Saturday, February 11, 2012

Long-lost Donald Westlake tape: Redford, Godard, Hammett and more

Long-lost Donald Westlake tape: Redford, Godard, Hammett and more
Rear Window: A series that looks at interesting books and movies from the past.


Here’s another recent discovery from the dark recesses of my garage: a 60-minute Sony audiotape of an interview with the great Donald E. Westlake conducted on November 2, 1973.

Donald Westlake (1933-2008) wrote more than 100 books, numerous short stories and screenplays over a 50-year career in which he won three Edgars, the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America, and a 1990 Oscar nomination for his superb adaptation of “The Grifters.”

At the time of the interview, I was in grad school in Boston studying journalism, although “studying” is a stretch. I’d been assigned to interview a celebrated person, and I immediately thought of Donald Westlake, a writer I’d admired for his humorous thrillers (“Adios, Scheherazade,” “The Hot Rock”) and his hardboiled caper novels about a professional thief named Parker, written under the aptly chosen pen name Richard Stark (the character’s latest movie incarnation opens in October with Jason Statham in “Parker”).

Mr. Westlake seemed surprised when he opened his Manhattan apartment door—he’d been expecting me the following week. Despite the confusion, he welcomed me warmly. For the next hour or so, he patiently—and most entertainingly—answered my many questions.

For space reasons, I’ve condensed some of his responses.

On his beginnings
“I started writing when I was 11. In my late teens, I was writing short stories of every conceivable type, and sent them to everything from Future Science Fiction to The Sewanee Review. First story I ever sold [at 19] was science fiction, second was a comedy to a men’s magazine, third was a mystery story. Mysteries were what I got a good response on. I spent years saying I was a writer disguised as a mystery writer, and after 30 books and several movies, I thought maybe I’m a mystery writer disguised as a writer.”

On his favorite writer
“My admirations are not necessarily my influences. My favorite living novelist is Anthony Powell [author of the 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time”]. If I ever took an influence from him it would destroy me because he writes such a controlled but leisurely way that if I put anything of that into my stuff, it would break the springs. I love those books.”

On his influences
“When I was a kid and first writing I was completely in love with the Cornell Woolrich/William Irish books. I think he’s dated rapidly. I didn’t exactly borrow from him, but I had much of his sense of heightened expectations of people always being slightly off balance.

“I love Hammett, never liked Chandler—I’m one of the few. In ‘Red Harvest,’ there’s my favorite chapter title of any book: ‘The Seventeenth Murder.’ Some of Parker comes out of that.

“A guy named Peter Rabe wrote a batch of books for Gold Medal in the 50s, and he was absolutely the single largest influence on writing style. I was completely in love with the way the man wrote. Everything is a little bit oblique, but with this sense of terrific tension underneath. I read that he had [advanced degrees] in psychology, and that his dissertation was on frustration--and that was the key to the man’s writing: how to behave like a normal human being under the stress of frustration. Throughout the 50s, he was doing beautiful work . . . with awful Gold Medal titles like ‘Murder Me for Nickels.’”


1 comment:

Todd Mason said...

Evan Hunter also notes he preferred Hammett vastly to Chandler, in the PARIS REVIEW colloquy that gathered a slew of CF writers in the latter '90s. They're both right, though I think I like Chandler better than both of them do.

Thanks for the pointer on this, for Westlake week no less...