Thomas Perry was born in Tonawanda, New York, attended Cornell University and received a Ph.D in English Literature from the University of Rochester. He has been a laborer, maintenance man, commercial fisherman, weapons mechanic, university administrator and teacher, and television writer and producer (Simon and Simon, 21 Jump Street, Star Trek: the Next Generation). His first published novel, The Butcher's Boy, was awarded an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; his other novels are Metzger’s Dog, Big Fish, Island, Sleeping Dogs (a sequel to The Butcher’s Boy), five Jane Whitfield novels: Vanishing Act, Dance for the Dead, Shadow Woman, The Face Changers, Blood Money and then Death Benefits and Pursuit. His recent novel is entitled Dead Aim. Thomas Perry lives in Southern California with his wife and two daughters.
In Dead Aim, Robert Mallon, a middle-aged, semi-retired resident of Santa Barbara, California encounters a young woman on the beach and attempts to help her. His attempts fail and he becomes obsessed with discovering and understanding what has happened. To that end, he hires a private detective, and the investigation draws him into the sights of master hunter Parish, who has created a flourishing business training his clients to hunt and kill human beings.
Robert Birnbaum: You’ve written how many Jane Whitfield books?
Thomas Perry: Five.
RB: I must confess I lost interest in series, and so I probably have read only three of them. Why did you stop writing the Whitfield series?
TP: Because you were losing interest in the series. (both laugh) Writing the series is fun. It’s a situation that almost feels like having a job. A real, legitimate, honest job, because you know when you are sitting around thinking of some idea or something—what you are going to do with it? And you know when you are finished with this bookthen you have a million wonderful things that you are thinking that you know that you can’t possibly fit into this plot, you’re going to have another chance at it. When you are writing stand-alone novels, if you know something great about a character and it just doesn’t fit in because it doesn’t allow the pages to keep turning, you know that you are never in your life going to be able to tell people. It’s over. It’s the wasted by-product of thinking of a book. And so it’s fun to do a series, but it’s [too] comfortable. I don’t think being comfortable is necessarily the thing that’s going to make you a better writer. And I think that’s the most important thing that a writer does—is try to get better. So at a certain point, with a series, your main character is a fully developed, free-standing human being and she’s not going to change a whole lot. At that point what you are writing about is not necessarily the development of her character. It’s about putting her into different situations so that you can show her off. So that’s what you find yourself doing—and I’ve noticed this with other people who have written series, your villains get better and better and better. And more frightening. And your major character is exactly the same. That is probably something you shouldn’t do. What I am doing in the case of Jane Whitfield is giving her a chance to have a little vacation from me and maybe get a little bit older. So that when she comes back she is more—let’s say that there will be developments to report about her and her family and about everything. I was just in Western New York andin the Buffalo area. One of the things that has happened is thatthe Allegheny Senecas and the Seneca Nation have managed to opena casino in what used to the Niagara Falls Convention Center. Thatwas an issue with Senecas, and it’s a big deal, and it willbe interesting to see if there will be changes to report becauseof that.
RB: It’s your plan to return to the Jane Whitfieldcharacter?
TP: Yeah, it is.
TP: It’s hard to tell. At some pointI want to do it and people keep asking me whether I will. And urgingme to do it. But I don’t want to have something that is atrivial change—it’s just volume number six, out of whatpotentially could be fifty volumes. I want something that’sinteresting, that that will have changed and put her in a new situation.
RB: What was the original plan?
TP: I started out, I just wanted to writeone book in which there would be a female protagonist. I wantedto see if I knew how to do it. And if I couldn’t, I wantedto learn how to do it. And then when I was finished with VanishingAct I felt I wasn’t finished with the character. So Iwrote Dance for the Dead. And then as I was finishing thatI got a call from my editor, the late Joe Fox, and he said, “How’dyou like to make it five?” So, having sworn never to writea series, I said, “Oh sure, I’d love to.”
RB: You no doubt had your fingers crossed.
TP: That’s right. So I wrote the fiveand by that time I had a back up of ideas of things that I wantedto write that I couldn’t write while I was doing the series.
RB: Let’s go back to what you saidabout becoming a better writer. There seems to be an ebb and flowof judgment about the quality of genre writers. With regularitythere are big touts of Elmore Leonard claiming that he has risenabove genre…When you are doing a series, you are limitingyourself in that it has all the things that critics claim aboutgenre. It’s easier; there is not a lot of ground breakingbecause you have a lot givens already present; the scaffolding ofthe story is already there.
TP: And you are not making your readers work veryhard. What’s going on is that you are building a group ofpeople who really want to know what the next thing is about thatcharacter. I’m sure that’s a wise thing to do in termsof paying your kid’s tuition, but it’s not a good thingto do as a writer—which is ultimately cutting your own throat.You are relegating yourself to always being a minor figure.
RB: What drew me to your writing that is still presentin Dead Aim is your great attention to detail and the subtletyof how you present it. In this book, there is a scene where theprotagonist is trying to gain entry to the camp of the villains.And he is looking at the fence that surrounds it and he recallsthat there must be a weakness in the fence based on his experiencewith the work habits of laborers who put fences up. That away fromthe entrance there must be a point where they didn’t dig theposts deeply enough and he goes on to find the fence’s Achillesheel. You do that sort of thing with great frequency especiallyin the area of identity theft…Were you ever a contractor?
TP: No, but I was one of those people who had themisfortune of living in a 1935 house with 1935 wiring and plumbingand all that stuff. So I have had extensive dealing with contractors.I just listen to people. I talk to people and listen to what theyhave to tell me. Also, I am a shameless eavesdropper. When I amwandering around on these tours in hotels, I am sitting around listeningto conversations at other tables, all the time. Everywhere I go.And one of the things that having kids does for you is that youmeet parents who are in things that you don’t know anythingabout and if you pay attention to what they say you learn incrediblethings.
RB: Dead Aim is the second novel sinceyou suspended the Jane Whitehead series?
TP: It’s the third. The first was calledDeath Benefits. It was about two insurance investigators.The second one was Pursuit, which is about a hired killer and someonewho specializes in finding those kind of people. This one is thethird and I am just about done with another book.
RB: Having written thirteen books, has writing gotteneasier in any way? Do you sit down to write with confidence?
TP: No, certain things get easier. Part of all thisstuff is fooling yourself. You have to convince yourself of theillusion of progress. You have to imagine that you are getting betterall the time. And you have to have everything that you do contributeto that. So it’s possible to get—not necessarily better—everytime you write a book you know how to do one thing that you didn’tknow how to do before. And in a way that gives you a wider rangebut it also [good] just for your day to day life—you learnhow to comfortably continue writing a particular story. I feel fewermoments of despair during the process.
RB:Having written a fair number of books, seemingly should do that.
TP: To that extent yes. You say to yourself, “Okay,this isn’t working yet, but I know that eventually if I keepthinking about it, it’s going to work.” Or if I keeprewriting it over and over again eventually there will be somethingthat I feel satisfied with. I don’t feel like a terrible failureevery minute. I do reserve those moments for the end of the manuscript.
RB: I was talking to the McPhee sistersthey were telling me about the shitbird that sits on their shoulders saying, “You suck, you suck, you suck.”
TP: I think he’s good for you. I think he’syour best friend. If you observe other people, this is of course,never observable in yourself. But if you observe other people, themoment when they are at their worst is the moment when they feelthe most confident. They stop questioning themselves and stop realizingthat this isn’t working or that everything that they do doesn’tnecessarily work.
RB: I don’t follow that,“The moment that they are at their worst they are the mostconfident”?
TP: Yeah, I think that. Your ego is what kills youand so you have to try to kill it first.
TP: If you have success either too easily or tooearly everything after that is murder. If you can never get to beas successful as you want to be, ego begins to defend itself bydenigrating others or something. I don’t know what it is exactly.All of these things are ego.
RB: You are a very mild-mannered person,at least in appearance. In Dead Aim you have gathered togethera scary group of psychopaths.
RB: Committing great havoc and they seem to be adeparture from the killers in your previous books, because therewas something sympathetic about them. This group seems to be simplythrill killing. Most of them…
TP: Right, most of them are. It’s just something…whatyou are doing in the case of a thriller is you want to subject yourprotagonist to a challenge which will not only make him afraid—picka nightmare for him—here it’s a paranoid nightmare becausehe’s in a situation that the police aren’t able to doanything for him. And aren’t really sure that he hasn’tlost his mind. That’s one side of it. You want to also challengeor give him something to think about philosophically. In the caseof Robert Mallon, what I am doing is taking a guy who is prettymuch through with his life. He’s sort of tired of it and hedoesn’t know what to do with himself and he’s lettingit slip by. He’s marking time. As he says early in the book,he’s not really a citizen of where he is living, Santa Barbara.He’s just passing through very, very slowly. What I want todo in having him trying to convince this girl to live and tryingto find out why she had to commit suicide, is to begin to thinkabout how precious life really is. And then when he finally hasthis terrible challenge, he thinks life is valuable because he hashad to fight so hard to preserve it. It’s such a big deal,losing a friend and all…
RB: The character is interesting because there is not early evidenceof intelligence and a survival instinct.
TP: No, he’s being passive and livinghis life in an uninspired way. The thing that is necessary for himto become the best that he can be is to be threatened.
RB: How much are you affected by the violence that’snecessary in these kind of novels? Is it real to you?
TP: I try to make it real in the sense thatI try to make it realistic. That is, things happen the way theyreally would happen. And also they are horribly unpleasant. Oneof the things about the people in this book is that they are hunting.They are out hunting people. What I wanted to do was to also havesomebody die who is a genuine sympathetic well-rounded character.Somebody really die. Death is not a joke. It’s not a littlething. It’s not a funny thing. There is a temptation on thepart of people who write this kind of book, to make it very elegant.I don’t want that. I want the five quarts of blood to go outon the ground so that people know that this is real, a big dealto kill somebody. When I write something violent, afterwards, Iam depressed. It depresses me. What I am trying to do is have otherpeople affected by it in the same way I am. That is, both to beafraid and then to be sad about it. I am not sure why I write aboutviolence except that there are certain things about people who areinvolved in those situations that I admire very much. People whodisplay a lot of courage, for instance, or people who are very cunning.
RB: There is a hyper reality or perhaps heightenedreality about life-and-death situations. Criminal situations bringout the qualities that you are talking about, which makes it interestingfor everyone.
TP: Yeah. Well in a way the things that are saidare true—a bigger dose of life in a smaller space. That’spart of what I want to do with it. Also, it entails writing aboutpeople who are not necessarily paragons of virtue. A lot of thevirtues are pretty dull stuff. Patience and hard work and chastity,all those things don’t make for good books.
RB: You mentioned other writers. Who do you read?
TP: I try not to read people who write inthe same genre that I write in. Occasionally I give in. There arecertain people I like very much and if I get a chance and can’tresist—people like Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Joe Gores,people like that. If I have a chance.
RB: Outside of the genre which you may or may notread, what else?
TP: I usually find myself reading a lot of non-fictionthat I am going to use in a book. I look up things and start reading.I read a huge number of magazines and I read …
RB: Really? What is there to read?
TP: Harper’s and The Atlanticand The New Yorker. And whatever else.
RB: I usually sit around pissing about the sad stateof magazines. Those are about the only three to read. After thatthey are all about shopping and eating.
TP: Yeah, I know. But see, shopping and eating arethings that you write about. (both laugh) And so I try to find outwhat people are interested in, what they are doing.
RB: Have I missed something? Have any of your booksbeen made into movies?
RB: My god!
TP: My books go directly to…they are madeinto scripts and then are given a decent burial somewhere on thestudio’s grounds.
TP: There is always some attempt going on to makethem into movies.
RB: Are they all in the blessed state of option?
TP: Not all, at the moment. All the Jane Whitfieldsare tied up.
RB: Isn’t it the case that if someone hasone, they have them all, since they basically own the character?
TP: Yeah, that’s true. And there is alwayssome interest in these things and the movie is always just aroundthe corner. Like prosperity.
RB: Alan Furst seems to share similar experiences with you. He wondershow any movies ever get made.
TP: In a way I don’t really think about itmuch anymore. My first book, The Butcher’s Boy, wasin option continuously for 18 years. It was never out of option.There are studios that don’t exist anymore that had thesethings. At some point every working screenwriter in Hollywood hasa bad script for one or another of my books. Which is why they allhate me. So, I don’t know.
RB: I’m not seeing the connection. They writebad scripts and they hate you?
TP: These are people who have written good movies.And they are hired to write a script of one of my books and it justdoesn’t work out. It’s partly an obvious problem. Mostof my main characters spend most of their time alone. And when theyare not alone, whatever they say aloud is a lie. So, it’sconfusing and very difficult to make a movie out of that. You haveto invent some bogus character who is going to be the interlocutor.That’s one thing. And very often you have to soften who theprotagonist because he is amoral or something. Or has some otherminor drawback.
RB: Has being amoral stood in the way of anyonein Hollywood?
TP: Sometimes it has. Sometimes they tend to cleanem up a little bit...It’s hard to do.
RB: I just read a terrific book set in Hollywoodagainst the background of movie making, Man Eater, by thepseudonymous Ray Shannon. An up-and-coming female film producerwho interferes with a sociopathic, drug-dealing enforcer’sassault on a prostitute. Thereby earning his enmity and she is helpedout by an ex-con who, of course, has a screenplay about his prisonexperience and the story has the pedal to the floor from the start.I wonder if it will ever be made into a movie?
TP: It’s hard to tell what’s going tohappen in those situations. Michael Tolken’s The Playergot made.That’s as accurate as anything I have ever seen aboutHollywood. That was like a day in my working life when I was involvedin that stuff. That’s what it looks like.
RB: The author of Man Eater was interviewedin Publisher’s Weekly and castigated the book industryfor adopting marketing and creative decisions from the film industry.
TP: Everything in the world really operates on individualsand character and personalities. In any one of these situationsit just depends on who is sitting in that chair this week.
RB: Well, publishing is as arbitrary as anything.
TP: Yeah. That’s why I can’treally tell or make a generalization about it. When my wife andI worked in television, which is supposed to be the most venal thingimaginable, people were really intelligent and nice. They were generousand taught us how to do things . Almost anything you can imaginewas pretty good. My experience with people in publishing has beenabout the same. People have been kind and polite and thoughtfuland haven’t asked me to change anything to make it more commercialor anything of that sort. They do make suggestions sometimes.
RB: You’ve been at Random House for a whilenow?
TP: And before that there were other good people.Suzanne Kirk at Scribners was the person who published my very firstbook. And she is still around. I saw this list of the 100 FavoriteMysteries that were chosen by the Independent Mystery BooksellersAssociation. I happened to be in Scottsdale when she was there withJohn Dunning, who was one of their authors, and we are sitting thereand we are talking and we realized a third of them had been editedby Suzanne. My editor, Kate Medina, doesn’t have any otherauthors that are like me at all. She is able to sit down and talkto me intelligently about anything.
RB: Does the writer-editor relationship have todo with content or personal chemistry?
TP: I’m a believer in expertise. Certain peopleknow what they aretalking about and other people don’t. I have always been prettylucky finding people or having them stumble across me. I haven’thad any of the horror stories. It’s all been pretty good forme.
RB: Well, you sell books and you may be a case ofnot fixing what isn’t broken.
TP: That isn’t what everybody reports in theindustry. Some people run into editors who are not so good. I havereceived manuscripts that some editor will have sent me and askfor a blurb. And it will be the edited manuscript—the editorhas been through it and made all their marks. There are maybe fouror five marks on the entire manuscript and there are still grammaticalerrors and really unfortunate howlers. Just terrible things, andso I feel like taking out my own red pencil and that's giving thisperson some help because his editor isn’t doing his job. Thathasn’t been true of me at all. They [Random House] reallyhave real honest-to-goodness editors and honest-to-goodness copyeditors. People who will read the things and say “Is thistrue? Is it really fifty miles between Tampa and Sarasota?”
RB: The American penchant for fact checking seemslike the right thing to do.
TP: I love it. I think it’s wonderful.
RB: Although I don’t know what higher valueis being represented.
TP: It isn’t a fictional issue butyou want to get it right. You want it to be—we’re livingin a realistic age—and I want it to be right. And sometimesthat help is really welcome. There is a woman who has been the actualline copy editor on the last five of my books, Bonnie—I haveno idea what her last name is, she’s terrific. It’salso possible for someone who is a very skillful copy editor tobe too heavy handed and begin doing things like changing the waypeople speak or something. That’s not a good idea. She’snot like that.
RB: Do you fall into the camp of writers who ishappy to have things eternally optioned?
TP: I would like an enormous big fat paycheck thatthey have to back up to your door in a truck. That’d be wonderful.I got used to the idea that that was probably not going to happenin about 1983. The Jane Whitefields are optioned for Paramount byMark Gordon, who is a good producer. He and his people have beengreat and polite about everything and every once in a while theywill invite me to a meeting or something and let me know what’sgoing on. And sometimes they ask me to meet with the screenwriterand we’ll sit around and talk about it. I hope they get itdone.
RB: From what I have gleaned in these conversations,It would seem that movies get made these days based on cast, onstars?
TP: To some extent, that’s true.
RB: Has any actor optioned anything that you havewritten?
TP: It came very close, a few years ago. (chuckles)His people were negotiating for an option. Honestly, this is thetruth. The person said at the end of the negotiations that the actorhad changed his mind and decided instead to buy a house in SantaFe. (both laugh) I thought to myself, "If that’s whatthey were going to offer. I would have liked that." I wouldhave bought the house in Santa Fe too. No, usually it’s beenproducers and the money comes from the studio. Then they go aboutthe process of getting scripts and actors and actresses interested.There’s always been some reason why it hasn’t happened.That’s not really surprising because it’s fairly easyto option things and to begin to develop but it’s an enormousexpense to make a movie. I can’t blame anybody for not givingthese things a green light.
RB: Do you have some names for who might play JaneWhitfield.
TP: Halle Berry had been interested in doing itand Lee Tamahori the director who directed her in the last JamesBond movie. I have no idea whether that’s ever going to cometo any thing or not. I don’t know whether they have a scriptthat’s ready or not or what her schedule is or anything. Inow know what I read in the trades and that’s about it.
RB:Where do you place yourself in your writing career? Mid-career?Golden years?
TP: I’m just a baby. This is one of thosequestions that reminds me of the problem of losing my hair.
RB: (laughs heartily)
TP: I looked in the mirror one day and I thoughtto myself, “My god, it’s premature hair loss.”And then I remembered how old I was and then I realized it wasn’tpremature. I’m at the point now where my copies of TheButcher’s Boy and Metzger’s Dogs are beginningto get yellow and crumbly, so I must be about half way through.
RB: What are they going for through book dealers?
TP: The last I heard The Butcher’s Boywent for $1500. One that actually sold.
RB: Wow! Were there rumors of an untimely death?
TP: They must have seen me (both laugh). It’sinteresting that next June both of those are coming out again asRandom House trade paperbacks. The Butcher’s Boywill have an introduction by Michael Connelly and Metzger’s Dog will have one by Carl Hiaasen.
RB: That’s a good approach to upgrading paperbackeditions. Whose idea was it?
TP: I think it was my agent, Robert Lescher, whothought of it. The only justification for publishing a twenty-three-year-oldnovel is if they were good or a classic. And you wouldn’tknow that unless somebody wrote about it.
RB: Do you know Hiaasen and Connelly? Do you goto mystery writer conclaves?
TP: There are conventions. I met Michaelat the birthday party of the Mystery bookstore in Los Angeles. Shellyhas a birthday party every year for her store and I met Michaelthere. I’ve never met Carl Hiaasen, but I have always thoughthis work was good. It feels good to have somebody good write anintroduction.
RB: Hiaasen had one movie [Strip Tease]made. Connelly had one movie [Blood Work] made.
TP: Yeah, every once in a while one of these peoplewill get one made.
RB: Clint Eastwood made Blood Work[and is doing Dennis Lehane’s Mystic Valley] andI think Demi Moore made Strip Tease happen… How farahead do you think about what you are going to write? What you wantto do? Will you be writing the rest of your life?
TP: Yeah. Even if things aren’t publishedany more I’ll go back to doing what I did before they werepublished, which is writing just for my own amusement and the amusementof those willing to read them. Relatives, probably just my wife.It’s the way I see things and it’s what I do and I alwaysdid it and when I wrote for fun, I had fun. I had nothing to complainabout.
RB: Is it still fun?
TP: Yeah it is. It’s enormous fun. Even thispart of it is fun. It’s all fun. Writing is terrific. Theonly part that isn’t fun is going back and trying to fix somethingthat you wanted desperately to have work and it didn’t. Rewritinga section of a book for the fifth time begins to not be fun.
RB: Some writers say they like the rewriting morethan the writing. The hardest part for them is to get on paper.
TP: And there are penitents and flagellants.
RB: Are there books you would like to write buthave no obvious commercial potential and therefore your publishermay demur?
TP: If there is something I really want to writeabout, I’ll write about it and the publisher will either sayyes or no. I don’t know that either I or even they would knowwhether something was commercial or not. If you look at the rangeof things that have been enormous successes. Do you think the HarryPotter books would have been published by Scholastic with no competitionfrom the rest of the industry if anybody had known those were goingto be that hot?
RB: People still do make those decisions.
TP: It’s true the problem is that itis unpredictable. And maybe that’s not a problem, maybe that’sa good thing? The matrix or mix of things doesn’t get limitedby the fact that everybody can predict what’s gonna be…
RB: You can always say, "How do you know?"
TP: Right. How do you know? The only reason, I think,they are making these decisions is because somebody has to. Psychiatristswould not be allowed to do what they do except for the fact thatit is so necessary that they do it. It’s a science that’snot ready. The FDA would not approve it except that we need it sobad. We need somebody to be doing that. That’s the way itis with editors too.
RB: That would be perhaps why we have critics? Thereis so much out there that’s is a demand for someone to bean arbiter.
TP: Yeah, that’s true. Tothe extent that they perform the consumer-reports function for society.That is, that they say, "This is pretty good, why don’tyou try it?" And "This is bad for your health why don’tyou just forget this one?” Then it’s useful. Althoughyou do get burned unfairly. Sometimes you get criticisms that areinsane. What I hate is when they get repeated.
RB: Last week I read a review of a new Joni Mitchellrecording by John Rockwell in NYT and of course he’san old Joni Mitchell fan and we're told that he lived down the roadfrom her in Laurel Canyon in the ’70s. But the horrible thingwas that he concluded that if you were really a fan of hers youwould be better off going to see John Kelly, some Joni Mitchellimpersonator/imitator. I was horrified.
TP: That’s typical. Sometimes they blow it.Sometimes the same critic who gave you a wonderful break and a realpush on your last book will say something terrible about your nextbook. And then a book later they will be saying nice things. Youjust have to deal with the luck of the draw. That’s part ofplaying the game.
RB: Do you read reviews?
TP: Yeah, I do. I read the NYT Book Reviewand see what there is out there. You have to have some way of sortingyour way through the fifty thousand books that are published everyyear. You can’t know all that. It helps and gives you a senseof what everybody is doing.
RB: I can’t read reviews except if I finda reviewer’s/writer’s point of view interesting. Ina moment of distraction I read a review of Elmore Leonard’snew story collection. There was a lot I didn’t like aboutit, but I was enraged by the arrogance of this conclusion, "MyChristmas wish this year was that when Cormac McCarthy, MichaelOndaatje and Toni Morrison, to name but three, looked under theirtrees, they found that some kind soul had been thoughtful enoughto send them a copy of Elmore Leonard's latest."
TP: Yeah, I saw that.
RB: The reviewer was giving writing advice usingDutch Leonard as a surrogate.
TP: That really is unfair.
RB: Who needs to read that kind cynical glib intellectuallydishonest stuff? Maybe its an irreducible problem that there arethousands and thousands of books, this huge bath of informationthat we are in and we want someone to say here’s the top tenor…
TP: Or some notion of what’s likely to bea waste of time. There also is that problem that you just pointedout where every once in a while you will think of some clever thingto say and you just can’t resist putting it down. It’sthe clever insult. It takes a certain amount of wisdom in a criticto resist doing that.
RB: Or decency and respect for the efforts.
RB: In Mr. Saturday Night Billy Crystalplays a stand up comedian and the story follows him into old age.His brother has been his manager until late in his career. Theyhave a falling out for a while and the brother comes back and atone point, screws something up. And the Crystal character berateshim, saying, “Wasn’t I right? See, see. I was rightall the time.” And the brother responds, “Yeah but youdidn’t have to be so mean about it.”
RB: Do you approach writing as full-time job?
TP: I do now. I used to have actual honest work.Since our first daughter was born and my wife and I were writingTV, she said, “I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom.”I said to myself, “Sounds good.” And I decided to stayhome and do nothing but write novels. That’s worked out prettywell. I approach it the way anyone else will, at the moment whenone or the other of us takes the kids to school and the kids areout of the house, in the morning, then I sit down and start writing.Then I stop when either I or my wife has to get the first of thetwo kids. For a while, our time gets taken up by seeing how muchseventh grade algebra we can remember.
RB: You can remember any?
TP: Well, I can dredge up enough of it to help.I find that the older brother of one of my kid’s friends,who is in ninth grade, knows more about it than I do.
RB: It all seems so normal.
TP: Yeah, it is. It seems to me that the happiestlives are the most outwardly boring. You live this contented existencethat’s regular and relatively pleasant without any big upsets.
RB: I see you as a successful writer. When you socialize,when you meet people whom you don’t know and they ask youwhat you do, what do you say?
TP: I say I’m a writer.
RB: And they say?
TP: Usually they say, "What do you write?"Once in a while there will be somebody that has heard of me. Occasionallypeople will say rather thoughtlessly, “I’ve never heardof you.” And then I will answer something like, “I didn’tsay my books were any good.”
RB: You didn’t claim to be a good writer.
TP: That’s right. It doesn’t reallymatter very much.
RB: Has it always been the case since you becamea full-time, stay-at-home writer that you would say that you werea writer?
TP: Yeah. I had no other thing to say. Otherwise,I am hanging around the house all the time and it appears that Iam a drug dealer. Where does the money come from? Who’s payingthe tuition?
RB: There are accomplished writers who are uncomfortabletelling people that they are writers.
TP: Oh yeah. I never told people that until I hadnothing else to tell them. When I had other jobs I would tell themthat I was that. If I get something else going maybe I’lltell them that.
RB: If? You aren’t going to do anything else.
TP: That’s what I hope to do. I hope to writeuntil I croak. I hope that a manuscript will be four-fifths donein my computer when I die and my wife can write “The End”and hand it in.
RB: What do your kids think about the fact thatyou are a writer? Does it mean anything to them?
TP: They are very heavy readers. Both of them. Weare very lucky in that way because it solves a lot of problems.They are not terribly impressed. It’s partly because of theweirdness of living in Los Angeles. That is, they go to a privateschool and their classmates’ parents are people like JasonAlexander and Danny DeVito and the Van Halens and Kirstie Alleyand people like that who have very big, visible careers. Whereaswriters are mostly invisible and sit around and are in the way whenthey want to set their homework down. You don’t get a bettertable at a restaurant because your father is a writer.
RB: Is there a literary community in Los Angeles?
TP: Actually a fairly large group of mystery writersand there are lot of screenwriters—eight thousand people inthe Writer’s Guild…
RB: Screenwriters who are wannabe novelists…
TP: That’s absolutely true. A lot of themdo. When I was writing television people always used to say, "Whyon earth are you bothering to write television?" Who knowswhat the answer to that is? You do what you can do, which is fun.If it’s not fun you stop doing it.
RB: Are there good bookstores in Los Angeles besidesDutton’s?
TP: There are three Dutton’s. There is onein the Valley, which I think of as my Dutton’s because it'snear me. And there is the high-class-clientele Dutton’s inBrentwood (laughs) run by Doug Dutton. They are both really goodstores. There are others, Roman’s and Book Soup. In additionto some very good mystery bookstores, which are very good. Actuallyit is the biggest market for books in the country.
RB: That is based on?
TP: Number of books sold. Los Angeles County hasten million people now.
RB: Wow! Who would have thought it?
TP: Who would have thought it until you get outon the road.
RB: It’s peculiar that the biggest and perhapsbest book festival in the country is the one in Miami.
TP: The LA Times Book Festival is gettinghuge. It’s draws sixty thousand people now. The problem withit is that it is on a campus and now each of these events is ina lecture hall that holds maybe a hundred people. You have thousandsof people milling around on campus for 15 events that can accommodatemaybe fifteen hundred people, so the rest are marking time untilthey can get into an event they can get into.
RB: That’s a high-quality problem.
TP: Yeah, they have really good things going onand good people. It’s fun.
RB: Well, good, thanks.
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing