Yankee Classic from October 2003
Robert B. Parker has set novels in Los Angeles, in Ireland, in the Wild West, and in the capitals of Europe. But the setting he always returns to is greater Boston, home to his best known character, the wisecracking, Shakespeare-quoting, gun-toting private eye named Spenser, who first appeared 30 years ago in The Godwulf Manuscript. Spenser, along with his deadly-force colleague, Hawk, and longtime sweetheart, psychologist Susan Silverman, leads readers through Boston’s streets and suburbs until they know the city like a guidebook.
Robert and Joan Parker are exemplars of rough and smooth. He’s muscled, paunchy, with a face that, like his famous protagonist’s, looks like it’s gone too many rounds in the ring. He’s wearing jeans and an old black sportshirt. She is tall, elegant, and stunning. She wears a chic pantsuit with a sexy, calf-flashing slit. Smooth.
Their Cambridge, Massachusetts, home is a gorgeously decorated three-story, 14-room, gray-green mansard Victorian, with burgundy, teal, and cream trim. The 1870-ish house is landscaped, trellised, gargoyled, and scant yards from Harvard’s red-brick Federal austerity. “This is Joan’s art,” says Robert Parker. “And,” he sighs, “it’s a never-ending story.”
Joan sighs back. “Our carpenter has become the third son I never wanted.”
The Parkers do a lot of sighing–mock sighing–about each other’s foibles. It’s clearly a routine they’ve practiced to perfection, and in 46 years of marriage, plus another six of courtship, they’ve had plenty of time to practice.
Those years of marriage come with a qualifier, however. Here’s how Spenser put it in Widow’s Walk:
“Are you married?” she said.
“I’m, ah, going steady,” I said.
“Going steady? I haven’t heard anyone say that in thirty years.”
“How long have you been going steady?”
“‘Bout twenty-five years,” I said, “with a little time out in the middle.”
In the early ’80s, the Parkers had a time out, and when they came back together, they reorganized their living arrangement. Robert lives on the ground floor; Joan, on the second. The third is for guests.
After Joan’s house tour, Robert and I meet in his high-tech office, done in his favorite colors, burgundy and green.
Just how similar are you and Spenser?
He comes out of me and, like me, is ferociously devoted to a remarkable and interesting woman. Like me, he was in Korea and loves baseball. He, too, is a weight lifter who runs, and of course he lives around here. But he’s not me. I’m not, for example, a fighter–I’ve never fought when escape was possible.
Have you found yourself becoming more like your character? Do you ever ask yourself, “What would Spenser do?”
No. I am more clear on the difference between Spenser and real life than anyone in the world. I have never read one of my books. I write five pages a day, five days a week. When I’ve written about 300 pages, I send it in to my editor. That’s the last time I read it. My relationship to my books is that of the carpenter to the house. Once, a Spenser fan club ran a 10-question trivia quiz, which I took. I got five of them wrong.
Spenser is supremely certain of his moral stance, of the way he meets the world. Are you?
Yeah. I’m satisfied with who I am. I’ve had some help learning that. When Joan and I were separated, I had a brilliant psychiatrist, and from him I learned a great deal about myself. Joan had her own therapist. What we learned from them, we taught each other. You can’t be together 52 years without learning something.
You dedicated Death in Paradise as follows: “For Dave and Dan who kept their mother going and brought their father home.” What’s that about?
In January 2000 I had a fairly rare operation called a whipple, to remove a cyst from my pancreas. And they made some mistakes–including rupturing the portal vein. I almost died, but I’m far too stubborn to do that. My sons, Dave and Dan, came home from L.A. and New York to help take care of me.
Early Autumn introduces us to an unlovely kid, Paul, who keeps turning up in later Spenser books. Thanks to Spenser, he becomes a fine young man. In Pastime, here’s what he says about his childhood:
“My childhood memories are almost empty of him.”
“What are they full of?” I asked….
“Fear,” Paul said. “Fear of being left. I was thin and whiny and had colds all the time and I used to cling to my mother like a cold sore. She couldn’t stand it. She’d try to get me away from her so she could breathe and of course the more she tried the more I clung.”
Is Paul like the young you?
No, I wasn’t that kind of kid. I was very fond of my mother as a child, but come puberty, I was anxious to distance myself. She was a smothering Irish mother.
Well, you capture Paul beautifully.
What’s compelling is not what I know; it’s that I was able to say it in such a way that you liked it. The real answer is, I don’t know what I’m doing. I type. We all know less about this craft than we say we do.
Your mother was Irish. What about your father?
Yankee. Parkers were here–here being Belfast, Maine–before the Revolutionary War. But there’s very little ethnic charge in being Yankee. So I write Irish. And I look Irish.
What kind of lives did they lead?
My father was an executive with the phone company; my mother was a housewife. He was a very good father. My mother was complicated, difficult, and drank too much. I was an only child.
What kind of kid were you?
A model child until puberty; then an acting-out adolescent. I started to drink at 14, got into fistfights, was generally obstreperous, and was in frequent trouble at school.
Then how did you get into Colby College?
My father went to Colby–that’s how I got in. I graduated in the bottom quarter of my class.
Ah, but they like me now. The pleasure of going back with the girl of my dreams to the college that spurned me. I used to fantasize about that as an adolescent. I always wanted to be a writer … and to be Joan’s husband.
If you don’t do research, how did you get to understand messed-up kids so well?
Neither of my two sons was messed up in Paul’s way, but when one of them throws a tantrum, you understand tantrums. Just like one punch in the mouth will tell you all you need to know about violence. I mean it when I say I don’t do research.
Then how did you learn to speak street slang so well in Double Deuce?
“We used to standing around,” Major said. “Stand around a lot. Stand around sell some sub.”
“What kind of sub you sell?” Hawk said.
“Grain, grass, classic, Jock, motor, harp, what you need is what we got.”
Hawk looked at me.
“Grass,” he said. “Rock cocaine, regular powdered coke, heroin.” He looked at Major. “What’s motor? Speed?”
I made it up. I don’t know those words, and if I did, by the time they appeared in the book, they’d be out of date, anyway. So I made them up.
How do you think your work will be viewed in 50 years?
Don’t know, don’t care. I think I’m pretty good, that I write pretty well. Bart Giamatti [ex-Yale president, ex-baseball commissioner] said I write better about love and sweat than anyone else. I think he was right.
You were an academic, yet you excoriate academics in The Godwulf Manuscript and Hush Money. Any possible connection?
Sure. You occasionally find a really great professor. But many of the academics I meet are the worst people in the world. They don’t care about kids or writing or teaching, only about tenure and promotion. They’re awful.
You’ve been awarded the Grand Master Award by Mystery Writers of America. But you’re not really a mystery writer. What kind of writer are you?
I’m a novelist; I write novels. It’s convenient for everybody but the writer to categorize writing: readers know what they like, bookstores know where to shelve them, reviewers can slot them. But it’s irrelevant to me. Dostoyevsky also wrote crime novels. I’m trying to do what Faulkner or Fitzgerald tried to do. They just did it better. We’re all trying to tell a compelling story.
I have a long-term project, a novel about Jackie Robinson. It will take me four or five years. After Jackie is done, assuming I live to be 100, I’m going to write a novel about Ned Poins from Henry IV. He makes his appearance, then just disappears. I think, whatever happened to old Ned?
What do you think accounts for the success of the Spenser novels?
Don’t know. But people like heroes. Spenser cannot be bought by sex or fear or money. He’s serious but not anguished.
And does all the wisdom about living that fills your books also fill your life?
Yeah. I know what matters. And it’s easy because only a few things matter. Joan, certainly. My sons are great successes and are connected to us and are reasonably happy. We have a nice dog, my car’s running. I must be famous because there’s a guy here interviewing me. What else could I ask for? And I get a lot of money for doing work that I rather enjoy. Not enough, but a lot.