Stuff & Nonsense 021: Meet Me in the Alleyway
Welcome back! This week's been a bit of a blur - work, life, writing work/life has all been buzzing lately. All of it good, though I can't discuss everything...yet.
I've shuffled the newsletter format a bit, for those that appreciate that kind of thing. I'll do most of my musing up top, folowed by the week's interview and then close out with the links, as time permits. Just seems to flow better. I reserve the right to change my mind!
A few book things - you can now pre-order print editions of my two upcoming (via Polis Books) Pete Fernandez mysteries, Silent City and Down the Darkest Street. As you probably know, pre-orders make a huge difference for authors, so if you're interested in picking these up, feel free to reserve your copy now. Digital info, TK.
My short story "Lone" - featuring spot illustrations from friend and comic book artist Dennis Calero - is out in the wild as part of Thomas Pluck's mammoth collection, Protectors 2: Heroes. The book features an impressive cast of writers, including Harlan Ellison, Hilary Davidson, Angel Luis Colon and lots more. Plus, all proceeds go to a great cause.
On the events side, I am extremely proud of this:
Not just the Noir at the Bar Queens poster, though that was fun to put together. The lineup of authors reading at Astoria Coffee strikes me as a great mix of talents and it'll surely be a fun night. Come by to listen to some great crime fiction authors read from their latest books. You can also purchase them at the event, thanks to co-sponsor The Astoria Bookshop.
I wrote a bit about detectives series at Do Some Damage - from my POV as writer and reader. This was partially inspired by this excellent New Yorker spotlight on Michael Nava and his Henry Rios novels. I do think there's a story out there about detective series, showcasing a handful of characters and noting the changes they experience from first book to last. If my personal time wasn't about to take a deep cut due to some great news I'll share later this year, maybe I'd consider writing it.
Loved this Alexander Chee piece on authors and the growing demands of social media (mostly in the wake of slashed advertising budgets which, in turn, destroyed major review outlets). It's a really thoughtful story, especially when presented through the prism of #FerranteFever.
Reading it got me to thinking about my own social media presence and asking myself whether I think it's working. My answer: Maybe? I try to keep the channels I run as "vibrant" as I can - not just via promotional posts of my own work, but also by linking and sharing things that would appeal to readers of my books - including the work of other authors I admire or follow myself. This newsletter is a part of that. I don't think I'd do it if I didn't enjoy it, though there is a level of responsibility to maintaining something once you've gotten it rolling. One would hope that by creating a conversation with your followers/Likes/friends, you increase the chances of name recognition or familiarity leading to an actual purchase of your book. Which sounds crass, but I think it's fine as long as the journey - or engagement - is fulfilling enough. The translation to sales becomes secondary and icing on an already tasty cake.
On Todd Robinson's suggestion, I caught HBO's Tales of the Grim Sleeper documentary. It was pretty jarring, and eye-opening on many fronts - especially in terms of race relations and how crimes are dealt with in our country. The closest parallel would be Jill Leovy's excellent Ghettoside, which I talked about a lot during the early weeks of this newsletter.
The idea that this alleged killer could exist for decades, murdering prostitutes and transient women basically under the radar, without any recognition from the police or press, is frightening but sadly not surprising. The documentary, done in director Nick Broomfield's usual, "I'm just a guy wandering around talking to people" style, doesn't feel forced like some of his more celebrity-fueled films. If anything, you're left wondering about the final resolution and if there's more to cover, and realizing that even with a man behind bars, the gray areas left in the wake of these murders far outweigh the "We got him!" rhetoric of the LAPD.
One more thing: The Fade Out (which is ending with issue #12!) continues to be the best comic book out there. Brubaker, Phillips and Breitweister are masterful.
Okay, enough out of me - on to the interview!
"Let me know if you ever want to talk Donald Westlake."
Um, how does one say no to that?
This week's guest, Levi Stahl, is a man who wears many hats - like the one in his photo below. Editor, writer, promoter - that's a lot. I can relate to the guy. One hat involves reading a ton of Westlake novels, short stories and more. Could be worse, I think.
Scroll down for a candid, informative chat on all things Westlake with a dash of comics and more thrown in. Thanks to Levi for making time to do this. (Interview was edited for clarity, etc.)
Can you give the readers a brief Levi Stahl 101?
Pretty typical publishing/book person background: I came out of college with an English degree and no plan, but with the knowledge that I liked retail and was good at it--and, just as important, that I could support myself doing it. (Which was easier back in the mid-'90s, unquestionably.) So I started working in bookstores: a Books, Etc. in London for a while, then Great Expectations, a literary and scholarly store in Evanston, just north of Chicago. I learned a huge amount at that store about books, bookselling, and scholarly publishing, so when I decided it was time to think of something else, it's no surprise that scholarly publishing is where I looked. I was lucky enough to get in the door of the University of Chicago Press marketing department; sixteen years later, I'm happily still there. For the past four years, I've been the promotions director, overseeing about half our marketing department, including our publicists, and also getting to handle publicity for many of our top-tier general interest books. It's a great job for someone who likes talking about books: a big part of my job is, basically, trying to get people interested in what we're publishing, and genuine enthusiasm is key to making that work.
When did you first discover the work of Donald Westlake? When did it begin to stick with you?
Like so many good things in the crime fiction world in the past decade-plus, this can be laid squarely at Charles Ardai's door: I read the Hard Case Crime edition of Lemons Never Lie, the best of Westlake's novels about heister Alan Grofield. I was really impressed--but for some reason I didn't make the jump to then reading the Parker books.
That took a few more years, but once I did, it stuck immediately: I was one of the few people in the office the day before Thanksgiving in 2007, and, wandering around 57th Street Books on my lunch hour, I picked up Ask the Parrot, which would end up being the penultimate Parker novel. Since the holiday was impending and nothing was happening in the media or publishing world, I started reading it at my desk. Two hours later, when my wife came by to pick me up for the 300-mile drive to my parents' house, I had to renege on my promise to do the first driving shift: I had to finish that book first.
By Christmas, I'd snatched up a bunch of used copies of other Parker books and had started making the case to colleagues at Chicago that we should look into bringing the series back into print. By July, we had the first three on bookstore shelves and were getting grateful review attention.
What can you tell us about The Getaway Car, your recent nonfiction Westlake collection, and the upcoming The Legendary Detective?
The Getaway Car originated in the simple fact that working on the Parker books at Chicago led me deeper into Westlake's work, and also introduced me to a bunch of fans, and writers, who loved his work and were influenced by it. Ethan Iverson's annotated bibliography made me want to read all the rest of Westlake's books, while Trent Reynolds's Violent World of Parker introduced me to Westlake's extended analysis of the history of the fictional private eye, The Private Dicks. That essay--originally delivered as a talk at the Smithsonian--was so interesting, opinionated, and thoughtful that I began to wonder if there might be more like it out there, more examples of Westlake writing in his own voice, offering not the opinions of his various heisters and killers and ne'erdowells, but of himself.
And oh, was I pleased with what I found! Honestly, when I started, I thought there was a chance we'd have to pad the book with ancillary materials, or that we'd have a whole book, but some of it would be relatively weak. Instead, after a lot of library work and a couple of days going through Westlake's files, courtesy of his widow, Abby, I had enough interesting and varied material that I had to cut pieces that could very easily have been included. What I ended up with was, as the subtitle says, a real miscellany: some straight-up essays, a few introductions to other writers' books and to his own, a never before published fragment of autobiography, some wonderfully funny and insightful letters, even a brief memoir about listening to The Goon Show and a list of title ideas that he never used.
It's a heterogeneous mix, certainly, but what surprised me most was that the book nonetheless ended up quietly having a theme: the work of a writer who does that for a living, what it is and what it takes. Combine that with a lot of interesting, fairly analytical thought about his peers, mentors, and influences, and plenty of his trademark wit, and you've got a book I am really proud to have been involved with bringing to readers.
Now, shifting to my publicist's hat: The Legendary Detective actually makes a nice companion to Westlake's piece on private eye fiction. It's a work of nonfiction by John Walton that explores the intertwined histories of actual private detectives and their fictional counterparts, from the Pinkertons to Hammett and beyond. It's full of interesting details about the development of the industry and the myth, and the back-and-forth influences between the "true" accounts of real-world detectives and the fictional stories from pulp writers that drew on them. What I find particularly interesting (as someone who first learned about the Pinkerton Agency from a hagiographic kid's book, surely ancient, that I came across at the library as a boy) was seeing how people like Pinkerton seized on the glamorous image as, essentially, a marketing tool for work that was at best dull, at worst vaguely disreputable. Publicist's hat off again: as a crime fiction fan, I found it full of interesting stuff.
What is it about Westlake's work that makes him stand out, or cements him as a legend in his field?
To me, it comes down to a couple of fairly straightforward things. One was his attention to his prose. He was never showy, but he also never--I seriously think never, in 100 books--wrote bad sentences. He aimed at clarity and got it, every time. And that's reflective of another important characteristic: his unwavering belief in the value of hard, careful, attentive work. It's a value that's visible throughout his work, both in the writing itself and in the characters and plots. The Parker novels are ultimately novels about work, about a skilled craftsman doing his job; the problems tend to arise when someone gets lazy or sloppy or stupid. In Breakout, one of the heisters is surprised by how dedicated Parker is to preparation:
"Williams nodded, grinning. 'There’s always another detail, huh?'
'Sooner or later,' Parker said, 'you get to them all.'”
Life requires work; work should be done well. That's Westlake in a nutshell.
Then there's his serious interest in people, and particularly in their (our) darker sides. He had the insight early on that it's hard not to root for the protagonist of a book, even if he's a bad guy. We want Parker to succeed, even though he's a sociopath. Hell, in Two Much, we all but want the protagonist to succeed even though he's pretending to be twins in order to marry, then murder, a pair of twins. Seriously. Westlake loved pushing us just that little bit farther than we thought we'd be willing to go as readers, knowing there would be a point where we would stop and say, "Wait. Am I actually rooting for this guy?"
That interest also appears in Westlake's attention to individual motivations. The Parker books all have a middle section that offers the perspectives of a handful of other characters, and each one of them feels genuine: he's taken the time to think through what these characters would think of the situation in which they've found themselves, and what actions would result. It's another thing that sets Parker apart, too: he's as attentive to the psychology of the people around him as he is to any other detail.
Finally, there's the humor. Westlake was flat-out funny. Many of his books are as hard-boiled as it gets (though there's some sly humor even in a lot of those), but he wrote a lot of great comedies as well--and the very relationship between the hardness of the Parker series and the light comedy of the Dortmunder series says a lot about how Westlake viewed the world: it's essentially the same series, seen through two different lenses. In Parker's world, when things go wrong, people die. In Dortmunder's world, when things go wrong, Dortmunder shrugs, unsurprised.
Westlake's a master of plot twists, extremely prolific and a veteran of various sub-genres of crime and mystery - but what things have you learned, while working on these books, that most casual Westlake fans might not know?
One thing was that Westlake said he never plotted the books in advance, which--as someone who can't even begin to conceive of how to plot--amazes me. I keep bringing up Breakout, but it fits here, too: he has said he decided to write it because he realized he hadn't had Parker behind bars since the very start of the first book. So he put him in jail on page one, and started thinking about what Parker would do.
Another is about the business side of the writing life. What I learned from going through Westlake's files was that he was basically running a single-proprietorship business--that that's what you do if you're someone who makes his living with his pen. He had a form letter he would send if summoned for jury duty that essentially said: "I'm a writer, so I'm basically the sole employee of my own business. If I don't work, I don't get paid. Taking this time away from my desk would be a financial hardship." There's mountains of business correspondence, lots of back and forth with agents and publishers and interviewers and even fans. Oh, and there's the Hollywood side of it, too: I knew Westlake had written some screenplays and teleplays--from the epic bomb that was the show Supertrain to the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Jim Thompson's The Grifters--but I had no idea just how much of his time and income were tied up in that realm. The files were full of inquiries from agents about treatments, contracts for screenplays etc. And, in true Hollywood fashion, the majority of it just . . . evaporated, unproduced.
Do you have a favorite Westlake piece?
That's a tough one (which is good, right?). I love Butcher's Moon, the fourteenth Parker novel, because it seems to gather and in a way cap, and top, all the ones that have come before. But at the same time, it's uncharacteristic--and so is Parker within it, in a way that at one point startles the reader, and Parker's fellow heisters. And part of why I like it so much is that it's the culmination of a run of truly stupendous novels--The Sour Lemon Score, Deadly Edge, Slayground and Plunder Squad--that finds each one getting harder, darker, tighter, and more surprising. It's an incredible run.
The counterpart on the humorous side of the divide would be Drowned Hopes, the Dortmunder novel turned up to eleven. It's basically the story of what would happen if Dortmunder somehow had to deal with a Jim Thompson villain, someone relentless and sociopathic and obsessed, and the number of surprising, funny twists and turns is astonishing. By that point, Westlake had Dortmunder and his gang working at their best, their various quirks and characteristics playing off each other perfectly.
And I love the standalone Somebody Owes Me Money, which is related by a New York cabbie in an argot that is unforgettable. Here's the first paragraph: "I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn't so eloquent. That's always been my problem, eloquence, though some might claim my problem was something else again. But life's a gamble, is what I say, and not all the eloquent people in this world are in Congress."
Are there any other writers you could see yourself immersing yourself in this way, down the line?
It is a commitment, isn't it? And I've been lucky to see that commitment repaid with Westlake--not just with having a finished product that I could be proud of helping to make, but also with a great response from critics and fans, who almost to a one seem to have felt the same way I did when I got the whole thing finally assembled: Hey, what a great thing--a new book full of Donald Westlake's voice!
Is there another writer I could commit to that way? In a sense, I'm already committed to English writer Anthony Powell (who happens to also be published by Chicago--though I was a fan long before I joined the Press!), one of the leading lights of the generation of Waugh and Orwell. I've probably written 50,000 words or more on my blog about him over the years, and I've actually just contributed a foreword to the forthcoming Chicago edition of Powell's second novel, Venusberg, which was a real pleasure to write: it's a lot of fun to take 2500 words to try to explain to people why a book you like is interesting and good. I don't know that I've got any extended Powell-related projects similar to the Westlake book in mind, but he's definitely someone I would happily jump into working on more if an opportunity arose.
(Also: Westlake loved Powell, calling him at one point his favorite (then) living writer. It’s easy to see the appeal: they both shared a sense that human life was largely comic, and that people’s individual oddity was a subject of enduring interest. But as he said in an interview one of my colleagues conducted for the University of Chicago Press blog, "If I read too much Anthony Powell, my sentences gradually become longer and longer and less and less gainly."
Westlake also threw a telling reference to Powell into Plunder Squad: one of the heisters, a particularly weasely guy from the UK, is reading Powell's masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, and he notes that he finds himself identifying with Widmerpool--who, as any Powell fan would instantly know, is the decided villain of the novel.)
Any other stuff you're really enjoying lately?
On the farthest end of the spectrum, crime-fiction-wise, from Westlake, are the Brother Cadfael mysteries that Ellis Peters published from the late 1970s through her death in 1995, which I've only recently started reading. They're about a twelfth-century monk who solves murders (more than you would think might happen in and around a monastery!), and they offer similar pleasures to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books: a richly imagined world with satisfying characters that you can sink back into each time you open one.
I've also been falling more and more for Anthony Trollope lately. I love Dickens, but when you read Trollope, you realize ever more how Dickens's world is limited by his failure to understand--or, it seems, even to seriously attempt to understand--women, much less to treat them as people who might have interests, needs, thoughts, and aims similar to men's. Trollope, by contrast, offers a world full of men and women who are recognizable, fully human. And he's utterly reliable: there's no better writer to pack for a trip, because you know he'll engross you for many hours.
Also, Stefan Zweig. I knew little but his name before the Pushkin Press and NYRB Classics began bringing a lot of his stuff back into print, and I've really fallen for the short stories, with their wonderful depiction of a lost interwar Europe, and for his nonfiction. His book on Casanova (whose memoirs are an absolute delight) is really insightful and engaging, and I cannot wait for his book on Montaigne, which Pushkin is publishing in November.
Finally, from the world of comics: I've been enjoying Marvel's Secret Wars much, much more than I expected. I have a lot of faith in Jonathan Hickman, having been pleased with his Fantastic Four and really enjoyed the long, long buildup to this story over the past couple of years in Avengers and New Avengers. But . . . well, a major crossover that entails the destruction of the Marvel Universe--for a comics reader who primarily loves the medium for the long-running soap opera aspects of serial narrative? Well, that was a hard sell. Yet it's working. They're building their story on the characters, whose actions are surprising, yet entirely convincing, even inevitable, as soon as we see them. I have no idea how they'll wrap this up, or what the Marvel Universe will look like when they do, but it's been some of the most satisfying reading of my nearly thirty years of reading superhero comics.
What else are you working on? Anything else you'd like to mention?
I'm actually in the middle of trying to figure out whether there might be a way to edit a selected volume from the notebooks of English writer Penelope Fitzgerald. Her nine slim novels and three biographies are favorites of mine--beautifully written, full of powerful, aphoristic insights into human life and emotions. As a fan of writer's notebooks (Powell's and F. Scott Fitzgerald's being a pair that I return to all the time), I was intrigued by quotes from them that Hermione Lee included in her biography last year; that led me to spend a couple of days at the Harry Ransom Center going through them. Now I'm in the midst of transcribing and trying to figure out what's there, and what might be possible. (There's a lot of good stuff already that I am having to resist sharing on Twitter!) I'm at least moderately hopeful about the prospects--stay tuned!
And I'm not practicing the piano enough. My teacher is patient, but seriously. I should go do that right now.
Hop to it! Thanks for skipping piano to talk Westlake!
Another rave review for Chris Holm's The Killing Kind - this time from NPR! Get this book, will you? I'll wait. Ok, welcome back. Now read this interview between Holm and The Life Sentence Editor Katrina Niidas Holm (who also happens to be his wife!). You've done yourself two favors today!
Thanks to Megan Abbott for sharing this disturbing true crime tale: The Murder House.
Speaking of Megan, here's a great piece she wrote on why women read crime fiction, timed to the release of Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s.
I very much enjoyed Jordan Foster's visual guide to Calum Maclean's "Glasgow Trilogy" novels.
A site that lists every filming location for The Rockford Files is worth visiting, no?
How early forensics helped solve England's "Jugsaw Murders" case.
"I was childhood friends with a cold-blooded killer."
#longread - How America fails the missing and unidentified.
As someone who loves Heat and most of his movies, this Michael Mann Q&A was a treat.
Can DNA evidence solve the 1984 murder of a 14-year-old San Diego girl?
Happy birthday, Lauren Bacall.
That's a wrap. See you next time!