"Sometime in 1953, I knew with unusual certainty what I intended to do with my life. I would become a writer. I was then 15 years old, and the next several years were to prove eventful. I went to college, I got a summer job at a literary agency and dropped out of college to keep it, I sold two dozen short stories and articles to national magazines, and I completed a novel. By the time I was 25, I had a wife and two daughters and a house in a suburb. I had published over fifty books. Most of these bore pen names, and for a time I resisted acknowledging my early pseudonymous work. Then, in one astonishing and feverish week in 1994, I recalled those early years in fifty thousand words of memoir.
"A publisher contracted to bring out my memoir once I'd completed it. Instead I put it on a shelf and never looked at it again, and after a few years I bought it back from the publisher. Early in 2020, I had a fresh look at A Writer Prepares. Then I went back to work. It would occupy me, off and on, for the balance of the year. By the time I was ready to stop, I'd written about my life as a writer well into 1966, when I'd completed The Thief Who Couldn't Sleep; it was the first of eight books I would write about a fellow named Evan Tanner.
"According to A Trawl Among the Shelves, Terry Zobeck's exhaustive bibliography of my work, 2020 also saw the publication of my 209th book, Dead Girl Blues. It has been a long life, and seems to have been a busy one. A Writer Prepares is, for better or for worse, an undeniably curious book. My wife, a casual student of hagiography, loves the story of the church officials who took a long-delayed inventory of their collection of relics. They were surprised to discover that they possessed not one but two heads of John the Baptist. How could this be? They considered the matter until the explanation became clear: one was John's head as a young man, the other his head as an old man.
"A Writer Prepares, an examination of the first quarter century of one writer's life, is arguably the work of two writers. There's the middle-aged fellow who wrote about half of it at a blistering pace in 1994, and there's the octogenarian who finished the job another quarter century later. The older fellow brought less raw energy to the task, and his memory is a long way from infallible, but one can only hope he's offset these losses with a slight edge in judgment, in perspective, in maturity. (I was about to add wisdom, but that might be a bridge too far.) I suspect this book's natural audience consists largely of those of you who are already enthusiastic readers of my work. And it seems likely that the book will get a favorable reception from persons who are somewhere in the process of finding themselves as writers. But I'm happy to let the the book find its true audience. A very comforting aspect of publishing A Writer Prepares now rather than twenty-five years ago is that I'm so much less invested in its reception."
Lawrence Block's memoir, A Writer Prepares, illustrates the ups and downs of the writing life. When writers understand that publishing and writing success is not a straight uphill climb, they do better. Lawrence, whose 50+ year career is an inspiration, writes about the early years here. Even though he worked in the traditional publishing world then, the ups and downs will feel familiar to all of us. (Plus the book is a joy to read!) – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Sometimes a reviewer just can't wait to write about a book. Even though Lawrence Block's memoir, A Writer Prepares, isn't available till June, I was recently sent an advance proof. Quite innocently, I started reading it — and couldn't tear myself away...."– Michael Dirda, Washington Post
"A WRITER PREPARES is incredibly smooth reading, written in Block's conversational style. It's also funny. I kept stopping to read parts of it out loud to my family, because they wanted to know why I was giggling my way through a memoir. Block puts a light spin on everything, reminding us that writing truly is the best job in the world....Reading a writer's memoir is always inspirational, but A WRITER PREPARES is both inspiring and instructive. It's a delightful look back in time filled with lessons for the present day."– Alex Kourvo, Writing Slices
"The palimpsest nature of 2020 Block layered on 1994 Block looking back at 1956-1965 Block is fascinating: we all look back at our lives and consider what we did and why, but most of us aren't as strong writers as Block is or have such rich material to work from."– Andrew Wheeler, The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.
"There's a lot of material about his time working for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, his breaking into print with novels for Harry Shorten at Midwood under the pseudonym Sheldon Lord, his prolific output for William Hamling's various soft-core imprints under the name Andrew Shaw, and his time writing medical case history books (which were almost all fictional) for Monarch, Lancer, and other publishers. All this makes me want to read more of those early books, and luckily I can since Block has reprinted most of them in the past decade. There are also sections about his friendship with Donald Westlake and Bill Coons (who ghosted a number of the Andrew Shaw novels for Block) and other authors, editors, and agents. It's a vivid portrait of one little corner of the publishing business from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties."– James Reasoner, Rough Edges
I never expected to be writing this.
In November of 1992, a fellow named Jim Seels came up to me at a signing in southern California to propose that he publish a bibliography of my work. I promised my cooperation. When the project was underway, I got a call from him. "What I need now," he said, "is a list of all your pen names, and the various books you wrote under them."
I explained that that was out of the question. I was perfectly willing to acknowledge three books I had written as Paul Kavanagh and four as Chip Harrison, and indeed had had those books reprinted under my own name. But my earlier pseudonymous work was something I did not want to talk about, for any number of reasons.
"Your fans want to know about these books," Seels said.
I quoted the Stones, something about not always getting what you want. That night I sat down and wrote a 1200-word essay on pen names, and why mine would remain unacknowledged. I explained how little I had thought of the books while I was writing them, how idiotic editing had made some of them even worse than they were when they left my typewriter, and how the publishers sometimes cavalierly placed my pen name on somebody else's book, or somebody else's pen name on mine. Furthermore, I had employed ghost writers over the years, so there were many books published under my pen names, and purposely crafted by their authors to resemble my work, which I had not written. Or even read.
I sent the essay to Seels. He liked it well enough, and agreed to run it in the bibliography. It was clear, though, that he'd have preferred my coming clean in print.
A few months later, Ernie Bulow came to town. Ernie, a writer, small publisher, and Indian trader based in Gallup, New Mexico, had done a fine book with Tony Hillerman called Talking Mysteries. He'd published a limited edition of the book, with University of New Mexico Press issuing a trade edition. The book sold well and got an Edgar nomination, and Ernie had agreed to do five similar volumes, one with me. We were to call it After Hours, and it would include several lengthy conversations of ours plus a couple of odd essays and my first published short story.
We sat down together and he set up the tape recorder. We weren't far into the first day's session when he brought up the subject of pseudonymous work. I gave him a short version of my essay for Seels, explaining why I didn't want to get into all that.
"But people want to know about all that," he said.
"People in hell want ice water," I said, quoting my mother-in-law.
"Look," he said, "there are a lot of people who already know the names you used. There's been quite a bit of research done." And he showed me an annotated list of my books from a paperback dealer named Lynn Munroe. It was over thirty pages long, and listed 200 items, some in a single line, some with lengthy paragraphs explaining why the author assumed the book in question was mine.
I explained my stance to Ernie. I refused to confirm or deny my authorship of pseudonymous books, would not sign them when they were presented to me, and certainly did not want to sit around and discuss them now. He did what he could to sway me from this position, failed, and gave in gracefully.
We talked widely on other topics for several hours. At the end I asked if I could borrow Lynn Munroe's list. He said he had a copy, and I was welcome to it.
It kept me up all night. There were books listed which I hadn't written, of course, but there were also books that I had written—but hadn't thought of in years. The effort that had gone into figuring out what I had or hadn't written was remarkable. Here's the entry for a 1960 title called I Sell Love, by Liz Crowley: "Monarch MB508. . .this Human Behavior Series entry purports to be the true account of one prostitute's life. Actually it's a Block fiction. When Victor Berch ran his excellent Monarch pseudonyms checklist, he mentioned that two of the authors had asked him not to reveal their pen names. From my own interviews I knew that the only two of that gang who don't own up to their books are Block and Westlake. And Westlake's Monarch pseudonym. . .is immediately transparent to anyone reading the author profile. That left Block. . . .And so I visited the Library of Congress during my last trip to Washington, DC. Unlike the Nightstands and Midwoods, the Monarchs are all copyrighted. That's how we know that Lawrence Block wrote I Sell Love. By the way, Liz mentions the name of a movie she likes on p. 28: A Sound of Distant Drums. And on p. 46 she meets Honour Mercy, "Honey" from Kentucky, A Girl Called Honey from Lord & Marshall's Midwood 41."
Reading all of this stirred me up more than I ever would have imagined. I clucked at the flights of fancy some of these researchers were capable of, finding hidden meanings where none existed. I got a certain amount of satisfaction from the several pen names of mine that they'd missed. More than anything else, though, I simply felt overwhelmed by having been suddenly ambushed by my own past.
"Someday," I told my wife, "I ought to write about those years."
"You should," she agreed.
"But not yet," I said. "I'll have to wait until the time comes when I'm still young enough to remember it all, but old enough so I don't give a shit."
That all happened in April of 1993. In October I attended Bouchercon in Omaha, where a fellow named Martin Hawk was offering for sale his voluminous guide to pseudonyms. He had me in there, of course, with most but not all of the names I'd used, and several I hadn't. He told me he'd certainly appreciate it if I could help him make his list more accurate for the next edition. I told him it was already more accurate than I would have preferred.
"Someday I'll write about those days," I told a couple of people. "But not yet."
In February of '94 I went to Ragdale, a writers' colony in Lake Forest, Illinois. I had a book to write and went to work on it, getting almost half of it completed in the first two weeks of my four-week stay. Then, as sometimes happens, I realized I'd taken a wrong turn in the book. The first third of what I'd written was sound, but I was going to have to scrap the rest, replot, and do it over. And it was going to have to wait, because I wasn't ready to undertake that task yet.
So what would I do with the rest of my time there?
First thing I did was spend a couple of days writing a long short story ("Keller in Shining Armor"). Then, while contemplating my next move, I got a message from Otto Penzler; he would need an introduction for the hardcover edition he was going to publish of The Canceled Czech, a book I had written in 1966. There was no rush, he said, but I figured it was something I could get out of the way while I decided what to do next.
I had more trouble with it than I'd expected. I found myself reminiscing in the intro about what my life had been like when I wrote the early Tanner books, of which The Canceled Czech was the second. With the introduction about two-thirds completed, I realized that I was ready for a longer stroll down Memory Lane—that I was in fact ready to write that memoir about the early years.
I couldn't get to sleep that night. My mind was racing all over the place. I woke up the next day and got to work as soon as I'd had my breakfast, and I literally could not stop working. I broke for meals, then kept going back to it. I didn't stop until midnight, by which time I'd written 8000 words. Even then I couldn't get my mind to quit, and I had a hell of a time getting to sleep.
The next morning I went right to it again. In a little more than a week, I would write 50,000 words.