Thomas Perry

Thomas PerryThomas Perry was born in Tonawanda, New York, attended Cornell University and received a PhD 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 book—then 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 and in the Buffalo area. One of the things that has happened is that the Allegheny Senecas and the Seneca Nation have managed to open a casino in what used to the Niagara Falls Convention Center. That was an issue with Senecas, and it’s a big deal, and it will be interesting to see if there will be changes to report because of that.

RB: It’s your plan to return to the Jane Whitfield character?

TP: Yeah, it is.

RB: Sporadically?

TP: It’s hard to tell. At some point I want to do it and people keep asking me whether I will. And urging me to do it. But I don’t want to have something that is a trivial change—it’s just volume number six, out of what potentially could be fifty volumes. I want something that’s interesting, 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 write one book in which there would be a female protagonist. I wanted to see if I knew how to do it. And if I couldn’t, I wanted to learn how to do it. And then when I was finished with Vanishing Act I felt I wasn’t finished with the character. So I wrote Dance for the Dead. And then as I was finishing that I got a call from my editor, the late Joe Fox, and he said, “How’d you like to make it five?” So, having sworn never to write a series, I said, “Oh sure, I’d love to.”

RB: You no doubt had your fingers crossed.

And so it's fun to do a series, but it's 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.

TP: That’s right. So I wrote the five and by that time I had a back up of ideas of things that I wanted to write that I couldn’t write while I was doing the series.

RB: Let’s go back to what you said about becoming a better writer. There seems to be an ebb and flow of judgment about the quality of genre writers. With regularity there are big touts of Elmore Leonard claiming that he has risen above genre…When you are doing a series, you are limiting yourself in that it has all the things that critics claim about genre. It’s easier; there is not a lot of ground breaking because you have a lot givens already present; the scaffolding of the story is already there.

TP: And you are not making your readers work very hard. What’s going on is that you are building a group of people who really want to know what the next thing is about that character. I’m sure that’s a wise thing to do in terms of paying your kid’s tuition, but it’s not a good thing to 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 present in Dead Aim is your great attention to detail and the subtlety of how you present it. In this book, there is a scene where the protagonist is trying to gain entry to the camp of the villains. And he is looking at the fence that surrounds it and he recalls that there must be a weakness in the fence based on his experience with the work habits of laborers who put fences up. That away from the entrance there must be a point where they didn’t dig the posts deeply enough and he goes on to find the fence’s Achilles heel. You do that sort of thing with great frequency especially in the area of identity theft…Were you ever a contractor?

TP: No, but I was one of those people who had the misfortune of living in a 1935 house with 1935 wiring and plumbing and all that stuff. So I have had extensive dealing with contractors. I just listen to people. I talk to people and listen to what they have to tell me. Also, I am a shameless eavesdropper. When I am wandering around on these tours in hotels, I am sitting around listening to conversations at other tables, all the time. Everywhere I go. And one of the things that having kids does for you is that you meet parents who are in things that you don’t know anything about and if you pay attention to what they say you learn incredible things.

RB: Dead Aim is the second novel since you suspended the Jane Whitehead series?

TP: It’s the third. The first was called Death Benefits. It was about two insurance investigators. The second one was Pursuit, which is about a hired killer and someone who specializes in finding those kind of people. This one is the third and I am just about done with another book.

RB: Having written thirteen books, has writing gotten easier in any way? Do you sit down to write with confidence?

TP: No, certain things get easier. Part of all this stuff is fooling yourself. You have to convince yourself of the illusion of progress. You have to imagine that you are getting better all the time. And you have to have everything that you do contribute to that. So it’s possible to get—not necessarily better—every time you write a book you know how to do one thing that you didn’t know how to do before. And in a way that gives you a wider range but it also [good] just for your day to day life—you learn how to comfortably continue writing a particular story. I feel fewer moments of despair during the process.

thomas perryRB: 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 keep thinking about it, it’s going to work.” Or if I keep rewriting it over and over again eventually there will be something that I feel satisfied with. I don’t feel like a terrible failure every minute. I do reserve those moments for the end of the manuscript.

RB: I was talking to the McPhee sisters—they 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’s your best friend. If you observe other people, this is of course, never observable in yourself. But if you observe other people, the moment when they are at their worst is the moment when they feel the most confident. They stop questioning themselves and stop realizing that this isn’t working or that everything that they do doesn’t necessarily work.

RB: I don’t follow that, “The moment that they are at their worst they are the most confident”?

TP: Yeah, I think that. Your ego is what kills you and so you have to try to kill it first.

RB: (laughs)

TP: If you have success either too easily or too early, everything after that is murder. If you can never get to be as successful as you want to be, ego begins to defend itself by denigrating 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 together a scary group of psychopaths.

TP: (laughs)

RB: Committing great havoc and they seem to be a departure from the killers in your previous books, because there was something sympathetic about them. This group seems to be simply thrill killing. Most of them…

TP: Right, most of them are. It’s just something…what you are doing in the case of a thriller is you want to subject your protagonist to a challenge which will not only make him afraid—pick a nightmare for him—here it’s a paranoid nightmare because he’s in a situation that the police aren’t able to do anything for him. And aren’t really sure that he hasn’t lost his mind. That’s one side of it. You want to also challenge or give him something to think about philosophically. In the case of Robert Mallon, what I am doing is taking a guy who is pretty much through with his life. He’s sort of tired of it and he doesn’t know what to do with himself and he’s letting it 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 to do in having him trying to convince this girl to live and trying to find out why she had to commit suicide, is to begin to think about how precious life really is. And then when he finally has this terrible challenge, he thinks life is valuable because he has had 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 evidence of intelligence and a survival instinct.

I just listen to people. I talk to people and listen to what they have to tell me. Also, I am a shameless eavesdropper. When I am wandering around on these tours in hotels, I am sitting around listening to conversations at other tables, all the time. Everywhere I go.

TP: No, he’s being passive and living his life in an uninspired way. The thing that is necessary for him to become the best that he can be is to be threatened.

RB: How much are you affected by the violence that’s necessary in these kind of novels? Is it real to you?

TP: I try to make it real in the sense that I try to make it realistic. That is, things happen the way they really would happen. And also they are horribly unpleasant. One of 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 have somebody die who is a genuine sympathetic well-rounded character. Somebody really die. Death is not a joke. It’s not a little thing. It’s not a funny thing. There is a temptation on the part 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 out on the ground so that people know that this is real, a big deal to kill somebody. When I write something violent, afterwards, I am depressed. It depresses me. What I am trying to do is have other people affected by it in the same way I am. That is, both to be afraid and then to be sad about it. I am not sure why I write about violence except that there are certain things about people who are involved in those situations that I admire very much. People who display a lot of courage, for instance, or people who are very cunning.

RB: There is a hyper reality or perhaps heightened reality about life-and-death situations. Criminal situations bring out the qualities that you are talking about, which makes it interesting for everyone.

TP: Yeah. Well in a way the things that are said are true—a bigger dose of life in a smaller space. That’s part of what I want to do with it. Also, it entails writing about people who are not necessarily paragons of virtue. A lot of the virtues 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 in the same genre that I write in. Occasionally I give in. There are certain people I like very much and if I get a chance and can’t resist—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 not read, what else?

TP: I usually find myself reading a lot of non-fiction that 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 Atlantic and The New Yorker. And whatever else.

RB: I usually sit around pissing about the sad state of magazines. Those are about the only three to read. After that they are all about shopping and eating.

TP: Yeah, I know. But see, shopping and eating are things that you write about. (both laugh) And so I try to find out what people are interested in, what they are doing.

RB: Have I missed something? Have any of your books been made into movies?

TP: No.

RB: My god!

TP: My books go directly to…they are made into scripts and then are given a decent burial somewhere on the studio’s grounds.

thomas perryRB: (laughs)

TP: There is always some attempt going on to make them into movies.

RB: Are they all in the blessed state of option?

TP: Not all, at the moment. All the Jane Whitfields are tied up.

RB: Isn’t it the case that if someone has one, they have them all, since they basically own the character?

TP: Yeah, that’s true. And there is always some interest in these things and the movie is always just around the corner. Like prosperity.

RB: Alan Furst seems to share similar experiences with you. He wonders how any movies ever get made.

TP: In a way I don’t really think about it much anymore. My first book, The Butcher’s Boy, was in option continuously for 18 years. It was never out of option. There are studios that don’t exist anymore that had these things. At some point every working screenwriter in Hollywood has a bad script for one or another of my books. Which is why they all hate me. So, I don’t know.

RB: I’m not seeing the connection. They write bad 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 just doesn’t work out. It’s partly an obvious problem. Most of my main characters spend most of their time alone. And when they are not alone, whatever they say aloud is a lie. So, it’s confusing and very difficult to make a movie out of that. You have to invent some bogus character who is going to be the interlocutor. That’s one thing. And very often you have to soften who the protagonist because he is amoral or something. Or has some other minor drawback.

RB: Has being amoral stood in the way of anyone in Hollywood?

TP: Sometimes it has. Sometimes they tend to clean ‘em up a little bit...It’s hard to do.

RB: I just read a terrific book set in Hollywood against the background of movie making, Man Eater, by the pseudonymous Ray Shannon. An up-and-coming female film producer who interferes with a sociopathic, drug-dealing enforcer’s assault on a prostitute. Thereby earning his enmity and she is helped out by an ex-con who, of course, has a screenplay about his prison experience 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 to happen in those situations. Michael Tolkin’s The Player got made. That’s as accurate as anything I have ever seen about Hollywood. That was like a day in my working life when I was involved in that stuff. That’s what it looks like.

RB: The author of Man Eater was interviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and castigated the book industry for adopting marketing and creative decisions from the film industry.

TP: Everything in the world really operates on individuals and character and personalities. In any one of these situations it just depends on who is sitting in that chair this week.

RB: Well, publishing is as arbitrary as anything.

Everything in the world really operates on individuals and character and personalities. In any one of these situations it just depends on who is sitting in that chair this week.

TP: Yeah. That’s why I can’t really tell or make a generalization about it. When my wife and I worked in television, which is supposed to be the most venal thing imaginable, people were really intelligent and nice. They were generous and taught us how to do things. Almost anything you can imagine was pretty good. My experience with people in publishing has been about the same. People have been kind and polite and thoughtful and haven’t asked me to change anything to make it more commercial or anything of that sort. They do make suggestions sometimes.

RB: You’ve been at Random House for a while now?

TP: And before that there were other good people. Suzanne Kirk at Scribner's was the person who published my very first book. And she is still around. I saw this list of the 100 Favorite Mysteries that were chosen by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. I happened to be in Scottsdale when she was there with John Dunning, who was one of their authors, and we are sitting there and we are talking and we realized a third of them had been edited by Suzanne. My editor, Kate Medina, doesn’t have any other authors that are like me at all. She is able to sit down and talk to me intelligently about anything.

RB: Does the writer-editor relationship have to do with content or personal chemistry?

TP: I’m a believer in expertise. Certain people know what they are talking about and other people don’t. I have always been pretty lucky finding people or having them stumble across me. I haven’t had any of the horror stories. It’s all been pretty good for me.

RB: Well, you sell books and you may be a case of not fixing what isn’t broken.

TP: That isn’t what everybody reports in the industry. Some people run into editors who are not so good. I have received manuscripts that some editor will have sent me and ask for a blurb. And it will be the edited manuscript—the editor has been through it and made all their marks. There are maybe four or five marks on the entire manuscript and there are still grammatical errors and really unfortunate howlers. Just terrible things, and so I feel like taking out my own red pencil and that's giving this person some help because his editor isn’t doing his job. That hasn’t been true of me at all. They [Random House] really have real honest-to-goodness editors and honest-to-goodness copy editors. People who will read the things and say “Is this true? Is it really fifty miles between Tampa and Sarasota?”

RB: The American penchant for fact checking seems like the right thing to do.

TP: I love it. I think it’s wonderful.

RB: Although I don’t know what higher value is being represented.

TP: It isn’t a fictional issue but you want to get it right. You want it to be—we’re living in a realistic age—and I want it to be right. And sometimes that help is really welcome. There is a woman who has been the actual line copy editor on the last five of my books, Bonnie—I have no idea what her last name is, she’s terrific. It’s also possible for someone who is a very skillful copy editor to be too heavy handed and begin doing things like changing the way people speak or something. That’s not a good idea. She’s not like that.

RB: Do you fall into the camp of writers who is happy to have things eternally optioned?

TP: I would like an enormous big fat paycheck that they 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 happen in about 1983. The Jane Whitefields are optioned for Paramount by Mark Gordon, who is a good producer. He and his people have been great and polite about everything and every once in a while they will invite me to a meeting or something and let me know what’s going on. And sometimes they ask me to meet with the screenwriter and we’ll sit around and talk about it. I hope they get it done.

RB: From what I have gleaned in these conversations, It would seem that movies get made these days based on cast, on stars?

TP: To some extent, that’s true.

RB: Has any actor optioned anything that you have written?

TP: It came very close, a few years ago. (chuckles) His people were negotiating for an option. Honestly, this is the truth. The person said at the end of the negotiations that the actor had changed his mind and decided instead to buy a house in Santa Fe. (both laugh) I thought to myself, "If that’s what they were going to offer. I would have liked that." I would have bought the house in Santa Fe too. No, usually it’s been producers and the money comes from the studio. Then they go about the 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 easy to option things and to begin to develop but it’s an enormous expense to make a movie. I can’t blame anybody for not giving these things a green light.

RB: Do you have some names for who might play Jane Whitfield.

TP: Halle Berry had been interested in doing it and Lee Tamahori the director who directed her in the last James Bond movie. I have no idea whether that’s ever going to come to anything or not. I don’t know whether they have a script that’s ready or not or what her schedule is or anything. I now know what I read in the trades and that’s about it.

thomas perryRB: Where do you place yourself in your writing career? Mid-career? Golden years?

TP: I’m just a baby. This is one of those questions that reminds me of the problem of losing my hair.

RB: (laughs heartily)

TP: I looked in the mirror one day and I thought to myself, “My god, it’s premature hair loss.” And then I remembered how old I was and then I realized it wasn’t premature. I’m at the point now where my copies of The Butcher’s Boy and Metzger’s Dogs are beginning to 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 Boy went for $1500. One that actually sold.

RB: Wow! Were there rumors of an untimely death?

TP: They must have seen me (both laugh). It’s interesting that next June both of those are coming out again as Random House trade paperbacks. The Butcher’s Boy will have an introduction by Michael Connelly and Metzger’s Dog will have one by Carl Hiaasen.

RB: That’s a good approach to upgrading paperback editions. Whose idea was it?

TP: I think it was my agent, Robert Lescher, who thought of it. The only justification for publishing a 23-year-old novel is if they were good or a classic. And you wouldn’t know that unless somebody wrote about it.

RB: Do you know Hiaasen and Connelly? Do you go to mystery writer conclaves?

TP: There are conventions. I met Michael at the birthday party of the Mystery bookstore in Los Angeles. Shelly has a birthday party every year for her store and I met Michael there. I’ve never met Carl Hiaasen, but I have always thought his work was good. It feels good to have somebody good write an introduction.

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 people will get one made.

RB: Clint Eastwood made Blood Work [and is doing Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River] and I think Demi Moore made Strip Tease happen… How far ahead do you think about what you are going to write? What you want to do? Will you be writing the rest of your life?

TP: Yeah. Even if things aren’t published any more I’ll go back to doing what I did before they were published, which is writing just for my own amusement and the amusement of 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 always did it and when I wrote for fun, I had fun. I had nothing to complain about.

RB: Is it still fun?

TP: Yeah it is. It’s enormous fun. Even this part of it is fun. It’s all fun. Writing is terrific. The only part that isn’t fun is going back and trying to fix something that you wanted desperately to have work and it didn’t. Rewriting a section of a book for the fifth time begins to not be fun.

RB: Some writers say they like the rewriting more than 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 but have no obvious commercial potential and therefore your publisher may demur?

TP: If there is something I really want to write about, I’ll write about it and the publisher will either say yes or no. I don’t know that either I or even they would know whether something was commercial or not. If you look at the range of things that have been enormous successes. Do you think the Harry Potter books would have been published by Scholastic with no competition from the rest of the industry if anybody had known those were going to be that hot?

RB: People still do make those decisions.

I hope to write until I croak. I hope that a manuscript will be four-fifths done in my computer when I die and my wife can write “The End” and hand it in.

TP: It’s true the problem is that it is unpredictable. And maybe that’s not a problem, maybe that’s a good thing? The matrix or mix of things doesn’t get limited by 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. Psychiatrists would not be allowed to do what they do except for the fact that it is so necessary that they do it. It’s a science that’s not ready. The FDA would not approve it except that we need it so bad. We need somebody to be doing that. That’s the way it is with editors too.

RB: That would be perhaps why we have critics? There is so much out there that’s is a demand for someone to be an arbiter.

TP: Yeah, that’s true. To the extent that they perform the consumer-reports function for society. That is, that they say, "This is pretty good, why don’t you try it?" And "This is bad for your health why don’t you just forget this one?” Then it’s useful. Although you do get burned unfairly. Sometimes you get criticisms that are insane. What I hate is when they get repeated.

RB: Last week I read a review of a new Joni Mitchell recording by John Rockwell in NYT and of course he’s an old Joni Mitchell fan and we're told that he lived down the road from her in Laurel Canyon in the ’70s. But the horrible thing was that he concluded that if you were really a fan of hers you would be better off going to see John Kelly, some Joni Mitchell impersonator/imitator. I was horrified.

TP: That’s typical. Sometimes they blow it. Sometimes the same critic who gave you a wonderful break and a real push on your last book will say something terrible about your next book. And then a book later they will be saying nice things. You just have to deal with the luck of the draw. That’s part of playing the game.

RB: Do you read reviews?

TP: Yeah, I do. I read the NYT Book Review and see what there is out there. You have to have some way of sorting your way through the fifty thousand books that are published every year. You can’t know all that. It helps and gives you a sense of what everybody is doing.

RB: I can’t read reviews except if I find a reviewer’s/writer’s point of view interesting. In a moment of distraction I read a review of Elmore Leonard’s new story collection. There was a lot I didn’t like about it, but I was enraged by the arrogance of this conclusion, "My Christmas wish this year was that when Cormac McCarthy, Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison, to name but three, looked under their trees, they found that some kind soul had been thoughtful enough to send them a copy of Elmore Leonard's latest."

TP: Yeah, I saw that.

RB: The reviewer was giving writing advice using Dutch Leonard as a surrogate.

TP: That really is unfair.

RB: Who needs to read that kind cynical glib intellectually dishonest stuff? Maybe its an irreducible problem that there are thousands and thousands of books, this huge bath of information that we are in and we want someone to say here’s the top ten or…

TP: Or some notion of what’s likely to be a waste of time. There also is that problem that you just pointed out where every once in a while you will think of some clever thing to say and you just can’t resist putting it down. It’s the clever insult. It takes a certain amount of wisdom in a critic to resist doing that.

RB: Or decency and respect for the efforts.

TP: Maybe.

RB: In Mr. Saturday Night Billy Crystal plays a stand up comedian and the story follows him into old age. His brother has been his manager until late in his career. They have a falling out for a while and the brother comes back and at one point, screws something up. And the Crystal character berates him, saying, “Wasn’t I right? See, see. I was right all the time.” And the brother responds, “Yeah but you didn’t have to be so mean about it.”

TP: Yeah.

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 writing TV, she said, “I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom.” I said to myself, “Sounds good.” And I decided to stay home and do nothing but write novels. That’s worked out pretty well. I approach it the way anyone else will, at the moment when one or the other of us takes the kids to school and the kids are out 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 the two kids. For a while, our time gets taken up by seeing how much seventh 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 happiest lives are the most outwardly boring. You live this contented existence that’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 you what 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. Occasionally people will say rather thoughtlessly, “I’ve never heard of you.” And then I will answer something like, “I didn’t say my books were any good.”

RB: You didn’t claim to be a good writer.

TP: That’s right. It doesn’t really matter very much.

RB: Has it always been the case since you became a full-time, stay-at-home writer that you would say that you were a writer?

TP: Yeah. I had no other thing to say. Otherwise, I am hanging around the house all the time and it appears that I am a drug dealer. Where does the money come from? Who’s paying the tuition?

RB: There are accomplished writers who are uncomfortable telling people that they are writers.

TP: Oh yeah. I never told people that until I had nothing else to tell them. When I had other jobs I would tell them that I was that. If I get something else going maybe I’ll tell them that.

RB: If? You aren’t going to do anything else.

TP: That’s what I hope to do. I hope to write until I croak. I hope that a manuscript will be four-fifths done in 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 that you are a writer? Does it mean anything to them?

TP: They are very heavy readers. Both of them. We are very lucky in that way because it solves a lot of problems. They are not terribly impressed. It’s partly because of the weirdness of living in Los Angeles. That is, they go to a private school and their classmates’ parents are people like Jason Alexander and Danny DeVito and the Van Halens and Kirstie Alley and people like that who have very big, visible careers. Whereas writers are mostly invisible and sit around and are in the way when they want to set their homework down. You don’t get a better table 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 writers and there are lot of screenwriters—eight thousand people in the Writer’s Guild…

RB: Screenwriters who are wannabe novelists…

TP: That’s absolutely true. A lot of them do. When I was writing television people always used to say, "Why on earth are you bothering to write television?" Who knows what 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 besides Dutton’s?

TP: There are three Dutton’s. There is one in the Valley, which I think of as my Dutton’s because it's near me. And there is the high-class-clientele Dutton’s in Brentwood (laughs) run by Doug Dutton. They are both really good stores. There are others, Roman’s and Book Soup. In addition to some very good mystery bookstores, which are very good. Actually it is the biggest market for books in the country.

RB: That is based on?

TP: Number of books sold. Los Angeles County has ten million people now.

RB: Wow! Who would have thought it?

TP: Who would have thought it until you get out on the road.

RB: It’s peculiar that the biggest and perhaps best book festival in the country is the one in Miami.

TP: The LA Times Book Festival is getting huge. It draws sixty thousand people now. The problem with it is that it is on a campus and now each of these events is in a lecture hall that holds maybe a hundred people. You have thousands of people milling around on campus for 15 events that can accommodate maybe fifteen hundred people, so the rest are marking time until they can get into an event they can get into.

RB: That’s a high-quality problem.

TP: Yeah, they have really good things going on and good people. It’s fun.

RB: Well, good, thanks.

TP: Yeah.

Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum

All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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