S.J. Rozan Interviews Robert B. Parker From the 92nd St. YMCA, New York on 17 October, 2000 Webcast Premiere October 24, 2000
Transcript provided by Gerald So and posted with permission.
ROZAN Mr. Parker has been referred to as the "Dean of American Crime Fiction," and he's the author of the Spenser private eye series and two other series--one featuring small-town cop Jesse Stone and the other Boston private eye Sunny Randall. He was also called upon by the Raymond Chandler estate to finish Chandler's unfinished novel POODLE SPRINGS, and after that he wrote PERCHANCE TO DREAM, a sequel to THE BIG SLEEP. He was born and raised in Massachusetts and lives in the Boston area. His doctoral thesis, which we'll get to in a minute, was about the evolution of the American hero, beginning with the colonial period and ending with twentieth-century crime writers. He married his wife Joan in 1956. They have two sons, David and Daniel. He began the Spenser novels in 1971, while teaching at Northeastern. It's been said he single-handedly revived an almost moribund form, the private eye novel, and so many people are so very glad you did. (Laughs.) And most of them are here.
RBP All of them.
ROZAN (Laughs.) Let's start with the issue of your thesis because this fascinates me.
RBP Gee, I don't remember my thesis. I spent two weeks on it, don't think I would.
ROZAN Who among us would? But something must have intrigued you then, and when you started you novels, and still, about the private eye as a manifestation of the American hero. What would that be?
RBP That's hard. Joan? Part of the answer is that I read Raymond Chandler early and often, and wanted to be Marlowe. Okay, so I fell a little short. The choice of the doctoral dissertation subject was largely practical. I'd done all the reading.
In fact I wrote my doctoral dissertation in two weeks, in December, Christmas vacation. Teaching is too strong a word for whatever it was I did at Northeastern University. I was once introduced in Minneapolis by a former student who was a reporter for a Minneapolis newspaper, and he said "I am a former student of Mr. Parker's, and therefore self-educated."
Doctoral dissertations are to be done so they'll leave you alone, and you can go take a professorship so you can write. Marlowe interested me, and the autonomous, unsinkable figure of an independent man who lived life on his own terms interested me. So, I tried to copy Chandler--and then after somebody started publishing my novels--I thought, "My God, I don't have to copy Chandler. I can do this." So I did.
ROZAN You, in fact, have been credited with reviving that form.
RBP Just doing my job.
ROZAN Yeah, right. Somebody once said to me, complaining, said, "You know, the trouble with Parker is everybody thinks he's God, and he is God."
RBP It's a heavy burden. (Laughs.) There are several people in this room, in the back, who know that I'm not, by the way.
ROZAN Don't tell. When you did revive the form--when you brought it forward into the second half of the twentieth century--you also changed it in significant ways. I want to talk about two of those ways, or maybe more. One, of course, is Susan. You gave the private eye, you gave Spenser, a permanent and monogamous love interest, and what that removed from the private eye story was a tool that's been available and in use since THE MALTESE FALCON (and) I THE JURY--the woman who sweeps the detective off his feet and then turns out to be a bad guy. What was the tradeoff? What did you gain by bringing Susan into Spenser's life, and what did you lose?
RBP You win some, you lose some, don't you? Well, you give me too much credit for foresight and planning. I haven't got a clue what the hell I'm doing. I'm on page 208 of the next Spenser novel--POTSHOT--available at your local bookstore in March at a ridiculously low price, and I don't know what's going to happen on page 209.
The appearance of Susan is I guess attributed to the fact that Joan and I have been together since 1950, since we were seventeen, and it has been the single event in my life. There have been three single events, Joan and then the two boys. I don't think I could spend very much time writing if I didn't get to the central fact of my life, which was Joan, and so she's there. I never thought about the swap-off, and now that you mention it, I wish I'd thought of it.
ROZAN Well, everybody in this room will be sworn to secrecy, and everybody will say that you did think of it.
RBP Yes, I did, and I chose Joan instead. How 'bout it, kid?
ROZAN Let's move from Susan to Hawk. Before you, private eyes didn't have sidekicks, either. They were absolutely alone, and it's been said that Hawk isn't really Spenser's sidekick. He's Spenser's own dark side. Is that true, and if that isn't true, who is he really, and what's his function? (Laughs.) This is the defense of the thesis.
RBP My doctoral defense?
ROZAN You know, other people are sitting right now writing their doctorates on your books. Isn't that horrifying?
RBP Yeah, I know. Get a life. It's like the old Groucho Marx joke "I wouldn't take a PhD from a university that would give it to me."
Hawk is--I'm trying to think, and it's hard for me. Hawk is--in fact, the racial pun is intended--in part the dark side of Spenser. There is a whole hypothesis about American literature--that probably emerged out of D.H. Lawrence's STUDIES IN CLASSIC AMERICAN LITERATURE--that the white male hero has a nonwhite male companion. That evolved so frequently, in both what Arnold would've called "high culture" and what somebody else calls pop culture, that it probably works as an archetype Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo, Queequeg and Ishmael, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Huck and Jim, Bill Cosby and Robert Culp. Leslie Fiedler in LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL, which was really long, suggests that this is probably a repressed homoeroticism and that the racial divide between the two keeps the homoeroticism from emerging. I find the white-nonwhite male companionship interesting; I have no particular suspicion that it's homoerotic. I want to say this about Mr. Fiedler. I think he was wrong about that. And if you see him, you tell him I said that, and you explain to him who the hell I am.
But I was aware of that when I introduced Hawk. He started out to be a worthy adversary. Then in the next novel, THE JUDAS GOAT, available in paperback, Spenser needed help, needed some backup, and Hawk seemed the logical choice. And then he sort of seemed the logical choice again and again. I don't think of him as a sidekick. I think of him as an independent contractor where, in another world, Spenser might be his sidekick. Hawk has a little something to say about this in A CATSKILL EAGLE to Rachel Wallace. "Don't sidekick me," he said. I think at the time he was doing handstand pushups and talking.
Spenser has certain Renaissance romanticisms--honor, all of that sort of thing--which I think probably in America white males have more time for. Minority groups of all sort--people who have been powerless at one time or another--I think are more practical and spend less time worrying about it. It doesn't mean that there is not a point at which tribal organizations require a machismo response. But Hawk is beyond all that. Hawk has dealt with American racism by ignoring it. He is neither honorable nor dishonorable, neither angry nor not angry. He does what needs to be. You need somebody shot, he shoots.
Shiek Mahmud-Bey--who played Hawk in the first of the Spenser A&E movies we've done--asked me once when he came onboard if I could give him insight into Hawk's character. He had read the books, which put him ahead of anybody in the television series. It's not their fault; their lips got tired.
Shiek said, "Can you give me a little tip on Hawk?"
I said, "Hawk's magical." You need psychotherapy, he can do that. You need somebody's leg broken, he can do that. You need to know where there's a good restaurant, he can tell you. He does whatever he needs to be able to do, and he does it without any particular concern about larger issues. He's the eminently practical man, and he is what Spenser might have been had Spenser grown up a minority figure in a majority culture.
ROZAN Would you consider writing a book with Hawk as the main character?
RBP No, I can't get inside Hawk. I can see Hawk through Spenser's eyes, but I wouldn't attempt to see Hawk through Hawk's eyes. There was a brief attempt made to do that on television. in the abysmal "A Man Called Hawk." I didn't do it. Not my fault. They didn't know what to do with it. The writers, all of whom were white, were asking me questions like "Where does Hawk live?"
I said, "He doesn't live anyplace."
They said, "He's gotta be someplace."
I said, "Well, the camera can pick him up in the street."
But they put him in a home, which I believe an unkind critic referred to as a museum of African art. From there, it went much worse. They fired the white writers and tried some black writers, and proved once again my hypothesis of equality. Black writers are just as dismal as the white writers. If you're writing episode television, it's probably not because you prefer to. It was a hideous event, which is too bad. When "Spenser For Hire" got cancelled, which was for reasons having to do with money--there's a surprise--ABC wanted to capitalize on Hawk's popularity, so they went to Warners, who had put on "Spenser For Hire," and they made a deal to do Hawk, and Warners was quite happy about that.
Finally somebody in Business Affairs said, "Go get that contract with Parker for the rights to Hawk."
And they didn't have one. So, they had a deal, and they had an actor, and they had a series scheduled, and they didn't have the rights to the character. Ho, ho, ho. It is very pleasant to be the one who's got you, rather than the one who's being gotten. So, we made a hell of a deal, obviously.
Avery called me when it was all completed and said, "What do you think, man?"
I used to try to deep-off with Avery, and I never got anywhere. But he's doing his James Earl Jones impression now on, what is it, IBM ads? He's a marvel. Avery's quite an interesting man, by the way. He's a singer and jazz pianist, a professor of African theater, and a lot of stuff. But one of his instruments is that remarkable voice. He called me up on the phone, and he didn't have to say, "This is Avery." I knew who that was.
He said, "What do you think, man?"
Avery went to Oberlin College, by the way. He's a professor, but he likes that "down-home" stuff he does now and then. He likes to be street occasionally.
"What do you think, man?"
And I said, "Well, what I think, Avery, is that we need two things to make this series you and me. I've got the rights to the character, and you play the character. We don't need Warner Bros.," which would have been even more fun. My view, after several years' experience, is that nobody needs Warner's. For anything. But Avery didn't want to get involved in hiring people to do it, so he persisted, and it was a disaster.
But I think the biggest single cause of its disaster--aside from the ineptitude of everyone involved in it--was that it tried to look at Hawk by himself, not through anyone's eyes. The people hired to try and do that couldn't. I wouldn't attempt it myself. I look at him from the outside, through the white eyes of Spenser, not from the inside through whatever eyes he might have.
ROZAN If he's that magical figure, you almost can't look at him alone.
RBP That's correct because then he becomes too real.
ROZAN I want to talk about PERISH TWICE, the second book in the Sunny Randall series, available right outside. I told Mr. Parker this before; I have to tell you all. In this book I found Sunny Randall completely convincing as a woman. I found the voice completely authentic. Since I write half the time in a man's voice, I was looking for this. I'm sensitive to it, and I thought it was terrific. I also have to say that Sunny's sister Elizabeth is one of the great want-to-strangle-them characters in crime literature. Every time she came on the page, I wanted to jump in there, push Sunny out of the way, and say, "Just punch her in the nose. Like this." What I want to know is, how do you do that? How did you nail these women?
RBP Talent. I'm really good at this. In a more serious vein--but seriously, folks--I don't think I would've undertaken Sunny Randall if Joan weren't there to help me. She would read each week's output and help me with some of the mundane "Bob, we don't call that 'rouge' anymore."
What I hate when I mention that, is that guys laugh, too. Like I'm the only human being on the planet who still uses the word "rouge."
Some of it was more complicated What is the female reaction to looking at a man? I know what a man's reaction is to looking at a female, and I know with what language, and I know how it affects you. I needed Joan's insight into that in order to do anything. Joan said it was hard for her 'cause she's never looked at another man, but...
ROZAN Let's just move right on here.
RBP Because I have been intimate with a woman in a way that I have never been intimate with an African American person, although some of my best friends are black, I can say that those things which unite us are far more significant than those things which divide us. Part of what I did was think about it "What if I were a woman? How would that affect me?" And then I would check it with Joan. As I say, I'm not sure I'd have undertaken it...Oh, yeah, I would. They were offering me a hell of a lot of money. Of course, I'd have undertaken it; I wouldn't have done it as well without Joan's help.
ROZAN The Sunny Randall character was famously commissioned by Helen Hunt, who was looking for a mature adult role, which is not all that easy to find for a woman. Did that affect your approach to the character?
RBP I'll give you a little background on it, 'cause it's kind of fun. This is not a clever ploy to avoid your question, but it may work.
Joan and I were in L.A. the year Helen was winning the Academy Award for whatever reason in whatever year that was. We get a call from John Calley, who's the CEO at Sony Pictures, whom I had met in another capacity some years ago, and he said, "If we said a car over for you, will come in and talk deal with Helen Hunt?"
And I said what I always say "Sure!" I don't go to the movies, and I never watch television except ballgames and "Law & Order." I can talk along with the reruns now. My lips move with Mike Logan's. So, I get off the phone, and I say to Joan, "Who's Helen Hunt?" She gave me the look that she's given me so often over these past fifty years. A look I've come to expect half the time.
We went over the old MGM lot in Culver City, and we went into the Irving Thalberg Building up to the former office on Louis B. Mayer. We've lived in houses smaller than Louis B. Mayer's former office and much less expensive. We met with Helen and with Amy Pascal--who's the head of Columbia, where Helen has a production company--and with John Calley. We had a lot of talk about it. The upshot of it, after like three hours, was that I would write a novel, that Putnam would publish it--brilliantly, I might add--and that Sony would buy it. They did that brilliantly, too.
So, I did, and they did, and they did. But the deal was--and I told them at the beginning--"This is not a screenplay. I don't do twenty drafts. I'm not going to show this to you until it's published or accepted for publication. You can make whatever suggestions you want, but I probably will ignore them entirely. I do agree to make Sunny 5'6" or 7", blonde, and slender--somebody that Helen Hunt could play, but other than that I'm going to write a novel, and you're going to buy it," which by contract they had to do.
So, the answer in brief is "No." Other than creating a character that could be played by Helen Hunt, I didn't pay any attention to it. It's hard enough, as you well know, just to get it onto the page, without thinking about it in terms of "And will it make a good film?" So, I just typed away, and it had no effect. Never does. The series had no effect on my writing, the six times we've done movies about Spenser on television had no effect on me as a novelist. I just pay no attention to that, and I consciously try not to pay any attention to it. Novels are novels. None at all.
ROZAN The Spenser-Susan-Hawk thing is echoed in the Sunny-Richie-Spike thing. Do Richie and Spike serve the same purposes in those books? Spike, interestingly, for those of you who haven't read these books yet...
RBP And we know who you are.
ROZAN Spike is, in a sense, Sunny's enforcer the way Hawk is, and Spike is gay, which is a fairly unique persona for an enforcer in a crime novel. Do they serve the same--?
RBP By and large, yes. They define Sunny. In some ways, Sunny has a problem Spenser doesn't have--that most women have--in that if you need a piano moved, you probably want someone bigger than you are to move it. Sunny is less likely to win in a punch-out with a 240-pound thug. Sunny has to rely more on quickness, guns, so forth, and the heavy-duty work would go to Spike or to Richie, who himself is part of a mob family, though he is--as far as any of us know--not in the mob. The presence of the mob family behind him gives him a fair amount of authority. Spike is Sunny's Hawk.
If I may interject an amusing anecdote, Sunny Randall's name is stolen from a former wide receiver for the then-St. Louis Cardinals--now the Arizona Cardinals--named Sonny Randle, who I always thought was a wonderful receiver. I got a letter from him about three months ago complaining that I had misspelled his name.
ROZAN He didn't notice you'd made him a little blonde woman?
RBP No, he did. He was being amusing. Anyway that's where I got the name.
ROZAN And of course, Rosie the Dog and Pearl--
RBP Rosie and Pearl are authentic. If you want to know how much of me is in the books, Rosie and Pearl are right from life. Rosie is Joan's dog; Pearl is mine. Rosie gets the back photo on this jacket. The legendary Pearl has been on many jackets. Rosie gets her turn in the sun.
ROZAN A question that always interests people when I do these conversations--your writing habits, your writing days. How do you go about it? What's your schedule? How much do you write? How compulsive are you about ritual?
RBP I get up when Pearl does, which is unfortunately fairly early, drink a quart of vodka to get my heart pumping. (Laughs.) No, in fact, I don't drink at all. I feed Pearl, I have coffee, I read the GLOBE, I go to my office--I have an office in my home. Somewhere around ten o'clock, I get to my desk, I do an hour's worth of small business management, phone calls, letters.
In the ten to eleven o'clock range I begin to write, and I write five pages. My computer is set to be roughly one-to-one to the printed page, so that my five pages are approximately Putnam's five pages. When I get through doing that, I stop--whether it takes an hour or six hours. And while I correct things as I go along, I don't do a second draft. That's it. What you get is essentially my first draft. Line-edited, thank God, by Chris Peppy, and copy-edited by other people at Putnam to save me from horrendous blunders.
RBP Well, some blunders...You're right, no blunders. But in one book--I think it was PASTIME--Spenser was recalling the days when he used to go to Ebbett's Field as a kid, and how Dixie Walker would yank a ball over the right field screen, which was 2,970 feet away.
ROZAN (Laughs.) Wow.
RBP Gotta pick it up, Chris. I do know better. It was 297 feet. I don't know where the zero came from. I don't know if it was me. Obviously I know better, but that doesn't always prevent it from happening.
ROZAN No, it doesn't.
RBP That's my day. Then I go the gym, try to rescue what little is left. Then come home, watch a ballgame, or check for "Law and Order" at 7 and 11 on A&E.
ROZAN A couple more, and then we'll give you guys a chance. I want to ask you about the future of the private eye novel. What do you see as happening?
RBP I haven't any idea. That's probably a thread that will run through my answers to almost everything "I don't know." I don't read other stuff, except Dutch Leonard. I have trouble reading fiction. I tend to look at it like carpenters look at houses. When I was getting my PhD I read everything since the invention of moveable type, and I'm sick of it.
I tend to read nonfiction some. I just finished Jonathan Lear's book on Freud and the classical philosophers--HAPPINESS, DEATH, AND WHAT'S LEFT--which I didn't understand, but it makes such a great answer. "What are you reading?"
RBP I'm reading Simon Shermer's book on Rembrandt, too, but it's too big to take on airplanes, so I read Lear on the airplane. So, I don't really know the future of the private eye. Someone once asked--maybe it was Lionel Trilling--to explain why, during the Renaissance, there was such an explosion of good playwrights Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Johnson, et cetera.
And he said, "On that question, I remain agnostic." And on the future of the detective story, I remain agnostic. I think it will depend entirely on how good the people are that are writing it. I think that the resurgence--if there is one, I didn't even know there was one. And I didn't know I led it. You know, Parker for President. I think that it's a coincidence, then, if there is because there is--for reasons that I am agnostic on--a sort of explosion of good writers practicing the form. Present company included. If the writers remain good, I think the form will remain viable. If a bunch of clucks do it, then it'll go away for a while. I think finally good writing gets out there, and people like it, and bad writing doesn't. Well, no. Bad writing does get out there 'cause some people like it.
ROZAN Do you, therefore, not have advice for people starting to write? That's my next question.
RBP Sure, I have advice for people starting to write. Don't. I don't need the competition. (Laughs.) It's hard enough as it is. I have no advice. There's something so honest about fiction-writing. You can't fake it, you can't fix it. If you want to write, write it. That's the first rule. And send it in, and send it in to someone who can publish it or get it published. Don't send it to me. Don't show it to your spouse, or your significant other, or your parents, or somebody. They're not going to publish it. If you send it to me, and I love it, so what? Don't send it to me, by the way, 'cause I won't love it 'cause I'm not going to read it. Find an agent, send it to a publisher. Send it to someone who can do something with it, and waste it on people who can't.
At the fundament of it all is that writers write. If you wrote one page a day, every day for a year, you'd have a 365-page novel. If you took Christmas Day off, it'd be 364. It breaks it up enormously. You don't sit down and go "My God, I gotta go 310, and I don't even know how to start." You say, "Gotta get five pages out today." I don't plan, I don't outline, although I did when I started, mainly for psychological support. If you've got an outline, you don't have to sit down, look at the blank paper, and think "Eek, I can't think of anything." You can look at your outline. But I found that after a while the outline was a limitation rather than a support, and if I just let it go...That's probably because after you do this for a while, you realize you can. After thirty years or so of doing this, I'm not afraid that it won't come. It'll come. So then I just come up with a premise Spenser goes to Arizona to help clean up a corrupt town. That's POTSHOT's premise. Can you hum the theme from the THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN? 'Cause all of the hardcases from all of the books in the past go with him. Then I write five pages. Then the next day, I come back, and the next five pages grow out of the first five pages, and so it goes. That's what I do, and I recommend it.
But more important than anything else, for anyone who wishes to make a living as a writer, is that they write, and that they find a way that they can write. Questions are so frequently asked "Do you use a computer? Do you write standing up the way Hemingway did?" It doesn't matter. It's irrelevant how you get it onto the printed page. It's relevant only that you do so. I found that I needed long hours of uninterrupted time in order to write, which is why got a PhD. I was in the advertising business, tech writer, industrial editor, and a lot of other stuff. And it was work. I didn't like it. I'd work, and I'd hate it. But I had a wife and kids to support. Where was the Movement when I really needed it? (Laughter.) Now she works. I realized I was not someone who could get up at five and write for two hours before I went to work, or take my lunch break and write that way, or whatever. I couldn't come home at night and do it. I also had children and a wife, and I liked spending time with them.
Joan actually suggested I go back to school, and said, "Yeah, but I've got a wife and two kids, and a house in the suburbs, and two cars. How'm I gonna do that?"
And she said, "Oh, I don't know. Go ahead and do it."
So, I did. She pitched right in; she went back to school, too. But I got G.I. Bill reinstated, and they finally gave me some money. We eventually scrounged it out. And that gave me the time. This is not just all autobiography. I'm trying to illustrate that you need to find a way that you can write if you're serious about it. You also need to be good. You can be serious as hell, and not be good. And there's a lot of that around, friends. But if you're good at it, you have to find a way that will enable you to do your work--whether it's get to be a teacher at a college where you have long hours of uninterrupted time, or whatever it takes, however you can find a way. Get a grant...Joan could work in fifteen-minute segments if she chose to. Laser-like, her concentration is to the exclusion of all other things. I can't. I am diffuse. I see everything around me, but I don't concentrate very well. She concentrates very well, and doesn't see so much around her. Between us we cover it. You have to know what you can do. And you can't castigate yourself for not being able to do what somebody else does.
You can't leave here tonight thinking, "Parker writes five pages a day; I've got to write five pages a day. Or six, 'cause he's kind of a stiff."
John Updike and I were on a panel once, and I told people I write five pages a day, and he was over there and he said, "Five?"
He does three. But as Spencer Tracy once said, "But what there is is choice."
You gotta find a way to do, and then you gotta do it, and then you gotta send it in. And there's nothing else that I can think of to do.
ROZAN My last question is, "Is there something you would like to write that you haven't yet tried?"
RBP Oh, yeah. There's a lot of things I'd like to write that I haven't yet tried, and I may not get to them. There's a good deal of pressure, if you do one kind of thing successfully, to keep doing it. I do this for a living; it's not a hobby. There's a character--in HENRY IV, PARTS I and II by some English writer--named Ned Poines, who disappears in the middle of the play as Prince Hal turns into Henry V, and I'd like to do a further adventures of Ned Poines. That would interest me. I did a short story about Jackie Robinson, which I would like to evolve into a novel about Jackie Robinson. I don't know if I'll get to that or not. I do a couple of books a year. No publisher on the planet wants to do three a year, though I'm being indulged by my publisher this year. They're bringing out my novel about Wyatt Earp in June, called GUNMAN'S RHAPSODY. It will be available, friends, and no one thinks it's gonna be a big success. Prove them wrong. (Laughter.)
ROZAN I was talking to a couple of other crime writers, and everybody's saying, "Westerns. I'd like to do a western." So you can lead the way again.
RBP Yes, I'll break trail once more. Y'all fall in behind me.
ROZAN On that note, people have their questions.
RBP Let's see the interrogators. Hello.
Woman #1 I find [Susan's] eating habits somewhat annoying. (Laughter.) I wanted to know whether you meant her to annoying in how little she eats, and how she picks at her food, or...Could you talk about her?
RBP (Pointing.) Y Security. (Laughter.) Yes, she's annoying, and that's on purpose. I didn't want Ms. Perfection. She's also pretentious. Joan doesn't like her too much, and Joan gets very annoyed at being compared with her. I was someplace the other day. Too modest. I was winning the prestigious Hale Award, which is given annually in Newport, New Hampshire for anyone who'll go up and accept it. (Laughter.) I don't get that many awards, friends. So it was a three-hour drive? Anyway, someone said to Joan, "Aha, so you're Susan Silverman," and regretted it almost at once.
But [Susan's] self-absorbed, she's a bit pretentious, she's very obsessed with her appearance. She pigs out between chapters, by the way, lest you worry about her health.
ROZAN I'm so glad to hear that.
RBP Sure, I intended her to be annoying.
Man #1 The dialogue between the characters comes to life even on tape. They have Joe Mantegna or other people doing it. You said that you write five pages, and you don't make second drafts. Do you hear them talking to each other or--?
RBP I don't compose music, but my guess is it's like writing music. It sounds right as you write it. There's a rhythm and a movement to it. I think if I wrote music, I'd have the same experience. It just sounds right in my head, and if it doesn't I change it. I go back and I change it, and if someone says "Why are you changing that?" I can only say, "It doesn't sound right." It means the same thing, but it doesn't sound right. I don't know any better than you do quite how to do that.
I used to teach fiction-writing very unsuccessfully--either 'cause the kids were stupid or...Ahh, must have the kids. Kids would come around having taken tape recorders and listened to people talk and taping it. Don't do that. Nobody talks like people in books. You make it up. It's like writing a song.
Man #2 I want to say I've enjoyed both of your books quite a bit. (Laughter.) And you must've read at least one of her books, 'cause you had a blurb in the front, which is why I bought it, actually.
ROZAN It does work. Oh, my God. Writers never know if that really matters.
Man #2 Just the first. All the other books I bought on my own.
ROZAN Thank you.
RBP You have to remember the old joke. I think it was John Kenneth Galbraith who first said it "I'll read it or I'll plug it, but I won't do both." (Laughter.) You can't assume anything. Go ahead.
Man #2 Just how old is Spenser?
RBP Spenser is thirty-seven. (Laughter.)
Man #2 As he was in 1975?
RBP As am I. No, it's an interesting question because it's a problem. I have given him a history. I have allowed him to evolve over time. He was in the Korean War, he fought Joe Walcott. How old could he be? He'd be about sixty-eight, which is how old I am. But, like me, he's young at heart. After the first book I realized that, if I kept doing this, it would present a problem. It doesn't sell very well--it doesn't work very well in the imagination--to have a sixty-eight year old guy jumping over a hedge, beating someone's teeth in. I do it now and then just to see if it can be done. Those little kids are getting harder to catch...
So, I just ignore it. I don't mention his age anymore, and I leave it up to you to imagine as you will.
Woman #2 I hope this is not a dumb question.
RBP I hope so. (Laughs.)
Woman #2 It won't be a dumb answer. The photograph that has appeared on the dust jacket of several of your books--I think it's quite striking. It's you in profile. Is that the Wonder Dog Pearl?
RBP That's Pearl the Wonder Dog. Yup.
Woman #2 I find it not just striking, but somewhat unusual, and I wondered if you were trying to make a statement with it or if there was anything to it.
RBP That's the one with the Braves hat and the dog. The publisher sends a photographer of some skill. It's been John Earle in recent years. He's pretty good, and I like him. Puts him in a very select group. That's their deal. He and the publisher decide the look they want. I do what they tell me. Put on that hat? Okay. Stand this way? Okay. The one with the leather jacket, the hat, and Pearl took all day to shoot in the middle of August, and I was quite grouchy by the time it ended.
No, I'm not trying to make any statement. I'm just doing what I'm told. I think because I am a relatively large man, and my face looks like people have beaten on it. They haven't. It's just my face, friends, I'm sorry. But I look like I could be a cop or something. I think the photographer, jacket designers, and so forth want to capitalize on that fact. I'm sure that the identity with Spenser is intended in some fashion, but not by me.
Man #3 The wait between Parker novels is agonizing.
RBP I know, I know. (Applause.)
Man #3 About eighteen novels ago, Spenser took a young man named Paul under his wing. He's kind of disappeared over the last half dozen novels. Now that your sons are getting bigger, do you have any intention of bringing him back? What's happened to him?
RBP First of all, on the question of agony, I write five pages a day. If you would read five pages a day, we'd stay right even. (Laughter.) I have no master plan, so the real answer to your question is "I don't know," but I'm sure Paul will show up again. Paul Giacomin, like the old Rangers goalie. As I said in the beginning, there are three significant events in my life. If they were the only three, I would still have done everything I ever wanted to do. That was my wife and my two sons, one of whom may be here tonight. He said he would, although he finds me so boring. The other one's in L.A., and he wouldn't come for this. Can you imagine that? Ingrate.
I invented Paul because, again, I have all this stuff about how it feels like to be father--which is a very powerful feeling--and I want to use it. So, Paul will probably show up. My older son who is, I think, here tonight, is forty-one years old. Which is odd because so am I. Finally the same age. He's smarter, but otherwise we're right on a par. So, Paul will be back, I am confident, though in what context and when, I have no idea. As I say, I don't know what's going on on page 209 when I get back home, let alone the next book or the next three books. He'll be around because I'm still a father even though they're big.
Man #4 You haven't said anything about the origin of Jesse Stone. I'd like to hear about why decided to create another character to write about besides Spenser. Also, it's quite obvious that Jesse, and Sunny, and Spenser all live in the same universe. Do you ever anticipate bringing them together in any way?
RBP I can bring Jesse into either a Spenser novel or a Sunny Randall novel because Jesse's in the third-person, so I won't have to change anything. He'd still be viewed from the outside. I couldn't bring Spenser and Sunny Randall into a Jesse Stone novel because then I'd have to deal with them in the third-person, and I can't. Or I won't. The distinction finally remains the same.
Why did I do Jesse Stone? It takes me three or four months to write a novel. And I don't play golf. I noticed that if you get X amount of dollars for one book... (Laughter.) I was sixty-two before I figured that out, but I did pick it up. It's not naked greed, though that's a component. I'd done almost all first-person, and I wanted to do a third-person. I wanted to do it with somebody who was not as evolved as Spenser was. So, I got Jesse at thirty-five with a drinking problem and a marriage that had gone on the rocks. I took him as a big city cop in L.A. and put him in as the chief of police in Paradise, Massachusetts. So the impulse was "I've got time, I could use the money, and I want to try a different kind of skill." So I did, and I did.
Woman #3 I'm curious how attending a small school in the Maine wilderness affected both you and your writing.
RBP Colby College was crucial in my life because I met Joan at the freshman dance. Other than that, it made no contribution of any sort. That wasn't its fault. It's a perfectly fine school, but it's hard to teach somebody who never goes to class. I was on the Dean's other list. (Laughter.) I was a dreadful undergraduate, the nightmare of all parents when a kid goes off to college. I drank far too much beer. My senior year I owned not a single textbook. I got thrown out of school several weeks in my senior year being caught in the girls' dorm. This was 1954, friends. The girls' dorm was off limits. Even to girls, I think. My God, it was like a nunnery.
College had little effect on me. I'd have been the same writer if I'd gone to MIT, except I'd have flunked out sooner.
Woman #4 This goes back to the writing process. You say that you don't know ahead of time what's going to happen, and I'm wondering about your characters early in the books. Obviously, you know who the bad guy is, but you don't know really what he's gonna do until he does it?
RBP I don't even necessarily know who the bad guy is. There are several choices in POTSHOT. There are at least four people who may end up being the villain for lack of a better word, although none of them are gonna turn out to be really good guys. And I don't know who that is yet.
Woman #4 And you don't know what they're going to be doing?
RBP And I don't know what they're gonna do. I mean, I know what's happened so far.
Woman #4 That's surprising. (Laughter.)
RBP Whaddya think I'm dumb? It's rather like life. We know what's happened so far. We don't know what's gonna happen tomorrow. Except that I'm going to Baltimore. It enables the writer to emulate, in some ways, the detective. I discover as he does what's gonna happen. I don't mean he discovers it for me. I'm under no illusion. These people are less real to me than they are to anybody 'cause I make them every day.
I was on the Oprah Winfrey Show once. It was a really slow news day for Oprah, and there were several of us on 'cause none of us was sufficiently interesting by his or herself. The question Oprah asked was, "Do your characters talk to you?"
Judith Krantz said yes, they did, and they told her to write them some more.
I said, "If my characters start talking to me, Oprah, get me right to the doctor." I was sitting next to Dutch Leonard. There was a lot of this talk about characters writing themselves, and I whispered to Dutch 'cause no one was paying a lot of attention to us down the end of the row anyway. I said, and you'll have to pardon the language here for a moment, but I'm a coarse person. I said to Dutch, "Have you ever heard any such horseshit in your entire life?"
And Dutch didn't even look at me or break a smile. He just said, "No." Funny man.
I think it up as he thinks it up, and that seems to work for me. But in the beginning it's helpful, I think, if you outline because it's scary if you don't.
Anybody else? Don't fight now.
Woman #5 I can't believe no one has asked you this question How come Spenser only has one name?
RBP Oh, he has another name. I just don't know what it is.
Man #5 It seems as though food and cooking, which was a central part of the early Spenser novels, plays a smaller part now. Is that intentional? Are you less interested in food or cooking?
RBP Well, it's not intentional. When the kids were small, and we all lived in the nuclear family in the little white house in Lynnfield, I was the family cook. Joan does not, and should not, cook. A position that she shares with me and would be happy to espouse if you wanted to ask her. She's in the back there someplace. So, I could cook. My father cooked. My mother was Irish Catholic. My mother used to say things like "How would you like your steak boiled, Bobby?"
When I was in Korea, Joan wanted to send me an angel food cake. A perfect choice to ship to Korea from Boston, but the recipe called for her to stir and mix in six eggs by hand, so she...(Gestures.) (Laughter.) Wasn't the best cake I ever had, when it got there three and a half months later.
So, I cooked, and now the kids aren't there anymore. They're grown men. They live one on each coast. And--we need a boom mike. I want a boom mike here, or I'm calling my agent. I don't cook as much anymore. Joan cooks her supper when she wants, and I cook mine when she wants it. Joan takes care of her own food needs, and I take care of my own, so there's a lot less cooking goes on in our life. We eat out a lot, and there's take-out. So, I probably am cooking less. It's not conscious. Since you ask, I assume that's why.
Man #6 I'm interested in the construction of your background characters. You have excellent secondary characters like Quirk or Belson on the cops or the lovely Broz family on the mob side. How do you come up with these people? What's your knack for making sure these people rise above the kind of formula characters that lesser writers might put in the background?
RBP There he goes again. I haven't got any idea. I tend to write with my hands. I know it sounds funny, but it really is true. I couldn't dictate. I have to have the hands on the keys. I don't think I could handwrite it. My handwriting's so abysmal that I started typing everything years ago. And I don't know how.
One of the things that is useful in making characters interesting is an absence of laziness. It is so easy to say "I walked into the room, and there were two goons, six feet tall and 250 pounds. A friend of mine had a manuscript in which he did that, and I said to him, "In your life, now, have you ever seen two people unrelated to each other who looked exactly the same?" And of course you haven't. Fiction-writing is in part a matter of taking infinite pains. You have to take the time to describe everybody and to think about what they're like.
I sometimes think "Who does this person look like that I know? What mannerism do they have that I might've seen in some acquaintances?" Mostly they don't look like anyone I've known, and they don't have any mannerisms 'cause all my friends are boring. It's a question I still occasionally ask, but the only knack is just to take the time to do it, and make them interesting. They're real people. They're not furniture in the plot. They're actual people.
Man #7 I'm curious about the role of boxing, exercise, and physical fitness in your life as it fits into the books. What do you do, and how did you come to these sorts of things?
RBP Well, just look at me. (Laughter.) I never boxed professionally. Not when flight was available. I have lifted weights much of my life, and I still work out on a regular basis, except when I'm here at the Y chatting with you folks.
We're a workout family. Joan exercises everyday ladylike little things like going over to Harvard Stadium and running up and down the stairs with the hockey players. That's one of her regular routines. She lifts weights. I think, finally, she's just like me. My older son is a choreographer, he's a dancer, he's in wonderful shape. We all think about that. It's one of things I've got. Spenser cooks 'cause I know how to cook. Spenser lifts weights 'cause I lift weights, somewhat lighter weights than I used to. Like that. Spenser was in Korea in the Army, and guess where I was. Spenser has a long-term loving relationship with a very unusual woman, and so do I.
I use what I've got. I don't use everything I've got because that's not my business. I use what I've got that's useful. I still lift weights regularly. I lost a few pounds this January. It was the exercise of iron will and some big surgery. I actually didn't need the iron will. I'm fine. There's nothing wrong with me, but I had some rather heavy surgery in January. Lost fifty pounds in a month. It's called the Surgical Diet, and it works wonders. Wanna see my scar?
ROZAN We have time for a couple more questions.
Woman #6 Does your wonderful sense of humor come from your Irish Catholic mother?
RBP Ho, ho, ho, baby.
ROZAN There's only one answer to that question.
RBP The answer is a resounding "No." Begging the question is the technical term for what you just did. If in fact my sense of humor is wonderful, it did not come from my mother, who was nearly as funny as a cavity. But less pleasant. We weren't close. No, I don't know. There was nobody that was unusually amusing in my family.
Woman #7 Now that you have three successful characters, a television contract, and a possible movie contract, and the opportunity has arisen--do you think you can buy the Boston Red Sox, and give us fans some hope?
RBP Sure. (Laughs.) Now why would I do that to myself? Other than the fact that I can't afford it, no, thank you. My high point was first baseman for the Lynnfield Gators in the Twi league, and that's all I ever aspire to.
Man #8 You've talked a lot about Joan and your relationship with her. I'm wondering if she's a psychotherapist.
RBP She's not licensed, but over the years I think she feels she's had a heavy caseload. She's been a college professor. She worked for a number of years in the Department of Education in Massachusetts where I think the technical description of her job was "Boss." Which is, by the way, the technical description of her current job when she's at home. No, she's not a psychotherapist. I made that up. I make a lot of this up, actually.
ROZAN Another question, or else we'll just call it a day. All right. Thank you very much.