Multiple-award winning, MWA Grand Master of suspense
Lawrence Block lives and writes in New York City. He has been named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and been awarded every major prize given to mystery writers (sometimes more than once): the Edgar, the Shamus, the Maltese Falcon, and the Nero Wolfe.
An Interview with Lawrence Block, author of EVERYBODY DIES
by Art Taylor
The dream of many aspiring mystery writers is to develop a successful series such as Ed McBain's 87th Precinct mysteries or Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone books. Lawrence Block has had four successful series, featuring Matthew Scudder, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Evan Tanner and Chip Harrison. His writing career has spanned some 40 years and over 50 books, and his success and his sales continue to grow. The 1994 Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster, Block has also won four Edgar and Shamus Awards and a handful of other international awards. In his most recent Scudder novel, Everybody Dies, the ex-policeman turned private investigator gets pulled from a now-comfortable life into a veritable war zone on the mean streets of New York. It is a riveting ride.
MysteryNet: You've had four series, plus 14 other novels. Is it difficult to go, say, from a Matthew Scudder novel to a Bernie Rhodenbarr novel?
Lawrence Block: No. It's easier to go from one to another than to stay with one character for book after book.
MysteryNet: Why is that?
Block: I think it's just a change of pace. If I only wrote one series, I'd need longer breaks between books. And I suspect I'd burn out or go stale.
MysteryNet: Is Scudder the character you feel closest to? Is he an alter-ego in any way?
Block: Probably no more than any of the others are. Scudder's not busy being me. Every viewpoint character, and all well-realized non-viewpoint characters as well, are to one extent or another aspects of self. I don't think that makes them alter egos.
MysteryNet: It's been a quarter of a century since the first Scudder book. What has given him staying power, both for you and for your readers?
Block: The most obvious answer is that he's aged and changed and grown over the years, but I've been doing books about Bernie Rhodenbarr for just as long, and he hasn't changed, so I don't know if that would be an adequate explanation. Scudder's always been quirky and unpredictable, in ways that neither he nor I fully understand. I suspect that's helped.
MysteryNet: Which are your more popular books: the Scudder novels or the Rhodenbarr mysteries?
Block: I don't know. I think sales are similar. I sell a few more copies with each book than with the one before, but the most recent book in each series has sold about the same.
MysteryNet: There was a break of some years in the Scudder books.
Block: A few years, not terribly long. But a few years a couple of times.
MysteryNet: Why was that?
Block: Who knows? There was also a long break in the Bernie Rhodenbarr series, about 11 years, and there was no reason for that either. It just happens. I don't make many conscious decisions in my writing or in my life. Things just sort of happen. And there was, mirabile dictu, a 28-year hiatus between volumes seven and eight of the Evan Tanner series. So go figure.
MysteryNet: Everybody Dies seems, to me, suffused with a sense of mortality and a philosophical consideration of existence, death, fate. Are these topics heavy on your own mind? What pointed your themes in this direction?
Block: I suppose it must have been on my mind to one degree or the other. Anything that's in the work probably is. But who cares? What's salient is it's what was on Scudder's mind. And, consequently, it's what the book was about.
MysteryNet: You've written a number of books for writers. What prompted you to write these?
Block: I started out writing a column for Writer's Digest and it grew from there. But I don't know what prompted it particularly. I started writing the column in the late '70s and wrote it for about 14 years.
MysteryNet: What did you learn for yourself and your own writing in the process?
Block: Just as writing affects your reading and forms it, so does writing about writing take it one step further. I probably learned things. I don't know what specifically. By the time I stopped writing the column, I figured I'd long since written far more than I knew on the subject. Still, I missed doing it. I would come across something, in my work or my reading, and I'd get an idea for a column, and I'd have to remind myself that I didn't do that anymore. Now, curiously, there's a possibility that I'll be doing a similar column again. Just a slim possibility, and I don't know how I feel about it--aside from the enthusiasm one always feels at the prospect of being able to pay next month's rent.
MysteryNet: You don't seem to be very self-conscious about your writing.
Block: Well, I've been doing it since the Johnstown Flood, for God's sake. If I ever was self-conscious about it, I damn well ought to have gotten over it by now.... I sometimes re-read a work of mine, but I don't think a great deal in terms of theme. I frequently don't really know what a book's about until after I've written it and I look back at it. Sometimes I see that it was about something that wasn't consciously on my mind when I was writing it.
MysteryNet: Do you know the plot before you sit down to write it?
Block: It varies. Sometimes I know more about it at other times. But I don't outline and I don't have the whole thing charted out by any means.
MysteryNet: How long does it take you to write a book?
Block: I think a very valid answer to that question is that every book takes all your life up until then.
MysteryNet: I understand from a couple of sources that you do a lot of traveling. Do you write on the road or only at home? Is travel a break from your writing career or part of the process?
Block: It's a break from working.
MysteryNet: Are you working on a book now?
Block: Yes. I'm working on a book that will probably be called Hit List, and it's a sequel to Hit Man. It will probably come out late in 2000.
MysteryNet: Do you enjoy interacting with your fans when you're on tour?
Block: Yes. I enjoy it. Tours are great for self-esteem. All those people show up at a signing and they all think you're terrific. Of course in each city there are hundreds of thousands of other people who don't show up, and either they don't know you from Adam or they think you stink. But they're not there, so you don't have to think about them.
MysteryNet: Do your fans tend to be more men than women? Are they a particular age group?
Block: It's a very wide spectrum. The only common denominator really that I've noticed, the only generalization I can make about my fans, is that they tend on balance to be brighter and better looking than average.
MysteryNet: Which of your books is a favorite for you?
Block: I tend to be most enthusiastic about what is most recent. But I don't know if that means the work's getting better. It may simply mean that my memory's failing.
MysteryNet: Have you been pleased with the films adapted from your books?
Block: Not particularly. They weren't very good.
MysteryNet: Have you ever thought about screenwriting yourself?
Block: I don't want to do that. I'm frequently unhappy with the government but that doesn't mean I want to run for office.
MysteryNet: Do you still sell the film rights to your books?
Block: Yes. There are a couple of things in development right now that I actually have fairly good hopes for. Hit Man is in development now, with Jeff Bridges set to star in it. And A Walk Among The Tombstones is also in development with Jersey Films. Both of these have every prospect of being good. But you never know.
Art Taylor's mystery fiction and mystery-related nonfiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Red Herring Mystery Magazine, The Armchair Detective and the North Carolina Literary Review. Most recently, he has interviewed Susan Isaacs and James Doss for MysteryNet.
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