Lawrence Block shares insight on development of his characters
Author Lawrence Block humored a large crowd at the Sanibel Public Library last Tuesday during the final night of this season’s Author Series.
“I was always good at putting words on paper. I know exactly when I decided I was going to be a writer and that would have been when I was 15, my junior year in high school,” Block said. “I was writing compensations in 11th grade English and began having fun with it. They were more of a creative exercise and less of something one has to do. There was one on career plans and I went down the list of various things I thought about being, since I thought about at the age of 4 wanting to be a garbage man. I finished with the line ‘when reviewing this paper one thing becomes abundantly clear to me and that’s that I could never be a writer.’ The teacher wrote on the bottom ‘I’m not so sure about that.’ From that moment on I never considered being anything else.”
His discussion focused on characters that have appeared in some of his series – Evan Tanner and Keller – as well as their development. Block said sometimes he knows very little about the character and sometimes he has a very familiar idea of them when writing his books.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon. Very much a matter of present time that readers clearly prefer books in series. This is increasingly noticeable at the present time when ones whole body of work is available to readers in a way that has never been before,” Block said. “Now with the astonishing eBooks, things remain essentially in print forever. I’ve noticed with my own work, if they like it they will then respond by going back and reading the entire series. Stand alone novels, they may do very well when they first publish and get a lot of following then, but over time nothing calls people to them.”
He said the first series character he developed was in the 1960s. Evan Tanner, was injured in the war from a piece of shrapnel that destroyed the center of his brain resulting in being awake 24 hours a day.
A few years prior to developing the character, Block happened to discover two facts at about the same time. The first was reading an article in Times Magazine about sleep, which included the detail that there were some people that did not sleep at all. The other stemmed from the House of Stewart.
“I thought, suppose there were a character that didn’t sleep at all,” he said. “What would his life be like? I thought well he had a lot of time on his hands for silly pursuits and one of them would be the restoration for the House of Stewart. That’s a nice premise, but that’s not a book. So, I forgot about it.”
About two or three years later he was an editor of a magazine in Wisconsin where he met a fellow in town. His story revolved around going off to Turkey and living there for several years earning a precarious living smuggling gold coins and antiquities out of the country and selling them in Switzerland.
The following day he thought about the stories told, the penny dropped and he wrote the book.
“I wrote the book and it was great fun. When I finished it, I knew immediately that I really enjoyed writing Evan Tanner. I enjoyed writing in that voice. I enjoyed the whole mind set the character had. I felt here was the first time I was really writing in a voice that was uniquely mine and I wanted to do that some more,” Block said.
He continued to write six more books about Evan Tanner over the next two to four years with one publisher, and then another publisher for the seventh book before he stopped writing about the character.
In the late 1990s, Block thought of another book he wanted to write including Evan Tanner.
“I thought, the wound that put him out of the sleep business was one sustained in the Korean War. He was a little long in the tube to have the kind of adventures he was having,” he said. “Back in the early ’70s, Tanner was drugged by a member of the Swedish government who was upset about his activities. So, he spent the time since the early ’70s in a frozen food locker.”
He also spoke about his character Keller, who is an assassin for hire.
“When I first wrote about him I wrote a short story, called ‘Answers to Soldiers,'” Block said.
A few years went by and he began thinking about Keller again.
“Keller is kind of this urban lonely guy who probably sometime or another has therapy. I thought damn that’s interesting, what would that be like,” he said, which stemmed other plots about Keller. “The Keller books are episodic because Keller’s life is episodic. He does a job, kills someone, end of episode.”
Block said his readers have fallen in love with the character when they know they should not.
He typically goes away to write where he does not know anyone to focus on his work. A recent trip to Jacksonville, which he initially thought was a wasted trip, resulted in a novella about Keller that will be available in the near future.
“It is very difficult for me to know as a writer when I’m wasting time and when I’m not. When it will lead somewhere and when it won’t. I have a better sense of things now than I did 50 years ago,” Block said.
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