In Mystery Scene’s 2008 Fall Issue #106, Ed Gorman interviewed the author about his work.
DONALD WESTLAKE: THE STARK TRUTH
Levi Stahl, the publicity manager of the University of Chicago Press, has exciting news for Richard Stark fans. “While we don’t reprint many mysteries, we explained to the editorial board that these weren’t just any crime novels, these were regarded as masterpieces…. great novels that have influenced writers around the world. We’re starting with The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit but we’re already negotiating for more books in the series.” This means, the Press hopes, that the initial three will be followed in chronological order by the next thirteen Parker novels, ending with Butcher’s Moon, originally published in 1974.
Ed Gorman for Mystery Scene: For all the ferocity of the criminals in the Stark novels, you present a hierarchy based on competence. Strictly Darwinian. There are times when I almost feel sorry for a few of the more feckless ones.
Donald Westlake: Okay, let’s see what we got here. You begin by suggesting the Parker novels are about competence, an idea I like very much. I’ve always said Parker is basically a workman, with the professional workman’s goal of getting the job done ably, efficiently and without interruption. It’s true his job is a dramatic one, but it’s still a job. The only way somebody’s going to be interested in watching a guy take the hinges off a door is if there’s a hundred thousand dollars on the other side.
Gorman: Brian Garfield wrote that you once described Parker as a 1930s Depression character. Then as more European than American. Were you trying to avoid the various hardboiled clichés of the early sixties by thinking of him in these terms?
Westlake: It’s true that Parker comes out of the 30s bank robbers, and I knew in the 60s he was already from another era. The fact is, for a guy in the Midwest in the 30s who had brains and daring but no education and no contacts, crime was one of the very few open career paths. Later on, as other career paths opened up, fewer competent people went in that direction. In that way, he’s an anachronism, but anachronisms have their uses, like chiaroscuro, to highlight the contrasts. Every once in a while in the books, somebody living in our world finds himself in confrontation with this unreconstructed guy from a much harder age. I always like to watch those meetings.
Let me tell you a story about my father. He was a low-pay traveling salesman for much of his life. When I was a kid in Albany, NY, his territory for the various things he sold—you don’t make a living from one item—was eastern Pennsylvania through all of New England except Maine. He’d had a couple of heart attacks and one Friday, in Harrisburg, he felt another one coming on. (There’s no health insurance in this story.) He told the desk clerk he’d stay for the weekend, then bought a bottle of rye and went to bed. Every time he woke up he’d sip a little rye, and Monday morning he woke up hungry and alive. He never told the family until, a few years later, when he was hospitalized with another one, the doctors found the evidence and he admitted to it. That unblinking attitude of just-keep-moving is much of Parker.
Early on, I made a couple mistakes with Parker—socializing him in one way or another—but it was like a cook putting just the wrong thing in a recipe; you could taste it right away. So, as I got to know him better, I stopped making those mistakes. He’s already there; just let him be himself and everything will be fine.
Gorman: Is the story true that you showed a portion of The Hunter to some of your writer friends for their input before you finished it? Did your group back then do that often?
Westlake: I didn’t show The Hunter to anybody for input. I’ve rarely done that with any book. In fact, the only time I can remember doing that was with my first mystery, The Mercenaries, when I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing and I showed the first draft to a writer friend of mine, Larry Harris (who later, for some reason, became Larry Janifer), because I knew he was a good writer and a good editor and far better attuned to the market than I was. He called and said he wanted to come over and talk. When he got to the apartment he had the manuscript box in one hand and a six pack of beer in the other, and he said, “We’re in trouble.” We went through the manuscript, and if there was a beginner’s mistake I hadn’t made I can’t think what it might be. It was a terrific learning experience, and the next draft sold to Lee Wright at Random House, who later became Larry’s editor as well. Otherwise, my first three readers, only when the book is done, are, in order, my wife, my agent and my editor.
Gorman: One critic noted “Westlake has been the mad scientist of crime fiction for nearly 40 years now, and the Stark books showcase some of his more daring experiments with style and structure.” Do you make a conscious decision about approach before you write or do you let the story make the decisions?
Westlake: Story defines the books for two reasons, both because story is what fiction is about and because, since I don’t outline or prepare in any other way, the story is forced to emerge or die. “Narrative push,” as I know you know. Once we have the fuel on board—and then, and then, and then—it’s nice to be able to try different things. Not to get digressive, but to give the story little extras. For instance, in one book I saw I had an opportunity, if I wanted, to tell one section in first person from Parker’s point of view. Since he isn’t someone who tends to want to tell other people anything, particularly anything unnecessary, I wondered if I could do it, what he would sound like, and would it turn out to be one of those false notes. In the event, it was fine. (And no, I can’t right now remember which book.) More recently, in Ask the Parrot, I suddenly realized I could do one chapter from the parrot’s point of view, and that made me very, very happy.
Gorman: You’ve written that you didn’t know how editors let alone readers would react to a hero like Parker. Were you surprised when your editor asked for more?
Westlake: When I wrote The Hunter it was supposed to be a one-off. A difficult unpleasant guy without redeeming qualities bent on revenge. Then Bucklyn Moon, an editor at Pocket Books, said he liked the book and wondered if Parker could escape at the end and me write “three more books a year about him.” (I actually did, the first two years.) I really had to concentrate on that, because Parker was everything a main character in a novel was supposed to not be. The big question was, could I go back to him, knowing he was going to be a series character, meeting the readers again and again, and not soften him. No sidekick or girlfriend to have conversations with, no quirks or hobbies. That was the goal. Somebody who, in a western, would be a lone traveler in the dimness on the other side of the campfire from the hero. Now that menacing but unimportant minor character would be asking for everybody’s attention. No, not asking, assuming.
Gorman: Do you still hear from prisoners commenting on Parker’s skills and offering suggestions for taking care of business?
Westlake: Prisoners used to be readers, but now they’re weightlifters. I used to get letters from guys because they thought they could shoptalk with me, that I wouldn’t moralize or condescend. Techniques and stuff weren’t part of it, but they did have some very nice stories to tell, none of which got directly into any book, though the attitudes show through.
Gorman: There have been so many editions of the Stark books around the world that you might be forgiven for not getting excited each time you see a new one. But given the breadth of the University of Chicago publishing program for the Parkers, you must feel pretty damned proud.
Westlake: I know I should get over being astonished by Parker’s longevity and success, and pretty soon I will. The University of Chicago Press was not a scalp I ever expected to see on my belt. Just to get that 3-D effect, later this month at a comics convention in San Diego, a small outfit is announcing the launch (some day) of Parker graphic novels. (They’ve promised me a T-shirt.) The illustrator, Darwyn Cooke, is hard at work in Canada. When you’ve got the University of Chicago Press and a graphic novel publisher both looking at the same material, the only thing to do is just keep moving on.
Gorman: Finally, the late Bill DeAndrea once quoted you as saying `You don’t know what it’s like to have a pen name who’s doing better than you are.” How do you feel about that today?
Westlake: The issue of being one-upped by your pen name—it isn’t quite the same thing as Evan Hunter, who was just about drowned out completely by Ed McBain, but Stark does tend to outperform Westlake whenever they start even. It happened the first time around, when Point Blank became one of the seminal movies of the twentieth century and Stark was earning more than Westlake, and it’s happened again this time around. I am very glad I don’t have to figure that out.
This article was originally published on the Mystery Scene Blog, January 2009.