Interviewed by Paul Vee
|When I was in college, I started writing poems
and stories and sending them off to magazines. They kept coming back, and
then one didn't. I sent a story to some magazine and they bought it. And
pretty soon after that, I got a summer job at a literary agency, and it
became clear to me that I was going to learn more there than at college,
so I dropped out. I stayed at the literary agency for about another year
and continued writing stories and articles and selling them. Then I started
writing paperback novels and I've essentially done nothing since but more
of the same.
I've written a lot of different kinds of books and I don't rule out any genre, but most of them have come under the rather broad umbrella of crime fiction. People often ask why I write about crime, and I don't really know, I just gravitated toward that. I enjoy mysteries. I never wanted to be a detective, but that kind of world makes sense to me. And by and large, I've sold very well. I don't know my sales figures offhand, in aggregate, because there are so many of my books out there and I'm doing well and I don't really care about this kind of thing, but I know that my sales generally have been increasing with each book. Three of my novels have been turned into movies: 8 Million Ways to Die and Burglar, and many years ago, there was one called Nightmare Honeymoon. (Laughs) None of them were very good.
With my first books, I was doing a novel a month for this paperback publisher, I suppose you would call it soft core porn now. They didn't give me any specifications or tell me what to write or anything. I just wrote. This was in the early 1960s, and it was a great training ground, because you could write virtually any kind of novel as long as it was erotic. I don't think any kind of training like that exists now because there is no more soft core porn. It's all hard core and there's no room for writing in hard core. These were just novels, essentially, with some pretty tame sex scenes scattered through them, and it was a very forgiving form. You could learn a lot. The first crime novel that I sold actually started out to be my monthly soft core book, but a couple of chapters in, I decided to write it as a suspense novel. I liked the feel of it.
I wrote each of those soft-core books in about ten working days, which meant doing twenty pages a day, which is not an impossible figure. There were times when I would buckle down and do the book in one week instead of two, which meant doing forty pages a day, and that was pretty tiring, but do-able. I'd just sit there with a typewriter all day. I was really young and I was married, and I was very fortunate--I mean, I was self-supporting myself with my writing before I was twenty years old. Of course, I certainly had a lower standard of being self-supporting back then. (Laughs) I mean, all that I was really qualified for at the time was bagging groceries at the Safeway. So, if I could make minimum wage from writing, that was as much as I was likely to make from anything else. But I know I was lucky and atypical.
Writing is one of the glamour jobs that about a thousand people want to do for every one who manages to do it. I mean the world is absolutely overflowing with wannabes. It seems, sometimes, that there are more people who want to be writers than there are who read. So it's perceived as glamorous. But I've come to realize that nothing is glamorous, that glamour is wholly in the eyes of the beholder, and the farther one is from what's going on, the more glamorous it all looks. Because the reality of it is that writing involves sitting at a desk somewhere typing--and that's what one's work is. And the only real difference between it and what a stenographer does is that the writer has to make it up. That's all it is--you sit there and make things up and write them down. And then you worry that it's not good. That's the reality of the work.
I don't typically, nowadays, do a book in ten days. On the other hand, I like to take substantial amounts of time off between books and then work quite intensively and it is still not uncommon for me to do one in a month or so. I'm going away to Ireland this Sunday with the expectation of starting a book the day after I arrive and getting it done in six weeks. It may not happen, but I have that expectation. So I still work rapidly. I don't do any hands-on research. I mean, I'm not a journalist. If anything, I under-research. I hang around a lot and I listen to people, but I don't do police procedurals. I'm not writing anything that's that fact-driven. And while I want to get details correct, it's much more important to create an impression, and that doesn't come from facts.
I've found that the best thing I can do when I'm working is just get words on paper every day, and turn off the critical sense that tells me that what I'm writing is no good. Because writing that I feel good about and that comes easily and is a joy, and writing that I feel terrible about and doesn't come easily and is agony, often wind up being qualitatively indistinguishable.
A good illustration of that is the last time I wrote a book in Ireland, actually. This was in 1967, and I'd written about a third of this novel and then my life turned completely upside-down. I had an affair with my best friend's lady friend, and it could only have been more indecorous if we'd conducted it in Macy's window, and it tore up a friendship and a marriage and a relationship and everything else. And I didn't know what the hell to do, and I finally just realized I had to get away from everything, so I threw a couple of things and the manuscript in a bag and went over to Dublin, took a room in a bed-and-breakfast, and went back to work on the book. And my whole life and all my circumstances were utterly changed, you know? But when I read that book now, I can't tell where the seam was. It's the same all the way through and I can't see the difference between the stuff I wrote before my life fell apart and the stuff from after. So, if that can be true, then I suspect the writing I have on a day when I feel good and that the writing I have on a day when I feel bad are not necessarily going to be that different.
For me, the most difficult thing about this work, by far, is being convinced that one's writing is no good. And this has been increasingly a problem in the past several years. Early on, I sailed blissfully along--a lot of what I wrote then wasn't very good, but I never doubted it at all. Now, when the work is generally pretty good, or certainly as good as it's ever been for me, while I'm writing, I'm consumed with doubt and anxiety about it. I think one reason, maybe, is that the stakes are higher; people expect more; I get paid more.
So I'm kind of racked with doubt all the time these days, which may seem odd in light of the fact that I've never been doing better. But it's important to keep in mind that it does take some inherent talent to do this. A lot of people who want to be writers don't want to believe that. You don't get this in other fields. I mean, people know right away that they can't play major league baseball--they can tell because the pitching machine strikes them out. But the people who can't write don't have a clue; there's no way they can tell. And there's a real feeling among a lot of people that, if they just work at writing hard enough, then they'll be able to do it. And they'll say "I wish I had your self-discipline." That and "Where do you get your ideas?" "If I just had your ideas and your self-discipline, I could do it." Well, maybe, but probably not. Any more than I can hit a curve ball. It's never going to happen.
Of course, there are also people who succeed in the absence of a great deal of discernible talent. It does certainly happen sometimes. And I think it happens most frequently on the highest level, because when you're writing best-sellers, when you reach a large enough audience, you're writing for people who can't tell if your writing's any good or not. A friend and I were actually talking about this recently--about how what we really aspire to do is to reach the kind of audience that can't tell if we're any good or not, and there's something paradoxical about that. It's kind of funny, but it's also kind of scary and maybe it inspires some nervousness.
To be honest, I think the anxiety and all of that is part of the process. I mean, in addition to talent, you have to like the life and you have to want it a whole lot. You have to stay with it over the course of a career which inevitably will prove frustrating and disappointing intermittently. You have to like being alone. I knew a fellow who gave up writing--he'd written a couple of books, clearly he could have made a living at it, and he didn't because he liked an office to go to and he liked to have people around to talk to. Writing is completely solitary, but I'm comfortable with that. I don't work or play well with others, and I don't really like collaborative ventures at all, and my only way of working is to go in a room and come out when I'm done, so that makes it very isolating. But it suits me. I plan to keep on doing what I'm doing.
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