AN INTERVIEW WITH LAWRENCE BLOCK
LAWRENCE BLOCK is an American crime writing veteran. He has published more than a hundred books of fiction since the late 1950s. Some of his best known characters are the cop-turned-private investigator Matthew Scudder, the globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner, and the introspective assassin Keller. Block was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1994.
Block’s most recent novel is The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons, which returns again to his genial burglar character Bernie Rhodenbarr.
I had lunch with Block in Greenwich Village on January 13, 2014, to discuss the new book and his adventures in self-publishing.
ASPREY: The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons is your eleventh Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery. It’s a delight. But why did you decide to go with self-publishing as opposed to running with a traditional publisher?
BLOCK: I’d always had a certain amount of interest in self-publishing going back to the mid-1980s. I wanted to sell a book in conjunction with a seminar I was doing called Write for Your Life. I realized that while I might be able to persuade a publisher to do the book, for one thing it would take them a year to get it out. And for another the real market for it was people who were either attending the seminar or would be reached by advertising for the seminar. So it struck me that that book really lent itself to self-publishing because I was closer to the potential market than a publisher could have been.
BLOCK: That was before CreateSpace, before ebooks, before any of that. I got a production guy from a publishing house who moonlighted doing things for self-publishers. He handled the production. I printed five thousand copies of it and we sold just about all of them. Then I stopped doing the seminar and that was enough of that. But it was an interesting experience. And even though we did just about everything wrong in one way or another—as one does in initial ventures—it was not a failure. It was okay.
After the sudden technological revolution that gave us ebooks and self-publishing for Kindle, I began doing that with some backlist titles. And then it occurred to me that I had just about enough Matthew Scudder short stories for a book. Indeed, I got an idea for another story that would be first published in that book. I knew that my publisher would probably do it, but I couldn’t see it as a big sales item for anybody. I’m sure the publisher would give a minimal advance and it would be in the stores for twenty minutes. I thought this was probably a rather risk-free one to do myself.
So I published that in 2011. It was called The Night and the Music. And it did very well. It’s a slow way to get rich—any publishing venture is—but it was profitable. It was never in stores but it was available online both as a paperback and an ebook. And while the sales were never stratospheric they never fell off, either. It’s been steady. And it’s been about two-and-a-half years now. That was a positive experience. It was a book I was pleased with and continue to be pleased with.
Then I wondered how it would be to publish an A-list title myself.
But I’d actually reached a point in life where I thought I was probably done writing anyway. I’m seventy-five years old. I’ve written God knows how many books. I’m not even sure He’s kept track, but I know it’s well over a hundred. And I can’t really delude myself that the world has not had enough words of mine or that I have something to say that I’ve been holding back all this time. That’s very clearly not the case. I’ve made various attempts at a novel in recent years and nothing really got off the ground. I got bored with it or it fizzled out after a handful of pages. I thought, “No—if I’m done, I’m done.”
But I went on a cruise this past summer and wrote a new book. And what really got it written, I think as much as anything else, was the desire to self-publish a new novel. And I really had to honor that. That’s why I wrote the thing—that at least enabled the writing of it. So let’s not run off and take a hefty advance from a publisher and wash your hands of it, which is in a large measure what you do when you publish.
But I did give it some thought because it was in one of my more popular series, and it’s certainly one my regular publisher wanted to do. And I was in fact contractually committed to show it to them. But I told them going in that e-rights were not on the table. I was just not going to give that to anybody. And that was the deal breaker as I knew it would be. In fact, I was comfortable that it would be.
There was another publisher that really liked it and would have let me keep e-rights. But I really just plain wanted to do it myself.
ASPREY: I get the impression from reading your blog and looking at recent interviews that you have a lot of fun being your own publisher.
BLOCK: Yeah. Absolutely.
ASPREY: I understand. We have a lot of fun doing Contrappasso.
BLOCK: So you know. And time was a consideration, too. I am, I’m pleased to report, in good health. But even so one doesn’t want to wait. My last novel with a publisher was Hit Me , and it was over fifteen months from the time I turned in the finished manuscript until it was out. By the time it was published I could barely recall having written it. And I hate that kind of schedule, you know? With this I knew I didn’t want to wait that long. I got on the boat in the middle of July, and I got off on the 17th of August with a manuscript finished. I thought, when will this get done? A publisher would want to bring it out in the fall of 2014. Except the fall list is difficult and they’ll think it’ll have a better commercial chance if they publish it in, say, February of 2015. And I thought, the hell with that. I’m at an age where a man is well-advised not to buy green bananas. Do I really want to wait a year and a half to see the book printed?
ASPREY: I guess for writers as prolific as you’ve been, by the time a book came out you’d be four or five books ahead.
BLOCK: That certainly used to be the case. And even this year I have two books coming out. I have Borderline, an erotic crime novel which initially came out in 1961 or ’62. I can’t claim that the world really needs to see it again but there’s a publisher who wants to do it and he’ll do a nice job with it. Hard Case Crime does a wonderful job with everything they do.
ASPREY: I like the cover.
BLOCK: Yeah, terrific cover.
ASPREY: I like all the covers from Hard Case Crime.
BLOCK: I think with Borderline the cover may be better than the book requires. And sometime in the late spring or early summer Subterranean Press will be doing an edition of the Ehrengraf stories.
ASPREY: The stories about your lawyer character.
BLOCK: And there’s a new one written for that. They do a beautiful production. They’re a wonderful small press. So it looks as though I’m a lot busier than I am, because all of this stuff from prehistoric times is coming out.
ASPREY: Your bases are definitely loaded.
BLOCK: With the Burglar Who Counted The Spoons I got off the boat on the 17th of August and on October 23rd the book went up for pre-orders on Amazon with the cover done and everything else. And Christmas Day it shipped. And that struck me as a reasonable schedule. I liked that.
ASPREY: And the cover was painted by Emanuel Schongut, one of the original Bernie Rhodenbarr cover artists.
BLOCK: When you self-publish suddenly a lot of things become your responsibility that aren’t otherwise. The first four books in the series were published by Random House in the late 1970s. They used the same cover artist on all four. Then when the series went elsewhere, of course that was the end of that. But I looked at those books and I thought, if only we could get this feel for the covers. Maybe we should even knock this off, have him wearing the domino mask and the checkered topcoat. And I thought—maybe the artist is still around. I managed to find him through Google. And if he’d been, God forbid, deceased, I would have had no compunctions about stealing components of it. But I certainly wouldn’t do that with a living artist. I got in touch with him and found out that although he was semi-retired, he liked the idea of doing this. And he did a beautiful painting for it.
ASPREY: I have the original hardback edition of Burglars Can’t Be Choosers , so I was very familiar with it. You must have had hundreds of cover artists work on your books. You may not have always been impressed by some of the work done.
BLOCK: Well, some are better than others.
ASPREY: What’s your favourite?
BLOCK: I love these covers for the Burglar series. And I thought the various Keller covers were very good. They were essentially type with some design enhancements.
ASPREY: I really like the Hard Case Crime reprint of Killing Castro .
BLOCK: The Hard Case covers are wonderful. Charles Ardai pays a tremendous amount of attention to getting the right artists. One favorite cover was for a book called Getting Off .
ASPREY: Does Hard Case Crime have a relationship with Subterranean Press? Because they seem to share design elements.
BLOCK: They occasionally do things in tandem. Subterranean published Catch and Release , my short story collection, but Hard Case lent their imprint and took orders for a book that was really a Subterranean Press book. There was a double volume that was published, Strange Embrace and 69 Barrow Street [originally 1962/1959]. That was just Charles being impish to package it the way he did. It was the 69th book in the Hard Case series.
ASPREY: I walked past Barrow Street the other day. You haven’t lost interest in writing about New York after all this time?
ASPREY: You weren’t born here, were you?
BLOCK: I was born upstate in Buffalo. We’ve moved away occasionally, but I’ve lived here most of my adult life.
ASPREY: Mainly in Greenwich Village?
BLOCK: More often than not, and pretty much continually for getting on forty years.
ASPREY: I just saw the Coen Brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis set in the Village in the winter of 1961.
BLOCK: I didn’t like the movie. The fellow whose life was sort of cannibalized for it was a very good friend of mine.
ASPREY: Sure, Dave Van Ronk, “When the sacred ginmill closes.” I got the impression, and other people have observed this, that even though it was nicely done in terms of period detail, the movie doesn’t seem to have much connection to what was going on at the time.
BLOCK: It’s not at all like the way things were. Dave Van Ronk’s first wife, Terri Thal, wrote a piece about that. One thing they didn’t get was that everybody involved was having a lot of fun.
Dave Van Ronk
ASPREY: Luc Sante wrote on the New York Review of Books blog that it wasn’t nearly so difficult to get a tenement flat in the Village for a tiny bit of money.
BLOCK: No, it wasn’t at all. That was the attraction to living down here. The Coens bring their own perception to things. They weren’t here then and they get it wrong. Very few people were as focused on success. And nobody was particularly mean-spirited that way. There were other things that I just didn’t like about the film as a film. That trip out to Chicago and back seemed to be recorded in real time. It was the slowest, most pointless sequence I can recall.
ASPREY: There was also a total absence of left wing politics, which was obviously such a big part of the folk scene.
BLOCK: Yeah, absolutely. That’s completely right.
ASPREY: I didn’t understand why Llewyn was a folk singer because he didn’t seem to have any interest in folk music.
BLOCK: They invented a partner who killed himself. I don’t know where that came from. And the character who I guess is supposed to be a young Tom Paxton is just a jerk, nothing at all like Tom. And if you’re gonna make a film like that, why not make it out of the whole cloth? I was not the film’s ideal audience.
ASPREY: I guess not.
BLOCK: I do think that even if I hadn’t known the people involved I still would have disliked the movie. But not nearly as much.
ASPREY: I liked things about it. Staying in that period, I’m quite interested in your time at the Scott Meredith Agency. Evan Hunter started out at Scott Meredith a few years before you and quickly hit the big time with The Blackboard Jungle  and Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Did Hunter appear to you to have the ideal career trajectory? You basically worked in the same job he had started in.
BLOCK: Well, in a sense, I suppose. I was certainly very much aware of Evan and I had always been a great fan of his work.
ASPREY: Ed McBain gets a mention in The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons. There’s a nice line from your cop character Ray Kirschmann, who calls him “the greatest writer who ever lived, as far as I’m concerned, on account of he wrote about cops and got it right. The cops are the good guys in his books, and even the bad ones are okay…”
BLOCK: It was pleasing years later to become good friends with him.
ASPREY: You didn’t know him in the ’50s or ’60s?
BLOCK: No, not at all. I don’t think I met him until the late ’70s.
ASPREY: He started out, as I understand it, at the agency as a staff member.
BLOCK: It was a time when the staff was very small. There was a point where they wanted him to become a principal in the firm.
ASPREY: I like much of Hunter’s other work but The Blackboard Jungle didn’t impress me at all. It’s ridiculously conservative in its sexual politics. The main character is such a square. Evan Hunter never struck me as a square. But he was very young at the time.
BLOCK: Well, he wasn’t writing about himself.
ASPREY: No, but it’s more than just the character. The whole viewpoint of the book is so conservative. But I admire some of Hunter’s later stuff. Candyland  is really good.
BLOCK: Candyland was quite remarkable. That may have been his most personal book.
ASPREY: I get the impression Scott Meredith was something of a roguish character.
BLOCK: Roguish is giving Scott the benefit of the doubt.
ASPREY: What then—a huckster?
BLOCK: Well, he was…he did a lot of crooked things. When Scott died, Evan called up his friends and said, “Did you hear? Scott’s dead! Isn’t that the greatest news? Isn’t that wonderful?” There was a certain amount of ill-feeling there.
ASPREY: Was Meredith your own agent when you started out?
BLOCK: Yeah, for a couple of years. When I was working there I became a client.
ASPREY: Skipping forward four decades, how did you first get involved with Hard Case Crime?
BLOCK: Well, I’ve known Charles Ardai casually for some years. He started in the business very, very young. He was working at Ellery Queen when he was still in high school.
ASPREY: As an editor?
BLOCK: As an assistant’s assistant. As one starts. I’d met him a few times. He got in touch when he was starting Hard Case Crime. I think that a book of mine was the first title they published.
ASPREY: Was that Grifter’s Game?
ASPREY: I really enjoyed that one. Another great cover.
BLOCK: That wasn’t the first book to come out of my typewriter but it was the first book published under my own name in 1960.
ASPREY: The standard of the imprint is so high that you can pick up any of their titles with confidence.
BLOCK: There are a lot of people who find their books collectable and want to have them all.
ASPREY: They’ve reprinted a lot of Donald E. Westlake’s early hardboiled stuff as well. Which reminds me—I’m a big fan of Westlake’s burglar hero Dortmunder. I heard that you once had an idea to do a Bernie Rhodenbarr meets Dortmunder story.
BLOCK: I thought that would have worked well. But Don never wanted to do it.
ASPREY: You wrote a few erotic books together.
BLOCK: Yeah. Back ages ago.
ASPREY: When did you first meet him?
BLOCK: It would have been ’58 or ’59. And we became friends immediately.
ASPREY: At that stage neither of you had published a novel under your own name.
BLOCK: No. We both did before very long. I think The Mercenaries was ’60 or ’61. And Grifter’s Game was ’60 or ’61.
ASPREY: You were there for the birth of Parker.
ASPREY: It’s nice to see the Parker books are now in print again.
BLOCK: They’ve been very well published, I think, by the University of Chicago Press. I’m not as ecstatic about the graphic novels but that’s just not a medium that I respond to. I’m not contemptuous of it. I just don’t get it.
ASPREY: The adaptations are spotty. I like Point Blank  as a film but it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Parker of the novel. I saw last year’s Parker starring Jason Statham. It was okay, I guess.
BLOCK: I thought it was pretty good.
ASPREY: But again, I don’t think Hollywood has ever really got the character. Maybe the character’s just too bold for Hollywood.
BLOCK: Well, anything that works that well in print is very difficult to translate into another medium, especially for those of us who are that familiar with it in print. I always feel that when I see something like Nero Wolfe in film or on television. And that’s because everybody already knows what Archie looks and sounds like, and everybody’s image is individual, is different. So there’s no way in the world the actor up there can be what you already know the character to be.
ASPREY: You have a Matthew Scudder movie coming soon. Liam Neeson’s starring.
BLOCK: I think he’s extraordinary in it. When I first heard that he was about to be signed for the role I was ecstatic. I’ve liked his work for ages and thought he would be fine. And of course you get strange reactions from fans—”But he’s Irish, how can he do it? Duh.” What they don’t realize is that actors from the UK or Ireland or Australia are perfectly fine with American accents. The simple fact that American actors are hopeless with English accents is immaterial.
ASPREY: I don’t really know if I’ve ever seen an American actor do a convincing Australian accent. I know Meryl Streep did a movie—
BLOCK: Oh, the dingo ate my baby.
ASPREY: Yeah. I’ve never heard it convincingly done. But Australians seem to be able to convince American audiences. When is the Scudder film coming out?
BLOCK: It’s supposed to be coming out in September, last I heard. I’ve seen a final cut of it, final mix, and I think it’s excellent.
ASPREY: I’m surprised more films haven’t been made of your books.
BLOCK: Well, things get optioned. One problem is that I do books in series so it often leaves rights tied up one way or another to other books in the series. Especially if the contract was drawn up by an agent who didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.
ASPREY: In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film made of your work.
BLOCK: Well, Eight Million Ways To Die  isn’t very good and Burglar  isn’t very good, and a film called Nightmare Honeymoon , based on a book called Deadly Honeymoon, isn’t very good at all. And they’re the only ones that have been made, so….count your lucky stars.
ASPREY: It must be a nice feeling that you finally have a decent film adaptation coming out.
BLOCK: Yeah. You never know how anything will be received when it comes out, but I think it’s great.
ASPREY: Do you have the publishing rights to the Scudder book that’s just been adapted? Which book is it?
BLOCK: It’s A Walk Among the Tombstones . And remarkably I do have publishing rights to that one.
ASPREY: So how would you as a self-publisher now negotiate a movie tie-in edition? Do you have to worry about that?
BLOCK: Well, I can do it.
ASPREY: You can change the cover.
BLOCK: I’d have to get them to give us a still for the cover. Or I could do it without that. I could do it with type-setting.
ASPREY: “Now a major motion picture.”
BLOCK: Yeah. Is there any other kind?
ASPREY: Maybe you could tag those other books “Once a minor motion picture.”
BLOCK: I think we probably will self-publish the tie-in. It depends on distribution, if we can get it out as effectively. But I think so.
ASPREY: Apart from specialist mystery bookshops it must be very hard to get your self-published titles on the shelves.
BLOCK: In the ordinary course of things, yes. And for a film tie-in, actually, the most important place to get that out is airport newsstands and that sort of thing. My assistant is exploring to see how effectively we can do that. So if we can do that ourselves I’d be fine.
ASPREY: I guess people will buy it on Kindle if it’s easily available.
BLOCK: Yeah. And the book is available right now in our edition in trade paperback. We have done that through both CreateSpace and Lightning Source. All we would do is take the CreateSpace edition and slap a new cover on it.
ASPREY: Which is very easy to do.
BLOCK: Yeah. Actually there’s next to no work involved.
ASPREY: Who does your book design?
BLOCK: I have a woman who does the book production for me for ebooks—she’s brilliant at that—and she does the layout of the POD paperbacks as well. And as for covers, it varies. On some of them, especially short stories that I ePublish, or some of the slower backlist titles that I make eVailable (if you will), I’ll just pay four bucks for a stock photo and cobble it up myself. It’s not rocket science.
ASPREY: I know. I do the same for Contrappasso.
BLOCK: Well, exactly, so you know.
ASPREY: Very easy.
BLOCK: It’s fun, too.
ASPREY: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. I’m not a graphic designer but it’s fun every now and then to stop writing for a day and just do that.
BLOCK: Yeah, and you look at the early ones you’ve done and realize that you’ve learned a little since then.
ASPREY: In 2011 you did an ebook anthology of your stamp collecting columns, Generally Speaking: A Philatelic Patchwork. That’s exactly the kind of thing which I imagine would have been a hard sell to a publisher.
BLOCK: Oh, yeah. Conceivably Linns or one of those stamp publications might indeed have done it. I’ve never done anything more with it because you need illustrations and really that’s prohibitive. That starts costing and the hell with it. And even if they’re free, there’s the production of it.
ASPREY: But that’s what’s exciting—if you have an idea for a book, it’s very easy to just throw it together and send it out there instantly. Over the years you’ve written a lot of columns for writing magazines.
BLOCK: Most of those have been collected. When I started doing backlist titles with Open Road, an ePublishing house, I realized that there were enough uncollected columns for two more writing books and so I did it with them. I would probably have done it myself if the whole thing had come up about two years later. But at the time it certainly made sense to do it with them. And they’re available. I have other various non-fiction pieces that would fill one or two books that I may get around to sooner or later. But as I said it’s hard to delude myself that this is what the world requires most right now.
ASPREY: Still, it’d be nice to have all your stuff out there, eVailable.
BLOCK: Yeah. I may. And self-publishing with the print editions, too, is so easy now. I told you about my first self-publishing adventure which was Write for your Life. Well, that’s been out of print forever. Some years ago I got Morrow/HarperCollins to do it as an ebook. But that was never an ideal form for it because it’s something one refers to back and forth. It’s almost workbook in style. People who wanted it really wanted a print book. And I found out to what extent they really wanted a print book when I found the last twenty-five copies. They were literally lost, they were somewhere in a store room, and eventually they turned up. So I put them on eBay and I priced them not cheap—at $24.99. I mentioned it in a newsletter and I hit send and within three hours they were all gone. It was limited one to a customer. I have no idea how many people tried to order it after that because it was off eBay. I thought, “Gee, this probably should be in print.” And so my production goddess got busy with the file, and while she was at it she cobbled up a cover for me. And I put it on CreateSpace and now it’s on sale for a lot less, for $14.99. It’s easily affordable for anybody who wants it. I don’t know if it will set any sales records but it’s there and it’s available now as it was not. And that pleases me.
ASPREY: I guess there’s not any great capital investment in making it available.
LB: No! That’s it. I didn’t have to print five thousand books and store them in an attic and see if people will buy them.
ASPREY: It’s an exciting time.
BLOCK: Very much so.
ASPREY: Time for another cruise?