Sunday, March 05, 2006
Pro-File: Donald E. Westlake
Donald E. Westlake
DONALD E. WESTLAKE has written numerous novels over the past thirty-five years under his own name and pseudonyms, including Richard Stark. Many of his books have been made into movies, including The Hunter, which became the brilliant film noir Point Blank, and the 1999 smash hit Payback. He penned the Hollywood scripts for The Stepfather and The Grifters, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. The winner of three Edgar awards and a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master, Donald E. Westlake was presented with The Eye, the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Shamus Awards. He lives with his wife, Abby Adams, in rural New York State.
Ed here: As I've said before, I believe that Don Westlake is flat out the best crime ficton writer of our time--the most skilled, the most daring and the most accomplished. I think he's wrtten a number of masterpieces but of them all I'd have to say that The Ax is probably his best for sheer brilliance of craft and relevance to our time. Here are a few review quotes to remind you of just how fine that book is:
Charles Taylor has this to say about Westlake's The AX:
"The murderous characters that unnerve us the most are the ones we can feel close to, the ones who make us feel protective of them, make us realize what human traits we share with them. No one has ever captured those qualities better than Anthony Perkins playing Norman Bates in Psycho. And though he's a very different character, the middle-aged businessman in Donald E. Westlake's devastating novel The Ax who, after he's laid off, resorts to killing the competitors for the job he desperately needs, makes us feel the horror of seeing murder as necessity (talk about a thriller that really represents our contemporary dark side; nothing Harris has written can touch The Ax.)
"If there were a different set of values at work in our glum society, Westlake would have won National Book Awards and Pulitzers...[and] there would be statues of him in every municipal park."
-Washington Post Book World
"No one can turn a phrase like Westlake."
-Detroit News and Free Press
"Westlake is one of the best crime writers in the business...inventive, suspenseful, muscular, angry, horrific."
-Los Angeles Times
Pro-File: Donald E. Westlake
Tell us about your current novel.
1. I'm breaking my own rule again. For 25 years or more, my rule has been
to limit myself to 1 Dortmunder in every 3 Westlake novels, in an effort to
keep the series from growing flat or thin or anything else bad -- which
I've seen with people sometimes who go to the well too often. So, when I
finished THE ROAD TO RUIN I was supposed to write 2 non-Dortmunders, but for
a couple of months the only story I could think of was another damn
Dortmunder, so I finally gave up and wrote it, and that was WATCH YOUR BACK!
So now I'm supposed to do 2 from column B again, and hit me with a brick if
I'm not hanging out with John, three times in a row. It's 284 pages so far
and does not yet have a title, not even YOU AGAIN?
Can you give us a sense of what you're working on?
2. Right now I'm working on page 285, with very little success so far,
except I think one of them -- or maybe both of them -- will go out that
window onto the roof next door. Which will give me an even bigger problem
on page 286.
What is the greatest pleasure in your writing career?
3. At the party after the New York premiere of THE GRIFTERS, I went over to
say congratulations to Stephen Frears, but before I could speak he grabbed
my elbow and leaned in close and said, "Wull, we got away with it." That's
the greatest pleasure, not in writing, which is its own greatest pleasure,
but in the writing career. Year after year, we get away with it.
What is the greatest DIS-pleasure?
4. The greatest displeasure in my writing career used to be my occasional
indentured servitude in Hollywood, but now it is the ramshackle mess that
has become of New York publishing. Doesn't anybody here know how to play
Do you have any advice for the publishing business?
5. Pay attention.
Are there two or three writers you'd like to see in print again?
6. There are specific books from uneven writers, but I don't want to do a
list, so I'll make one stand for them all. I believe Joel Townsley Rogers'
THE RED RIGHT HAND should be reissued every 5 years forever.
Tell us about writing your first novel. Most writers never forget that moment.
7. Well, I wrote a mystery I called THE CUTIE, a title which died along the
way, which would have been better if it had died for a better title, instead
of for THE MERCENARIES. I was represented by Scott Meredith then, which was
very much like being a cow on a dairy farm, and Henry Morrison was his
assistant. He wanted to send my cutie to a paperback house, but I said I
wanted it in hardcover. He told me there were only 2 hardcover houses at
that time worth thinking about, Simon & Schuster and Random House, neither
of which would want it. I insisted, and he said, okay, we'd waste the time
and then sell it paperback.
So it went to Clayton Rawson at S&S, who was personally insulted that
anyone would send him such trash (s'truth). Then it went to Lee Wright at
Random, who called Henry and said it was a near miss, she was sending it
back but wished I lived in New York so she could talk with me. "He lives in
New York! He lives in New York!" It was arranged I'd meet with her and
pick up the manuscript. Henry said to me, "LISTEN to her!" So I spent two
hours listening to her and she made me see the bad pulp habits that had led
me astray, and it was agreed I'd rewrite and she'd look at it again. I did,
she did, and she bought it. She was the best editor I ever had, very smart
and very funny, and she knew her business. She once told me she was such a
sucker for story that she had to read a manuscript 3 times before she could
get objective about it and be of use. Look for an editor like that, eh?
The suits were always oafish, of course; they made her also be the cookbook
editor, though she'd never cooked anything in her life. She once said, "I
walk into the kitchen and my thumb starts to bleed, and I haven't even
picked up the can opener yet."
posted by Gormania at 3:10 PM
Duane Swierczynski said...
Not to turn all fanboy here... but let's face it; I am a fanboy. For some, Clapton is god. For me, it's all about Donald Westlake. Couldn't agree with you more about THE AX. That was the book that, in 1997, set me searching for everything else with his name on it. And then I learned about this Richard Stark guy...
Rob Gregory Browne said...
Duane, you and I are in the same club. I read my first Westlake novel, SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY, serialized in Playboy when I was twelve years old.
Westlake is the guy who made me want to be a novelist. The guy I always thought about when I spent the next several decades NOT being a novelist and got sucked into Hollywood instead.
The Richard Stark books have always been favorites as well. I turned my son onto them and he loves them all.
I'm proudly labled a fanboy when it comes to Westlake. He taught me to write.
And now that I'm finally that novelist I've always promised to be, it's all Westlake's fault.
Rob Gregory Browne said...
P.S. He didn't teach me to spell.
Maintenance Man said...
I have only read one book by Westlake. Lucky for me, it was The Ax. Recently I wanted to reread the book because it was so good. To my dismay, I had lost the copy I had purchased 10 years ago. All I remember is that this book rocked, so I just went out and got the book again. Now I plan to read my second book by Westlake. Any suggestions fans?
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