Joseph Wambaugh
The Author

BIOGRAPHY | INTERVIEW | STRAND INTERVIEW

INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPH WAMBAUGH

Q: In Hollywood Crows, as in all of your books, you seem to be able to inhabit an entire chorus of different voices. Is there a process or a trick or a technique you use to get inside these different voices? What would you say the biggest challenge is for you in creating a particular voice?

A: I’ve noticed that in so-called literary novels, characters often speak in the same or similar voice, which I suspect is the voice of the author, whereas in well-written “popular” novels, such as those of Stephen King, the characters speak in different voices. Conclusion: perhaps the chorus of voices in the more popular novels is what makes them popular? It may come from my interest in watching movies and writing movie and TV scripts, but I try to perform the dialogue in my head to see if it sounds true to the character I am creating. Sometimes I’m halfway through the book and have to completely change the character or the character’s dialogue because the character is fighting with me and does not want to talk that way.

Q: Which writers do you most admire, and which have had the greatest influence on your work?

A: There are too many writers I admire to list them here. I have said many times that Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) influenced The Onion Field (and gave it a splendid jacket quote), and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) influenced The Choirboys.

Q: At the center of your book is a femme fatale who is full of surprises—Margot Aziz. How did you generate this character? Did you build the story around her, or was she a product of the story in a way?

A: Margot Aziz was in the story mix from the inception. I’ve always liked noirish stories in book and film that are set in L.A., and they always seem to involve a bad blonde. She certainly qualifies.

Q: Bix Ramstead, Gert Von Braun, Flotsam and Jetsam—there are certainly some intriguing character names in your book. How did you come up with these? Do you name a character before you discover who she is, or vice versa?

A: Character names sometimes change as the story progresses when the characters are fighting me. In these cases they did not. Flotsam and Jetsam were naturals for a pair of California surfers. Bix, I think, was named because I admired old jazz musicians like the legendary Bix Beiderbecke. Gert Von Braun was a physical, sturdy (size 37 Sam Browne belt) female officer who took no crap from men, and hence a Germanic name seemed appropriate.

Q: What are you working on now? Is there a follow-up to Hollywood Crows in the works?

A: Currently I am working on a novel to complete my Hollywood trilogy, involving some of the same cops.

Q: The big story in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times was that crime is down in L.A., but the murder rate is up 35%. Why do you think this is?

A: Always be careful of stats. L.A. is very much plagued by well armed gangs and that drives the murder rate.

Q: Your recent novels seem to suggest that cops have to push to much paper and it prevents them from actually being police officers. Do you propose a solution to such a paper chase?

A: Yes, a solution would be for the federal judge overseeing the LAPD “consent decree” to end it and get a life.

Q: Seeing how closely police officers’ actions are scrutinized these days, especially within the LAPD, would you want to be a cop today?

A: I would still want to be a cop because, as the Oracle said to the troops in Hollywood Station, “Doing good police work is the most fun you will ever have in your entire lives.”

Q: There’s a chance the U.S. will elect a woman for president; do you think a woman would make a good police chief?

A: There are women police chiefs in many cities and there is no reason that L.A. shouldn't have one.

Q: You’ve had bestselling novels in four different decades. How has publishing changed? Has it lost or gained anything?

A: Publishing used to be a more intimate enterprise engaged in by people who loved books and respected authors. Back in the day, they would actually publish a lot books that deserved to be read even though the books were sure to lose money. Now publishing is controlled by a few huge conglomerates, and the bottom line is bucks.

Q: Any regrets with any of your novels or television and film projects?

A: I never go back and reread my books, because I am super self-critical and would find too many things I'd wish I'd done better. My TV and film work was pretty good, but nobody should think that screenwriters are in control of the product.

Q: Any film or TV plans underway for Hollywood Crows since the writers' strike ended?

A: Hollywood Crows and Hollywood Station are being looked at by TV and feature producers, but nothing is settled as yet.

Q: What’s something you wish journalists would ask you about yourself or your work?

A: I wish that journalists would ask specific questions about the work, but of course, 90 percent of them are too busy to actually read the books.

Q: What’s the question you’re most tired of answering?

A: I'm tired of answering how the LAPD felt about my first book. That was eons ago. Get over it.

Q: I read in the introduction Michael Connelly wrote for the soon-to-be-reissued mass-market editions of The Blue Knight and The New Centurions that you wrote your first book on a manual typewriter. Do you still have that typewriter?

A: I no longer have my little Royal portable typewriter. I used to make carbon copies. I know, what's a carbon copy?

Q: In addition to writing novels, you've also worked on a number of films. Which medium do you prefer, and what is the difference between writing for film and writing a novel?

A: Of course, no writer on the planet would be writing movies or TV episodes if a successful novel was a safe bet for the writer. The author controls the book. In TV and movies, everyone, it seems, has more control than the writer. I did have control over The Onion Field and The Black Marble films because my wife and I partially financed and raised the money for them. We had no studio or no production entity backing us up. If we had failed, we would have had the world's most expensive home movies. It was a very dumb thing to do, but somehow we got away with it. One other thought: writing a screenplay adaptation of my own novel (prior to the novel's publication) is helpful to the editing process of the novel. When a nuanced book of 430 manuscript pages has to be reduced to a 110-page screenplay, the writer is forced to cut every ounce of fat, and more important, to get out of a scene and into another quickly. Writing a screenplay is helpful to developing a feel for pace.

Q: Los Angeles and the LAPD are obviously very important to your writing. How well do you think you need to know a place to use it as a setting for a novel?

A: I don't need to know a place at all. I know people. I know cops. I know crime. I went to the Midlands of England to write my true-crime book The Blooding, the true story of the discovery of DNA "fingerprinting" and its first use in a murder investigation. I went to Philadelphia and Harrisburg to research Echoes in the Darkness, another true-crime story, about multiple murders involving schoolteachers. I also wrote a four-hour miniseries about that case.

Q: How do you know when a book is finished?

A: I just have a feeling when a book is finished. The trick is, when's it's finished, stop tinkering with it. Just let it go and save the tinkering for the editing phase. And when that's finished, let it go for good and don't go back to it or you'll find lots of little things you'll regret not having done better.

Q: Your characters are so rich and nuanced. How do you create them? Do you base them on specific people whom you have met? Or do you make notes of specific qualities in a variety of people and merge them together? Do your characters develop as you write or do you know exactly who they are when you begin?

A: My characters are pretty much composites of people I've met. Sometimes they're pretty close to the living people. My work is character-driven, and by that I mean that once I create the characters, I start narrating their story without a clear idea of where they are going. I let the characters take me there, and during the journey, I get a better idea of who they are and make changes in order to accommodate them.