Lawrence Block should need no introduction. Author of the Matthew Scudder detective novels, the Bernie Rhodenbarr series of burglar mysteries, and standalone novels and short stories too numerous to mention, his most recent novel is HIT ME, starring everybody’s favorite hit man: Keller. Mr. Block is one of our greatest living storytellers, and I’m glad that he continues to write long into his self-professed retirement. If you haven’t read his work, the Hit Man series with Keller is a great place to begin.
TP: The hit man is well-worn territory, but with Keller you’ve created one of the most likeable and believable killers in fiction. I knew a guy–to use the Jersey parlance–and Keller’s sense of calm, and his capability for calculated violence ring utterly true. There’s a sadness in the stories, as well. The loneliness of the job is the perfect foil for the excitement of the hunt and Dot’s acerbic sense of humor. So where did Keller come from, and what keeps you returning to tell his stories?
LB: Well, I had a story idea that turned into “Answers to Soldier.” Guy goes out to Oregon on business, makes the mistake of getting to know the quarry, has fantasies of quitting the business and making a life for himself similar to the guy’s, goes so far as to look at houses, then comes to his senses, kills the guy, and goes home. The hit man turned out to be Keller, and I wound up having a lot more to say about him.
TP: When I pick up one of your books, I know I’m getting great dialogue. The latest Matthew Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, begins with a conversation between Matt and Mick Ballou that I could have read for the entire book. George V. Higgins said “Dialogue is character and character is plot.” Do you think it boils down to that, or is there something more to it?
LB: Well, it was true for Higgins. It depends enormously on the writer. Some of us are intensely visual, for example. They know what all the people in their books look like, see the rooms in their lives fully furnished. What I tend to know most about my characters is what they sound like, how they express themselves.
TP: You’ve traveled the world, but your fiction is mostly set in New York. Keller seems the most widely traveled of your creations. I read a lot of New York authors, but when Scudder is walking around town or Bernie is scoping a building, I feel not only like I’m there, but that I’ve lived there and know the town. Which I don’t, except as a Jersey invader. What keeps your stories in New York and the States, when you’ve visited so many exotic locales?
LB: New York has been home to me in a very fundamental way from the first time I came here. It’s as natural for me to have my characters live here as it is for me to live here myself. In the mid-80s my wife and I moved to South Florida, and I found myself wondering if I’d wind up setting most of my fiction there. I realized that I probably wouldn’t, that I had no real sense of the inner lives of people there. Thus I’d go on setting my stories in New York.
TP: Keller’s stamp collecting has become almost as intriguing as his hits. I missed out on the last philatelic edition, but I snagged the one Mysterious Press is doing for HIT ME. (The philatelic edition is a special first edition that comes signed, with a special postage stamp affixed to the cover, and a souvenir sheet of stamps) I never collected stamps, but I did collect coins, then lost my collection to some unscrupulous movers. A pristine 1945-S Mercury dime will be my Rosebud, I imagine. There’s something about stamps, coins and bank notes besides the art and their monetary value–they’re tangible icons. I was a numismatist, and you’re a philatelist. Which both sound like kinky perversions, and to a degree they are. What stamps do you collect? Does Keller have your dream collection?
LB: Keller collects worldwide, 1840 to 1940, which his British Empire collection extending through the reign of George VI. Me too. How’s that for coincidence? Keller, of course, has a much better collection, because he had the sense to pick a far more lucrative profession.
TP: You’re a writer’s writer. I say that because you’ve written several books about writing that tell it straight, such as Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. One of my favorite quotes is when you respond to that ubiquitous cocktail party nightmare, the person who says they’d love to be a writer if they only had the time, as if it were a hobby, not a skill and a talent. You said no one says that to a pro ballplayer, and I took that to heart. Writers don’t get respect, and we’re often the last to get paid, if we get paid at all. Would you say that’s gotten better or worse?
LB: It’s probably stayed about the same. One difference is that people tend to think we’re rich. They read about the contracts a couple of people get and figure we all make that kind of money. I remember Evan Hunter telling me how some clown from some college explainded that, for a donation of a mere ten million dollars, they could build a new dormitory and name it after him. “What kind of money do they think we make?” he marveled. On a lesser scale, but just barely, some well-meaning fool once advised me to charter a private plane for my book tours. Jesus. You go to some town, spend two hours in a bookstore, sign twenty books, with translates into what, $60 in royalties? It’s absurd enough for a publisher to fly you in coach, which is why book tours are finally coming to an inglorious end, but charter a fucking airplane?
TP: You’ve always been one of the most tech-savvy writers I know. You had your email address in your books 20 years ago. And in your fiction, you manage to get the reality of computers and cell phones into the stories without making them linchpins of the plot, where the tension hinges on how many bars of signal someone has. I liked how TJ was the go-to character for the non-technical Scudder. That worked, you acknowledged the Internet but kept his feet on the ground. People have arguments about cell phones in mystery stories. Do you think technology leaches the tension out of a mystery?
TP: You’ve taken self-publishing head-on, releasing short stories, backlist titles written under pen names, and two short story collections: one of Matthew Scudder tales and another of Ehrengraf, the only lawyer I truly enjoy reading about. If you were a beginning writer, would you take advantage of self-publishing, or do you think the traditional route remains the best way to establish yourself?
LB: I’m not sure I know the answer, and it’ll change in ten minutes anyway, given the current pace of change in and out of publishing. But from where I stand (well, sit, actually) self-publishing certainly appears to be the way the world is moving. It’s the best choice for an increasing number of writers—and it’s often the only choice.