Saturday, July 2, 2011

B is for Block: Lawrence Block

As part of the Mystery Fanfare Alphabet Meme-- Guest Posts by "Alphabet"Authors--today's post is brought to you by the letter "B". Lawrence Block, this great man of letters, has been "Block" for many years, but he's also written under an alphabet of other names. Maybe Larry will do a guest post for more letters!  So you see, it's only fitting that this meme begin with Lawrence Block.



The first book I wrote was about a young woman who’d come straight from her college graduation to Greenwich Village, in search of her sexual identity. My agent sent it to Crest, where it was bought and published. I had called it Shadows; they called it Strange Are the Ways of Love, and they called me Lesley Evans.

The second book I wrote, though the first published, was written for Harry Shorten at Midwood. I called it Carla and I called myself Sheldon Lord, and Harry didn’t feel a need to change either of those names.

I wrote those books in 1958, and it’s no secret (and was never much of one) that I wrote a great many over the next two decades, many of them under one pen name or another. I was never Lesley Evans again, but I went on being Sheldon Lord. And Andrew Shaw and Ben Christopher and John Warren Wells. I wrote one book (Such Men Are Dangerous) with a first-person protagonist named Paul Kavanagh, and put his name on the cover; then I wrote two more books, told in the third person and peopled with other characters, and used Paul Kavanagh’s name on them, too. I wrote another book (No Score) with a first-person protagonist named Chip Harrison, and put his name down as author. (There were three more books by Chip, but they were also about Chip.)

And then there was Jill Emerson.

Jill was a little different. After I’d parted company with an agent, I sat down and wrote a sensitive novel of the lesbian experience. I put the name Jill Emerson on it, and I put Jill’s name on the letter I wrote to the editor at Midwood. This was really dumb, as I’d published maybe a dozen books with Midwood and the door would have been open for me. Instead I elected to fling my manuscript over the transom, and I got a contract by return mail. (Call me insane, but you can’t say I’m without talent.)
The mail came addressed to Jill Emerson, whose name I’d already added to my office mailbox so that I could receive The Ladder, the publication of the Daughters of Bilitis. Which was a national lesbian organization, to which Jill belonged. (Call me insane, but you can’t say I’m not resourceful.)
I called the book Shadows and Twilight. Midwood called it Warm and Willing. That seemed reasonable to me. I mean, they only changed two of my three words.

Jill’s second and last novel for Midwood was Enough of Sorrow. Throughout, no one there had a clue that Jill was anyone other than the young gay woman she purported to be.
By the end of the 60s I was done writing pseudonymous erotica. I’d long since stopped writing for Midwood and Nightstand and Beacon. Then Berkley started up a line designed to elevate the genre, and my agent peddled me to them. He told them the author’s real name was Lawrence Josephson, but that he’d be using a pen name. When he asked me what name I wanted to use, I figured it sounded like a job for Jill Emerson.

Jill wrote three books for Berkley, Thirty, Threesome, and A Madwoman’s Diary. (They came out with other titles, but forget it; they’re eBooks now, with my original titles restored.) They were stylistically experimental; A Madwoman’s Diary, as you might expect, was in diary form, as was Thirty. Threesome was even more of a tour-de-force, with the three characters writing alternate chapters of a Naked Came the Stranger–type novel.

Next I wrote an epistolary novel that would have been Jill’s sixth book, and her fourth for Berkley. But everybody who read it thought it deserved better, and my agent sent it to Bernard Geis, where it was published as Ronald Rabbit is a Dirty Old Man, by Lawrence Block.

Jill wrote two more books, a Berkley hardcover called The Trouble With Eden and an Arbor House literary mainstream novel called A Week as Andrea Benstock. There are some good stories about both books, but I won’t tell them here. (You can find them, and far more detail on all the others, in Afterthoughts, a piecemeal memoir of my writing life. It’s composed of the afterwords I wrote for my Open Road eBooks, and will be out soon as a 99¢ eBook. The bargain price is there because we hope it’ll induce you to buy some of the other books. (Hey, call me insane, but you can’t say I’m not enterprising.)

A Week as Andrea Benstock came out in 1975, not long after the fourth Chip Harrison and the third Paul Kavanagh. And that was that. I was done being Jill, and I was done with pen names altogether. When the Harrison and Kavanagh books were reissued by new publishers, they came out with my own name on them.

No more pen names.

Yeah. Right.
Cut to, oh, sometime last year. I’d written a couple of short stories about a hot and homicidal young lady, and now I watched as they coalesced into a book. (This had happened before; a short story about a wistful hitman named Keller grew into four books about the fellow.)

The book was an utter joy to write, and I couldn’t remember when I’d had more fun. But it was very different from Matthew Scudder’s line of country, and I decided the ideal publisher would be Charles Ardai at Hard Case Crime. He loved the book and wanted it as his first-ever hardcover original.
And I knew how I wanted the byline to read.
A Novel of Sex and Violence.
By Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson.
For a couple of reasons.

One’s the experience I had with Small Town. That was my post-9/11 book, the big jam-packed multiple-viewpoint New York novel I’d been wanting to write for years. It was well-received by readers and reviewers, and sold reasonably well, but it also brought an unsettling amount of negative email. Some of it was downright hostile, and what it came down to was that the book’s sexual side was more than some readers were prepared to handle. The ones who came to the book from an affection for my lighthearted burglar and his faux-Manx cat were just plain not ready for Susan Pomerance and her Brazilian landscaping.

Fair enough. I knew what to do with those emails, being the happy owner of a keyboard with a DELETE button, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to go through all that again. I decided to make it very clear what sort of book I had this time around, so that it only got into the hands of readers who’d welcome its excesses.

Reason enough for a pen name. An open pen name, because I do want people to be able to find the damn book, but a pen name nonetheless.

As I said, reason enough. But not the only reason.
See, it just felt right.

Being Jill again. I’d accessed something within myself when I heaved Shadows & Twilight onto Midwood’s slush pile. And I felt its creative empowerment while I wrote Getting Off. Part of it originally was based on its clandestine aspect, and this time around I’d be out there, my name twinned with Jill’s on the cover, even as all Jill’s early work now bears the same dual byline.

Hey, call me insane, but you can’t say I’m not having a good time.


You can call Lawrence Block insane, or you can call him Jill. To do so: lawbloc @;; To follow him on Twitter: @LawrenceBlock.

7/5: Don't miss the "interview' on Alison Kent's Blog: Lawrence Block interviews Jill Emerson, his occasional alter ego HERE.


Clark Lohr said...

Good times! Thanks, Lawrence Block!

Jude said...

So all of them are a chip off the old...?

Lawrence Block said...

@Janet—Thanks for making me grateful for the miracle of alphabetical order. (Don Westlake always resented it.)

@Clark—You're very welcome!

@Chaz—Well, Chip Harrison is, anyway...