Today Mulholland Books celebrates the paperback publication of A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF! Missed out on the “totally gripping….Great American Crime Novel” (Time) the first time around? Now’s your chance!
Larry’s essay on writing A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF follows.
I was afraid I might be done writing about Matthew Scudder.
I’d certainly spent enough years in his company. From 1975’sThe Sins of the Fathers all the way to All the Flowers are Dying in 2005, I’d written sixteen Matthew Scudder novels, along with a handful of short stories. And, because the fellow has aged in real time throughout the series, he’s now reached and passed the biblical high water mark of three score years and ten. Even if you’re optimistic enough to argue that 72 is the new 71, the fellow’s still a little old to be leaping tall buildings in a single bound.
Now I should point out that this was not the first time I thought Scudder and I were done with each other. In the fifth book, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), the fellow confronted his alcoholism and, not without difficulty, chose sobriety. That was all well and good for him, but I figured I’d written myself out of a job. The man had undergone a catharsis, he’d confronted the central problem of his existence, so what was left to say about him? His d’etre, you might say, had lost its raison, and I’d be well advised to go write about somebody else.
And it took a while for me to discover that Scudder could have a post-alcohol career. After a sort of prequel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes, in 1989 I picked up the story in Out on the Cutting Edge. And I’ve been writing about Matt ever since.
But nothing goes on forever, and if All the Flowers are Dying was the end, well, the book had been very generously received by readers and critics. So Matt and I would be going out on a high note.
But what do I know?
One day in the late summer of 2009 I went out racewalking. (I wrote about my life as an aging and unskilled racewalker in a memoir, Step By Step, but don’t pretend you read it. Nobody read it, and I have the sales figures to prove it.)
I went out walking, as I said, and my mind wandered, as it tends to. And what struck me was that there was a seven-year stretch of Matt Scudder’s life that never found its way into the books. In 1982 he puts down a drink and walks into an AA meeting; when we catch up with him in 1989, he’s six or seven years sober and getting through the days.
Now something interesting had to have happened during those unrecorded years. It’s been my observation that early sobriety tends to be an eventful period in a person’s life, and why should it be otherwise with Scudder?
I let myself think about it, and elements of a story began to filter in. I remembered how an old friend had said that, of a particular group of kids in his high school, half had become cops and the other half crooks; any of that particular social stratum could have gone either way. That sent me back even further in Scudder’s past, to his boyhood in the Bronx.
Oh, who knows how a story comes together? I knew a little about it when I sat down and started writing. I found out more as I went along. In A Drop of the Hard Stuff, Scudder would have to get along without some of the people who have become important in his life in more recent books—his wife, Elaine, for example, and his young friend TJ. On the other hand, he’s keeping company with Jan Keane, and has the good advice and counsel of his sponsor, Jim Faber. (And it was good for me to be able to have those old friends around.)
He was also back again in a world without cell phones or computers. For me, writing the book, it seemed like only yesterday—but it was close to thirty years ago.
And will there be other stories from Matt’s lost years? Or from deeper in his past? Or will I somehow find a way to continue his story in present time?
Hey, why are you asking me? I’m generally the last person to know what’s going to happen next. . .