Robert B. Parker Author Interview On Writing Mysteries
"Five Pages a Day" by Charles L.P. Silet
Robert B. Parker's Spenser series is now among the longest running and most successful in history of crime fiction. Of writers working today Parker is also among the most knowledgeable about the history of hard-boiled detective fiction, and his Ph. D. thesis on the American hero includes material on the classic authors Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. At the request of the Chandler estate Parker completed Poodle Springs, a manuscript left unfinished at the time of Chandler's death, and later he wrote a new Philip Marlowe novel Perchance to Dream a sequel to The Long Goodbye.
Last year Robert Parker contributed the introduction and chose the stories for The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Otto Penzler (Houghton Mifflin). With the publication of Night Passage he also began a second series, featuring Jesse Stone, which immediately became a best seller. Currently Mr. Parker is working on a new Jesse Stone book and another Spenser novel. In the following interview Parker talks about his new series, shares his thoughts on crime fiction, and discusses his own writing techniques.
MysteryNet: What compelled you to write crime fiction in the first place?
Parker: I have no idea. Probably reading Raymond Chandler early and often. It wasn't a conscious decision. I remember when it came time to write the first novel, I just sat down and wrote it. I didn't think what shall I do, shall I update, shall I transfer the crime story from Southern California? I just wrote The Godwulf Manuscript. Once you do that and someone buys it and publishes it, you tend to write another one.
The other answer is it's what I know how to do. As I have occasionally demonstrated, I know how to write something else but the market forces tend to make that less appealing as time goes on. The experience with All Our Yesterdays is a case in point. This is not to say I'll never do anything but the series. I have laying around someplace a novel about Wyatt Earpe which I'm about 150 pages into. I don't even have a contract for it. It is just sort of one of my hobbies. Unless fate intervenes that will someday see the light of day. I do so well now that I can do things that aren't profitable.
MysteryNet: Where did the character Spenser come from?
Parker: I suppose he came from Marlowe to start with. I think in The Godwulf Manuscript I was trying to be Raymond Chandler and make another Philip Marlowe. I have moved away from Marlowe/Chandler. At least there is a sufficient distance between us. I'd say that is where Spenser came from. I still am a great fan of Raymond Chandler. He's a wonderful writer.
MysteryNet: What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a series?
Parker: The advantage is that it probably replicates, for lack of a better word, real life more than most fiction because most people have a history and know people and come and go and you have a chance to play with the characters and not just the protagonist. It gives you the opportunity to develop--lapsing back into academe for a moment--a whole fictive world. Gee, I love saying that now, just keeping my hand in. Fictive world!
MysteryNet: Throughout your career you've done single novels outside the series, like All Our Yesterdays. What do they allow you to do?
Parker: Well, they allow me to write about protagonists who are different than Spenser or to write about people in the third person, which for writers means more than for readers, but the point of view for me is a large element. It's very interesting to me to play with it. I couldn't write a novel dealing with the Irish troubles over three generations like I did in All Our Yesterdays in Spenser's voice. The time management in that novel was the most interesting of all the things I had to do and the most complicated. It's like being able to bench press 300-pounds when I was in my late fifties, I wanted to see if I could.
Love and Glory allowed me to play with boy meets girl, boy gets girl back, in ways once again that Spenser wouldn't permit. Wilderness allowed me to write a protagonist whose courage was severely suspect. By now it would be a little hard for Spenser to suddenly go yellow. I did a third person in the Jesse Stone novel in large part because it will be interesting over the years to work with a third person persistently in a series which I have never done before.
MysteryNet: Do you have a writing procedure? For instance, do you outline your plots?
Parker: Yeah, I sit down every day and write five pages on my computer. At some point I found that not outlining worked better than outlining. The outline had become something of a limitation more than it was a support. When I did the Raymond Chandler book, Poodle Springs, which was in the late eighties, I was trying to do it as Chandler did it, and since Chandler didn't outline then I thought I won't outline. If you read Chandler closely you can see that he didn't outline. What the hell happened to that chauffeur? I would recommend to the beginning writer that they should outline because they probably don't have enough self-confidence yet. But I've been writing now since 1971 and I know that I can think it up. I know it will come.
MysteryNet: What do you think that you do best?
Parker: I guess probably I am the great economist. I don't waste much in the way of language. Was it Harold Pinter that they called the great compressionist? I would lay claim to that in my own area of expertise. It is probably what I do best. Say a lot in a little. Put the most meaning in the fewest words.
MysteryNet: Your prose is among the smoothest in crime fiction.
Parker: I have heard that. I don't read about myself. I don't read reviews. I will not read this interview, however telling it may be, and I don't look at tapes of myself on the Today Show or when I'm on Larry King. My wife Joan keeps track of what's being said in the press, but she doesn't tell me unless she thinks I need to know. I like that old Hemingway line. If you believe the good stuff they write about you then you have to believe the bad. I've chosen not to pay attention.
MysteryNet: You recently edited The Best of American Mystery Stories. How is the state of the American mystery story?
Parker: I think the state of the mystery story is probably quite good. There are a lot of good writers doing it and the environment is acceptable. It is a good time when good writers can write detective stories without feeling they are debasing themselves. It used to drive Chandler crazy that he didn't get more respect because he wrote mystery stories. and his anger was probably justifiable because he was better than people gave him credit for.
Duke Ellington, I think, once said there are two kinds of music: good and bad. Duke preferred good. Well, I think you could say that about literature.
MysteryNet: So you would see little difference between mainstream fiction and crime fiction?
Parker: Not at its best. There is nothing going on in a Spenser novel that would prevent me from writing something as good as "The Bear," except that there is a limit on my ability. The form doesn't limit me, my ability limits me. My imagination is not as large as Faulkner's. The difference between Small Vices and let's say The Great Gatsby is once again a difference in quality not of subject matter. Gatsby is after all rather a mystery story, or a detective story, and if you could change Nick Caraway to a detective what would have been the difference? That's my rap on the difference between one kind and another. I don't think there is. It's good or it's not good; or it's better or it's worse.
MysteryNet: Most of your books deal in various ways with social issues. Is the crime novel inherently a social kind of fiction?
Parker: It probably is inherent because the detective novel is embedded in the fabric of the culture in so many ways. Because the detective story at the most elementary level is about human interaction, somebody kills somebody, somebody steals something belonging to somebody else, and another person tries to find out about it and because the focus of the search is into the culture and into the community and into the social fabric, it allows the protagonist to move across the full range of society. It gives you the opportunity for social criticism, in ways a novel which was not about this search for this hidden truth might not necessarily happen to.
MysteryNet: In what ways are the Spenser books playing off the traditions of the hard-boiled detective story? For example how is he different from Marlowe?
Parker: Well, Spenser has a love life, has a context, and has friends. He's not unhappy and he's not isolated. He doesn't say get me off this frozen star, as Marlowe does in one of the books. The loneliness is the price Marlowe pays for his integrity. Spenser is able to maintain it in context unlike Marlowe who has to remain separate in order to remain pure. I suppose that more than anything else separates them.
MysteryNet: Did your doctoral thesis which included material on Hammett and Chandler influence your own writing?
Parker: No. It's the other way round. I wrote the doctoral dissertation because I'd already done all of the reading. I had read all that stuff and everything around it by the time I was twelve, fourteen-years-old. The pulp magazines were still flourishing in my childhood, and I was very taken with it all. So that when it came time to do a doctoral dissertation I thought, since I've done all the reading in this area, why not write on it?.
It took me two weeks to write my doctoral dissertation, which is what it was worth. It was about the right amount of time. It's not terribly good, but it was sufficient to get me a Ph.D. and free me from the toils of freshman comp. The fact that I wrote this doctoral dissertation and then became who I am is far less significant than it would appear. I would have been exactly who I am had I not written that doctoral dissertation. But while I am not pro academic, I found getting the Ph.D. very useful and one of the most productive and enriching things I ever did.
An Annotated Robert B. Parker Reading List
The Spenser Novels
Hush Money (1999)
Trouble in Paradise (1998)
Sudden Mischief (1998)
Small Vices (1997)
Thin Air (1995)
Walking Shadow (1994)
Paper Doll (1993)
Double Deuce (1992)
Crimson Joy (1988)
Pale Kings and Princes (1990)
Taming a Sea-Horse (1986)
A Catskill Eagle (1985)
The Widening Gyre (1983)
A Savage Place (1981)
Early Autumn (1981)
Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980)
The Judas Goat (1978)
Promised Land (1976)
Mortal Stakes (1975)
God Save the Child (1974)
The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)
The Jesse Stone Novels
Trouble in Paradise (1998)
Night Passage (1997)
The Marlowe Novels
Perchance to Dream (1990)
Poodles Springs (with Raymond Chandler, 1989)
All Our Yesterdays (1994)
Love and Glory (1983)
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers.