An interview with Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark)

Interview by Paul Kane

Donald Westlake has also been associated with the cinema. “The Hunter”, one of the Parker novels written under the name of Richard Stark, has been made into a film four times. His screenplay for Stephen Frears’ 1990 film “The Grifters”, still the best screen adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, was nominated for an Oscar.

I interviewed Donald Westlake in December 2006, following the publication of his latest Parker novel, “Ask the Parrot”. Here is how it turned out.

Paul Kane: Do you see yourself as a crime writer or simply a writer, period?

Donald Westlake: I began by writing everything, genre, slices of life, whatever. Over the course of time, it was mostly mystery stories (followed by sci-fi and humor) that got accepted, and you tend to go where you’re liked. Through the sixties, I said I was a writer disguised as a mystery writer, but then I looked at my back trail and said, okay, I’m a mystery writer.

PK: What can you do in crime fiction that you can’t do in a straight literary novel? What possibilities does the genre offer you?

DW: I don’t think the distinction between genre and literary fiction is useful. We’re all working with the same two things, story and language, and if you fail with either of those it doesn’t matter what label you put on it.

PK: What writers have especially influenced you?

DW: I was about 15 when I read Hammett’s THE THIN MAN and first discovered what writing could do. He told two stories, one open and one concealed. The open story was a light romantic comedy with a slight mystery in it. The concealed story was a very sad tale of a man who has lost his role in life and has no way out. I hadn’t known you could tell the reader something without actually saying it, and I’ve loved that effect ever since. Nabokov was a master of that. But I also love good writing just for its own sake, and go back to reread Anthony Powell every once in a while. I have to be careful with him, though. After I’ve read Powell a while, my sentences get longer and longer. That works with him, but not with me.

PK: Has your upbringing influenced your writing?

DW: I don’t know that my upbringing specifically influenced me, but my experiences, early and late, have always had an effect, which I don’t think I’d be good at describing.

PK: Did you always want to be a writer?

DW: I began by loving story, by being a consumer, and that led to wanting to make my own stories.

PK: What was the first story or novel that you had published? How much did you earn from it?

DW: My first sale, a sci-fi story, was made just before my 20th birthday. I quit my last job, a reader for a literary agent, in April ‘59, when I was 26. Before making a living as a writer I had various clerical and grunt jobs (warehouse clerk, that sort of thing). That sci-fi story, “Or Give Me Death”, earned me 20 bucks from Universe Science Fiction, which promptly, after publishing the story, went out of business.

PK: One of your contemporaries, Lawrence Block, used to write lesbian pulp fiction (for a male readership, of course). Do you have anything you’d like to own up to?

DW: Larry and I both earned early parts of our living doing what I called euphemism novels, since you couldn’t call anything by its rightful name. I did not follow Larry, however, into the wild precincts of dikedom.

PK: What is your favourite among your books?

DW: I don’t have one favorite, or even one least-favorite. I am partial to KAHAWA and HUMANS and WHY ME.

PK: Which contemporary writers (in whatever genre) do you especially admire?

DW: The only currently working writer I will almost invariably read is Elmore Leonard. The list used to be longer, but I have changed, and so have they.

PK: You are probably most well-known for two series of novels: the novels featuring John Dortmunder and crew, and the Parker novels written under the name of Richard Stark. Which series character – Dortmunder or Parker – is closest to you in spirit?

DW: I think John Dortmunder is closest to me, and also my most realistic writing. In fiction, the doors don’t stick, you can find a cab, and there’s always a parking space; yes, with Parker, as well. But John lives in our world.

PK: Ed McBain said once that novels written as part of a series (such as his 87th Precinct novels) are essentially about “a family in a house”: it is the relationships between the principal characters that are the key to their success. This seems to hold true for your John Dortmunder novels, but is it true for Parker? (He’s basically a loner.) Could you reflect on what makes a successful series?

DW: I thought it was Mel Brooks who said that, about TV series. I think it’s basically true, and that Parker violates all kinds of rules and traditions (though he can find a cab). He wasn’t supposed to be a series character, and in fact I originally had him arrested at the end of THE HUNTER, but then a lovely editor at Pocket Books, Buck Moon, said, “Is there any way Parker could escape and you could give me 3 books a year about him?” Yes. But what Buck liked was how thoroughly he was not a series character, without reader-friendly characteristics. It was scary at first to do it that way, but then it was clearly the right thing. I recently met John Boorman, who directed POINT BLANK, the great movie from THE HUNTER, and he told me Lee Marvin said he didn’t care about the story, but he’d never seen a character like that before and he wanted to play that character. So Buck was right.

PK: Most series characters are cops or PIs, yet your two main guys (Dortmunder and Parker) both live outside the law and moreover their schemes and plans often go awry. What might a psychoanalyst read into this?

DW: I have always said that the fact psychoanalysis is necessary does not mean it works. The people defending the law have all of society to support them. The guy trying to hustle a little something on his own has only himself to rely on. Who’s more interesting? (And more like a writer.)

PK: Have you ever given Parker a first name? And who made the better on-screen Parker: Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall or (included for the sake of completeness) Mel Gibson?

DW: Since Parker wasn’t supposed to carry a series, I didn’t bother to give him a first name, and then it was too late. I loved Marvin in POINT BLANK, but Duvall was closer to the guy I wrote.

PK: You wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Stephen Frears’ The Grifters – which was a superb movie, of course – but I wonder why the character of Carol was downplayed. (There was no mention of her experiences at Dachau, as in the novel.) What do you think of Jim Thompson as a writer: is he now over-hyped or is he still underrated?

DW: We updated THE GRIFTERS, which, given Thompson, was mostly easy, since his characters never much cared about the wider world. (Around the same time, I did an Eric Ambler which never got made, and updating that one was horrific.) With Thompson, all I had to do was take the hats off the men. But there is no Dachau equivalent, thank God, so the only thing to do was lose Carol’s back-story. Still on this question, I think Thompson was a very large talent in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had to write fast for short money, and it showed. While doing the script, I said I was giving him the second draft he never got to give himself.

PK: Are you ever tempted to write further screenplays for the movies? (Or even for TV, following on from Pelecanos’ writing for The Wire.)

DW: I never say never, but I doubt I’d like to go into the movies again. The experience with Stephen Frears was a peak, and the work I did and was paid for in the next 10 years never got made, whereas the books keep getting published.

PK: It might seem that humour and crime sit together a little uneasily, yet your John Dortmunder books are a hoot (and even Parker has his dead pan quips). Can humour only be used when the crimes are “victimless” or appear to be so (or the victims are unsympathetic characters)? Are there any rules in this area, do you think?

DW: I don’t know that there are rules anywhere, but there have been any number of comic murder stories. I’ll mention two movies: KIND HEARTS AND
CORONETS and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE. I can’t point to specific funny writers or comics [that I like], but the real thing does show up and I think I usually recognize it. Last night I watched STRANGER THAN FICTION, an utterly silly concept that everybody took seriously and it’s a howl. Emma Thompson’s haggard writer is wonderful. Is she a comic?

PK: Your Parker novels were once called “hard-boiled”, but are now sometimes called “noir”. Do these two terms mean the same, in your view? Are they terms you’d use?

DW: I think hard-boiled and noir are both a little past their sell-by date, and both really refer to the post-war 40s. Hard-boiled is what the vets brought back with them, and noir is the world they found when they got home. I think hard-boiled is still possible, but noir today is another word for artsy.

PK: What would be a typical working day for you? Do you write a set number of words each day?

DW: I work a few hours in the morning, and maybe come back in the afternoon. I still write on the same Smith-Corona Silent Super manual portable typewriters I started on, and save this machine [the computer] for other things.

PK: How much of a book is in your mind before you sit down to write it? Do you have the plot worked out beforehand, or are you surprised by what happens to your characters?

DW: I usually start with no more than a character or two and a setting and an opening scene. I’m a narrative push writer, I make it up as I go along, so that makes me my first reader. This keeps up both the enthusiasm and the aggravation.

PK: How many drafts of a novel do you usually write?

DW: I do essentially one draft, but twice. That is, type it out today, read it tomorrow morning, make corrections, do the final copy, move on. I’ll grudgingly make further changes based on the opinions of my wife, my agent and my editor. What I want is adulation, what I get is notes.

PK: Do you show your work-in-progress to anyone?

DW: Because a book in progress is a shape-shifting thing I almost never show it to anybody. If I’m truly stuck I may show it to my wife so we can discuss it.

PK: Do you have any advice for writers trying to get published?

DW: I once asked John D. MacDonald how he answered questions like that. He said, “I tell them, if it’s possible for you to get discouraged, don’t start.”

PK: What are your current writing projects?

DW: At the moment, Parker is trying to get the bank loot he left behind in
Massachusetts 2 books ago. And I really ought to go join him.

About the interviewer: Paul Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and can be contacted at pkane@yahoo.co.uk

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