Monday, August 22, 2011

Q&A: Lawrence Block

Truth be told, I didn’t think the man was serious. And yet here we are.

When Lawrence Block turned up on Twitter I began following him at once. But then I’ve been following him for years, ever since I picked up Eight Million Ways to Die when I was in high school and read it twice in one summer. That book served as my gateway to crime fiction, and I’ve never looked back. I read every other book Block wrote about Matt Scudder, the recovering alcoholic ex-NYPD detective turned occasionally licensed private eye. Not to mention the ones about genial thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, and the professional killer Keller, and many more, some published under other names. He picks up one of those names anew with Getting Off, which I reviewed last week.

On Twitter, he said he was looking for opportunities to guest post. I responded at once. As I said, I didn’t think the man was serious. And yet here we are, with another VKDCQ&A. The world is a mysterious place.

Q. What can you tell us about Getting Off?

That I can’t recall ever having more fun writing anything. I fell utterly in love with my lead character, and enjoyed every minute I spent with her. That doesn’t always happen.

Q. You’re returning to the Jill Emerson pseudonym after several decades. What made this a Jill Emerson book, as opposed to an Andrew Shaw or a Sheldon Lord? Are these alter egos at all like characters? To put it another way, do you know what Jill has been doing these last few years? Teaching at a small liberal arts college in New England, perhaps?

Andrew Shaw and Sheldon Lord were just pen names. Jill Emerson was something beyond that, though it would be hard saying just what. Add in the fact that I liked – and indeed still like – all seven of the Jill Emerson books.

I wanted an open pen name for the book for the same reason I wanted the “A Novel of Sex & Violence” subtitle: so that no one would pick up the book by mistake, hoping for something fluffy about a charming burglar and his stubtailed cat. This is not to denigrate the Burglar books or their readers, and indeed I’m sure there’ll be plenty of overlap. But I got email calling me to account for the erotic content of Small Town, by people who felt they’d been ambushed, and I didn't want that to happen again. I want to sell books, but only to people who are likely to enjoy them.

Still, I could have managed that without a pen name. So I think what it comes down to is I just plain wanted to be Jill again. Go figure.

And it’s given me the opportunity to have dialogues with Jill, which I then get to post on Jill’s page of my blogsite.

Q. Getting Off is subtitled “A Novel of Sex & Violence.” And brother – or sister, as the case may be – that ain’t the half of it. In your experience, are readers more comfortable with violence than sex? How has writing about sex changed since Jill debuted with her lesbian novels? Who in your opinion writes about sex particularly well?

Some don’t mind sex, some don’t mind violence, and I have to hope there are some who can stand a healthy helping of both. The sex was very discreet in the first two Jill Emerson novels. It got a little more intense later on. I think the big change in erotic realism, if you will, happened in the late ‘60s, when a lot of mainstream novelists began writing far more candidly about sex. That was around the same time Jill published her middle three books with Berkley.

I don’t read enough these days to say who writes well about sex. Sixty or more years ago, without running into censorship problems, John O’Hara was writing scenes I found intensely erotic. He did it almost entirely via dialogue. You want a master class in the subject, that's where to go.

Q. Getting Off closes out what’s been a remarkably busy 2011 for you. Earlier this year you published A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the latest Matt Scudder novel, set in the early days of Scudder’s sobriety. You’ve written elsewhere about the challenges of revisiting the New York of the 1980s. But what about your own work? How much research did you have to do into what you’d already written about Scudder?

None that I can recall. I was writing about an unrecorded period in his life, so that gave me a lot of leeway.

Q. Your short story “See The Woman” appeared in the companion anthology to the videogame L.A. Noire. Did you see the game before you wrote the story? What kind of experience did you have with video games in general? Care to share any high scores? You’ve been an early adopter of many publishing advances – audiobooks, e-books. What do you think videogames have to contribute to storytelling?

No, I didn’t see the game, or even bother reading the descriptions. I just wanted to write a story that would work, and one that was right for the period. As for video games in general, I’ve had zero experience with them – unless you count a video matching game that I use as a form of time-passer to punctuate stretches at the computer. That is to L.A. Noire and Grand Theft Auto what simple solitaire is to tournament-level Duplicate Bridge.

Q. Perhaps your most impressive writing this year has been in your embrace of Twitter and blogging. What have you learned in your Year of Social Networking?

That the entire landscape of publishing has already changed beyond recognition, and that only an idiot would hazard a guess as to what the future holds. And it’s not just publishing and its world. That’s just the part of change that’s most evident to me. All changed, changed utterly – and it ain’t done yet, either.

Cocktail Q. In Getting Off, Kit Tolliver changes her cocktail of choice as quickly as she changes identities. Do the drinks tell us something about her persona of the moment? What can you infer about a person from what their poison is?

Good question, but I’m not sure I know the answer. Back in my drinking days I recall we attached significance to that sort of thing, but I don't know that it was warranted. You might even warm to someone because he smoked the same brand of cigarette. Does seem silly in retrospect, but then I’m talking from the standpoint of someone who hasn't drunk or smoked in a good many years, so what do I know?

I recently wrote something that called for the name of a trendy cocktail, and had no idea what’s new in that realm. So I Googled “trendy cocktails” and a couple of candidates presented themselves. (What did we do before Google?) Later I realized I should have done what Raymond Chandler did in respect to slang. He made it up so he wouldn't have to worry that it would be dated.

Movie Q. What movie best captures Hard Stuff-era New York?

Two Sidney Lumet films come to mind right away, Prince of the City and Q&A.

Baseball Q. There’s only one question I can ask an inveterate New Yorker like yourself, and I hope you don’t take Hillary Clinton’s politic way out. Mets or Yankees?

I don’t know that Hilary was being politic; my guess is she doesn't pay any attention to baseball. I pay more some years than others, and in either league I’m a New York loyalist, but my dad was a Yankees fan all his life, and so, albeit in a lackadaisical way, am I.