Donald E. Westlake, 1933-2008

westlake1Donald E. Westlake, mystery writer, died on New Year’s Eve, 2008. There are obituaries, interviews and reminiscences all over the place, but luckily for us they have been collected and collated by Sarah Weinmann at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind in her usual thorough way. Westlake wrote 100 novels under several different names, and was also a screenwriter, most famously adapting Jim Thompson’s great novel The Grifters in 1990. My favourites are the novels written as Richard Stark. Start with The Hunter (1962) which became the movie Point Blank. The writing is perfectly paced and as tough as it needs to be.

This wonderful photograph by Laurie Roberts of Westlake at his desk comes from the excellent book Behind the Mysteries: Top Mystery Writers Interviewed by Stuart Kaminsky and Photographed by Laurie Roberts. The Smith Corona typewriter is something of a Westlake trademark and seems to be more of a collaborator than a tool. Westlake was a typewriter collector.

Stories from the City

design by Eno.
design by Eno.

I have a piece on crime and Liverpool in Stories from the City, a collection of new writing about the city: past, present and future. My piece looks a the differences between gangsters and legitimate business and speculates about the causes of criminality in Liverpool.

Written, designed, edited and produced locally and independently, Stories from the City launches next week (on December 3rd) and will have its first 800 copies distributed free across Liverpool as a gift by its publishers, Redwood, for 2008. It includes writing by Shane Gladstone, Kath McKay, John Parker, Michael Sellars, Joe Shooman, George Skelly, THIS WIRED GOD, Kenn Taylor, Maxwell Turpin and Tony Walsh. And me.

Stories from the City is an antidote to the avalanche of self-congratulatory crap that the city has produced in its Capital of Culture year. The writers within are interested in the only questions that matter: how we got to be here, in this place, at this time, and what it means to be alive in this city on this earth. Read, think, support. Liverpool needs work like this; it always has and always will. That there are people willing, even eager, to take such risks is to be praised.”
Niall Griffiths, award-winning Liverpool-born author

“A great book and a celebration of Liverpool’s greatest natural asset, namely language. This city loves words – we cherish them like connoisseurs and spend them like drunken sailors.”
Paul Du Noyer, Associate Editor of The Word, former editor of Q and Mojo and author of Liverpool: Wondrous Place.

Redwood is a Liverpool-based printing services and creative solutions company. It is the one of only a handful of printers across the UK to hold full environmental accreditation for both FSC and PEFC. Redwood act as publisher for a small range of titles and limit themselves to publications raising social awareness or promoting the arts.

Stories from the City is an independent creative collective founded by journalists Kenn Taylor (Flux, NME, The Big Issue) and Shane Gladstone (Dazed and Confused, Clash, Mercy) to undertake an open-submission creative writing project about Liverpool for 2008.

For any further press enquires about the Stories from the City project please contact: liverpoolmagazine<A T >gmail.com

For further enquires about Redwood please contact claire < A T > redwoodltd.co.uk

Stories from the City

ISBN Number: 978-0-9560557-3 Price: £5.95

White Whales and Wooden Ships

Gregory Peck bites off more than he can chew

There is a great story over at Wired about the whaling ship Essex, which in 1820 was rammed and sunk by a Sperm Whale somewhere in the Pacific. This is the story that partly inspired Melville to write Moby Dick a book everyone should read at least once. Melville of course was a seaman on several whale ships and stories like this would have circulated among his fellow crewmembers. One of the best things about Moby Dick is the way Melville blends the mechanics and science of whaling and whales with their mythic power. The real story of the Essex is fantastical in itself, but Melville’s novel turns the whale into a force beyond nature. From the article:

The ship’s three remaining whaleboats — one had been destroyed by a whale’s flukes during an earlier hunt — were dispatched for the kill. As the harpooning began, First Mate Owen Chase, commanding one of the whaleboats, looked back and saw a large sperm whale, which he estimated at 85 feet, approaching the Essex.

As he watched helplessly, the whale propelled itself into the ship with great force. Some crewmen on board were knocked off their feet by the collision, and Chase watched in disbelief as the whale drew back and rammed the ship again. This time the Essex was holed below the waterline, and doomed.

The crew organized what provisions they could and two days later abandoned ship aboard the three whaleboats. Twenty men left the Essex. Eight would ultimately survive the harrowing ordeal that played out over the next three months.

Here’s the link to the story, which comes with an excellent slideshow entitled ‘The Creatures That Ate Hollywood’.

Here’s my take on Melville’s novel.

Reader Magazine 32: Milton and Hammett

I received in the post this morning a copy of issue 32 of The Reader magazine. It’s always been good, but The Reader is going through a really great period at the moment. Not only is it attracting some big names–Andrew Motion, Adam Phillips, Marilynne Robinson and Ian McMillan in this issue for instance–but has work by lesser-known writers as well as reviews and recommendations. Its poetry selections are especially good.

The range of the magazine these days is also impressively wide. Angie Macmillan, one of the magazine’s founders, included a note with my copy saying “I love working on a mag that can accommodate Milton and Dashiell Hammett.” Amen to that. The Hammett, incidentally, comes in the form of an article by me on the Flitcraft Parable, and a piece by Fred Zackel on the writing of The Maltese Falcon; it’s been a pleasure working with Fred on this. I’ll be posting my Hammett article here soon. My Hammett article is right here.

Making Space: My Olympia Traveller Deluxe S

Over at the Huffington Post Sophie Keller gives the following advice:

“Tip 1: Have less stuff! It’s true that some creatives thrive in a messy environment, but they really are in the minority. Most of us need to clear up our clutter. I have always been of the mind that if you haven’t used something in the last 6 months or year at the most, then get rid of it.” via

In the last month or so I’ve been having a clearout too. Alan Bennett’s papers may have been deposited at the Bodleian, where they belong, but mine have also found their place, at the local tip. In all about eight feet of shelf-space, dating back to the mid-1980s: all my undergraduate essays, PhD notes and research, early articles, research and manuscripts for books, and writing of all kinds. I discovered that once upon a time I wrote quite a lot of poetry of extremely poor quality. I hadn’t looked at any of it it for years–perhaps two decades–and I’m never going to again. Besides the papers, the volume of junk was extraordinary. Who wants a broken radio, covered in emulsion paint, that was cheap and nasty when it was new, in 1983?

There was a lot of junk, but in amongst it there was some lovely stuff, such as the typewriter in the picture. It’s an Olympia Traveller Deluxe S. Look at the styling: the squared-off modern lines, the contrasting colours. It tries its best to be an up-to-the-minute piece of technology. It’s essentially a 1960s design but it’s trying to fit in with the gently humming IBM clones and Macintoshes of the 1980s. These were the dying days of typewriters and this is one of the last. I think it’s beautiful.

I bought the typewriter as an undergraduate in 1986, by which time its days were already numbered. I’ve always had terrible handwriting and I thought that my grades would improve if I started typing out my essays. I was right. It cost me £35 and although it is heavy its great advantage over any of the computers available at the time was that it was genuinely portable. I used it all the way though my undergraduate years and kept using it as a cash-strapped post-graduate until around 1992. By then I was already using computers some of the time, but I typed three drafts of my MA dissertation on Joseph Heller–a total of 60,000 words–on that machine. The arrival of large numbers of public access PCs in university libraries put a stop to it, but it is worth noting that although I was able to read the drafts typed on my old Olympia before I threw them away, the floppy disks I used in the early 1990s, which hold my writing from that period, have long since stopped working.

So a week or so ago I brought the old typewriter down from the loft and put it on the table in the sitting room. I took off the protective cover and slipped a piece of A4 into the carriage. It was surprising how familiar and normal it felt. I wound the paper into position and hit a key. It hurt my finger and I didn’t hit it hard enough, but after nearly 18 years of neglect the ribbon still had enough ink in it to leave a mark. My four year-old daughter couldn’t believe her eyes. She’s had her own user account on our home PC since she was old enough to sit up and bash the keyboard with her fists and is happy now to login with her name and password. She thinks that when you click the ‘Print’ icon a printer in another room comes to life and out come words and pictures for her to colour in. On this thing she’s hardly strong enough to leave the shadow of a letter on the paper. She’s fascinated.

There is more junk to go, but the typewriter is going to stay. I don’t know if I will use it. There seem to be ribbons available still–yes, I already looked–and with some oil and a good clean this machine will be in perfect condition. It seems mechanically sound despite being filthy, but you can see how much I used it from the way the paint has worn away next to the space bar. The sensation of pressing the keys and seeing things move is quite magical, but it is also a reminder of how much slower life must have been back then. The mechanical effort involved, the drafting and redrafting, must have taken a very long time.

Cain's Revisions and the Temporal Paradox

Over the last week or so I’ve been working on the revisions I had to make to Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint. Although the amount of writing and revising wasn’t much in the scheme of things, it wasn’t easy. When you plan and write a book, you have an idea in your head of what is going to be in it and to some extent what order it will take. The memory of writing it is mixed up with all the memories of the time in which it is written, so returning to it at a late stage with new information feels a bit like going back in time and meeting with yourself to discuss the future. As every time traveller knows, that’s not good.

What has been useful though is having the chance to reflect on the events not only of the last few months, but further back. We read the past from the point of view of the present after all. This is a brewery and a city with a long history that includes many events like this. Rewriting the story has allowed me to get in perspective what a great achievement it was for Robert Cain to make the brewery a success in the first place, but also to think about the idea that over 200 years of history it is the myths and stories that linger.

As of today the work is done and the book should be on the shelves in about a month. I am very keen to have a real copy of the finished book in my hand but I very much doubt that this story, or even this part of the story, is over.

OneBook: They Shoot Horses

I have a brief recommendation of Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? over at Gary Smailes’s new and promising OneBook blog. The idea is that the blog takes reader recommendations and so far it’s thrown up some interesting things. One to watch I think.

Read a longer biographical piece on Horace McCoy here.

Crime Fiction Conference

And so on Friday to Newcastle for the Literary Art of Murder conference. I’m going to be talking about the way ‘new noir’ stories, written in the last twenty or so years, use 1950s imagery and mythology, and how by doing so they address the paranoias of our own time. Megan Abbott’s novel Die A Little, which I wrote about here, imposed itself on my talk in a way I didn’t expect, but then so did Johnny Cash. The conference itself promises some interesting things and the academic tone will no doubt be lightened by the presence of The Murder Squad.

On a more personal note it is almost exactly ten years since I finished my PhD at Newcastle, on Raymond Chandler. In terms of my writing I’ve moved on a long way from those days, so it is a little bit daunting to be part of that world again.

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The Reader 29

Issue 29 of The Reader magazine is now available and for the first time in a while I have something in it in the shape of a short article on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Yours truly notwithstanding this looks like a great issue, including writing by Howard Jacobson, A.S. Byatt, Ian McMillan, and Mark Rylance. Here’s the contents page anyway.

Here’s the link to The Reader again.