How I Write: Robert B. Parker
Published: December 3, 2002
|Surely, a large part of the success of Robert B. Parker's 30-year-old Spenser series is that its male leads--the title character, who is a private detective, and his intimidating sidekick, Hawk--offer some of the best smart-ass humor around. "Spenser says the things you wish you'd said the next day, without a fear of repercussion," Parker says. "He doesn't care if he gets fired, he's not intimidated by force, not manipulatable by sex. I'm sure everyone would like to have the grand putdown that I thought up at my leisure." Parker's comfortable status as a bestseller in crime fiction is also due to his dependability: Buy a Parker novel and you're largely assured of a strong story line, tight writing and sharp dialogue. A New York Times reviewer said of the Spenser books, "We are witnessing one of the great series in the history of the American detective story." Last year, Parker was named Grand Master by The Mystery Writers of America.|
Credits: More than 40 books, including Shrink Rap (2002, the third Sunny Randall novel starring a female P.I.), and 29 titles in the Spenser series.
]Why: Well, the answer is, I don't know other than that this is something I can do. It allows me autonomy to make things and this is what I like to make. It gives me a good income and a certain amount of public celebration. In addition to being an English professor, I used to be a technical writer, an advertising writer and an industrial editor. I never liked the work.
Where: At my home in Cambridge [Mass.], where I have an office. I write five pages a day, five days a week. After I'm done writing, I go do something else.
How: I work on a Macintosh. I do a finished draft as I go--what you read is what came out of my computer at the end of each day.
Ideas: I think them up. These are works of the imagination. I make this stuff up. It is probably the hardest thing for people who don't write fiction to understand that I don't get them from anywhere; I imagine them. I obviously imagine them out of the material of my own experience.
I don't know where I'm going. The first five pages lead to the second five and the next five grow out of the second. I have only the vaguest idea--with Shrink Rap, I knew Sunny would be hired to protect a woman on a book tour.
I've never taken a note in my life. I used to outline when I began, but that was for psychological support. After a while, you realize you can think this stuff up and people will buy it. The way I do it now allows for more serendipity.
Influences: Raymond Chandler, clearly. In the early days, I was blatantly trying to imitate Philip Marlowe [Chandler's most memorable character] with another name [Spenser] on the East Coast. I stopped doing that at some time.
Writer's block: Never. I've never not been able to work out what I'm trying to do. Some days it takes longer than others; some days it flows and you're through in an hour. Dutch [Elmore] Leonard will say, "Writer's block is another word for lazy."
Advice to writers: Sadly, I can only tell them [to] write it and send it to someone who can publish it. There's nothing else you can do. You can't rig it.
Writers write. Finish it. The idea isn't the trick; the execution is everything. Any story will do as long as you execute it well. So write it and send it in. And if you keep getting rejected, you might want to re-examine your professional goals.
Making characters so alive: I have no idea why I'm able to do that other than I'm able to do it. You want to tell your story through the actions of people. I'll quote Henry James: "What is plot but the dramatization of character; what is character but the determinant of plot," or something like that.
Photograph by John Earle