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An Interview with Lawrence Block, Author of A Drop of the Hard Stuff

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I have long been a fan of mystery writer Lawrence Block, both for his gritty Matthew Scudder series (of which this book is the latest), and for his comical The Burglar Who… series featuring Bernie Rhodenbarr. He has also written many great columns providing writing advice.

I have been pressing his publicists for years now to let me interview him, saying, at times, that he’s the only one of my ten favorite mystery authors I have not yet had the pleasure of interviewing.

So I was very excited to receive an email around Christmas with a present of sorts: Block was going to let me interview him by email for this book. The hard part was I had to wait until the book’s publication to publish it. So I set the completed interview aside for months.

I am not the only one who thinks highly of Block – he has been praised and awarded prizes for those series I mention as well as his Tanner series, Chip Harrison and others. One of his more interesting characters is Keller, a hired serial killer who is also a stamp collector.

Block was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1993. He has published more than 50 novels, 100 short stories and a series of books for writers.

The first of the Matthew Scudder series was 1976’s The Sins of the Fathers with Scudder, an alcoholic ex-cop, working as an unlicensed private investigator in Hell’s Kitchen.

Scudder’s drinking (or in recent years, his non-drinking) and his dealing with his alcoholism, often including attending AA meetings, have long been a part of the Scudder books but the subject takes on increased importance in the new novel.

In his new book he is hired by a childhood friend, Jack Ellery, a former criminal who is a fellow recovering alcoholic. His friend had been working through AA’s famous 12 steps which may have made unhappy some criminals he has worked with in the past. Specifically, as part of step 8 he compiled a list of those he hurt while driving and as part of step 9 he started trying to make amends.

It’s no surprise when Ellery is killed – someone always dies in Scudder books – but the fact Ellery is shot in the mouth suggests someone was choosing the ultimate way to get Ellery to close his mouth forever. Scudder has to figure out who killed Ellery while also dealing with the confidences of AA meetings and working with some, including former victims of Ellery, who don’t seem too interested in helping Scudder solve the case.

And now the interview….

How did this new story come about? Was it a way for you to explore – along with us readers – what it would have been like had Matthew Scudder become a law breaker as opposed to a law enforcer? I’ve wondered before if you’ve given the topic much thought since your other most popular character, Bernie Rhodenbarr, is famously a burglar.

It struck me that there was an unexplored period in Scudder’s life, a gap of six or seven years between Eight Million Ways To Die and Out on The Cutting Edge, and that this would have been an interesting time. I don’t know where the story came from. I never know where stories come from.

I liked the notion that a boyhood friend of Scudder’s could have wound up a criminal. That happens all the time, incidentally. The same social stratum tends to produce a lot of cops and crooks.

Do you prefer writing for some characters more than others? Put another way, are some characters harder to write about? Is it difficult switching from, say, the more whimsical nature of the Burglar books to the more gritty Scudder books?

No, the writing process is pretty much the same. It’s more or less enjoyable depending on how it’s going, not on the mood of the book. I had a good time with A Drop of the Hard Stuff because it went well, and because I liked the characters. And it was nice to spend time again with Jim Faber and Jan Keane.

I noticed, via Wikipedia, that you have done some writing for TV and movies. What’s it like to write for different mediums? What are the pros and cons of writing for TV and movies versus writing books?

I haven’t done that much film and TV work. It requires one to be more concise. It’s instructive, and some of its lessons carry over to prose.

Which of your major characters do you feel the most kinship with? I understand, for example, that like Keller you are a stamp collector, writing a regular monthly column for Linn’s Stamp News, but I’m hoping you don’t share his propensity for killing.

Only during interviews.

What have been your high and low points as a writer? I’m guessing being named a grand master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1993 was a special moment?

It was gratifying, as was the Diamond Dagger from the UK Crime Writers Association. Ultimately, though, it’s the work that means the most, more than the awards and the accolades.

I’m curious about how authors feel about audiobooks. The consensus I’ve noticed from past interviews seems to be that authors would rather be read than heard but would rather be heard (if not read) than not consumed at all. Is that your view? Or do you have a preference on whether you’re read versus being heard?

I don’t listen to audiobooks, but that’s because I happen to absorb information better by reading than listening. Others are the opposite, and audio works for them in a way that print does not. I’ve narrated some of my own audiobooks, and enjoy it. Why on earth should I care whether people read me with their eyes or their ears?

I read here - and you mention on your Facebook site as well – that you’re publishing a new book at Hard Case Crime returning to an older pseudonym, Jill Emerson. Why did you decide to bring back that pseudonym and publish it with Hard Case Crime? Or was that always the plan since they reprinted some of your older books?

The book’s called Getting Off, the subtitle is “A Novel of Sex and Violence,” and it carries an open pen name; the byline reads “by Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson.” It’s about a young woman who goes home with men, has sex with them, and then kills them. She likes the sex a lot, and she likes the killing at least as much. It is — let us be very clear about this — a hot book.

Now a couple of years back I published a book called Small Town, a big multiple-viewpoint New York novel set in the aftermath of 9/11, and in the main it was very well received. But I got a surprising number of emails from readers who were outraged by the sexual content. One character, an art gallery owner named Susan Pomerance, was sexually active in a way that came as a shock to readers who came to the book expecting something about a gentleman burglar and his tailless cat.

I’m greatly pleased with Getting Off, I had a fine time writing that character, but I’d just as soon limit its audience to people who are up for that sort of thing. Hence the pen name, the subtitle, and the cover — which ought to let folks know what they’re in for.

I publish my interviews at community web sites so I invite the community to also submit questions. These are some of those: How do you read the newspaper – are you of the type that follows a story to the jump page or finishes the current page first? Also what section do you read first and what newspapers and magazines do you read?

I’m sorry. I’ll talk about my sex life, my doubts and fears, my hopes and dreams, but how I read the newspaper is none of your goddamned business.

Which of your books are you most proud of and why?

Oh, who knows. I’ll say that A Drop of the Hard Stuff seems to me to be right up there with the best of them. But choosing among others strikes me as beside the point. In a sense, the Scudder series can be seen as one extended novel, now running to 17 volumes.

But, you know, I tend to like my own cooking. I’ve just made 40 early books, many of them originally pseudonymous, available again in ebook form. Avarice is part of the motivation — I want the royalties — but ego has a lot to do with it as well. I want y’all reading my books.

Do you feel territorial about the benches (with plaques for your characters) you have donated or do you like seeing others sitting on them?

Ah, the Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr benches in Bryant Park. You’d be surprised how infrequently I think of them.

Lastly, your character Even Tanner has always been one of my favorites – in some ways straddling the divide between Bernie Rhodenbarr and Matt Scudder. You’ve published only one Evan Tanner book since 1970 – why did you abandon the character then, why did you resurrect him nearly 30 years later and, after another 12 year hiatus, might we see more of Tanner?

Asking me why I did or didn’t do anything is generally pointless. How do I know? And asking me what I’ll do in the future is even less rewarding. I’ve remarked that Tanner seems to have the life cycle of a cicada; 28 years passed between Me Tanner, You Jane and Tanner On Ice, so I suppose a ninth Tanner book might be forthcoming in 2026. Then again, maybe not.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.