Today I welcome back Lawrence Block, one of the most widely recognized names in the mystery genre. Larry has been a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and is a four-time winner of the Edgar and Shamus Awards, as well as a recipient of prizes in France, Germany, and Japan. He received the Diamond Dagger from the British Crime Writers' Association—only the third American to be given this award. He is a prolific author, having written more than fifty books and numerous short stories, and is a devoted New Yorker and an enthusiastic global traveler. He's also an amazing editor, as you'll understand from this post, as well as all the anthologies he's edited.
A PICTURE IS WORTH 4894 WORDS
A picture is worth a thousand words, right?
Well, not necessarily. Not if it’s been painted by Edward Hopper. His pictures, it turns out, are each worth 4894 words.
More or less.
I can explain.
A year and a half ago, in June of 2015, I was sitting at my computer one Sunday afternoon, and if you’d been watching you might have seen a light bulb take form above my head. I had an idea, and I couldn’t possibly tell you where it came from or what might have prompted it, but there it was:
New stories, each inspired by a painting.
By Edward Hopper.
On December 6, 2016, one week ago as I write these lines, Pegasus Books published In Sunlight or in Shadow: 17 Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper. The night before, seven contributors had joined me to launch the book to a capacity crowd at the Whitney Museum, home to the world’s largest Hopper collection. On publication day, we moved our dog-and-pony show to the Mysterious Bookshop, and went home where there were no unsold books left for us to sign.
Neat, huh? Get an idea, and eighteen months later you’ve got a book, and everybody’s happy.
But how did it happen?
I suppose it was not unnatural for me to think about putting together an anthology right about that time, as I’d had one published very recently. At the invitation of small-press publishers Peter Carlaftes and Kat Georges, I’d invited writers to contribute to an anthology of New York-based stories, which was duly published as Dark City Lights by Three Rooms Press. The book turned out remarkably well, and two of the stories went on to earn some special recognition; Erin Mitchell’s story—her first ever—was nominated for an Anthony award, and Parnell Hall’s won a Shamus.
And I was seeing a monetary return on my labor. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked as though I would wind up making 65¢ an hour for my efforts.
I should add that this was not my first rodeo, let alone my first anthology. I’d edited Manhattan Noir and Manhattan Noir 2 for Akashic Books, and two volumes each of Master’s Choice and Opening Shots, and a few others as well. For a couple, like Death Cruise for the International Association of Crime Writers and Blood on Their Hands for MWA, my contribution was limited to my name and a few words of introduction, but the others were hands-on. I always started out expecting a walk in the park (“You get money, and other people do the writing!”) only to find out that the walk was up the side of a mountain, and the money was something like 65¢ an hour.
So as soon as I got the idea for In Sunlight or in Shadow, I went right to work. I mean, what else could I do? If the poor fool doesn’t keep trying to kick that football, he’s not Charlie Brown, is he?
That same day, I drafted a letter to potential contributors. (I’d already thought of a title, it came to me right on the heels of the idea itself. It’s almost from “Danny Boy,” but not quite; the wording in Frederic Weatherly’s lyric is “in sunshine or in shadow,” but I wanted sunlight.) The letter of invitation may be the most critical part of an editor’s job, as it’s designed to persuade bright and talented people to do something clearly against their best interests—i.e., devote their time and ability to a difficult task unlikely to bring them much in the way of recompense or recognition.
I wrote my email, I polished it some, and I drew up a wish list of writers. The responses I got suggested I’d written a hell of a letter, but I’ve had time to think about it, and it’s clear that Hopper should get the credit.
Because the premise resonated with writer after writer. As I’d suspected, Edward Hopper is a favorite painter of a great many of us who spend our lives making up stories. He’s not a narrative painter, his paintings don’t tell stories so much as they imply the existence of stories as yet untold. We’re invited to tell them.
And my invitees embraced the challenge, whether or not they had the time for it. Stephen King has a Hopper reproduction on his wall; he tells that painting’s story in “The Music Room.” Michael Connelly, busier with the Bosch TV show and his novels than a one-armed paper hanger with the hives, tells of Harry Bosch’s encounter with Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks,” a painting that had already played a role in his fictional life.
I got stories—wonderful stories—from almost everyone I invited…and two I didn’t. Justin Scott, a good friend of mine and of the book’s publisher, congratulated me on its premise and confided that he’d have loved a chance to contribute a story; days later, an invitee let me know he had to back out, that personal problems made it impossible for him to write anything. “We’ve got space after all,” I told Justin, and he picked a painting and wrote a story.
I knew from the first day that I wanted Gail Levin in the book; as Hopper’s definitive biographer and the editor of his catalogue raisonné, she would supply an imprimatur. (She’d also put together a book of passages referencing Hopper in works of fiction, in which she’d included Michael Connelly and me, among others.) I met with Gail, had a fruitful conversation with her, and ended with the hope that she might be persuaded to furnish an introduction.
“What I’d really like to do,” she said, “is write a story.”
And she did, her first-ever work of fiction, based on the criminous activities of a Hopper family associate, and recounted from his point of view. It’s a honey.
You know what? They’re all honeys. There’s not a clinker in the lot—which is not that remarkable, considering the stature of the contributors. I won’t name my own favorites, not least of all because I keep hanging my mind; reviewers, however, are more inclined to toss bouquets to their top picks, and here’s what particularly delights me—they all pick different stories.
And the book avoids a trap that lies in wait for themed anthologies—i.e., that the same story will be told over and over. But here the only common thread is Edward Hopper, and everyone’s point of departure is a different painting, so that stories have nothing else in common save their excellence. They’re not even all of a genre; while many fit beneath the broad canopy of crime fiction, it won’t stretch to fit over all of them.
There’s a story of mine in here, too.
I had trouble picking a painting. Then, looking at “Automat,” I was struck with a story idea almost as compelling as the initial idea for the anthology. I had the whole plot, just from a long look at the woman in the hat, sitting at the café table.
But Kris Rusch had already called dibs on “Automat.”
I wrote her and asked how deeply committed she was to that particular painting. She replied immediately, with characteristic grace, to say that she’d just picked that painting without having a story in mind, that she could as easily pick another, and that I was welcome to “Automat.”
And I sat down almost immediately and wrote “Autumn at the Automat,” which I hope you like. And Kris, God bless her, based her story “Still Life 1931” on Hopper’s “Hotel Room 1931,” and it’s deep and rich and stunning.
In Sunlight or in Shadow’s getting a terrific reception, and Pegasus Books is supporting it in spectacular fashion. I may actually net more than 65¢ an hour for this one.
But that’s sort of beside the point. The book’s been a labor of love, and in that respect it’s paid off handsomely.
So much so that there’s a sequel in the works.
And who could follow Hopper? No one, I decided—and it struck me that I was on to something. If no one painter was so well suited to such a project, why not fling the doors wide? 17 writers, 17 stories, 17 paintings—by 17 different artists.
Alive in Shape and Color—look for it a year from now.
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