Donald Westlake: Hard-Boiled To The End The award-winning mystery writer died from a heart attack on Dec. 31 at the age of 75. Westlake wrote more than 100 novels and numerous screenplays, including the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for The Grifters.
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Donald Westlake: Hard-Boiled To The End

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Donald Westlake: Hard-Boiled To The End

Donald Westlake: Hard-Boiled To The End

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TERRY GROSS, host:

The prolific and award-winning mystery writer Donald Westlake died of a heart attack New Year's Eve. He was 75. Westlake wrote over 100 novels. Many of his crime novels were written under the pen names Richard Stark and Tucker Coe. He used his own name for his comic novels about an inept thief named John Dortmunder. The movies "Point Blank," "The Hot Rock" and "Payback" were adapted from Westlake's novels. Westlake's screenplay for the film "The Grifters" was nominated for an Oscar. Here's something he told me in 1988 about crime and crime writing.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, 1988)

Mr. DONALD WESTLAKE (Author; Screenwriter): The essential difference between a fiction writer and a criminal is the level of imagination...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WESTLAKE: That the criminal can imagine committing the crime and can imagine how the crime should be worked out. The fiction writer can imagine committing the crime, can imagine how the crime can be worked out and can imagine getting caught. So, the criminal who can't imagine part number-three goes ahead and does it, and the fiction writer who can imagine part number three just writes about it.

GROSS: I spoke with Donald Westlake again in 1997, after the publication of his novel "The Axe," about the desperation of a man who was downsized out of his job at a paper mill. He sends out resumes but nothing happens. As he slips out of the middle class, he devises a plan to get back his income, health insurance and security. The plan requires killing off his competition. Here's a reading from the opening of the "The Axe."

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, 1997)

Unidentified Voice Actor: (Reading) I've never actually killed anybody before, murdered another person, snuffed out another human being. In a way, oddly enough, I wish I could talk to my father about this, since he did have the experience, had what we in the corporate world called the background in that area of expertise, he having been a infantry man in the Second World War, having seen action in the final march across France into Germany in '44, '45, having shot at and certainly wounded, and more than likely killed, any number of men in dark, grey wool, and having a been quite calm about at all in retrospect. How do you know beforehand that you can do it? That's the question.

(Reading) Well, of course, I couldn't ask my father that, discuss it with him, not even if he were still alive, which he isn't, the cigarettes and the lung cancer having caught up with him in his 63rd year, putting him down as surely, if not as efficiently, as if he had been a distant enemy in dark, grey wool. The question in any case will answer itself, won't it? I mean, this is the sticking point: either I can do it or I can't. If I can't, then all the preparation, all the planning, the files I've maintained, the expense I've put myself to when God knows I can't afford it, have been in vain, and I might as well throw it all away, run no more ads, do no more scheming, simply allow myself to fall back into the herd of steer mindlessly lurching toward the big, dark barn where the mooing stops. This has to work. I have to get out of this morass and soon, which means I'd better be capable of murder.

GROSS: Donald Westlake, let me ask you to describe this character's plan for getting a good supervisory job back at a paper mill.

Mr. WESTLAKE: Well, it sort of grows gradually with him. He begins by realizing that every time he applies for a job, a lot of other people in the same - roughly in the same business, apply for the same job, and he's sending out resumes, and they're sending out resumes, and one of them gets picked. And it begins with a kind of desperate curiosity: What are they saying? What are they - how are they presenting themselves, that they get picked and I don't? And he figures out a way to attract resumes. He puts a fake ad in a journal of his area of expertise and gets the resumes just to see what they're like, and realizes that there was always going to be somebody out there a little better than him. And that leads him on to the next step of, do I give in to despair, or do I choose rage instead? And he says, well, I've got all these resumes; now what? And from there, it is somehow both a very large step and a very small step to say, let me pick out the guys who are better than and get rid of them.

GROSS: Kill them?

Mr. WESTLAKE: Kill them.

GROSS: Now, I like that this is a crime novel not from a point of view of a professional criminal; this is a murder novel from the point of view of a very middle-class, middle-management guy who's been downsized out of his job. He's always played it by the rules until this point, because now he feels incredibly cheated because the rules have been changed on him, and this isn't supposed to happen to the middle class.

Mr. WESTLAKE. Exactly, yeah. The middle class is supposed to have given up all claim on the highs in return for not being subjected to any of the lows. And all of a sudden, that's not working.

GROSS: You broke in to writing by writing true-confession stories, I think

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WESTLAKE: You know too much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How did you get started with that?

Mr. WESTLAKE: Well, I came to New York. I wanted to write, and I was starting to write, and I came to New York and got a job with a literary agency, one of the ones where amateurs send in their short stories with money, and the agent, or an ink-stained wretch working for the agent like me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WESTLAKE: Tells that person your story is no good, but send another story with some more money because you sure have a lot of talent. And I worked for him, and he would get assignments from little publishing - publishers of paperbacks, book publishers or magazine publishers, and you never knew what kind of job offer would show up, you know, go write a story about this or that. And so, when I first got there, his assistant, another guy there, said that if that guy ever says to you, do you anything about, say yes, whatever it is and you'll get an assignment. So, he said do you know anything about confession stories? And I said, oddly enough, yes. A friend of mine and I did content analysis on confession stories in college. And so, I went on from there, and I pulled out that old content analysis and just did every recurring short story. And they loved them.

GROSS: What were some of the things that you got from your own content analysis?

Mr. WESTLAKE: Let's see. Probably the most popular one was the woman who goes to bed with her husband's boss in order to get him the raise and then discovers he would have gotten it anyway. That was big.

GROSS: So, did you write one of those?

Mr. WESTLAKE: Oh, sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WESTLAKE: I think that was the first one I did.

GROSS: First person, of course, because it's meant to be...

Mr. WESTLAKE: Oh, those were all - yes. Somebody described the formula for those things as: sin, suffer, repent.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, was that a useful exercise for you as a writer?

Mr. WESTLAKE: Yeah, I think so, in a funny way. I mean, after awhile, you know, it's like candy: Some of it is good, and too much of it is bad. It was a learning experience in a couple of ways, in speaking in that female voice all the time, and in getting in and out of the story quick. You know, you've got 3,000 words to paint a life, really, with this serious or perhaps serial-comic event in the middle of it and then it come out on the other side. That was a - it was like good etudes; you know, it was a good practice.

GROSS: Donald Westlake, recorded in 1997, after the publication of his novel, "The Axe." He died New Year's Eve at the age of 75. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel by Jayne Anne Phillips, and she says it's a winner. This is Fresh Air.

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