This is the second part of my two-part interview about Donald E. Westlake’s latest book, What's So Funny?
In a recent review of Christopher Buckley's new book I called Westlake one of the five funniest living fiction writers. The five are: Buckley, Westlake, Lisa Lutz, Frank Portman and – sometimes – Carl Hiaasen. I've now interviewed three of the five.
The best quote so far in the interview has been this: "Reality is stranger than fiction because God doesn't have to worry about being plausible."
In this book a shady New York City ex-cop forces Dortmunder to do a job he doesn’t want to do. The cop has proof that Dortmunder has committed crimes. As the office puts it, “If he were any more crooked, you could open wine bottles with him." If Dortmunder refuses the job he’ll be arrested and put in jail using the evidence provided by the ex-cop.
The problem? The job – retrieving a valuable chess set – is impossible. Plus, Dortmunder and his colleagues are not accustomed, let alone happy, about having police telling them what to do.
Here is the second part of the interview:
Scott: In what ways are you similar to John Dortmunder, your main character in the Dortmunder series?
Donald: John and I are both pessimists. That glass is definitely half empty. When you expect the worst, the only surprises you can get are happy ones. I remain astonished whenever anything actually works out, and so does John. I think we also share a doggedness, which comes out of the first quality. If you don't expect success, the only reason to go on is a blunt refusal to stop.
Scott: Do you create all of your characters out of pure cloth or are they based on people?
Donald: For me, the characters are part of the story, and come out of its development. I don't base them on people, or parts of people – the Frankenstein method. I base them on what I've noticed about the human race.
Scott: How did this particular story develop?
Donald: I cannot tell you how stories develop. I have an initial idea, and start telling myself the story, day by day. In this case, a cop was in the OJ, wanting to talk to John. Why? I had no idea, so I started the thing, and gradually found out.
(Note: The “OJ” is a bar where John Dortmunder and his gang meet. The bartender knows them not by their names but by their drinks, which really makes sense, if you think about it.)
Scott: Which of your books is your favorite?
Donald: At different times I have different favorites, but eventually I go back to, Kahawa , a book I felt was the only time that all my personae got together to collaborate on a story.
Scott: Why did you pick such an irredeemable character, Parker, for your alter ego novels, written under the name Richard Stark?
Donald: I like people who simply get on with the job and don't showboat. I like them in life and I like them in fiction. And as for why I choose criminals, it's because there the triumphs are rarer and sweeter. The last line of my first produced screenplay, Cops and Robbers is, "We got away with it!" Is there a more joyous concept?
Scott: Why did you develop your various pseudonyms (Curt Clark, J. Morgan Cunningham, Samuel Holt, and the better known Richard Stark)?
Donald: I've used pseudonyms for various reasons. In my earliest days I was writing too much, and needed to shift some of the product over to other front men. I've also done it to establish the different tones of the different writings: Stark doesn't write very much like Westlake at all.
Once or twice I've done it to hide behind, more or less successfully. I haven't added a new guy to the crew since over 20 years ago, with Samuel Holt. Fortunately, I don't have to supply these people with health insurance.
Thanks again to Mr. Westlake for a fun interview and for so many hours of pleasure reading his books, regardless of what name he writes under.