Playing poker with Parker: An interview with Brian Garfield
“I did the job with a guy,” Parker said. “I guess I’ll get in touch with him again.”
Donald E. Westlake was a twentieth-century master of crime fiction. Under the name Richard Stark, one of his many pseudonyms, he penned the legendary Parker novels, including three just brought back into print by the University of Chicago Press this week: Butcher’s Moon (1974), Comeback (1997), and Backflash (1998), each with a new foreword by Westlake’s friend and writing partner Lawrence Block. To celebrate their release, Press publicity manager and Parker masterfan Levi Stahl sat down with Brian Garfield, novelist (author of the cult classics Death Wish and Hopscotch), screenwriter, and an old friend of Westlake’s. What’s in store? Behind-the-scenes snapshots of a legendary poker game, insight into the film adaptations spawned by the Parker series, a look into Westlake’s writing process, and more:
LTS: First off, why don’t you just tell us a bit about your friendship with Donald Westlake. When and where did you meet? Were you friends for a long time?
BG: We met at a poker game in New York, 1965. It was a regular weekly quarter-limit writers’ game. Lawrence Block and agent Henry Morrison were regulars. The game was a wonderful source of one-liners—now if only I remembered them. . . .
We all were young and had egos; we hoped the other guys at the table would like our work, so we shared it quite a bit, but we weren’t really looking for critiques. That came later. Bob Ludlum came once in a while, as did various other writers; Justin Scott became a regular. The game stopped for a while but was revived and goes on to this day, I think; I left New York in 1979, so have been away from it for a long time. These photos are from a night in early 1972 when the game was held in my apartment, where, when we weren’t playing poker, I was busy writing Death Wish.
Don and Larry and Justin and Henry and I became close friends from the mid-1960s through the ’70s; we built each other’s bookcases, and those of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, and we helped one another move. Sometime in the early 1970s my then-wife and I bought a beach house in Fair Harbor (Fire Island) near Don and his wife Abby’s place. We all would summer out there with our respective wives and friends. There were games, picnics, political discussions, expeditions, consumption of beer and spirits, occasional lit’ry discussions. We talked quite a bit about books we’d read, but mostly it wasn’t derogatory chatter; we reserved that sort of thing for the personalities rather than the works—though we’d read the handwritten manuscript of Bob Ludlum’s first novel and loftily we all pronounced it unpublishable, as did several publishers. Henry Morrison said we were missing something important. He became Bob’s agent. I expect the experience taught the rest of us a thing or two.
Our “lit’ry” discussions might have seemed odd to people who weren’t writers. For example I remember Don’s fascination with the way Ira Levin had cleverly concealed the identity of the killer in A Kiss Before Dying, and we all admired the way Mickey Spillane solved the mystery in Vengeance is Mine in the final word of the novel. I don’t know that it’s ever been done that way before. Spillane was a comic book-style writer, but we all thought he was much underrated as a storyteller. We didn’t talk about his writing style; we talked about his inventiveness. It helps, I suppose, to realize that we all had worked our way up through the pulps—probably the last generation to do that, as the pulps mostly died by the early 1960s. Don and Larry wrote crime stories and softcore porn; I wrote crime stories and Westerns. (They came from the Northeast; I came from the Southwest.) We all had been published since the end of the 1950s. By the mid-60s we’d found a way to do the apprenticeship and make a sort of living out of it, although it wasn’t a great living; most of my early books earned somewhere between a few hundred and a thousand dollars. All that meant was we had to write them fast. We thought of the work as fun, challenging but easy to do.
By 1970 Don had published several comic novels. The Busy Body, God Save the Mark, and a few others had come out, and that year he published his first Dortmunder novel, The Hot Rock. He was also finishing Comfort Station (by “The Vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham”); Henry Morrison, by then his agent, had it typed on rolls of toilet paper to submit it to New American Library.
Don Westlake had a blinding-fast mind. He always seemed to have on the tip of his tongue the sort of wonderful witty rejoinders that occur to most of us a day or two too late. In 1970 we got the idea that it would be amusing to try combining our strengths in a Western comedy novel. We wrote Gangway!, and it turned out to be quite funny, I think. Henry sold it and it did fairly well. But our ambitions to sell it as a basis for a movie didn’t work out. And we’d done it in a silly way—each of us would write a draft, then turn it over to the other, who’d rewrite the whole thing and give it back. It was about four times as much work as either of us would have put in individually on a book. So we didn’t try that again. But it was fun, and we got to know each other’s working styles.
The writing life, for a novelist, is solitary, and if you’re working full time the pressures can create a kind of loneliness. Most of us prefer to work alone much of the time, I think, but there’s a limit. Don and I enjoyed working together at intervals, simply to alleviate the solitariness and to correct a few of one another’s bad writing habits. We worked intermittently on several projects, from my script for Butcher’s Moon and the foreword I wrote to a 1981 edition of The Outfit to what became the movie The Stepfather, which was, I like to think, a very good movie inspired by coincidence.
It took off from the true case of John Emil List, who’d murdered his entire family in New Jersey, then disappeared. My thought was “What about this guy’s next wife and family?” The viewpoint character ought to be the teen-age stepdaughter, I thought. I have no children and would not have written that relationship very well at all. Don had married the charming Abigail Adams, who had several kids in their teens, including a daughter. It struck me he would be the best of all writers for it, or at least the best of all writers I knew. We discussed it several times—I remember tossing notions back and forth on drives from New York out to Fire Island. His ideas struck me as superb. At that time I was a would-be Big Shot—had put together a film company (Shan Productions) with backing by several investors. Our first actual production was Hopscotch (the Walter Matthau film, from my novel) but while it was still waiting for production Don was working on his screenplay for The Stepfather. I don’t remember exactly when he delivered it, but between the long time it took us to get Hopscotch in the can and my idiocy as a producer, it took several years before we found an organization willing to take on The Stepfather. We even tried one or two variant versions of the screenplay in our desperation to sell it, but they weren’t as good as Don’s, so we kept going back to that. Don made a few revisions here and there, but essentially it sprang from him whole, like Minerva from the brow of Jupiter.
ITC finally took it on, and Don worked with director Joseph Ruben. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what they did together, but the film is pretty much as it was in Don’s original screenplay. ITC made the movie in Canada on a budget of three rubber bands and a paper clip, but it looks fine. Don was more critical of that movie than I was, however. Certainly it’s a genre piece, but a damn good genre piece, because he wrote it splendidly, and it was performed and directed splendidly. The star was Terry O’Quinn, an unknown at the time, who gave a superb performance. The movie won festival awards and became a cult favorite, and I still think it’s one of the best character-study movies of its time, thanks mostly to Don, with the assistance of Terry O’Quinn and Joseph Ruben, who added elements when they brought the material from the page to the screen. That’s usually the secret of a good movie—several people having exceptionally good days at the same time.
LTS: You’ve talked about how you and Don would discuss what you both were working on. Given the leanness of his prose and the clockwork precision of his plots, I would imagine he would have been a good first reader and critic—was that the case?
BG: I don’t remember any specific direct criticisms he gave me of my work, and I never felt confident enough of my opinions to parse his. Our group wasn’t in competition; even in the absence of another member, we almost never talked about the absent member’s work. Sometimes Don liked my stuff (Hopscotch especially, and Death Wish—the novel, not the movie) and sometimes he thought it was overblown or pretentious (he was particularly huffy about The Romanov Succession, calling it a poor imitation of a Ludlum story, which it probably was, but what the hell, Ludlum was a friend of ours and Henry Morrison had made him a star and I thought I’d give it a try. It didn’t work, so I didn’t do it again).
I was blown away by the Parker novels and by the magic of Don’s comic stories. We didn’t have long talks about it. Writers develop passions for peculiar projects—his was the nonfiction book Under an English Heaven (which he’d wanted to call The Natives Are Revolting), mine was the biography The Meinertzhagen Mystery (nee Raptor), but I don’t recall discussing either book with Don. His was amusing but didn’t sell very well, and I suppose mine falls into the same category, although it sold about as well as we expected.
We did have ferocious discussions of the movies made out of our various works, however. There was a baseline difference: a book is mainly a writer’s own work; a movie has many makers. You may have written the novel, but unless you produced, directed, starred in, photographed, scored, edited and got lucky with a movie, it isn’t entirely yours. When a movie survives all that, it must have had a damn good screenplay to begin with and it also must have been very lucky to attract the crowd of people who served that screenplay. Don had that on The Grifters, certainly. I had it on Hopscotch.
LTS: Speaking of movies, you wrote a screenplay for Butcher’s Moon that was never produced. How did that come about, both the writing and the mothballing? And how did you handle the sheer overstuffedness of the book—which is one of its chief pleasures? It’s got two rival gangs, a dozen or more heisters, and action galore, and at the same time it brings together characters, threads, and themes from nearly all the preceding fifteen novels. But those qualities could be deadly impediments to the necessarily tighter, more self-contained form of a screenplay. How did you handle those problems?
BG: Butcher’s Moon, the book, was bought by 20th Century Fox. Charles Bronson had an estate across the Hudson River from Albany, and he’d agreed to do Butcher’s Moon if it could be filmed in and around Albany so he could commute to work. Michael Winner had said he’d direct Butcher’s Moon as his next project. These elements were all in place when Don recommended that Fox hire me to write the script; I’d just written the introduction for the book of Butcher’s Moon, and my Death Wish was just then being filmed in New York with Bronson, directed by Michael Winner.
I was not a first-class screenwriter then. I don’t remember feeling challenged by the “overstuffedness” of it. Don’s sense of story structure was superb, and I’m sure my script must have followed the book—perhaps too closely, but I don’t remember being confused or put off by the number of characters. I’d read most, perhaps all, of the previous Parker novels, and I do remember combining several characters and simplifying some of the off-screen back-story, but that didn’t seem too challenging.
I probably turned in a serviceable second draft, but by then I think the subject had become moot. The producers had cooled, Bronson had cooled, and Winner had finished filming Death Wish—a movie that both Don and I, having seen it in screenings, disliked. It became a huge hit in the summer of ’74, at a time when I was in Africa researching something else. I sort of understand the appeal of the movie—it had an excellent screenplay by Wendell Mayes—but I thought it was a hasty and indifferent job of filmmaking. I suppose Don and I both failed to hide our disappointment with the movie, so it’s not too surprising that both Bronson and Winner walked away. Without them, I gather Fox had very little interest in pursuing the project.
LTS: What did Westlake think of your screenplay? Did he give you any tips?
BG: The only thing I remember his saying was that there were too many telephone calls in it, but he assumed we’d clear that up in a third draft. Other than that, I don’t recall his liking or disliking it. We went to screenings of each other’s movies, but I don’t recall post-morteming them; a movie is nearly always somebody else’s, and anyhow it’s already in the can. The only time we ever told each other what, or how, to write anything was on Gangway! and mostly that was because I supplied most of the jokes and he made them better. Gawd, I still miss him.
LTS: As you mentioned earlier, Westlake wrote screenplays—including an Oscar-winning adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. But he never (as far as I know?) wrote any screenplays based on his own material—even as he was never fully satisfied with any of the films that were made from Parker novels. Was there a reason for that?
BG: Several reasons. One, obviously, is that if you’ve written the novel then you’ve already told the story. Writing it in another form can be boring. It’s much more interesting to adapt someone else’s story for the screen—you haven’t written it before. Another, probably less obvious, is that if a studio or producer buys your book, then it’s their (or his) movie to ruin. If you write the screenplay, you’re likely to get blamed if it’s a bad movie based on your own novel. As Don said, “If I write a novel, I’m a god. If I write a screenplay, I’m a minor deity.”
It may be true that Don was not fully satisfied with any of the Parker films, but he did like Point Blank a lot—we talked several times about director John Boorman’s imaginative use of imagery and time, such as the scene in which Lee Marvin is shown waiting in a room, and then is shown waiting in the same room but this time it’s unfurnished—like the character’s mind. I don’t think Don was crazy about the Alcatraz frame for the film’s story—it struck him as pretentious—but he liked Marvin and he liked most of what Boorman did with it. Also to some extent he liked The Outfit, partly because of its casting—director John Flynn cast Robert Duvall in the lead, and filled the 1973 movie with film noir actors from an earlier time, such as Robert Ryan, Marie Windsor, Jane Greer, Sheree North, Richard Jaekel, Tim Carey, and Elisha Cook Jr.
The rest of the Parker movies were routine except for Made in USA, and adaptation of The Jugger by Jean-Luc Godard that was incredibly bad—so bad that Don sued Godard in French court, won the lawsuit, and prevented the film from being mass-exhibited in the United States for many years. (You can get a copy now on DVD, but unless you’re a masochist it ain’t worth it.)
He never sold the Parker character, so the leading man in each of the movies has a different name. This was largely a commercial decision—if you give up the character, you may have given up all the books. (Joe Gores and I ran into that silliness when we tried to sell a Sam Spade screenplay.) But Don remarked more than once that the Parker character “obviously lacks definition,” because in various movies the character was played by Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Robert Duvall, Peter Coyote, Mel Gibson—and Anna Karina.
LTS: Did you have any specific actor in mind who would have been a great Grofield? I think we’ve all got ideas about Parker, but Grofield seems tougher to cast—any thoughts?
BG: The only time we ever mentioned it was shortly after we’d been to a play and a party afterward, where Kevin Kline and Ben Gazzara and several others were present, and I said I thought Kevin Kline would play Grofield very well. Don agreed, but that was as far as it went. Don didn’t write Grofield as a cinematic character. It’s a mistake to write a book with one eye on the movies—you end up with a bad book that won’t get filmed.
LTS: You’ve been a successful writer in a variety of genres. Were there any specific lessons you took from Westlake’s work that were helpful along the way?
BG: Just one I can remember. If you begin a sentence—or, particularly, if you begin a book—with the word “When,” then something just about has to happen right away. People who knew him miss not just the writing but Donald E. Westlake the person. He was unique—a treasure.