Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A conversation with Donald E. Westlake July 1986 - Part One

The following story first appeared in The Asbury Park Press, July 27,1986. It was based on two phone interviews I did with Westlake from his NYC home earlier that month, shortly after the release of his Dortmunder novel GOOD BEHAVIOR.

Forget what your parents and grade school teachers told you.

Crime pays.

Just ask Donald E. Westlake. With more than 60 books to his credit. Westlake has proven that crime, or at least crime-writing, can be a profitable business.

One of the most prolific authors in the mystery/suspense genre for more than a quarter of a century, Westlake is perhaps best known as the originator and chief practitioner of the comic crime novel – a genre he created in 1964 with THE FUGITIVE PIGEON and which he has nearly perfected in his six novels about not-so-professional thief John Archibald Dortmunder. Dortmunder’s latest adventure, GOOD BEHAVIOR, has just been published by The Mysterious Press, and HIGH ADVENTURE, a novel about artifact smuggling in Central America, has recently been released in paperback by Tor Books.

In addition, about 12 of Westlake’s books (that’s right, 12) have already found their way to the screen in such films as THE HOT ROCK, with Robert Redford as Dortmunder in 1972; COPS AND ROBBERS in 1973; and, in a more serious vein, POINT BLANK in 1967.

But how can someone write so gleefully and entertainingly about characters who rob and steal as a profession?

“You have to keep a certain level of unreality to it,” Westlake says. “I write these types of books because these are the types of books I enjoy writing. I know I can have fun with them. That’s all there is to it.”

Westlake has apparently had a lot of fun over the years. Although he never graduated form college, in the 26 years he’s been a full-time writer, Westlake has written more books than half a dozen other authors combined, (“More than 60 at least. It’s hard to keep track of them, because the number’s always changing”) as well as a slew of short stories, a handful of screenplays and even a children’s book.

On top of that, his short stories appear frequently in Playboy and his prolific pace hasn’t slackened at all since his first novel, THE MERCENARIES, was published in 1960. Throughout it all, with some notable exceptions, his forte has been crime and criminals: all seen through an incisive, perceptive and sometimes very funny eye.

“Crime novels are one of the basic story forms. Always have been,” Westlake says. “The genre gives you the framework, and the plot gives you the thread, the sequence of events for the characters to operate with. The theme itself is just a skeleton to hang the characters on; they’re always more important than what’s going on with the plot. The crime thing is just a device I use. If I didn’t use it, then I’d just have to think of something else.”

The crime genre has indeed proved to be fertile ground for Westlake. In THE HOT ROCK, one of Westlake’s most popular books, Dortmunder and his band of misfit felons steal a priceless diamond for the leader of an African country and then lose it, a cycle which repeats itself throughout the novel as Dortmunder and crew are forced to re-steal the diamond from a variety of increasingly bizarre places, including a museum, an insane asylum and a New York City police station.

In THE HUNTER, written under the pseudonym “Richard Stark,” a cool, ruthless professional thief cuts a bloody swathe through the New York organized crime world, seeking revenge on a former partner who double-crossed him and left him for dead. Although the tone and style of the two books have little in common, both are graced with an eye for the details of everyday life and a narrative momentum that never sacrifices characterization or logic, yet is as quick and compelling as anything being written in the mystery/suspense field today.

But as to why his caper novels are so popular, the man who has made a career out of chronicling the larceny inside us all is not altogether sure.

“Guessing why other people like what they like is a tricky business,” he says. "I think one of the basic interests is in watching machinery at work; things like wind-up dolls and mechanical clocks. The crime novel, specifically the caper novel, is a lot like that. The crime itself is the machinery and the plot combines that machinery with puzzle and human movement all at once. There’s a certain amount of escapism involved for the reader as well. We all like to think we can get away with the crime, whatever it is.”

For someone who turns out as much material as he does, Westlake says his writing schedule is actually far from disciplined. Although he tries to write every day, he will sometimes work for no more than an hour, “just to keep the characters alive in my head.”

His actual writing times have also fluctuated greatly. One of his most recent novels, KAHAWA, about a plot to hijack a train load of coffee in a remote African nation, took 13 months to write, “the longest I’ve ever spent on a book.” On the other hand, PITY HIM AFTERWARDS, a suspense novel Westlake wrote earlier in his career, was finished in a record 11 days (“The title was appropriate," he says).

(PART TWO: Westlake on movies, television and killing Parker).

– Top photo credit: The Associated Press

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