Lawrence Block has followed many paths during his long career.
“Not a few dead ends among them,” notes the mystery novelist.
Best known for his Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr series, Block has published dozens of popular books via Harper Collins and Dutton among other mainstream publishers. He has received several Edgar Awards and Anthony Awards for Outstanding Fiction, and his Lifetime Achievement Honors include the Diamond Dagger of the British Crime Writers’ Association and Grand Master status in the Mystery Writers of America.
But he has also produced dozens of works under other names, by publishers and publications long forgotten and, in some cases, of questionable legality. More recently, he has published the books himself, including “Dead Girl Blues” and Rhodenbarr’s novel “The Burglar In Short Order”, both released in 2020, and his current work, the memoir “A Writer Prepares”.
“One of the great advantages of self-publishing is how quickly it can be managed. I can cut the wait time by at least a year if I post something myself, ”he explains.
“The downside is not to be ignored. Self-published books are rarely reviewed and hardly ever appear in bookstores. “Dead Girl Blues” didn’t make me rich, and neither did “A Writer Prepares”. But nothing I write will do that, no matter who publishes it, and whatever I publish myself forever remains available in electronic and print editions, and probably finds the audience it deserves.
Block is a longtime resident of Greenwich Village, fully vaccinated and back outside, enjoying a nice big plate of Brussels sprouts in a recent interview at a favorite cafe. Passers-by and fellow diners don’t seem to notice anything special about this bald, plain-dressed man with the gravelly voice, though at least some are likely familiar with his books.
“A Writer Prepares” is a bit of an unfinished business for Block, who turns 83 this summer and first worked on memoirs in the 1990s, during “a positively feverish week” at an artist retreat from Illinois. But he had other plans at the time and left the memoir in a kraft paper envelope in a cupboard near his desk. When he discovered the manuscript last year, he gave it another look and was pleased with what he saw.
In “A Writer Prepares,” Block looks back on his childhood in Buffalo, New York, when he was his biggest skeptic. In Grade 11 English, she was assigned an article on what her future profession might be. His theme was “uncertainty,” he recalls. He said he would never realize his father’s dream of becoming a doctor, and his early desire to become a garbage collector ended when his mother told him the job was fine for him.
He ended the piece with a warning: “On re-reading this composition, one thing becomes clear. I can never be a writer.
Replied his teacher, Miss Jepsen, who gave him an A: “I wouldn’t be too sure.”
Block attended Antioch College, the setting for his extra-pulpy novel “Campus Tramp,” but never graduated and eventually settled in New York City. Ambitious and prolific, he undertakes the kind of assignments that are not generally discussed in the writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa or proposed by the Revue de Paris.
Before “Lawrence Block” became a publishing brand, it was introduced to readers like Anne Campbell Clark, or Chip Harrison, or Jill Emerson, or Sheldon Lord. He has written erotic and lesbian novels, called himself Dr Benjamin Morse as he was completing “Sexual Surrender in Women” and, like John Warren Wells, did a field research titled “Tricks of the Trade: A Hooker’s Handbook ”. He wrote for magazines that cut his stories, change the title or rename a character. He might submit a story under a pen name and find out that it has been replaced by another.
“A Writer Prepares” captures a pre-internet, pre-big shop business that included publications such as Manhunt, Trapped and Keyhole, and some institutions that only the most cynical writer would have imagined on his own. Block worked briefly as a copy reader for the Scott Meredith literary agency, whose founder was as elusive as his business ethics.
“Every letter we wrote was designed to manipulate and was launched with cavalier disregard for the truth,” Block writes. “My honorary reports applauded the talent of writers who showed no talent, condemned story plots with perfectly satisfying plots, and were written for the singular purpose of getting poor mooch to submit a another story and pay another tax.
When Meredith passed away, Block recalls in her interview, fellow author Evan Hunter called some friends and exclaimed, “Isn’t that wonderful, Scott is dead ?! Isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever heard ?! “
Block’s memoir captures New York from the late 1950s to the early 1960s when they were both stimulating and affordable, allowing a young writer to start a family there. The city has long been part of his work. Some readers consider “Eight Million Ways to Die,” perhaps his most famous Scudder novel, to be one of the great books on New York. Matthew Scudder lives in downtown Manhattan, but his business takes him all over the city, to homes that honest citizens would be urged not to visit.
“I like to move around the city,” says Block. “Until the pandemic my wife and I would have something: on Sunday we would search a bit and find an ethnic restaurant in an outside neighborhood that we hadn’t known and how to get there. . It was a treat once a week. “
His memories lead to the mid-1960s, to what he calls the end of his “apprenticeship”, the publication of his novel “The Thief Who Could Not Sleep”. It was the start of his mysterious Evan Tanner series, about a Korean War veteran who, due to his injuries, suffers from permanent insomnia. Block calls it the first book he could have written, a break from the “derivative work” of his early years and the beginning of the kinds of novels he knew he was supposed to write.
“The stakes are higher (in a mystery novel) than in a novel where the main plot point is, ‘Will this professor get a job?’” He said with a smile.
He quotes a writer friend who is “an avid reader. And she has a book that she reads and she always reads to sleep at night. And for centuries the book she settles in to bed with has to be a mystery because at that time of day, she says, she has to read something that she knows will be resolved in the end – which I found interesting. “