Robert B. Parker 2003 Interview
Early Autumn introduces us to an unlovely kid, Paul, who keeps turning up in later Spenser books. Thanks to Spenser, he becomes a fine young man. In Pastime, here’s what he says about his childhood:
“My childhood memories are almost empty of him.”
“What are they full of?” I asked….
“Fear,” Paul said. “Fear of being left. I was thin and whiny and had colds all the time and I used to cling to my mother like a cold sore. She couldn’t stand it. She’d try to get me away from her so she could breathe and of course the more she tried the more I clung.”
Is Paul like the young you?
No, I wasn’t that kind of kid. I was very fond of my mother as a child, but come puberty, I was anxious to distance myself. She was a smothering Irish mother.
Well, you capture Paul beautifully.
What’s compelling is not what I know; it’s that I was able to say it in such a way that you liked it. The real answer is, I don’t know what I’m doing. I type. We all know less about this craft than we say we do.
Your mother was Irish. What about your father?
Yankee. Parkers were here–here being Belfast, Maine–before the Revolutionary War. But there’s very little ethnic charge in being Yankee. So I write Irish. And I look Irish.
What kind of lives did they lead?
My father was an executive with the phone company; my mother was a housewife. He was a very good father. My mother was complicated, difficult, and drank too much. I was an only child.
What kind of kid were you?
A model child until puberty; then an acting-out adolescent. I started to drink at 14, got into fistfights, was generally obstreperous, and was in frequent trouble at school.
Then how did you get into Colby College?
My father went to Colby–that’s how I got in. I graduated in the bottom quarter of my class.
Ah, but they like me now. The pleasure of going back with the girl of my dreams to the college that spurned me. I used to fantasize about that as an adolescent. I always wanted to be a writer … and to be Joan’s husband.
If you don’t do research, how did you get to understand messed-up kids so well?
Neither of my two sons was messed up in Paul’s way, but when one of them throws a tantrum, you understand tantrums. Just like one punch in the mouth will tell you all you need to know about violence. I mean it when I say I don’t do research.
Then how did you learn to speak street slang so well in Double Deuce?
“We used to standing around,” Major said. “Stand around a lot. Stand around sell some sub.”
“What kind of sub you sell?” Hawk said.
“Grain, grass, classic, Jock, motor, harp, what you need is what we got.”
Hawk looked at me.
“Grass,” he said. “Rock cocaine, regular powdered coke, heroin.” He looked at Major. “What’s motor? Speed?”
I made it up. I don’t know those words, and if I did, by the time they appeared in the book, they’d be out of date, anyway. So I made them up.
How do you think your work will be viewed in 50 years?
Don’t know, don’t care. I think I’m pretty good, that I write pretty well. Bart Giamatti [ex-Yale president, ex-baseball commissioner] said I write better about love and sweat than anyone else. I think he was right.
You were an academic, yet you excoriate academics in The Godwulf Manuscript and Hush Money. Any possible connection?
Sure. You occasionally find a really great professor. But many of the academics I meet are the worst people in the world. They don’t care about kids or writing or teaching, only about tenure and promotion. They’re awful.
You’ve been awarded the Grand Master Award by Mystery Writers of America. But you’re not really a mystery writer. What kind of writer are you?
I’m a novelist; I write novels. It’s convenient for everybody but the writer to categorize writing: readers know what they like, bookstores know where to shelve them, reviewers can slot them. But it’s irrelevant to me. Dostoyevsky also wrote crime novels. I’m trying to do what Faulkner or Fitzgerald tried to do. They just did it better. We’re all trying to tell a compelling story.
I have a long-term project, a novel about Jackie Robinson. It will take me four or five years. After Jackie is done, assuming I live to be 100, I’m going to write a novel about Ned Poins from Henry IV. He makes his appearance, then just disappears. I think, whatever happened to old Ned?
What do you think accounts for the success of the Spenser novels?
Don’t know. But people like heroes. Spenser cannot be bought by sex or fear or money. He’s serious but not anguished.