18th Apr2013

Interview with Lawrence Block

by Lloyd Paige

Lawrence Block has been one of America’s top mystery crime writers for over forty years. He’s the author of books such as The Sins Of The Fathers, In The Midst Of Death, A Stab In The Dark, Eight Million Ways To Die, A Walk Among The Tombstones, The Burglar In The Closet, The Burglar Who Liked To Quote Kipling, The Thief Who Couldn’t Sleep, The Canceled Czech, Tanner’s Twelve Swingers, Chip Harrison Scores Again, and Make Out With Murder.

He’s even written books under pseudonym of Jill Emerson and has also been the winner of numerous awards, as well as writing a host of TV and film scripts.

Lawrence found time to talk to me about his current book entitled ‘Hit Me,’ which continues the popular Keller series, Hollywood actor Liam Neeson, and a few other questions which I threw his way.

1. Hi Lawrence, if we take a look at one of your creations, Matthew Scudder, you’ve been writing about him for many years and he’s developed too. Do you think characters should develop throughout various stories or can the genre of a story dictate whether they should do or not?

It depends. Matthew Scudder evolves, Bernie Rhodenbarr stays essentially unchanged. Each strikes me as appropriate. The level of realism in the Scudder series was such that the character could not realistically fail to be changed by the experiences he undergoes. For Bernie, on the other hand, any change would be ruinous. One reader wrote to inform me that, having read four of the books, he was giving up on Bernie altogether, because by now he should have developed the insight to know what he was doing was morally reprehensible, and hence reform.

2. Liam Neeson will play Mathew Scudder in the movie adaptation of A Walk Among the Tombstones. It is in production now and is set in New York. Scott Frank will direct. As an author how much are you involved in this process and is your insight relied upon during production in any way to help bring the characters to life?

I’m not involved at all, in this instance. I’ve had several meetings with Scott Frank over the years — this film has been a long time coming — and many years ago he was good enough to send over a copy of the screenplay as it then was. I read a few pages and stopped; there was nothing wrong with the screenplay, but I nevertheless found the process of reading it unsettling. He has since offered to send me the current version and I haven’t taken him up on it, and won’t. I’ll see the film of course, and I have every reason to believe I’ll enjoy it, because Scott is superb at adapting work for the screen while retaining all that’s good about the original work; his screenplays for two Elmore Leonard works, Out of Sight and Get Shorty, are cases in point.

But a film is different from a book, you know. And the primary aim in making a film is not to be faithful to the vision of the chap who wrote the book. That would have to follow way down on the list. The filmmaker’s focus has to be on the film itself, on putting together something that will bring people into the theater and leave them happy. And what works on the page is not necessarily what works on the screen. The two media are quite different.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is being filmed in New York. (And that’s a good thing, I’d say; Eight Million Ways to Die, which some have called the quintessential New York crime novel, was filmed in Los Angeles.) I’m sure I’ll visit the set a time or two, but not to help bring anything to life. And I doubt I’ll spend much time there. It doesn’t take too many visits to a film set to impress one with how tedious the whole business is. They take forever setting up a shot, then go through the scene several times, then spent another eternity setting up the next shot. If one’s a part of the process it may be fascinating; if not, it’s rather like watching paint dry.

3. I’m glad to say that your new book ‘Hit Me’ is out and sees the welcome return of the unforgettable Keller. He’s now settled with a new wife and a new name, working legitimately. How much fun did you have with bringing him back?

I’ve always enjoyed writing Keller, and never more than in Hit Me.

4. Do you think that Keller has been so popular with readers because of the character he is or the situations that you’ve put him in?

I think they just enjoy the fellow’s company. He’s a guilty pleasure for many of them; they like him while aware that he’s not the sort of person they ought to like.

5. When writing the first draft of ‘Hit Me’ did you lock yourself away and pick up where you left off, or did you consider where modern crime fiction is today and weave those elements around it?

I’ve never bothered to care where crime fiction (or anything else) is. I just wrote the book as it came to me.

6. Writers normally drop a little pinch of themselves into their characters. Has that been the case for you over the years and if so, out of the Evan Tanner, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Matthew Scudder, and Keller characters, which one would you say comes anywhere close to you?

I’m sure there are aspects of myself in every well-realized character, including bit players. But my friend Peter Straub remarked upon reading Hit Man, that Keller, in his thoughts and internal monologues sounded more like me than any of my other creations. I can only say that our vocational experience has been a good deal different. Still, we’re both philatelists, and we both collect worldwide stamps issued during philately’s first century, 1840-1940. How’s that for coincidence?

7. Digital books and printed books seem to be like CD and vinyl, the two working alongside in tandem. Do you prefer reading digital or do you prefer turning a page?

It depends. I prefer physical books with a handful of favourite writers; OTOH the act of reading is less effortful on a Kindle.

8. Do you still have your own bookstore and does it only sell your books?

It’s never been a physical bookstore, always a web enterprise, and for a while now it’s been LB’s eBay Bookstore. The only book other than my own that I offer is Break Writer’s Block Now, by Jerrold Mundis; I bought up the overstock when the book was remaindered, and have the only available copies. It’s too useful a book to let it be unavailable to people.

9. You like to travel. Have you found the experience of travelling to different environments and seeing various cultures an influence on your writing in any way?

The travel we do is an end in itself, and it’s rare that it finds its way into the work. I think it plays a role in the writing process but if so, it’s a subtle and indirect one. For example, my wife and I were riding Bactrian camels across a swath of the forbidding Taklamakan Desert in China’s Wild West when I got the idea, quite out of the blue, for the twelfth Matthew Scudder novel, A Long Line of Dead Men.

10. Crime traverses geographically but there are still cultural differences to be found in the writing. What do you think are the main differences between the way stories are told by American crime writers and British crime writers?

Years and years ago, British crime fiction was presumed to have grown out of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, even as American crime fiction was a comparable outgrowth of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But the lines were blurred early on, and no longer exist at all; there’s a strong cozy tradition in the States, centred on an annual conference called Malice Domestic, while UK crime writers like Ian Rankin and John Harvey are as hard boiled and tough-minded as one could possibly want. About the only way to be certain a given crime novel is British rather than American is if the bad guys hijack a lorry.

11. One thing that is different culturally between the UK and US is the approach for example to gun control. Should crime writers pay attention to the sphere outside of their fictional world or should they continue to write their crime fiction as hard boiled as they want?

Writers should write what they want, as they want.

12. Do you see yourself as a social commentator through your writing?

Christ, no. It’s not a role I have any interest in playing, nor can I imagine why any of my readers might care what I have to say about some social issue. The late John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels included McGee’s buddy Meyer, who frequently commented on social and economic matters. McGee himself was apt to air his views on the environment. And that’s the one aspect of the books that doesn’t wear well. Reread them today and you find yourself skipping those parts.

13. Finally, after you’ve finished promoting ‘Hit Me,’ what can your fans look out for next?

I’ve a book of hitherto uncollected new short fiction coming in the fall from Hard Case Crime / Subterranean Press. The title is Catch and Release. It consists in the main of stories written after the publication of my omnibus collection, Enough Rope (or the somewhat shorter UK equivalent, Collected Mystery Stories), although there’s also a long-lost story from 1964.


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