February 2006

Clayton Moore

features

An Interview with Lawrence Block

For such a prolific writer, legendary crime writer Lawrence Block is a man of few words and talking him through questions about his long career isn’t that far removed from his own interview with his fictional detective Matt Scudder found on his web site. He’s murderously blunt, deceptively brief and just a little rough around the edges, like many of his characters.

But what characters they are.

He’s best known for Matt Scudder, the gritty subterranean PI and recovering alcoholic who takes every cliché of the genre and turns it on its head. Having kept Block busy for sixteen books, Scudder has recently suffered the point-blank assassination of his friend and AA sponsor Jim Faber in Everybody Dies, the sudden death of his ex-wife in Hope to Die, and a nearly fatal attack by a serial killer in All The Flowers Are Dying. The books are populated with some of the most eccentric characters in the canon like Danny Boy Bell, the albino, vodka-sipping snitch and Mick Ballou, the most savage gangster in all of Hell’s Kitchen.

On the lighter side, there’s always Bernie Rhodenbarr, the gentleman burglar, bookseller and star of 10 books of his own including the most recent entry, The Burglar on the Prowl. Bernie, who just can’t seem to break off his compulsion for breaking and entering, is often accompanied by his partner-in-crime, lesbian dog-washer Carolyn Kaiser. Other more lighthearted series star his insomniac spy Evan Tanner, resurrected more recently in Tanner on Ice, and the Chip Harrison books, which evolved from adolescent sex capers into more traditional mysteries reminiscent of Rex Stout.

Maybe the best place to start is with his massive collection of short fiction, Enough Rope, which gathers 83 stories over 800 plus pages of text with appearances from all of Block’s series characters plus a host of other murderers, detectives, villains and gun molls. It also comes in handy as a blunt object for the odd head trauma that needs inflicting.

As dark as Scudder is, he might get a run for his money from Keller, the lonely killer who started life in a series of short stories written mostly for Playboy. To Block’s surprise, Keller’s career as an assassin has fueled a collection of the stories in Hitman, a second volume, Hit List, which knits more episodes together with a cat-and-mouse game between Keller and a competitor, and finally the completion of the trilogy with Hit Parade, his most recent work.

Here are his answers, in his inimitable hard-boiled style, to a few questions about crime, killers, and other recreational pursuits.

Let’s start with the new book, Hit Parade. What’s next for John Keller?

Morrow will publish Hit Parade on July 4. Like Hit Man and Hit List, the book's an episodic novel, and I don't know to what extent it differs from the earlier books. It seems to me we get a little more background information about Keller, and that he's going through changes and emotional stresses. But he's still Keller.

Does Keller’s distant nature lend itself to the episodic format you’ve employed in the Hitman trilogy?

It seems to. Most of the episodes seem to work as short stories. Playboy will be publishing one sometime this spring.

Does Keller have a conscience?

It seems to me he has both roots and a conscience. They're just a little different from most people, and he's learned to cope with them differently.

Peter Straub said that Keller reminded him of you more than your other characters. Is it hard to keep yourself out of your books?

No, what's hard is keeping myself out of jail.

You’ve also edited the anthology Manhattan Noir, being published soon. What appeals to you about the short story?

As a writer, I like short stories because they don't take as long. I suspect readers may like them for much the same reason.

Matthew Scudder’s life is never easy but he took a real beating in All The Flowers are Dying. Is his luck running out?

I never know what the future holds for Scudder. Or, come to think of it, for anyone else, real or imagined.

Does it occur to you to give Scudder a graceful exit?

Nope.

You’ve lost a few friends lately, among them legends like Evan Hunter and Dave Van Ronk. Was there any inspiration for the personal losses that Scudder has experienced lately?

One either dies young or loses people. That's the choice life gives us.

You’ve touched on September 11 in both Small Town and All the Flowers are Dying. Scudder calls it, “our watershed.” How has the city changed for you in the past few years?

I'm not sure that it has. There's a biological principle called homeostasis, which essentially consists of an organism’s adapting to a new reality. Works for cities, too.

The villains in the Scudder books are particularly vibrant, ranging from cowards (Jim Severance in A Long Line of Dead Men) to sheer monsters (James Leo Motley). Do they drive the plot as much as your heroes?

Probably. Maybe more so.

On that note, Mick Ballou, one of your most inspired characters is both hero and villains by turns. Where did Mick come from?

Thin air. He has some roots in a couple of Hell's Kitchen characters.

Many authors use crime fiction to observe crime’s effect on the community around it. Are you interested in that social aspect or is it simply about telling a story?

I’m just telling a story.

You capture the complexity of New York City like few others. What does the city do for you?

It energizes me, and does all the things home does for a person.

There’s definitely a grittiness to the Scudder books, versus the lighter tone of the Burglar, Tanner and Chip Harrison novels. Is it challenging to get into that headspace?

No, there’s nothing to it, really. The mood and tone come with the book.

Are you ever surprised by the popularity of a character like Bernie, or even a lesser creation like Martin Ehrengraf (the lethal attorney that stars in several of Block’s short stories)?

I'm surprised people still read anything, actually.

Bernie steals not to get rich, but for the sheer joy of theft. What makes you feel that way?

Let’s not lose sight of something important here. Bernie enjoys it, can't resist it, etc. But he's not an idiot. He steals for the money.

Scudder, Bernie and Tanner are all written in the first-person. Is it easier to imagine the events of each book from that perspective?

No, but it may be easier to make the whole business more immediate.

Many of your characters occupy a very grey moral area. How do you decide what lines they won’t cross? Are they defined by their flaws?

Flaws? I've never liked the word. I much prefer the term used in the gem trade. My characters don't have flaws, they have inclusions.

Was there a book you felt was the turning point -- where you really felt the writing was at its strongest?

I can't remember.

You’re well-known as a prolific writer. Did that work ethic come easily to you?

See my answer about Bernie above.

The Girl With the Long Green Heart and Grifter’s Game saw print again recently, thanks to Hard Case Crime. How do you feel now about the pulp fiction you wrote in your early days?

I don't reread it, so I don't know that I feel one way or another about it. To the extent that it brings money into the house, I feel grateful to it.

You wrote about the perils of aging in Spider, Spin Me A Web – nearly 20 years ago. How do you think your writing has changed in that time?

Someone else might be better equipped to answer that than I.

Your books on writing have stood the test of time very well. Is it satisfying for you to help others with their writing?

I'm always happy to hear that the books are helpful, though I have a certain amount of trouble believing it.

I know you travel extensively. Do your adventures both in and out of the states inform your writing?

Probably, though I couldn't tell you how.

In the meantime, what’s next?

I don't know. The next book hasn't been written yet, and I'm not sure what it will be. And, if I did know, I wouldn't tell you.