Everybody’s got a hero, right? Someone to look up to. I had one — still do, actually, though he died a few years ago. Donald Westlake.
Way back when, probably ten years before he died (in 2008), Donald Westlake was supposed to do a book signing at an all-mystery bookstore in South Pasadena — closed now, though it was there for years. I knew the couple that owned it, did some (fairly inept) promotion for them for a while, and was hugely excited at the prospect of actually meeting Westlake. If a grown man could claim to still have heroes, this was mine: my definition of the working writer; what I wanted to grow up to be even in my forties.
I’d been reading Westlake for as long as I could remember, seeing the books and TV shows based on his work. I knew that he’d sold his first story at 19, just like I did; that he’d gone to full-time writing in his late twenties, just like I did (for a while, anyway), and he was a flippin’ genius at sliding from genre to genre — thriller, straight mystery, serious caper, comedy caper, hard-boiled actioner, then back again.
The day for the event came … and it was that day that we all realized we had put the wrong dates on all the promotional material. Mr. Westlake as going to be there the day before we had announced, and everything — everything — we’d done, from ads to announcements to the sign above the store, was wrong.
He was going to be coming to an empty store. Empty except for me.
We bravely set up the table and stacked the books, and when he showed up (no handler, no reps, just him) right on time, the owners bravely told him what had happened, and how sorry they were, but most likely he would be sitting alone in the store for the next ninety minutes … if he decided to stay at all.
He didn’t get mad. He didn’t even seem annoyed. He said, “Well, you never know,” and sat own behind the table, shook my hand and say, “Sit on down. What is it you do?”
I had just died and gone to heaven.
At that point, I’d had one book published years earlier, and I’d written a lot of other stuff for money, but nothing close to what he had done — in his life or at my age. He didn’t give a damn. He treated me like a colleague, and we spent the next two hours talking about writing, who we read, how we — we — made a living. He was the first to quote to me the three rules of writing from his friend — his friend — Robert Heinlein: “1. Write every day; 2. Finish what you write; 3. Send it out, and keep sending it out ’til it sells.”
It was a conversation that really, truly, changed my life. Here was a man who had spent his whole life writing what he wanted, seeing it sell, learning more and then doing it again. He took a quiet pride in his work, but there was no massive ego, no drama, no angst. He was just .. .happy. A happy may, happy to tell stories. And from that moment on, I thought, That’s what I want to be when I grow up.
Though he wrote under a whole crowd of pen names, a bunch of his books are still available in paper and e form. Go here to get Amazon’s long list of what’s available, or go to any one of the dwindling number of used bookstores and stock up. You can choose at random; no worries. I quite literally never read a Donald Westlake book I didn’t like.
I learned a lot during our conversation, that spring afternoon so long ago, And I don’t think I’ve forgotten a word of it.