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Author Interview
More by Robert B. Parker
Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker has long been acknowledged as the dean of American crime fiction. His novel featuring the wise-cracking, street-smart Boston private-eye Spenser have earned him a devoted following and reams of critical acclaim, typified by R.W.B. Lewis’ comment, “We are witnessing one of the great series in the history of the American detective story” (The New York Times Book Review). Robert Parker’s most recent bestsellers include his Spenser novel, Widow’s Walk, and Death in Paradise, his third Jesse Stone novel. His first western, Gunman’s Rhapsody was published in 2001.

Parker's other works include the classic Poodle Springs, a novel completed from an unfinished manuscript begun by the late Raymond Chandler, and Perchance To Dream, the sequel to Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. Ironically, Parker wrote about Chandler in a chapter of his doctoral thesis about the evolution of the American Hero, beginning with the colonial period and ending with the twentieth century mystery writers. As fate would have it, Parker has now become one of the best of them: “Robert B. Parker has taken his place besides the Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald” (The Boston Globe).

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Parker attended Colby College in Maine, serves with the Army in Korea, and then completed a Ph.D. in English at Boston University. He married his wife Joan in 1956; they raised two sons, David and Daniel. Together the Parkers founded Pearl Productions, a Boston-based independent film company named after their short-haired pointer, Pearl, who has also been featured in Parker's last few novels. He and Joan now live in the Boston area.

Parker began writing his Spenser novels in 1971 while teaching at Boston's Northeastern University. Little did he suspect then that his witty, literate prose and psychological insights would make him keeper-of-the-flame of America's rich tradition of detective fiction. Parker's fictional Spenser inspired the ABC-TV series Spenser: For Hire. More recently, the Spenser novels Small Vices and Thin Air have been made into television films for the A&E network. Parker has recently been named Grand Master of the 2002 Edgar awards by the Mystery Writers of America, an honor shared with earlier masters such as Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen.

Q: Your writing career began with the 1974 publication of The Godwulf Manuscript, the first of twenty-four titles in the Spenser series. Why do you think that Spenser has developed such a widespread, loyal following and is still so popular among readers?

A: I think people are drawn to Spenser because he's a very likeable man. He has many dimensions. He has important relationships, including an ongoing love relationship with Susan Silverman, a difficult, complicated, interesting woman. Spenser is beset by the same problems we all are, yet, being a bit larger than life, he triumphs over them in ways that we don't always. He can't be bribed, seduced with sex, or frightened with violence, and most of us can. Also, there's a persistence to him. Publishers always like to have an author who gives them a book a year. Readers do, too. Spenser is dependable in that way. He's around every year, growing and changing.

Q: Spenser is a Boston P.I. You live in Boston. Your independent film company is named after your short-haired pointer, Pearl, who has also been featured in your last few Spenser novels. How much do you draw from your own experience in writing your novels?

A: T.S. Eliot once talked about the function of the imagination, drawing the analogy of a bell jar with two separate inert gases in it. When you insert a piece of tungsten, the two become a third gas that was not present before. He likened that to the imagination; that it creates something new out of what was there. That's a fairly good analogy for what I do. Certain aspects of my novels reflect my own life, but in ways that only I understand; that is, you can't read Spenser's career and draw any very intelligent conclusions about my life. Other parts are more obvious. My wife Joan and I were separated for a period in the early eighties, which was reflected in Susan and Spenser's relationship. One of my recurring characters is a choreographer/actor and I have a son who is a choreographer, and another who's an actor.

Q: Are there any underlying themes that run through your work?

A: None that I consciously try to present. Certainly, autonomy is a recurring theme in my books, as is perseverance and our ability to triumph over adversity. Undoubtedly, my novels are about love. Obviously, they are connected with what I care about. I don't imagine I would have chosen to spend the last twenty-six years of my life writing about a character whose values and virtues I disdained.

Q: You are launching a new crime fiction series featuring Jesse Stone. Why did you decide to introduce this series when the Spenser novels are still going strong? Tell us something about Jesse Stone. How is he different from Spenser?

A: I created Jesse Stone to see if I could -- the way, if you lift weights, you try a 300 lb. bench press. He is a different kind of character than Spenser and through him I can offer another point of view. This series is written in third person not first person. I intentionally deprived myself of all the tricks that you can play with a first person narration.

I was quite careful not to make Jesse Stone Spenser by another name. Jesse Stone is about thirty-five and has had many setbacks in his life. He grew up in Arizona and California and started out as a minor league ballplayer, a shortstop. When he hurt his arm and couldn't make the throw, that opportunity passed him by. Then he became a cop in the LA police department. He has a drinking problem which he is controlling at the moment, but not perfectly. When his marriage broke up, Jesse got fired from the LAPD, not for insubordination but for drunkenness. Now, he is alone in a strange new environment, having moved from California to Massachusetts to be the police chief of a small town called Paradise.

So, Jesse Stone is employed as opposed to Spenser who is self-employed; he is young whereas Spenser is more mature; he does not have a happy love relationship, although his ex-wife is around, and that's problematic. Also, Jesse is not the same kind of self-contained guy that Spenser is. Jesse is a much more damaged individual who is coming to terms with himself as he goes along, unlike Spenser who may have changed over the years, but is still the same person he was on the first page of The Godwulf Manuscript.

Q: You wrote Poodle Springs, a novel completed from an unfinished manuscript begun by the late Raymond Chandler, and Perchance to Dream, a sequel to his novel, The Big Sleep. How has he influenced your work? Are Spenser and Philip Marlowe cut from the same literary cloth?

A: Like Chandler, I was in my late forties when I started writing. At first, I was bold-facedly trying to imitate Chandler, who I think is one of the greatest American writers of the century. Somewhere along the way, I no longer felt the need to be guided by the mentor. I suppose the first significant turn-away from Chandler/Marlowe was when Spenser met Susan Silverman in the second book. By book four, when he acquired Hawk as a companion, Spenser had gone a fair piece from Marlowe, who could sit alone in his apartment playing chess and think aloud to himself: "Will somebody get me off this frozen star?" None of this was conscious. It's only in retrospect that I can see when I began to depart from Chandler.

Spenser and Marlowe differ in several ways. Spenser is basically pleased with his life, he recognizes that life isn't perfect and that he will not always succeed. Marlowe was much more Galahad-like, motivated by some kind of Arthurian, romantic code. Chandler had a difficult life and was probably no happier than Marlowe. I am intrinsically a happy person, and that, I think, is the great difference between our characters; that Spenser is basically happy. He has a social and emotional context and does the best he can with the knowledge that he may fail. What is common in both Spenser and Marlowe is that, whether they succeed or fail, they are not compromised. That's what I took from Chandler more than anything else.

Q: You and your wife, Joan, have worked out a unique way of coexisting in your marriage so that it successfully sustains your personal and professional lives. Would you tell us more about that?

A: The best thing I ever did was marry the former Joan Hall on August 26, 1956. The next best thing was to conspire with her for David and Daniel Parker. At that point, my life was essentially fulfilled and the rest of this has been frosting on the cake.

Joan and I separated in 1982 and reunited in 1984, at which time we had arrived at the conclusion that it probably wasn't a good idea for us to share the same living space twenty-four hours a day. There are dozens of reasons why: Joan likes to eat dinner about nine or ten o'clock at night, usually in bed; I like to eat dinner about six o'clock at the kitchen table. She likes the air-conditioning low; I like it high. She likes the heat high; I like it low. She likes to watch movies; I like to watch ball games. She likes to go to bed at two in the morning; I like to go to bed about the fourth inning of any ball game. She is very social and entertains a great deal; I am not and don't. There is no area of our lives other than the fact that we love one another and our children in which we have a commonality, so we drive each other crazy. Happily, we have found a way to accommodate that.

We began the new marriage with only one rule, which was that we would be monogamous. We would also be sexually intimate, but we would not sleep in the same bed or in the same room or live in the same quarters. For about the first ten months, I lived in one town and she lived in another. Then, for another year, we lived in the same town a mile apart. Since that time, we have lived in a three-story Victorian house in Cambridge. Joan lives on the third floor; the first two floors are ours. So we live separately but together. There are no locked doors between us. I think my older son, David, once said in a press interview that we had taken conventional marriage apart and reassembled it so that it worked for us. I would never want to go back to the conventional way of life and neither would Joan.

Q: What is upcoming for you?

A: My novel Wilderness, now called The Good Citizen, is scheduled to begin shooting sometime this year. Richard Dreyfuss is committed to it and Michael Phillips, who produced the "Sting," is scheduled to produce. All Our Yesterdays is being developed as a miniseries at CBS, and Poodle Springs is currently slated to become an HBO movie with a script by Tom Stoppard, to be directed by him, as well. Also, producer Michael Brandman and I are trying to produce my script of my novel Thin Air. And, of course, a new Spenser in the spring, and a new Jesse Stone in the fall.