In this third of three installments, Robert B. Parker talks more about his philosophy on writing, the vagaries of the Internet, and the importance of a good cardiologist.
EB: You talked about music with regard to your writing, how it makes sense as music. Does any specific kind of music or films influence your writing at all?
RBP: Probably, but not in any sense that I can tell you. Since the private eye, like the gunfighter, is a fictive creation and at one time or another it occupied predominantly in films. I’ve probably been influenced more by Western movies than by detective movies. I’m a great fan of Western movies. I’ll watch a Randolph Scott Western… I’ll watch the crap on the Western channel, if there’s nothing else! So probably Western movies most of all.
I have the kind of mind – it’s not intentional – where I can’t stop anything even if I wanted to, that tucks away cuts and pieces of experience. I know a lot of literary allusions, I know a lot of song allusions, I know a lot of movie allusions. I almost never go to the movies anymore, yet I can still hold my own in the movie trivia games, just because things stick in my head. And that creeps in and perhaps adds a density to the prose, but conscious influences – after [Raymond] Chandler – I don’t know any. Unconscious influences, there’s bound to be. I have consciousness – I’m alive, still, even though I’m on a book tour!
EB: Do you visit websites often? Are you influenced by the online world?
RBP: No, it doesn’t. To my knowledge, I don’t have a website. I’m not entirely certain what a website is. I write on a computer and I order books on Amazon, and I think that computers are great. I’m not anti-computer.
I know there are websites devoted to me, but I don’t read them any more than I read reviews and everything else.
EB: There’s something called the Spensarium. I’m not sure what it is.
RBP: I’m not either, except that I know that it exists. There’s something called Bullets & Beer, or Beer & Bullets, which I know exists. I once looked myself up on somebody’s website, I think it was in Japan, and I noticed that I was five-feet tall and weighed 250. Maybe they don’t get it all right… the weight, okay, but the height was a little bit of an issue.
EB: That might be a microcosm for the Internet right there.
RBP: [laughs] Yeah, half right.
What would be interesting – and somebody’s PhD thesis could dwell on this – would be what happens to a writer when he moves from typewriter or handwriting to computer. I know that Henry James, in his later years, when he was losing his eyesight, had stopped writing and began to dictate. And what came out was often referred to as James’ “later manner,” which was convoluted, quite difficult. The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, that era. Some professors pointed out that the later manner coincided with James starting to dictate his novels, and suggested it wasn’t his intention.
And I think that’s probably what’s going to happen when you change to a computer. It’s so much easier. Even the physical touch is easier. You don’t have to hammer on the typewriter.
So I do one draft. I’ve always done one draft. But instead of three yards of correction fluid, now I just cut and paste and move it around. So I would suspect somewhere around 1987 or 1988, when I moved to a computer, my style changed in ways that I have no way of knowing. If you decide to do a doctoral dissertation, there’s a free topic for you.
EB: Thank you. Classic question to any author: any advice to aspiring writers out there who are looking to become novelists?
RBP: Write it, send it in. There isn’t anything else to do. Somebody asked me at a signing the other day if I have any tips for a first-time writer and I said, “Yeah, try and write good.” There isn’t anything I can tell them – there are no tips.
There are very successful writers who don’t write anything the way I do. John Updike, who I know, and who is a nice guy and a great writer, does not write in any way the way I do. So you can’t say, “You better write like me!” I mean, you can write like Updike, that will work..
If you need tips, it’s almost too late for you. If you can’t fix it, you can’t send it to me and have me fix it. You write it, you send it in, and if somebody at a publishing house thinks they can make a profit by publishing it, they will. And if they think they can’t, they won’t. And I can’t make them do it, your Uncle Harry can’t make them do it.
I suppose Michael Jackson or somebody can write a bad book and somebody will publish it at the moment. His life story would be swell. But other than that kind of celebrity hogwash, actual writing…
[At this point, we’re interrupted by Mr. Parker’s PR rep. We’re told that that we have five more minutes, and we’re asked how everything is going. Mr. Parker deadpans, “We’re doing my favorite thing. I’m talking about myself.”]
So no, I don’t have any advice. There are still publishers who will read unsolicited manuscripts. They’ll read them all, but they may read five pages in and say, “Ooh…” And I think that works. I think that if you have a manuscript, I can read one page, or maybe half a page, and know whether you have any talent or not. But the odds are long, most people don’t have it. And you’re competing with a lot of other submissions, but some of them are written in crayon. I mean, some are so apparently tripe that you read one sentence and throw it out.
There are also agents listed in the Literary Marketplace. I got published without an agent. You need an agent to get read at some houses, which require agent’s submission – they’re listed in one of those books, Writer’s Marketplace or Literary Marketplace. But they can’t get you published if you can’t get published yourself, except that they can get you read places where you might not get read otherwise. And they’ve done the initial screening: if they take you on, the publisher will give you more attention. The publisher saves the trouble of bothering the initial editor.
It’s been so long since I’ve been a beginning writer that I don’t really know what it’s like anymore. I don’t know what the market is like. I don’t know whether it would really be better to find an agent or just get published and then get an agent. If you get published, you can get an agent easy enough. And you need one: an agent is very valuable.
But the one thing you have to do is to write it. With non-fiction, you may be able to get a deal on a sample chapter and an outline, but with fiction, it’s made on the writing. Non-fiction can be the idea, the story, or whatever. Fiction is in the execution. Write it, and send it to somebody who can publish it. Not me!
EB: Stephen King talks about that there’s five or so great writers, a group with Shakespeare and a few others. There’s a number of very good writers, and then there’s just a lot of writers who are just okay. Do you think it’s possible to improve as a writer, to start at one place and end in a better place, or is the talent just there and you have to develop it, or it’s simply not there and it’s garbage?
RBP: I think if it’s not there, it’s garbage. I think that writers can improve. I mean, a lot of things happen to you as a writer that are not particularly literary that help you improve. The end of poverty being one. I mean, money is not destructive of a writer, but poverty is, because you have to work nights! And the confidence that comes from knowing that what you write will be published gives you freedom to move around, makes you willing to try new ideas and invent things. And the simple practice of it: you do it, and then you do it again, and then you’re probably going to get better. If you don’t get any better, there’s probably something a little wrong with you!
But basically there are those who can and those who can’t. And then there are those who are so clearly superior that you don’t have to argue about it. I could not, for instance, have written The Great Gatsby. And I could not have written the long version of The Bear. There’s two pieces that I simply do not have the talent to do. I don’t think I’m a better writer, I think I’m a little wiser now. I started when I was 41, when my first novel came out, and now I will be 73 in September. I must have learned something, you know? And that translates into the books, I assume. But basically, you can or can’t, and I don’t think it’s a teaching skill.
I made some attempt to teach fiction writing for a while, with no success. Of course, they may have been great writers and I may have been a lousy teacher! That’s one possibility. Yes and no: it’s a digital thing. And that’s what I mean, you can almost tell at the first page if they sound right or don’t sound right. Just as I don’t know what note somebody hit on the piano when it was flat, but I know it was flat. I don’t know what they hit, whether it was a D Minor, or whatever it is. It either sounds like music or it don’t. That’s what you do on the first page of somebody’s manuscript.
I had the pleasure, just very recently… my cardiologist has a daughter who has a novel and he was very useful to me about five years ago after a complicated surgery from which I almost died. It had nothing to do with my heart, which is fine. But I didn’t die, ha ha ha! But I always felt good about him and I like him, and his daughter’s manuscript came to me and it was terrific. And after the first page, I said, “Thank God,” you know? So I sent it to my agent, and she’s going to pursue it.
EB: I hope you’re not encouraging people out there to send manuscripts your way. Only if they know your cardiologist, right?
RBP: I won’t read stuff except if it’s friends. Saving my life was a plus! That gives him one, yeah, I owe him one! He was one of the team that saved my life.
Generally speaking that was the only one I’ve seen… no, there’s one other. A young woman wrote a short story for a class assignment and her father showed it to me and asked my view on it. And I said, “Tell her to keep doing this. If she keeps doing this she’s going to be a successful writer. She’ll publish, she’ll make money.”
Jesus, don’t listen to your English teachers! Just keep doing this and don’t listen to what other people have to say. That might be my only tip: ignore what other people tell you. Don’t listen to them!