When you spend half a century honing your craft, winning awards and publishing more than 100 books, your oeuvre commands the type of gravitas that can call upon nearly two dozen celebrity authors and not only invite them to consider an unusual literary project, but actually get them to commit to it. So it was with Lawrence Block, a New York author who has been writing crime, mystery and suspense fiction since the late 1950s.
Yet, in an interview with Mountain Times, Block is quick to deflect the credit for luring names such as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver and a baker’s dozen of like-authors to submit a short story based on a simple premise — an Edward Hopper painting of his or her choice.
Instead, Block says, the credit goes to Hopper and the draw of his art.
But no matter to where the recognition truly lies, we now have “In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper,” (Pegasus Books), a stunningly well-produced edition of short stories by 17 masters, edited by Block.
To submit a story for the volume, Block’s ground rules were simple. Choose a painting and use it as you will. And so they did, with the result being stories that deflect, reflect, imbibe or tackle Hopper’s work head-on.
That each story is preceded by a color plate of the painting from which its subject is taken speaks not only to a successful challenge of obtaining permissions, but to a superior production effort from the publisher. This is one volume that a reader should embrace in hard cover.
And indeed, so welcome an embrace did Block receive from his colleagues and publishing house for “In Sunlight or in Shadow,” he has already embarked on another like-minded project.
But, first things first. Recently, Block agreed to answer a few questions about this new book for Mountain Times. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom: You make it clear in the foreward that the idea of combining the artwork of Edward Hopper with an A-list of authors was somewhat organic. What made you think that others, i.e. a publishing house and celebrity authors, would sign on for the project?
Lawrence: I thought it would appeal to writers because it seems to me that, in addition to having a very strong appeal to Americans and, indeed, to human beings in general, I’ve come to believe that Hopper was of particular interest to readers and writers.
Tom: Why is there that interest?
Lawrence: It’s not because he’s a narrative painter … in fact, he rejected that description and said that what he was painting was light and forms, the same as everybody else. So, it’s not that his paintings tell stories, it’s that one gets the sense that they hold stories that are waiting to be told. I thought this would resonate with writers. As far as a publisher publishing it, I had no idea whether or not that would work. In fact, it took awhile until the right house turned up with the right enthusiasm.
Tom: Your who’s who of author contributors, including major sluggers such as Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, Michael Connelly, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King and yourself, is impressive. But, who surprised you most by agreeing to submit a story?
Lawrence: A whole lot of people, really. I was surprised that Craig Ferguson (“Taking Care of Business”) wanted to do it. I certainly know his work as a writer. He’s written a couple of books and did some TV script work before he really caught on as a TV personality. I had no idea he’d want to do something like this.
Turns out, he’s a fan of Hopper and appreciated the challenge. It’s certainly always a surprise when someone like Stephen King does something of this sort because he is more than fully booked, and a very busy fellow. But, I had a feeling that he might have a particular response to the painter, and indeed he did. I’m thinking the painting that he picked (“Room in New York,” 1932) is one that he owns a reproduction of and has had on the wall of his house for years.
Tom: Stephen King was a last minute entry to the book, wasn’t he?
Lawrence: I had approached him right away, and he said the loved the idea and if he could find the time for it, he would. I said, “Can I put you down as a definite remote possibility?” He said, “That about sums it up.” And, then he surprised me by having a story.
Tom: You’ve been writing for a long time and have obviously made deep contacts. Did you use your personal rolodex to come up with the author list?
Lawrence: These are people I know to one degree or another. And, I made a list, focused toward people with fan value because we did want to find a publisher who would do this, and also people who I thought would come up with particularly good stories. What was surprising was the number of people who said, “yes.” Hardly anyone turned me down. A couple of people absolutely didn’t have time. A couple of people I queried didn’t like writing stories to order, but there were very few of these. So, the table of contents and my initial dream list are pretty close.
Tom: Do you care to share who surprised you most by not submitting a story?
Lawrence: No, I don’t want to do that.
Tom: It appears that you put no other parameters on the story submissions other than they must be attached to a particular Hopper painting of the author’s choosing. This leads to a wonderfully eclectic feel to the range of stories, and makes each one fresh and surprising — like a box of assorted fine chocolates. Was this by design, or a lucky happenstance?
Lawrence: A problem with anthologies, assuming that there is a theme of some sort to them so that it isn’t just 17 stories by 17 people, is that they tend to have the sameness to them because of that theme. … You may end up with a book full of good stories, but reading them one after another is difficult because of the sameness. Here, that just didn’t happen because the unifying element was Hopper, and that led the stories to being whatever they wanted to be. Because many of the writers are linked to crime fiction at a greater or lesser extent, and because I, as anthologist, am included in that genre, certainly a large number of the stories are crime stories … but a lot are not.
Tom: I have to admit, that although the best known authors in the anthology submitted solid stories — and, I’m thinking especially of Oates’ “The Woman in the Window,” Deaver’s “The Incident of 10 November,” and Child’s “The Truth About What Happened” — the best stories are by those whose names aren’t as generally popular. Nicholas Christopher’s “Rooms by the Sea” comes out of nowhere, for example. Did you have this experience when reading the submissions?
Lawrence: I had read a couple of novels by Nick Christopher and I admire his work enormously. I hadn’t really known him … his brother, actually, is a friend of mine. So, I met Nick and proposed this and the story he came up with absolutely blew me away. In fact, he’s done a story for my next anthology, which Pegasus will be bringing out in December, which is similar but, in this instance, each writer has picked a different painter.
Tom: You’ve published more than 100 books and have been writing for half a century, and your personal talent is on fine display in your submission to the volume, “Automat” — one of my favorites. How did you get from Hopper to this story of what Michael Lindgren writing for the Washington Post rightly calls “a satisfying tale of cunning big-city grift?”
Lawrence: I don’t know. I don’t know how any story idea comes to a person. Just looking at it and thinking about the automat, which I’m old enough to recall in person, and the story idea came along.
Tom: Some authors take their tales directly from the painting they chose, while others use Hopper’s work as more of a backdrop. Did the approach of other writers surprise you, given how you approached your own story or your vast range of experience?
Lawrence: Yes, and in some of the stories there is an interpretation of Hopper himself. Sort of, by inference, a character in the story. In some of the stories, Jeffrey Deaver’s for example (“The Incident of 10 November"), the actual painting plays a role in the story as it’s written. So, I figured any approach that somehow or other linked to a painting was perfectly legit.
Tom: Did any of the approaches surprise you?
Lawrence: The whole damn book surprised me. You do something like this and you hope for a good, fair percentage of decent stories, and I was blown away by the fact that I liked all of the stories.
Tom: Perhaps the most satisfying takeaway from the book for me is the launch pad it serves for exploring the other works of the authors with which I was less familiar. Is the law of unintended consequences at work, or was that intent purposely built into the construction of the anthology?
Lawrence: That’s the way it is anytime an anthology really works. It’s going to introduce its readers to some new writers.
Tom: I want to remark on the quality of the print publication. Hopper’s paintings are sure to look wonderful in the e-edition on a color reader, but the publishing house, Pegasus Books, did an outstanding job with the color print reproduction and paper quality. This was not an inexpensive project to produce. Who gets the credit for production?
Lawrence: Who gets the credit for that is really Pegasus Books and Claiborne Hancock, who is the head of the company. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. And, that they did this … the list price on the book is $25.95, and with this kind of color work and this kind of production, I thought the book would probably come in at around $35, so, how they managed this is beyond me.
Tom: As a final point, I want to touch on the “18th painting,” the one that serves as a frontispiece and the only Hopper painting in the volume unattached to a story. You explain why that is, and you invite readers to make up their own stories for the painting. And although you just as quickly disinvite them from sharing those stories with you. …
Lawrence: Oh, you bet. The last thing I wanted was to get deluged with stories based on “Cape Cod Morning.”
Tom: I’m wondering how many unsolicited submissions you received anyway?
Lawrence: So far, none!
Tom: Editing a work such as this can be exhausting and can take you away from your day job, and, as you’ve said, there are plans to tackle another anthology right away. Why?
Lawrence: I was just really pleased at the way this one turned out. I found myself thinking, is there another painter one could do this with? I really couldn’t think of one who could sustain a book the way that Hopper did, and I thought, if you can’t do one, the answer is that you should do about 18 — and again made up a list and invited people to submit to a book that will be called “Alive in shape and color,” with each person invited to pick a different painter.
The first thing I did was to invite everybody who was in this book, because there is no way I would feel comfortable leaving them out after what they’d done. And, I was again astonished by the percentage that said yes. I didn’t expect that many to say yes because there’s really no money in this for the writers, and precious little incentive. But happily, almost all of them wanted to do it.
Tom: Lawrence, thank you for your time. Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t spoken about today?
Lawrence: I don’t know if you know this, but two stories in the volume did get nominated for Edgar Allan Poe Awards.
Tom: And those two are?
Lawrence: The Stephen King story (“The Music Room”), which it did not surprise me that that got nominated, and, well, mine (“Autumn At the Automat”).
Tom: The Edgars are the most prestigious awards given in the mystery genre. Congratulations.
Lawrence: Thank you, Tom.