Many writers have a glib comeback for this question. Samuel Johnson famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Asked what inspired him, Mickey Spillane would reply, “The urgent need for money.” And I have often described my career as an ongoing effort to avoid a real job.
Certainly earning a living is a valid reason to write; but really, getting paid is what allows me to write—and has made me a full-time writer since 1977. I take pride in not having a day job, and when asked why I write so much, I usually say, “To keep the lights on.” Anyway, what else am I supposed to do with my time?
The ranks of successful authors include lawyers, doctors, and in particular teachers—noble professions, but part-time scribes all. Early on I taught at a college myself, though never more than half-time, having sold my first two novels at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop. Teaching drains the creative juices that writing requires, and I got out of academia as soon as possible.
Stories have been my main interest longer than I can remember. My mother read me Tarzan books at bedtime and encouraged me to read Dick Tracy comic books (her favorite strip). Chester Gould’s famous dick led me into Sherlock Holmes, Ellery Queen, and the Saint, and—by junior high—Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, and Mike Hammer, an interest fostered by the wave of TV PIs of the late 1950s. My sixth-grade teacher told me I would never be successful because I insisted on writing “blood and thunder” (the title of my 1995 Nathan Heller novel, by the way).
Television and movies encouraged my interest in history, with The Untouchables a prime contributor. As a kid, I became fascinated in the real people (Wyatt Earp, Eliot Ness) who fed our popular culture. I was also taken with the people who created that popular culture. I didn’t want to be Dick Tracy when I grew up—I wanted to be Chester Gould. Didn’t take me long to figure out the only thing more fun than being told stories was telling them yourself.
I have an abiding interest in the history of crime fiction—for example, by completing Mickey Spillane’s in-progress Hammer manuscripts—but also the way history has informed crime fiction. This has led to my best-known works, the graphic novel Road to Perdition and the Nathan Heller “memoirs” (including Ask Not, the J.F.K. thriller published by Forge last month).
My career began in Iowa City 40 years ago with the sale of my first crime novels, and a love for language, thanks to Raymond Chandler and other noir poets. Now I find myself working harder than ever, risking my reputation by being too prolific, because I am all too aware that I’m in the third act of my career, and there are many more stories I want to tell.
For money, yes. But mostly for the sheer joy of it.