Interrogation: Lawrence Block and the return of Hard Case Crime

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Note: To learn more about the relaunch of Hard Case Crime, read a new interview with HCC editor Charles Ardai at our sister site, Things I’d Rather Be Doing.

It was a dark day a couple of years ago when Lawrence Block dropped this on me: “I may really not write another book.” I was interviewing him for a story to preview a rare appearance here in Iowa, part of the tour in support of his book, Step by Step. The only silver lining in this was that, as an uber-fan committed to reading everything he has written, my quest now had an ending point.

Two years later, that quest is so open ended as to be slightly ridiculous. First, Block reissued many of his deep backlist in eBook form — several books that collectors long have sought and others that no one but Block knew had come from his pen. Then, he announced new books. First up, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, the first new Matthew Scudder book in six years. That is followed this week by Getting Off for Hard Case Crime.

The book is notable for many reasons. It is Block’s first original for the imprint after five reprints of long out-of-print work. It marks the return of Hard Case Crime after a year’s absence. And, it returns with this, its first hardcover offering. Lastly, Block resurrected the pseudonym, Jill Emerson, dormant for decades, for the book.

Getting Off is subtitled “A Novel of Sex & Violence, lest anyone get the wrong idea of a book with a naked knife-weilding woman on the cover. It is the story of Kit Tolliver, a woman who decides that no man that has slept with her should live to tell the tale. She has been cleaning up after herself for a while when we meet her, but she realizes that there were a handful that got away. The result is a roadtrip book like none you’ve read before.

It’s great to have Block back with new material on the shelves; I’m very happy to acknowledge I’ll probably never catch up. At least I know there always will be something great on my “to be read” list.

GRIFT: This is the most-productive retirement for a writer in recent memory. After telling me a couple of years ago that “I may really not write another book. I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’m done writing novels. I may have tapped out that well,” you’ve published two novels. Not that I’m complaining, but what happened?

LB: I know, I know. I’ve failed utterly at retirement. The economy helped me out here, I have to say, by poaching my nest egg. Then an idea came along for A Drop of the Hard Stuff, and it engaged me enough so that I sat down and wrote it. Getting Off is a little different; I’d written a couple of short stories, and I loved the character so much that I decided the material ought to grow into a novel. And, like Topsy, it did.

But that’s only two of my new books this year. A stack of Writer’s Digest columns, never published outside the magazine, morphed neatly into The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion, two eRiginals from Open Road, and the afterwords I wrote for forty-plus eBook reissues became a kind of piecemeal memoir, Afterthoughts.

So Getting Off is my fifth new book for 2011. And there’s a sixth coming in October, but I can’t quite talk about it yet. Soon, very soon—but not quite yet.

I was angry with you after reading Small Townbecause I feared that the explicit sex in the book would torpedo any chance it had of being the large, important post-9/11 book it otherwise was, and I felt like you deserved that at that point in your career. Maybe it was the warning in the subtitle, or the fact that thanks to your ebooks I’ve now read more of your back catalog and can put this kind of work in better context, but I wasn’t put off in the slightest by the sex in Getting Off. What are your thoughts about writing explicitly, and what has the reaction been to it over the years?

Well, I’d have liked for Small Town to reach a larger audience, but I’ve never felt Susan Pomerance held it back. The only people she rubbed the wrong way, so to speak, were Bernie Rhodenbarr books who felt they’d been ambushed by what was not their kind of book. Thus the subtitle and open pen name for Getting Off; I really don’t want to sell books to people who aren’t going to enjoy them.

For many years I tended to tack to the prim side, perhaps as a reaction to all those years writing erotica. Scudder may lead an active sexual life, but he could hardly be more circumspect in reporting it. And that seems of a piece with the man’s character.

Have to say, though, that I loved writing Susan Pomerance, and I fell in love with Kit Tolliver and Ree Perrin. And I truly enjoyed writing hot scenes, not least of all because the hottest are pretty much all dialogue. “Show, don’t tell?” Fuck that. When it works, there’s nothing more erotic than overheard conversation.

Again, perhaps it was because I’ve been reading ebooks of yours that first were published decades ago, but I kept having to remind myself that Getting Off was contemporary. Something that would be anachronistic in a book from the 50s or 60s would pop up, and I’d say, “Oh yeah, this is set now.” Do you aim for a certain timelessness in your work? Does writing a pulp novel for an imprint like Hard Case Crime put in the mind of something different than a different project would?

Last part first: I didn’t know who’d publish Getting Off. I never thought of the book generically, and it was more the intense enthusiasm Charles had for the book that led me to choose him to publish it. I felt he really GOT the book, and would be the right person to give it a good shot with the public.

I don’t think much about trying for timelessness, because it’s a fool’s errand; everything you write is ultimately a creature of its time, which is one reason rewriting one’s early work is generally a mistake.

When it comes to setting something in the past, as I did with A Drop of the Hard Stuff, it works best when the writer can simply will himself into the period. There are two writers I’m thinking of, Alan Furst and Harold Adams. It’s very clear that the years before and during WWII are more vivid than the present to Alan, and while I’m sure he takes pains to get his facts right, the book aren’t about research; they’re about seeking the past within oneself and writing what one finds there. Harold Adams wrote a series of books set in Clark, South Dakota, in the late 30s—he called the town Corder, IIRC—and based his hero on an uncle of his. And you got the feeling that Harold just hopped into a time machine. I don’t know that I’ve explained this terribly well…

What is involved from your end in reissuing all of those back catalog titles through Open Road? You obviously wrote new afterwords, but did you do any editing, checking to make sure everything was where it should be, etc.? And the obvious follow up, is here more to come?

No, I’m too lazy. I just left it all alone, and can supply no end of rationalizations for it, but laziness was the read motivator there. It’s what I keep citing as the big factor in my prolificacy over the years, you know. I’m the laziest man I know, in a great rush to be done with things, and that leads me to produce publishable first drafts and write them rapidly. And on to the next. It’s laziness, and whenever I say this people assume I’m being ironic, and flash stupid smiles.

And I suspect there’s more to come, of the early work. Subterranean Press will bring out Hard Case #69 sometime in 2012, with two books, Strange Embrace (by Ben Christopher) and 69 Barrow Street (by Sheldon Lord) as a double volume, bound like the old Ace doubles, back to back—or, if you prefer, belly to belly. They’ll both be eBooks eventually as well. I’ve got over 20 John Warren Wells titles available for ePublication if/when I can convince myself that enough people will be interested in reading them to make them profitable.

Speaking of more, now that you seem to be on a roll again with new material, what can we expect in that regard down the road?

Who knows? Well, I know a little. The next Mulholland Press book will be a fifth Keller novel, almost certainly to be called Hit Me. But eventually, you know, I really do expect I’ll stop writing novels.

You have really taken to social media, actively participating in Twitter and Facebook. What does this direct interaction with fans mean for you as a writer? Does the knowledge of so many dedicated readers have any impact on what you chose to pursue?

I don’t know. I enjoy it, but sometimes I think it’s mostly a waste of time and energy. And I certainly like to think that I write what I please, without regard to the expectations of fans. But that may not be entirely true. It’s hard to say.

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One Response to “Interrogation: Lawrence Block and the return of Hard Case Crime”

  1. Lawrence, you leave me speechless. I have so many books in your backlist to read. And now your frontlist. You were in Iowa? Wish I’d known…I’d have been there, hopping up and down like Tigger. And thank you for your comment on show, don’t tell. Can you please comment on the verb ‘to be’? I really want someone like you to talk about the denigration and demotion of the verb forms of ‘to be’.

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