Two months ago, Lawrence Block and Robert Silverberg met in San Francisco for an epic conversation that spanned nearly every topic imaginable…and far more. Mulholland Books has transcribed the dialogue between these two masters of storytelling and will present it to you in two parts.
(Read Part I here.)
LB: Should we take questions from some of these people?
RS: Yeah. They don’t want to hear about our ancient pulp stuff. They want to know about the Playboy stories.
Audience Question: When did the two of you first meet? And what was the nature of that meeting?
LB: It was quite recent. It was three or four years ago…
RS: He’s getting old. Actually, we met in the 60s at a Science Fiction party. He doesn’t remember it. You and Westlake came to the Hydra club somewhere in Manhattan.
LB: It must be somebody else. I never went to the Hydra club. <singing> “Oh yes, I remember it well…” <singing>
RS: Well, I can see the two of them, walking across there. They looked so young too. I thought, “So young.” But actually, we did officially meet about four years ago in New York after having had parallel careers over all these decades, him in one field, me in the other. But we did the same thing. We both got Grand Masters. It’s like crossing the checker board. We both got to be kings at the end.
LB: After a long time as a pawn, let me tell you.
RS: But sometimes a well-paid pawn. I was in New York. I forget why. I grew up in New York, so I don’t have to visit it anymore. And I said, “Well, let’s have dinner.” And we did.
LB: We had become acquainted through a friend by email and have been in touch since.
RS: Yeah, we do throw each other market tips at this late date. “Have you heard? This one is buying rights to the old crap that we wrote.”
Audience Question: Have you guys written anything together?
RS: I’m not much of a collaborator. I have a done a little. I’m sure you have done much.
LB: I did a couple very early on with Donald Westlake. And those were just recently reissued. There were three novels that we did. And that was some of the most fun I ever had writing. Because we didn’t discuss the book at all. One of us would write a chapter and give it to the other. We just passed it back and forth. And I killed his viewpoint character. He did something equally unpleasant to mine. The form was so forgiving, you know, with the mid-century erotica. As long as the story moved along and every once and awhile someone got laid, that was all that was really required.
RS: We improvised the books really. A plot situation would get started and then you’d keep moving it along. At the very beginning of my career I had a collaborator, an alcoholic Science Fiction writer named Randall Garrett, who was very old, eight years older than I was. He could never any work done because he was drunk. I never had any problem with alcohol. I’m Jewish, we start very young with that stuff. But I was a beginner. I had sold a few stories. Through a twist of fate we ended up next to each other in the Manhattan hotel and he said, “Let’s work together.” And it was symbiotic because he couldn’t stay sober very long, but he could start a story. “Here, I’ll have you work on it.” And I would continue it and then I would go to sleep. Even then I was early to bed, early to rise. And when he got up, there would be my continuation of the manuscript and he was still sober, so he’d write some more. And we sold every word we wrote. In fact, there’s a book of them published last year, of those stories written 50 years ago. But I was still in college then. When I graduated from college, I got married. Not to my lovely wife over there, but to a different wife. And she said, “That man will not enter our house.” And that was the end of the collaboration.
LB: Randy was extraordinary. Westlake described him as the only man he ever knew who would drink bar whisky by choice. He liked to drink all the time, but he wanted to go to some rancid tavern and do this. And Randy found out how to cope with Election Day. Election day, I don’t think this is true anymore, but all the bars in New York were closed. Randy went to the bar of the United Nations. Now, this is a resourceful gentleman.
RS: He finished his days as a Catholic priest, but not as a Roman Catholic priest, but he found some obscure cult, the Old Catholic Church. He walked around with a clerical collar.
LB: He was a genius in the world of the pun. When I knew him, he was High Church Anglican and he went to a canon of the Episcopal Church as his spiritual advisor and sometimes he would tell the gentleman an off-color joke. And one time, he said, “I don’t know if it’s proper for me to do this, to tell a joke like this to you.” And the fellow reassured him, “Oh it’s perfectly acceptable. Besides, I can always use the jokes as fodder for my sermons.” And Randy said instantly, “It’s a wise canon who knows his own fodder.” And, 50 years later, I am still absolutely dazzled by that performance. I don’t know how the hell he did it.
RS: I saw him topped once. He and Isaac Asimov had a certain physical resemblance. They were heavy set men of about the same height. And at one of the science fiction conventions I was getting into the elevator with Harlan Ellison and as the elevator arrived, there was Randall Garrett and Isaac Asimov side-by-side in the elevator. And Harlan said quickly, “Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.” And Isaac said quickly, “I’m Dee.” Alright, questions, questions.
You mentioned you collaborated with Donald Westlake on the erotica. Since Westlake wrote very hardboiled fiction, as well as very humorous (the Dortmunder series, which I love), so I was wondering in which vein did your work reflect that sense of humor that you seem both to have? Or was it outside the norm of the genre?
LB: The books were fun. There were just three. They were published recently, I think within the past year, as a triple volume by Subterranean Press under the title Hellcats and Honeygirls and it sold out almost immediately and won’t go back to press, but it’s probably around in the aftermarket.
RS: At 200 dollars a copy. This ancient crap we did in 5-6 days.
LB: But actually all three of the books are available now as eBooks under their original titles. The three titles are: A Girl Called Honey, So Willing, and Sin Hellcat. You can find them if you go to the Open Road eBook site, Open Road Integrated Media, and click on my work. There will be a badge and you can click through. And they are available for all eBook platforms.
RS: eBook platforms? Wow, are you a 21st century guy.
LB: You can tell, can’t you?
A question on the Scudder books, I’ve always been very taken by the titles. Take Her to the Boneyard or A Drop of the Hard Stuff or whatever. When do you come up with the title in the process of writing?
LB: Sometimes I know going in what the title is going to be. Sometimes, it happens in the course of the book. Sometimes, the title that I write it under doesn’t really work and we wind up rethinking it. With A Drop of the Hard Stuff, which is the new book, when I was writing it, I was calling it Between Drinks, which would have worked as a title. But a fellow at Little, Brown said, “I wonder if you can come up with anything better. This is a good enough title, but it’s not as Scudder-esque as some of the others.” A Drop of the Hard Stuff occurred to me. I suggested that. Everybody out there was delighted by it, so that’s what we came to. Some of them I’ve known all along what I’ve wanted the title to be. When the Sacred Ginmill Closes came out of the song “Last Call” by Dave Van Ronk and I didn’t know when I sat down to write the book that that was going to be anywhere in it, but once it was, I realized that was what I wanted to pull out for the title.
Like All the Flowers Are Dying, that’s a great title.
LB: Thank you. That of course is from “Danny Boy.”
RS: I can’t write a book without knowing the title. It means I don’t know what the book is about.
LB: And you wrote all those books for Hamling and they didn’t even have titles.
RS: Well, I’d call them “Quest” and they would… Or “David Copperfield…” But no, with a science fiction book, I want the title early on. Sometimes the title comes first and I wonder, “What kind of book goes with this title?” It works!
LB: Sometimes the end of the book comes first. Usually it isn’t that way and I’ve always figured even if I don’t know where a book is going, if I know how it starts, I can write that and see what happens. But with one of the Scudder books called A Dance of the Slaughterhouse, what came to me was the ending of the book. And the more I thought about it, the clearer the last two chapters of the book became. But I didn’t know what the hell came first and you can’t write those and then see what’s behind it because it doesn’t work. And that book, I had a 200 page false start on it. And threw out a good 200 pages and started over, but the ending was just what I knew it was going to be.
RS: It surprises me, of course I don’t write crime novels, that you could write a crime novel without knowing the ending. I guess it happens, but…
LB: With most of the books it doesn’t. That’s all right because they just evolve and get where they’re going. With the Scudder books, I don’t have to know that much about the ending while I’m writing. But with the Burglar books, those are or at least look like they are intricately plotted dove-tailed mysteries. But often when Bernie gathers them all together and says, “I suppose you’re wondering why I summoned you all here,” I’m wondering every bit as much as he is. And sometimes it’s very difficult because I have to find some way out of the mess I’ve created.
RS: I like what you said, “they look as though they’re intricately plotted.” It marks you as a pro. And that’s one of things I’ve always liked about you. Pro! Make it look as though you really knew what you were doing. That does divides the sheep from the goats.
Audience Question: I was just wondering which of your work, you’re most proud of.
RS: I don’t know. Lust Quest? There’s a book called Dying Inside that when people who don’t read science fiction ask me, “What should I read, I don’t like science fiction?” I say, “Read Dying Inside.” It is a science fiction book, but it is a science fiction book that you don’t have to be a science fiction reader to read. It’s a real novel. I guess, as a technical achievement, as a writing job, it’s the book I’m most proud of tonight.
LB: Tonight, certainly, I’m most proud of A Drop of the Hard Stuff. It’s the one you all get to take home. It’s hard for me to separate the Scudder books because I think of them very much as parts of a whole. I think I’m most pleased or most proud of that series. Also, there’s a book of mine called Small Town that I like a lot.
Audience Question: I just wanted to ask about plotting again. How extensively do you plot?
LB: I just sit down. I like to have something of a story in mind when I sit down besides just the opening, but the opening is enough. If I write that and it comes to life and that’s the book I’m meant to be writing then something will occur to me and it will continue and it will be fine. I don’t outline. I have. There have been times when I’ve outlined, but now I don’t. I find that all it does is tell the unconscious that I already know what I’m doing here; I don’t need any help from you. So I’d rather not do that.
RS: I used to do fairly elaborate outlines. One so elaborate that it has been published and republished as an object in itself. The Lord Valentine’s Castle outline was so elaborate that it’s a textbook novel of what you do for an outline. But as time went on, my outlines became shorter and shorter. Basically, if I had the beginning and the end, I figure that the middle will take care of itself. I’ve been doing this for 40, 50 years. But I did need to know the end. I can’t build a bridge without knowing which shore I’m heading for. I scribble them on the back of old envelopes and then sell them for lots of money.
Audience Question: What do you read for enjoyment?
RS: Not science fiction writers. For fiction, a wild assortment of people. Anybody from Graham Greene to Charles Dickens to… I read very little contemporary fiction because I don’t like the contemporary world very much. Couple years ago, somebody was collecting writer’s epitaphs and we were asked to write epitaphs for ourselves. The one I wrote was, “Silverberg: He spent so much time writing about the future, he was condemned to live in it.” I’m going on a trip next week and I’m taking a novel by Anthony Trollope with me to read. That’s who I read for pleasure. I read him (Block) for pleasure sometimes.
LB: I usually don’t answer this question. I try to avoid it as much as I can.
Audience Question: Is it safer to say, “Who do you loathe?”
LB: No. That I don’t want to say at all. The reason that I avoid the question is that every time I do answer it I lose friends in the process because I forget to mention them. What I will say is my favorite book this year has been. And that would be The Informant by Thomas Perry.
Audience Question: How do you feel about eBooks?
LB: I’m a big fan. I must be. I just recently arranged for the eBook publication of about 45 out of print books of mine and for the publication as eBook originals of two new books for writers of previously uncollected columns of mine. One effect of it is that it allows one’s backlist to be available for ever and gives the reading public access to books that wouldn’t be available otherwise and especially wouldn’t be available otherwise as publishers stop printing backlist titles. The shrinking of mass market paperbacks. They’ve disappeared. If you go into chain bookstores, well I know of my work, there used to be two full shelves at a Barnes and Noble of my various paperbacks and now there are generally three books. That’s shrinkage. So I’m happy to see eBooks.
RS: The question can be taken in several ways. I’m an admirer. I think they’re wonderful for writers. Especially for writers who have a lot of books. I’m trying to put as many as I can on there. I don’t have a Kindle. I don’t have any use for eBooks myself. I like turning pages and I like putting a bookmark in. But I’m an old guy-
LB: You can put a bookmark in with an eBook.
RS: Yeah, you can. But you can’t turn the page quite the same way.
The pages don’t stick together like in the old books.
LB: And God knows they did in our early work. (Ma’am, when you throw it over the plate belt-high, you’ve got to expect it.)
RS: I don’t want to read books electronically. I don’t want to read things on my computer. When people say, “Here’s my new story.” “Fine. Send it. I’ll print it out.” And then I won’t read it. But unwillingly or not, I live in the 21st century and I’m a professional writer in the 21st century. And I think this is a marvelous development for those of us who would like our audiences to continue being our audiences.
LB: I know when Westlake had Hard Case Crime reprinting a couple of his early books and a bookseller/publisher, asked him, “Why are you doing this? There’s not enough money involved to matter. Why would you bother?” And Don’s line was, “The difference between being in print and out of print is the difference between being alive and being dead.” So I’d just as soon keep my work in print.
RS: I’d just as soon be alive. That was a notion Don didn’t get.
LB: No, well, he did for awhile.
RS: A long while.
Audience Question: Why are you guys doing this book-signing together?
RS: Well, it’s not a tag team kind of thing. I don’t much like doing signings and I rarely bother doing them. I’m an old curmudgeon. I do what I damn please. But Larry said, “I’m going to be in your neighborhood. Why don’t you come out and join me?” I said, “Great idea! Let’s have dinner and we’ll do the signing.”
LB: We figured it would be fun. So far it is.
RS: We haven’t signed any books yet, though. But we don’t go around the country doing this as an Abbott & Costello… You don’t know who Abbott & Costello is…
Audience Question: How do you avoid taking the life out of your writing when you edit it?
RS: Well, in the really old days, I would write only one draft, certainly writing the erotica…if you’re going to write a book in six days, you certainly don’t just sit down and re-type it all. In an act of what we in the trade call “chutzpah,” I would put a sheet of white paper into the typewriter with the carbon paper behind it (I know these are esoteric terms now) and a yellow sheet behind that and just write the book, one draft. By the time I got to be about 32, that became hard to do. And I started to revise. And eventually I did so much revising that it drove me crazy because we used typewriters and I would get half a page down and say, “Oh that’s no good.” And then I’d pull the thing out of the typewriter and type it all over again. They invented a thing called a computer and that made life much simpler after 1982 or so when I started using a computer when you could scroll back and fix that bungled page. But basically you have to know when to stop fiddling. Not only will you drive yourself crazy by revising endlessly, but as you say, you’ll take the life out of the book. I can only tell you that it’s an intuitive thing. The really professional writer knows, “This paragraph is okay. Go on to the next one.”
LB: And it varies enormously from one writer to another. Stanley Ellin was an absolutely brilliant writer and he would sometimes write the first page of a short story 30 times before he moved onto the second page. It was very very painstaking that way. That was how it worked for him. Other writers write first drafts and send that in. Neither way is right; neither way is wrong. You find out what works for you.
RS: It can become a dysfunctional way of life if you revise compulsively. Some writers, even old pros, will get into that dysfunctional mode where they cannot stop fiddling. I had that happen to me once. It was a very troubled time of my life, 1983. I started a novel. I was using a computer then and I wrote the first page about twelve times. Just when I got it right, there was a power failure and the first page disappeared. So I rewrote it, but you know when you lose a page, you never right it again as well. And after that, I learned: A. Get a different kind of computer that backs up automatically as you go. Back then, it didn’t do that; B. Leave well enough alone. After the thirteenth time you’ve written page one, you’ve probably written it eight more times than you needed.
LB: I still just write one draft, really. I’ll work over it as I’m going along, but when I get to the end and I type, “The End”, I generally mean it.
Audience Question: You went into writing very early on. Did you always feel like writing was your only vocation?
RS: I got a fast start. One advantage to getting a fast start was that I wrote science fiction. I didn’t need to know a lot about the real world as long as I could imagine worlds. Eventually I learned a lot about the real world; I spent a lot of time living in it. But indeed when I was a boy reading science fiction, sometime back I said, “I think I can do this.” And I began doing it. And by the time I was 19 or so, I was still in college earning my living as a very successful freelance writer. I never got a job. I never needed to. That was a quick start, indeed. To the point where now I’m older than most of my colleagues and I find this very weird because I’m accustomed still to be the boy wonder, the child prodigy. It’s hard to be a child prodigy at 76, let me tell you.
LB: Yeah, I have a vivid memory of getting up one morning and I had just turned 25. And I said, “Well, I guess the Boy Wonder Bit is over.” Because up to that time the fact that I was writing books and getting them published was a little like… Oh, I know Samuel L. Johnson talked about a woman preacher being “like a dog walking on its hind legs. The question is not whether it’s good or not; the wonder is that it is done at all.” I got by a lot on that. Then, at 25, I was a grizzled old man…
RS: Somebody, I forget who, ran into Tom Godwin and Tom was at 25. He said to the interlocutor (whoever it was), “I’m 25 years old and I haven’t accomplished anything yet! What is going to become of me?” Later on, he accomplished a few things. There are still a few writers around who were my senior colleagues, writers that I read when I was learning my trade. They are now in their 90s. When I’m with them (I talked to one this afternoon, Jack Vance, who is going to be 95 soon), I still feel like a boy wonder. Last year, Jack, who is a neighbor of mine, happened to call me on my birthday. “How are you Silverberg?” I said, “I’m a little puzzled. It’s my birthday and I’m 75 and I’m having trouble getting my mind about that.” And he said, “You’re just a kid!” Well, he was 93 or so, and I am to him just a kid. And then I go to a Science Fiction convention and I walk around among the readers who were not born when I began writing and they look at me as something out of the Pleistocene. You get to live both ends of this, if you last long enough. “You’re just a kid, Silverberg!”
LB: If you’re getting out and meeting the public a lot and signing, you get the great pleasure of having attractive young women come up to you and say, “You’re my grandmother’s favorite author!”
RS: One of them did say that to me and I married her.
RS: It really wasn’t her grandmother. It was her father. When she said she married Robert Silverberg, he said, “Is he still writing?”
Audience Question: How do you feel about books being turned into movies? Have you had any experiences of that sort?
LB: I had a couple movies made of books of mine. The movies weren’t very good, nor were they successful. I think writers who are upset because the film does not follow the book are silly. Because if I were spending 20 million dollars to make a film, I don’t think making the author feel good about this would be high on my list of priorities. If it were, I wouldn’t be in the business for very long. But in this instance, the films weren’t good. That was not just my take on it. It was shared by all the reviewers and all the people who saw the movie. However, like that dog walking on its hind legs, it almost seems picky to point out that a movie is terrible because it’s so remarkable that it got made at all. So many don’t.
RS: James Cain, who wrote a few good books in your field. He had a lot of his books filmed and one apparently was butchered. And someone asked, “Mr. Cain, how do you feel about what they did to your book?” And he said, “They didn’t do anything to my book!” And he reached around and said, “Here’s my book!”
LB: Martin Cruz Smith was asked how the movie of Gorky Park followed the book and he said, “The movie followed the book the way a mugger follows its victims.”
RS: Larry, I’ve had a couple movies made from my work, nothing special. I’ve had a lot of them bought for filming. And that’s nice because they send you a lot of money and then they never do anything. But they send you a lot of money and then you can’t say that they mutilated my book. All you can say is I put that in my bank account and then we went to Paris and I stayed in this hotel… I had a helluva case in one, they never made the movie, I got the rights back, and sold them all over again. The book writer who allows himself to care very much about what the movies might do to him or do for him- Fool’s game. You just waste energy. You’re only going to get disappointed or hurt if you pay that much attention.
LB: And if you care that much, the answer is very simple: you don’t let the book be filmed. I know a couple of people who have taken that position, Bob Crais and Sue Grafton have both made a hard and fast rule that their main series they didn’t want the books filmed. Both had had careers prior to that as screenwriters, so they knew whereof they spoke.
RS: It’s a different medium. It’s a different world.
Audience Question: Robert, it seems like you’ve had some pauses in your long career, where you stopped writing and publishing. Is that true?
RS: Yeah, I wrote-
LB: That was that stretch where you were in jail. They wouldn’t let you have anything sharp, as I recall.
RS: I wasn’t really going to talk about that. I wrote flat out from the age of 18, I guess, to about 40, an enormous amount of material, as much as any human being has ever written in that span of time, I suspect, and got published. I got tired. I thought, “I’d made a lot of money here and I’m 40. I’d like not to do this.” Of course, I overdid it and I said, “I’m not going to write anything else forever.” And for four or five years, I didn’t. I had a lot of fun. I built a garden across the bay there. When I felt like it, I got in my car and drove to Los Angeles or anywhere else. And then I went back to writing. But you do get tired. It is not an easy profession. I don’t recommend it. It worked out well for this gentleman. It worked out well for me. And ever now and then I get tired of writing. I’m tired of writing right now. Of course now I’m seriously old. Most people my age do retire. I’d probably feel the same way. You get tired of writing, surely you do?
LB: Yeah. I thought about two years ago that I was done writing now. And I really did think so. It was not that I was swearing off or something like that. I thought I was probably done. I’d been doing this for whatever, 50 years. Any wisdom I had to share with the world I had long since exhausted or depleted and probably said many times over. And I thought I was probably done. I had figured I would continue writing to one degree or another, that I would probably write a certain number of short stories. I would probably write the occasional magazine piece. A novel, that’s more heavy lifting than I figured I wanted to bother with. Have you seen the movie Casablanca? There’s a scene where Rick, Humphrey Bogart’s character, is in conversation with Claude Rains’ character and Claude Rains says, “Rick, why did you come to Casablanca in the first place?” And Bogart says, “I came for the waters.” Rains says, “But there is no water in Casablanca.” And Bogart says, “I was misinformed.” So it turns out that I was not done writing novels. I have two coming out this year, which bespeaks ill of my capacity for retirement.
Audience Question: What’s your next novel?
LB: The next novel, it will be coming in September. It will be coming from Hard Case Crime and it will be their first hardcover release. The title is “Getting Off,” the subtitle is “A Novel of Sex and Violence,” and the byline is “Lawrence Block, writing as Jill Emerson.” It’s a naughty book. There are innumerable scenes in it that we could have never gotten away with in the Hamling days.
RS: Full of vulgarisms.
LB: Vulgarisms and graphics. All that.
RS: How about “it?”
LB: No, I know when not to go too far.
RS: Well, I don’t have any novels coming out. I don’t think I’m going to have any novels coming out. I don’t want to write novels. But I did. I put in my time. When I was 16, I thought, “If I could only get something published, how wonderful.” I did that. It’s hard for the somebody in that position saying, “If I could only get something published…”, to understand that somebody who did get something published might want to stop and say, “I’ve had enough published.”
LB: I know periodically I meet someone who has a first book coming out and asks if I have any advice for them. And my advice for them is never what they want to hear: “Don’t expect too much.” I know Don Marquis, the guy who wrote “Archy” and “Mehitabel,” said that publishing a volume of poetry is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.
Audience Question: Why do you write?
LB: I’ll give you an answer that is not original, but maybe it fits. Gloria Steinem once said that she wrote because writing was her metier And she knew this because it passed what she said were the three tests of metier, which were: 1. When she was doing it, she never has the nagging feeling she should be doing something else, 2. It’s a source of satisfaction and occasionally of pride, and 3. It’s terrifying. I like that.
RS: Nice twist at the end there. Two things. 1. I’m really good at it. And everybody should have something they’re really good at. If they do, they should do it. The other, when I was in college, I went to Columbia and lived at home in Brooklyn. And every morning I would take the subway from Brooklyn to Morningside Heights. It took me about an hour. And there were commuters aboard the train, going to work, grown people. And I looked at them and thought, “They do this every morning, just as my father does. They go to an office somewhere riding that subway and then they spend all day at the office and then they ride back at night. I don’t want to do that. I’ve got the skill. I know I’ve got the skill. I can spend the rest of my life working at home with my shoes off.” And I did. That’s what I did. Also, it was fun here and there.
RS: Okay, that’s enough.