Talking Mystery With Lawrence Block

by Claire E. White

Photo of Lawrence Block
A Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster and the winner of three Edgar and four Shamus awards, bestselling novelist Lawrence Block is one of our most prolific mystery writers, with over 50 books to his credit. But it is his compelling writing style and his ability to juggle several very different series characters without repeating himself which really impresses. His first popular creation was Evan Tanner, the Cold War era spy who never sleeps (his sleep center was destroyed in the Korean War). Part James Bond, part Bertie Wooster, and part Sir Lancelot, Tanner hops his way from country to country and from beautiful companion to beautiful companion doing super secret spy work, stumbling into nascent revolutions, and supporting obscure political causes. Tanner was placed in deep freeze at the end of the 1960s, and, to the immense delight of his fans, was unfrozen just last year in the bestselling Tanner on Ice. For those that love a good humorous caper story, it doesn't get any better than the Tanner novels. Another humorous character is perennial adolescent Chip Harrison; Block wrote the somewhat more racy Harrison novels under a pseudonym; they have recently been re-published under his own name. The Topless Tulip Caper was the last Harrison adventure.

Cover of
Tanner on Ice by Lawrence Block
Also on the lighter side in the Block repertoire are the books starring Bernie Rhodenbarr, bookseller by day and gentleman burglar by night. The plot of Bernie's latest adventure, A Burglar in the Rye, brings to mind the recent flap over Joyce Maynard's selling of correspondence she received over the years from literary icon and notorious recluse J.D. Salinger. Bernie has to steal back some letters to help out a famous author whose letters are being auctioned off by his former agent without his permission. Of course, with Bernie, it's never that simple and soon corpses are littering up the scenery. It's up to Bernie to set everything right -- and stay out of jail.

A world away from the insouciant charms of Evan Tanner and Bernie Rhodenbarr is J.P. Keller, Block's marvelous rendering of a paid assassin, most recently seen in the bestselling story collection Hit Man. Keller is a professional killer with a conscience, an Everyman who suffers all the slings and barbs of everyday life as an Urban Lonely Guy -- except this Lonely Guy kills people for a living. In fact, it's quite alarming how appealing Keller really is, considering his gruesome profession. For hardboiled fans, however, the clear standout of Block's many characters is Matt Scudder, the recovering alcoholic p.i. who roams the mean streets of New York chasing the bad guys and fighting his inner demons. Scudder is clearly the darkest of the series -- it's set in another universe than the Tanner novels, certainly.

The inexplicable and universal longing to find a connection between an author and his protagonists leads one to ask, "Who is the real Larry Block?" Is he more like Matt Scudder (no, he's not an alcoholic), Evan Tanner (although a globetrotter, he's happily married to Lynne, a painter), or perhaps Bernie Rhodenbarr? According to Block himself, he's more like Bernie Rhodenbarr than any of his characters. Certainly, Bernie's wit and charm come from Block himself, as anyone who has attended one of his talks or booksignings can attest. About the genesis of the Burglar Who books, Block says, "I didn't know it would be a series. And I'd been half thinking about burglary as a career, and I wondered what would happen if something went wrong, and, well, that turned into Burglars Can't be Choosers."

If there is one common thread that runs throughout his fiction, it's a sly sense of humor, a way of looking at the world which is uniquely Lawrence Block. But Block doesn't only write fiction. He has written a number of writing books, and is a former columnist for Writer's Digest magazine. He is a complex man. Known for his pithy and sometimes cryptic answers to direct questions, he is also known for his kindness when meeting beginning writers. He has one of the most vivid imaginations around, and when it comes to the details of how he creates he says, "I try to write books that I would like to read. Elmore Leonard says he tries to leave out the parts that people skip -- I think that's a good way to put it." He counsels beginning writers that "the beginning of a story is a snare. We have to engage the readers' attention. We have to draw him in and trap him, and the more effective our trap, the more likely we will have him for the duration." And although he generally does not use detailed outlines when he writes, he says he generally knows the ending of the book before he starts. Endings "ought to move a reader. It need not move him to tears-although that doesn't hurt. But it ought to leave him knowing that he's been in a fight and the fight is over. You don't have to leave him happy...but you do have to leave him feeling complete."

A father of three girls from his first marriage, he and his second wife, Lynne, love to travel, and spent time in Ireland when Block was writing Tanner on Ice, which is set in another place Block visited, Burma. This summer he tested his love of travel to its limits by embarking on a mind-boggling 60 city tour driving himself across America.

We caught up with Larry during a brief respite from his cross-country book tour and chatted with him about the tour, writing and the latest adventures of the Gentleman Burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

How's the Mother of All Book Tours going?

The first month-long leg of it is over. The driving was endless, but the signings were great fun, and well-attended. Nice people, eager book buyers, and some good questions. I'm home for a few weeks (albeit with day trips now and then) and then I'm off for another month, in the Midwest and South.

What's the strangest thing that's ever happened to you at a signing?

"Don't expect much [on a book tour]. When you're new, and people don't know who you are, they're probably not going to come out to see you. I question the wisdom of sending first-book authors on tour."
I don't know that it's the strangest, but just this trip a woman in Northern California asked how I knew so much about the way burglars operate. Someone else asked how she would know if I got it right or not, and she said that fifteen years ago she'd made her living as a burglar. When the pros tell you you're doing it right, it makes you feel good all over.

What's your advice to the first-time author just heading out on his first book tour?

Don't expect much. When you're new, and people don't know who you are, they're probably not going to come out to see you. I question the wisdom of sending first-book authors on tour.

Let's talk about your latest Bernie Rhodenbarr book, The Burglar in the Rye. Were you surprised when Joyce Maynard announced that she was auctioning off letters written by J.D. Salinger, after your book was in print?

I was delighted. How sweet of Joyce to do all that just to publicize The Burglar in the Rye!

Cover of
The Burglar in the Rye by Lawrence Block
If you were casting the roles of Bernie Rhodenbarr, who would you cast in the part?

Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Anthony Edwards.

How much of Lawrence Block is in Bernie's Rhodenbarr's personality?

Bernie's more inherently honest than I am.

Would you two get along if you ever met?

We'd probably have a lot to talk about.

Carolyn is quite a character -- her and Bernie's relationship is an interesting one, and adds a lot to the series. How did you create Carolyn?

I suppose she's loosely patterned after a couple of gay women friends of mine. And I don't think she's changed much since The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. I knew who she was right away.

Your books seem to reflect a great love for New York City. What do you find so appealing about the city?

It's the most stimulating place I've ever been, and I've always felt completely at home here.

This year has been a fun year for fans of Evan Tanner, especially with the release of Tanner on Ice in paperback in August. What prompted you to resurrect our favorite insomniac spy?

I was reading one of the earlier books and remembered how much fun they were to write.

Was it difficult to get back into the swing of writing the Evan Tanner series?

Nope, it was effortless. I picked up the pen and started writing, and it was as if he'd been lurking in a couple of unoccupied brain cells for the past 28 years.

With Hit Man, you tackled the short story format again. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels?

I enjoy them both, and hope to have time to do more short fiction.

Do you plan on doing another writing book?

No, I've already said more on the subject than I know.

Do you mind when beginning writers ask you questions about writing at signings and appearances?

No, but marketing questions are ones I can't answer; I'm out of touch with that aspect of the business.

Do you believe that fiction writing is something that can be learned, or is the talent innate?

You can learn a lot, but you can't learn talent.

Cover of
Everybody Dies by Lawrence Block
In prior interviews, you have said that you don't outline your stories before you write them -- that you create as you go. Have you ever plotted out your stories before you wrote them, even when you were first starting out as a writer?

Yes, early on, but never in great detail.

Let's talk a bit about Keller, the star of Hit Man. I think the most alarming thing about Keller is how likeable he can be at times, despite the fact that he kills people for a living. Did you set out to make the character likeable, or did he just evolve on his own?

Just happened that way.

I understand that Keller will be played by Jeff Bridges in an upcoming film. Tell us more about that project.

That pretty much sums it up. Patrick McGrath and Maria Aitken are writing the screenplay, New Amsterdam Entertainment will produce, Bridges will star and co-produce, and I think he'll be sensational.

I understand you hosted a television show on the Learning Channel this Fall. Tell us about that.

I believe it airs October 10 at 8 eastern time. The subject is the Zodiac killer, and the title is Case Reopened. I just saw a cassette, and it's excellent.

Cover of
Hit Man by Lawrence Block
What do you think about ebooks? In 10 years will people be reading about Evan Tanner on ebooks instead of on printed books?

Haven't got a clue.

What projects are you working on now?

A sequel to Hit Man, probably to come out in late 2000.

What's a typical day in the life of Lawrence Block like when he's writing a novel?

All work and no play.

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