Whodunit Author Tells How He Did It
Spenser novelist Robert B. Parker speaks at BU tonight
When a world-famous author decides to donate personal papers documenting decades of output to a university archive, he might be expected to have conflicted emotions. But when mystery writer Robert B. Parker agreed recently to give Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center his papers and drafts, a single consideration dominated.
“They were piling up in my cellar,” says Parker (GRS’59,’71). “It’s also true that the Gotlieb is rather widely known, so I said yes. But the deal was that they could have the material if they’d come and take it away.”
That, at least, is the short version of Parker’s explanation of why the center now houses his papers. A longer version may be forthcoming when Parker speaks at the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Hall tonight, March 27.
In fact, Parker’s association with Boston University runs long and deep. The author earned both a master’s and a Ph.D. in English here. His doctoral thesis, The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, now sits in the collection at Mugar Memorial Library.
“I was desperately trying to get my Ph.D. by the time I turned 40,” he recalls. “I made it, by just about a year. The actual writing of my doctoral dissertation took about two weeks, and I know there are people who have been working on their thesis since 1918 who’ll want to shoot me for saying that. But I don’t get better by taking my time. My second draft is not an improvement, so I don’t do one. So in the summer of 1971 I went to the cellar of a BU building, and a woman took my diploma out of a box and handed it to me.”
That summer, says Parker, he started writing a mystery about a detective who recovers a valuable manuscript for a large university in Boston. The Godwulf Manuscript was published two years later. Since then, he has written more than 50 books for adults, including the Spenser novels and two newer series, featuring Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone, all regular fixtures on national best-seller lists. He also was a consultant on the late ’80s television series Spenser: For Hire, based on his books. In 2002, Parker received the Grand Master award at the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Awards.
Parker taught literature at Northeastern University after getting his doctorate, an endeavor he remembers as less than brilliant. “I just wasn’t interested in it,” he says. “I knew a lot, and some people said I was fun in the classroom, but writing was my primary interest, and I didn’t want to spend any more time rereading Paradise Lost.”
The many years Parker spent in academia are evident in the literary references that pepper his work. Not every hard-boiled detective quotes T. S. Eliot.
“A writer needs to have what Frost called ‘ulteriority,’ ” he says. “Chandler called it ‘the sound of music beyond the hill.’ The background allows the characters to know more than they actually say. I’ve been known to pooh-pooh academia, but not the acquisition of a Ph.D. That didn’t make me smarter, but it gave me a lot of useful information.”
Parker has added Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall as recurring heroes, and he continues to follow new directions. He ventures into the young-adult market for the first time with his next book, Edenville Owls (to be published next month).
“That was mostly a business decision,” he says. “I’m trying to build a suitable estate for my heirs, and they’re used to living well. In a young-adult book, the language has to be more careful, the subject matter more prudent. But I’d be a worse writer if I spent my whole life writing about the same guy.”
His advice for aspiring writers? “Write it and send it in,” says the plainspoken Parker. “Don’t show it to me, don’t show it to your Aunt Tillie. Show it to someone who can publish the thing. I wouldn’t recommend chasing the market; the only thing a writer can do is write what he or she wants to read. Then if a publisher feels they can market it successfully, they’ll publish it; if not, then they won’t.”
On Tuesday, March 27, the Friends of the Libraries of Boston University and the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center are hosting an evening with Robert B. Parker to celebrate the donation of his papers to Boston University. A reception, exhibition viewing, and book signing begin at 5:30 p.m. and Parker will speak at 6, in Metcalf Hall, on the second floor of the George Sherman Union, 775 Commonwealth Ave. Admission is free to Friends of the Libraries members and BU students and $25 for the public. For tickets or for more information, call 617-353-3697 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.