One of the most admired American crime writers, Donald E. Westlake has won Edgar Awards in three categories—for best novel, God Save the Mark (1968); best short story, "Too Many Crooks" (1990); and best motion picture screenplay, The Grifters (1991), based on the Jim Thompson novel. Since 1960, he's published nearly 90 novels under his own name and several pseudonyms, notably Richard Stark.
Westlake writes every day, except Sundays, when he takes time off to do the New York Times crossword. It takes him about five months to write a novel and he doesn't outline. And a stray fact will stick with him for years. In 1919—1920, for example, U.S. troops were part of an Allied force in Russia. This was the germ for What's So Funny?, his latest crime caper to feature bumbling crook John Dortmunder, which Warner will publish in April. In it, a gold chess set sent as a gift to the czar in the closing days of WWI becomes the object of felonious desire in present-day New York.
"I've spent most of my life saying, 'Now what?' " Westlake says. So he likes to start with a situation and go from there. "Don't annoy Tony Soprano" was the genesis for Watch Your Back!(2004), part of his Dortmunder series.
Otto Penzler, a longtime friend who has been Westlake's editor, says, "Donald E. Westlake is the most consistently humorous writer of mystery and crime the world has ever seen." In 1993, the Mystery Writers of America dubbed Westlake a Grand Master, the group's highest accolade.
Born in 1933 in Brooklyn, N.Y., Westlake attended public schools and three different colleges in New York State before serving in the air force. These days, he and his wife, Abby, the author of two nonfiction books, spend most of their time at their 19th-century white clapboard farmhouse in Gallatinville, in upstate New York, which they bought in 1990 as a retreat, but they make regular forays back to Manhattan, where they have an apartment in the West Village.
A great admirer of the British author Anthony Powell, Westlake has read Powell's 12-volume comic masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time, three times. Westlake also speaks highly of fellow crime writer Elmore "Dutch" Leonard: "I once adapted a screenplay from one of Dutch's novels; I can't remember now which one. I was struck that he had an extra level of text. There was the dialogue and the description, and then this third level of commentary. I'd never seen that before."
Westlake's books have sold consistently to the movies. Hits include The Hot Rock (1972), starring Robert Redford; The Hunter (1967), starring Lee Marvin; and its remake, Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson.
Westlake works in an upstairs studio, where he does his writing on an old Smith-Corona typewriter. "I've got somebody who can fix it, and someone else who can provide ribbons."
No one gets to see work in progress. When he's finished, he gives the manuscript to Abby, his first reader; "I want adulation, but what I get is notes." The next reader is his agent, Larry Kirshbaum. For five years Westlake had been acting as his own agent, but when Kirshbaum retired from Time Warner and became an agent, Westlake was happy to become his client.
Kirshbaum speaks admiringly of Westlake: "Don is a pleasure to represent because he's unflappable and never seems to have even a nanosecond of writer's block. And he's still as good as they get in the mystery field. I just can't believe I was such a cheapskate on his advances when I was his publisher and have been trying to undo this damage as his agent."
A long-time Warner author, Westlake recently signed a new three-book contract, two of which will be Westlakes, the third a Stark.
Retirement is the last thing from Westlake's mind. "What does a writer do on retirement?" he asks rhetorically. For an answer, he cites his old friend SF author Robert Silverberg, "The first thing you do is answer your mail."