Iverson is the pianist for the modern jazz trio the Bad Plus. As if that’s not enough talent for one man, he is also a very sharp observer of and commenter on mystery and crime fiction . He was granted an audience with Lawrence Block recently, and, as he writes, “He’s been interviewed so much: what new questions could I possibly ask him?”
The answer? A “blindfold test.” Anyone who has read a jazz magazine is familiar with the concept. There, a musician is played songs by other artists and is asked to comment. The twist is that the person in the hot seat is given no information about the work, so any preconceived notions are lessened. In addition, it is always interesting to read about musicians who are so well-versed in the work of their peers that they can discern within a few notes the work of another.
For this feature, Iverson photocopied the first few pages of a dozen mystery and crime fiction novels, blacked out the titles and authors, and asked Block to read and comment. In some cases, he knows the work and offers interesting anecdotes. In others, he is stumped, but, once the creator is revealed, has fascinating things to say about the work or the author.
As a long-time fan of Block, I have read dozens and dozens of interviews (and have conducted a few of my own), so I must admit that I have skimmed some of the coverage that has been afforded his wonderful return with A Drop of the Hard Stuff.
For me, it is most interesting to see how the Block of today is different from the Block of old. In 2007, he told me there was one more out-of-print book coming from Hard Case Crime (A Diet of Treacle), but, “I don’t think there are any others I’d be happy to see reprinted, but greed does have a way of triumphing over principles, so we’ll have to see.”
Greed won, of course, as the then-still novel idea of publishing books exclusively in ebook form allowed Block to bring a couple dozen old book back into the marketplace.
Such analysis doesn’t necessarily add anything new, however. Iverson’s work, in contrast, does. I won’t spoil things and reveal the books or authors that he puts in front of Block, but suffice to say it sparks some very interesting conversation. If you want to take the blindfold test yourself, go here before you read the interview.
So, the fact that 2011 is shaping up to be the biggest year for Block fans ever makes that bait-and-switch statement worth the pain. Not only will Block return with a new novel in the new year — a novel featuring his best character, Matthew Scudder, nonetheless — but he also has more fully opened the door of the vault that long protected his ancient, pseudonymous work. I have a dog-eared list I compiled pre-Internet that lists every book of his I knew, with a tick mark next to each I’ve read. So far, 60 of them are marked, but a handful of those early book remain elusive.
No more. As Block mentioned earlier this year, he has inked a deal with Open Road Media to sell eBooks of many of his titles. The first batch of 37 has been revealed, and it includes 10 books that I either don’t own or haven’t read. All are under the category of “erotica,” which, while not my favorite of his endeavors, still constitute a remarkable opportunity for an unrepentant completist who was previously forced to scan eBay and similar outlets for expensive, yellowed copies.
So, the question now is, what eBook reader do I finally break down and buy so I can read all of these books?
While I ponder that (and feel free to weigh in with a comment if you have advice), here’s a video from the Open Road folks that features a nice, short interview with Block.
More great news out this week from Hard Case Crime for we Lawrence Block fans. As if HCC’s efforts to bring out-of-print Block books back to life weren’t enough, now Charles Ardai and Co. are working on their first original Block title.Ardai announced that a new Block title, Getting Off, will be the first Hard Case Crime book when the series relaunches in September. For a guy who announced his retirement (with what in hindsight was a bit of wiggle room) last year, his 2011 promises to be among his busiest years yet. “I may really not write another book,” he told me las year. “I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’m done writing novels. I may have tapped out that well.”
In addition to A Drop of the Hard Stuff, his first new Matthew Scudder title since 2005′s All the Flowers Are Dying (coming in May from Mulholland Books), Hard Case Crime also plans a two-fer of long-out-of-print Block books in partnership with Subterranean Press (since pushed back to early 2012). That’s all in addition to the bounty of old Block titles the author is releasing in eBook form.
According to Ardai, Getting Off “tells the story of a beautiful and self-confident young woman who sets herself a mission and carries it out with ruthless single-mindedness — to track down and murder every man she’s ever slept with. (And it’s not a small number, especially since she finds herself sleeping with a few more along the way.) The character is one of Block’s most memorable.”Why is Block going with Hard Case Crime for a new title? Ardai says the book is shocking: “It’s 2010, sex doesn’t shock us anymore, nor even, really, does violence — but I promise, this book is shocking. In the best possible way. There are moments in the story when I predict even the most jaded reader will find his or her jaw dropping.” That sounds like the rather raunchy Small Town and is right up HCC’s alley.
Even more interestingly, Block is resurrecting one of his old pen names for the project. It will be published as “Lawrence Block, writing as ‘Jill Emerson’.” And did I mention that this will be Hard Case Crime’s first hardcover original? Ardai had mentioned that the imprint’s new deal with Titan Publishing would allow that avenue, and they’ll start off that way from the word go.
Ardai took time to answer a few questions about the project.
TIRBD: Have you been trying to get Block to do something original for HCC for a long time, or is this something that sprung forth thanks to the pending relaunch?
CA: Larry and I have talked from time to time over the years about the idea of his writing an original novel for us, but the idea never gelled before. This time all the stars just happened to align – we happened to be looking for a debut title for our relaunch just as he happened to be thinking of an idea for a new book he wanted to write, and the book happened to be one that would have elements of sex and violence that no one else could showcase in quite the way Hard Case Crime can…we looked at each other and said, “This might finally be the one.”
You mention this is a series character. Will the series remain with HCC as it evolves? From a story standpoint, can one assume this young woman doesn’t take out everyone in the first title?
I described her as a series character only because she has appeared in several short stories (some of which will be incorporated, in modified form, into the novel). Whether there will ever be a second novel about her, who knows? I don’t think Larry originally intended to write four books about Keller – hell, I don’t think he originally intended to write more than just the one short story, “Answers to Soldier.” But the character kept coming back. Whether the lead of Getting Off will demand another novel written about her remains to be seen. I’d be delighted if she did. But the answer to your last question is no: you cannot assume she doesn’t take everyone out in the first title. Maybe she does and maybe she doesn’t. I’m not spoiling anything for anyone.
I interviewed Block a little more than a year ago shortly after he had declared that he was retiring from writing fiction. with the pending new Scudder book, this has obviously been cast aside. Do you have any insight about why he has decided to jump back into writing?
Speaking for myself, I don’t think writers are the best at making predictions about what they will or won’t do in the future. Stephen King announced he was retiring from writing novels, too, and then wrote The Colorado Kid for us, and since then has penned several more books. Other writers have retired and unretired. You wake up one day and say, “You know what, I do want to do that again,” and suddenly the screen starts filling up with words. It’s like anything else – you say, “I’m never going to paint another picture,” or “I’ll never play James Bond again,” or whatever. You mean it when you say it, but time passes or inspiration strikes and you feel differently.
How does this fit schedulewise with your plan to bring out the Block twofer with Subterranean Press?
The Subterranean twofer – another book I’m very excited about – was originally scheduled to come out in the middle of 2011, but Bill generously agreed to push it back until the start of 2012, so as to give Getting Off a chance to stand on its own. The good news: We’ll have Block hardcovers for readers to enjoy in both 2011 and 2012. That felt better to everyone than putting two out back to back in 2011.
In general, how are things coming with reviving the imprint? Were there plans in place beyond the Collins and Faust books that you’ve kept, or has it allowed you to start fresh?
Things are going great. We haven’t announced our other launch titles (except the two you mention,Quarry’s Ex by Max Allan Collins and Choke Hold by Christa Faust), but we’ve got two other books lined up that will definitely get pulses racing in the crime fiction community, neither of which was an existing plan carried over from the Dorchester era. Including the Subterranean book, between September 2011 and March 2012 we’ll publish 6 titles, every one of them by an MWA Grand Master, an Edgar Award finalist or winner, a New York Times best-seller, or all of the above. It’s a hell of a lineup and a great way to kick off the series’ return. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we won’t be publishing any more obscure, forgotten novels or books by first-time authors – I’m sure we’ll do that, too. But I wanted to come out swinging hard, and that’s what you can expect to see.
Crime Express, a new series from Five Leaves Publishing, offers a series of short crime stories each published as a short pocket book. They retail for 4.99 pounds (about $8), and are short enough to devour in one sitting. Consider them something between a short story and a novella, something perfect to keep with you for those times when you have half an hour to kill.
If you can hold off that long, that is. The first I’ve read, Allan Guthrie’s Killing Mum, is a ripping good read in the vein of his longer works. Hitman Carlos Morales gets an unusual job: killing his mother. But who ordered the hit? And how could he possibly pull the trigger? With 15,000 words to tell the tale, Guthrie doesn’t make the reader wait long to find out the answers, yet that amount of space allows for more development and description than your typical short story.
Other authors in the series include Ray Banks (Gun), John Harvey (Trouble in Mind) and Lawrence Block (Speaking of Lust).The Block book was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association short story Dagger this year. There are 10 Crime Express titles to date.
Five Leaves Director Ross Bradshaw answered a few questions about this exciting new series.
TIRBD: What was the genesis of the series and how does the work to date compare with that initial idea?
RB: For years I had the notion of publishing long short stories/short novellas, call them what you will. It stemmed from a couple of books I read, not crime, one being Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle, the other being Rain by Kirsty Gunn. I was impressed with what you could do with fiction that length. By chance I’m bringing out the Kotzwinkle in a new edition in the autumn, but that is by the by. Then I thought “series,” and then I felt that crime fiction would fit the series notion best of all. I know a fair amount of crime fiction writers and the first three I asked (John Harvey, Stephen Booth and Rod Duncan) were excited to try to write to the length I had in mind, 15,000/16,000 words, 20,000 max. It is quite a challenge writing to that length. And I thought they would work better as a stand alone imprint. Maybe get people following the series, collecting the set.
How are the authors chosen and what guidance are they given?
After those three David Belbin, a local writer best known for his young adult material but someone with a big interest in adult crime fiction, and the short story, came in as series editor. He’d already done the desk editing on the first three and years ago he’d edited an anthology of Nottingham crime short stories for us, City of Crime (boy did that title go down well with the then leader of our local Council). Dave’s been steadily building the list, and through everyday networking he gets the writers. I know he is concerned that the books work to their own length and are not a full length novel trying desperately to break out. That has implications for plot and character, and the number of characters of course.
I know the Lawrence Block story is a reprint from an anthology he edited. Do you foresee other opportunities to single out and highlight work that might otherwise have been overlooked?
Dave’s a big fan of Block and that story had been buried in a small press anthology series in the US that disappeared after two books, which was barely seen on this side of the pond. We were pleased to get such a big name on the list but after that the series has been, and will remain, all new work commissioned by us. Unfortunately we don’t have the time to read unsolicited material.
Is there an endpoint for the series, or will you keep things going as long as authors contribute and readers pick them up?
We’ve published eight so far. Some have sold very well, some less so. Unfortunately the major chains in the UK are not keen on the A6 size. When Murder One closed in London that meant that there is not a single crime shop in Britain (unlike the USA where there are many great independent mystery bookshops) which means we are very much in the hands of the big chain buyers. They are not keen on the format so we are looking at relaunching the series next spring. Same length, still Crime Express, but perhaps not the smaller format. Pity. A lot of readers did like that shape but the chains, the chains… We’ve commissioned a few ahead already.
How does it fit in with Five Leaves’ overall mission?
Five Leaves has done a few full length crime fiction books, but I thought the short ones would be better as a stand alone imprint. Al Guthrie and the previous book by Ray Banks are darker than the books we normally publish, but that is no bad thing. I don’t think we’ll go dark completely on the crime front but it seems to me that some of the most exciting crime fiction around is on the dark side. As to our overall mission… if I ever draw up a mission statement feel free to shoot me. Five Leaves publishes the books that excite us… social history, Jewish culture, young adult, a bit of poetry, a bit of this, a bit of that. And crime fiction.
Block appeared at the Out Loud! Author Series in Cedar Rapids last night, and drew about 60 people who came to hear him talk about his new book, Step by Step. He spoke about the book’s genesis, read a couple of passages and then spent about 40 minutes answering questions from the crowd.
He displayed his wit from the outset with this self-introduction: “I feel a lot like Madonna’s most recent boyfriend. I know what to do, but I’m not sure how to make it interesting for you.” He then went on to discuss Step by Step, recounting, as he does in the book, his first attempt at a memoir. Writing one flies in the face of his reasons for writing fiction: “to avoid telling the world who I was.” Still, he found both memoir writing experiences rewarding. He said the first attempt, which resulted in 50,000 words written in one week and then set aside, was “the most intense writing experience I’ve ever had.”
With Step by Step, he set out to write a book about one year in the life of an aging racewalker, and said, fittingly enough, that he “wandered far afield, much to my surprise.”
Before the Q&A session began, he answered a couple of questions that are always asked of him. No, he doesn’t know when the next Scudder, Rhodenbarr, Tanner or Keller book will be written, if ever. And he also declined to mention favorite living authors, because every time he does so those omitted become former friends. Instead, he listed three deceased authors — Ross Thomas, Evan Hunter and Donald Westlake — and said all any offended living authors needed to do to make the list was to die.
Asked about the impetus for John Keller, the hit man who starred in four of Block’s most recent books, the author shared that fellow novelist Peter Straub said Keller, in his interior monologues, is the Block character most like his creator. “Our vocational paths have been very different, I assure you,” Block quipped. “He’s not much of a writer.”
He spoke some about his earliest writing days, as he does in the book, discussing his decision to leave Antioch College after his junior year to take up writing full time. He said Antioch sent him a letter saying that given his academic performance, he would likely be happier elsewhere. “It didn’t occur to me to resent it. I just though how remarkably perspicacious of them to spot that.”
The latest on my list is a bittersweet affair. Step By Step, his memoir about his years racewalking, may also be his last. In a wide-ranging interview done for a story to preview an appearance he’ll make Thursday in Cedar Rapids, we talked about the book, prospects for more, his early days and much more. We talked so much that I’ve split things in two, with the more general discussion about the book over at CorridorBuzz.com, and the more specific information about writing over here. I’ve spoken with Block a few times, most recently for TIRBD in 2007.
In this most recent interview, I asked about the general malaise he mentions in Step by Step regarding writing.
“I may really not write another book,” he said. “I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’m done writing novels. I may have tapped out that well.”
If that’s the case, Block leaves most of us die-hard fans with a full bookshelf of great books. Step by Step is a worthy addition to that list. It’s a fascinating look at a part of Block’s life that most of us knew little about. Anyone who has followed his newsletter for a while knew about his racewalking, but certainly not the extent – or success – of his efforts.
Of course, it’s not all about racewalking. He spends considerable time talking about his early days, both as a kid and as a young novelist. This is his second stab at a memoir, and if the parts about his earliest stabs at writing are any indication, a true writing memoir would be a goldmine for fans. He tried once, but set it aside in part because he didn’t think he had reached a point where he wanted to rehash his career.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” he said about revisiting the project. “I was a little young to be writing a memoir, but now, if I’m every going to do it, I’d better do it while I still have some brain cells. The reaction to (Step by Step) may dictate that.”
Block has made it clear on many occasions that he doesn’t go back and re-read his own work. “I have no trouble reading other people’s very early work, while they may,” he said. “A look at one’s early efforts means also a look at an earlier self that I may not welcome a view of. But the simple fact that I didn’t want to read the stuff didn’t mean others shouldn’t.”
That’s one way of explaining why, after years of seeming to shrug off overtures to do so, he has embraced Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime imprint, allowing Ardai to reissue five of his early, long out-of-print titles to date.
Block said he has received better reviews for these reprints than for his own work: “ ‘It’s Block at the top of his form before the slow heartbreaking decline of his later years,’” he joked.
He said that may come to an end, however, because he doesn’t think the other early books he might republish fit Ardai’s imprint.
“There’s various early work that isn’t really crime fiction or noir by any stretch,” he said. “I did over the years seven books under the pen name Jill Emerson. A couple of them were lesbian fiction. One of them was serialized in Redbook. My agent is trying to find a home for those to be reissued by the same publisher. Some of that was work I’m very proud of.”
It’s hard enough keeping up with Block’s output, but anyone who wants to read every word he has written has their work cut out for them. He said in his early writing years he contracted with a publisher to crank out a book a month, and wrote at least 20 books a year for a couple of years. Most of those were under pseudonyms. He might not remember all of them, but he said he can usually figure out if a pseudonymous title is really his.
“I shared my pen names on the earliest work,” he said. “As a result, a lot more books published under some pen names of mine than I actually wrote. With those, I may not have recollections of the book, but can read a couple of pages and know that I wrote it. There are others that even
after a stroke I couldn’t have written.”
I told him that while Step by Step was nonfiction, it was still very clearly his because the voice and tone were so distinctly Block-like.
“Well, I certainly wasn’t trying to write in a voice other than my own,” he said. That wasn’t always the case. “I completed an unfinished Cornell Woolrich novel. Doing that, I purposely was trying to write in Woolrich’s style. A little choppier than my own. I found myself just going into that voice. Yes, I can believe that it might be recognizable, because I can remember very early on when Ross Thomas published his first Oliver Bleeck novel. It was said it was a pseudonym of another writer. I was a chapter into that and just knew it was Ross Thomas.”
There likely are many reasons that Block writes a lot, but one of them is simply because it is his job. He mentions finances a lot in Step by Step, usually in terms of having to finish a book to make sure money keeps coming in the door. I asked him if there is a disconnect between perception and reality in the minds of readers who assume that New York Times bestselling author Lawrence Block is surely rolling in dough.
“I once had a conversation with Evan Hunter about the way we’re perceived,” he said. “Evan did quite well as a writer, but he got a letter from some joker at a college somewhere that for a donation of $10 million they’d put his name on a building somewhere. He asked me, ‘How much do they think we make?’
“A fan wrote in and said, ‘If you’re doing these book tours regularly you really should investiga
te this thing where you can be a part owner of a private plane. So, yes, people get a skewed idea. There are people who have high seven and eight figure writing incomes annually. Because the nature of the business is such that what draws the headlines is indeed money, most of the story in the press about writers is what they make, it’s the numbers in the deal that get the ink. But the figure that’s announced is not always the figure that you get.”
So, he said he will continue to write. That might not mean new novels, he said, but a recent satisfying project to write a screenplay for his Matthew Scudder novel A Ticket to the Boneyard was “demanding and gratifying,” and he’d like to do more of that kind of work.
He hasn’t used those words to describe the films that have been made of his books to date (he writes quite amusingly in Step by Step about seeing a Spanish-dubbed version of “Eight Million Ways to Die” while hiking in Spain. A new language did nothing to improve it.), but is willing to keep trying.
“When I finish writing a book I can do so with the fairly strong expectation that it will be published and that it will find whatever audience it will find,” he said. “A screenplay is not a finished work. On the one hand, I’ve been unhappy with the three films that have been made of books of mine, but on the other hand, so has everybody else. It’s not the author being peckish here. I’ve never been sorry they were made. I’ve been decently paid for my participation in that.
It’s remarkable enough that any project gets off the ground and gets shot.”
Perhaps Step by Step will garner some publicity and help in that regard. Ironically enough, the book is raising his profile in a way his mystery novels have not. Though he is a bestselling novelist, he usually gets a fraction of the ink devoted to folks like John Grisham or Michael Connelly.
“It seems to me I’m getting more interview requests than usual for a book of mine. I did an interview with somebody at the sports department at USA Today, and one with the book department at USA Today,” he says. “The sports department has never had occasion to contact me, and the book department usually finds ways to ignore me.”
Being of modest means, I can’t troll eBay in search of those early works, and even have trouble justifying the cost of some of the reprints that have surfaced in the past decade. A collection of 24 of his earliest stories — those he deemed not worthy of inclusion in the omnibus Enough Rope — were published in a small run by Crippen & Landru as One Night Stands. Another C&L book gathered some Ed London novellas under the title The Lost Cases of Ed London. One Night Stands sold out immediately (and before I learned of it) and fetched insane prices on the secondary market. Fearing the same fate, I ponied up for the still-rather-expensive Ed London book, which is also now sold out.
Flash forward: Block has announced that HarperCollins will issue both books in one paperback edition, One Night Stands and Lost Weekends. Now, some collectors relish having the original work. I don’t I want the words on the page, any format will do. So, I was saddened to think that a bit more patience on my part would have allowed me to get the same material for considerably less money, with funds left over to pursue other of his books.
I’ve since learned my lesson: Block is very open about wanting to maximize the earnings from his writings, so it’s safe to say that eventually, everything will come out in some cheaper, mass market fashion. As long as I am willing to wait, I’ll be able to read most everything and stay within my budget.
As he reports in his newsletter this week: “Time went by, as it has a habit of doing, and I realized that it didn’t seem to be hurting me to have any of that early work available. All things being equal (whatever that means) I’d rather have my work being read than not. “
For those wanting the limited editions of these books despite their pending availability, Block is parting with his own copies… for a price. One Night Stands is $125; Ed London is $75. Not to undercut the man, but I’m willing to part with my copy — pristine shape — for $60. E-mail me if you’re interested.
The Block reissue campaign began with titles that were more easily found — (Grifter’s Game was pretty available before that time as Mona) and The Girl With the Long Green Heart). Then things got interesting. 2007 brought Lucky at Cards, a book that had been out of print for 37 years and which was issued as The Sex Shuffle by Sheldon Lord; while 2008 brought A Diet of Treacle, Block’s take on the heroin-centered beatnik scene in New York. Block told me in an interview a year ago that, “I don’t think there are any others I’d be happy to see reprinted, but greed does have a way of triumphing over principles, so we’ll have to see.”
Greed is triumphant, it seems, as Hard Case now has Killing Castro in the pipeline. Hard Case honcho Charles Ardai reports that “this is by far the rarest of all Block’s books. He wrote it under a pseudonym he never used before or since, it’s never been published under his real name (or this title), and he couldn’t even locate a copy of it himself for 30 years!”
When Block talks about greed trumping principles, that sounds like someone willing to put out sub-par product in the name of profits, but this sounds like a promising book, nonetheless. In the book, published the year before the Cuban Missile Crisis, five assassins head out on a mission to kill Fidel Castro. The sample chapter on the Hard Case web site shows the book to be classic Block. Some of his earliest work only hints at what was to come, but here his voice seems fully formed, his way with crisp dialogue and no-nonsense scene setting already established.
Now, the only problem is killing the time until January. But with that twofer from Robert Bloch still on my nightstand and titles from Donald Westlake, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr, Max Allan Collins and Ardai himself in the offing, it will be an entertaining wait.