Saturday, January 3, 2009

RIP Donald E. Westlake

Donald E. Westlake (who also famously composed under a half-dozen pseudonyms, among them Richard Stark) died in Mexico, on vacation with his wife, on New Year's Eve.

I don't really have the words (though judging from the outpouring of grief from the crime writing community, I'm probably the only one). For a really comprehensive look at Mr. Westlake's life and legacy, it's better to see Sarah Weinman's thorough collection of posts about his life and her heartfelt tribute to his work in the Los Angeles Times.

There's also a ton of coverage at The Rap Sheet, but what jumped out at me was J. Kingston Pierce's comment that, "After the death of somebody famous, such as author Donald E. Westlake, absolute nobodies pour out of the woodwork to recall their encounters--even if ever so brief--with the deceased."

I'm a little stunned right now to offer much insight to augment the terrific tributes that are out there in the wider world - see Charles Ardai's wonderful post at the Guardian books blog for just one example - but I did interview Mr. Westlake just two years on the occasion of the publication of What's So Funny? for the Kirkus Reviews Mystery Special, and some of his comments subsequently ended up in one of my columns at Bookslut. He was, as advertised, funny, insightful, smart and thoroughly straightforward about his work.

Anyway, in the spirit of that dichotomy between giants and nobodies, I'm going to shut up for a while and clear the floor. Here's a few gems from my conversation with Donald E. Westlake, many of them unpublished. Godspeed, sir.

On the dangers of writing series characters:

“This is the time that I’ve truly violated my own rules. For years and years, the deal was this - this is what I decided myself and everybody always said I was right. I have seen a lot of people who have series characters who go to the well too often and they end up doing shtick. ‘There he is in his funny hat again.’ The characters get thinner and thinner instead of more complex. It just becomes a vaudeville routine after a while. The writers very often don’t see that they’re diluting the mix.

So I was afraid of it. I didn’t want to do it to Dortmunder, myself, or anybody reading the books. So the rule was one Dortmunder novel in three under my name, exclusive of Richard Stark. The other two books could be anything. So in-between books I write things like The Ax and The Hook and an adventure novel set in Africa, and Smoke, an invisible man novel, and Money for Nothing.

What’s funny, is I just did three in a row. You do three in a row, you’re really going too far. I’ll have to write a greeting card or something next.”

On the differences in writing as Westlake and Stark:

“It always begins with the language. You’re using a different vocabulary and it leads you in a different direction, be it comic or serious. The Dortmunder novels are much more baroque than the Parker novels, who is much more blunt.”

On The Hot Rock:

“The Hot Rock was originally supposed to be something for Parker. Parker deals badly with frustration so it would really get up his nose if he had to keep stealing the same thing over and over again. But it was such a comic notion that just discussing it, I would start to laugh. The worst thing you can do to a tough character is to make him inadvertently funny. So I started to think about who this guy really was.”

The secret origin of Dortmunder:

“I was in a bar. One of the signs on the back bar said ‘Dortmunder,’ underneath ‘BEER.’ That’s what I wanted: an action character with something wrong with him. In seeing the name Dortmunder, I saw the guy: sloping shoulders and dead hair. I just saw the guy. This guy is operating under a black cloud but won’t give up. It all came from that name, Dortmunder.”

Westlake goes to the movies:

“Dortmunder has been played by Robert Redford and Martin Lawrence. That’s a bit of a stretch.

It’s not as bad as Parker, actually. The first time they did Lee Marvin in Point Blank, which is a great movie. The football player Jim Brown plays him in The Split, which is not a wonderful movie. Then the third one was Jean-Luc Godard, who took another one that had been published in France in which he turned Parker into a girl reporter played by Anna Karina (Made in USA, 1966). An old friend of mine said, ‘So far, Parker’s been played by a white man, a black man and a woman. I think the character lacks definition.’

Parker was played by George Segal in The Outfit and that was well done, but Dortmunder has never quite been done right in the movies. Nobody has even come close. Every once in a while, producers will actually ask me who I see as Dortmunder. My answer was always Harry Dean Stanton, who starred in Paris, Texas. They would tell me he doesn’t sell tickets. I said, ‘You didn’t ask me that.’”

On writing genre fiction:

“I started writing everything. And anything. My first published story was science fiction and my second was sort of a romantic comedy/playboy imitator. The third was mystery. After a while, the mysteries were getting accepted more than the others. You tend to go where you’re liked. For the first ten years that I was making a living, I joked that I was a writer disguised as a mystery writer but after looking back at ten years of output, I decided that I might just be a mystery writer after all.

But I’ve never been only a mystery writer. I saw a quote from Stravinsky that was in an advertisement in the Times – he said, I don’t write modern music. I write good music.

I still think I’m a writer first and a lot of it happens to be in the mystery field.”

How to write:

“I learned years ago that it’s not good for a writer to know what he’s doing because if you know what you’re doing, you can’t do it. When you’re actually doing the writing, do it. Don’t stare at it.”

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