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

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.

Part Three: The Outtakes

Thursday, May 19, 2016


My short story "Night Run" will appear in this upcoming anthology from Mulholland Books, due out in October. It's expertly edited by Patrick Millikin of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, Ariz., who was a real pleasure to work with. Other contributors to the anthology include Michael Connelly, George Pelecanos, Diana Gabaldon, Ace Atkins, James Sallis, Gary Phillips, C.J. Box, Joe R. Lansdale, Sara Gran, Luis Alberto Urrea and others.
You can preorder online here.