Interview: Robert B. Parker
(Editor’s note: Robert Parker was another one of those interview subjects who you felt was always a step ahead of you. He at times was grumpy and blunt, but that was a façade. He was also warm, funny, and gave a great interview. He will be remembered.)
Robert B. Parker is to this generation what Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald were to theirs. In 1973, only three years before Ross Macdonald was to publish his last Lew Archer novel, Robert Parker published his first, The Godwulf Manuscript, which introduced readers to his tough, anti-establishment private investigator, Spenser. Over the course of 34 years and 35 Spenser novels, Parker has propelled the private-eye genre into the 21st century, making it relevant to the changing times. He moved the genre away from the west coast settings, the wealthy families and Hollywood starlets of Chandler and Macdonald to the east coast, namely Boston, and to settings that everyday people can identify with.
Robert B. Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1932. He served with the U.S. army in Korea and after earning his B.A. and M.A. in English, worked for a while in advertising before receiving his PhD in English Literature. It’s not surprising that his doctoral dissertation was on the private-eye heroes of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald. After that, he became professor of English at Northeastern University until 1979 when he retired to dedicate himself to writing full-time.
In the tradition of Spade, Marlowe and Archer, Spenser is a brash, wisecracking, clever PI who operates by his own strict code of ethics. Unlike his predecessors, however, he isn’t a brooding loner and in many ways is a regular guy. He’s a Red Sox fan, a gourmet cook, he quotes poetry, and is in a steady relationship with psychologist Dr. Susan Silverman, who sometimes helps him with his cases. He has a wide circle of friends, including mobsters and ex-criminals like Vinnie and Hawk who frequently do the dirty work his cases involve.
In 1997, with the publication of Night Passage, Parker created another series character, the troubled, recovering alcoholic police detective Jesse Stone, and two years after that began a series of novels featuring resourceful female Boston Private-Eye Sunny Randall.
Being extremely prolific has not diminished the impact of his novels, most of which have hit the best sellers lists. In 1977, he won the Edgar Award for best novel from Mystery Writers of America, and in 2002 he was named MWA Grand Master for his contribution to the genre. Robert Parker lives in Boston with his wife Joan. His latest Spenser novel, Now and Then was released in October by Putnam.
AFG: I just read your book yesterday and I thought it was fantastic.
RBP: Oh good! I like an interview that starts that way! [laughs]
AFG: It was great. Tell us a little bit about it.
RBP: Let me see. Which one—Spare Change?
AFG: No, Now and Then.
RBP: Now and Then? Oh, you’ve read the galley? It hasn’t even come out yet!
AFG: Well, you know, I have my connections.
RBP: Yes, I know! Part of my problem is I’m about six books ahead, so I have to sort of establish which one we’re talking about.
AFG: That’s great. Then you don’t seem to get writer’s block.
RBP: No, no, Elmore Leonard once said to me, “Writer’s block is just another word for lazy.” And I have no quarrel with that. [laughs]
AFG: But after, let’s say 50 or 70 pages, do you sometimes get to the point where you are saying to yourself, where do I go with this?
RBP: Yes and no. How’s that for taking a firm position? I’ve always been able to write my quota for the day. I do no fewer than five and no more than ten pages, five days a week, unless there’s some event in the family that prohibits that. And frequently after I finish my, let’s say 10 pages for the day, I don’t know where I’m going. So the next time I sit down, I find that I don’t know what to write. But I just think about it until I do. And I always love Hemingway’s idea that when things are going well, that’s the time to stop—it’ll be easy to start the next day! And I think that makes some sense. But you just push through it. Sometimes it comes easy. I’m at the moment working on a Jesse Stone novel, and that’s sort of flowing. But I remember when I finished All Our Yesterdays some years ago, I was in the last chapter and Joan [my wife] said, “Do you know how it’s going to end?” And I said, “No. No, I don’t!” We had to wrestle with that one. When I’m stuck, she and I talk. And she’s very good with ideas. But, by and large, writer’s block doesn’t happen to me.
AFG: How important is your wife’s input to your writing? I know you’ve dedicated a lot of books to her and even co-written screenplays with her in the past.
RBP: I don’t even know how to separate how important she is as a companion from how important she is to me as a writer. She is the central fact of my life. I don’t want to get too icky about this, but we’ve been married for 51 years, and I’m not quite sure where I stop and she begins. She has many good ideas, she is very good in screenplays and at adapting my books, and generally helping me think things through. In the Sunny Randall books, she’s an invaluable source for the female point of view. I don’t think I would have undertaken that project if I didn’t know she would help me with it. For instance, Sunny Randall was going to go out one evening with a man and she thought she would probably sleep with him. And I said, “Joan, what would she do to prepare for that? Would she select special lingerie or something?” And Joan said, “First thing, she’d shave her legs.” Who knew? So, if anyone’s shaving their legs in your life—good. [laughs] And then, very small things, like she pointed out that we don’t call [blush] “rouge” anymore. Anyway, she is so crucial to my existence that it’s difficult to separate.
AFG: You first met when you were children, right?
RBP: Technically, we met when we were three years old. Our fathers, who were working for the phone company out in Western Massachusetts, knew each other before we were born. We met at a birthday party, from which there exists, although I haven’t got it, a very early home movie of she and I, which my mother, when she was alive, told me about. Then we met, officially, when we were seventeen, at freshman orientation at Colby College. And there was the freshman dance. I asked her to dance. The rest, as they say, is history.
AFG: Dick Francis met his wife at a dance too!
RBP: Yeah, I asked her to dance. For me, it was love at first sight. She thought I was a creep, but I got past that eventually! [laughs] Although I probably was a creep, I was seventeen years old. Who wasn’t a creep when they were seventeen?
AFG: So, Now and Then starts with this guy who goes into Spenser’s office and says, my wife’s been coming home later than usual and I need you to find out what’s going on.
RBP: You know, I never know where I’m going with a book. I only start with an idea, and this one was something about an FBI agent and his wife, and Spenser has to clarify what’s going on. And that leads from one place to another. And chapter one gives rise to chapter two, and so we go. But I had no idea, for instance, when I began, that he was going to end up in Cleveland for an extended period. In a way the books, for me, are a little like the cases for him. I discover along with him what’s going to happen next. I do as I said, write five to ten pages a day, and I don’t revise, and I don’t read it over, and when I’ve got my book finished, which is somewhere in the range of 300 pages, I send it in and they publish it. I once was a guest at a writing class at Harvard. (I can see Harvard from my window. It’s quite amusing.) And I held forth on what I did as a writer—and the professor was burying her head! [laughs] Everything she told them not to do was what I did! But that’s how it is: I go where the book takes me. I’m not one of those people that claim their characters talk to them or anything. I’ve heard people do that. If my characters are talking to me, get me right to the doctor! [laughs]
AFG: But they do have a life of their own, in some respect.
RBP: Yes, in the sense that you’ve created them a certain way and you can’t very well change them just to fit a plot device that you’ve thought up. And at the end of the first chapter, I think, “Oh, what would happen next, if this were real?” This also gives me the chance to indulge myself in a certain amount of oblique social criticism. I don’t think that’s what the books are about, or what they should be about, but it gives me an opportunity to express myself on various areas of the human condition. I find the book that is easier to write, and I hope better to read, has a variety of possibilities, and a number of characters, where you can move from one to the other and back. At least that’s what I’m doing in the book I’m working on right now.
AFG: What are you working on now?
RBP: It’s the next Jesse Stone, it’s called Night and Day. It’s actually not the next Jesse Stone, it’s two Jesse Stones from now. I’m almost done; I’m on page 213, if I’m right.
AFG: Give us a bit of a teaser.
RBP: It is, in part, about Jesse’s attempt to cope with people that have various sexual obsessions, including voyeurism, and Jesse’s personal struggle to get himself organized around his wife Jennifer. Sunny Randall pops up, as does her friend Spike.
AFG: Oh, so you have the worlds colliding!
RBP: That’s right. I always enjoyed it when Chandler used to bring people back from other books. I am loathe to talk in detail about the books not so much for fear I’ll give something away, but just—Hemingway again—since I have no ideas of my own, I quote people [laughs]; Hemingway once said, If you talk about it too much, it goes away.
AFG: You know what, that is so true!
RBP: I think it’s true; yeah, I really do.