Tuesday, May 24, 2016

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

This is Part Two of my profile of Donald E. Westlake that first appeared in The Asbury Park Press, July 27,1986, shortly after the release of his Dortmunder novel GOOD BEHAVIOR. You can find Part One here.

Like many of his characters, Westlake has been known to operate under a variety of aliases. He has written nearly 30 of his books under assorted pen names, including a series of hard-boiled crime novels about a professional thief known only as Parker, written under the pseudonym "Richard Stark."

Inspired by the tough, terse detective novels of Dashiell (THE MALTESE FALCON) Hammett, the Parker books themselves have gone on to inspire a whole generation of suspense and crime fiction, as well as spawn half a dozen film adaptations – including the aforementioned POINT BLANK starring Lee Marvin, THE SPLIT (1968) with Jim Brown and THE OUTFIT starring Robert Duvall in 1973. One of the most recent was 1983’s SLAYGROUND, loosely based on Westlake’s 1971 Parker novel of the same name.

All 16 of the Parker books, written between 1961 and 1973, were reissued in paperback last year by Avon Books, and although the actual writing of them is now ancient history to Westlake, he says he’s “delighted” by the continuing interest in them.

“I’ve had a standing offer from a couple of publishers who said they’ll give me a contract if I write another one,” Westlake says. “But I just haven’t been able to. I’m not exactly sure what happened, he just sort of faded away for me as a character.”

In fact, Westlake says, portions of the plot and several characters from his newest novel, GOOD BEHAVIOR, are taken from an unfinished Parker novel that never saw the light of day.

“I’d made several attempts after the last of the Parker books (BUTCHER’S MOON in 1973) to write another one, but nothing ever came of them,” Westlake says. “I think that by cannibalizing one of the unfinished novels and adding humor to it, I was acknowledging the fact that there weren’t going to be any more. I don’t think we’ll be seeing him again.”

Perhaps the final nail in Parker’s coffin is the dedication at the beginning of GOOD BEHAVIOR, which reads “In Memoriam: P., 1961-1973.”

The winner of an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his comic novel GOD SAVE THE MARK, Westlake also shares the dubious honor of having one of his novels (the Dortmunder novel JIMMY THE KID) become a film vehicle for Gary Coleman. Westlake admits to never having seen the film and harboring no desire to do so in the near future.

“The films (of my books) cover a wide area from pretty good to terrible,” Westlake says. “The best of them is probably POINT BLANK (based on THE HUNTER) and the worst – well, usually I’m warned away from them beforehand by people I know. Most times, after hearing about them from someone else, I have no desire to see them, because I know they’ll only make me angry.”

Westlake is currently adapting two of his own novels for film, WHY ME?, a Dortmunder novel scheduled to begin shooting in New York next year, and A LIKELY STORY, a tale of a struggling writer who is drawn closer to his estranged family while working on an anthology of Christmas stories. No crimes and no capers this time; maybe, one wonders, even a touch of sentimentality?

“I like it,” Westlake says. “It’s as different from some of my other stuff as you can get, so I expected to have some problems adapting it. But so far it’s going pretty smoothly. I’m really enjoying it.”

Westlake is also working on an original screenplay for an upcoming television film. Although he won’t reveal much of the plot, he describes it as “another comic caper,” this time written expressly for the small screen. Although he has written for television in the past, Westlake says the inherent limitations of the medium have kept him from doing much work there.

“The best thing you can say about working for television is that’s good money for easy work,” he says. “When you’re writing a novel you’re deeply involved; you’re part of it. When you’re writing for the movies on the other hand, it’s more like you’re working on the surface. With television, that’s even more so, except that it’s a false surface. The books are the real love. That’s where my heart is.”

But after 26 years and more than 60 novels, could Westlake stop writing tomorrow and still be happy?”

“No way,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

NOTE: Parker did return, of course, in Westlake's appropriately titled 1997 novel COMEBACK. He went on to appear in seven more novels before Westlake's death in 2008.


John/24Frames said...

Thanks for sharing this. Westlake was, like his friend Lawrence Block, genius at both the hard boiled and the comic crime stories jumping back with ease.

Chris said...

Thanks for posting this. Didn't know it took him 13 months to write Kahawa, but not surprising.

Slight correction--the protagonist in A Likely Story is separated from his wife, not divorced. That's actually important to the story, so worth mentioning.

Wallace Stroby said...

Thanks very much, Chris. You're right, of course. I'm fixing and updating.