Saturday, February 11, 2012

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

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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.’”
Writing as Richard Stark:
“I was doing a book a year for Random House, and I thought it would be a good idea to have a paperback company that I was selling to to [help] pay the rent. So I did the first Parker novel in which he got caught, and the editor at Pocket Books took me to lunch and said ‘Is there any way that this guy could get away at the end, and you could do three books a year for us?’ And I said, ‘I think so.’”
The funny business:
“My agent urged me not to do it [write humorous thrillers]. ‘You won’t get any paperback reprint, you won’t get any foreign money.’ I was calling it at the time ‘The Dead Nephew.’ I was edging into it being funny. It wound up as ‘The Fugitive Pigeon’ [1965]. The hardcover sold twice as well as any of the book before it, and it did a better paperback sale, and got all the same foreign sales. It was a first step forward.”
On Jean-Luc Godard’s “Made in U.S.A.” (1966):
“A producer in France said he wanted to buy the rights to ‘The Jugger’ [a Parker novel]. I consider that the worst book I’ve ever written. It was the wrong kind of story for that character. My agent said [the producer] wanted to buy it. That was amazing—I don’t care how good the translation was, it’s still going to be a rotten book in French. A deal was made [but] he only made three payments, all late . . . so we assumed he had given up. But he was going ahead. Godard made the movie on 12 afternoons . . . sort of making the thing up as he went along. Anna Karina played Parker. After that, and Lee Marvin [in “Point Blank”] and Jim Brown [in “The Split”], a friend of mine said, ‘Parker has been played by a white man, a black man, and a woman. I think the character lacks definition.’ It’s a very, very bad movie.”
On “Point Blank” (1967):
“I thought it was a fine movie when I first saw it. Its mannerisms and its artiness are making it creak now. Lee Marvin is lovely, and John Boorman worked his ass off. Even the things that didn’t work, I thought were beautiful. There’s one sequence where Lee Marvin has gone into an apartment, and he’s looking for somebody, and he’s told that that person isn’t there, but a messenger shows up the first of every month. Marvin says fine, and sits down to wait for the first of the month. Boorman shows him walking around the room. Then he sits down, and Boorman fades out, then fades in on the same room with all the furniture gone—it’s just an empty room and Marvin is sitting crouched on the floor in the corner. Waiting. Then Boorman fades out, and fades back in with the furniture back in the room, and Marvin sitting on the sofa when the doorbell rings. That image of dead time and sitting in a corner of an empty room didn’t work because people were wondering, ‘What’d he do with the furniture?’”
On “The Hot Rock”(1972):
A good movie that could have been a much better movie. Bill Goldman did a beautiful, funny screenplay. The director, Peter Yates, had made ‘Bullitt,’ which wound up with a chase at the airport—well, the original screenplay of ‘The Hot Rock’ wound up at an airport, and Yates said he didn’t want to do it again. It was a terrifically funny sequence. Bill Goldman had done a chase—not out of the book. He had established that Kelp [George Segal] did a lot of jogging and had been a track man in high school, and that an assistant of Dr. Amusa [who wants a priceless gem restored to his African nation] was a former Olympic runner, so when they get into a chase across the airport it gradually turns into a race where they’re doing racing things rather than quarry- and-hunter things. When that was written, [Robert] Redford was going to be Kelp, and George C. Scott was going to be Dortmunder. Redford did honorably. He was miscast [as Dortmunder]—he did the best he could. There are terrific moments in that movie, like Ron Leibman flipping the scarf over his shoulder in the back of the truck.”

At interview’s end, I asked Mr. Westlake to inscribe my paperback copy of “Bank Shot.” Here’s what he wrote:
All right, Vince,
You ask too many questions. Take him away, boys.
Don Westlake
Opposite the inscription is a page listing some of his book titles, including “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “A Tale of Two Cities.” Didn’t know he wrote those, eh?
Donald Westlake was a funny guy—as well as a gifted writer and lovely man who couldn’t have been kinder to a nervous, would-be reporter on his first big interview, all those many years ago.
*This originally appeared in the New York Daily News book blog, Page Views


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