This is the first part of a two-part interview about Donald E. Westlake’s latest book, What's So Funny?
Certain writers have influenced my writing style, for good or ill. The late great Kurt Vonnegut showed me that I can inject myself into my stories and even break through traditional walls between the writer and the reader. Molly Ivins and Art Buchwald showed me that one can combine wit with politics and get across a message, perhaps sneaking some good insights into readers' minds while they are busy laughing. Donald Westlake showed me that I can write in my favorite genre, mysteries, and make it damn funny. Lawrence Block’s Burglar Who… series is also pretty funny at times, and new novelist Lisa Lutz shows promise.
But I can’t think of another comic crime writer who is as consistently funny as Donald Westlake. What's So Funny? — as with many books by Westlake — features the unlucky John Dortmunder. Through good intentions and plenty of planning, he tries to show that crime can indeed pay. But his plans often go up in flames, which is to Dortmunder a disaster but to the reader a howling delight.
As with Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake can also write dark, most notably chronicling the adventures of Parker under the pseudonym Richard Stark.
Scott Butki: Mr. Westlake, I want to repeat that it is a honor and great pleasure to communicate with you. First, I am not sure what to call you. Which do you prefer: The comic crime caper captain or master of many (un)mundane mystery masterpieces? Yes, I'm a sucker for alliteration.
Donald Westlake: Go with the C string. But how about promoting me to commander?
What is your latest story about? This is another in the adventures of poor John Dortmunder, right?
In 1917, in the middle of WW1, Russia had its two revolutions. Chaos. The British had left a large store of munitions up in Murmansk, to use against the Germans if they chose to invade Germany from the east. Now they didn't want the damn Red Army to get those arms, so the British and the U.S. sent several hundred troops into northern Russia, where they fought the Red Army for 2 years, 1918-1920, unencumbered by any declaration of war, that being the only time U.S. soldiers fought Russian soldiers on Russian soil. All this is true. Now we invent. What if (which is where all stories come from, by the way) a valuable chess set, gift for the czar, sailed into Murmansk while the war was going on, got lost in the shuffle, found in 1920 by a platoon of American troops, who smuggled it home, where more shenanigans took place, so it became lost again. Now it's been found and descendants of those soldiers want Dortmunder to get it back.
Which do you consider stranger – reality or fiction?
Reality is stranger than fiction because God doesn't have to worry about being plausible.
Do your own ideas, like the concept for the Ax or Hook, ever scare you?
My own ideas delight me. Why not?
I won't ask you about your own writing habits, because I previously wrote a piece mocking those who ask authors that question, but I am curious about your choice to use a typewriter instead of a computer. You're probably tired of explaining that choice but indulge me please: Why not use a computer? And if you don't like to use computers how is it that we are communicating via email?
I learned on typewriters, and still use the make and model I started writing on when I was 17. That means, when I work, I'm thinking about the work and not the equipment. E-mail is a convenience I finally cottoned to in 1999, so that I said I was entering the 20th century just as everybody else was leaving it. The computer is extremely useful for research, if you're careful about your sources. But when I write, or read, I don't curl up with a good computer.
What question — besides the one about the typewriter and questions about your Richard Stark alter ego — are you most tired of being asked?
What advice I would give to anybody about anything. Life is a slow-motion avalanche, and none of us are steering.
What question do you wish interviewers will ask that they don't ask? Because this is your lucky day – you get to ask it and answer it.
I was once — and only once — asked if I could have had a writing career without the movies. That stopped me, and I was very happy to have to think about it, and decide I knew the answer. Yes; not this career, but a career. Without movie money, either from writing screenplays or selling rights to novels, I could still have enough of a career that I could support myself and not have to work at some other job, but it would be, shall we say, a less lavish lifestyle.
Who are your three favorite living writers and why?
That is impossible to answer. I like this, I don't like that. Nobody hits a home run every time at bat. See you in Part Two.