Sunday, November 16, 2014

Taking the Wheel

The Getaway Car
By Donald Westlake
University of Chicago Press

4 out of 5 beers with salt.

“No matter where he was headed, Don always drove like he was behind the wheel of the getaway car."

- Abby Adams Westlake

Apparently the late Donald Westlake wrote as fast as he drove.  After his big break came in the late ‘50s by getting paid $600 to write a porno, he went on  to author over 90 novels under various pseudonyms.  He earned three Edgar Awards, an Academy Award nomination for screenplay, and the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writer’s Association.

He’s probably best known for creating two thieves who couldn‘t be more different.  One was a hard-boiled ruthless anti-hero and all-around son-of-a-bitch named Parker that Westlake published under the pen name of Richard Stark.  The other was the luckless John Dortmunder, a sad sack that you couldn’t help but feel sorry for even as you laughed at his comic misadventures.  That’s the essence of Westlake to me, that he could have two characters who have exactly the same criminal job yet their personalities and stories couldn’t be more different, and I always want to read more stories about both of them.

This book collects a lot of non-fiction odds and ends from Westlake’s papers including letters, an excerpt from an unpublished autobiography, and introductions to various other works.  There’s a fun essay he wrote in which he imagines a meeting between himself and his various pen names, and his wife also has a humorous piece on how Westlake’s personality would change when he was writing under one of his aliases.  Westlake also had a lot to say on the mystery genre, and there’s one incredible act of bridge burning in a published essay on how he had quit writing sci-fi because the industry was essentially dead from an economic perspective for writers like him.

Taken as a whole, all of these provide a lot of interesting insight into Westlake’s views on writing as both an art and a business as well as how he viewed his own career.  And because this is Westlake, it’s got chuckle worthy comments on practically every page even though he remarks at several points that he never considered himself particularly funny and seems highly amused that he was best known under his own name as a comic mystery writer.  Lawrence Block makes it a point in his touching introduction to explain that he didn’t think Westlake told jokes, but that he was a witty man who tried very hard to make his writing amusing.

The thing that really stands out is that Westlake hustled.  He didn’t sit around waiting for a muse to inspire or him or rewriting a single line over and over.  He had bills to pay so he produced constantly. Authors like him who churned out words to make a living often have a pragmatic and workmanlike approach to their work.  That’s a recipe for people with less talent and more cynicism to become hacks.  For a writer like Westlake that discipline and craftsmanship makes him one of the greats.

Also posted at Goodreads.

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