Lawrence Block has been writing crime, mystery, and suspense novels longer than the millennial generation has been alive.
Block started out writing midcentury erotica in the late 1950s and eventually introduced the world to colorful characters such as cop turned private investigator Matthew Scudder, gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner, and introspective assassin Keller.
He recently answered questions from Writer’s Bone on why New York City is a fixture in his novels, and what mantra his writing process follows.
Writer’s Bone: New York City is normally the setting—and a character—for your stories. What draws you to the Big Apple?
Lawrence Block: It’s my home. I first visited New York in 1948; my father and I took the train down from Buffalo and spent a long weekend at the Hotel Commodore. I first lived here in 1956, and it’s really been my home ever since, although I’ve spent stretches of time elsewhere. John Steinbeck put it best in 1953: "New York is an ugly city, a dirty city. Its climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition murderous. But there is one thing about it-—once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough."
WB: Can you tell us about some of your earliest work?
LB: I started writing for publication at a young age, and my earliest stories appeared in the digest-sized crime magazines. They’ve since been collected in One Night Stands and Lost Weekends.
I’d been doing this for a year or so when a couple of publishers, Midwood Tower and Nightstand, spawned the genre of midcentury paperback erotica, and I found it a productive learning ground—although I sometimes think I may have stayed too long at the fair.
WB: Was there a time as a writer that you felt hopeless about the craft? If so, how did you work past it?
LB: There has rarely been a time when I haven’t felt hopeless about something or other. Beckett said it in eleven words: “You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.” And one does, at least until one doesn’t.
WB: You tend to write about detectives, thieves, and hit men. Where does this interest come from?
LB: I have no idea. I’ve known a few detectives, a couple of thieves, and at least one fellow with a couple of bodies on him. But I was writing about such folk long before I was acquainted with any of them. And I know a lot of lawyers and doctors and schoolteachers and guys who sell insurance, and rarely write much about any of them.
WB: Matt Scudder is one of the most beloved and interesting private detectives of the latter part of the 20th Century and in to the 21st Century. What is Matt’s staying power?
LB: I’m probably not the person to ask. If I were to guess, it would be that Matt has aged and evolved over the years, but that may better serve to explain why I’ve continued to find him interesting.
WB: Is Matt Scudder meant to be the voice for New York City?
LB: No, not at all.
WB: So many of your characters have neat quirks, are they based on anyone?
WB: What is your writing process?
Again: “You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.”
WB: As a New Yorker what are some of your favorite spots in and around the city? Is there a place in the city that really gets your writer’s mind ticking?
I spend most of my time in Greenwich Village.
WB: Who were some of your early influences?
I grew up reading the realistic American novelists of the first half of the 20th Century, and when I began writing crime fiction, I read widely in the genre.
WB: Where did
come from? It stands out as far as detective short stories go.
There’s a song quoted in the story, and I’d written it a couple of years before I wrote the story. Beyond that, I’ve no idea where the notion came from.
WB: Who are some of the up-and-coming mystery writers you enjoy?
I usually avoid this question, but I’ve enjoyed Wallace Stroby’s books a lot lately, so I’ll mention him. But just this once.
WB: What is something you wish you knew when you first started being a writer?
How fast the time goes.
WB: Do you think stamp-collecting hit man Keller will ever come to the big screen?
One never knows. There’s probably more chance for a television series, but long odds either way.
WB: How has the mystery genre changed since you first started writing?
WB: If you had to solve a case which fictional detective would you want to help you?
Oh, Bernie Rhodenbarr, for sure. He has the most fun.
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