Novelist Ace Atkins talks about carrying on Robert B. Parker's legacy at the Sun
At Auburn University, Ace Atkins majored in Robert B. Parker.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Atkins, class of ’91 and a starting defensive end on an unbeaten Tigers football team, technically majored in journalism. But even then Atkins — now a New York Times bestselling novelist many times over — was protractedly Parker-centric. By the time Atkins was a senior, Parker had published 18 titles in his iconic and genre-defining series starring Boston private investigator Spenser, and Atkins owned all of them. He frequently carried one or more to class and, even today, you don’t want to mess with Atkins on any aspect of Parker or Spenser trivia.
This is particularly resonant because, after Parker died in 2010, his estate selected Atkins to continue the Spenser series. It was a huge honor and responsibility — and not remotely an easy job. Parker’s sparse, witty style, with a reliance on scalpel-sharp dialogue and a slowly growing and evolving list of wonderful support characters, was a fusion of noir and literature that earned respect and fans from across the critical spectrum.
But, over the course of four Atkins-penned Spenser adventures — “Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby,” “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland,” “Robert B. Parker’s Cheap Shot” and the just-out “Robert B. Parker’s Kickback” — response has been almost universally enthusiastic. Even hard-line naysayers, folks who sneer at the idea of one author taking on another writer’s legacy and/or franchise protagonist, agree that Atkins has done the near impossible. He’s not only duplicated Parker’s singular voice but also incorporated and even advanced the essential core elements of the series into fresh, ongoing and real-world situations.
For example, in “Kickback,” a suburban mom hires Spenser after her teenage son, arrested after an online prank targeting a school official, is imprisoned in a juvelile boot camp. Based on actual situations, Atkins sends Spenser and his longtime and lethal alter-ego, Hawk, into action.
On Monday, Atkins appears in the Mohegan Sun Cabaret to discuss and sign copies of “Kickback” as the latest in the casino’s “Winning Author” series. I’ll be onstage to interview Atkins.
A caveat: Atkins is a friend. I met him writing for The Day when Atkins’ debut novel, “Crossroads Blues,” the first book in a series starring blues archivist Nick Travers, was published. We bonded over a shared affection for barbecue, dogs, music and the books of Parker and James Lee Burke. When my wife and I lost our beloved Puppy Brown, Atkins was quick to offer sympathy. More than that, as he and his wife Angela foster rescue dogs from their farm outside Oxford, Miss., he called to let us know he’d found a perfect hound for us. We drove south and brought back a Catahoula mix named Gumbo — and the friendship has endured even as Atkins’ fame and success have blossomed. He wrote four stand-alone historical crime novels and, in an amazing feat of parallel-universe creativity, alternates the Spenser books with his own Quinn Colson series, which stars an ex-Army Ranger-turned-sheriff of a rural and crime-ridden Mississippi town.
Stylistically, the Colson books could not be more different than Spenser. They’re densely plotted and describe a way of life and characters vastly removed from Parker’s Boston. At the same time, there are similarities in the heroes’ morality and worldviews. And, yes, Atkins can deliver, when you least expect it, laugh-out-loud humor.
Earlier this week, we talked about “Kickback,” Parker and Atkins’ work in general. Here are highlights from that conversation.
On the idea that the secret of Parker’s prose magic might rest in the pulse of the words.
“It’s absolutely true. The rhythm of his language is almost musical. I learned as much about writing from listening to Robert Johnson as I did from reading Bob Parker. There’s an ongoing flow and cadence that’s very difficult to pull off. I’m not sure all my readers realize it, but at the root what they really like about the Spenser books is the rhythm of the words.
“Of course, what’s going on and the story line is always interesting. You’re telling a story. But, as a fan myself, I never went to Spenser because of a specific case he was working on. It’s that poetry of language. I think there’s a lot Robert Frost in Parker — a lot of boiling it down and getting the maximum impact from each word. I’m telling you, it’s very hard to do. If you read my other novels, you know that’s not how I write. And the hardest part is that Parker made it look easy.”
On the difficulty of alternating the Spenser and Colson books — and whether he has to constantly shift gears to revise or proof one manuscript while simultaneously working on a new novel in the other series.
“I try not to have any overlap at all between the books, but it doesn’t always work. Ideally, I’ll be ending the copy edits in one book as I’m just starting the next. And when it does overlap, it’s not pretty. (Laughs) It’s not just different setting or characters — it’s like speaking a different language. You know, when I started out, I really wanted to be Robert B. Parker. And when you’re young you emulate your heroes and I’ve become very comfortable writing him. At the same time, as you get older you need to develop your own style and ID. I hope I’ve done that.”
On using a rare Parker technique, which was to break Spenser’s first-person narrative flow with an alternating-chapter point of view from a secondary character — in “Kickback,” an anonymous young man incarcerated in the juvenile bootcamp.
“The idea is definitely modeled after a certain type of Spenser book Bob would write very occasionally. It’s not inhibiting to do but I did think of it as a challenge. I thought of seeing (blues guitar great) Buddy Guy. He’ll be onstage and say, ‘Look, I can do Stevie Ray Vaughan.’ And he’ll nail Stevie’s style. Or Jimi Hendrix. And I thought, ‘Look, I can do Bob Parker!’
“In ‘Kickback,’ I went a bit further and kept the identity of the kid anonymous because I wanted him to represent more than just the son of the woman who hired Spenser to begin with. I wanted him to represent kids from a lot of different backgrounds and situations who found themselves in the same hell.”
Over Parker’s almost 40 Spenser novels, many characters evolved and became recurring elements in the series, including Hawk and Spenser’s longtime paramour, Susan Silverman. Others are policemen Frank Belson and Martin Quirk, gangsters Joe Broz and Tony Marcus, and confederates Vinnie Morris and Zebulon Sixkill. Given a full deck of support folks, do any of them give Atkins more trouble than others?
“As we discussed, I’m lucky because I grew up on Spenser and I think a lot like him. I have more in common with Spenser than I do my own creation, Quinn Colson. Hawk is easy because I played football and my dad played and coached in the NFL and there are a lot of folks like Hawk. (Laughs) Now, Susan Silverman splits the fan base. A lot of readers don’t like her or she’s fallen out of favor. What I’ve tried to do is go back to the original creation of the character, when Susan was tougher and brash and she and Spenser sort of had this ‘Thin Man’ dynamic. I got to know Bob’s wife, Joan, a lot over her last years and I started writing Susan thinking, ‘What would Joan say?’ And that helped.”
On how much he had to re-learn about Spenser once he got the job. Did he re-read all of the books?
“I didn’t actually make notes, but when it was official I was gonna do this, I went back to the first book, ‘The Godwulf Manuscript,’ and I read all 39 of them over about 18 months. I just absorbed the evolution and what he was doing. The mid-’80s was my favorite period. It’s like watching a great athlete in his prime. I wanted to incorporate elements from that era. I definitely don’t worry about someone emailing me saying, ‘Hey, in the third Spenser you left out this or that.’ Bring it on! I know it all, trust me. There was a place in Tampa when I lived there called Taqueria Quetzalcoatl and they had a Spenser Trivia Night. If you won, you got a free bowl of guacamole or whatever. And I’d walk in and they’d say, ‘Oh, crap, you’re back again.’ I ate a lot of free guacamole.”
IF YOU GO
Who: Bestselling novelist Ace Atkins interviewed by The Day's Rick Koster
What: As the latest in the Mohegan Sun's "Winning Authors" series, Atkins will discuss and sign copies of his latest book, "Robert B. Parker's Kickback
When and where: 7:30 discussion in the Mohegan Sun Cabaret, 8:30 p.m. signing in Shops at Mohegan Sun concourse
How much: Free, copies of "Kickback" will be available for purchase at Spin Street in the Shops at Mohegan Sun
For more information: mohegansun.com, aceatkins.com
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