From http://www.mwany.org, the website of the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America:
What sparks creativity in you? Music? Photography? Dance? Sculpture? For an upcoming anthology, In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, the editor, Lawrence Block, asked 17 authors to choose one artwork and see what whispered.
We all know Lawrence Block. Whether it’s from the entire shelf devoted to him at most bookstores or from the films that have been adapted from his books (most recently, A Walk Among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson). Or maybe you’ve spotted the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master at meetings of our New York chapter, of which he is a member. We got together a few weeks ago to talk about the new book over lunch. I brought my recorder to share some of our conversation about how art and other media stimulate imaginations.
TS: On your website I saw one of the great quotes from Edward Albee – “Creativity is magic; don’t examine it too closely.” Well, he’s just going to have to deal with it, because what I would like to do here is examine the magic a little bit.
TS: Since this blog is going to be about inspiration drawn from other sources, what is it that inspired you to this subject?
LB: I have no idea. You know, sometimes ideas are just there, and I don’t have any recollection of what the previous thought may have been. But from out of apparently nowhere, I conceived of an anthology of stories inspired by paintings of Edward Hopper. It just came to me. And, you know, it was just too good an idea to throw away. Anthologies are a very difficult sell these days. They’re also a real pain in the ass to edit. To do the whole thing, you have to invite writers; you have to prevail upon them to write stories they probably don’t want to write for less money than they ought to get. And then you have to put it all together. I saw right away that this particular project would be more complicated than usual because I’d also need to secure permissions and high-resolution reproductions for all of the paintings.
TS: You accumulated a tremendous group of writers, starting with Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, and our mutual friend, Mr. Craig Ferguson. A fine writer he, by the way.
LB: Yes, Indeed.
TS: And look at the rest of your roster. Megan Abbott, Jill D. Block, Robert Olen Butler, Lee Child, Nicholas Christopher, Michael Connelly, Jeffery Deaver, Joe R. Lansdale, Gail Levin, Warren Moore, Kris Nelscott, Jonathan Santlofer, and Justin Scott. Was it your personal relationship with these writers that helped secure them?
LB: No, what it really was was Hopper. Because, as I’d rather suspected, while Edward Hopper is popular with all sorts of people, he is especially popular with writers and readers. I suppose that’s a result of what gets called the narrative quality of his paintings. But actually I don’t think of him as a narrative painter because his paintings don’t tell stories. They suggest that there is a story there waiting to be told, which is a rather different matter from Bruegel or someone like that.
Anyway, I drafted a letter and sent it out to a couple of people I wanted in the book, and I kept getting acceptances, and they always said something like, “I love Hopper. That sounds great.” The handful of refusals came from people who were just overcommitted with no time to do it. But even then, a couple of writers who were truly overcommitted liked Hopper so much that they’re in the book anyway. It’s just extraordinary the hold Hopper has on the literary imagination.
And what I absolutely loved was avoiding a problem you find in so many thematic anthologies, which is that you get he same story over and over. It is hard to avoid. There was a book out recently called Jewish Noir, a huge book, and good material in it, but it seemed to me that every fourth story recounted the experience, presumably of the author, of getting beaten up in the schoolyard by the gentile kids. That never happened to me… but on the basis of the anthology, I am willing to believe that that was a near-universal experience for a generation. But the collection suffered for it.
TS: That didn’t happen with In Sunlight or in Shadow?
LB: No, not at all. When I solicited stories, I emphasized that this was not a crime anthology. A lot of the stories are crime stories of one sort or another, but a lot are not. And really the only common thread is Hopper. And, because they’re all different paintings, they’re all different stories.
TS: I imagine your hardest job as editor was to arbitrate who gets what painting.
LB: No, no, no, no. That wasn’t how it worked. When I invited someone, I suggested they call dibs on a painting. Of all of Hopper’s work, just name something that you want to do. Actually one thing I took off the table, because it is so iconic, was Nighthawks. I thought maybe we should just not have that here. And then towards the end, Michael Connelly was considering, and he had absolutely no time. He was busy with Bosch, the TV thing, and everything else in the world, but I knew he was a very strong Hopper fan and I knew that his detective, Harry Bosch, was particularly a fan of Nighthawks and had mused about it a couple of times in the books. So I suggested to Michael that Nighthawks was available if he wanted to do it. And he did. His story puts Bosch in Chicago at the Art Institute, looking at the painting, and it’s a terrific little story.
TS: Let’s talk about those stories a little bit more. They aren’t all Hopper paintings come to life, are they?
LB: Oh no, no. They are whatever story occurred to someone as a result of looking at the painting. Here’s an example— the painting that Craig Ferguson picked is a church on Cape Cod, South Truro Church, and there is a spiritual aspect to the story that he writes that is consistent with the painting, but it is not as if the painting clearly illustrates it.
But the stories, as far as genre is concerned, really run a gamut. Some are period, some are contemporary. They are all over the map. Nicholas Christopher did one that is really magic realism if you were going to categorize it. A fellow named Warren Moore, a professor at Newberry College in South Carolina, had done a story for Dark City Lights that I really liked, a nasty little crime story, and this time he changed tone and mood entirely and wrote a terrific ghost story.
TS: Your daughter did one as well, right?
LB: Yes, she did. And hers is contemporary relationship type story. Family stuff.
TS: On our theme of art begetting art, can you think of influences on you – photography, film, statues, architecture, music?
LB: I don’t know. [Pauses] I don’t know, but probably a lifetime of reading has been my biggest influence. I know jazz musicians will talk about their influences because when they start out they try to sound like other musicians whom they admire. And I don’t think many writers do that consciously. I think the goal of writing is to sound like yourself, whatever that is, and it can take a while to find out. And for some people that voice is there when they first sit down to work.
TS: Do you paint? Do you draw?
LB: No. Well… There was a period of time when I was doing a lot of paintings in the manner of Mondrian because I figured that the drafting talent required was within my toolbox. And I had fun with that. And I liked some of the paintings from that time, but I haven’t done anything in 25 years and don’t anticipate so doing. I don’t have artistic talent that way. My mother painted and was quite good. You know, Sunday painter, but she was pretty good at it. But not I.
TS: Tell me about securing rights for those paintings. Hopefully it wasn’t your headache.
LB: Oh, it was indeed. One of the things that I did to make this a little more attractive for a publisher was to say that I would take care of that.
TS: How do you go about that?
LB: Well, I was very fortunate. There is a woman who assists my wife in her business who has in the past worked at a museum and is thus familiar with the whole process. So she investigated and corresponded and did everything, really. It took a little while, but that way we were really able to supply the publisher with a complete package.
TS: Were you fairly certain when you started out that you would be able to do that?
LB: One way or the other. The worse that could happen is there would be a painting that you just couldn’t get. In which case we’d have two choices: get another painting and bring it into the story or fucking steal it.
TS: There’s a funny opening for a story in a prison. “What are you in for?” “I used a Hopper painting without permission.” [laughter] As much as doing an anthology is a pain, you seem very energized by the outcome.
LB: Yeah. It was exciting. For a while I didn’t see how we were going to sell it. It was not that easy a thing to place with a publisher. See, publishers hate anthologies. They just hate doing them.
TS: Can you tell me why?
LB: Part of it is what they go through with all the different writers and all of that, which was largely taken out of their hands in this instance. Also they feel the books just don’t sell well enough to justify the whole enterprise. But I must say what a pleasure Pegasus has been. They liked the idea, they jumped on it, and now it’s their lead title for the whole fall season. And one of the paintings, the painting that illustrates the Joe Lansdale story, is the cover painting on their catalog.
TS: That’s great. That is the woman peeking through the drapes up the stairs?
LB: Yeah. At a movie theater.
TS: You’ve got these luscious paintings.
TS: I wonder which one would be best, ebook or hardcover.
LB: Yeah. If you’ve got a Kindle that displays in color or if you are using an iPad or something like that, then the ebook would be good. I prefer reading on my Kindle, it’s a lot easier on my aging eyes. But in this instance I would also want to own the hardback, because it’s such a beautiful volume, and one wants to be able to go back and forth from picture to text. And it’s good value; there are 18 color reproductions, and the hardcover is listing for just twenty-five bucks. And I had thought it would have to be $30 at least and possibly $35, you know? I mean, you can preorder it now on Amazon for 20 dollars. That’s really inexpensive for what one is getting.
TS: What were the great surprises that you got when the stories started coming in?
LB: The greatest surprise was that the stories started coming in. [laughter] Beyond that, I don’t know. I expected good work from all of the people I asked to the party. Incidentally, there are 17 stories, but there are 18 paintings. And the explanation is that there was one writer who accepted and who named a painting, and it turned out he couldn’t deliver. And these things happen. Not a problem. But we’d already cleared the painting. Now we hadn’t paid for it because we got it from an art house that supplies reproducible art and we didn’t have to cut them a check unless we were going to use it. But I had it in the folder of art that I sent over to Pegasus. And the woman there noticed it and said there is one painting that we don’t seem to have a story for. And Claiborne Hancock of Pegasus said, “It’s a pretty nice painting. Why don’t we use it for the frontispiece?” I had paid for all the other art, and I said, “If you want to add it, this one is on you.” He said, “Yes, we will pick that up.” So I thought about it, and then the way I ended my book intro was to explain that we had one extra painting we were using as a frontispiece, and the readers were invited to write their own story for it.
But just don’t send it to me because I am done. [laughter]
Tom Straw is an Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominee for his TV writing and producing. He joined the Mystery Writers of America in 2007 on publication of his first book, The Trigger Episode. Subsequently, under a pseudonym, he has authored seven New York Times Bestsellers. He currently serves as a board member of the MWA-NY chapter.