A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, through a flashback narrative device, is set in the Eighties. What you like or remember best of that period? (one time-related thing that I, as reader, appreciated as “refreshing” in A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF is that there are no cellphones and no Internet!)
Well, I was thirty years younger!
But in fact I think most nostalgia is misplaced, and casts an unwarranted glow over the past. Life three decades ago seems easier and simpler, but I think this is an illusion.
There are exceptions. Air travel was certainly a good deal more enjoyable thirty years ago. But we don’t see Matthew Scudder getting on airplanes, do we? His life is largely confined to a few square miles in Manhattan, and they haven’t changed in any substantive way. It’s Scudder’s internal life—quite different thirty years ago—that’s of more interest, I think.
I think that A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF is a very particular ‘urban noir’ novel, as it has an underlying strive to redemption (both the most evident, High-Low Jack’s redemption path, and Matt Scudder’s own struggle to stay clean). So there actually is hope even in “hell”?
Perhaps. It’s hard for me to speak of a book’s underlying themes, because I’m not aware of them as I write. My focus is on the story and the characters, and if there’s a subtext, I’m usually blind to it.
Could you tell us an anecdote linked to the writing phase of “A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF”?
I moved into a friend’s vacant apartment on the other side of town to write the book. And there was no internet connection available there, no wi-fi. So during my work days I had no access to Google or Wikipedia or email. It was as if I had slipped back technologically into the period when the story took place!
According to you what is the importance of the Alcoholics Anonymous “setting” – and namely of the 12 steps meetings – for your new novel? To rephrase the question: what does this kind of setting adds to the novel (better than any other setting)?
When I began writing about Matthew Scudder in the early 1970′s, I never expected him to age or change, and certainly never thought he’d stop drinking. When he did, in Eight Million Ways to Die, I thought I had written myself out of a job, and that there would be no more books about him. He’d had a catharsis, he’d confronted the central problem of his existence, so what more was there to say about him?
Well, it turned out I was mistaken, and there have been twelve more books since then. Scudder’s progressive sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous has not meant an end to problems or complications for him, but has simply rendered them more vivid and given him new skills for coping with them. And it’s allowed him to grow and to get older, and otherwise I[m sure I (and the readers!) would have long since tired of him.
A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF came about when it struck me that, because I had stopped writing the books for several years after Eight Million Ways to Die, there was this unrecorded period of Scudder’s life, and that the early years of his sobriety ought to be quite interesting.
Matt Scudder is a great character: what, in the eyes of his creator, makes him a great character, so capable of capturing the reader’s attention until the last page of the book?
I don’t know; I suspect a reader could answer the question better than I.
People talk about Scudder as “flawed”, by which I suppose they mean that he has the contradictions and complexities of a human being—which is certainly my intent. But the word “flawed” carries a judgment that has always bothered me. I greatly prefer the vocabulary of gemologists, when they speak of diamonds; rather than call the little imperfections “flaws,” they call them “inclusions”. I like that. Matthew Scudder is not flawed; the man has inclusions.
Why stories in which the stakes are high, as mystery and suspense stories, have this special charm, this strong communicative power that makes us readers loving them so much?
Can it be said that thriller stories, in some special way and at some level deeper than what we may understand, “teach” us lessons about life and death? What do you think on this topic?
Well, I think it’s easier to care how a story comes out when the characters have a good deal at risk. In crime fiction, the characters are concerned with life and death; in a certain type of academic novel, the biggest danger is that the professor/hero might be denied academic tenure.
But I don’t know that thrillers—or novels of any sort—necessarily teach us anything. Though they may ideally provide a window through which we find our own lessons.
Referring to the question n.6, in A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF there are real gems of bitter wisdom, as when Matthew listens to a “recorded phone message” of a dead person and he wonders how much time will it pass before someone will disconnect that phone, concluding that we don’t die all at once, but we die just little by little. How much do you think is important for a writer to engage this “silent dialogue with the reader”?
I don’t know if it’s important. It seems appropriate to me, and it’s not so much a matter of the writer entering into the silent dialogue as my imagining Scudder’s thoughts and ruminations. (It’s natural to assume that his thoughts are mine, but that’s not always the case.)
Does Matthew love New York? What, according to you, defines most his relationship with New York?
It’s his home—and, really, his universe. He has left it occasionally for business, and has done some travel for pleasure with Elaine in recent years, but it is on the streets of New York that he exists and lives his life. It is so much a part of him, and he of it, that the question of whether he loves it does not really arise.
Could we say that he has a kind of “wilderness” burning under the ashes of his cynicism, that sometime you allow him to express? (I am referring for example to your quote “She was a way to get out, and I was a person who would always want to get out. No matter how comfortable my life was, no matter how well suited I was to it, and it to me, I would always want to slip away and hide for a while” in EVERYBODY DIES or to his “slip away” with Donna in “A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF”). Or, if my phrase is not matching Matt’s character, could you correct me sharing with us your view of Matt?
I think that’s accurate enough. For years the man used alcohol as a way to slip out of the prison of self, and the impulse doesn’t disappear in sobriety.
One other charming features of Matthew Scudder, I think, is that he is non-judgmental, he knows right from wrong but he seems respectful of the complexity of people and of their motives. Is that the way you are, also? If so, could you share with us if there has been a single event or thought that “taught” you that people are much more complex than what it may seem?
Interestingly, I think it was something I learned from fiction. Forty or fifty years ago I was reading John O’Hara’s novel, FROM THE TERRACE, and was struck by the realization that the characters were neither “good” nor “bad,” except in the context of one another. And if that could be true in a novel, might it not be equally true in life?
There are some very dark characters in some of my books, but if I portray one without conveying some sense of the character’s essential humanity, the failure is mine.
You started very early your writing career. But what about your very first writings as a young boy? Do you still remember the very first plot that you wrote as a boy? If so, could you share it with us?
I didn’t really start writing until my late teens, which isn’t that early for a writer; what was more remarkable was that I began selling my work within a year or two. The first short story I sold, “You Can’t Lose,” was about a young man who lives by his wits; it was printed in Manhunt Magazine, and is available now in several collections of my stories. My first novel was STRANGE ARE THE WAYS OF LOVE, about a young woman who comes to Greenwich Village and goes through a lesbian sexual-identity crisis; it was published under the pen name Lesley Evans, and is now available once again as an e-book.
Has there been a single moment, during your young years, in which you understood more clearly than in any other moment that you made it, that you life would have been the life of a top successful writer?
Ha! It still hasn’t happened.
But fairly early on I realized I would probably be able to make a living at writing. I knew I wasn’t cut out for anything else.
Book tours are a great way to meet writers, but sometimes the fans are so excited or so willing to ask strange questions (or to give narcissistic mini-speaks instead of questions) that fun things happen. Which would be the funniest thing that happened during one of the many book presentations you held in your life?
When I was touring for A DANCE AT THE SLAUGHTERHOUSE, a woman wanted to know what had happened to Jan Keane, who’d played a role in Scudder’s life in A STAB IN THE DARK and EIGHT MILLION WAYS TO DIE, but had since not been heard from. “Things just didn’t work out,” I told her, and she was furious with either me or Matthew, or perhaps both of us. It was pretty funny.
But it got me thinking about the role ex-lovers continue to play in one another’s lives, and that led to a sub-plot in THE DEVIL KNOWS YOUR DEAD, in which Jan is terminally ill and calls upon Matt to get her a gun in case she wants a quick way out. And now, of course, Jan’s very much a presence in A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF. So I guess I owe that woman my thanks.
Do you have some anecdote linked to one of the many important awards that you received in your career?
My first Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination came in 1978, when TIME TO MURDER & CREATE was nominated for Best Paperback Original. I somehow managed to convince myself that I was certain to win, and at the awards dinner I was completely astonished when they read some other guy’s name.
Mystery characters have often to face hazardous, threatening and dangerous situations. And writers? Which has been the most hazardous thing you’ve done in your life?
A good half century ago, I brought a novel of Fredric Brown’s back to my apartment and settled in to read it. And, because it seemed like a good idea at the time, whenever Brown’s narrator took a drink, I took one myself. Trying to keep up with a Fredric Brown character, drink for drink, is as hazardous a thing as I’ve ever done.
Writing, I’m pleased to say, is not an occupation beset with physical dangers, and that’s fine with me. I’ll gladly leave all that to my characters.
“Originally published in Venerdì di Repubblica”