This month we’re talking to Levi Stahl about editing Donald Westlake

Levi Stahl“[Westlake’s books] share a discernible ethos: a belief in clear, declarative sentences; an appreciation for efficiency and precision; and a fundamental confidence that things that can go wrong will do so, spectacularly.”—From The Getaway Car

A prolific, hard-boiled crime novelist, Donald Westlake wrote nearly one hundred novels, many under the pseudonym Richard Stark. After Westlake died in 2008, Levi Stahl, promotions director at the University of Chicago Press, took on the mission of creating a portrait of the master storyteller. The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany explores Westlake’s craft through his own writing. Stahl spent weekends at Westlake’s home, searching through manuscripts, letters, and clippings, nearly all of it contained in hard-copy, typewritten pages. In this month’s Shop Talk, Stahl talks to us about what it takes to edit such a collection, what lessons Westlake has for all writers, and why you can never have too many file folders.

There are legions of Westlake fans out there, but for those who haven’t yet crossed paths with Parker or John Dortmunder can you give us an introduction to the Westlake world?

There are three or four really good routes into Westlake’s world. If you like comedy and crime, you can start with one of the best of his standalone comic novels, like Somebody Owes Me Money (Opening line: “I bet none of it would have happened if I wasn’t so eloquent.”) or God Save the Mark. Or you can dive into the lighter of his two long-running series, the books about John Dortmunder, the capable but luckless (and hapless) heister. The pithiest description of Dortmunder’s world comes in the novel Drowned Hopes: “John Dortmunder and a failed enterprise always recognized one another.”

The series opens with The Hot Rock, which finds his crew having to make no fewer than six attempts at stealing the same diamond. When Westlake started writing that book, it actually featured his other series character, the heister Parker, whose violent and dramatic adventures he chronicled for decades under the pen name Richard Stark. Westlake realized quickly, however, that Parker was far too no-nonsense to keep trying to steal the diamond; he’d cut his losses and go. Thus was born John Dortmunder.

And that’s a good way to think about the Parker books: absolutely no-nonsense. These books are as hard-boiled as they get, telling stories of a character who’s as amoral and relentless as they come. (He’s been played on screen by Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Mel Gibson, and, most recently Jason Statham. Dortmunder, meanwhile, got Robert Redford. Go figure.) The first Parker book is The Hunter—if you like it, you probably won’t stop until Westlake did, with Dirty Money, twenty-four books and nearly fifty years later.

How did you get such access to Westlake’s files?

Through the enthusiastic cooperation of his widow, Abby Adams Westlake. Abby was kind enough to invite me (and my friend Ethan Iverson, who knows as much about Westlake’s work as anyone) to go through Westlake’s working files. Ethan and I spent two days on it, trawling through jam-packed file drawers with cryptically amusing labels like “Are You Still Here?”, “Work, For the Night Is Coming,” and “I Lost Everything in the  . . .” It was simultaneously a pleasure and an education: This, we kept thinking, is what is involved in being a working writer. And these are the files of one of our favorite authors that we’re getting to wander around in!

It seems like it would be nearly overwhelming to stand in front of those archives and think, “Let’s make a book out of this.” How did you approach the project? Did you go in with a set idea of the book’s structure or did you let the materials shape the structure?

The biggest unexpected pleasure for me was watching the book take shape. Going in, I wasn’t even sure that there would be enough material for a whole book, but a few hours with the files made clear that between what was there and what I had found with library research, we were going to have more than enough. I took home a copy of pretty much every piece of paper in the files that seemed to offer even a glimmer of interest, and once I got home I started reading over and sorting everything. I found some natural groupings began to emerge: essays on other writers, for example, obviously belonged together, as did reflections on his own work. What was fun was seeing what didn’t fit in those categories yet unquestionably belonged—his list of unused book titles, for example, or a goofy letter about the afterlife—and finding a way to build a structure that would allow them to fit and also give them the additional meaning and power that can accrue throughout the reading of a well-organized collection of a life’s work.

The letters were the cream of the experience for me. I love, love, love reading writers’ letters (as anyone who follows me on Twitter can attest), and getting to go through all the correspondence Westlake had preserved and select a handful that I thought would interest his fans was a sheer joy. I still think they’re some of the most fun pages in the whole book.

If you could go back and give yourself some advice at the start, what would you pass along?

I would tell myself to buy more filing folders! Seriously, it’s the organizational aspect that took me a long time to wrestle to the ground. I had this absolute mass of papers, and I was tracking it all via a Google Doc, but I didn’t have a filing cabinet, nor did I pay sufficient attention to the physical organization of the papers. I did a lot of the research for this book on my couch, and a lot of materials came to me digitally, but the work of making a book of this sort nonetheless remains a physical one, and it was only through sheer luck that I didn’t end up buried by papers, Collyer brothers–style.

You write in your introduction, “the labor of a working writer never stops.” Can you expand on this? What lessons does Westlake’s career have for other writers?

The files were a great education in all the many aspects of a writing career that don’t necessarily involve the work of creation. Westlake was a model worker: he wrote book after book, sitting down day after day at the typewriter and hammering them out. In one essay he says that he doesn’t think he has the gene for writer’s block. Another way of thinking about it is that he knew there was always work to do, so he did it.

But that wasn’t nearly all the labor that his job entailed. The files were crammed with letters to agents—the New York publishing agent, the London agent, the Hollywood agent—and publishers. There was a constant back and forth about movie rights, paperback rights, reprint rights, royalty checks, screenplay treatments, and countless other business details. There were scads of invitations to speak, to donate, to accept awards, to write short pieces for some cause or other. There were notes on the novels of friends and acquaintances (one set of which is included in a letter in The Getaway Car—the level of attention to the MS of a near-stranger that it reveals is amazing, as is Westlake’s acuity about how stories work). A writer is essentially a small business wrapped around a creative mind, and the files revealed that.

For Westlake, it was a job, and one he was proud of working hard at and being good at. The files reflect that in a way that even the long shelves of his books can’t.

You’re calling this a “nonfiction miscellany.” How did you alight on this category? Do you hope to see other books using this classification in the future?

I stole the “miscellany” idea from the book that was in my head as my model when I hatched the idea of this one: Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany, which was published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2012. Portis is a true cult writer and in his output almost the opposite of Westlake; he’s only published five novels since his 1966 debut. (You should read them all!) But what I fixated on was the “miscellany” aspect of it and the freedom that gave the editor to include things that seemed interesting, categories be damned. I chose the word when I wasn’t sure what all I would find in Westlake’s files, and I was pleased to be able to retain it, along with the recipes, letters, autobiographical fragments, and lists that gave it validity.

Levi Stahl is promotions director at the University of Chicago Press. The Getaway Car publishes September 2014.

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