Thursday, June 24, 2021

A Writer Prepares by Lawrence Block

We readers can be nosy bastards, can't we? Oh sure, most of us are happy enough to just read the books, and don't even bother with fripperies like introductions and notes and original publication dates. But the people who are serious about books - meaning the ones authors come into contact with on a regular basis, collectors or editors or agents or booksellers or critics or just bug-eyed lunatics - always want to know more, and our questions are inexhaustible. 

Why did Author X name this philandering villain James - is it significant that is the same name as his mailman at the same time? Book Z was published under a pseudonym that author never used again: surely that must mean something? And why did this series run in paperback for ten years and then suddenly jump to hardcover, only to sputter out? Surely there's a story there!

Some authors enjoy explaining their process; some don't. Some like dishing dirt on their fellow writers and publishing partners: more, some are gleeful about it, he said as someone who has had lunch with Harlan Ellison. Some have good stories, but some, if they're honest, would mumble something like "well, I had the idea for this book, and wrote it, and then Joe Doaks over at Papillion offered me a three-book deal, and thirty years later I ended up following him to Mariposa for what became book twenty-seven of the same series."

Lawrence Block was traditionally one of the reticent writers. It was clear he'd had an interesting and often tumultuous early career: he wrote sex books on a monthly basis for a living for a couple of years and worked at the infamous Scott Meredith Literary Agency and was a SMLA client and got fired as a client by SMLA. That's on top of the usual life-stuff of going to college, having it not really stick, bouncing in and out of New York City a few times, getting married and moving way out to the sticks young, and briefly launching what could have been a brilliant corporate job in lovely Racine, Wisconsin. (And that's just the early career: his life and career seems to have stayed complicated through at least the 1970s, which is outside the scope of this post.)

But he only talked about a few pieces of that, and spent most of his career refusing to even discuss his sex books. That fueled a minor research empire among his fans, tracking down pseudonyms and searching for common phrases and trying to untangle something that was a pure tangle from the very beginning. Over the last decade or so, his stance changed: maybe due to the fuck-it attitude of age, maybe because he saw an opportunity to claim and republish his old books himself and make a few bucks, maybe just because enough water had gone under that particular bridge. So the sex books, and the other early, clearly apprentice work, came back, in new editions published by Block and with introductions that were not a million miles away from a fragmentary literary autobiography. (And that fragmentary autobiography has been collected since - I covered the first edition of Afterthoughts a decade ago, and there's a revised edition that came out earlier this year)

But, still, there was hope he'd write something in longer form, and he mentioned, now and then, that he'd written something like fifty thousand words towards a literary memoir back in 1994. A Writer Prepares, he said it was called, but it was so far in the back of a drawer it would probably never se the light of day.

Well, time passes. Drawers get cleared out. And today, Lawrence Block's eighty-third birthday, A Writer Prepares is being published. It contains the original roughly 50k words from 1994, with a new foreword and introduction, and probably roughly as much new text afterward to continue the story and get it to a point Block is comfortable calling it complete.

It is not entirely smooth; Block was not trying to make it smooth. He has seemingly made only minor edits to the old text: it's what 1994 Block wrote in a white heat over a few days, and 2020 Block clearly wanted to preserve that. But this is the story of young Larry Block, starting in August of 1956 when he went to New York as part of a college co-op program to work for a semester in the mail room of Pines Publications.

But, before getting there, we have two veils: 2020 Block explaining how the original script came to be, and how it got into that drawer (and how it was actually part of a contract with Morrow for most of the '90s; it was a book he absolutely thought would become real), and then, further back, 1994 Block explaining why, after so many years of resolutely refusing to talk about his sex-novel career (and pointing out that he can't talk about his early years without getting deeply into the sex-novel career; one was the other), he was actually doing that now.

Well, maybe he hadn't managed to completely convince himself on that point quite yet. Or maybe a dozen other things. Writing isn't easy, and the flood can stop for a thousand reasons or no reason. This time around, spurred by the pandemic and a sense of his mortality - or maybe other reasons; I mention those possibilities only because Block does himself - he did finish up A Writer Prepares, covering what he thinks of as the early phase of that career.

So Prepares takes Block from that mail room to SMLA, first writing polite letters to suckers paying for useless writing-career help, and then becoming part of the stable of writers SMLA represented to a few bottom-tier publishers. And then expanding out from books about sex he knew very little about - Block wrote a whole bunch of lesbian novels; I'm not casting aspersions on his love life in the late '50s - he also wrote a bunch of books pretending to be a doctor, which were also mostly, at least at first, all about sex.

(If there's any lesson from that era of American publishing, it's that no matter what idiots tell you about the "good old days" of the post-war consensus, the country was obsessed with sex in the late '50s and early '60s just as much as any other era, but had to jump through horribly unpleasant hoops to scratch that itch. I don't know if we're healthier now, but we're at least clearer and more open.)

Along the way, Block tells stories about some fellow writers and SMLA colleagues - Hal Dresner, Don Westlake, Henry Morrison, and a number of other names less well known. He narrates how he went back and forth from Antioch College to New York to Buffalo, how he got married and had two daughters, and how he ended up in Racine. He ends the book at a point where he thinks he's become a journeyman rather than an apprentice: he's not writing sex-novels for a living anymore, and he's launching his first series character, under his real name, for a at least moderately respectable publisher.

(Don't kid yourself: publishers are never better than moderately respectable. Even Markus Dohle.)

Others have been in more depth about SMLA - Barry Malzberg, who can always be counted to give the most negative picture of anything he looks at, has some choice words in his Engines of the Night -- but Block gives a solid picture of the fairly early days. (I do wish it had been possible for some enterprising soul to record extensive interviews with all of the major players for an oral history of SMLA: it might have had to wait a hundred years to be published, but it would have been amazing.)

Much of what's in here will be familiar to people who have read Afterthoughts, but this is a deeper, more complete view of Block's early career than those inevitably piecemeal introductions for specific novels. And the palimpsest nature of 2020 Block layered on 1994 Block looking back at 1956-1965 Block is fascinating: we all look back at our lives and consider what we did and why, but most of us aren't as strong writers as Block is or have such rich material to work from.

If you've read this whole long post, you must be interested in Block and his life to some degree. If you're actually reading this sentence, you will want to read A Writer Prepares

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