Interview: April 6, 2001
April 6, 2001
Hands down the laugh-out-loud funniest crime fiction writer out there today, yesterday, and most likely tomorrow, Donald E. Westlake is back with a new Dortmunder novel, BAD NEWS. Join Bookreporter.com's Senior Writer, Joe Hartlaub --- who, by the way, puts Westlake right up there with Hemingway on his list of great American writers --- as he chats with Westlake about the evolution of John Dortmunder, his short lived foray into the world of westerns, the interplay between his multiple personalities and much more.
BRC: BAD NEWS heralds the welcome return of John Dortmunder. Dortmunder remains a unique character in crime fiction on many levels. He's extremely intelligent, streetwise, disciplined, and careful. He is, however, plagued by bad luck to the extent that breaking even is about the best that he can reasonably expect. Yet he continues to pursue his chosen profession, long after most reasonable --- do I dare say, sane --- people would have moved onto another field of endeavor. Did you sit down and map out Dortmunder's psyche prior to writing THE HOT ROCK, the first Dortmunder novel, or was this complex personality of his something that evolved gradually?
DW: When I wrote THE HOT ROCK, I had no idea John D would be a series character, nor did he. But halfway through that book --- see the answer to question 6 --- he did have the firm realization that he was operating under a jinx, and that the only possible course was to struggle through it and, with luck, come out the other side. At that point, he thought the emerald was his jinx, but in fact it was and is me. To do the task, the best he can, no matter what happens in the world beyond his control, is his central motivation, because otherwise he'd just lie down in the road and never move again. But John Barth already wrote that book: END OF THE ROAD.
BRC: I'll have a couple of questions a bit later related to the marked divisions between the Westlake and the Stark books. There is, however, quite a division even under the books you write as Donald E. Westlake. BAD NEWS, for instance, is somewhat light, often subtlety hilarious in tone; while THE HOOK, published last year, is as quietly dark as they come. What influences the marked differences in tone of your different novels?
DW: I start with the story, almost in the old campfire sense, and the story leads to both the characters, which actors should best be cast in this story, and the language. The choice of words, more than anything else, creates the feeling that the story gives off.
BRC: BAD NEWS is impressive on a number of levels. You manage to present a complex caper while keeping its underlying principle understandable. Your supporting characters are incredibly interesting and memorable, yet never overwhelm or outclass Dortmunder, who is the nominal star of the show. What I really enjoyed, however, were the courtroom exchanges, especially those in which you make the reader privy to the thought processes of Judge Higbee. These, in my opinion, were perfect. How did you come by such knowledge? You apparently have either spent a lot of time in court astutely observing judges, or number one or two among your circle of friends.
DW: That stupidity is the primary wellspring of crime (as well as politics, religion, romance, and so many of the other elements of our lives) I'd long known. For instance, the 4 guys in the late 60's who attacked a jewel merchant on New York's West 46th St. --- Diamond Row --- on the sidewalk, so they could steal his jewel-filled station wagon, which they abandoned 2 blocks later because none of them could drive a stick shift. Where would I be without such people? And there's no shortage of them. Eleven years go I moved to an upstate rural area with a twice-weekly newspaper containing every time a one- or two-page Police Blotter. I believe that's Judge Higbee's only reading.
BRC: You have written one Western novel as Westlake --- GANGWAY, with Brian Garfield. Do you have any inclination to return to that genre in the near future?
DW: The West is Brian's home range. If I go west of New Jersey I get hives. I fly over it to Los Angeles, but that isn't part of the West, or even of this spectrum of reality. In a word, no.
BRC: What can you tell us about FIREBREAK, the next Parker novel to be published under your Richard Stark pseudonym?
DW: A firebreak is a small fire set in front of a big fire, to stop the big fire by robbing it of fuel. I wanted to adapt that idea, by having people commit a small robbery, in the course of which they discover, but don't get, something much more valuable. But the small robbery, by forcing an upgrade of defensive systems, makes the big robbery that much harder, or perhaps impossible. I also wanted Parker to operate in the Internet age without losing being Parker. He's always operated in the world without really being with the world, and cyberspace means that the rest of us are more and more living the same way.
BRC: Have you ever sat down with an idea that seemed ideal for say, a Parker novel, and then found, as you began writing, that the idea was better suited for another novel?
DW: I had an idea for a multiple robbery story that I thought would be ideal for Parker because it would irritate him so. But then I realized I ran the risk of making him a figure of fun, which would ruin his credibility forever. Thus was born John Dortmunder and THE HOT ROCK.
BRC: There is a marked distinction between your Westlake and Stark personas. Yet, they both spring from the same person --- you. How often do you find these personas competing for your writing attention? And have you mastered a way to allocate your time to satisfy both?
DW: When Stark isn't off sulking somewhere, or whatever he's doing when he won't return my calls, I alternate between the two. That usually works well, though occasionally an idea for the wrong guy drifts through my mind. I make a note, set it aside, and hope it makes sense when the time comes to look at it again.
BRC: How did your Richard Stark persona come to evolve?
DW: If it weren't for received ideas, the publishing industry wouldn't have any ideas at all. When I was first being published, in the 60's, an article of belief in publishing was that women bought hardcovers and men bought paperbacks. This was demonstrable nonsense, but since everyone believed it, and they all knew they were all smart and knowledgeable, it must be true. I was selling one book a year to Random House, which is all a publisher can stand from a writer (another received idea), and I wanted a different publisher where I could do different things. Okay, paperback, for men. So I did a betrayal-revenge-tough guy story, with a cold-blooded lead who got caught at the end. Pocket Books bought it and asked if the guy could escape at the end and appear in more books, and it turned out he could, and Parker was born. If I'd known he'd be back in more than 20 books, I'd have given him a first name. Anyway, in that first book I gave him none of the softnesses you're supposed to give a series character, and no band of sidekicks to chat with, because he was going to pound through one book and goodbye. Once he became a series character, I made the conscious choice that he would never act like a series character, never wink at the reader, never pull his punches. Better for him, better for me.
BRC: What have you read in the past six months that you would care to recommend to our readers?
DW: In this general field, a few months ago I read Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER, which is terrific. Lehane in one leap jumped out of genre and into the novel. More recently, I reread, for the first time in more than 30 years, Vladimir Nabokov's PALE FIRE, and it's as outrageous and intricate and funny and brilliant as ever.
BRC: In addition to BAD NEWS and FLASHFIRE, your latest Parker novel under your Richard Stark pseudonym, your Mitchell Tobin books, under your penname Tucker Coe, have also been reprinted during the past year. Tobin is another extremely intriguing character. I don't know if he's dysfunctional --- he actually functions quite well, once he makes the physical and mental jump to get out among people --- but he desperately wants to stay at home in his shame, literally build a wall around himself, and be left alone. There were five Tobin books published in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Have you ever been tempted to bring Tobin back, however unlikely such a resurrection would have been?
DW: Mitch Tobin is working through a traumatic state. When I started the last of them, DON'T LIE TO ME, I realized the series was running to an inevitable end. And that's the only time I ever created a series character on purpose. The problem was, he had to resolve, one way or another. If he got over the trauma, he'd become just another private eye, and I couldn't use him. If he settled into neurosis and became another self-pitying kvetch, I didn't want to be around him. At the end of DON'T LIE TO ME, he goes to sleep. I knew then he'd never wake up.
BRC: Besides the Mitchell Tobin novels, are there any of your other novels presently out of print that you would like to see reissued?
DW: All of them. That is, all of Westlake and Stark. Th-th-that's all, folks!