Pulp Fiction: An Interview with Lawrence Block
With Liam Neeson bringing booze beaten ex-cop Matt Scudder to the screen in A Walk Among the Tombstones, we have coffee with bestselling author Lawrence Block in the New York diner which doubles as his fictional series setting, The Flame
From the outside, The Flame Restaurant seems like a typical New York diner. It’s at the corner of 58th Street and 9th Avenue, just down from the Church of St Paul the Apostle. The menu is a mix of American classics and Greek specialities. It’s been there a long time, resistant to the gentrification that’s built up around it. It’s the kind of place you hope never changes.
I’m sitting in a booth at the far end of the floor when veteran crime writer Lawrence Block walks in. In common with many New Yorkers he took the subway across town to get here. New Yorkers don’t use cabs as much as you think, something we discuss later. When we talk – over a simple lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches and coffee that is quietly refilled – Block chooses his words with care, speaking at a measured pace. His humour is dry and occasionally self-deprecating.
Block, now in his seventies, was recently the recipient of a Grand Master award from the Mystery Writers of America and many of his books have been bestsellers. He started his career writing for the pulps but is best known for creating several long running crime series characters, the most famous of which is Matthew Scudder: Private Investigator, ex-cop and ex-alcoholic. Scudder is the focus of the new film, A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson. The character has featured in 14 books and several short stories, the most recent of which was 2012’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff. The books are as much about the changing face of New York and Scudder’s journey through alcoholism as they are about solving crimes.
"The higher moral act was not to write the book, but to spare the tree… that was quite a few trees ago!” – Lawrence Block
The Flame is where Scudder and his fellow AA members gathered after meetings. Half a block away on 58th street is the Hudson Hotel, where Scudder lived during the late 80s and early 90s. As the series progressed, so the city – and Scudder – changed with the times. The Hudson is now revamped, remodelled and home to a younger, hipper crowd. Block has been in once. He likes the changes, but the place isn’t what he remembers.
Talking about Neeson’s casting in the new movie, Block is thrilled to have the actor playing his detective. When the author visited the set – “Although, in the main, watching a film getting made is a little like watching paint dry” – he told Neeson that the actor had been his own first choice for the part ever since he played Irish revolutionary Michael Collins. “In an interview, [Neeson] refers to that and says he thinks I was shining him on a little… but actually I can prove it! In Everybody Dies, there’s a conversation between Matt [Scudder] and Mick Ballou talking about the film, Michael Collins…”
Block has seen the film already in final cut. He’s delighted with the adaptation, and with Neeson in particular. “You want the sense that the character really has an inner life… that there’s something going on beneath the surface. And Liam certainly brings that to the table.” The film has been in development for over a decade and back in the late 90s, Harrison Ford was attached to star. While Block respects Ford as an actor, he thinks that Neeson perhaps has that edge that Scudder really needs.
Scott Frank is the man who brought the novel to the screen. His screenplays for Get Shorty and Out of Sight, both based on novels by Elmore Leonard, gave Block hope that this time, Scudder’s character would be done right. “One of the aspects in which [the adaptations] are extraordinary is the way in which they reflect the author… Not necessarily in terms of plot, but in terms of tone. The movies felt like Leonard’s writing. And that’s unusual. So I had a feeling that I was in good hands.”
Scott sent over a draft of the screenplay for A Walk Among the Tombstones to Block in 1998. “I read a couple of pages, and realised I didn’t want to read it.” He had to accept that changing a story is inevitable in making a picture. “I figured the changes would not bother me on the screen, but they would on the page.” So he waited. And now he’s seen the movie, “...and I like it very, very much.”
Of all the changes made on screen, there’s one that definitely amuses Block. “[A Walk Among the Tombstones] is a book that makes quite a point of the fact that Scudder takes the subways to get around. He doesn’t get a cab to Brooklyn, because you’re faster on the train. Why take a cab when you’re in a hurry? But they couldn’t film anything on the subway. In fact even to just film him walking out of the subway onto the street is prohibitively expensive. You have to get permission and the budget doesn’t support stuff like that. When you make your picture, it’s cheaper to put him in a taxi!” Native New Yorkers, and even regular visitors, know that getting a cab just gets you stuck in traffic.
But despite that small detail, Block is happy with this new film. He implies that it’s the closest anyone’s come to the gritty, hardboiled feel of the Scudder books, and more than that, it’s the first time that a film adaptation has had any effect on sales. Two previous movies failed to engage with readers who didn’t already know Block’s work. “With A Walk Among the Tombstones, it’s had an enormous and very visible effect on sales starting months before it even came out!”
We discuss his early pulp writing, when he wrote almost anything he could, including several sex novels, something he returned to recently with Getting Off, written specially for the modern pulp imprint Hard Case Crime. He admits that he wrote under so many pseudonyms, he has to re-read some books to be sure that they were definitely written by him.
Block claims he never had a career plan, that he’s just done whatever appealed to him at the time. But we get the impression that he’s smarter than that. He’s a grafter, someone who delights in the work and the joy of being a writer. “Because I was fast and wrote good prose and dialogue,” he says, “I was able to write for a living from the beginning… And because I had nothing to offer a prospective employer, it was either write for a living or bag groceries for fifty cents an hour at the Safeway…”
He briefly mentions his attempts at retiring. “A couple of times it seemed to me that I was done writing novels… A contemporary of mine pointed out a few years ago that we had both reached the stage in our respective careers where the higher moral act was not to write the book, but to spare the tree… that was quite a few trees ago!”
Crime fans should be glad Block resisted the siren call of retirement. His most recent books have been every bit as exciting as many of his early crime novels. If the movie of A Walk Among the Tombstones achieves anything, hopefully it is in bringing his work to the attention of a wider audience. Because Block’s not finished yet. As we end our lunch he hints, cheekily, that a new novel may be on the way. Crime fans should rejoice. The publication of a new Lawrence Block book is always something to be celebrated.