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Interview: August 12, 2005

August 12, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed bestselling author and award-winning television producer/screenwriter Stephen J. Cannell about his recently released COLD HIT. Cannell discusses his illustrious film and TV career and segue into the literary world, as well as the controversial current political events that fuel his latest Shane Scully novel. He also describes his painstaking research methods, explains the ups and downs of writing with a learning disability, and even shares a recipe for a tasty appetizer. Tell us how you came up with the idea for writing COLD HIT and please share with our readers what that term actually means.

Stephen J. Cannell: I started out by wondering about the counter-terrorist division of the LAPD (CTB). It took me almost a month to convince the head of that division, John Miller, to let me hang out with them for a while. Once I got to the inside, I realized that it was set up and operated much differently than I had suspected. There were complicated, overlapping jurisdictions between LAPD, Treasury, the FBI, and Homeland Security.

As I researched further, I realized that the U.S. Patriot Act (USPA) and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) were a big part of the equation. I started to look into these two acts, and as I did, the theme for my novel was born. (My feeling is that much of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is abrogated by USPA and FISA).

Then I began the plotting process, which would lead Shane and his wife, Alexa (head of the LAPD Detective Bureau), into an international case involving all of these agencies.

A "cold hit" is a police term describing a circumstance where one crime is tied to another by a ballistics match.

BRC: COLD HIT is perhaps our favorite Shane Scully novel, due in large part to the forensic elements of the book. We were interested to learn that there was a "Symbols and Hieroglyphics" section in the LAPD. All of your novels reflect painstaking research, and you graciously acknowledge those who were of assistance to you. How do you go about making the contacts you utilize in writing your novels? Do you know most of the individuals beforehand? Do you make cold calls? Or are you referred by people who you know to people who you don't?

SJC: All of the above. You start out looking for a way in, usually by imposing on the good auspices of friends. Then, you follow your leads from there. In all of my novels, I want to take my reader someplace they may not have been before. I want them to feel that they are getting a look at the real deal. That means that if I'm not already intimately familiar with this area, I have to get myself in somehow. All of the information on serial crime was gleaned from the time I spent at the Behavioral Science Lab in Quantico, Virginia or from extensive reading of books by FBI profilers like John Douglas or Ann Burgess. In order to understand USPA and FISA, I needed help from a Constitutional Law professor at UCLA. The Homeland Security stuff was learned by contacting a friend of mine in U.S. Customs. You dig. You hold onto relationships. You try and pay these people back with good deeds of your own.

BRC: One of the more interesting aspects of COLD HIT is the interplay of different law enforcement agencies that frequently find themselves at loggerheads, if not opposed to each other, while trying to do their respective jobs. If you could run things for a day, what steps would you take to alleviate, if not resolve, this problem?

SJC: I'm not sure I'm smart enough to eliminate this problem. Certainly, the formation of Homeland Security and the new rules mandating the sharing of information should help, but these law enforcement cultures and the jealousies between competing agencies are historical and will not be easy to overcome.

BRC: When you were conducting research for COLD HIT, did you find it difficult to get law enforcement officials to give their opinions on the Patriot Act?

SJC: Obviously, law enforcement, for the most part, loves the expanded powers given to them by USPA and FISA. How nice to be able to plant a bug without going to a municipal or federal courthouse for a warrant, but to a secret court of FISA judges instead. How nice to be able to bug a person, instead of a location, which was the old way and much less efficient.

Before I wrote COLD HIT, I would ask people what they thought of the Patriot Act. Everybody had strong opinions, both pro and con. But nobody could explain the fine points of the act to me. Once of the things I tried to do in this novel was set up a situation where my hero falls prey to an abuse of power provided by USPA and FISA. In so doing, I have been able to show how, in the wrong hands, some of our Constitutional freedoms can be abridged. (By the way, much of what's in USPA is very helpful and does not take away our Constitutional freedoms. It is just one or two provisions that are, in my opinion, troublesome.)

BRC: Given the sensitive nature of the Patriot Act, did you or your publishers have any hesitation about writing a novel focusing on this theme?

SJC: None at all. We live in a great country that encourages a forum for political debate.

BRC: At one point you say, "Just what this country needs, another self-serving power junkie in the White House. God help us." When you write something like this, are you allowing your characters to voice your own politics?

SJC: Not at all. Actually, I didn't say that. Shane's wife, Alexa, did. I'm pretty sure that if you tried to guess at my political leanings, you might be wrong. It has been said that anyone who runs for high office needs a love of power. Without it, he or she will not know how to use power when they get it, and will probably abuse it --- a pretty good definition of why we have power-lovers in high office. I don't think this phenomenon is limited to any one party.

BRC: There is a storyline where Scully is speaking to his son Chooch about values that impressed us. There is a great line where he tells his son, "if there's one thing I can try to give you, it's this: You don't have to impress anyone to be important. Around us you can be yourself. You can have big dreams and all of us will help you live them." He later says, "The way to true happiness in life is to love what you're doing, not how well other people say you're doing it. It's an important distinction." We get the feeling there is a lot of Cannell's philosophy on life contained herein. Can you talk more about this?

SJC: I have tried to live by this idea. I also have tried to teach it to my children. Unhappiness is produced when you look for validation from others, or when you make money the reason. I believe only one person can grade your paper, and that person should be you. You have to be willing to take a stand on things. Not because they are popular, but because they are things you believe in. That means, do what you love, not what others think you should do. I've never met a truly successful person who was in it for the money. Most successful people love what they are doing.

BRC: You reference police officers who are thinking book and movie deals as the case progresses. Do you hear law enforcement officers banter these ideas around seriously, or are they joking? On a related topic, do people hold back evidence to be the hero?

SJC: On high profile cases, everybody involved seems to end up with a book deal or a movie deal. Ask Mark Fuhrman (ex-LAPD) or Gloria Allred. It is certainly true that cops working on a task force tend to hoard information. The cop who breaks a high profile case will get a gold shield and a fast track up the career ladder. Why give your good stuff to the person at the next desk and let him score? People are people. It doesn't change just because you pin on a badge.

BRC: You describe an appetizer of cream cheese with A-1 Sauce. Tell us, have you personally tried this? And if so, give us the lowdown on it.

SJC: This is one of the best, easy-to-make appetizers known to man. My wife discovered it when we were first married forty years ago. We used to serve it to guests when we couldn't afford much. We still eat it, and so does almost everybody who tried it back then. It is a unique compilation of tastes. Pour the A-1 over a block of Philadelphia cream cheese and spread it on a cracker with a knife. Try it…you'll thank me.

BRC: While your last several novels, including COLD HIT, have featured Shane Scully, a number of your earlier works were stand-alone novels. Do you have any plans for future novels that involve characters other than Shane Scully? On a related note, do you plan to return to any of the characters from your earlier novels as the subject for a future novel?

SJC: I'm always interested in doing a stand-alone book if I can come up with a good idea for one. I'm certainly enjoying Shane Scully these days, and have promised my publisher that I will write one of these a year. Since all my books live tonally in the same world, any of my old characters could show up again if they didn't already stop a bullet.

BRC: What is the easiest part of the creative process for you? The most difficult? Do you find that this changes from project to project?

SJC: I love all of it. I'm somewhat unique in this regard. I have a learning disability (dyslexia). As a result, I never did well in school. Strangely enough, this condition has been a great help. Most of my writing friends agonize endlessly over their work. The reason for this is that often they were the best students and they are seeking to uphold that legacy of brilliance. I, on the other hand, had the idea that I would be brilliant beaten out of me with a string of D's and F's by the fourth grade. I love that I'm a writer. I feel blessed to be doing this. I don't agonize; I have fun with the process. This, more than anything else, is responsible for my prolific career. I'm having a ball. It's fun, and that makes it easy.

BRC: Have you given any thought to an ongoing television series featuring Scully, perhaps on FX or USA?

SJC: I'm in discussions right now to do one of the Shane Scully novels as a major motion picture… Stay tuned.

BRC: You have been involved in the entertainment industry and are known for your television and film work, as well as your novels. When did you know that you wanted to write books? How is writing a novel different from writing a screenplay? Do you envision your characters on the screen as you are writing a novel?

SJC: I think the first moment I got interested in writing I wanted to write a novel, but I was afraid of the process. I decided to try TV instead. The stories were shorter and more contained. My success in that venue really took me by surprise and completely overwhelmed me. I have created or co-created over forty TV series, producing them through my own independent studio. I obviously didn't have any time to write a novel. When I sold the Cannell Studios in '95, I felt that in the intervening years, I had finally matured enough as a writer to attempt a novel. THE PLAN was my first shot. It became a national bestseller. I haven't looked back.

Novel writing and screenplay writing are substantially the same. Certainly, the self-discipline required is identical. I sit down and write for five hours, seven days a week. I prefer novel writing to screenwriting for two reasons: First, a novel is a larger, more complicated exercise and I can go deeper into my material. Second, a novelist has the use of omniscient author (the ability to go into a character's head and access his or her thoughts). In a screenplay, everything must come out of the character's mouth, which is much more of a craft, and is hard to do.

I never think about actors when I write a novel. People often ask me who I would like to play Shane Scully. I haven't given this any thought. The minute I put an actor's face and voice on him, he would change from the person he is in my mind.

BRC: A number of your books and television shows center on law enforcement. What sparked your fascination with this area? Beyond research for your projects, have you formally studied criminal justice, law, forensics, etc.?

SJC: I got started writing cop shows on TV and became something of an expert on police work in the process. (I used to go on ride-alongs with the LAPD as part of my job as head writer on "Adam-12" when I was 29 years old.) Since then, I have kept up my contacts in the LAPD because I think that reality is always more interesting than stuff I make up. I like to spend time actually observing. Before I wrote THE TIN COLLECTORS (a novel about the LAPD Internal Affairs Division), I spent two months down at IA, sitting in the back of Board of Rights hearings, watching how it was done. I got to know the advocates (police sergeants who prosecute these cases) and the defense reps (police officers who are chosen by the accused to defend them). I took these people to lunch and got a good look at how things really went down at IAD.

BRC: Your website notes a group called the Crime Lab Project. Are you heavily involved with this group? What can you tell us about this organization?

SJC: I have just added this link to my site. Jan Burke, another fine author friend of mine, is very involved with this group and I am just now getting closer to them.

BRC: Which authors have influenced your written work? And are there any particular authors whose work you read for pleasure?

SJC: John D. MacDonald was very influential in my early writing. When I was doing "The Rockford Files," I was always reading a Travis McGee. Rockford was my Travis. There are many, many authors I read for pleasure, to name a few: Michael Connelly, T. Jefferson Parker, Barbara Seranella, Paula Woods, Andrew Klavan, Nelson DeMille, John Sanford, John Grisham, Scott Turow, and Janet Evanovich.

BRC: You have been very active in assisting individuals who are troubled by dyslexia, a condition that you have as well. What can you share with our readers about how you see yourself as a role model for those who are trying to overcome this handicap?

SJC: I don't view dyslexia as a handicap. I simply think and organize thoughts in a different way. Often dyslexics are very inventive (ie: Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Christian Anderson and many others.) School is often difficult for dyslexics, unless you get your child diagnosed early. There are many ways to help him or her through this difficult period. Obviously, I make my living as a writer, something many think a dyslexic can't do. There is a big difference between writing and spelling. I can't spell, but who cares?

BRC: Will Shane Scully be back in a future novel? When can readers expect your next book?

SJC: Yes, he will be back next year in a novel entitled WHITE SISTER, which should be published in July, 2006.