Lawrence Block: One Case at a Time - Page 2

By Samuel Reaves Slaton 04/25/13

Sober crime writer Lawrence Block's greatest creation may be Matthew Scudder, a PI who trades booze for AA meetings; Liam Neeson is shooting the role for a movie. Block tells The Fix about his life and work.

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Look out for the movie next year. Photo via

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In Eight Million Ways to Die, Scudder is very concerned with the mechanics of being sober. On every single page, he’s fretting about the logistics: Don’t touch the drink. Walk past the bar. Go to a meeting. Drink lots of coffee. It’s a very physical grappling with sobriety. Was it difficult to recreate those early days of being sober?

I wasn’t recreating my early days. His experience in sobriety was very different from mine. 

So how did you create that for him?

Imagination. The same way I do everything, really.

Did you draw at all from the experiences of others?

Probably, but not directly.

AA recommends staying sober “one day at a time,” one step at a time. Do you approach writing in a similar fashion?

I may know more or less about where it’s going depending on the particular book, but I don’t outline, I don’t really know that much about what’s going to happen. It’s a process not that different from the moron who found the lost horse when nobody else could. And they asked him how on earth did you manage that? And he said, “Well, I just thought to myself, ‘If I were a horse, where would I go?’” And that’s how I write, really. “If I were this character, what would I do next?”

"Once I stopped drinking, I really didn’t go through any booze-fighting. That doesn’t mean it was easy, but it was easier [for me than it was for Scudder]."

A Walk Among Tombstones is currently being made into a movie, with Liam Neeson playing Matt Scudder, and Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey playing a heroin dealer. Are you involved in the filmmaking process?

No, but I’m delighted it’s being done and I’m taking an interest in that I’ve been to the set a couple of times. And I’m friendly with the writer/director [Scott Frank, Get Shorty]. But I don’t really have a role to play. There was some concern early on as to whether or not they’d be able get permission to shoot in Greenwood Cemetery, because it’s a night shoot and it would be closed. But if they didn’t shoot the scene in the cemetery, the title wouldn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. 

Are they retaining the storyline involving Scudder’s sobriety?

There will be several scenes at [AA] meetings.

In writing Scudder’s story, did you set out hoping to say something about AA or sobriety?

I don’t really have an agenda when I write. I’m not thinking about what effect my books will have, because I don’t believe all that many books have any particular effect. They are what they are. I’m really only interested in the story. Every now and then I get mail from someone who says that Scudder’s sterling example helped them get in the [AA] program, thank you, etc. And I generally reply that that’s always nice to hear. I figure it’s a delicate balance between the number of people that I’ve led to sobriety and the number I’ve driven to drink. If it evens out, then I’m fine with it.

Did getting sober affect your writing?

I’m sure it did, but it’s hard for me to know how to answer that. I have to believe it improved it. It made it difficult for the first year or two. Everything was difficult in the first year. I don’t know really how to answer that; I don’t know how it changed it. I was always very productive. I don’t even know.

Did writing about someone else’s struggle to get sober make it more difficult for you to stay sober?

No, not at all. As I said, Scudder’s path was quite different from mine. Once I stopped drinking, I really didn’t go through any booze-fighting. That doesn’t mean it was easy, necessarily, but it was easier [for me than it was for Scudder].

Could you talk about your own path to sobriety?

I’d rather not. I’m not absolutely certain how applicable I feel the letter of the 11th Tradition [maintaining anonymity at a public level] is, but I prefer to do that.

Do writers face any particular challenges in getting and staying sober?

I think writers certainly think so. But one thing I’ve discovered over time is that every profession thinks that. I’ve heard people say, “Well, y’know, I was a printer, and printers all drink.” Or, “I was a fireman, and firemen all drink.” So there’s always a reason. “I was a nun, and of course...” [Laughs.]

I heard a woman in a meeting one time say, “My name is Helen, and I’m an alcoholic, and I also happen to be a nun. And a lot of people both in my religious order and in my family have given me a lot of grief about my sobriety and I have had to learn, for the sake of my sobriety and for my own inner peace of mind, to tell those people to go fuck themselves.” It was one of the finest moments of any meeting.

Samuel Reaves Slaton is a Reviews Editor at Publishers Weekly and a poet.

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