspective, lit-mag fare. . . . Instead, Block's settings and plot contrivances very much exist in a world we recognize from our own day-to-day lives, and all the characters ring true."
A portion of Block's work is lost to history. He taught himself the craft of fiction by writing pulp novels under pseudonyms—sometimes at the pace of a book a month. In the course of a gradual process of improvement, he started writing action mysteries and then devised his first series sleuth, Evan Tanner. Tanner is a cold war-era spy who can work twenty-four hours a day, because the sleep center in his brain has been destroyed. The globe-trotting Tanner is proficient with espionage and women in novels such as The Canceled Czech, Here Comes a Hero, and Me Tanner, You Jane. Published in 1970, Me Tanner, You Jane marked the insomniac's last appearance until 1998, when Block resurrected him in Tanner on Ice. The author turned the character's twenty-eight-year hiatus into part of the plot, explaining that Tanner had been cryogenically frozen for all those years. Thus Tanner faces not only his usual dangerous activities but also the challenge of culture shock.
Darker and more complex than the "Tanner" books are Block's novels about Matthew Scudder, a former New York City detective now working as a private investigator. In novels such as Eight Million Ways to Die and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, Skudder trails criminals and also battles his own demon, alcoholism, which Library Journal contributor Stephen L. Hupp called "the most interesting aspect of the work." Also in Library Journal, Roland C. Person noted that Block stresses the idea that "actions have consequences—past events come back with a vengeance, and Scudder's interior conflicts drive the series." Reviewing Everybody Dies, a Publishers Weekly writer praised Block's "seamless weave of thought and action" and his "matchless gift for dialogue that is true, funny, and revealing," and concluded that "the pages leading up to the climax have an almost Shakespearean feel for human resignation in the face of mortality."
Block has written more books featuring Scudder than any of his other characters, and Scudder has aged naturally along with his creator. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, John L. Cobbs wrote: "Of all the detectives in modern American mystery writing, Scudder is among the most hard-boiled and the most damaged. His fundamental decency combined with his knowledge of the seamiest side of life give him a flexible tolerance of, and ability to deal with, all but the most depraved characters." Cobbs noted that Scudder's struggle with addiction has been a cornerstone of the series, but it is not the character's only selling point. "Scudder is a fascinating character," the critic wrote. "Despite his rough edges, there is a decency in his ongoing battle with the New York underworld that belies his occasional brutality and the apparently callous cynicism with which he defends himself from the atrocities he encounters. . . . The series as it now stands is certainly one of the significant exempla of the hard-boiled genre. No other hard-boiled writer has more thoroughly delineated a gritty urban degeneracy than has Block in his clear-eyed depiction of the underside of New York that is Scudder's milieu." According to Wes Lukowsky in Booklist, in the "Scudder" mysteries "the crimes . . . are vehicles to take us to the darkest corners of human experience," and readers leave "these visits to the dark side a little more fearful but always richer for the experience."
Another of Block's popular creations is Bernie Rhodenbarr, a Greenwich Village bookseller who moonlights as a cat burglar. Bernie's illegal escapades ultimately lead him to corpses in mysteries such as The Burglar Who Painted like Mondrian, The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, and The Burglar in the Rye. Lighter in tone than the "Scudder" books, the "Rhoden-barr" adventures have been singled out by numerous reviewers for their subtle wit. Indeed, Rhodenbarr's Manhattan hardly resembles Scudder's at all, at least on the surface. Rhodenbarr hob-nobs with the rich and the intellectual achievers, and it is from this cluster of the elite that he draws his burglary victims. Cobbs observed: "A hero detective who is also a criminal, Rhodenbarr is a deliberate contradiction in terms—the focus of a series that is comic where the Scudder series is serious, delicate rather than brutal, and clever rather than profound." Reviewing The Burglar in the Rye for BookBrowser, Harriet Klausner called it as "delightful and refreshing as all the others in the series."
Block gave readers a new twist with Hit Man, a book of short stories about an introspective contract killer named John Keller. To all appearances, Keller lives a mundane single life in New York City—except that occasionally he flies to another location and kills someone. His business is handled by his agent, Dot, who sets up his "appointments" and helps Keller cope with his moral qualms after the job is done. Rex Roberts, describing the book in Insight on the News, termed it "screwball noir" and added: "Block is having great fun in Hit Man, brilliantly using the ordinariness of Keller even as Keller finds himself, more often than not, in extraordinary circumstances." Keller is also featured in the novel Hit List, in which he finds himself the target of another assassin. "Hit List contains all the humor and action that readers expect from a Lawrence Block novel," wrote Harriet Klausner for BookBrowser. "The story line is two parts amusement, two parts gloom and doom, and six parts irony." She concluded that while Hit List might not appeal to every reader, it will certainly satisfy those "who relish a dark satirical look at life."
As a longtime resident of New York City, Block has often used the metropolis almost as a character in his works. This is nowhere more apparent than in Small Town, an extremely dark stand-alone novel about a serial killer plying his trade in the wake of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. In the course of the story, the murderer's actions touch people from all walks of life, whose destinies thereafter become entwined. The book also departs from Block's typical manner of working in that it is told from multiple viewpoints. A Publishers Weekly correspondent felt that the novel "takes a number of risks unusual for its author" and concluded that the finished product is "a bold and flashy effort." In Library Journal Wilda Williams declared that Small Town "features beautifully drawn characters and a strong sense of place."
In addition to his fiction, Block has published a number of books on the craft of writing, most of them based upon the monthly column he wrote for Writer's Digest for more than a decade. He keeps in touch with his fans through an extensive Web site and a newsletter. Booklist reviewer Bill Ott concluded: "Lawrence Block combines three characteristics that rarely show up in the same crime writer: he's versatile, he's prolific, and he's damn good."
Lawrence Block contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
When I was fifteen years old, I was in May Jepson's third-year English class at Bennett High School, in Buffalo, New York. We'd been assigned a composition,
a couple of hundred words on our vocational choice. Having at this point no idea what I might want to do after college, I provided a presumably humorous examination of my various career choices over the years, beginning with my initial decision at age four to become a garbage collector. (I abandoned this choice when my mother advised me that garbagemen got chapped hands.)
I don't remember what else I wrote, or what other occupations I reviewed, but I do recall my ending. "On reading over this composition," I wrote, "one thing becomes clear. I can never become a writer."
Miss Jepson liked my composition and gave it a good grade. (This was not remarkable. I always got good grades.) And, in the margin alongside my last sentence, she wrote: "I'm not so sure about that!"
No scrap of marginalia ever had a more dramatic effect. Before, I'd never once had a conscious thought
of becoming a writer. From that moment on, I never seriously entertained the idea of doing anything else.
This will be about my life as a writer. The quantity of words I've written notwithstanding, writing has not been my entire life. It is, however, the only part I feel reasonably comfortable telling you about. If you're looking for someone who will afford you all sorts of personal glimpses of himself and others, someone eager to write candidly about family and childhood and intimate relationships, don't pick out a fellow who's spent the past thirty years writing fiction. If I had any interest in letting you know who I really am, I'd have done so years ago. I wouldn't have sat up nights making up stories about imaginary people.
More to the point, my writing life is the only thing that's legitimately interesting about me. (The adverb is the operative word there. There are undoubtedly other aspects of my life you might find absorbing, in a National Enquirer sort of way, but they're really none of your business. An advantage the fiction writer has over the journalist, it has long seemed to me, is that he doesn't have to violate anyone else's privacy. As an autobiographer, I'd like to see if I can't manage to avoid violating my own.)
I was born in Buffalo on June 24, 1938 (sun in Cancer, moon in Taurus, Gemini rising), the elder of two children. My father was a native New Yorker. He met and married my mother, a Buffalonian, while both were attending Cornell University. He practiced law in Buffalo. My mother was (and is) an accomplished painter and pianist, but never pursued either direction professionally.
I had what I suppose was a conventional childhood, although I don't suppose I was a conventional child. The first creative writing I can specifically recall came when I was ten. Our Sunday-school class was assigned the chore of writing a Mother's Day poem. This was my poem, which I recall in its entirety:
Mother so lovely, mother so fair,
You are as fresh as the fresh spring air.
I can't say I see any hidden talent lurking in those lines, but what do I know? I do know that the teacher liked it, and asked if it was original. "No," I said. "I made it up."
I wasn't being cute. I'd heard things described as being an original Rembrandt, an original Picasso, and I guess I thought original meant by somebody famous, or something like that. All the same, I think my response was right on the money. I did make it up, and it wasn't particularly original.
A few years later, in the eighth grade, I wrote a 200-word essay on Americanism. So did every other kid in Erie County. The Buffalo Evening News and the American Legion co-sponsored an essay contest, with winners chosen in twelve categories. I was the winning Buffalo public grammar school boy. Coincidentally, the winning girl was my classmate, Lorraine Huber, a set of circumstances which very likely led lot of people to suspect that our teacher, Edna Johnson, rewrote our entries for us. No such thing. Mrs. Johnson left my essay strictly alone. She did rewrite my pen name, however. You had to submit the essay under a three-word pen name, and the one selected was Rutherford Delano Quincy. (I figured something with a vaguely presidential sound would be American as all getout, so I took the Rutherford from Hayes, the Delano from Roosevelt, and the Quincy from J. Q. Adams.)
Mrs. Johnson persuaded me to change this to Ford Delaney Quincy. She felt Rutherford was long and effete-sounding, and Delano might alienate any Roosevelt-hating Republicans among the judges. Ford Delaney Quincy didn't sound very presidential to me, but I didn't argue.
The prize was publication in the News and a trip to Washington for the dozen winners. We were escorted by an editor from the News and an American Legion official and his wife. I read about the legionnaire a couple of times over the years. He led a batch of local anticommunist witch hunts in Buffalo during the fifties, and ultimately killed his wife and himself in what seems to have been some sort of suicide pact.
I don't have a copy of my essay, but that's all right. The opening sentence was "Americanism—what is it?" and the next 195 words were about what you'd expect. It strikes me now that it was very much in the tradition of my Mother's Day poem. It wasn't original, and I made it up.
Despite its handsome payoff, the essay contest did not launch a career. Miss Jepson's approval three years later did. I suppose it came at the right time and that I was on the verge of discovering literary ambitions myself. It was around this time that became a serious reader. I had always read a great deal as a child, but then there was a period of a year or two when I didn't read much, and then I began reading adult fiction and made my way through most of the more accessible writers of realistic American fiction. James T. Farrell was an early favorite, along with Thomas Wolfe and John Steinbeck. By the time Miss Jepson suggested that being a writer was not necessarily beyond my grasp, I already understood that it was something very much worth being.
Having made up my mind, I didn't immediately feel the need to sit down and write anything. I did write some poems, and I did give my creativity free rein in my English assignments, but I thought of writing as something I would do later on, when I knew how to do it, and when, presumably, I had something to write about.
In the meantime, though, I got my first writing income. My friend Mel Hurwitz wanted a love poem to impress his girlfriend, who was either Nancy or Natalie Shupe. (They were twins, and I don't remember which one he was going with.) I wrote him a poem that he could pass off as his own work, and he paid me a dollar. I remember nothing about the poem, or what I did with the dollar.
Years later I recalled this incident in a piece I wrote for Writer's Digest. Someone showed a copy to Mel and he wrote me a letter. He hadn't passed the poem off as his own, he assured me; Nancy (or Natalie) would never have bought it. But she was impressed enough by his role as patron of the arts, so he got his money's worth out of it all the same.
If Ford Delaney Quincy was my first pen name, I guess Melvin Hurwitz was my second. I don't remember my third and fourth, but they were whatever tags I stuck on my two entries in the contest for Senior Class Poet. The only nonelective class officer, the poet was chosen by a faculty committee, and pen names kept the teachers from knowing who was who.
I entered twice. One poem was eighty lines of stately iambic pentameter—"Four years have passed since first we called you Home. . . ." The other was free verse, shorter, impressionistic. The first one won, and was printed in the yearbook, and it is no better than the first line would lead you to suspect. The second placed second, Miss Jepson confided. "I knew they were both yours," she added.
I never saw her again after graduation. I never went back to the school to visit. Twenty years later, when I acknowledged Miss Jepson in the dedication of a book on writing the novel, I tried to get in touch with her. She had long since retired and moved to California, and a letter I sent to her came back. For that matter, I never saw Mrs. Johnson after I graduated from PS 66. I had other teachers who did me good, at 66 and at Bennett, and I never went back to see any of them.
I wish I had. It doesn't keep me up nights, but it's something I wish I'd done.
I went to Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I majored in English, although I seemed to be more interested in taking history courses. I figured you were supposed to major in English if you wanted to be a writer.
I wrote some stories for the college paper, because that also looked to be something you ought to do, but I knew I had no interest in journalism as a career. It was supposed to be good training, and I'm sure it is, but it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to be a writer, and that meant fiction and poetry.
And I was busy trying to write both. I mostly wrote poems, probably because they were shorter and easier. The short stories I wrote were very short, little ironic vignettes for the most part. They weren't any good and they didn't amount to anything.
I sent them off to magazines. Of course they came back. I expected nothing less. I pinned the rejection slips to my bulletin board and sent off more submissions.
Let me stress that I did not find this process disheartening, nor do I see it now as having been a waste of time. What I wanted then, more than anything else, was to be a writer. By submitting my work and collecting a rejection slip for my troubles I was very definitely being a writer. I have heard it said that going fishing and not catching anything is the second best activity in the world, surpassed only by going fishing and catching something. For me, having my early efforts returned was second only to having them accepted.
Antioch had (and has) a co-op program; you spend half your time on campus studying and the other half away from Yellow Springs, working at some sort of job presumably linked to your interests or vocational aims. Like most freshmen, I spent my entire first year studying. The following summer I took a co-op job as a mail boy at Pines Publications, a magazine and paperback-book publisher in New York.
I had first visited New York in 1948. My father and I spent a long weekend there. We stayed at the Commodore Hotel and went all over the city. When I knew I was going to become a writer, I also knew this meant I would live in New York. I don't know how I knew this, but I took it as a given.
The three months I spent at Pines Publications were some of the best times I ever spent in my life. Two roommates and I found an apartment in Greenwich Village, on Barrow Street. We spent evenings in the coffeehouses on MacDougal Street and our Sundays singing folk songs around the fountain in Washington Square. At six, when the cops chased us off, the crowd came back to our place on Barrow Street and the singing went on until after midnight. I wrote some songs, then and during the next couple of years. Most of them were political parodies, and some were published. (Anonymously—we figured we were on enough lists already.) Dave Van Ronk recorded one of my songs, "Georgie and the IRT," an urban parody of an old Carter Family tearjerker. A few years later we heard that the Kingston Trio might cover the song, but then they came out with their M.T.A. song, "The Man Who Never Returned," and I guess they figured one subway ballad was enough.
There was nothing terribly interesting about the work I did at Pines, but it was interesting being there, and I could have stayed; the fellow who ran the promotion department was about to lose his assistant and offered me the job. I told him I was scheduled to go back to school in another month, and he immediately assured me I ought to do just that, that I'd be better off at college. I'm not sure he was right, but I never seriously considered dropping out and taking the job, although I would have liked to.
Earlier, the month before I came to New York, I read a paperback collection of short stories by Evan Hunter, who had not long before won some fame with The Blackboard Jungle. These particular stories had been published in Manhunt, and they were all more or less concerned with juvenile delinquents. I identified enormously as I read the stories, not so much with the characters as with their author. These were stories that I very much admired, and at the same time they were stories I could imagine myself writing. I even tried one story about a young man and his girlfriend besieged by a pack of teenaged hoodlums. It didn't work and I didn't finish it, but the attempt was unquestionably prompted by what I'd read.
While I was working at Pines and living on Barrow Street, I did write one short story, a first-person piece with a narrator who lives by his wits. He pulls a couple of scams, and then the story ends inconclusively.
Back at Antioch, I dusted off the story and decided it was good enough to submit. I sent it to Manhunt. I had never seen the magazine, but I remembered that Hunter's stories had appeared there, so I got the address and sent the story out. It came back, but with a note from the editor saying it had almost worked but that it needed some sort of a snapper for the ending. If I could think of a way to fix it, he'd be happy to look at it again.
I went out and bought a copy of Manhunt, read all the stories in it, and came up with an ending. My narrator, after all the little con games he pulled, knows he's going to be really rich because he's put all his money in some investment or other. Gold-mine stock, maybe. The reader knows that he's fallen for a scam himself. The ending owed a lot to O. Henry's "Man at the Top," and the guy at Manhunt sent it back promptly with a note expressing regret that the new ending was pat and predictable and really didn't work.
Meanwhile, I was taking a short-story workshop and a poetry class and getting a lot of stuff written. I had two things going for me from the jump. I was fast and I was smooth. It was easy for me to get writing done, and I had a natural ability to write readable, inviting prose and dialogue. I didn't have anything much to say, and I had trouble getting my mind around the whole shape of a finished short story, but my writing itself was quite good and I could turn out a lot of copy. In the short-story workshop I found it curious that some students spent the whole semester struggling to get a short story written. I was submitting something every week without knocking myself out. At the same time, one older student was about two-thirds of the way through a novel, and I found the accomplishment awe-inspiring.
I don't remember sending out the short stories I wrote for that class, although I may well have done so. I did submit some of my poetry, and I actually had two
poems published by Poet Lore magazine. They didn't pay anything, but they printed the poems and sent me copies. The poems themselves were quite cryptic, and I don't think they made any sense to me, although someone else may have made something out of them. I was getting notes on my rejection slips from a couple of other poetry magazines. No acceptances, but a sign that I was coming close.
Then I had my first sale. In January of 1957 I went to New York for a week and stayed with some friends who had a loft on the Bowery. (Four of them, and they paid sixty dollars a month.) The Salvation Army had a mission across the street, and one of the girls and I drifted in one night to catch the service the bums had to suffer through in order to get the bread and soup afterward. We found the whole thing terribly amusing, and afterward I wrote a smarmy little seven-hundred-word article for which I supplied an ending the episode lacked in real life. "We Found God on the Bowery," I called it, and I told how my girl and I had come to scoff but remained to pray. It was, now that I think about it, altogether unconscionable, but I wrote it up and sent it off to the War Cry, official magazine of the Salvation Army, and they ran it and paid me seven bucks.
The summer after my sophomore year I couldn't find an official Antioch co-op job that I liked, so I decided to find my own. I drove to Cape Cod, moved into an attic room upstairs of a barbershop on Hyannis, and worked for a day as a dishwasher at a place called Mildred's Chowderhouse. I worked from four to midnight, and when I finished the boss told me to come in the next day at eight in the morning. I never went back.
I spent the next two weeks writing. First thing I did was rewrite the story that Manhunt had liked. I'd thought of an ending that would work, and I sent it off and got a letter back by return mail. An assistant editor wrote that the boss was on vacation but that he was pretty sure the guy would like the new ending, and he was holding the story. (This, I subsequently learned, was nonsense. There was no assistant editor. The magazine was having what a later generation would learn to call cash-flow problems. The editor read my story, placed it in inventory, and wrote me a letter so that I wouldn't expect payment for a while. I wish I'd known right away that the sale was sure. I wouldn't have cared how long I had to wait to get paid. Months later I did learn that they were taking the story, and some months after that I got one hundred dollars.)
I wrote a story every day and lived on Maine sardines and peanut-butter sandwiches. When my money ran out I took a job at a resort. It was eleven hours a day, seven days a week, and you had two-and-a-half hours off in the middle of the day, so there was really no time to do anything, and no place to write anyway in the staff dormitory where I was housed. I quit after ten days, wrecked the car driving back to Buffalo, packed a bag, and took a train to New York.
Within two weeks I had a job as an editor at a literary agency. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
I got the job by taking a test. They gave you a story to read, one that had been written to order by Lester del Rey and that contained every structural flaw he could build into it. You had to read it and write a letter to the author, either telling him it was marketable, telling him how to revise it, or telling him why it was beyond redemption. I passed the test with flying colors and got the job and spent the next ten months doing what I'd done on the test—reading amateur efforts and returning them with detailed letters explaining what was wrong with them.
The manuscripts came from hopefuls who paid a fee for the privilege of having their work read by my boss. I wrote to them over his signature, and I invariably told them that they were talented, that they wrote well, but that various plot problems made this particular story unacceptable. Ninety percent of the time the stories were by people who couldn't have written their names in the dirt with a stick, and plotting was the least of their problems, but that was how we were supposed to keep them coming back for more. I got so I could write the letters in my sleep, and I barely had to read the crap to do it, and it was just as well.
It was the best possible learning experience for a writer. Reading inferior work is much more informative than reading good stuff. You get more from seeing what's wrong with something than from seeing what's right with it. I learned even more from being in the office and hearing all the trade talk and gossip.
I wrote a lot, and I started selling regularly, my scripts submitted by my employer. I sold another couple of stories to Manhunt, and a batch more to various Manhunt imitators, Trapped and Guilty and the like. A publisher of sensationalistic male-interest magazines would send over article assignments that got parceled out among us, and I wrote seventy-five-dollar articles with titles like Reinhard Heydrich—Blond Beast of the SS. An editor who'd bought crime stories from me was editing something called True Medic Stories, or something like that, and I enlisted the aid of a premed-student friend and plotted one that he bought. ("My name is Brad Havilland," it began. "I'm forty-two years old and I'm the best bowel surgeon in the state." It's hard to believe anybody read any further than that.)
I took the job in late July or early August, and plans called for me to return to Antioch in November. After I'd had the job for two weeks I knew I wasn't going back. I'd been an indifferent student anyway, and it was very clear to me that I was going to get a lot more out of this job than I could get at college. I dropped out, and a buddy and I took an apartment at the Hotel Alexandria, on 103rd Street west of Broadway. Cornell Woolrich was living a few doors away at the Marseilles, but I never knew it at the time.
I stayed through May. Around the first of the year I started being bothered by the fact that dropping out of school meant giving up my draft deferment. The peacetime army was no worse than an inconvenience, but I didn't really want to devote two years of my life to it. I enrolled for the spring semester as a matriculated student at Columbia University's School of General Studies, and I took three writing courses, figuring I'd be doing writing anyway. I enrolled in a radio and TV course, a novel workshop, and a course called Advanced Nonfiction.
It was bizarre. Here I was spending eight hours a day reading amateur writing, and now I had to go listen to people read it to me three evenings a week. The radio and TV course taught a format they'd stopped using years ago, with the audio on one side of the page and the video on the other. I stopped going to it almost immediately, and I dropped the novel course after a couple of weeks. I stayed with the nonfiction class, but I never had to write anything for it. I would just hand in copies of the articles I'd been writing for the men's magazines.
The professor was a nice old fellow who wrote biographies of classical composers. He thought my articles were excellent but lamented that they weren't commercial. This left me wondering, because I knew they were commercial—I'd already been paid for them—and I also knew they were lousy. Eventually I stopped going to that class, too. He gave me a B, though.
Toward the end of the semester I began thinking I ought to go back to Antioch. The job at the literary agency, while not entirely valueless, had by now taught me most of what it had to teach me. Unless I wanted to go on to become an agent, I was approaching a point of diminishing returns. And I didn't think I was yet ready to try supporting myself as a freelance writer. The pulp market was mostly gone, and I was only getting thirty or forty dollars a pop for my short stories. If I was going to make even a marginal living, I would have to be able to write novels, and I didn't think I was ready to do that yet. I'd made a couple of starts at novels and they hadn't worked.
In addition, I had the opportunity to become editor of the college paper if I went back. It seemed a more inviting prospect than spending another year writing letters to the authors of unreadable manuscripts. ("Dear Mr. Vorpal, Thanks very much for sending your story, 'The Awful Truth.' I can see that you are certainly no stranger to your typewriter. Your writing is strong and convincing, and you have a sure touch with dialogue. But I am afraid that there are a few basic plot problems in the present work that really cramp your style." At this point I'd read the damn thing to see what they were, and then I'd write the rest of the eight-hundred-word letter. No one should have to do that for more than a year.)
Shortly before I finished up at the literary agency, I woke up one morning with two things I couldn't shake. One was the worst, the absolute worst hangover I'd ever had in my life. The other was the plot of a novel.
I ate some aspirin and sat down and typed up a chapter-by-chapter outline. It was the story of a college girl who thinks she might be a lesbian and comes to New York to find out. In June I left the agency and went back to Buffalo. A buddy and I had made plans to go to Mexico in July. I had three weeks before we were going to leave, and I spent two of them writing the lesbian novel. It came out fine, as far as I could tell, and I mailed it off to my former employer and went to Mexico.
Back home a month later, I received an assignment: on the strength of the novel I'd written, which was making the rounds, my agent wanted me to try a book for a publisher who was about to introduce a line of paperback sex novels.
By the time I reported to Antioch that fall, I had written the book and been paid $600 for it. In the course of the next academic year, I turned out three more sex novels for that publisher. I also found time to do revisions on the original lesbian novel, which had sold to Crest Books, the second or third publisher to see it. (Crest was a Fawcett imprint, and paid $2,000 for the book. This was in 1958-59, when the fee for tuition and room and board at Antioch was, as I recall, $1,400. I had previously earned $40 a week at Pines Publications, $65 at the literary agency.)
It seemed to me that I'd made a mistake going back to college. I don't know that this was so, but in any event I found it impossible to take my academic responsibilities seriously. I held things together well enough during the semester when I edited the paper, but during the academic semesters I was less successful. I tended to stay up all night, either working on a book or pursuing a second career as a hard-drinking campus legend. I didn't get to many classes, and I didn't cover myself with glory when I did.
When school let out in June I went to New York, moved into a hotel room, and started writing. I got a letter from the school suggesting that I might be happier not returning in the fall. I think I might have talked my way back in, but it was the last thing I wanted to do. (I'd tried to drop out myself midway through the year, but had let my folks talk me out of it.) I stayed in New York a few weeks more, then moved back to Buffalo with an assignment to furnish yet another new publisher with a book a month. He would be paying me $750. Meanwhile, the other publisher would continue to take extra books at $600 if I had time to fit them in.
I didn't do many extra books because other activities took up my spare time. I became a partner in a jazz club and coffeehouse and began keeping company with a Buffalo girl, Loretta Kallett. (We'd gone to the same high school but hadn't known each other at the time.) In March of 1960 we were married. We moved to New York and I sold my interest in the Jazz Center to my partner, leaving him to go broke with it by himself.
For the next three years I wrote one of these soft-core sex novels each month. My total production probably averaged something like twenty books a year, because I was doing other things besides my assigned monthly book. In addition, I was fielding assignments that my agent steered to me, and I was writing other books on spec, trying to move up in class.
I did make some progress, but it always seemed to come more in spite of than because of my efforts. When I tried to write for a better market, I generally fell short. More often, I shied away from the task rather than risk failure. After having sold that first effort to Crest, for example, I never did manage to write a second lesbian novel for them. I never decided not to, but my mind simply failed to provide ideas, and I seemed to be much more comfortable going for smaller surer money and writing easier and less challenging books.
On the other hand, a few months after we were married I started my monthly sex novel and discovered a few chapters into it that it seemed to have possibilities as a straight suspense novel. I allowed myself to write it that way. My agent agreed with my appraisal and sent the manuscript over to Knox Burger, then editor at Gold Medal. It was published as Mona, the first book to come out under my own name. Berkley reprinted it a few years ago as Sweet Slow Death, which is an improvement on the original title, albeit a slight one. (Ralph Daigh, the boss at Fawcett, had bought a piece of cover art with a girl's face on it and wanted to use it for the book, so he chose the name of the book's femme fatale for the title. Berkley in turn lifted the phrase Sweet Slow Death off the blurb copy from the Fawcett edition. My original title was no good either, so I can't complain.)
Mona wasn't much good; it was immature work, which stands to reason, given that I was twenty-two at the time and no model of maturity myself. Instead of following it up by trying to write another suspense novel for Gold Medal, I resumed turning out sex novels as before. A while later, I got the assignment of writing a tie-in detective novel based on the TV show Markham, which starred Ray Milland. I wrote the book, and by the time I'd finished it I'd decided it was too good to waste its fragrance on the desert air that greets TV tie-in novels. My agent agreed and sent it over to Knox, who bought it, whereupon I went through the manuscript and changed Roy Markham to Ed London. (Then, of course, I had to write a second book about Markham for Belmont.)
Gold Medal published the book as Death Pulls a Doublecross, a title that still triggers my gag reflex when I contemplate it. Foul Play Press has lately reissued it as Coward's Kiss, which was my original title. It's derivative, certainly, and fairly predictable, but it's not bad. You'd think that I would have written more books about Ed London, and the fact of the matter is that I tried, as I indeed tried other things more ambitious than the sex novels and other hackwork I was producing at the time. But the books either didn't get written or just plain didn't work out. If I was writing something I could take seriously, I invariably took it too seriously—and the creative mechanism went on strike.
I used to think that my problem had been a lack of courage, that I hadn't had the fortitude to give up the sure money and risk insecurity. But I don't really think that had much to do with it. The money was never really that important to me. The real problem, I think, was that I didn't have the self-esteem required to write books that were to be taken seriously.
And, all things considered, maybe I was guided by some inner wisdom. Because I don't think the world missed any great literature for my having spent a couple of years writing crap. I wasn't really capable of writing anything very good. I did have a remarkable level of technical proficiency for someone my age. I could write eminently readable first-draft copy that did not require any editing, and this is not that common at any age.
But I wasn't really ready to produce anything significant with that talent. All I could really do was exercise my skills and improve them, and what I was writing probably served me better toward those ends than anything else I might have done.
The books I was writing, it should be understood, were rather a far cry from what is to be met with nowadays on the shelves of adult bookstores. The current run is frankly pornographic, and what we were writing, while no more high-minded, was something different. The books were about sexual matters, certainly, and there was a sex scene in virtually every chapter, but one had to work within the restrictions of censorship. You couldn't use any of the seven words you can't say on TV, for instance. Precise sexual descriptions were similarly forbidden. The purpose of the books was the erotic arousal of the reader, but some subtlety was required.
As a result, the books had to be novels. They had to have characters and story lines and dialogue. They were never much good as books—the conventions of the form precluded that—but they were wonderful vehicles for growing as a writer because you could try anything with relative safety. The medium was a forgiving one. A plot could be preposterous, a subplot could remain forever unresolved, a secondary character could take over the book or disappear from it without an explanation, and nobody gave a rat's ass. If the book was written in acceptable English, if it was long enough, and if it was in on time—that was all anybody really cared about.
I think it was good training, an apprenticeship that paid a living wage. Two of my closest friends, Hal Dresner and Donald E. Westlake, came up the same way. Both began working as editors at the literary agency—although none of us were there at the same time—and both were subsequently represented by that agent and wrote for the same publishers as I did. I collaborated on two books with Hal and three with Don, operating without any advance discussion of story line.
Once half a dozen of us gathered at one fellow's house in Queens for a writing marathon—five of us would sit downstairs playing poker while a sixth was upstairs writing a chapter. We figured we ought to be able to turn out a book overnight. This didn't work—one of our company, afraid he wouldn't be able to stay awake, took a dose of amphetamine before going up to do his chapter. He was evidently addled by the drug and produced about forty pages of incomprehensible gibberish, and the fellow whose turn came next was relatively inexperienced and spent hours trying to write something that would follow logically upon what the speed freak had produced. If the evening failed to produce a book, at least it spawned a legend. I have since heard versions of the story told by several people, including one agent who claimed to have been there. (Imagine that—an agent telling a lie. Who'd have thought it?)
In March of 1961 my daughter Amy was born. A year later we decided we needed more room and moved back to Buffalo. I went on writing the same sort of books I'd been doing in New York. Jill was born in May of 1963. After we brought her home from the hospital I wrote an extra book to cover the birth expenses. I wrote it in three days, and I don't remember anything else about it. Every detail of it—the plot, the names of the characters—had vanished entirely from my memory a day or two after I finished it. I guess it was all right. I got paid for it, and it got published.
You have probably noticed that I have not supplied the titles of any of the books I wrote during this period, or mentioned the pen names under which they were written. This is not the result of oversight. For several years now I've declined to identify my pseudonymous early work.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First is the same reason I published them under pen names in the first place. They are inferior work, categorically inferior, and I'd rather not be specifically linked to any of them, although I'm not reluctant to discuss that apprentice period in general.
At least as important is that I am even less inclined to be linked to books I didn't write. And it's a fact that a majority of the books published under "my" pen names were written by other people. I became very much in demand as a writer of sex novels during those years. My regular publisher wanted not one but two books a month from me, which was more than I wanted to produce, and I solved that problem by training a few other writers to produce the books. I oversaw some of this ghostwriting, but in the main my relationship to the books was purely financial; I received two hundred dollars for the use of my pen name and the ghost received the other thousand. (My price had edged up over the months.)
In addition, the publisher had a cavalier attitude toward pen names. Some of my books came out under other writers' names, and some of theirs came out under mine. One publisher was revision happy; for reasons nobody has ever doped out he kept a batch of editors on staff whose chore it was to rewrite virtually every sentence of every book he published. I guess he thought this was something publishers had to do, but Lord knows none of the books were helped by this treatment.
Finally, even more books came out under my name after I stopped doing them altogether. The publisher evidently regarded one of my pen names as his property rather than mine.
My sex-novel apprenticeship, and my relationship with the literary agent (whom, you will also note, I have failed to name), ended abruptly in the summer of 1963. He gave me an assignment which I elected not to accept, and he responded by dropping me as a client. This had the unforeseen effect of closing my major book-a-month market to me, and of simultaneously depriving me of the override I'd received on my ghostwriters' production.
Things looked bleak at first. I had a family to support and no credentials or marketable skills outside of writing. Nor did I know how to go about getting another agent or developing new markets for my work. Still, I found ways to write books and sell them, and I was able to make a living. I did sex novels for one house and a couple of sex-fact books for another. I sold mystery stories to magazines. I'd become interested in coin collecting a year or two previously, and I wrote articles on the subject which I sold to some numismatic publications.
This last activity led to a job offer. After I'd placed two or three articles with the Whitman Numismatic Journal, an editor came to Buffalo to meet with me. His company, a division of Western Printing, published a line of numismatic books, as well as producing the greater portion of coin holders and other supplies for collectors. He offered me a job as a writer/editor. I took it, and we sold our house and moved to Racine, Wisconsin.
I started work in July of 1964 and stayed there for a year and a half. I got up every morning at six, sat down at my desk at a quarter to eight, and stayed there until a quarter to five. After having taken it for granted that I could never make it in the corporate world, I was delighted to discover that I seemed capable of adjusting to the life and, furthermore, that I was very good at my work.
I wrote some of the magazine every month and did most of the editorial work, editing manuscripts, laying out and making up the pages, corresponding with authors, selecting photographs, etc. I also increasingly took on the advertising and sales-promotion activities within the coin-supplies division, and the result was that the job, which I'd taken originally as a way out of a rut, was beginning to look like a position with a real future. By the time I'd decided to leave, there were plans to move me out of the coin-supplies backwater and into general marketing at Whitman, with some sort of eventual vice presidency no doubt looming on the horizon.
Once I saw that I had a future there, I realized it was time to get out.
Because I'd never had the intention of making a life's work of this. I still wanted to be a writer, and indeed I was still writing. I completed several books during my time in Racine, along with a handful of short stories. One of them, The Girl with the Long Green Heart, was a book I'd begun in Buffalo; a new agent sent chapters and an outline to Gold Medal, Knox Burger bought it, and I worked nights and weekends in Racine to finish it.
It was in Racine, too, that I wrote the first book that was uniquely my own. Earlier I'd had the idea of writing about a character who had lost the ability to sleep. I figured out a few things about his personality and lifestyle, but I never wrote anything because I couldn't think of a story to put him in. At Whitman I met a fellow who'd spent the past several years in Istanbul, earning a precarious living smuggling coins and antiquities out of the country and peddling them in Paris and Zurich. He told me how he and a pair of execs from ARAMCO had tried to salvage a hoard of gold coins stashed by Armenian refugees in Balakesir some fifty years previously. That gave me the plot component I needed, and I wrote the first of what were to be seven books about Evan Tanner.
Meanwhile, I had a new agent. Henry Morrison, who had worked for my original agent (and who indeed had been working there when I worked there myself), had gone into business for himself. I sent him The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep, he placed it with Gold Medal, and I quit my job and we moved to New Brunswick. New Jersey.
I think my time in Racine must have done me good. I evidently needed that relatively fallow period. While I did get several books written there, my writing was under very little pressure, and my production was nothing compared to the volume I had been previously producing.
Perhaps as a result, I was able to write on a new level when I returned to full-time freelancing. The seven "Tanner" books, novels of foreign intrigue set all over the globe, were mine in a way none of my earlier books had been. Neither the character nor the plots were derivative, as my earlier work had been. The books were humorous, too, and before this I had never expressed humor in my work.
I'd hate to have to write a book about Tanner now. I've grown since then, and there was a carelessness about the books that I don't think I would allow myself nowadays. But I'm fond of them, and I can still reread them without shrinking in embarrassment. They were fun to write, and I was pleased a few years ago when they all came back into print.
The only disappointing thing about the "Tanner" books—aside from the fact that the reading public never did go absolutely nuts over them—was that a couple of my best titles got changed. The second book bore the title I gave it, The Canceled Czech, but the Latvian adventure, which I'd called alternately Letts Do It and The Lettish Tomatoes, was published as Tanner's Twelve Swingers. And the next book, a story about a Siamese youth who couldn't get anywhere with women, wound up with the uninspired title Two for Tanner. I had called it The Scoreless Thai.
The "Tanner" books were not the only novels I was writing over the next several years. Deadly Honeymoon, my first hardcover novel, came out from Macmillan in 1967. (While this may look like a great leap forward, I'd written the book four years earlier, and the only reason it wound up in hardcover was that I'd been unable to place it with a paperback house. Publishing has curious cycles, and around that time it was very difficult to publish a paperback original crime novel.) My second book with Macmillan, After the First Death, made use of some themes that I would return to later in my books about Matthew Scudder.
We lived in New Brunswick for three years, then moved to a farm near Lambertville, New Jersey, where my third daughter, Alison, was born. I loved living in the country, but there were too many distractions there, and I woke up one day and realized I hadn't written anything in the past five months. I went into New York, rented a room at the Royalton, and wrote a book in a week that I'd been stalled on for months. That set a pattern I stayed with for the next three or four years. I didn't try to get any writing done at the farm, but came into town to do my work. At first I used the Royalton. (I wouldn't advise this now. When I used to go there you could get a room for ten or twelve dollars a night. Since then they've glitzed the place up beyond recognition, and I think the price is closer to two hundred dollars now.) After I'd done a couple of books at the hotel I took an apartment.
During this period I did some pseudonymous writing in addition to the books under my own name. I wrote some sex-fact books, collections of sexual case histories; these began as complete fabrications, but they generated a great deal of correspondence and wound up over the years evolving into a sort of legitimacy.
I also wrote three books as Paul Kavanagh and four as Chip Harrison. The narrator and protagonist of the first "Kavanagh" book, Such Men Are Dangerous, is named Paul Kavanagh, and the book itself was written in white heat in about ten days, after a period of depression several months long during which I'd been unable to write anything at all. I chose to put the character's name on the title page with the thought that it could be effectively marketed that way, but it's not hard now to see a more significant unconscious motive. The book was deeply personal, emotionally if not circumstantially, and I'm sure I felt more comfortable going within myself with a name other than my own beneath the title.
No such considerations prompted me to do the same thing with the four Chip Harrison books. The lead character, also named Chip Harrison, is a sort of lustful Holden Caulfield trying to make his way in the world. I never expected to write more than one book about the character; after the second I still found the voice an enjoyable one to write in, put my lead character to work for a private detective, and wrote two more books that amount to a sort of homage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe series.
The "Kavanagh" books that followed Such Men Are Dangerous are third-person novels, one a political thriller called The Triumph of Evil, the other a fictionalization of the Charles Starkweather—Caryl Fugate murders called Not Comin' Home to You. There was no reason not to publish these under my own name, but I seem to have liked something about pen names.
Commercially, I think they were a great mistake. Looking back, you'd think I was doing my damnedest to avoid building a following. I could probably figure out some of the reasons I found pen-name writing alluring, but the hell with it. In recent years all of the Kavanagh and Harrison titles have come back into print, and they're all under my own name now. I haven't written a book under a pen name since 1973, and I can't imagine ever wanting to do so again.
In the summer of 1973, my marriage ended. Loretta and I had separated briefly six-and-a-half years earlier, and this time the split was to be permanent. I moved into the apartment on West Fifty-eighth Street that I was already using for writing, and I lived there for the next two years, at which time I sold almost everything I owned, put my remaining possessions in storage in my mother's attic, and hit the road in a rusted-out 1968 Ford station wagon. I drove to Los Angeles and took nine or ten months getting there.
It was an interesting time. (The Chinese have a curse: May your children live in interesting times. That is the kind of interesting time it was.) I was by now an established professional writer with a fairly substantial body of work. I was also thirty-five years old, and clearly too young for a mid-life crisis, so that can't be what I was going through. But something was clearly wrong.
By the time I packed up and left New York, my career had hit a bad patch, and it's hard even now to say exactly what happened. It had looked as though I was doing fine since the marriage ended. I had done three books for Bill Grose at Dell, all about an alcoholic excop named Matthew Scudder, and they were arguably the best work I'd ever done. But Dell was just sitting on them, and it was unclear when they would be published, and by no means certain that they would ever see print. The publishing industry seemed to be going through one of its periodic reappraisals, and I was by no means the only writer who was having a hard time. Whenever I called to complain, Henry would tell me about all his other clients who were doing just as poorly as I was. I'm sure this was supposed to be reassuring, but I found it cold comfort.
For my own part, I suppose what I was doing then was falling apart. I had trouble getting books started, and most of what I began ended abruptly fifty or sixty pages in when I found it impossible to think of a reason why any of the characters should go on, or anything for them to do if they did. I wrote a couple of ill-conceived nonfiction books that never did sell. I wrote a novel, Ariel, under contract to a publisher; when I finished he didn't like how it had turned out. (This book did eventually sell to Arbor House; I revised it along lines Don Fine suggested, and it did quite well.)
Mencken wrote somewhere that a divine hand must have seized the United States by the state of Maine and lifted it, with the result that everything loose wound up in southern California. I was, and I did. I moved into the Magic Hotel in Hollywood in February of 1976 and stayed there for six months.
In July my daughters flew out to spend the summer with me. We stayed at the hotel for that month, where I started work on what turned out to be Burglars Can't Be Choosers. We spent August driving slowly back across the country to New York. We stopped in Roswell, New Mexico, for what turned out to be my last visit with my sister, Betsy; she died suddenly two years later. We stopped to visit a friend in Denver, stopped for a few days in Newcastle, Wyoming, so that I could work some more on the new book. We visited my old office in Racine; I would have liked my old job back, if I could have thought of a way to ask for it. We stopped in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I learned that my old freshman roommate, Steve Schwerner, had just returned to take the position of dean of students. I suppose it's possible to receive such information without suddenly feeling a good deal older, but I don't know how.
When we got back to New York I dropped the girls with their mother. (Loretta had moved to the city a year after the breakup, and we'd had the farm on the market ever since.) I had expected to turn the car around and go back out to L.A., but this never happened. I hung around the city and realized I wanted to stay. Meanwhile, Henry had sold Burglars Can't Be Choosers to Random House, and Dell had finally brought out the Scudder books. And, toward the end of 1976, we sold the farm. We had owned the place outright, and with my share of the proceeds I was able to pay off my debts and move into a small apartment on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village.
It was at about this time that I began a professional relationship which continues strong thirteen years later. In the course of my wanderjahre, I wrote a variety of short pieces, propping my typewriter on various motel desks and trying to finish up before checkout time. Most of these were short stories, the bulk eventually published in Ellery Queen or Alfred Hitchcock, but one was a piece on the development of ideas in fiction which I submitted to Writer's Digest. They bought it, and when the girls and I stopped in Yellow Springs en route to New York, I made a side trip to Cincinnati
where I had lunch with John Brady, then the editor of WD. I proposed a monthly column on fiction writing and he agreed to take the column every other month on a trial basis.
I wrote my first column immediately upon my return to New York. Six months later, the Digest dropped the cartooning column with which my column had alternated, and I've been in the magazine monthly ever since.
This association has been wonderful for me. With both John Brady and his successor, William Brohaugh, I've had complete freedom to examine whatever aspect of writing I wanted, from nuts-and-bolts columns on technique to essays more concerned with the inner game of writing. Two collections of my columns have appeared in book form, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit and Spider, Spin Me a Web, the latter published by Writer's Digest Books, who are also the publishers of my book Writing the Novel from Plot to Print.
Every month, then, I've been called upon to think of some element of my profession upon which I can ruminate for some 2,000 words. This has informed my own reading considerably; if I tended to read fiction analytically as a writer, I do so that much more as a writer about writing.
I certainly never expected the column to last this long. A year or so into it, I began to wonder when I would run out of ideas. A little further down the line I realized this might never happen; by the time each column was due, there was always something to write about, some problem in my own work or something I'd read that had struck a chord. And I haven't seemed to lose heart for the business, either. The magazine or its readers may tire of me sooner or later, but I don't seem to tire of my role in it all.
Not too long ago, someone pointed out to me that I may have written and published more sheer wordage on the subject of writing than anyone else around—or, indeed, than anyone else in history. In the column itself, I've probably written something like 300,000 words. When you add in Writing the Novel from Plot to Print and a fourth book, Write for Your Life (of which more later), plus occasional lead articles for WD and features for Writer's Yearbook, the grand total begins to edge alarmingly close to the half-million-word mark. I've no idea if that's a world record, and I'm not sure I want to know, or what I would prefer the answer to be.
It strikes me, though, that all of this writing about writing makes the autobiographical writing I'm doing right now both easier and more difficult. It's easier because I've already written about much of this material before, albeit in a different form and with a different end in mind. It's difficult because I'm more concerned in the present instance with the overall shape of a life and a career than with individual matters and the lessons to be drawn from them.
It was December of 1976 when I took the apartment on Bleecker Street. This was the first time I had actually lived in the Village since that job in Pines Publications' mailroom twenty years earlier, hut in a sense the neighborhood had been home to me through all those years. Whenever I was in New York, no matter where I actually resided, I always gravitated there. It felt good to be back.
I settled in there, wrote my column every other month, wrote some short stories for Ellery Queen (including the first in what would be an extended series about a devious lawyer named Ehrengraf), and wrote two hundred pages of a crime novel which I ultimately abandoned. I outlined and sold a World War II thriller about the defection of Rudolf Hess.
Then, in April of 1977, something monumental happened. I stopped drinking.
In the past twelve years, most of my fiction has consisted of novels about two series characters. Bernie Rhodenbarr, who first appeared in Burglars Can't Be Choosers, is an urbane and literate fellow, a nice guy who happens to be a burglar. (He knows it's a character defect but he's not able to do anything about it.) In each of five books to date, his criminal activities put him into a situation he can only resolve by turning detective and solving a murder. By the third book, The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, he had established himself as the proprietor of a used-book store and was best friends with Carolyn Kaiser, a lesbian poodle groomer. (That last phrase may be ambiguous. Carolyn is a lesbian who grooms poodles, not a groomer of lesbian poodles.) The Burglar books are lighthearted and great fun to write, and I wish I could write more of them, but it looks increasingly less likely that I ever shall. It's been seven years since I wrote The Burglar Who Painted like Mondrian, and I have a feeling I'm done with the character.
But I could be wrong. I've several times thought I was done writing about Matthew Scudder, and he seems to have more lives than a cat. Scudder, the hard-drinking and angst-ridden ex-cop about whom I'd written three books for Dell, is a character through whose eyes I particularly enjoyed seeing the world. When Dell first delayed and then buried the books, it looked as though the series was a done thing; it's hard to get a publisher excited about a series with which another publisher has already failed. I did make a couple of attempts at a fourth "Scudder" novel during my wanderings, and on my return to New York I wrote two novelettes about him which Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine published.
In 1980 I had an idea for a "Scudder" novel and wrote it. By this time Don Fine at Arbor House had published a revised Ariel, and he liked the new book, A Stab in the Dark, and published it as well. The next book, the fifth in the series, was called Eight Million Ways to Die, and it was almost twice the length of the standard detective novel. In it, Scudder attempts to solve the murder of a call girl while struggling with his own alcoholism. Both themes are central to the book, as is the looming presence of New York City itself, in which, as the title suggests, there are as many doors to death as there are inhabitants.
The book was a great stretch for me, more ambitious and more effectively executed than anything I'd written previously. It was well received by the public and the critics, was nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award, won the Private Eye Writers of America's Shamus award, and was eventually filmed. (So were Deadly Honeymoon and one of the "Burglar" books; none of the films were very good, or did very well.)
I had every reason to write further about Scudder, but I didn't know if I could. In a sense, all five books constituted one big novel which was resolved in Eight Million Ways to Die when Scudder came to terms with his drinking problem. With that ghost laid, what would drive him? His catharsis behind him, the man's fictional d'être had no raison.
Several attempts at a sixth book fell flat. Then I wrote a flashback novel, what Hollywood people call a prequel; Scudder, sober, recalls and narrates events which took place a decade earlier. I used the material first in a short story which Playboy published. It won several awards and was widely anthologized, and I subsequently expanded it into a novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. I felt the book represented a further advance for me as a writer, that it was more novelistic, more a story of human relationships than I'd managed in the past. But it still looked like a dead end as far as the future life of the series was concerned. I couldn't see myself writing more flashback novels, and felt no more sanguine than ever about the prospect of chronicling Scudder's sober life.
In 1981 I met Lynne Wood, a model-turned-antiquedealer-turned-accountant. A year later we began keeping company, and in 1983 we were married. We lived in New York until 1985, when, for reasons neither of us can any longer recall, we moved to the Florida gulf coast.
During the first three years of our marriage, I got relatively little writing done—not, I hasten to add, for the dirty-minded reasons you're thinking, but because most of my time and energy (and Lynne's as well) went into a series of writing seminars we presented all around the country.
I had by this time led a writing seminar one summer at Antioch, and had taught a course in mystery writing at Hofstra University. (And, of course, my monthly column was instructional in nature.) All writing classes, my own included, seemed somehow beside the point.
Exposure to several New Age seminars, most notably one called the Loving Relationships Training, convinced me that the interactional seminar could serve as an excellent vehicle for increasing an individual's capacity to achieve his full potential as a writer. Accordingly I developed such a seminar, called it "Write for Your Life," and went into the seminar business. Over the next three years Lynne and I flew back and forth across the country, putting on several dozen of these intensive all-day seminars.
The whole thing rapidly became a business. I recorded a tape of affirmations for writers, designed for repeated listening. I wanted to make the seminar available in book form to the great majority of people who would never take it in person; in order to get the book out in a hurry, I published it myself. (Like most writers I'd had fantasies of self-publishing for years, and this seemed a low-risk way to do it.) In no time at all we were in the mail-order book and tape business, filling orders in the middle of the week, then flying off to hold a seminar.
All of this was exhausting, and although the seminars were successful in every other respect, they were never financially profitable. After three years, too, leading the seminars began to feel more like performance, and it was time for the play to end its run. Even more to the point, I was ready to focus more of myself on my writing.
In Florida I spent about a year and a half getting ready to write something without knowing what it was. I meanwhile dealt with a batch of projects I was happy to do once but wouldn't want to make a career of. I completed a Cornell Woolrich novel which the noir master had left unfinished at his death. I did a novelization of a film script; because of contractual problems with the screenwriter, the book remains unpublished. I spent months working with a friend on his memoir of his life as a mercenary, a criminal, and finally an undercover DEA bounty hunter. (This, too, was never published.)
I knew I had a novel to write and I knew it was going to be something completely different, but I didn't have a clue what it was. I had booked myself to spend a month at a writers' colony in June of 1987, and I just hoped I'd have something to work on when I got there.
In mid-May, I suddenly got an idea for a book about people walking across the country. Over the next several days the idea kept filling my mind. I drove to the colony and just started writing when I got there. Each day, everything I needed to know about the story was somehow available to me. It was an uncanny experience, as if an unconscious part of my mind was able to perceive the novel whole and complete. The book itself was a sort of New Age epic, the story of these people walking east from Oregon, and it was also the story of a serial killer who was driving around the Great Plains murdering women and enjoying it immensely. The two story lines didn't appear to belong in the same book, but I just kept on writing, taking it on faith that it would all make sense in the end.
The book, Random Walk, was exciting to write and gratifying to have written. It was a complete departure for me, and I had no idea what I would do for an encore. When it came out in the fall of 1988, it had all the impact of a rose petal dropped into the Grand Canyon. The few reviews to appear were negative, the publisher failed to advertise or promote the book, and sales were weak. My mail shows that people who like the book tend to like it a lot, but a good many readers don't know what to make of it. Perhaps it will find its audience when it comes out in paperback.
I don't know that Random Walk will change the lives of its readers; there may be too few of them to tell. It does seem, however, to have changed the life of its writer. Having written it, I knew I didn't want to live in Florida any longer, and neither Lynne nor I was at all sure where we'd like to live next. Accordingly we decided to try a couple of years of living nowhere in particular. It is June of 1989 as I write these lines in the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming. We have been living without a fixed address for about a year and a half, driving back and forth across America in an aging Buick and learning to rely upon the kindness of strangers.
And, much to my surprise, I've resumed writing about Scudder. After having told anyone who asked that I was finished with the character, I got an idea last spring and wrote a book last fall. It is called Out on the Cutting Edge, and Morrow will publish it in October. A sequel, A Ticket to the Boneyard, is already written and scheduled for publication a year later. And I have a new book in mind, and a space reserved this fall at a writers' colony. I find I'm eager to get to work.
It's a curious business, writing one's autobiography. I've nattered on autobiographically in my columns for years, and of course I've used aspects of my inner and outer selves in my fiction for as long as I've been writing, but this is a very different matter.
For one thing, I'm not sure how true it is. The facts are genuine enough, and my memory's reliable on dates and such, but I've been writing fiction for over thirty years, and that's bad training for this sort of work. I wouldn't have to come right out and lie in order to sell you a bill of goods, and I wouldn't necessarily know that's what I was doing.
Our narrator here, the "I" in this saga, is almost certainly a slightly different person from the fellow sitting at the typewriter. The narrator's a character created by the man at the typewriter, same as all the other narrators of my first-person fiction who are and are not me. All things considered, I have to say that I much prefer writing fiction that comes right out and says it's fiction, a made-up story about made-up people that aims at a higher truth.
Another thing that bothers me is that all of this has the air of a summing-up, and that strikes me as uncalled for. The same superstition that makes a man reluctant to draw a will would argue against the preparation of this sort of document. It would seem to presage the end of a life, or of a career, and either prospect appalls me.
I'm not done writing. Perhaps I should be; for all the years I've put in and pages I've turned out, in any other line of work I'd be pensioned off by now. You'd think I'd have long since said whatever I had to say and could be expected to maintain a decent silence for whatever time remains to me.
On the other hand, I'm doing my best work now. I've been able to continue growing as a writer, perhaps because I had the wit to start out at such a low level.
But everyone who's read A Ticket to the Boneyard thinks it's my best book to date, and I'm of an age to have my richest hours ahead of me.
Of an age indeed. I'll be fifty-one in a couple of weeks. My children are grown—Alison is halfway through college, Jill was just admitted to the New York State Bar, and Amy has a daughter of her own. But I still wear jeans, and I still drift around the country and hang around the Village, and God knows I haven't managed to save a dime. I don't know that any of this adolescent behavior makes me young at heart. One can only hope.
I find myself profoundly grateful for the life I lead. It is, I suppose, an eccentric life, and its external circumstances can change radically from one year to the next. ("If you don't like Larry," Don Westlake has been known to say, "just wait a while. Next time you meet him he'll be somebody else.") Still, for all my wanderings and life-style changes, mine has been a rather stable life at heart, replete with lifelong friendships. My marriage is idyllic. I've been with the same agents (Knox Burger and Kitty Sprague) for over a decade, and the same primary publisher (Arbor House was absorbed into Morrow) for about as long. And I've been able to make a sort of living for all these years doing the only thing I ever really wanted to do.
And, when I have a book to write, there's only the typewriter and the paper and the words, the wonderful words. Everything else disappears.
Lawrence Block contributed the following update to CA in 2003:
I wrote the foregoing in a hotel room in Cody in the course of what turned out to be a little over two years of wanderings. That was almost fourteen years ago, and I'll tell you, it doesn't seem like yesterday. Hardly anything does these days, not even yesterday.
The opportunity to update an autobiographical essay is, I must say, every bit as unsettling as the chance to write it in the first place. "Don't look back," Satchel Paige advised. "Something might be gaining on you." Something always is, whether you look back or not. Time's winged chariot, I suppose, hurrying near. Or something worse.
But let me get on with it. I write these lines in my office, a studio apartment on the fifteenth floor of a brick building near the northwest corner of New York's Greenwich Village. If I walk over to the window, I can see the Empire State building. If I stay at my desk, I can see a computer and, behind it, a wall of books.
Fourteen years ago I didn't have a computer (or much understand why anyone would want one). Nor did I have a desk, or an office, or a window. Many of the books in front of me had not yet been written.
Much has changed. Much has remained the same.
On St. Patrick's Day of 1990, some nine months after my stint at the Irma, Lynne and I moved back to New York. Having traveled all over the country, having had a look at any number of pleasant places to live, we realized we would never be entirely at home anywhere else. We lived for three years in two hundred square feet a quarter of a mile from where we are now. Then in 1993, after Lynne had looked at 120 apartments, we found the one we wanted and moved in. The first night we walked over to our window, which looks south over Abingdon Square. I pointed to the Village Nursing Home, diagonally across the street from us. "We are going to live here," I announced, "until it's time for us to move there."
And so we have, and happily. My office, acquired a year later, is two flights up from our apartment, so I have a vertical commute. John Cheever once had something similar and famously wrote about how he would get up each morning, put on a jacket and tie and, I believe, a fedora, and would take the elevator to his basement office, where he would take off his jacket, take off his tie, hang his hat on a peg, and Get To Work. I get the point, but the hell with it. I make sure I'm wearing shoes.
And what have I done in (and with) these fourteen years?
I seem to have written a lot. Since 1989, I've written seven more novels about Matthew Scudder. I'd never been specific about Scudder's age, but in A Long Line of Dead Men, a book very much concerned with aging and mortality and the passage of time, I felt such specificity was called for. I thought about it and realized that Scudder was probably the same age as I, and that it would certainly simplify things to make him so. He has always lived his fictional life in Real Time and has continued to evolve and grow, even as you and I.
To paraphrase Eubie Blake's observation on his one hundredth birthday, if I'd known Scudder was going to last this long, I'd have taken better care of him.
After ten years away from my burglar, I resumed writing about Bernie Rhodenbarr and added four books to that series. Bernie doesn't have to worry about changing or aging, and I envy him that rather more than his facility with locks. (Although one reader once took me to task for the fact that Bernie was still a burglar after all these books. By now, he insisted, the fellow should have developed enough insight to realize that stealing was both foolish and immoral, and should do something else. I've written quite a few things over the years, but an answer to that letter was somehow not one of them.)
And, after twenty-eight years without feeling the need to write about Evan Tanner, I thawed him out a few years ago in Tanner on Ice. Literally. Tanner, unlike Bernie, couldn't stay the same unspecified age forever. His life was too much anchored in time; he'd fought in Korea, for starters. He'd be too old for the kind of adventures that suited him, and I'd have the chore of explaining where he'd been all these years.
Then the answer came to me. He'd been drugged and flash-frozen by an agent of the Swedish government, and had spent a quarter of a century in a frozen-food locker in the subbasement of a house in Union City, New Jersey. Restored to life and consciousness, he'd still be the same age he was in 1973.
Once I'd got the idea, I had to write the book. How could I do otherwise?
In September of 1989 I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I wrote around 180 pages of a "Scudder" novel and realized it was a false start. I set it aside and spent several very productive weeks writing short stories. One of them, "Answers to Soldier," concerned one Keller, a professional killer who goes to a town in Oregon to kill a man in the Witness Protection Program. He's a moody, introspective guy, and he allows himself to get to know the designated victim and has fantasies of getting out of the business and moving to the town himself. Finally he comes to his senses, does what he has to do, and goes home.
The story was well received, published in Playboy, and nominated for an Edgar award, but I never thought I'd write more about Keller. Then one day I wrote another story, and then another, and by the third story I realized I was writing a novel on the installment plan. Playboy published most of the stories, and William Morrow published the book, titled Hit Man. It did very well, and a sequel—Hit List—did even better. Keller seems to be a guilty pleasure for a lot of readers; they like the guy, even though they feel they shouldn't.
I've continued to write short fiction over the years as well, publishing the stories in magazines and anthologies, and more recently collecting the lot of them. A few years ago my UK publishers, Orion, brought out Collected Mystery Stories, and just last year Morrow published an equivalent book, expanded to include eighty-four stories, called Enough Rope.
One thing I stopped doing, shortly after our return to New York, was writing about writing. For fourteen years I'd written a monthly column on fiction writing for Writer's Digest, but the relationship got problematic toward the end, and we agreed to wrap it up. I was invited to write a final column, bidding adieu to my loyal readers; the magazine paid for the column and then never ran it, nor did they even bother to mention that I wasn't there anymore. That struck me as remarkably tacky—and still does, I must say—but I did get a lot out of writing the column, and, while I missed doing it for a while, I'm sure I'd already stayed too long at the fair. I'm asked occasionally if I expect to write more books about writing (there have been four, and three are still in print), and I'm fairly certain I won't; it seems to me that I've long since exhausted my knowledge of the subject.
In a sense, my WD column was a monthly open letter to the world. And, not long after I stopped writing the column, I began something that could almost be seen as a replacement for it. It wasn't instructional, it didn't get published, and God knows nobody paid me for it, but I suspect it played a similar role.
I started getting out an occasional newsletter to readers.
Earlier, I'd developed a minuscule mailing list of mystery bookstores. Periodically, when I'd acquired remaindered copies of my books, I'd send out a letter offering them to the stores. I didn't do this often, because list maintenance was tricky, and I had to photocopy my list onto label stock. But when I first began to consider that a computer might be useful, one thought I had was that I could use the thing to maintain a mailing list.
And so I did, and added to my database the name and address of anyone who wrote me a fan letter. A couple of times a year I'd send out a letter, and people began writing in specifically to get on the list, and it wasn't long before I had a few hundred names, and then a few thousand. I wound up enlisting a direct mail house to print and mail it, and finally, just recently, I sent out the last issue of the printed newsletter; it's available now only by e-mail and goes out ten or more times a year.
And, of course, I have a Web site and a remarkably capable webmaven who maintains it for me. And there's a bookstore on the website, complete with a secure server, and we do a fair annual volume in book sales.
I never expected any of this.
You know, I think back on our two years of knocking around the country, and I'm glad we did it then, because I don't see how we could do it now. As recently as fourteen years ago, about the only career-related thing I did was sit down now and then and write something. Nowadays I'm online answering e-mail and tending to business a couple of hours every day. How the hell did this happen to me?
Part of it, I realize, is a change in the nature of the business. Writers typically spend a considerable amount of time promoting themselves and their work, far more than they ever did in the past.
Part of it, too, is attributable to success. I have more readers than I did fourteen years ago. My new books sell better, and my earlier books are all back in print. I get more reader mail than I ever did, and I get more speaking invitations and interview requests.
And, finally, part of it is my own damn fault. Because, while the Inner Writer just wants to make up stories and tell them as effectively as possible, there's also an Inner Merchant who wants to bring in as many dollars as he possibly can, and there's an Inner Egomaniac who wants to grab all the glory and adulation that's there for the taking.
I often think they're all full of crap. But they're also all me, and there's no getting around that.
Not long after we moved back to New York, I had the notion that I'd like to write a big multiple-viewpoint New York novel, one large enough to hold as much of the city as I could cram into it.
And that was as far as I got with it, because I had plenty of other things to write. When you have several active series going, with the partisans of each urging you to provide further installments of their favorite, it's very easy to keep on doing the same old thing—or things—rather than break new ground. If I wanted a change of pace, I got that by moving from Matt Scudder to Bernie Rhodenbarr, from Bernie Rhodenbarr to Keller. If I wanted something completely different, I could take a few days and write a nonseries short story.
Someday, though . . .
Perhaps ten years ago, Lynne gave me a book, a collection of New York quotes. It included this, from John Gunther:
New York City, the incomparable, the brilliant star city of cities, the forty-ninth state, a law unto itself, the Cyclopean paradox, the inferno with no out-of-bounds, the supreme expression of both the miseries and the splendors of contemporary civilization, the Macedonis of the United States. It meets the most severe test that may be applied to definition of a metropolis—it stays up all night. But it also becomes a small town when it rains.
I read it and thought of my New York novel, the one I'd probably never write. Now I had a title. A Small Town When It Rains. Or maybe A Small Town in the Rain. Or even Small Town Rain.
In the fall of 2000, I'd delivered the fifteenth "Scudder" novel, Hope to Die, and my publishers were very enthusiastic about its commercial prospects. They wanted to know what I'd follow it with, and hoped for something that might build on Hope to Die. Another Scudder, perhaps?
I knew I couldn't do another, not for a few years. And I realized that this was the right time for that book I'd been wanting to write. Time to bite the bullet, time to write the book.
I got started in August of 2001, got 120 pages or so written. Stopped at the end of the month and flew to Buffalo to see my mother, who was in the hospital and not doing too well. I caught a late flight home the night of September 10, and the following morning Lynne and I stood at our window and watched the towers fall, and that, I'm afraid, is as much as I care to tell you about that awful day.
Two weeks and two days later, my mother died.
It was a while before I bothered to think of Small Town. When I did, it seemed to me that I could throw away what I'd written. It was set in a different universe, one that wouldn't come round again. And the whole idea of writing a dark thriller set in this bruised city of ours was entirely unappealing. I didn't know what I would write next, but whatever it might be, I was in no particular rush to write it. I had time booked in June and July at a writers' colony, and maybe I'd think of something to write when the time came, and maybe I wouldn't.
And, really, what difference did it make?
Because I couldn't dismiss the fact that I was heartily sick of writing, that I'd been doing far too much of it for far too long. My friend Hal Dresner had said that we'd both reached that point in our careers where the moral act was not to write the book but to spare the tree, and he'd made that observation years ago. How many trees had I slain since then? And to what purpose?
It's a little late in life for a career change. I knew I'd go on writing, because there was nothing else I could do instead, and because I was in no position to retire. But I figured all I could expect to do was repeat myself, which would probably be just fine with the reading public. The folks who like reading about Bernie Rhodenbarr want more books to read about him and are not likely to carp if a new book is just more of the same. I could write another book about Bernie, and another book about Matt, and another book about Keller, and a few people would notice that they weren't as lively as the early ones, but readers are surprisingly willing to cut you some slack, and by the time they got sick and tired of it all, well, maybe we'd be across the street at the Village Nursing Home, where nobody could bother us.
Well, here's a truth for you to file away: You never know.
And here's what happened: in mid-May of 2002, I was packing for my sojourn at Ragdale, where I planned to write something, though I was not sure what. Something made me print out those 120 pages of Small Town, which I hadn't even looked at on-screen since I stopped writing in August. I stuck them in the suitcase, and on my way to Ragdale I sat down and read what I'd written, and discovered I liked it. The characters were good, the scenes were good. Of course it would all have to be rewritten, and the ensuing book would have to be completely different from what I'd set out to write, and it would all have to be bigger and darker and more ambitious and. . . .
So I drove to Ragdale and went to work, and five weeks later I had completed Small Town, a book that most people regarded as the best thing I'd ever written.
You never know.
I've written a lot in the past fourteen years and had some very gratifying success. Other aspects of my life have been even more gratifying. My daughters are all doing well, and one has produced two granddaughters.
While Lynne and I do rather less driving around the country, we travel more than ever, and do it as compulsively as we do everything else. We still collect buffalos, but globally we've taken to collecting countries as well, and we qualified not long ago for membership in the Travelers' Century Club. Our country count stands at this writing at 112, and I'm hastening to get this update completed before we depart for a South Pacific cruise that will add eight or ten new lands to our tally.
I'm fourteen years older than I was fourteen years ago—there's just no getting around that, for me or Matthew Scudder—and I suppose I've changed some, but it's hard for me to say how. I still get a kick out of most of the things I do. I still get depressed from time to time, but I've learned how to cope with that. I just turn on CNN, and it cheers me right up every time.
Fourteen years from now, I hope somebody asks me to do this again. And I hope I'm up to it.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Block, Lawrence, and Ernie Bulow, After Hours:Conversations with Lawrence Block, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1995.
Charyn, Jerome, The New Mystery, Dutton (New York, NY), 1993.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 226: American Hard-Boiled Crime Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Armchair Detective, fall, 1992, review of A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, p. 399; summer, 1993, review of A Walk among the Tombstones (audio version), p. 82, review of Eight Million Ways to Die, p. 112, review of A Walk among the Tombstones, p. 113; fall, 1993, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 110; spring, 1994, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 241; summer, 1994, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, p. 359; spring, 1995, review of A Long Line of Dead Men (audio version), p. 200, review of Burglars Can't Be Choosers, p. 207; summer, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, p. 245, review of By the Dawn's Early Light, and Other Stories (audio version), p. 328, review of After Hours, p. 339; fall, 1995, review of After Hours, p. 444; winter, 1995, reviews of Mona and The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep, p. 40; spring, 1996, review of The Burglar in the Closet, p. 227; winter, 1996, review of Death Wish and Other Stories (audio version), p. 97; summer, 1997, review of Not Comin' Home to You, p. 352.
Atlantic Monthly, November, 1979.
Bloomsbury Review, November-December, 1994, reviews of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams and A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 26.
Booklist, October 15, 1992, review of A Walk among the Tombstones, p. 403; March 1, 1993, review of Some Days You Get the Bear, p. 1158; October 1, 1993, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 257; March 15, 1994, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, p. 1299; September 15, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 115; March 15, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, p. 1283; November 15, 1996, review of Even the Wicked, p. 548; November 1, 1997, review of Hit Man, p. 434; April 15, 1998, Thomas Gaughan, review of Tanner on Ice, p. 1378, Ted Hipple, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart (audio version), p. 1460; November 15, 1998, review of A Stab in the Dark (audio version), p. 604; April 15, 1999, Bill Ott, review of The Burglar in the Rye, p. 1466; May 15, 1999, review of Death Cruise, p. 1672, review of The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling and Tanner on Ice (audio versions), p. 1712; October 1, 1999, review of Master's Choice, and Emily Melton, review of Mystery Stories by Today's Top Writers and the Masters Who Inspired Them, p. 346; December 15, 1999, review of Chip HarrisonScores Again (audio version), p. 798; July, 2000, Thomas Gaughan, review of Hit List, p. 1973; August, 2000, Bill Ott, review of The Collected Mystery Stories, p. 2118; September 1, 2001, Wes Lukowsky, review of Hope to Die, p. 3; June 1, 2002, Wes Lukowsky, review of Cinderella Sims, p. 1690; December 15, 2002, Wes Lukowsky, review of Small Town, p. 707.
Books, review of Everybody Dies, autumn, 1999, p. 20.
Bookwatch, April, 1993, review of A Walk among theTombstones (audio version), p. 4; October, 1995, review of Burglars Can't Be Choosers, p. 11; March, 1996, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 4; October, 1996, review of Keller on Horseback (audio version), p. 9; December, 1996, review of Out the Window (audio version), p. 11; January, 1998, review of Even the Wicked (audio version), p. 11; March, 1998, review of Hit Man, p. 8; November, 1998, review of Eight Million Ways to Die (audio version), p. 12; February, 1999, review of The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, p. 11; April, 1999, review of Tanner on Ice (audio version), p. 10.
Chicago Tribune, March 4, 1981; April 5, 1987.
Chicago Tribune Book World, October 19, 1980.
Clues, fall-winter, 1993, Donna Casella, "The Matt Scudder Series: The Saga of an Alcoholic Hardboiled Detective," pp. 31-50; fall-winter, 1996, Landon C. Burns, "Matthew Scudder's Moral Ambiguity," pp. 19-32.
Commonweal, June 20, 1997, reviews of The BurglarWho Thought He Was Bogart and The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, p. 27.
Economist, December 15, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, November 12, 1993, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 54; August 15, 1997, review of The Burglar in the Library, p. 68; November 2, 2001, Bruce Fretts, "N.Y. Crimes: Lawrence Block's popular PI, Matt Scudder, returns for another Manhattan murder mystery in Hope to Die," p. 68.
Gentleman's Quarterly, September, 2000, Terrence Rafferty, "The Crime Triumvirate," p. 257.
Insight on the News, March 16, 1998, Rex Roberts, review of Hit Man, p. 36.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1993, review of Time toMurder and Create, p. 950; September 1, 1993, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 1087; March 15, 1994, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, p. 342; August 15, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 1085; April 1, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, p. 424; June 15, 1997, review of The Burglar in the Library, p. 912; December 1, 1997, review of Hit Man, p. 1738; May 1, 1999, review of The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, p. 128; June 1, 1998, review of Tanner on Ice, p. 753; September 1, 1998, review of Everybody Dies, p. 1234; July, 1999, review of The Burglar in the Rye, p. 141.
Kliatt, July, 1993, review of A Walk among the Tombstones (audio version), p. 56; September, 1994, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (audio version), p. 51; November, 1995, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 48; May, 1997, review of Sometimes They Bite and Other Stories (audio version), p. 44; November, 1997, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (audio version), p. 38; November, 1998, review of Tanner on Ice (audio version), p. 53; October 15, 1999, review of Master's Choice, p. 1607.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, November 15, 2000, Douglas Perry, review of Hit List, p. K7872.
Lambda Book Report, fall, 1992, review of A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, November, 1992, p. 47.
Library Journal, April 15, 1993, review of A Walk among the Tombstones (audio version), p. 149; September 1, 1993, review of Time to Murder and Create, p. 232; November 1, 1994, p. 115; November 15, 1997, review of The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, p. 80; February 8, 1998, Marilyn Stasio, review of Hit Man, p. 22; April 1, 1998, Kristen L. Smith, review of Hit Man (audio version), p. 142; June 1, 1998, Stephen L. Hupp, review of Eight Million Ways to Die (audio version), p. 186; July, 1998, Wilda Williams, review of Tanner on Ice, p. 132; September 1, 1998, review of Everybody Dies, p. 220; January, 1999, review of A Stab in the Dark, p. 188; May 1, 1999, Stephen L. Hupp, review of The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, p. 128; July, 1999, Wilda Williams, review of The Burglar in the Rye,
p. 141; April 15, 1999, review of Tanner on Ice (audio version), p. 164; May 1, 2000, Michael Adams, review of The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep, p. 170; June 1, 2000, Jennifer Belford, review of Make out with Murder, p. 230; August, 2000, Jeff Ayers, review of Hit List, p. 151; September 1, 2001, Fred Gervat, review of Hope to Die, p. 239; February 15, 2003, Wilda Williams, review of Small Town, p. 167.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 18, 1982; August 4, 1985; November 12, 1989; October 14, 1990; September 8, 1991; November 15, 1992, review of A Walk among the Tombstones, p. 8; December 12, 1993, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 2; May 8, 1994, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, p. 11; July 3, 1994, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, p. 10; October 9, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 15; October 30, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 14; February 12, 1995, review of Burglars Can't Be Choosers, p. 4; May 14, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, p. 10; April 20, 1997, review of Even the Wicked, p. 13.
Mystery and Science Fiction, summer, 1995, Edward J. McFadden, "Pirate Writings: Tales of Fantasy."
New Republic, March 19, 1977; November 26, 1977; November 4, 1978; February 16, 1980.
New York Times, October 20, 1994, review of A LongLine of Dead Men, p. C19.
New York Times Book Review, January 5, 1969; January 16, 1971; October 23, 1977; November 4, 1979; January 14, 1981; August 2, 1981; November 29, 1981; July 3, 1983; November 20, 1983; November 8, 1992, review of A Walk among the Tombstones, p. 61; April 18, 1993, review of Some Days You Get the Bear, p. 24; April 10, 1994, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, p. 26; January 9, 1994, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 23; October 2, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 34; December 4, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 69; December 25, 1994, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 20; January 29, 1995, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 24; July 2, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, p. 15; December 24, 1995, review of The Burglar in the Closet, p. 18; February 16, 1997, review of Even the Wicked, p. 28; June 1, 1997, review of Even the Wicked, p. 41; July 27, 1997, review of The Burglar in the Library, p. 18; December 7, 1997, review of Even the Wicked, p. 81; February 8, 1998, review of Hit Man, p. 22; May 31, 1998, review of Hit Man, p. 30; August 2, 1998, review of Tanner on Ice, p. 24; October 25, 1998, review of Everybody Dies, p. 43; December 6, 1998, review of Everybody Dies, p. 95; June 27, 1999, review of The Burglar in the Rye, p. 26; February 9, 2003, Marilyn Stasio, review of Small Town, p. 17.
Observer (London, England), April 3, 1994, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 21; November 14, 1994, review of Out on the Cutting Edge, p. 21; March 26, 1995, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 18.
People, February 23, 1998, Pam Lambert, review of Hit Man, p. 39; May 23, 1994, p. 31.
People Weekly, November 12, 2001, Cathy Burke, review of Hope to Die, p. 47.
Publishers Weekly, January 4, 1993, review of A Walk among the Tombstones (audio version), p. 36; January 25, 1993, review of Some Days You Get the Bear, p. 81; August 9, 1993, review of Time to Murder and Create, p. 462; August 23, 1993, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 61; October 4, 1993, review of A Walk among the Tombstones, p. 72; October 11, 1993, review of Such Men Are Dangerous, p. 84; November 22, 1993, review of The Specialists, p. 61; June 6, 1994, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (audio version), p. 34, review of The Girl with the Long Green Heart, p. 63; July 18, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 237; January 2, 1995, review of By the Dawn's Early Light and Other Stories (audio version), p. 40; January 23, 1995, review of Burglars Can't Be Choosers, p. 64; March 27, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, p. 78; May 8, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, p. 293; May 27, 1996, review of The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling, p. 68; November 18, 1996, review of Even the Wicked, p. 64; April 28, 1997, review of The Burglar in the Library, p. 53; November 3, 1997, review of The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, p. 69; April 20, 1998, review of Tanner on Ice, p. 50; July 6, 1998, review of Everybody Dies, p. 53; November 2, 1998, review of Everybody Dies, p. 43; November 30, 1998, review of The Burglar Who Painted like Mondrian, p. 53; April 26, 1999, review of Death Cruise, p. 59; May 24, 1999, review of The Burglar in the Rye, p. 69; October 25, 1999, review of Master's Choice, p. 55; November 15, 1999, review of Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, p. 54; September 4, 2000, review of Hit List, p. 88; October 30, 2000, review of The Scoreless Thai, p. 50; August 27, 2001, review of Hope to Die, p. 56; May 20, 2002, review of Cinderella Sims, p. 50; January 20, 2003, review of Small Town, p. 58.
Quill & Quire, February, 1984.
Rapport, January, 1994, review of The Devil KnowsYou're Dead, p. 30; April, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 31; June, 1999, review of Everybody Dies, p. 29.
Spectator, February 13, 1999, review of Hit Man, p. 39.
Time, November 15, 1993, review of The Devil KnowsYou're Dead, p. 98.
Times Literary Supplement, March 11, 1994, reviews of The Burglar Who Painted like Mondrian, A Ticket to the Boneyard, The Devil Knows You're Dead, and The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, p. 23; March 3, 1995, reviews of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams and A Walk among the Tombstones, p. 21; August 1, 1997, review of The Burglar in the Library, p. 21; January 14, 2000, review of The Collected Mystery Stories, p. 26.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 22, 1992, review of A Walk among the Tombstones, p. 7; November 28, 1993, review of A Walk among the Tombstones, p. 8; December 12, 1993, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. 7; October 2, 1994, review of A Long Line of Dead Men, p. 9; June 4, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, p. 6; February 2, 1997, review of Even the Wicked, p. 4.
Village Voice, September 13, 1994, review of A Dance at the Slaughterhouse, The Devil Knows You're Dead, Eight Million Ways to Die, Out on the Cutting Edge, The Sins of the Fathers, A Stab in the Dark, A Ticket to the Boneyard, A Walk among the Tombstones, Time to Murder and Create, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, and In the Midst of Death, p. 95.
Wall Street Journal, November 22, 1993, review of The Devil Knows You're Dead, p. A12; June 30, 1995, review of The Burglar Who Thought He Was Bogart, p. A12; July 7, 1999, review of The Burglar in the Rye, p. A20; July 25, 1997, review of The Burglar in the Library, p. A12.
Washington Post Book World, February 3, 1980; February 15, 1981; July 13, 1997, review of The Burglar in the Library, p. 1; August 23, 1998, review of Tanner on Ice, p. 8; August 8, 1999, review of The Burglar in the Rye, p. 3.
Wilson Library Journal, May, 1983.
BookBrowser,http://www.bookbrowser.com/ (June 12, 1999), Harriet Klausner, review of The Burglar in the Rye; (November 7, 2000) Harriet Klausner, review of Hit List.
BookReporter,http://www.bookreporter.com/authors/ (June 13, 2003), interviews with Block.
Lawrence Block Web site,http://www.lawrenceblock.com (June 13, 2003).
MysteryNet,http://www.mysterynet.com/ (November 7, 2000), Art Taylor, interview with Lawrence Block.
Writers Write,http://www.writerswrite.com/ (November 7, 2000), Claire E. White, "Talking Mystery with Lawrence Block."