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talks to Shots about his latest novel, Small Town

interviewed by Ali Karim

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photo credit: Patrick Canigher

"...a bigger, darker novel with more scope...."

You won't find a big biography and background on Lawrence Block here, because (a) I don't feel sufficently qualified to introduce one of crime fictions brightest lights. And (b) he is so damned prolific that it would take me several thousand words just to introduce him formally. But what the hell. I'll give it my best shot of Bourbon, with a cup of coffee on the side.
Instead, I would advise you to look up his credentials at his dynamic website www.lawrenceblock.com (but keep the sound volume on your PC low - you'll understand why if you dislike screams). I would however, just like to sketch a few pointers for the few who are not familiar with this native New Yorker. Block's work has recently just gathered a huge slug of momentum.
He has recently published the 15th in the Matt Scudder series 'Hope to Die'. 'Hit List' - the first novel to feature John Keller 'Hitman' has been released in Paperback. The giant collection of short stories 'Enough Rope' has been causing arm strain worldwide. Film projects with Harrison Ford, Jeff Bridges to name just two are coming to a multiplex near you, but most importantly, the publication event of the year in my humble opinion is Orion's UK release of 'SMALL TOWN' released in April 2003.

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My publishers suggested I might let you know how I came to write SMALL TOWN. The process has been an interesting one --- to me, anyway --- and it's my pleasure to share it with you.
"New York City, the incomparable, the brilliant star city of cities, the forty-ninth state, a law unto itself, the Cyclopean paradox, the inferno with no out-of-bounds, the supreme expression of both the miseries and the splendors of contemporary civilization, the Macedonis of the United States. It meets the most severe test that may be applied to definition of a metropolis --- it stays up all night. But it also becomes a small town when it rains. "
Eight or nine years ago I read these lines of John Gunther's in a book of New York quotations, and I knew I wanted to use the selection as the epigraph for a novel. But I didn't know what the book would be.
Something with scope, I felt. A big book, a multiple-viewpoint novel that took in as much of the city as I could tuck into it. I had felt for a while that I wanted to write such a book some day, but meanwhile I was busy with other things.
And the years passed.
Early in 2001, it began to look as though my fall book, HOPE TO DIE, was going to break out in sales. Jennifer Fisher, then my editor at William Morrow, suggested following HOPE TO DIE with another Matthew Scudder novel as a way to build on the book's momentum. I saw her point, but knew I wouldn't be ready to write another Scudder novel for at least a couple of years. I thought about it, and realized I couldn't put off the big NYC novel any longer. I'd been promising myself I was going to write it, and now was the time for it. Jennifer was thrilled, and everybody at Morrow/HarperCollins echoed her enthusiasm, and I went into a huddle with myself and got to work that spring and summer.
{short description of image} By the end of August, I had 100-plus pages written, and took a break for a couple of weeks. And then one morning a couple of planes flew into a couple of buildings and the world -- and especially the city - changed forever.
When I had time to think about it, I figured I could take my 100 pages and toss them in the trash. They were written in, and thus reflected, a pre-9/11 New York, and that city was gone forever. I couldn't write that book in a post 9/11 world. And did I even feel like writing a dark New York thriller? Not really. I didn't feel much like writing anything, truth to tell, but if I was going to write something I wanted it to be about as dark and profound as the Teletubbies show.
Then, toward the end of May 2002, 1 looked for the first time at what I'd written. And I saw the skeleton of a different book there from the one I'd been writing, a bigger, darker novel with more scope, one that took place in the spring and summer of 2002, in the aftermath of the attack. It wouldn't be about 9/11, but it would very much be about the post 9/11 reality of New York.
The result, of course, is SMALL TOWN. I'm not going to tell you it wrote itself; if it had, how come I've been so tired ever since I finished it? But neither did I write it like a man putting in his time on an assembly line. The Red Sox had a lefthander a generation ago of whom it was said that he pitched like his hair was on fire, and that's how I wrote SMALL TOWN.
I should be embarrassed to say this, but what the hell. I love this book. I'm crazy about the characters and I love the way their lives work out. If I never write anything I like better than this one, that's okay with me.
I hope you share at least a little of my shameless enthusiasm, and that you have fun selling SMALL TOWN.
Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk us in the UK
Hey, it's easier than writing. . .
Firstly we hear that 'Small Town' as been exceptionally well received in the US. Were you nervous about its reception? And how does Orion feel about its UK release? And will we hear trumpets and drums?
I was reasonably confident from the reactions of early readers that people would like it. I was anxious nevertheless, though, because it was so much more ambitious a book than I'd done. I don't know what kind of advance sales Orion have, but I do know their enthusiasm is if anything keener than my US publishers. They've always been wonderfully supportive of my work, and Jane Wood was over the moon when she read SMALL TOWN. Trumpets and drums? That'd be nice, wouldn't it?
{short description of image} You are published by Orion as well as No Exit Press in the UK. Can you tell us a little about your publishing history in the UK and Ireland?
Not too much to tell. I moved around some until I found my present publishers, and have been very happy ever since. Orion have been doing the Scudder and Keller books and the collected stories---a handsome volume, that last---and have recently contracted for 13 backlist books, all stand-alones, or one-offs, as I believe you call them. (There's no good word for it on either side of the pond, is there? Because it's an attempt to categorize something by what it is not---i.e., a non-series book. But I digress. . .) Ion Mills at No Exit has been publishing my three other series, Bernie Rhodenbarr, Evan Tanner, and Chip Harrison.
I read you were in your Greenwich Village apartment on September 11th from where you viewed the unfolding tragedy. Being so close, what made you stay in NY? And what were the days following that atrocity like in NY?
We never thought of leaving. In fact I just got back to town late the previous evening, and have always been grateful that I got back in time. I wouldn't have wanted to be elsewhere, nor would I ever want to live anywhere else. As for the last, I don't know what the days were like afterward. You can probably imagine them better than I can recreate them.
Was the original story in Small Town about a serial killer stalking NY? Or did that come out of the changes that were post 9/11?
While I used a large portion of what I'd written, the story developed in an entirely new direction. There was a character who corresponded to the Carpenter, but he'd only committed a single murder. I don't want to talk about what the story might have been---the way I work, I had only a vague and amorphous sense of where it was going---but it would have been much smaller in several respects, and vastly different.
A great deal has been said about the explicit sexual element in the books, and I read an article about the increased interest in all things sexual following 9/11. What do you make of the links between sex and death?
I don't know. I certainly wasn't drawing any connection, not consciously.
Despite the shadow that is cast over the book, there is some real funny humour, stuff that made me laugh out loud. What is your take upon humour in the crime novel?
Except in the light books---Bernie, Chip---I never set out to be funny. It's my experience that, if I create clever characters, they're going to say some amusing things now and then.
I considered the opening sentence one of the best I have ever read. I quote 'By the time Jerry Pankow was ready for breakfast, he'd already been to three bars and a whorehouse.' In fact you have many memorable opening lines. How important is an opening line to a novel today?
The opening's probably important, though I don't know that there's anything particularly crucial about the first sentence. Most people will give you a page before they decide you're boring them rigid. A good opening line is a gift; I'm always grateful when one comes along
One aspect of 'Small Town' is that all your characters appear to be victims in some shape or form, almost unable to control their lives. External forces are at play be it the cleaner with his alcohol problem, the serial killer, the writer, Susan the Dominatrix, even former Chief of Police Buckram and his sexual trap. Do you feel that one aspect of 9/11 is that people felt more inclined to see what the numbers the dice revealed, rather than playing the game itself?
Maybe. I'm not really sure what's different, or how.
It is obvious that the novel is a labour of love, but that in itself can also have its own problems. Did you find that the characters told the story for you, or did you have to watch the turns in the plot more carefully?
When I work as intensively as I did on Small Town, it's hard to remember afterward just how it was done or what it felt like.
You mentioned that you were physically and emotionally drained after finishing the book. So what did you do to recover?
Actually, recovery came quick and easy. The Mostly Mozart festival began at Lincoln Center shortly after my return, and we went to concerts three and four nights a week. That helped. So did the enthusiasm all my early readers showed for the book.
{short description of image}On my bedside is 'Enough Rope' which is your magnum opus of short stories that I dip into in the dark hours. It is one hefty tome which came out prior to 'Small Town' by William Morrow in the US. Are there any plans for a UK release any time soon?
I would doubt it. Orion's COLLECTED MYSTERY STORIES contains all but a baker's dozen of the stories in ENOUGH ROPE, so I would think most people who've bought the first would balk at balking the second.
Can you tell us a little about its genesis?
My American publishers saw the UK edition and wanted to publish the equivalent over here. And, since I'd written some new stories since then and found one or two old ones, the result was a longer book. MORE THAN ENOUGH ROPE, some have called it.
My American publishers saw the UK edition and wanted to publish the equivalent over here. And, since I'd written some new stories since then and found one or two old ones, the result was a longer book. MORE THAN ENOUGH ROPE, some have called it.
I am frequently surprised that the short story is not more popular in the crime genre, especially in these time-constrained days of CNN. Val McDermid in the UK is part of a campaign - 'Save our short story'. Could you cast some light on why the short story market has withered?
Mass-market paperback books killed it off in the mid-Fifties, along with television. Magazine short fiction no longer had an important role to play. I think short crime fiction is in rather better shape than it was a decade or two ago. At least a good number of collections and anthologies are being published.
I was introduced to the Matt Scudder novels by Harlan Coben, who tells everyone how highly he rates, 'When the sacred ginmill closes'. As the novels progressed, Scudder mellows with age, and the darkness is streaked with light. This is in stark contrast to say Peter Robinson's 'Inspector Banks' series which have grown progressively darker. Why do you think the Scudder books have become more hopeful?
It puzzles me some when people see the books as lighter. The last two, EVERYBODY DIES and HOPE TO DIE, are about as light as a blackout in a coal mine at midnight; in the former, half the continuing cast gets killed. I suppose the difference is that Scudder is sober and married, but the world he lives in doesn't seem substantially less dark to me.
{short description of image}In 'Hope to Die', the 15th of the Scudder novels, you depart quite starkly from the claustrophobia of the first person narrative, to sections from another viewpoint. Would you care to talk about that and the difference in view-point with regard to telling the tale?
Just seemed the best way to tell that particular story. There have been times when I've done something similar---having Scudder imagine scenes at which he wasn't present, as he does here in the first chapter.
Where did you find Matt's name 'Scudder', and does it have any cerebral relevance?
Dunno, and nope, no deep meaning there.
Of the series, why do you think people such as Harlan Coben, rave about 'When the Sacred Ginmill Closes' so much?
I wouldn't presume to say why anyone likes any of the books. I do think GINMILL is more of a novel than the other books in the series. Or, perhaps a better way to put it: people in the graphic arts will speak of a work as being "painterly". In that sense, GINMILL is more "writerly" than its fellows.
{short description of image}What level of involvement did you have when 'Eight Million Ways to Die' reached the silver screen?
I was in LA to attend a wedding while they were shooting the movie, and one morning my wife and I visited the set, met the director and actors, and spent maybe two hours there. That was the extent of my involvement with the film.
Despite most fans being disappointed with the finished film, how did Jeff Bridges become involved with 'Keller' nearly a decade later? And is he a fan?
The producer, Richard Rubinstein, thought he'd be good in the role, and I agreed wholeheartedly. And yes, he and his wife are both fans of the books.
And then there was the 1987 'Burglar' with Whoopi Goldberg. Would you care to talk about that venture?
Nothing much to say. If your object is to recreate the Burglar books on-screen, then Whoopi's an odd choice. If it's to make a viable movie in and of itself, then the choice becomes a good deal more reasonable. Whoopi was fine---it was the script and direction that stank on ice.
As New York plays such active backdrop to your work from Scudder, Rhodenbarr and right up to 'Small Town', why did Hollywood seek to relocate Scudder to LA (for Eight Million Ways to Die')? And 'Burglar' to San Francisco? I guess it would be difficult to set 'Small Town' anywhere other than New York…but with Hollywood……
The best line about the film industry is William Goldman's: "Nobody knows anything." If you want to try to figure out why they do what they do, well, be my guest. Knock yourself out.
I have read that the character Bernie Rhodenbarr is the one closest to your own personality, and that if you hadn't taken up the pen, you may have taken up Bernie's nocturnal occupation. Would you care to talk about what attracted you to the 'Burglar' stories? {short description of image}
Not especially, beyond saying that I wrote the first book without any thought of doing a series, then liked the character enough to go on. And I don't know that I'm all that much like Bernie. Upon reading Hit Man, my friend Peter Straub said that Keller, in his musings and internal monologues, sounded the most like me of all my characters. And his was an occupation I've never considered for myself.
No Exit Press recently re-issued the Chip Harrison series in the UK, and many of your older books are being re-issued. What do you put down to the renewed interest in your back-catalogue?
I only know why I'm keen to have them reprinted---greed and ego, in approximately equal parts.
You have published several books on writing such as 'Writing the novel : From Plot to Print', 'Telling Lies for Fun and Profit' as well as 'Spider, Spin me a Web', and these are available for sale at www.lawrenceblock.com. What made you write these books and why?
Ha---greed and ego again, most likely. Back in 1976 I got a monthly gig writing a column for a writers' magazine, and the books grew out of that column.
As well as a seasoned traveller, you are naturally a voracious reader. I know you don't 'blurb' much these days, but what books did you really like over the last year or so?
I don't blurb at all. I just finished Soul Circus, George Pelecanos's new one, and am about to start Jeffery Deaver's latest. And in point of fact I'm not all that voracious a reader. I read a whole lot less than I used to. {short description of image}
Do you have a message for your British/Irish fans? And have you any plans to visit our little island(s) anytime soon?
I wish. It's been a couple of years since I got over, and I miss both the UK and Ireland a great deal. My guess is we'll make it over sometime in 2004, but it's only a guess.
Thank you so much for your time, as well as giving me such pleasure with 'Small Town'.
And thank you, Ali, for giving the book such an understanding and sympathetic reading, and for saying as much so eloquently.
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