Bradley's Almanac

[Remembrance] Spenser author Robert B. Parker on his 80th birthday

Posted on September 17, 2012 at 7:40 am | 1 Comment

Cambridge-based writer Robert B. Parker, who passed away in early 2010, would have been 80 years old today. He died as he lived, sitting at his desk, no doubt working on his next story about mononymous Boston detective Spenser, or beleaguered Paradise police chief Jesse Stone, or maybe the next western in his Cole & Hitch series.

Parker became one of my favorite fiction writers the moment I finished the first (of 40) of his Spenser novels, “The Godwulf Manuscript”, originally published in 1973. I owe a great debt to University of Vermont English professor Sidney Poger, who assigned the book as part of his Detective Fiction course. Thanks to him, I developed an immediate RBP addiction, voraciously inhaling every available novel, often instead of the assigned reading from my other courses – it’s a miracle my freshman year GPA didn’t take a major hit. Apart from all the time I spent at campus radio station WRUV, I’m not sure what of real value I took from my UVM education – but a lifelong love of Robert B. Parker’s work is real enough.

In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Parker’s work, and his use of Boston as not just a setting but almost a character, is part of the reason I came to love and live in this town. While I’d already been coming down here from Vermont for a couple years to see my favorite bands, I remember very distinctly my first trip after my college Spenser binge, when I wandered down Marlborough Street, looking upwards to imagine where the detective’s fictional office was located. I’ve read new books in certain hotel bars where Spenser drank, walked streets he tailed suspects, imagined the now-cleaned-up Combat Zone as he used to see it. Parker’s love of the city and the surrounding areas drew me in, and as I followed Spenser’s adventures I always got a tiny little thrill when I knew exactly the area the action was happening in. To be reading on the Charles River as he describes the character passing your exact spot is pretty special.

As the world goes further digital, as friends are deciding which books to donate or sell to used bookstores, I’m looking at two shelves of Parker paperbacks and hardcovers that I’ll never let go of.

To mark Robert B. Parker’s 80th birthday, I’ve transcribed his March 27th, 2007 talk at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, during which he spoke and conducted an audience Q&A. He was there to debut an exhibit of his personal archives, which he’d donated to the Gotlieb Center, and which you can still access today. It’s a bittersweet appearance, as he reflects on his career and quips on growing older. When he speculated on going “to the great writer’s workshop in the sky”, no one in the room imagined it would be less than three years later.

Note: I didn’t catch the identity of the man who provided the Parker’s introduction, and an email to the Gotlieb went unanswered, so if anyone knows, please drop a note in the comments. Any other corrections are encouraged as well…

Introductory speaker: Tonight we’re pleased to have as our speaker, and guest of honor, a man acknowledged by many to be the “Dean of American Crime Fiction”, prolific mystery writer Mr. Robert Parker. He’s a Massachusetts native, he attended Colby College, and after serving in the army in Korea, he completed his PHD in English right here at Boston University. He was a professor of English at Northeastern, he also taught here, I believe, and his first novel, “The Godwulf Manuscript”, was published. It followed the wise-cracking, street-smart Boston private eye Spenser and spawned an immensely popular and critically acclaimed series of books chronicling Spenser’s escapades, as well as the television series Spenser, which was on ABC for 3 years, which is a long time in television. However, Spenser is just one of Mr. Parker’s protagonists – with “Night Passage” in 1997, Mr. Parker introduced Jesse Stone as a big city cop who became a small town police chief in Paradise, Massachusetts. His latest book in the Stone series, “High Profile”, was published just last month.

Mr. Parker’s masterful writing has transcended his own characters to those of other distinguished authors. His classic style so impressed the estate of the famed writing Raymond Chandler that in 1989 it asked him to complete “Poodle Springs”, and unfinished manuscript by Mr. Chandler. “Perchance To Dream”, Mr. Parker’s sequel to Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”, was published in 1991. Mr. Parker was named grand master of the 2002 Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of American, an honor bestowed previously on the great Alfred Hitchcock. Mr. Parker has two additional novels coming out this Spring, “Eatonville Owls, his first young adult novel, and “Spare Change”, the next installment in the Sunny Randall series.

Mr. Parker is joined by his wife Joan – is Joan here? Yeah, stand up, Joan…

(Joan Parker stands up – applause)

Joan is a former teacher at Tufts University and Endicott College. She worked for the State Department of Education where she was director of curriculum and instruction for 88 communities in the commonwealth. I was doing a little research on the internet and saw a cute little story about Joan – you never know about internet stories, but this is a good one – She was working as director of curriculum for the state and, I guess, moonlighting doing some work for Warner Bros. on a script, and both checks came in one day at the same time. And she looked at the Warner Bros. check and the state check and said “Duh”. Joan can tell us later if it’s a true story or not…

Anyway, Joan’s here, we’re very happy to have her… we’re very happy to have both of them here. So please welcome Mr. Robert Parker…

Robert B. Parker: I agree with everything he said, thank you very much (audience laughs). I always like it when Joan stands up and throughout the room they say “She’s married to him?!” That’s why I bring her… hah hah. Jess Cain (sp?) is here as well, he’s been feeding me material. And after you hear my own stuff you’ll wish I’d used it. But anyway, I am “The Dean of American Detective Stories”, and I am a Grand Master, and both of those things mean one simple fact – I’m old. You ever meet a young “Grand Master”? Ever meet a 31-year-old “Dean of the American Detective Story”? Nahh…

Anyway, as is my custom, I will make a few flattering remarks about myself and my career, and then I will take the microphone off the stand and invite questions from the audience. If there are no questions from the audience… we can all go get a drink. Or I can go get a drink.

Other than my presence here, the big news is that “Appaloosa”, which I wrote, has been greenlighted by New Line as a feature film starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson, and probably Jennifer Connelly * (applause). I was in line for the Jennifer Connelly role but they turned me down. There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, but “greenlight” is good.

[* note: The role would eventually go to Renée Zellweger.]

I was in L.A. last week with my son Dan, who is both an actor and a singer, and we are making an album called “Songs that Spenser Taught Me”, on which he does all the singing but one. Wait ’til this one comes out, friends. On one track we harmonize – we do a duet on “Moon River” – and I’m certainly hoping that digital technology can fix it. It’s an odd circumstance – I’m in a booth by myself, Dan is pre-recorded, the orchestra is already pre-recorded, Dan’s singing his harmony, and I’ve gotta sing in such a way that Dan’s harmony matches mine… sort of. They can fix it in the mix later. But it was an interesting experience – and it may be my breakout album. I may not have to do this anymore for the money.

Jesse Stone will be on CBS on May 20th, sweeps week, at 10 o’clock, starring the winner of the Robert B. Parker look-a-like contest, Tom Selleck. Selleck always finds that somewhat less amusing than I do. It’s a real experience to be 4 foot 4, 235 pounds, and to be walking around in public with Tom Selleck. People use me as a foot stool so they can stand there and shake his hand. Tom is 6-four or five, he’s a very big man, and as good looking as you think he is. Oh well. But is he talented? Yeah. So that’ll be on on the 20th of May, and the beat goes on. We are planning, for the foreseeable future, to do 3 books a year. I’m just now starting a sequel to “Appaloosa” – I’m not fool, they’re gonna make that movie. And as long as I can keep my wind, I’ll keep doing it.

That said, any questions you’d care to ask me? How does someone my age continue to stand upright?

Audience member (AUD): What’s Spenser’s first name?

RBP: Spenser’s first name is Seamus. Anyone else? (crowd laughs) I don’t know what his first name is… I’ve never thought it up. I don’t have it written on a piece of paper stuck with chewing gum to the bottom of my desk or anything. I don’t know… it’s just Spenser. And I have no intention of making one up and telling you. You will never know because I don’t know.

AUD: Do you write plot for the most part with a major character in mind – do you plot out of the characters who add to that or do you work back from the plot to the characters.

RBP: Oooooo… my chance to show off my PHD. (crowd laughs) Henry James once said “What is plot but the dramatization character, and what is character but the determinant of plot”. (crowd is impressed – RBP sings a bit of “Moon River…”). It’s character. I don’t make up the plot ahead of time, so if I was working from the plot I’d be in fairly deep trouble. I don’t know where I’m going when I start. I know Sammy Kahn, the great songwriter, was once asked “Where do you get your ideas for song?” and Sammy said “First there’s a phone call… then there’s a check.” (laughter) I’m under contract, I have… (microphone cuts out)

RBP: This wouldn’t have happened at Harvard. (laughter) Silver would never let me say I was from BU, I don’t know what that was all about. (tries to fix microphone) How does this sound? Too much technology… can you hear me? You’re the lucky ones in the back, if you can’t. So, wherever I was, and whatever I was talking about, I don’t have any idea where I’m going. That must be apparent by now. I write the first chapter, and then the second chapter grows out of the first and so forth. But primarily I’m interested in the characters and not the plot.

AUD: Did you do any prizefighting yourself?

RBP: No, I never was a prizefighter, but I am, interestingly enough, fighting now. I am going for the Geezerweight Championship of Cambridge (laughter). No, I have a trainer, he comes to the house, and we box twice a week. Don’t screw with me, pal. I grew up in New Bedford. That may have given me little opportunity to box or run, but no, I’ve never a professional boxer. With this face, are you kidding?

AUD: What do you find more difficult – writing books or screenplays, and why?

RBP: Oh, writing screenplays is infinitely more difficult because there’s 55 idiots in your way, at least. You write a screenplay and the costume designer’s girlfriend gets to have input on it. I was involved for the first six months or so on “Spenser: For Hire” in LA, working on scripts, and it was driving me crazy. I’d say “No, no, don’t do that, do something else,” and they’d say “What should I do?” and I’d say “I don’t know, do something else.” After awhile I realized they couldn’t do something else, that was all they could do, and then I realized there’s a reason why they’re… (microphone cuts out)

AUD: There’s a reason why they’re writing episodic television…

RBP: … you know, they just couldn’t… sex scenes were a shower. Transitions were car chases. They didn’t know what else to do. So I called up Joan after about six months of commuting – I’d go out on a Monday, come back on a Friday – and I called her up from LA and whined about how I didn’t like it. And she said “Well, why don’t you come home?”. I didn’t like to admit it, but I had never thought of that. Thank God she’s… we’ve been married now, we’re in our 51st year (applause). How come she looks so much better than I do. So I went home. Screenplays earn about a 10th as much money as novels, or at least my screenplays and my novels – I always make much more writing a novel than writing a screenplay. By the time you’re done screwing around with it you’ve spent as much time as you do on a novel, for about 1/10th the money. As for the story about Joan, well, duh, that’s a no brainer. But I don’t like it. I don’t like the whole business. So I don’t do it. But is it more difficult artistically? No. Can I write them as well as I can write novels? Probably, but I don’t like it. So they’re harder.

AUD: What if they brought in their own screenwriter?

RBP: Fine with me. If they’re going to get a script, they have to. I haven’t written a single thing in years that’s been on. All the Jesse Stone movies are written by others, not me. They can bring in their screenwriters as often and as frequently as they want to, and make it as bad as they care to. I’ve already taken the check and put it in the bank, Joan has taken it out and spent it.

AUD: I don’t want to take you off track of your writing, but I understand that your wife Joan is very active in community service, and you have a project coming up that will benefit community service, and if you could just explain how…

RBP: You do “shill” so good, Jess. (laughter) You were an actor, I remember. Yeah, in order to raise money for Community Servings, which feeds people suffering with serious and life-threatening diseases – hot food, delivered at home – there’s an annual auction Thursday night, an event called Life Saver, and at this auction one of the things you can buy is a book dedicated to you by me. I dedicate most of them to Joan, and all of them to somebody named Parker – Joan, my sons, and at least one to my parents, now long gone – and if you bid enough money, I’ll dedicate one to you. Did I get that right, Joan? Thank you very much. She exploits me so…

AUD: The inscription in “High Profile”, of Joan, brought tears to my wife’s eyes.

RBP: What’s it say? I’ve written 60 books, the pressure gets on at about 61.

AUD: “For Joan, whom the eyes of mortals have no right to see”.

RBP: That’s right. Stole it from a popular song (sings that line) You want me to sing more? Anyone want me to sing more? (clapping) Terrible audience. Yes, well, Joan is the girl of my dreams, and we’ve been together in thick and thin, for better or worse, since 1950. We celebrated our golden wedding anniversary last Fall… how did that happen? And Joan says she’s getting to like me. And what that could lead to, God only knows.

AUD: Tell us about Hawk.

RBP: Tell you about Hawk. Only if he agrees. Well, Hawk is, racial pun intended, the dark side of Spenser. When I did my doctoral dissertation here – well, I labored over the damn thing for two whole weeks. I know, it kills people – took me two weeks to write my doctoral dissertation. As Joan often says, “You’re not very good, but you’re quick!”. My doctoral dissertation was about the kind of subject matter that Leslie Fiedler – I’m in the University, I figure I can throw these names around – Leslie Fielder and RWB Lewis and other people, in that the relationship between the Caucasian protagonist and the non-Caucasian companion is a very deep running river of subject matter in American literature, both popular and serious – I’m not lumping myself into either of those categories. Y’know, Ishmael and Queequeg, Chingachgook & Natty Bumppo, Cosby & Culp, the Lone Ranger & Tonto, Huckleberry Finn & Jim, etcetera. That’s about all I’m gonna say about that, but that fact was in my head when I first started to come around with Hawk. He started out just to be a worthy adversary, then I found it worked to my advantage to do more. And so, here he is, and people like him.

AUD: Two questions if you would. The first is, would you consider Spenser cynical? The second is, how much is Susan Silverman based on Joan?

RBP: Would I consider Spenser cynical? Cynical, and idealistic at the same time. I think what he is is a realist. He looks out there and he sees what’s there, but that does not prevent him from trying to do as well as he can, and trying to make the best of it. Susan Silverman, if she improved greatly, might be like Joan. (crowd “awwwwws”) There’s no one-to-one equation. Joan’s not a shrink – she has a heavy caseload with me – and she’s not Jewish, and she’s not been married and divorced, and she has children. I do, too (crowd laughs). Certainly it’s fair to say that the most significant event in my life has been the relationship with Joan and it would be hard pressed to write a bunch of books about a guy who had no such relationship.

AUD: Is there something significant in Spenser choosing to drink Johnny Walker Blue?

RBP: Is there something significant in it? Yeah… they used to drink Dewars but then they got richer. No – there’s nothing significant other than it’s very expensive and I kind of like it. But if you were to take the books back from the year, say, 1973 when “The Godwulf Manuscript” came out – ’74 actually, came out in ’73 but is dated ’74 – y’know, the level of dining and drinking and activities has upgraded some since then, and that has been coincident with the increase in my income. I was teaching freshman English nights in university college here, I was eating much less well. There’s a serious question of if I ever taught anyone anything, but it was in a classroom.

AUD: What would it take for Susan and Spenser to get married?

RBP: I don’t know… maybe they will. I have no master plan. They are not married for two more books, because those are the books that are done and are “in the hopper” as they say. I mean, they aren’t the kinds of people who would get married, they’ve tried living together, and it just seems so far to feel better leaving them as they are. But I don’t guarantee that they won’t, or that they will – I don’t know. As they say, I don’t know what I’m doing.

AUD: Do you have a dog like Pearl?

RBP: I have a dog named Pearl, who is just like Pearl, yes. We’ve had three Pearls, and this is the third one. German short-haired pointer.

AUD: At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to write, what triggered your motivation, and especially the character of Spenser.

RBP: There was no point – I always wanted to write, since I was a little kid, probably, because I always had greater skill at it than most of the people I was associating with in the 4th grade (crowd laughter). But I was a good writer for a fourth grader, and I liked to read, my father used to read to me. I liked to say home, and be left alone – I hate working for people. And it all sort of came together. I was working in the advertising business at Prudential Insurance of America (mocks hitting his head with microphone) – if I had a piece of the rock I’d hit myself with it – and didn’t like it, but I had a wife and children to support – where was the woman’s movement when I needed it? And I had to work. I’m not someone who can write in little bits and pieces in my spare time, and finally it was Joan who talked me into it. She said “Why don’t you quit your job and go become a professor and you’d have a lot of time free to write?” Well, she was on the money with that, but I said, “I mean, well, I’d have to have a PHD and for God’s sake it’ll probably take me three years to get a PHD, so what am I going to do to support you?” And she said “Oh, well, do it anyway.” So I did, took me 9 years – slow learner – and my father chipped in, I had the GI Bill reinstated, I worked nine jobs, and we got through. I went on to become a professor at Northeastern University, and got tenure. When I first went to work there they told me my “load” – apt phrase – my teaching load was nine hours. I thought they meant “a day”. When I used to work at Raytheon or Curtis Wright Aircraft or Prudential Insurance Company of America (mocks hitting his head again), I often worked nine hours a day. There may be some people in this room who has sometimes or other in their life worked 9 hours a day. But no, it was a week – nine hours teaching a week. When I left, as a full professor, I was teaching fiction writing from 12-3 on Wednesdays. Joan said “What are you quitting for? You’re teaching fiction writing once a week on Wednesdays?” and I said “Yeah, but every Wednesday?” (crowd laughs) I was introduced once at an event not unlike this in Minneapolis, and I was introduced by a former student of mine, a reporter for the Minneapolis Star, and he said “I’m here to tell you that as a former student of Mr. Parkers, which is to say ‘self-educated’…” That’s about right. I was not Mr. Chips. I tried not to bother them, and I hoped they wouldn’t bother me. I found it easier to give them all As, then they wouldn’t come and annoy me about it. But I was typing away in there. I had a lot of time. When you’re teaching from 12-3 many Wednesdays, there’s a few minutes left over.

AUD: What are your thoughts that all the questions tonight are on Spenser?

RBP: I have no thoughts. I don’t think while I’m up here (crowd laughter)… I probably should. Well, he’s the one that most people are most familiar with, and that’s fine with me. All of that is irrelevant because at the end of day, we find out how many books we sold and how much money we make and who’s going to buy the rights, and… I do this for money. Somebody asked me once “Why do you sell the right to your books to Hollywood?” And I said “For money! What other possible reason would there be?! Oooo… I think they’re going to improve on it.” (crowd laughter) But, y’know, I do this for a living. I don’t think I would take money to stop, so if you were planning to take up a collection, it won’t work. But it is also something that supports us all. I have a son who is an actor, and a son who is a modern dance choreographer. Income still matters, (crowd laughter) and Spenser has been paying the rent for a long time. I assume that eventually, if and when I go to the great writer’s workshop in the sky, I’ll probably be known, if for anything, for Spenser. That’s fine… doesn’t matter to me. I either have so much ego it doesn’t matter, or I have no ego and it doesn’t matter. I’m not sure which.

AUD: What authors do you like to read?

RBP: I don’t read very much. I don’t have time. Also, there’s a kind of busman’s holiday aspect to it. I spend my day creating fiction, so I’m not so interested in reading other people’s fiction in my evenings. I do read non-fiction, some. I not so long ago read Jonathan Lear’s book on Freud and the classical philosophers called “Open Minded”. I didn’t understand that it would make such a great answer… (crowd laughs). I read some non-fiction stuff, including Lear, but I don’t read much fiction. Elmore Leonard is one of the two best alive today, and I read him whenever he has something I can read. But other than that, I don’t read much.

AUD: Do you find it challenging to age a physical character like Spenser?

RBP: Nope… I don’t. It’s mostly the hands. As I age, he ages. I mean, I don’t specify his age, because it’s hard to sell people on a 74 year old guy who jumps over fences and kicks in doors. Although it’s quite possible to have a sexy wife when that happens. And you still can box. But no, it just happens. I really don’t spend a lot of time on anything other than writing – I don’t outline, I don’t prepare. I don’t think about issues like how old is Spenser. I think about not mentioning his age. He fought Joe Walcott, how old does he gotta be? He likes Miles Davis and John Coltrane, y’know, he ain’t listening to Snoop Doggy Dogg. He was in Korea. So you can figure out his age, but I just don’t mention it, and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. I know that Rex Stout, one of my faves, the first novel came out in 1932, and Archie Goodwin was 32. Then during the 2nd World War he was a Major in intelligence, and when he came back from the war he was 32. It never bothered me, I don’t think it bothers people. So the aging is just as natural in the books as it is in life.

AUD: Who started studying dance first, your son or Paul?

RBP: My son, my son studied dance first. And my other son was an actor in the Boston Children’s Theatre. So I combined the skills, and… just as I couldn’t write a bunch of books about a guy who has no relationship with a remarkable woman, I needed to create… my sons are the other major fact of my life, and I couldn’t write about Spenser childless and single. So while he doesn’t have biological children, that he’s talking about, at least he has Paul, and I sort of merged things that they had both done. You write what you know about. I’ll never write about a chess tourney. I don’t know how to play chess. You’ll never get a book from me about chess playing. You can fake it but only so much, so you write what you got.

AUD: Before you hit upon Spenser, you must have experimented in your early writing days with different characters, different kind of stories, different writing forms…

RBP: I did everything wrong. The Godwulf Manuscript was the first full-length work of fiction I ever attempted, and in it I invented Spenser. And he has never been turned down since. I’ve never had a reject letter, I don’t think. Well, actually, I had one. Alice Turner, who at that time was the fiction editor at Playboy, a number of years ago, asked me for a short story and I said “I don’t do short stories, I have very little skill at it.” and she said “Oh, pshaw… we’ll pay you a zillion dollars and you can waltz with a bunny.” and I said “Ok, I’ll do it, on the condition that I don’t have to discuss philosophy with Hef.” And they stuck by that. But anyway, I wrote it, I sent it in, and they rejected it (chuckles), thus demonstrating the validity of my argument – I have no skill at short stories. Well, we don’t throw anything away, so it ended up in something called “Club Man”, or “Club”… something like that. Y’know, it was a nudie, a girly magazine, a cheap imitation of Playboy, and the story started on page 7 or something like that, and then the jump way into the back, where there was one column of story and one column of ads, and there was my story, and next to it was a full-column ad for crotchless mouse suits (crowd laughter). I didn’t get to show that one to mum. I’m not a mouse, but I can’t say what the value of a crotchless mouse suit would be, to tell you the truth. Joan refused to discuss it with me. Anyway, I have no rejections, I did no preparation other than to read Chandler and Hammett and a thousand pulp magazines in my youth, Black Mask, Dime Detective and so forth. It just sort of all came. The fact that my doctoral visitation included a section on the American private eye is far less meaningful than it would sound. I would have written the same book if I hadn’t done the PhD. I think the PhD was good, I think it was very valuable – in no concrete way – it didn’t teach me how to write. You have only to read a few doctoral dissertations to know that it doesn’t teach you how to write. Raymond Chandler once talked about what he felt was lacking in Hammett, and one of the things was that Hammett lacked the “sound of music beyond the hill.” Well, if I have any sound of music beyond the hill in my books, it comes from the extensive formal education. It gives me dimension that I might not otherwise have. It was a good PhD program, and I found it valuable, but it didn’t make me a writer.

AUD: Do you ever overhear something, like in a restaurant, that you might use in a book?

RBP: No, I don’t think so. I don’t do any of that stuff. When I was trying and failing badly to teach fiction writing, I failed either because the students were really bad, or… no, it was the students, it must have been (laughter). Anyway, I had kids who were running around with tape recorders listening to people talk, and taping it, and I said “Stop that! Don’t do that… dialog is not the way people talk.” Read a transcript of a trial, or tapes of things, people say “um, uh huh, ummm”… so, no, I mean, I use life, because as someone once said, what else are you gonna use? But I make no effort to find stories or use things that I’ve heard. I just make it all up.

AUD: Is Robert Parker your real name, and have you ever published under any other name.

RBP: It is my real name, Robert B. Parker. I just put B in because my father always used to sign his middle initial. Now I just sign my middle initial. I wish I hadn’t. It’s much more cumbersome to be “Robert B. Parker”. And no, I’ve never used a pseudonym. Anything with my name on it is mine. Except the wine books, they’re not mine. Works out well, though. We were in LA once, we had a house in LA for awhile when we were trying to storm the heights of Hollywood, and we had friends come out to visit us who had never been west of Worcester, so we wanted to give them something hip and swingin’ and Hollywood-ish. So we wanted to take them to Spago, on the strip, not the new Spago which is just a big restaurant, but the old Spago was great. So Joan called up and said “I’ve got Robert B. Parker in town with a party of 5 and he’d like a table by the window.” And there was a pause and the woman said “The wine guy?”, and I heard the love of my life, deny me thrice, say “Yeah, that’s right, the wine guy” (crowd laughter). Right by the window, five at a table. They kept bringing me stuff, and I was drinking beer.

AUD: There are certain books were you put your characters through an extreme level of struggle, or when something life-changing happens, like when Paul arrived, or when Spenser got shot… when do you decide you’re going to do something really major to one of your characters that will change things for the future?

RBP: One line before it happens. I don’t make those decisions. I cannot tell you how I do not plan, and how I just feel my way along. The closest I can come is sort of like a jazz musician improvising on a theme. Well, the theme is Spenser or Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall, or whatever else I may be doing. But, that’s it, and I, as it were, hear the music and I improvise it.

AUD: Why did you make Susan Silverman Jewish?

RBP: I don’t know, seemed like a good idea at the time? I suppose I was doing my “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” thing, y’know, a Jewish girl, a black friend. It just was something interesting about her. And so she was. And it gives you material for years afterwards to play with.

AUD: Do you have a dog named Rosie?

RBP: We had a dog named Rosie who has recently departed. And we still have Pearl.

AUD: Your Irish-American characters are so well-drawn, what are you able to draw on to write them so well?

RBP: (sings) “‘Coz there’s something in you Irish…” My mother’s maiden name was Mary… Murphy. My grandmother came from Cork, her name was Mary Brown Kenneally. And then my mother married out of the faith, and all Hell broke loose. But yeah, I’m half Irish. The Irish clan was much bigger than my father’s Yankee Belfast, Maine clan, so I mostly think of myself as Irish. I think we have time for one more question…

AUD: You were born at the height of the Depression…

RBP: Probably caused it. (crowd laughs)

AUD: … does that give your writing a sensitivity towards people who live like rock stars, and so forth?

RBP: I don’t think so. I remember the times – my father had a job with the phone company, and he kept it through the Depression. He took a pay cut, but we were not living in shanty towns or anything. And I remember the WPA and all that. But I don’t feel that it had the kind of impact on me that one might have thought. Whatever impacts have been mostly psychological, and mostly from my mum. (sings) “Did you mother come from Ireland…”

RBP: So I’m going to say thank you very much now, and I think I’m going to be back there signing books until I drop. Thank you… (crowd applause)


One Response to “[Remembrance] Spenser author Robert B. Parker on his 80th birthday”

  1. L
    November 2nd, 2012 @ 3:56 pm

    This must have taken you HOURS to transcribe. Very enjoyable read. He’s quite a character. (By the way, his son is a fine and imaginative dancer. Quite clever). Thanks for this.

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