Friday, October 7, 2011

A Visit with Lawrence Block

by Jean Henry Mead

Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Lawrence Block has won four Edgar and Shamus awards. The bestselling author's wide range of characters: from private investigator Mathew Scudder, burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, insomniac Evan Turner to assassin Keller have made him one of the most versatile crime novelists on the planet. He's also published four how-to writing books as well as short fiction and articles in American Heritage, Redbook and The New York Times.

Lawrence, what in your background prepared you to write crime novels? Did you hold any writing jobs before writing fiction?

Nothing---outside of extensive reading. After two years of college, I got a summer job at a New York literary agency as an editor. I dropped out of school to keep it, and stayed for a year. Then I went back to college, but I was already writing and selling short stories and novels, and couldn't take school as seriously as it needed to be taken. I wrote full-time, until in 1964 I took a job as an editor with a numismatic magazine in Racine, Wisconsin. After a year and a half I returned to full-time free-lancing, and I haven't had honest work since.

How did your protagonist Mathew Scudder come about?

I developed the character for a three-book paperback original series for Dell, at the suggestion of my agent. Dell didn't do much with the books, but the character remained alive for me, and a few years later I wrote a fourth book and Arbor House published it. A Drop of the Hard Stuff, from Little Brown in April 2011, [is] the seventeenth novel about Scudder, so I've been writing about him for over 35 years, which I find astonishing when I think about it. He's older now, but who isn't?

Your gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr is an intriguing protagonist. How did you feel about Whoopi Goldberg playing the role in “The Burglar in the Closet?”

Whoopi was by no means the worst thing about that movie. The gender change was something the filmmakers had every right to make; it's not their job to reflect and reproduce the novelist's vision, but to make something that works as a film. Unfortunately, what wound upon the screen wasn't very good. Whoopi's a fine actress and could have been good if she'd had something to be good in. The writer/director is the genius who gave us the Police Academy films, so what could we expect?

How did your character Evan Michael Tanner originate and do you plan to write additional novels about him?

I wrote seven Tanner books in the 1960s, then nothing until Tanner On Ice in 1998. Tanner seems to have the life-cycle of a cicada, and I figure the next book is due in 2026. I don't think there'll be more Tanner books, but I've been wrong about this sort of thing before. I never know what the future will offer.

What’s the best advice you can give to aspiring mystery/crime novelists?

Write to please yourself. And don't expect too much.

What’s your writing schedule like and how has it changed over the years?

No schedule. Now and then I write something. Less now than years ago.

How many books of writing advice have you written?

There have been four: Writing the Novel from Plot to Print, Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Spider Spin Me a Web, and Write for Your Life. I figure that's plenty.

Have you ever suffered from Writer's block?

Only in interviews.

How do you overcome it?


Which writer(s) influenced your own writing?

I don't know. I read tons of things early on. Jazz musicians talk in terms of influences, because when they begin they try to sound like someone whom they admire. Writers try to find their own voice, which is different.

How would you like to be remembered?

I don't expect to be remembered. The world has a short memory, and that's fine. Those of us who think we're writing for posterity are deluding ourselves. And why give a rat's ass about posterity? What has posterity ever done for us?

I'm sure your work will be long remembered. Thanks for the interview.

Lawrence Block's website:


havenwriter said...

I've read a couple of charming interviews w/L. Block. Was he having a bad day this day or what?

Jean Henry Mead said...

He obviously was, havenwriter. I'm glad all his interviews were not quite so cynical.

Jaden Terrell said...

I think Lawrence Block is a terrific writer and enjoy both his mysteries and his books on writing. I think it's interesting that he dodged both your questions about how Scudder and Tanner originated by saying when they were written and for whom, but without discussing what we (or at least, I) really want to know: what gave him the ideas for those characters?

Great questions, Jean. For some reason, it never crossed my mind that Whoopie's character was supposed to be Bernie. She's a talented actor, but whoever adapted the story went pretty far astray; I didn't even recognize it.

Kathy McIntosh said...

I actually thought he was a hoot in the interview! (Does that make me a curmudgeon?) I love his Bernie novels and this interview made me want to read more of his other work, too.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I enjoy his books as well, Beth. I guess I just caught him on a bad day. I also wish he had elaborated about his characters. I've never talked to a writer yet who liked the film version of their novels. They all basically say that they took the money and ran. :)

Jean Henry Mead said...

No, Kathy that doesn't make you a curmudgeon but I think LB bordered it on it that day. He didn't like some of the questions I asked, which are not included in this interview. Questions that I've asked a lot of other writers.

Jaden Terrell said...

I think Dennis Lehane was happy with Eastwood's filming of MYSTIC RIVER. As well he should be.

Jaden Terrell said...

Okay, if you were casting Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr, who would you cast?

Jean Henry Mead said...

I'm glad to hear that Lehane was happy. He's certianlny in the minority. I'll have to think about who would play Matthrew and Bernie. Who would you cst?