Donald Westlake’s Tribe

[From the vaults at, May 21, 2010]

This appeared in the MWA 2010 Edgar program guide. The theme this year was “In Good Company.”

Donald Westlake’s Tribe

by Dana Stabenow

The first time I met writers of crime fiction in bulk was at the 1993 Edgar Awards. Donald Westlake was the grand master. I was nominated that year so I wasn’t really in my body that evening, but one thing Westlake said then did stick with me. “You’re my tribe,” he said, and he even said it again and thumped the lectern to make sure we got it. “You’re my tribe.”

This was a room filled with people dressed like they’d just wandered off the set of Dynasty. Plus it was in New York City. Plus it was, well, Donald Westlake. This was the guy who dreamed up Dortmunder, and suddenly I’m Naphtali to his Issachar?

I went home in something of a daze, to be greeted with an invitation to contribute a short story to an anthology edited by Tony Hillerman. Excuse me? Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee, that Tony Hillerman? Like there were two.

Later that year I went to my first Bouchercon, in Omaha, where I experienced my first dinner with a table full of other crime fiction writers, and I mean every single person there was a published author. The conversation was a revelation. It turned out I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought adverbs were important.

That instant and unquestioning acceptance into the tribe, from Westlake to Hillerman to that table in the Omaha Holiday Inn was humbling, and heartening. I now had friends who spoke my language.

Writing is a solitary, even at times a lonely occupation, and to anyone outside the tribe esoteric in the extreme. It takes us a year to produce a book someone will read in an evening, and if we do our jobs right they won’t notice how we struggled to arrange the paragraphs on the page so that the density of the text doesn’t yank them out of the narrative. Who else worries over the proper usage of lay and lie, except us? Who else can we argue over Strunk and White with, except each other? Who else knows what pass proofs are, or sell-through numbers, or the importance of a translator in Japan?

Some of us in the MWA are tribal chieftans and the rest of us mere hunters and gatherers, but the shared fact that we all sweat blood getting the words down on the page provides common cause and a common bond, and above all a common tongue. My family and friends, much as I love them, are more ept with the gillnet and the Super Cub and the .30-06. It is a tremendous gift to be able to pick up the phone and call Laurie King and shriek my outrage over the copyedit of the latest manuscript without having to explain what a copyedit is.

Well, it’s a gift for me. Laurie might say otherwise.

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4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Me? Would I argue with the amanuensis of Kate Shugak? Mutt would get right on a plane and come talk with me. The only time I object to having someone call to harangue me about adverbs is when that person forgets that we’re more than half a dozen time zones apart…

  2. Adverbs are the tool of the undead. My son explained that in great detail, with illustrations mind you, about 25 years ago. I have had nothing in my life to use to argue this.

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