Robert B. Parker 2003 Interview
Yankee Classic from October 2003
Robert B. Parker has set novels in Los Angeles, in Ireland, in the Wild West, and in the capitals of Europe. But the setting he always returns to is greater Boston, home to his best known character, the wisecracking, Shakespeare-quoting, gun-toting private eye named Spenser, who first appeared 30 years ago in The Godwulf Manuscript. Spenser, along with his deadly-force colleague, Hawk, and longtime sweetheart, psychologist Susan Silverman, leads readers through Boston’s streets and suburbs until they know the city like a guidebook.
Robert and Joan Parker are exemplars of rough and smooth. He’s muscled, paunchy, with a face that, like his famous protagonist’s, looks like it’s gone too many rounds in the ring. He’s wearing jeans and an old black sportshirt. She is tall, elegant, and stunning. She wears a chic pantsuit with a sexy, calf-flashing slit. Smooth.
Their Cambridge, Massachusetts, home is a gorgeously decorated three-story, 14-room, gray-green mansard Victorian, with burgundy, teal, and cream trim. The 1870-ish house is landscaped, trellised, gargoyled, and scant yards from Harvard’s red-brick Federal austerity. “This is Joan’s art,” says Robert Parker. “And,” he sighs, “it’s a never-ending story.”
Joan sighs back. “Our carpenter has become the third son I never wanted.”
The Parkers do a lot of sighing–mock sighing–about each other’s foibles. It’s clearly a routine they’ve practiced to perfection, and in 46 years of marriage, plus another six of courtship, they’ve had plenty of time to practice.
Those years of marriage come with a qualifier, however. Here’s how Spenser put it in Widow’s Walk:
“Are you married?” she said.
“I’m, ah, going steady,” I said.
“Going steady? I haven’t heard anyone say that in thirty years.”
“How long have you been going steady?”
“‘Bout twenty-five years,” I said, “with a little time out in the middle.”
In the early ’80s, the Parkers had a time out, and when they came back together, they reorganized their living arrangement. Robert lives on the ground floor; Joan, on the second. The third is for guests.
After Joan’s house tour, Robert and I meet in his high-tech office, done in his favorite colors, burgundy and green.
Just how similar are you and Spenser?
He comes out of me and, like me, is ferociously devoted to a remarkable and interesting woman. Like me, he was in Korea and loves baseball. He, too, is a weight lifter who runs, and of course he lives around here. But he’s not me. I’m not, for example, a fighter–I’ve never fought when escape was possible.
Have you found yourself becoming more like your character? Do you ever ask yourself, “What would Spenser do?”
No. I am more clear on the difference between Spenser and real life than anyone in the world. I have never read one of my books. I write five pages a day, five days a week. When I’ve written about 300 pages, I send it in to my editor. That’s the last time I read it. My relationship to my books is that of the carpenter to the house. Once, a Spenser fan club ran a 10-question trivia quiz, which I took. I got five of them wrong.
Spenser is supremely certain of his moral stance, of the way he meets the world. Are you?
Yeah. I’m satisfied with who I am. I’ve had some help learning that. When Joan and I were separated, I had a brilliant psychiatrist, and from him I learned a great deal about myself. Joan had her own therapist. What we learned from them, we taught each other. You can’t be together 52 years without learning something.
You dedicated Death in Paradise as follows: “For Dave and Dan who kept their mother going and brought their father home.” What’s that about?
In January 2000 I had a fairly rare operation called a whipple, to remove a cyst from my pancreas. And they made some mistakes–including rupturing the portal vein. I almost died, but I’m far too stubborn to do that. My sons, Dave and Dan, came home from L.A. and New York to help take care of me.