Lawrence Block: „I just write what I’d like to read…”

Articol publicat in:English | Aparut in:Nr. 6 ( noiembrie, 2010 )

George ARION talks to Lawrence BLOCK

Lawrence BLOCK was born on June 24, 1938 (Buffalo, New York). He is one of the most acclaimed contemporary writers of thriller&mystery fiction. He is the four time winner of the Edgar Award; he also won four Shamus Awards, a Nero Wolfe Award, a Philip Marlowe Award, the Life Achievement Award (all in the US), two Maltese Falcon Awards (Japan), a Cartier Diamond Dagger (UK), two Societe 813 Awards, and received the title of Grand Maître du Roman Noir (France). His books have been translated in more than thirty languages.

George ARION: The Bible records the first crime in the history of humanity: Cain kills Abel. Since then, thousands and thousands of other crimes have been committed, and some of the killers have been caught and punished, sometimes following long investigations. Despite this, it took a very long time for the advent of crime novel. Why is that?

Lawrence BLOCK: Well, I’m not sure it took all that long. The novel itself didn’t seem to exist in English until Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) or Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740). But if you consider the plays of Shakespeare, certainly Hamlet is a genuine detective story, Othello is a crime novel, and Macbeth is a thriller. I think crime has played a major role in the stories we tell one another ever since Cain and Abel.

G.A.: At the beginning, the crime novels were a kind of charades that some astute person solved. Sir Conan-Doyle and Agatha Christie are the most well-known representatives of this kind of writings. More so, Van Dine has created a set of rules that anyone wishing to write detective and crime fiction should follow. Today, these rules are no longer seen as appropriate, and this because American literature proposed a different kind of crime novel, different from the Anglo-Saxon model, allowing life to flow into it. In Le roman policier, Boileau-Narcejac states: „We realized that the Anglo-Saxon novel, the crime, the investigation, the suspect and the red herrings–all these were getting old and it wasn’t possible anymore to go down that road”. And before them, Raymond Chandler wrote: „[Hammett] took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley”. Do you think that, lacking this desire of renewing on the authors’ part, the genre would have died out?

L.B.: I think one of the elements that make crime fiction such an enduring genre is that it is such an infinitely broad field, a house containing many mansions.

G.A.: When you started to write, was it hard for you to make your voice heard on the literary scene, given the competition? What do you think is the thing that won you readers?

L.B.: You’d have to ask the readers. I just write what I’d like to read, and enough readers have similar tastes to keep a roof over my head.

G.A.: I reviewed with great enthusiasm two of your books: Eight Million Ways to Die and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. Their protagonist, Matt Scudder, walks form bar to bar drinking large quantities of bourbon – the gentleman’s drink! – trying to forget an unhappy episode in his life: as a police officer, while on the heels of some assassins, he shot by mistake a little girl. Afterwards, he became a private detective – without license – but he continues his activity as investigator. He has lost his family, his life is in ruin – but he cannot stand the wrongdoings of men and tries to correct them, fighting with himself and with all the rest. How did you find this fabulous character?

L.B.: An agent suggested I develop a series about a cop. I realized I’d be more comfortable writing about an outsider, not a member of a functioning bureaucracy, so I made him an ex-cop. I’d just ended my first marriage and moved to an apartment, so I put Scudder in a hotel around the corner from where I was living. And he took form, somehow, in the magical way that fictional characters are born and grow.

G.A.: You are an admirable creator of atmosphere, you have a wonderful ability to create dialogue, you draw memorable characters. Those who read your books forget they are dealing with crime fiction and think, for good reason, they are reading literature of the highest grade. Is this the opportunity the genre has to avoid oblivion, such as was the fate, for example, of chivalric romance?

L.B.: You’re very generous to say this! But I don’t know what the genre has to do to avoid oblivion. I suspect oblivion is the fate of all of us, and all our works, sooner or later; one merely does what one can to postpone it.

G.A.: In your books, New York is like a jungle „where all the animals wear guns”. What fascinates you so much in this city? Why such a bleak image of it?

L.B.: Well, I love New York. I first visited when I was ten years old, and I think I knew from then on that I’d live here some day. And have lived here, with occasional interruptions, since I was 18. And it’s not always a jungle in my work. In the lighthearted Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries, for example, it’s quite the happy place, The city has many sides to it, and different work shows them differently. One novel of mine, Small Town, tried to show a larger picture of the city, and of the ways disparate lives within it are connected as in a smaller community.

G.A.: What has the crime novel – thriller&mystery – to offer to today’s people?

L.B.: Story–an element that seems to have faded from much of today’s literary fiction. And a sense of urgency.

G.A.: Why do you think crime fiction and film are so closely knit together?

L.B.: Perhaps the same answer as the last question!

G.A.: Did you have masters of the craft to guide you with their experience?

L.B.: I had many masters, but they weren’t people of my acquaintance, and they guided me through their work.

G.A.: How do you choose your topics for writing?

L.B.: I don’t know.

G.A.: What do you do when you start writing? Do you isolate yourself and write like in a trance for hours on end? Do you write a few hours a day, following a strict schedule, like Hemingway?

L.B.: It varies infinitely from book to book, but most often I make writing the first thing I do in the day, and put in a few hours six or seven days a week while Im working. And I take a good deal of time off between books.

G.A.: How do you do your research?

L.B.: I don’t do all that much. Nowadays, though, I wonder how I ever lived without Google.

G.A.: What is the balance between fiction and reality in your books?

L.B.: It’s all fiction.

G.A.: Are you satisfied with the way the literary critics view your work?

L.B.: I don’t pay much attention.

G.A.: What direction does the crime novel follow? When asked this question, Boileau-Narcejac answered: „It doesn’t follow any direction. It’s like an apple-tree that gives us a vast variety of fruits but which nevertheless remain apples.”

L.B.: That’s a good answer. I like it.

G.A.: We are now witnessing an unprecedented boom of the crime novel all over the world. Why this success? Is it a reaction to the many boring books that the so-called „high” literature has to offer?

L.B.: That seems like a good explanation.

G.A.: Do you like meditating upon your own writing, upon other people’s writing?

L.B.: Not too much.

G.A.: You’ve been translated into over 30 languages, you’ve received many prestigious prizes. You’re a classic many people relate to. Are you happy with the things you’ve done so far?

L.B.: I’m happy with my life. Why should I regret any of the things that have led me to where I am today? Why regret the roads not taken?

G.A.: Did you ever experience Matt Scudder’s solitude, his fears and nightmares?

L.B.: Of course.

G.A.: You started writing in the 50s. Are there any differences between the people living back then and the people living today? Are the latter more hopeful? Or are they more frightened? Can crime fiction express the turmoil of contemporary man?

L.B.: There may be differences, but I cant say what they are.

G.A.: Who do you write for? For your own pleasure, for the ideal reader?

L.B.: For myself, as reader, in an alternate universe in which I didn’t happen to have written the work.

G.A.: Why do you like traveling so much?

L.B.: Because the world in a place of infinite variety, and I’d rather not miss anything.

G.A.: Can you describe a day of your life? Maybe even today.

L.B.: I get up, I do five minutes of Qi Gong exercises, I meditate for 20 minutes, I sit at the computer for a few hours, I go to the gym, I come home, I find other things to do. Today’s a Saturday in October, so I’ll spend the afternoon watching college football–if I ever get done with this interview. . .

G.A.: Is there in your books a sentence that defines you, like a life statement?

L.B.: If so, I wouldn’t know what it might be.

G.A.: Thank you for this dialogue, Mr. Block.

L.B.: I appreciate this very thoughtful interview. And now, at the end, may I take a moment to tell my Romanian readers how grateful I am that they’re making time for my books, and how happy I am that some of my work is available there. My wife and I visited your beautiful country briefly in 1999, as part of a tour group entering by bus from Moldova, touring parts of Transylvania, and finishing in Bucharest. We hope to come again and stay longer, and I hope too that my Romanian publishers will bring out more of my books.

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