Robert B. Parker, sometimes referred to as the Dean of American Crime Fiction, is the author of more than thirty novels featuring Spenser, the famously tough but refined private detective who can just as easily bust up thugs and crime rings as curl up with his longtime girlfriend Susan Silverman and their lovely child, Pearl the Wonder Dog.
I caught up with Mr. Parker before a book signing at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California on March 13, 2005. “They make me do these things,” he said in reference to the book touring life, in mock grumble.
In this first part of the interview, Mr. Parker talks about his pre-novelist days, the magical fictional presence that is Hawk, writing “black,” the future of Spenser and Susan, and the latest installment of the Spenser series, Cold Service.
Eric Berlin: I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this before, but I assumed for many years that you were a cop and/or private detective.
Robert B. Parker: The question has been raised, yes. I’ve been neither.
EB: And then, of course, I learned you have a background in academics, which sort of led me to…
RBP: Ooh! You’re gonna let that out? [Laughs]
EB: We can edit that out if you like.
RBP: I’ve gone straight. I had a job in a lot of things before I finally found a job I could hold, including academe. But the academe was in the service of writing.
I had married young and had children early, and if I had to do it over again I would have married earlier and had children earlier. It was the best thing I ever did, but I had to support them. And I can’t write in little dribs and drabs – I need a large blocks of time, so Joan [Ed. Note: Joan is Mr. Parker’s wife] prevailed upon me after I had worked for Curtiss-Wright Aircraft and Raytheon Missile Systems division and Prudential Insurance Company of America… enough to make a maggot gag. Anyway, she prevailed upon me to go back to school and get a PhD and become a professor, which I eventually did. Then I had long hours of interrupted time to write.
EB: That leads me to a kind of related question. How do you block out your time? Do you write in the morning or the evening? I read that you write about five finished pages a day. Is that still true?
RBP: It’s ten now. It used to be five. You are not misinformed – you’re just not updated.
EB: Glad to be.
RBP: Well, “block out” makes it out to be more formal than it is. This is all I do. I don’t have any other job, so I get up in the morning and feed Pearl the Wonder Dog. I have coffee and read the Globe, do a little business, make a few phone calls. Somewhere in the 9:00 range I start writing… Pearl the Wonder Dog arises early.
EB: So Pearl the Wonder Dog does indeed exist?
RBP: Oh yeah. Pearl III. This is the third Pearl. And it’s the one on the back of the book.
So nine, ten I’m writing and I persist into the 3:00 range, or until whenever I get ten pages done. When I’m finished with my ten pages, I stop, I usually have a nap, I go to the gym, I workout, I come home, and that’s my day. I do that five days a week.
EB: Do you block out your stories ahead of time?
EB: For Spenser novels particularly, how do you take him to a new place and take him through a new story?
RBP: I just start out and see where it goes. In Cold Service, I thought – just because it felt so – that it was time for Hawk to have a larger part again. So I thought, ‘Well, what if Hawk got hurt?’ So I started with the premise that Hawk was being somebody’s bodyguard and got shot. And that’s all I knew. So, that’s the first chapter. And the first chapter leads to the second, and the second leads to the third, and it evolves.
The current Spenser that I’m working on now, which is called Dream Girl, and will be out a year from now, I think. I’m five books ahead, so I get confused. I’m on Page 215 of that, and I don’t know who “did it.”
Joan keeps saying, “You know yet?”
“No! I don’t yet, stop asking!”
EB: I like the model where if the author doesn’t know, the readers won’t know either.
RBP: And the process – this is not by design, I just happen to know this – allows me to go through the same things Spenser goes through. So between us, we find out what happens. Or Jesse Stone, or Sunny Randall, or anybody else. But the writer-as-detective is automatic if you don’t have an outline. Which I don’t.
EB: So for Cold Service, you’re involving the Ukrainian mafia, obviously Hawk is more involved. Do you have an idea of adapting Spenser and the classic detective story to the spy or gangster story to keep Spenser fresh or do you say, “Let’s just have a new adventure and see where it goes.”
RBP: I say, “Let’s just have a new adventure and see where it goes.” If I could do a wonderfully difficult and complicated case with a huge surprise ending, that’s fine, but I have yet to think of one. I don’t think I have that particular kind of talent.
I don’t think Sherlock Holmes did either. I mean, if you didn’t have Watson running around saying, “Oh my God, Holmes, that’s brilliant!” you wouldn’t have thought it was so brilliant. And Nero Wolf – who I love – and Archie serves that same function. I never understood how Wolf knew who did what, but whatever it is, I have yet to come up with a complicated, classic, surprise, shocking riddle story. I’d be perfectly to if I could think of one, but so far I haven’t.
EB: Tell me a little bit about Hawk. He’s just got a wonderful way about him, particularly in his dialogue, which is very urban, very street. How did Hawk come into being?
RBP: Well, he began in Promised Land as merely that book’s worthy adversary. And then, I liked how it worked. I also liked that it allowed me to do my riff on race relations. And in the next book, when Spenser was in Europe chasing people around, he needed backup, and I thought, “Why doesn’t he call that black guy from the last book?”
So Hawk came back, and it began to develop and so it’s one of the charms of not pre-planning. Serendipity. When I first began, I started outline. After a while, I realized the outlining was limiting me, instead of helping me.
I make up Hawk’s dialogue, I make up his street talk. When we did a movie called Small Vices, Shiek Mahmoud-Bey was playing Hawk, and I thought he was the best Hawk that we’ve ever had. He didn’t do it again because he was working elsewhere and we couldn’t get him for the other movies.
But he came and said, “Give me a tip. Tell me something about Hawk so I can play him better.” And I said, “Hawk’s magical.” And I guess probably he is. He seems able to do whatever needs to be done. He seems able to understand whatever needs to be understood. And I find him fascinating, too, but his role will always be somewhat limited because I have to see him through Spenser’s eyes. I’m not black enough to see him through his own eyes, or from the inside out.
Although, for a while I had the Hollywood reputation: Parker writes black good. [laughs] I mean, look at me: white Irish kid from Boston!
And when I did Double Deuce, which was about black street gangs, I made that up and I made up the language and everything. I talked to some people and did some research, but essentially I made it all up.
I was signing over here at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, and a big black kid who was obviously a gangbanger was in line with my book. And, I was somewhat uneasy, but I was signing away, and he came up to the desk and he put the thing down and he looked and he said, “You write this book?”
And I said, “Yes, I did.”
And he said, “Well man, you nailed the motherfucker.”
And I thought, “That’s the best review I ever got.” Because the kid had obviously lived the life, and imagination’s a wonderful thing.
Hawk is what he is. And I don’t if Avery [Brooks] was ever comfortable playing him on the series [Ed. Note: Spenser: For Hire] but I like him and he’ll be around. He’s not going anywhere.
EB: Talk to me a little bit about Susan Silverman and Spenser’s relationship, which leads to my broader question: is there any through-line that you see throughout the Spenser series? Is Spenser going to end up somewhere with Susan, and in general, or are you just kind of taking it as it goes?
RBP: Susan and Spenser will never part. You can count on that. And I plan on writing the series until I can’t. I don’t plan to kill him off. I don’t plan to write a book hidden away that would reveal that his first name is Bruce, and that he and Susan have a child. The last book will be the last book. And when I’m dead or can’t write another one for whatever reason, that’ll be the end of that. Maybe someone will finish one or write one for me. Who knows? But you can count on Susan and Spenser being together in the way that they are. Will they ever marry? I don’t know.
I’m 72-years-old, and the singular event in my life is my marriage to Joan Parker, whom I met 55 years ago, when we were both 17, at the Freshman dance at Colby College. And I swear I fell in love with her when I asked her to dance. She thought I was hideous, and it took her several years to get over that, but I prevailed.
So that relationship is the central one in my life, and I couldn’t really spend my life writing about a guy who had no such relationship. So in that sense, very loosely speaking, Susan is like Joan and I’m like Spenser. Joan is not Jewish and hasn’t been married before. Joan hasn’t children, Susan doesn’t. Joan is not a shrink, professionally – I present a heavy case load for her, but… you know, the superficial resemblances are not there. But Joan is beautiful, Joan is smart, and Joan is funny.
And we live an odd way which is like the way Susan Silverman and Spenser do. We live in the same house but she lives on the second floor and I live on the first. There’s no doors – we come back and forth.
On a talk show – or a chat show as they say in England – in London, a woman asked me once, “Well, are you intimate?”
And I said, “Enough to make you blush.”
And, obviously, I am not quite Spenser. Well, I’m unarmed for instance. But the superficial stuff, again, I use what I know. I was in Korea, he was in Korea. I lift weights, he lifts weights. I’ve never been a cop, never been a private eye, never fought Joe Walcott. I don’t have a close friend named Hawk.
But, you know, all writing is to some extent autobiographical because when you’re working with the imagination, you don’t have anything else to work with. Some kid once in a writing class said, “Is it okay to write about real life?”
And I said, “As opposed to what?”
And this is what I’ve got, so I make stuff out of it and I change it. There’s a wonderful passage in T.S. Elliot’s critical writings where he talks about the imagination. You take a bell jar, and put an inert gas in it and you add a piece of tungsten, I think it is, and it changes the gas so that the gas is not what it was. And he said, “That’s the imagination.” I think he was talking about poets, so he described that as the poet’s imagination: that piece of tungsten that takes something and changes it so that it’s something else, by being a party to it. And so all of it is filtered through my imagination. I quote people a lot because I have nothing original to say. If I would have thought of that, I would have said it.
So yes, there’s a lot to be said there. Will they ever marry? Probably not, but I don’t know that they won’t. They seem happy the way that they are.
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