Block


When you’re a writer – and it doesn’t matter if you’re published, it’s down to the internal obligation to yourself to write (being any good at it is not a factor, either) – the worst moments come when you’re blocked. When there’s a great gaping whole in your head that’s usually filled with words, only now it’s just an absence. A very palpable absence. Something has been removed, and it’s that instinctive drive to think about what you’re writing, about things you can and should be working on, the ongoing mental activity that’s part of the iceberg whose tip is the words you put on paper or pixel.

You can always tell: when else are you driven to write about Block than when it’s the only thing in your head?

Somewhere in my pokey little flat is a book about Writer’s Block. It was the first book by Donald E Westlake that I ever read, it’s still my favourite of all his works, the Dortmunder Gang series notwithstanding, and it’s one of the few works I have ever read/seen that balances laughter and pain so completely. It’s called ‘Adios Scheherezade’.

The book, which appeared in 1967, is being told, or rather typed, by Ed Topliss. It is told in a series of chapters, each of fifteen pages in length, the majority of which are headed Chapter 1. Ed is a writer, officially, that is. Actually, Ed is a schlub.

You see, for the last thirty months, Ed has written dirty books for a living. Real, honest-to-god, cheap soft porn paperbacks, under the pen-name of Dirk Smuff (which encapsulates the entire, low-rent, cheesy milieu of the whole endeavour). To be frank, Dirk Smuff isn’t even Ed’s pen-name, it belongs to and was established by his college friend Paul. Now Paul is a writer. He wrote the first ten Dirk Smuffs for the money, to keep himself afloat whilst he pursued serious options, and now Paul has a career.

Ed, on the other hand, has no options open to him. He majored in English at college, emerged with no plans, no career, and married to Betty, his long-term girlfriend at college who never went all the way until it was nearly the end, and, guess what, she went and got pregnant. So Paul offered Ed an opportunity: take over the Dirk Smuff name, write a dirty book each month, collect $900 every month (Paul keeps 10%). And bear in mind: nobody can write this shit forever.

Ed wasn’t listening to that bit. Ed had his mind on Paul’s shit-hot girlfriend, or rather the thighs being unconcealed by her mini-skirt. As far as Ed’s concerned, it’s easy money, something to keep him going whilst he sorts out a real career for himself.

You see, there’s a formula to these things. There’s a limited number of plots, which you rotate, the books are 150 pages long, and consist of ten chapters, each fifteen pages long, one sex scene per chapter. Oh, and no dirty words: no f’s or c’s. Or even v’s.

And it’s easy work for easy money. One chapter a day for ten days, hammer it out, first draft only, you wouldn’t want to re-read this crap and then nearly three weeks to hang around. Once you learn the tricks of the trade to spin out those pages – and Westlake knows them all, having been in Paul’s position in the Fifties, when he was building his own career – the conveyor belt can roll.

So what if you’re just wasting those days off each month? So what if your wife and daughter are spending about 10% more than you’re bringing in every months? Ed’ll get down to doing something serious. Sometime soon.

But there was that thing Paul said, that Ed wasn’t listening to then. You can’t write this shit forever. Ed’s last three books have been delivered late. Progressively later each month. Ed daren’t deliver the next one late or he’ll be out on his ear. No income, no way of getting an income. Only, Ed needs those days off between writing sex scenes. And he’s ony just delivered the last one. He’s got something like twelve days to write the next one, or the house of cards collapses, not just himself but for his wife and his daughter too.

And Ed can’t do it.

All he can do is sit down at his typewriter and type, hoping to god that something, anything, will unlock that block, will turn into a publishable soft porn novel. And we’re reading what he is writing, as everything goes down the pan.

Because the first half of the book is funny but not yet tragic. Ed’s floundering around, splashing the water, equal parts telling us his life-story and spilling the secrets to writing cheap softcore porn, even to the extent of managing a complete opening chapter so we can tick off all the little tricks and tropes for ourselves.

But following Chapter 1 with Chapter 2 proves impossible, even before a casual lie cuts Ed’s life out from underneath himself, and there is a moment of extreme anguish as everything breaks down, as Ed tries to write a simple line but cannot get through it to the next set of words beyond, but it’s no longer possible.

And from that point on, we are following the tragedy, second-rate though it may be, of a man’s life spiraling out of all control, in which the only possible structure he has left is his compulsion to record things in chapters exactly fifteen pages long, though the need to supply a sex scene in every chapter has disappeared, along with the life he’s been leading all the time he could still write this shit.

There isn’t really an ending. Schlubs like Ed don’t get endings. His last chapter is typed in sections, fifteen pages built up on different typewriters in different places, before he vanishes, on something that you could maybe characterise as a quest. His last words are a variation on the title, adios and a word he can’t use in his books and that I don’t intend to use here. And he’s gone, and his story is essentially incomplete, we have to make up the ending for ourselves, and I don’t think any of us imagine good endings.

Adios Scheherezade is a fabulous formal experiment, and an incredibly successful one, despite its lack of any defined ending. Indeed, the nebulousness of it is a part of the book’s artistic success. It’s also virtually impossible to get hold of now.

It’s a book about Block, and doing what you can to get out of it, and it’s exactly what I’ve done: to write I’ve found something to write about, and the muscles are eased up, and the cavern inside feels less cavernous. I think I’m ahead of Ed right now. The proof will come later.

Discovering Dortmunder – Introduction


One of Westlake's many crime novels
One of Westlake’s many crime novels

I’ve just gone hang-the-expense crazy on Amazon (1p plus P&P) and bought the crime fiction collection Transgressions, edited by Ed McBain.
I’m not generally a crime fiction fan. I’ve read and enjoyed many crime books and series – McBain’s 87th Precinct stories for one, and the late Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe books, but overall it’s a take-or-leave field for me. Indeed, I’ve only bought Transgressions for one of the dozen stories collected, “Walking Around Money”, by the late Donald E Westlake.
Westlake was a very prolific writer, with over 100 novels to his name, including those published under a variety of pseudonyms. He died on New Year’s Eve 2008, still far less well known in the UK than he deserved to be. In his native America, he was tremendously successful, Grand Master of the National Crime Writers Association, and one of only three writers to win the prestigious Edgar Award three times, and the only one to do so in three different categories (Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Screenplay).
Like many writers of his generation, Westlake made his first sales in the 1950s dirty book industry, writing soft porn novels at a rate of one a month, under the bland pseudonym of Alan Marshall. He later used this experience to great effect in the painfully funny novel Adios Scherezade, which was the first of his books that I read, and which is still my favourite of all his work.
Then, in the early Sixties, he gained attention and success with his series of hard-boiled, stripped down books about the professional thief, Parker, under the pen-name Richard Stark. The Parker books are still selling today, and the recent Jason Statham film Parker is adapted from this series.
When Westlake began to establish himself under his own name, in the mid-Sixties, his work took on a quirky, comic aspect. He was still an expert at depicting the criminal world, its mindset and its characters, but his books would focus upon losers and oddballs, nebbishes and innocents, dragged into situations beyond their control. He would frequently experiment with form, in order to enhance the laughter he could quickly induce.
Adios Scherezade is an unusual, but superb example of what Westlake could achieve. The story is told, literally, by Ed Topliss, in an increasingly obsessive series of fifteen page Chapters, most of which are headed and numbered Chapter One.
Ed, a (very) average New Yorker, writes dirty books for a living. One a month, each to the formula of 150 pages, divided into ten 15 page chapters, with one sex scene per chapter. He writes a chapter a day for ten days every month, and does nothing the rest of the time.
Unfortunately, when Ed’s friend Paul – a real writer – offered him the chance to ghost write Paul’s series whilst Paul went on to write real books, he gave Ed a warning: nobody can write this shit forever. Ed wasn’t listening: he was too busy staring at Paul’s girlfriend’s mini-skirted thighs. But, thirty months later, Ed is realising that Paul was right. His last three books have been increasingly late. If he blows a fourth deadline, he’s out, and that means no income, nothing he can do, and a wife and daughter to support.
But the deadline is in twelve days, Ed’s only just finished the one before, and he’s dry. Not an idea in his head, facing disaster, and desperately writing something, anything, in fifteen page chapters in the hope it will trigger something he can use, as the immensity of his disaster builds up around him.
It’s a painfully funny book in both meanings of the phrase: it can be so funny that it hurts to laugh, but it’s also a book that finds laughter in an improbable but all-too-real situation of real pain. And Westlake’s knowledge of the dirty book industry is put to use in establishing the authenticity of this book.
The same year, Westlake published another crime novel, The Hot Rock. The story was started in 1967 as another Richard Stark/Parker book, one in which Parker would be hired to steal a diamond with religious significance on behalf of an African nation. Unfortunately, due to a series of unforeseen events, the jewel would stay out of reach, requiring Parker and his team to go through a series of plans to get hold of it.
The book got only so far before Westlake realised that it was just not possible: Parker was a strict professional, and he would have soon given up, refusing to throw good time after bad. Besides, whatever he tried to do, Westlake couldn’t keep the story from developing a funny streak.
So he put it in a drawer and forgot about it for two years, until he found it again, re-read it and liked the premise. All it needed was a suitable protagonist, a kind of anti-Parker who, like the original, would be a professional criminal, a planner, very successful, but dogged by misfortune, and by the company he keeps.
And when Westlake saw a billboard advertising the popular DAB beer by using it’s full name, Dortmunder Action Bier, he had a name for his character.
The Hot Rock was a big success, and was optioned and filmed within eighteen months, starring (incongruously) Robert Redford and George Segal in the leading parts, although in Britain it was billed as How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
The book was intended as a one-off, but Westlake liked his little band of hapless and somewhat quirky crooks, and he was delighted to resurrect them in 1972, for a sequel titled Bank Shot, which was equally popular.
For the rest of his career, every few years he would produce a new novel featuring Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch and a slowly growing cast of professionals who, each time, would find themselves in another, frequently improbable, but always entirely believable caper, that usually ended with the gang staying ahead of the law but not ahead of the game.
And when Westlake died, there was one completed but unpublished novel to appear posthumously, and, most fittingly, it was the fourteenth and last to feature Dortmunder. And it had a glorious idea behind it: way to leave on a high.
I’ve by no means read all Westlake’s output (though if you read the unjustly overlooked Adios Scheherezade, you’ve read all the ‘Alan Marshall’ books you could ever want.
But I’ve been collecting the Dortmunder novels for many years, and I have these and Thieves’ Dozen, a short story collection compiling all ten short stories featuring the hangdog John. It’s only lately that I’ve properly realised that there was one more story I hadn’t read, namely, “Walking Around Money”.
Transgressions has arrived, but I’m going to keep it back for a while. In the meantime, I’m going to re-read the entire collection, and only then sit down to enjoy the last Dortmunder story I’ll ever read for the first time.
And I’m going to blog the series as well, in the hope of alerting a few more people to the sheer delight of Dortmunder & Co. Keep your eyes open: I’ll be re-reading The Hot Rock very soon.