Writer’s Desk: Write Like Westlake

Donald Westlake (1933–2008), whose birthday was last week, was one of America’s most prolific writers, publishing over a hundred novels. Like a more creatively flexible Elmore Leonard, he published mostly in crime. Like any good overproducer, he concocted a number of pseudonyms, most famously Richard Stark, and even got an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters for film in 1991.

In 2006, Westlake was interviewed by The A.V. Club, and dispensed some great notes from a productive career:

  • “Years ago, I heard an interview with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The interviewer said, “Do you still practice?” And he said, “I practice every day.” He said, “If I skip a day, I can hear it. If I skip two days, the conductor can hear it. And if I skip three days, the audience can hear it.” Oh, yes, you have to keep that muscle firm.”
  • “I know people who have suffered writer’s block, and I don’t think I’ve ever had it. A friend of mine, for three years he couldn’t write. And he said that he thought of stories and he knew the stories, could see the stories completely, but he could never find the door. Somehow that first sentence was never there. And without the door, he couldn’t do the story. I’ve never experienced that. But it’s a chilling thought.”
  • On who reads his books: “…back in the ’60s and ’70s, the criminal class was still literate, so I would get letters from people in prison; they thought that I was somebody whom they could shop-talk with, and they would tell me very funny stories. I got a lot of those.”

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