The legendary Lawrence Block (who heretofore shall be referred to as simply, “The Legendary”) agreed to further sully his reputation by doing an interview with yours truly, having forgotten the furor, riots and lawsuits stemming from his last outing here. This glimpse into a literary icon’s process is fascinating, all the more so because, after more years as an author than I’ve been alive, he’s releasing his first self-published offering (hopefully not his last). Without further ado, let’s get to The Legendary and his latest triumph, The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons.
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Russell Blake: Well, here you are again. You may not remember, but you were the subject of my very first Author Spotlight, just about two years ago.
Lawrence Block: How could I forget? That’s when my career took off. I figure I owe it all to you.
RB: And you’ve returned to express your gratitude. Very decent of you.
LB: To express my gratitude, and to let the Spotlight shine on The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. It’s the eleventh book about Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar and bookseller, and the first in almost a decade. The on-sale date is December 25th—
RB: —which should be easy to remember.
LB: You’d think so, but why rely too heavily on memory? The canny reader can play it safe and pre-order the book now from Amazon.
RB: I’d ask you to tell us something about the book, but you’ve already done so. Still, a couple of points cry out for further attention. I understand you wrote the book on a cruise ship.
LB: Holland America’s MS Veendam, on a five-week cruise this summer. Round trip from Boston, sailing the North Atlantic and visiting ports in Newfoundland, Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, and, well, you get the idea. I’ve always tended to go away to work, sometimes to writers’ colonies, sometimes to a hotel room, and I like ocean travel, so I gave it a try.
RB: As an alternative to the retirement you’ve been nattering about in recent years.
LB: Well, I did honestly think I might be done writing novels. And the efforts I’d made seemed to confirm my suspicions, dying five or ten thousand words in. I didn’t intend to take up shuffleboard, I knew I’d be busy tending to my backlist and writing the occasional short story, but I feared I might not be up to the heavy lifting that a novel demands.
But I really wanted to do at least one more book, you know? So I decided to give myself optimal conditions—a cruise, all by myself (plus 1200 strangers, but let’s not count them). Food when I wanted it, ease, comfort. And internet access in the ship library—but not in my cabin, to spare me that particular diversion during my working hours.
RB: And you just sat there and wrote?
LB: I woke up every morning around five and went straight to work. A steward brought my breakfast around seven, and I paused long enough to eat it, then went back to work. I kept going until I made my daily quota, which was a minimum of 2000 words. I rarely did much more than that—until the last two days, when everything was coming together and it was easier to keep going than to stop.
RB: Did you ever leave the ship?
LB: If we were still in port when my day’s work was done, I generally went and had a look around. But the work always had priority, and I kept at it seven days a week. I may have been afraid that if I stopped I’d never get started again.
And, by God, it worked. I boarded the ship July 13, started writing the following morning, finished up August 15, and disembarked in Boston two days later.
RB: And you’re publishing it Christmas Day. Self-publishing it, to be specific, which is a murky pond you’ve been sticking a toe in for a couple of years now.
LB: I’ve been republishing backlist titles ever since Kindle made that possible. And two years ago I published an original, a collection of Matthew Scudder stories called The Night and the Music, which has done very well for me as an eBook and a HandsomeTradePaperback.
RB: That’s all one word? HandsomeTradePaperback?
LB: I think it ought to be, don’t you? But I’m taking a big step with The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. It’s one that any of several traditional publishers would have been eager to publish. I could have pocketed a substantial advance, and instead I chose to be out of pocket and do it all myself.
RB: A fair number of folks might question your sanity.
LB: Well, it’s always been questionable at best. I sat down with my agent, who had read the book and loved it. He told me the advance he thought he could get for it, and asked me if I thought I could sell enough $9.99 eBooks and $14.99 HandsomeTradePaperbacks to match that number.
RB: And you said—
LB: I said, “How the hell do I know?” Because even an educated guess is still a guess. But I didn’t think it was unrealistic. And what he especially appreciated was that if I published the book myself it would be mine forever. I wouldn’t have some guys in suits hanging on to the eRights like grim death, long after they’ve stopped selling printed books.
RB: Of course if you self-publish, he doesn’t get a commission.
LB: Yes, he does. He’s selling the book overseas, he’s making the audiobook deal—and he gets his commission on the book’s earnings irrespective of who publishes it. That’s been true ever since The Night and the Music, and it works for both of us.
But it was still a hard decision. Publishing it myself meant giving up store sales, for the most part. It meant a smaller sale to libraries. It meant some media wouldn’t review it. It meant there wouldn’t be a hardcover trade edition.
RB: You’re doing a deluxe hardcover limited edition, however (cover reveal below – second one).
LB: I am, and it should be quite beautiful, signed and numbered and limited to 1000 copies. It’s selling nicely, and we’ll wind up making money with it, in addition to supplying collectors with a really handsome volume.
Will I do as well overall publishing the book myself? Things look very good at this point, but the question’s still unanswerable. But, you know, that’s almost beside the point. Another consideration led to my decision.
RB: I bet you’re about to tell us what it was.
LB: How well you know me. It’s pretty simple: the desire to publish the book myself was largely responsible for my getting the book written in the first place. Once it was finished, and once it had turned out to be a better book than I’d dared to hope, how could I turn my back on the very impulse that had propelled me through it?
Look, if this venture falls short financially, I’ll regret the dollars I’ve lost. But I won’t lose sleep over them, and the regret won’t burrow very deep or last very long. But if I didn’t give it a shot, I’d regret that failure of nerve for the rest of my life.
I’ve come to believe that, when I face that kind of fork in the road, I’ll regret whatever choice I make. So it’s a question of which regret will be easier to live with. Once I looked at it that way, it was clear that self-publication was really the only way to go.
RB: And you’re not regretting it yet?
LB: Not for a second. I’ve been a professional writer for something like 55 years, and in all that time I’ve never been as busy as I am right now. And I’ve never had anywhere near as much fun.
And I don’t have to wait a year and a half for the damn thing to be out there! In my first Author Spotlight interview, I was whining about the fact that I’d finished Hit Me in November and it wouldn’t be coming out for fifteen months. I’m of an age whereat a prudent man doesn’t buy green bananas. You think I want to wait fifteen months for a book.
RB: So you evidently like it here on the dark side. Plan to dig in and stay awhile? Or is a return to retirement the next item on your agenda?
LB: I don’t seem to be very good at retirement. I’ve got a couple of books coming next year from a pair of very classy publishers—Subterranean Press will bring out Defender of the Innocent: The Casebook of Martin Ehrengraf, and Borderline, a pseudonymous work from 1962, is being resuscitated by Hard Case Crime. (A good thing, too, as it was barely suscitated in the first place.)
There’s a writing book of mine, Write For Your Life, that’s long out of print, although it’s been eVailable for a while now. But I found 25 copies of the original edition in a storage bin and put them on eBay last week, one to a customer, and they were all gone three hours after my newsletter went out. God knows how many I could have sold. So that suggests I really ought to do a print-on-demand edition, and I’ll get on that sometime after the first of the year.
RB: A HandsomeTradePaperback, I suppose?
LB: You bet. So there are all these things to bring out, including a new collection of reviews and essays and such, and that should be enough to keep me out of mischief. But I can’t get away from the fact that I’d like to write another novel, and I even have the sense of what it might be. It’s early days, it’ll be months before I’m ready to sit down and get to it, but sometime in the spring or summer I think I’ll find a way to do it.
RB: And will you publish it yourself?
LB: It does look that way, doesn’t it?
Limited Edition Hardcover