Lawrence Block is an American novelist of crime, mystery, and suspense fiction for more than half a century. He is a Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America and a past president of MWA and the Private Eye Writers of America. Lawrence is best known for his series characters, including cop-turned-private investigator Matthew Scudder, gentleman burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, globe-trotting insomniac Evan Tanner, and introspective assassin Keller.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in a nondysfunctional and loving middle-class home in Buffalo, New York. Life outside the home was less ideal. While I was always a good student, I was a poor athlete and socially awkward—and self-conscious enough to have a bad time of it. As someone (it may have been Peter Ustinov) wrote, “I suppose I had as miserable a childhood as the next braggart.”
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
The bromide that starts “If at first, you don’t succeed…” In several areas I did indeed succeed at first, without a great deal of effort; in others, I tended to assume that whatever I couldn’t do right away, I was destined not to do at all. The first time I tried to ice skate, I kept falling down. I found this sufficiently discouraging that I never tried to ice skate again—and I had much the same experience when I tried to ride a bicycle. With the bike, I tried again five or six years later, at age 15—about the same time that most of my friends were learning to drive cars—and, by God, I got the hang of it in an afternoon.
When I started writing, it didn’t take me long before I started selling my stories. A good thing, I’d say, as I might not have kept at it otherwise. Once in a while, I’ll read about some relentless lunatic who wrote fifteen or more unpublishable novels before finally getting it right, and I’m always amazed that he kept at it. I don’t know that I’d have bothered.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
“Write what you know.” Edgar Rice Burroughs set his Tarzan books in Africa where he’d never been, and his John Carter books on Mars, where no one had ever been. Those were the books he was born to write, and we can be grateful nobody managed to talk him out of it.
“Write to please an editor/publisher/reader/critic.” No, don’t let yourself think that way. Write the book you’d want to read and write first and foremost to please yourself. I wasn’t born knowing this. It took me a while to learn it. But the more I wrote with my own satisfaction as my chief goal, the better my work performed.
But that’s a secondary benefit, and almost beside the point. If you’re not writing to please yourself, why fucking bother?
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
In the mid-1970s, after close to twenty years as a professional writer, I found myself unable to get much written or sell what I did manage to write. I had one skill, and it was evidently no longer marketable. My résumé was a blank page, and low self-esteem kept me from applying for what jobs I might have landed.
I’ve told the story often of how I found myself considering crime, reasoning that when you pointed a gun at a cashier nobody was going to ask you about your previous experience in that area. The one crime I could envision myself committing was burglary, and it seemed worth the risk of the light or suspended sentence which someone with a clean record could reasonably expect. But what if I burgled a place and the cops caught me and there was a corpse in the other room? Not my doing, but who would believe me?
“That would be a problem,” I thought. “No,” I answered myself, “that would be a book!” And indeed it was—Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, the first of a dozen I would go on to write about Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar and bookseller. It seems reasonable to say the fellow saved me from a life of crime.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Hmm. Well, I recently came across a hand-lettered sign I’d had hanging on the wall over my desk for years. It says: DO IT ANYWAY. I must have taken it down before a move and never thought to replace it. I’ve taped it to my printer, and if I’m seated at my computer and look a few degrees to the left, there it is. I can see it now, and it’s at least in part responsible for my answering this string of questions.
What is your morning routine?
I don’t set an alarm or have a fixed time to get up. When I’m awake, I have a six- or seven-minute Qi Gong routine that I’ve been doing for over twenty years. I’ve no idea what good it does me, or if in fact it does me any good at all, but it’s how I start the day.
I’m largely retired now. I’ve spent enough years writing enough books that I no longer feel either the need or the desire to produce new fiction. Still, I spend a few hours every day coping with email and managing my self-publishing ventures; I have a huge backlist, most of which I’ve brought out anew in ebook and paperback form, and it keeps me as busy as I want to be.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
In 1977 I stopped drinking. I’ve had the good fortune to stay on that less-traveled road—and that has made all the difference.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
A woman I know gave this advice to racewalkers: “On days when you don’t want to train, give yourself permission to stop after fifteen minutes. Anybody can do fifteen minutes. More often than not, you’ll keep going. But if fifteen minutes is all you do that day, that’s fine.”
That’s efficacious in activities besides racewalking. A kitchen timer is a useful desktop accessory.
Another technique I have is one I read somewhere, and it goes back close to a hundred years; the story goes that an efficiency expert suggested it to Charles Schwab the industrialist. It goes like this: Begin the day by making a list of all the tasks you’d like to accomplish that day. Then number them in order of importance. Then work away at #1 until it’s complete, then move on to #2, and so on—until it’s time to quit for the day. Then throw away the list and make a fresh one the following day, and so on.
Schwab, as I understand it, was dubious, even contemptuous. And what, he wanted to know, did he owe the fellow for this pearl of wisdom? “Try it for thirty days,” the expert said, “and then pay me what you think it’s worth to you.” A month later, Schwab sent him a check for $25,000. (Which would probably be something like a cool million in today’s dollars. But you don’t have to pay me anything.)
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
In my early teens, I read James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan novels, Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, various novels of John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell et. al. They helped me toward choosing writing as a profession. A few years later, a novel of John O’Hara’s—I believe it was From the Terrace—showed me that human beings were not categorically good or bad, that their goodness or badness was contextual. Who knew? I suppose I might have learned this without O’Hara’s help, but maybe not; it continues to surprise me how many people live their whole lives without grasping this notion.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
Harry S.Truman: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Walt Kelly: “I had one grunch but the eggplant over there.”