In this second of three installments, Robert B. Parker talks about his writing philosophy, some of his favorite and not-so-favorite authors, and the intellectual underpinnings of the American detective story.
EB: Your stories are nearly effortless to read and some of the easiest fiction to take in and enjoy. Is that intentional? How much effort do you put into the language and the story and as it flows and moves along?
RBP: Well, it’s all effortful and yet it’s all intuitive. I both know and don’t know what I’m doing. Well, I know a hell of a lot about what I do. I’ve been doing it for thirty-something years, I’ve written fifty-something books. I know exactly what I’m doing and I don’t have a clue about what I’m doing. It’s both, and I don’t know how to amplify that, but it’s both at the same time.
I want it to sound right. Even though I don’t write music, it seems to me more like writing music than anything else. It’s got to sound right in my head, you know? And if the language sounds right and the story sounds right and the people sound right… You know, you don’t have to be able to write music to know when it’s off-key.
There is almost no effort in the sense that I have no plan. If I had a rule of thumb it would be the most meaning with the fewest words. When in doubt, use a simple declarative sentence, which seems right to me. I’m certainly not the first guy to think of that.
EB: Strunk and White, in the Elements of Style, said, “Omit needless words.”
RBP: Yeah, exactly right. And Ernest Hemingway did some of that, and so did [Dashiell] Hammett.
EB: This is a bit of a leading question, but Spenser’s obviously one of the more literate and literary PIs out there. Does it ever bother you to be placed in the “genre” category as opposed to more literary authors and the place that puts you among other popular authors?
RBP: Nah, I don’t give a shit. It used to bother [Raymond] Chandler. Chandler used to complain about it. He used to say the average detective story is no worse than the average “straight novel” except that the average straight novel doesn’t get published. But no, I don’t care about that critics stuff. I don’t read reviews. Wherever this appears, I won’t read it – nothing personal.
EB: No offense taken.
RBP: And there’s a book out about me from some German scholar, and I haven’t read it. Joan [Parker] tried it and couldn’t stand it. It may be “heavy.” I do what I do. I write the book I want to read. They send me money, I write another one, they send me more money. I give the money to my wife and children, and life goes on.
I don’t care what someone thinks of me 100 years from now. I think I’m as good a writer as there is now alive. I mean, there’s no false modesty here! But if nobody else thinks so, I’m okay.
The thing about Joan that’s crucial to understanding me is that when I married her and had those kids, I did everything I ever needed to do in life, and the rest of this is all, you know, syrup on the ice cream. So I don’t complicate it – I’m relaxed about it all. And it comes relatively easy to me. I’m not agonizing – I’m doing four books a year. I’m not pressing myself beyond endurance. I’ve got nothing much else I like to do, so I do that. I don’t play golf, and… I write my books.
So I don’t feel a lot of pressure to make deadlines. My next deadline is six books from now or something, so I’m already five books ahead.
Elmore Leonard said to me once, “This is the best job in the world, isn’t it?”
And I said, “Yeah.”
You stay home, you write, they send you money. People think you’re important.
EB: That kind of leads me to my next question. You talked a little about what you read and don’t read. I wanted to ask you particularly about Elmore Leonard and other authors who you enjoy. That said, I did read once that you don’t read a lot of fiction.
RBP: I don’t read a lot of fiction. I don’t read much detective fiction. I greatly admire ‘Dutch’ Leonard. I read everything he writes and wish he’d write more. He’s a good guy. We know each other, we’re passively friendly. We bump into each other around the circuit and stuff like that. So I read Dutch. That’s about it for detective fiction, pretty much it for fiction.
Every now and then I’ll reread Chandler. I read some non-fiction. I’m currently reading Thomas Friedman’s book, The Lexus on the Olive Tree. I read his previous one. I think he’s got great insight into how things go in the Middle East. I read Jonathan Lear’s book on Freud with classical philosophers called Open Minded. My standard joke is that I didn’t understand it but that it makes a great answer to questions like this. I read that kind of stuff. I read McCullough’s book on Truman – he’s a great guy, I love David McCullough. I’m so pleased it came to him late and he reached his potential. I think he’s a brilliant historian. And I’m halfway through some book on the human genome but I can’t remember the author of it.
I don’t read a hell of a lot at all because I’ve pretty well used up my head by evening and most of the time I like to look at a ballgame. And, of course, Boston is the place to watch ballgames.
EB: I’m a New Yorker – I hope that doesn’t cause us any trouble.
RBP: [tauntingly] Ha ha, ha ha!
EB: Another author, if you don’t mind. I was thinking about who was up there with Spenser in terms of the breadth of what the character has done and popular readership, and that’s John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series.
RBP: I never met him – he was nice. He plugged me in my early career. I frankly was never a great fan of Travis McGee. I don’t quite know why I didn’t like him but I didn’t. I thought he was good but I never really looked forward to reading books by him.
Chandler was clearly the supreme master, in my view. Hammett was great in about two instances. The Maltese Falcon was probably the finest detective story ever written, and it’s downhill from there fairly sharply. I love Rex Stout and he did a batch and they were never not good. And it was such a good idea. He took the English story – Holmes and Watson – and he Americanized them. Do I understand the plots? No, but I loved those characters. It’s like visiting old friends every time I read them.
EB: How about a personal favorite of mine, Stephen King?
RBP: I think he’s a great talent who needs editing. I like Steve, we know one another, we’re kind of friends. I think his talent is enormous. I think he writes too long. He probably thinks I write too short. But I think it was grand that he got a serious award. I think that there is nothing stupider than the tendency of the intellectual community to equate popularity with mediocrity. It is of course self-congratulatory. They can therefore say, “Well, I like this work and all those klutzes don’t, so I must be smarter than they are.” Maybe not.
I mean, I live in Cambridge and I’m surrounded by Harvard people – they’re dumb! PhD does not make you smart, it just means you have a certain amount of endurance. So I think that it was great that King got [the award]. He’s a major spokesperson for the Fuck You attitude toward the literary establishment and says what he thinks about literature. He’s a very smart guy, and I like him. I don’t read him much, because his stuff scares the hell out of me. I don’t like horror and science fiction stories.
I rarely read Steve. I fessed up to this. We once talked about doing a book together, and he said, “No, Spenser’s world would not allow the people from my world.” It was a good point. But I think he’s a genius, in his way.
EB: Back to Spenser for a second and his place in American literature. I thought about what makes him work so well as an enduring character and I realized he was the idealized American male. He’s tough yet sensitive. He has a degree of freedom yet he’s in a loving relationship…
RBP: That’s the autobiographical part – rough but sensitive.
EB: Obviously you took a lot of that from yourself and your own life, but was it intentional to create this idealized guy who walks in a shady world and can get things done?
RBP: Well, it’s less important than it might sound, but my doctoral dissertation was on the evolution of the American hero, from the frontier to the private eye: gunfighter, frontiersman, private eye. I have a whole theory on the Turner Theory and the frontier and the effect of the Protestant ethic and the relationship between a white hero and a non-Caucasian companion, which goes back in our literature almost all the way to the beginning.
I’m a little over-educated… [laughs] I could devote a lot of time to this but it would generally clear the classroom. I like playing with all of those ideas, but having a PhD? Joan says I conceal it better than anyone she knows.
And particularly in the beginning, when I was setting up to do my first novel, you sort of get your ducks in sort of a row, to think, “What do I know, what can I think about? How do I know what to write about?” So that was semi-intentional.
He was intended to be the archetypal American hero. Even Hawk, who fitted in nicely by the fourth book, I thought I had fit in nicely the non-white companion.
Did you ever read Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel?
RBP: He talks about this at length and he says that it is repressed homosexuality, that the companionship is so close and loving that to cut it down it has to be with a different race so that the homosexual implications won’t be apparent. I frankly think that’s bullshit, but it’s a whole hypothesis that starts back with D.H. Lawrence and is studied across American literature. I just think that it is what it is: a friendship among men, despite race or beyond race, who understand the same things.
Spenser and Hawk are essentially the same guy, Hawk being – and the racial pun is intentional – the dark side of Spenser. And he’s become more practical than Spenser because he had to be. The practical people in this world are the ones with no options. Women are more practical than men; blacks are more practical than whites. So for Hawk, if you need to be killed, he’ll kill you. Spenser’s gonna worry about it, you know?
Anyway, I’m playing with a lot of stuff like that. I don’t do it anymore – it’s like riding a bicycle. When you’ve learned to ride a bicycle, you don’t have to worry about balancing and steering. But that was there at the beginning.