We figure we've reached Robert B. Parker's house on the winding Cambridge, Mass., street when we spot a restored Victorian whose tiny driveway is crammed with a Jaguar, a Mercedes and a Ford Explorer—the sort of house and cars Spenser himself might own. And there's Parker, in jeans, black T-shirt and sneakers, checking his mail at the top of the stoop. He waves us up and inside to a study off the entrance hall.
The writer takes the brown leather armchair behind his desk, also leather. He's stocky yet looks small in the room, which isn't large but which has high ceilings made higher by flowing burgundy drapes. Bookshelves cover a third of the wall space. Some hold editions of Parker's 30-odd books, nearly all bestsellers. One supports his Edgar Award (for Promised Land, 1976) and a bust of Sherlock Holmes.
Parker's influence on the detective novel is, arguably, nearly as great as Poe's or Conan Doyle's. Through his primary hero, Spenser, introduced in The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), Parker has modernized the American private eye novel beyond its pulp roots, bringing to it psychological realism and sociopolitical awareness.
Unlike most authors, Parker is publishing more as he ages. In one year he's produced three outstanding novels: the 28th Spenser novel, Potshot; a western about Wyatt Earp, Gunman's Rhapsody; and his third novel about small-town cop Jesse Stone, Death in Paradise.
As we talk to Parker about these books and other matters, including the 10 Spenser TV movies he's done with A&E, he remains in his chair, feet on the ground, legs apart, his hands on the chair armrests. It's a very open position, one that suits a writer who, in conversation, tells it as he sees it, with much good humor. Also in attendance is a German shorthaired pointer, Pearl, Spenser's own dog.
PW: Recently you have begun two new series [the Jesse Stone series and the Sunny Randall PI novels] in addition to the Spenser series. Why?
RBP: As I have gone on, I have learned how to do this better, and I have shortened the time it takes me to write a book. It takes me three or four months. I don't play golf, and at one point I tried to fill the time with screenplays, but that's not a lot of fun. So Helen Grant, my agent, and I thought, "Why not do a second series?" It'll give me a chance to write about a much younger man [Jesse Stone], a guy who is far less evolved than Spenser.
PW: This year you've also published Potshot and Gunman's Rhapsody. It's clear that each novel influenced the other. Potshot is a PI novel, but it's also a western of sorts.
RBP: Sure, it's The Magnificent Seven, updated.
PW: In Gunman's Rhapsody, right before the shoot-out at the OK Corral, Earp has almost a mystical moment in which time nearly stops, and he becomes aware of everything around him.
RBP: He sees a single snowflake falling.
PW: This kind of experience is often associated with moments of crisis. Where in your personal experience does it come from?
RBP: I wish I had a good answer, like the moment I was winning the Medal of Honor in Korea.I recycle everything through my imagination, and somewhere in my life I have sensed moments of crisis, when everything becomes still and you become intensely aware of yourself. It's a way of suggesting how silent it was, too.
PW: Silence plays a large part in your books, doesn't it?
RBP: I'm aware of silence and make a lot of use of it. Some of what goes on in the books is stage business in between the silence. And by the nature of my work, I spend time alone—in the company of dogs.
PW: The Spenser books are written in the first person, but the Jesse Stone novels are in the third. What's the difference writing one or the other?
RBP: It's like hitting left-handed and hitting right-handed; you can hit different pitches better and worse. With the third person, I have the option, for instance, of leaving Jesse, which I don't have with Spenser. In my former academic life, we used to talk about the narrative point-of-view—omniscient or selective omniscient and all that crap. I don't know about that, but I try to be consistent. I just type my five pages a day.
PW: How long does that take you?
RBP: About five hours. I prefer to write in the morning, but I don't have a strong feeling about it. I prefer to write here, but I can write anywhere. I could probably write in a typhoon if I had to.
PW: Do you like to write?
RBP: It's better than working. I look forward to being done. I write five days a week. I don't write Saturdays and Sundays. I was a husband and a father long before I was a writer, and if I couldn't be both, I'd prefer to be a husband and father. So I wasn't going to write nights and I wasn't going to write weekends. Normally, I will do one book at a time, and in the afternoon or after I've written the book maybe I'll diddle with a screenplay.
PW: Why write for the screen?
RBP: Money. There is no other reason to be in film, at least for a writer. They're not going to make it better. On the A&E Spenser movies, I have control of the script, short of A&E saying we won't accept the script. Nobody can change it except me. That is a lot of control, and we have good actors. But even with all that going for us, it's almost not possible to get it right.
PW: Because it's difficult to translate one form into another?
RBP: I'm not sure we could do a good Spenser movie. A great deal of what happens in the books happens in the interior monologue—Spenser's reactions, what he says and what he doesn't say.
PW: What about the theatrical monster? You haven't stuck your head into that.
RBP: No one's let me. Sunny Randall came into being because Helen Hunt wanted me to create a character for her. I said, "Okay," and spoke to her people. We had long talks: I'll write a novel and you buy it. They got a screenplay from writer A, who was supposed to be the best screenwriter on the planet, and they didn't like it. Now they're getting a screenplay from writer B. Or maybe writer Z. I'm the world's greatest novelist, but not the world's greatest screenwriter, and while I can do it, I don't like to do it.
PW: Okay, you're the world's greatest novelist. But you're a genre writer, which means that many influential critics look down upon the books you write. How do you feel about that?
RBP: I don't give a shit, to tell you the truth. When I married Joan [Parker's wife of 45 years] and had the two boys, I had done everything I'd ever wanted to do. I don't get too excited about the rest of it. Fiction is either good or bad. It's not bad because it's about a detective or because it's about a vampire. Categorization is useless to me as a writer.
PW: Why are your books so popular?
RBP: I guess it has something to do with a story about someone who doesn't fail. And they're about love, they're about courage, they're about honor. And I guess they're well told. I manage the language very well. I have always thought that writing should be about the most meaning with the fewest words.
PW: You had surgery about a year ago...
RBP: It was December 25, 2000. You don't forget. I almost died on the table. There was a mistake made. A vein got ruptured and the heart went into fibrillation. They had to run 26 pints of fluid through me, and it was about a week before they knew if I was going to make it. I was in intensive care for eight days. But you get a lot of good things out of bad shit sometimes—to watch my children be the adults I'd always hoped they'd be, to take care of Joan as they did.
PW: What else have you been working on?
RBP: I did a short story about Jackie Robinson recently ["Harlem Nocturn," in Murderers' Row].
PW: I understand you've considered expanding it into a novel.
RBP: The problem is, as always, when and how. I publish two books a year.
PW: Three this year: you did Gunman's Rhapsody.
RBP: Yeah, they squeezed it in. I don't want to be unduly crass about this, but I did it for a far more modest sum than I normally get and with far less promotion than I normally get. This was, in fact, a favor to me because they [Putnam] are my publishers and it's a good book. But then, I have a son who's an actor and a son who's a choreographer and a wife who likes this house, and all that's costly. So money matters to me. And I don't want to write a Jackie Robinson novel for a tenth of what I would normally get and sell a tenth of the number of what I usually sell. I also have a novel about a Shakespeare character in my head. But we're going to try to sell the Jackie Robinson story as a feature film.
PW: Do you eat as many doughnuts as Spenser and Hawk [Spenser's sidekick]?
RBP: Not as many as I want.
PW: In a recent Spenser novel, Spenser asks Hawk, to paraphrase, "Is there any such thing as a bad doughnut?" There is, and I've had them.
RBP: Well, if you're going to buy them in the supermarket in those little packages, they're not too good. Joan and I are on a quest for Krispy Kremes, but there aren't any around here. If I'm desperate, I'll eat a Hostess doughnut. They're not that bad, and heated in the oven they're even better. Try warming them up.