Robert B. Parker’s bestselling novels about his iconic Boston private investigator Spenser have sold millions of copies worldwide. The author moves back in time in Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel, which stars this character as a 14-year-old living in a small western town with his father and two uncles. Due this month from Philomel with a 150,000-copy first printing, the thriller reveals young Spenser relying on his spunk and survival skills in some tense situations, including a face-to-face encounter with a black bear and a run-in with the drunken, gun-toting father of a friend. Bookshelf spoke to Parker about writing for young adults and revisiting Spenser as a teen.
You’ve written more than 50 books for adults over many years. What triggered thoughts of writing for young readers?
I believe the thought first came from my publisher, but more importantly, it was encouraged by my wife Joan and my agent, Helen Brann—the two women who own me. Joan and Helen though it might be interesting for me to write a novel for young adults, kind of using the “get them while they’re young” hypothesis. So I wrote Edenville Owls and then The Boxer and the Spy, and this is my third YA novel.
Would you say that you alter your writing style at all when addressing a younger audience?
No, that’s never really an issue for me. For my young adult books, I wrote the same way I always do, since it’s the only way I can write. It ceases to be an issue when you have no options. I write in rather simple, declarative prose, which is appropriate to all ages.
What was your impetus for turning back the clock and introducing Spenser as a teenager—and was it a challenge to recreate an adult character you know so well as a teenager?
It was Michael Green at Philomel who suggested I write a novel about young Spenser. And I wouldn’t say it was easy to write about Spenser at that age. I find writing for young adults is more difficult than writing for adults in that my range of subject matter and language is a bit compromised, though not drastically. The hardest part is keeping the young characters from knowing what 14-year-olds wouldn’t know yet. It’s hard to view the world through the eyes of someone whose experience and length of existence is so much more limited than mine. And that’s especially hard for me, since I’m a bit over 14.
Had you ever given much thought to what Spenser’s boyhood might have been like before writing this book?
Yes, some. I had alluded to Spenser’s childhood in several of my books, so some of the plot of Chasing the Bear, like his encounter with the bear in the woods and his trip down the river, being chased by his friend’s father, evolved from things I’d alluded to in earlier adult novels. So in a sense, the germ of the story was already there, as it were.
Do you think any books that you read as a teenager have influenced your young-adult writing?
I don’t really remember reading young adult books that I’d say influenced me as a writer. I’m not sure that books were even called “young adult” back then. As a teenager I recall reading adult books. I do remember, when I was somewhat younger, reading novels by Joseph Altshuler, about the Kentucky frontier. And like most boys, I read the sports novels by John R. Tunis. Before I was reading on my own, for the most part my father read to me. I had a very good relationship with my father and he read to me every night.
Young Spenser’s relationship with his father is a key element of Chasing the Bear. Did that aspect of the novel grow out of your relationship with your own father?
I don’t think so. I make this stuff up. But if their relationship did grow out of anything, I’d say it more likely grew out of my having been a father for so long. My sons are now 50 and almost 46.
And did you read to your own boys when they were young?
Well, that would be a nice tie-in, that I read to my sons the same way that my father read to me, wouldn’t it? But we had TV—so there went reading to kids! Of course Joan and I both read to the boys when they were little. I do recall reading The Little Engine That Could out loud at least 25,000 times!
So looking ahead rather than back, will there be additional novels about young Spenser?
Well, we’ll see—that is a very common answer on my part. I’ve now fulfilled my three-book contract with Philomel, and I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I guess I’m waiting for Joan and Helen to tell me what to do next.
And of course you’re keeping to your adult novel-writing regimen?
Yes, I’m busily writing adult books. I write five days a week and attempt to finish 10 pages a day. These are final, finished pages—I don’t revise or rewrite. I write one book at a time and a 200-page novel takes me roughly 20 or 25 writing days. But I’m not obsessive about it. One of my sons is a choreographer and one is an actor—one lives in New York and one in L.A. And if Joan and I want to pick up and go visit them or go to one of their performances, we do. And I also box once a week, work out on the treadmill and lift weights.
So it sounds as though you have quite a good balance to your life?
Yes, I really do. I’m quite pleased with things as they are and I don’t imagine making any changes. And I’m very happy to be married to the girl of my dreams. What else could I want?
Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel by Robert B. Parker. Philomel, $14.99 ISBN 978-0-399-24776-7