Crime novelist Donald Westlake is a man of many aliases—Samuel Holt, Tucker Coe, Curt Clark, pseudonyms picked up over the course of 100-odd published books—but two names stand out, his own and Richard Stark. As Westlake, he mostly writes comic caper novels, notably his half-dozen books about luckless criminal John Dortmunder. As Stark, he's created one of the noir genre's most definitive antiheroes in the cold-hearted master thief Parker. His books have been filmed many times, including the well-regarded Point Blank in 1967, and he was nominated for an Oscar for his 1990 adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Grifters. His latest book is a new Stark novel, Ask The Parrot, which picks up Parker on the run from the law after the disastrous bank heist of the previous Nobody Runs Forever. Recently, Westlake talked with The A.V. Club about making it up as he goes, getting into his characters, and the crooks who read his books.
The A.V. Club: When you were starting out as a writer, you wrote science fiction as well as crime.
Donald Westlake: I was writing everything. I grew up in Albany, New York, and I was never any farther west than Syracuse, and I wrote Westerns. I wrote tiny little slices of life, sent them off to The Sewanee Review, and they always sent them back. For the first 10 years I was published, I'd say, "I'm a writer disguised as a mystery writer." But then I look back, and well, maybe I'm a mystery writer. You tend to go where you're liked, so when the mysteries were being published, I did more of them. Science fiction is a weird category, because it's the only area of fiction I can think of where the story is not of primary importance. Science fiction tends to be more about the science, or the invention of the fantasy world, or the political allegory. When I left science fiction, I said "They're more interested in planets, and I'm interested in people."
AVC: What drew you to writing about crime?
DW: If your subject is crime, then you know at least that you're going to have a real story. If your subject is the maturing of a college boy, you may never stumble across a story while you're telling that. But if your story is a college boy dead in his dorm room, you know there's a story in there, someplace.
AVC: What do you think you might have ended up doing had you not made it in the fiction business?
DW: I shudder to think. I have no known marketable skills.
AVC: Is it true that your father wanted you to be an architect?
DW: Yeah. The only thing I learned from that is keep the bathroom and the kitchen near each other, so you don't have to run pipes all over the place. [Laughs.] I don't think I would have been a good architect. Really, I have thought about this from time to time, and I might have wound up like my father, who never did find that which he could devote his life to. He sort of drifted from job to job. He was a traveling salesman, he was a bookkeeper, he was an office manager, he was here, there, there. And however enthusiastic he was at the beginning, his job would bore him. If I hadn't had the writing, I think I might have replicated what he was doing, which would not have been good.
AVC: The architect idea was interesting because of—this might be a stretch—your skill at structuring plots.
DW: I think that comes from it being invented on the fly. I'm one of the narrative-push people. I don't outline, I don't plan ahead. So I'm my first reader, telling myself the story as I'm going along. Since I haven't designed it ahead of time, each day I have to be sure that the footing is solid before I make the next step. I think you could be more intricate if you work it out ahead of time.
AVC: What is your typical work day like?
DW: I get up at a normal hour, and it's two or three hours at the desk in the morning, beginning with looking at what I did yesterday and making any changes in it, then using that springboard to go forward. And then usually an hour or two in the afternoon. The thing that I prefer, when I'm working on a book, is to do a seven-day week, because it's easy to lose some of the details of what you're doing along the way. Years ago, I heard an interview with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The interviewer said, "Do you still practice?" And he said, "I practice every day." He said, "If I skip a day, I can hear it. If I skip two days, the conductor can hear it. And if I skip three days, the audience can hear it." Oh, yes, you have to keep that muscle firm.
AVC: Do you ever have trouble with writer's block?
DW: I don't think so. It's different when you make it up as you go—that means you're going to get stuck. I wouldn't call it writer's block, I'd say, "I don't know where the hell this story is going." And that can go on for two, three weeks, during which I become increasingly difficult to live with. But then I either find where it's going to go, or I find what I did wrong 20 pages ago that made the trouble form. But I know people who have suffered writer's block, and I don't think I've ever had it. A friend of mine, for three years he couldn't write. And he said that he thought of stories and he knew the stories, could see the stories completely, but he could never find the door. Somehow that first sentence was never there. And without the door, he couldn't do the story. I've never experienced that. But it's a chilling thought.
AVC: Your books are often about the difference between a professional and an amateur, especially the Parker series—the ending of Ask The Parrot addresses that point directly.
DW: Yes. Around the time the first series ended, I finally figured out what the series was about. It's about a man doing his job. He's just a workman.
AVC: And the Dortmunder series is also about professionalism, in a different way.
DW: This sounds like a joke, but in a way, I mean it straight: Dortmunder's the most realistic stuff I do. Stark is much more of a romantic. The example that I've given in the past is, whenever anybody else's gang goes to rob a bank, there's always a place to park out front, but when Dortmunder goes to rob a bank, he has to park two blocks away and walk back. I submit that that's much more realistic.
AVC: One school of thought says that "American crime novel" is essentially a working-class genre.
DW: I think it is. The British were doing [crime stories] first, but the British thing is a very different thing. There, the stories are about restoring a break in the fabric of society. The American thing has never been worrying about breaks in the fabric of society, but about people doing their job, whether it's police procedurals or criminals or whatever. Yeah, that is working-class. Although there's another thing—years ago, there was a director who going to make a movie from a Richard Stark novel. It never happened, but in our discussions at one point he said, "You know, you write like a Frenchman." I said, "What does that mean?" He said, "In American mystery novels, the bank robber robs the bank to pay for the operation for the little girl in the wheelchair. In French novels, the bank robber robs banks because he robs banks. You write like a Frenchman." I said, "I'll take it."
AVC: There's also something in the American noir that comes out of the Western.
DW: One of our continuing myths was summed up in Huckleberry Finn: Our escape, what we think of as our escape, is that we can always light out for the territories. Well, we really can't, not anymore, but that's part of the American character—that belief that at any moment, I could just drop the coffee cup and disappear. And it makes for a different self-image and a different story, in a way.
AVC: Parker fits into that idea pretty neatly, because he has dropped everything to live as he does.
DW: He lit out to the territories years ago. It's so difficult, particularly with an antisocial character. It's much easier if he's already a blank page, but once you've written on him, it's hard to keep him that stripped down.
AVC: Is that why Parker is still such an enigma? It's more than 20 novels into the series now, and we still don't know his first name.
DW: Well, he wasn't supposed to be a series. He was supposed to be one book, and if he was only going to be in one book, I didn't worry about it. And then an editor at Pocket Books said "Write more books about him." So I didn't go back at that point and give him a first name. If I'd known he would've been a series, I would've done two things differently. First, I would've given him a first name—I don't know what the hell it would be, maybe Frank—but I probably wouldn't have named him Parker, because that means for 27 books, I've had to find some other way to say, "Parker parked the car."
AVC: There's nothing really stopping you, even now, from giving him a childhood or a first name, or writing a story about his past.
DW: I've never felt the need. And after a while, if I would try to go back, I would start running into contradictions of time. Y'know, how old is he now, and when was he 5 years old? Was he already in the books when he was 5 years old? It would be difficult to make the time thing work. It's also the same with Dortmunder. They were both older than me when they started, and they're younger than me now. This is a fairly common thing for a series character. You know, Nero Wolfe never aged. Nor dieted. The thing about Parker, the first book was supposed to be a one-shot, and I originally had him arrested at the end of the first book. So when this editor said "Can he get away at the end?" I had to really think about it, because I hadn't given him any reader-friendly qualities at all. And just last summer, I finally met John Boorman, who directed Lee Marvin in Point Blank, and he told me that when they started, Marvin said he didn't care about the story—he had never seen that character before, and he wanted to play that character. The story didn't matter.
AVC: You seem like a pretty friendly guy, but the two characters you're best known for are a curmudgeon and a ice-cold, almost machine-like robber. Do you find it difficult to tap into them as you're writing?
DW: For a long while, I found Parker impossible. He went away for 23 years. I tried to bring him back a few times, and I sort of figured out where he came from, why he went away, and why he came back. Dortmunder is somehow easy. If we look through life alternately viewing it with pride and with alarm, he's almost always viewing with alarm. And so when Dortmunder gets up and says, "Well, I wonder what's going to go wrong today," I'm the one who can tell him. I'll always find something. He's very easy to go with. The thing that I have to tap into for Parker is in some way the outsider. If I can tap into the outsider, I can write about Parker, and if I can't, I can't.
AVC: You kind of stay outside Parker even when you're writing from his perspective. His emotions are never directly described. It's never "Parker got angry," it's "Parker reached for his gun."
DW: That also comes out of the very beginning. The third book I did under my own name, before I did any comic novels, I wanted to try an experiment. There are a couple of writers I admired who were very good at giving the character's emotion without stating what that emotion was. Not saying "He was feeling tense," instead saying, "His hand squeezed harder on the chair arm," as if staying outside the guy. I wanted to try doing that. I wanted to have a really emotional story in which the characters' emotions are never straight-out told to you, but you get it. The first Parker novel was written right around the same time, sort of doing that again. It was a deliberate attempt to leave the emotional statement alone.
AVC: Do you have a feeling for what kind of person forms your readership? Who do you think reads your books?
DW: I can give you an old answer, but I can't give you a new answer. In the first batch of them, back in the '60s and '70s, the criminal class was still literate, so I would get letters from people in prison; they thought that I was somebody whom they could shop-talk with, and they would tell me very funny stories. I got a lot of those. Guys who were going to wind up doing 10 to 15 for bank robbery, yes, were reading my books. [Laughs.] I think they were planning to be criminals before I came along. But the other thing that I got back then—the Parker novels have never had much of anything to do with race. There have been a few black characters here and there, but the first batch of books back then, I got a lot of letters from urban black guys [in their] 20s, 30s, 40s. What were they seeing that they were reacting to? And I think I finally figured it out—at that time, they were guys who felt very excluded from society, that they had been rejected by the greater American world. And here was a guy who had rejected this society, and I think they liked to read him for that. Who's reading it now? I don't know. I do bookstore signings, and it seems to me that I get a variety of men and women, more women than I'd expect, and grown-ups. Dortmunder gets younger people than Stark does.
AVC: There's a little more humor in Ask The Parrot than is typical in the Parker novels.
DW: My wife says in Richard Stark's world, the honest citizens are goofy. [Laughs.] Okay, they are. I don't know if it's good or bad, but because he's outside his own world, it sort of freed up the environment around him to be a little more looser and goofier… It's funny, because this book follows immediately on the heels of the one before it, Nobody Runs Forever, and my West Coast agent a couple weeks ago said, "Are you intending to write a trilogy, and bring the other characters from the first two books back?" And I said, "No, certainly not, I never would do a thing like that." Then I remembered that actually, the first five books in the series, from The Hunter/Point Blank up to The Score, were really working out the ramifications of the original story. I could see that these two are [similar]. In fact, what I'm doing right now is trying to figure out what is the third element of it—the first story being the robbery, and the second story is the flight from the robbery, and then what would the third story be that would close out that thing? In a funny way, the stories keep themselves alive by emerging from one another. I like that.
AVC: You were nominated for an Oscar for The Grifters, and recently, you also adapted Patricia Highsmith in Ripley Under Ground.
DW: Actually, I did that work in '92 and '93. I haven't seen [the finished film], and I don't know anybody who's seen it. It doesn't have an American distributor. I don't know at all what the movie is, but it was very interesting work, because Highsmith is so bizarre.
AVC: Thompson and Highsmith both have very distinctive styles. When you're adapting other writers' material, how do you approach keeping their voices and still make it a Westlake story?
DW: I try to remain true to it. I've been on both sides of it, I've had stuff of mine adapted by other people, so I've come to the conclusion that a movie is a different form from a novel and there is no such thing as a true adaptation. You have to adapt to this other thing and do it right. But that voice of the original should somehow still be there, and the original intent should still be there. So if the original writer saw the movie, the writer would say, "Well, that's not what I wrote, but that's what I meant." And if you can do that, I think you've done your job as a screenwriter.
AVC: How is your health? You had some eye problems recently that slowed down your writing.
DW: Last year was the year of the eye. It was a lot of operations, starting in January and ending in December. And at the end of the day, the right eye is better than it was, and the left eye is worse. But I can write, I can drive, I can read, and I never did play golf, so I'm okay. Actually, I didn't get much done during that year, because the whole thing was a physical distraction. Writing is flat, so if you only have part of one eye working, you still can do the job. It's just that you sit there and you're angry, which doesn't help. [Laughs.]