You’d think I’d be grateful.
In 1977 I published Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, the novel that introduced one Bernard Grimes Rhodenbarr to an unsuspecting public. Over the years I was to write nine more books about Bernie, the most recent of which is The Burglar on the Prowl, published in 2004.
That, you’ll note, was seven years ago. Right.
Bernie has his fans, and they’re no greedier than the farmer who only wanted the land adjacent to his own. All they want is more, and all they do is tell me so. And, as I said, you’d think I’d be grateful, because these are bright and perceptive human beings letting me know that they’re eager to spend more time with a character of my creation. That’s flattering, isn’t it?
Well, sure. And remember where flattery will get you.
Will you write another book about Bernie? When will you write another book about Bernie? Why don’t you write another book about Bernie?
This is my blog, so I get to use whatever words I want, but I’d rather not employ the sort that can’t be used in what used to be called a family newspaper, back when the world still contained (a) families and (b) newspapers. But those are the very words that keep coming to mind.
Here are some answers, rendered in acceptable language:
First of all, it’s pointless to ask me what I’m going to write next. The fact of the matter is that I don’t know. I know what the next book will be if I happen already to have written it. If it’s not finished, I can’t be positive I’ll be able to complete it, and I’m certainly not going to discuss it until I have. If I haven’t even begun it, then it doesn’t exist, so what is there for me to talk about? I could go on in this vein, but I think you get my drift. I don’t know what the future holds, my friend, and neither do you. That’s what makes it the future. It’s hard enough these days to know what the present holds…
Secondly, it’s counterproductive to tell me what you want me to write. I sincerely hope that my writing pleases you, but if you think I’m here to give you what you want, there’s a lot you don’t understand about writing, and no end of things you don’t understand about me. The greatest disservice I could do my readers is to try to give them what they want. That’s just not part of my job description. All I can do is write my books my way, and try to make them so irresistible that you enjoy reading what I want to write.
Third, as much as I might want to write a book about Bernie, or any other character, the desire’s not all that’s required. There are writers who can write anything they’re asked to write, and I thank whatever gods may be that I am not of their number. I probably was, early on, but I got spoiled, and for years now I’ve been unable to go on writing a book unless it engages me.
Stephen King was asked once (well, probably more than once; nobody gets asked anything just once) why he wrote the kind of stories he wrote. His reply: “What makes you think I have any choice?”
There have been times over the years when I have tried to write books about one character or another, and I’ve pushed along for a few chapters, until it became clear to me that it was time to throw out what I’d done and try something else. I hate it when that happens, but I’d hate it a lot more if I pressed on by sheer force of will and produced a bad book.
Oh, come on. I asked you a simple question. Are you gonna write another book about Bernie or aren’t you?
You see what I mean? This is what happens. If I only got the question at great intervals, I wouldn’t mind. Just the other day I had an exchange with a fellow who had a particular fondness for an early non-series book of mine, The Girl With the Long Green Heart. A special-price promotion on Amazon got the book a lot of attention, and led him to wonder if I might be moved to write another book about the book’s lead characters, John Hayden and Doug Rance. Although I think I may have had that vaguely in mind when I wrote the book 45 years ago, I’d never entertained the idea since, and his question, from high up in the bleachers way beyond left field, got me thinking. It’s thought that’s unlikely to lead anywhere, but that’s okay, and I was glad to have been asked.
The questions about Bernie, however, are ones I get all the time. I get out a newsletter, sometimes monthly, sometimes not. No matter what’s in the newsletter, there’s one particular pest who always responds with the same question. Answering him didn’t do any good, so I stopped. That didn’t do any good either. Still his questions come, and I’m once again grateful that my keyboard boasts a delete key.
It’s been what, seven years since The Burglar on the Prowl? That’s nothing. A gap of eleven years followed the publication of The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian, and the questions drove me out of my mind. I couldn’t go out to mail a letter without someone raising the subject. When I did finally write The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, it didn’t have anything to do with the questions, or the well-intentioned but deeply annoying people who asked them. The day simply came when I was ready to write the book and it was ready to be written. So I wrote it. That’s how it works. That’s the only way it works.
Let me tell you a story, even as it was told to me by Joseph Bitowf, who was stationed for several years at the ground-floor desk in The Mysterious Bookshop, when that marvelous establishment was still located on West 56th Street.
For years, he said, a woman who evidently lived or worked nearby would come into the shop at least once a week. Sometimes she bought something, sometimes she merely browsed, but she never crossed the threshold without asking, “Is Lawrence Block ever going to write another book about Bernie Rhodenbarr?”
I don’t suppose Joe got quite as tired of the question as I did, but neither could he have welcomed it. “I don’t know,” he would reply, and she would go away, only to repeat the same process when next she returned.
Then Dutton announced the forthcoming publication of The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams, and Joe couldn’t wait for her next visit. But she was absent for a while, and the book was in the stores and prominently displayed on the front island by the time she finally walked in. He waited, and she looked around for a few minutes, and then she asked her question.
“Is Block ever going to…”
“He has,” Joe said triumphantly. “Right there, The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams. Right there, right smack in front of you, nice purple cover. See it?”
She picked it up, this book for which she been asking for years. She turned it over and studied the author’s photo. She flipped it open and read the flap copy. She paged through it, read a few words here and a few words there.
And closed the book, and put it back on the counter.
“Good,” she said. “I’ll wait for the paperback.”
That’s a cute story, but why can’t you answer a simple question? When are you going to write another book about Bernie?
You know, this has been a remarkably productive year for me, especially in view of the fact that two years ago I thought I was ready to retire. So far in 2011 I’ve published two new instructional books for writers, The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion. Mulholland Books brought out my 17th book about Matthew Scudder, A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Open Road, ePublishers of 40+ backlist titles of mine, just days ago issued Afterthoughts, a piecemeal tell-all memoir of the early years when those books were written.
And the year’s not over yet. September 20 will see Hard Case Crime’s publication of their first hardcover ever, Getting Off, by Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson. That’s five new books this year, and I wouldn’t be astonished if there’s a sixth. So I’m doing lots of things, and if you have any questions I’ll be glad to respond to them.
Just one. I suppose you get this a lot, but I just have to ask. Are you planning to write any more books about Bernie Rhodenbarr? Omigod, is that a gun? Why are you pointing it at me?