A Walk Among the Tombstones with Lawrence Block
September 15th, 2014
To call prolific author Lawrence Block simply a crime writer is to miss the mark. He’s a character writer who happens to write in the crime genre. Whether it’s the “introspective” stamp-collecting assassin Keller, the “globe-trotting insomniac” Evan Tanner, or the hard-boiled private-eye Matthew Scudder, Block delves deep into the psyche of his characters. I recently spoke with Block about the upcoming film A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (in theaters Friday!) which is based on his novel of the same name featuring the hard-nosed investigator Scudder, played by Liam Neeson. Scott Frank did the adaptation and directing honors. (Read my interview with Scott here.)
In this interview Block also shares insights into the craft of writing as well as his experiences (numerous adaptations based on his work) with Hollywood including a few stabs he took as a screenwriter.
Mr. Block, well to interview you about your writing career would not justify one sitting that’s for sure, six decades now as a writer?
Something like that. I think my first story was sold in 1958 so I think time is fleeting.
Let’s take it back to when Scott Frank and Jersey Films acquired the book (A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES). How did all that transpire?
Sure, the book came out in 1992 and it hadn’t been out terribly long before Scott got in touch about the option of the film rights, that was about 1994 or 95; I am not sure exactly when that was. I remember at the time I took a copy off the shelf and inscribed it for Scott and sent it to him, “Want to make something of it?”
That was after my agent had told me that we'd had an offer from him. It's been a while and as I said it was fairly earlier on because I still had hardcover copies on my shelf. And then of course the deal took a while coming together and came very close to happening with Harrison Ford set to star as Scudder.
I know we were not that many weeks away from commencement of principle photography when the deal fell apart. Ford decided he didn’t want to do it.
Scott Frank mentioned that you had always pictured Liam Nelson as Scudder. When he got involved it must have been pretty exciting?
Right, when he got involved that was not that long ago. After the deal fell apart the first time Jersey Films renewed the option a couple of years and then let it go. I really thought the deal was dead in the water forever and then I ran into Scott one time, I think at the screening of his film THE LOOKOUT.
We started talking about it and he said that he still had faith in the project and intended to get it done someday. I did not know whether that would ever happen or not and certainly if someone had come up to my agent through a period of several years there with a credible offer for the Scudder properties we would not have held back. Because it really looked as though it was done and then suddenly Scott got in touch and the next thing we knew there was a deal with Liam to star in it.
Did you visualize Scudder as Liam when you were writing?
This isn’t the first time Scudder was been brought to screen. Back in 1986 Jeff Ridges first played him in 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE – a project that had some powerhouse writers involved: Oliver Stone, Robert Towne. Unfortunately, the film wasn’t well received.
Oliver Stone read it and got all excited about it, optioned it, and wrote it with the intention I think of directing as well. This was when he was primarily a screenwriter but he had done some directing and then that fell apart and it wound up getting done as you saw and I guess Robert Towne did some sort of unaccredited rewrite on it.
I talked to Jeff about it at one time, and the set was not a happy place I guess. They started shooting without a finished script and it was a mess. I think Jeff did some excellent work in it, and I think Andy Garcia did some excellent work. I think Hal Ashby might have done some excellent work on it but they took final cut away from him. He was an editor before he was a director. Even Jeff expressed himself rather bitterly on the subject saying that whoever did edit the film used all the bad takes. So that accounts for some of what you see on the screen. And having no script accounts for scenes like the snow cone scene which had potential but was completely improvised and the downfall of such scenes is no one has the slightest clue how to get the fuck out of it.
That brings us to TOMBSTONES today, Scott Frank streamlined the book a little bit, took some characters out, but I think he really captured the essence of Scudder, what did you think?
I agree completely. He made some changes that absolutely had to be made, he made some changes that I probably wouldn’t have made but I can understand them and he probably made a change or two that he is sorry he made. I know he regrets the fact that Scudder’s Girlfriend Elaine disappeared from the story.
But what is wonderful in my mind about the film -- not just that it is a terrific and exciting film -- but Scott really gets Scudder, he gets Scudder’s world, he gets the whole feel of the book, which is certainly to my mind far more important than a line for line copy of the plot. Well, with luck there will be other films and perhaps we can tell some more of the story.
When you got to see a screening of the film what was your initial reaction? Did you read the screenplay?
Oh we just loved it. My wife and I saw it back in late fall right after they had done the mix, and we absolutely loved it. One thing that I did not do is read the screenplay at any juncture. Scott offered it to me in fact very early on the first time around he sent a copy of the script over without my having asked.
I read about five pages or so and realized that I did not want to see it in that form, that seeing something on the page would just make me want to change things, would make me feel that it was being done wrong. Seeing it on the screen is fine and I was on set on several occasions and watching it being filmed was fine, but I did not want to read it in script form.
Take me back to the evolution of Scudder, how did you come up with him?
It was in about 1973 or 74 that I started writing about him and my agent at the time said he thought that I should try and develop a series about a tough New York cop for the paperback house Dell Books. I realized right away that writing about a member of the police department was not something I wanted to do.
While I liked reading procedural novels it was not the kind of writing I wanted to do. I realized I would be much more comfortable with the perspective of a loner, an ex-cop, an outsider and that is how Scudder evolved really.
When you started writing the books did you kind of know where the thing was going, how it would evolve?
No. I thought Scudder would be actively drinking and an old loner hanging out on the same bar stool until his liver failed or I stopped writing. But the series as I wrote went in its own direction. It did things that surprised me because at the time, certainly, a view point character, a private eye novel, they generally stayed exactly the same for the duration of the series, they didn’t age, didn’t change, and didn't learn or forget a thing. And Scudder was not just going to behave that way, there was a level of realism operating that required that he age and required that he be changed by what he experienced.
Some screenwriters talk about how part of them always materializes in their central characters. It’s not always true obviously, but do you feel that kind of connection to your characters, something that is a part of you that becomes a part of them?
Well I think that always happens one way or another. I am blessed and cursed with writing a great variety of books about a great variety of characters. So if there is a part of me in Matthew Scudder, then there is a part of me in Bernie Rhodenbarr the burglar, and Keller, the professional assassin.
In fact, a woman I knew years ago accused me of having a personality split of about five ways with five different pen names that I was using at the time.
Looking at that diversity, you had numerous short stories produced and if I am not mistaken you even have a screenwriting credit or two?
I have done enough screenwriting so that I managed to get invested for a guild pension which strikes me as amazing because I didn't get an awful lot of screen credit over the years. But I did work at it. I am the co-writer of Wong Kar-wai English language film MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS.
I did a couple of episodes of TILT which was a series on ESPN, a dramatic series which had a snowball’s chance in hell of catching on because nobody watches ESPN when they want to watch a dramatic series but it was well received by the people who did watch it. And I have done some other things that never materialized.
Novel writing and screenwriting are two very different animals. Was there anything you could draw from as a novelist to help you as a screenwriter?
Well they are obviously two different disciplines because being concise is so important in screenwriting. A couple of things struck me over time. At one point I did a couple of drafts of a screenplay based on one of the first of the Keller Books, Hitman, which almost got picked up but did not.
At one point I remember the producer Richard Rubinstein said to me about one scene, you don’t have to do it this way because you've got a great actor here who can do a lot of that for you. I realized that you don’t have that when you are just writing prose on a page and leaving room for an actor to make line work was something that I learned.
Another thing that I discovered was that screenwriting, you know a screenplay is maybe a 100 - 120 pages and you don’t fill the whole page and a lot of it is direction, and the words don’t have to be well chosen. For all of that a day’s work of screenwriting is at least as exhausting as a day's work of working on a novel.
Another thing is that for screenwriting you can't just sit down and let the scene go. Extra words, an extra line, or extra anything, is going to screw it up.
You have written numerous books on the craft of writing.
They are instructional books, not exactly “how to” books but more a matter of how I did it. They have been enduringly popular which is very gratifying.
Any tidbits in those books that you think apply to screenwriters, something they could draw from and help them as writers?
I don’t know. I don’t know what helps people write. I did not read a great many books on writing myself. I am delighted that things I have written people seem to find value in, but I don’t know what would work for anybody or not. There was one thing that I wrote that was based on a seminar that I developed and got some traction with in the mid-1980s, that is a book called Write for Your Life, which is essentially an inner game thing of writing things which focuses on the person rather than what is going on the page. I think that works for writers, I am told that works as well for screenwriters as anybody else.
You have a website lawrenceblock.com and you are very active, you have a blog. How is the back and forth dialog with your readers, you seem to be very much engaged online?
I do enjoy the social media as they call them which is paradoxical to me because what it does is make one anti-social; you never get out of the house. I do enjoy the back and forth and it works well for me because I tend to go away to write and isolate. I would write a book in a month or so, and thus it doesn’t drain me to be spending time on Facebook and Twitter during the other months of the year. I know for some writers it is really, “shall I work on my book or shall I waste time on Facebook?,” and that can be a conflict.
I understand the publisher released a new edition of TOMBSTONES for the movie’s release?
There is a tie-in addition in Mass Market paperback, but otherwise I have all the rights to the book so I have a POD trade paperback available also and of course the book is available online.
And did you say that you were working on another Scudder book or was there something else?
Oh there is a book called The Night and the Music which is a collection of eleven Matthew Scudder short stories; an 18th novel in the series and probably not everybody is aware of that. But no I don’t have another Scudder novel in preparation. I would be surprised if there ever is another one.
Is there anything that you are working on, any future novels?
There is a book I just finished two months ago that is a non-series book that Hard Case Prime will be publishing about a year from now that is called The Girl with the Deep Blue Eyes. It’s a dark nasty noir book.
What keeps you writing? You have been at it for a long time. What keeps you going?
What keeps me going clearly is not the belief that the world is suffering from a lack of books by me. A couple of times now in recent years I thought that I was probably done writing novels. I figured I wouldn’t stop writing entirely, I thought I would write short stories from time to time. But I figured I was ready to be done with the heavy lifting of novels and it just turns out I am wrong because every once in a while I just feel the need, I don’t know why I still should, but I guess I am grateful for it.
Indeed, I think being a writer is a part of who we are.
They say that writers can’t quit. I couldn’t believe all the crap that was said about Philip Roth when he announced that he was done. I mean the guy had done nothing but write for ages and was superb at it, that he might be tired and wanted to sit back and put his feet up seemed to offend people. Half of the people said “oh poor Philip Roth this is awful” and the others said “how dare you son a bitch,” I just did not get that.
I think I can speak for a lot of fans when I say I'm glad you are writing and I appreciate you taking the time to talk about A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES and I can’t wait for it to come out.
Yes, me too, thank you.
About the Author
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(Follow on Twitter) Christopher Wehner is a published author and produced screenwriter, EL CAMINO CHRISTMAS @Netflix and AMERICAN DREAMER (later this year); visit his IMDB page for future projects. Christopher has been a leading member of the online screenwriter's community going back to the 1990s. In 2001 he published the groundbreaking book Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing and Selling Your Script on the Web,.
To contact Chris visit his website: Warm Beer Productions.