STRAND MAGAZINE INTERVIEW WITH JOSEPH WAMBAUGH
by Andrew F. Gulli
“Let us dispel forever the notion that Mr. Wambaugh is only a former cop who happens to write books. This would be tantamount to saying that Jack London was first and foremost a sailor. Mr. Wambaugh is, in fact, a writer of genuine power, style, wit and originality, who has chosen to write about the police in particular as a means of expressing his views on society in general.” -Evan Hunter
In a 10-year career with the Los Angeles Police Department, Joseph Wambaugh saw it all—murders, robberies, departmental politics, personality clashes, gunshots, car chases and the heart-wrenching dilemmas of life in an urban jungle. His experiences as a police officer formed the basis for his first novel, The New Centurions (1971), which became a runaway bestseller and is credited with forever changing the police drama genre. He wrote the book with a view to providing an objective and reliable perspective on the LAPD. Wambaugh’s cops are anything but good-looking, heroic men doing the rewarding, glamorous job of fighting crime. Wambaugh’s bold realism portrayed cops, as burnt out, forever floating on the fringes of sanity, deeply misanthropic and poisoned by the day-to-day brutality of life on the mean streets.
With his next novel, Blue Knight (1972), also a best-seller, Wambaugh proved he was here to stay. Where The New Centurions traced the lives of a group of fresh-faced young officers beginning with their days in training at the police academy and following them until their coming of age during the Watts Riots, Wambaugh’s second novel explored the sad end of an aging, world-weary policeman, tired, cynical and callous to the suffering around him.
One of Warnbaugh’s most powerful books The Onion Field (1973), was based on a true crime: the murder of a policeman, his partner’s guilt and the cold-blooded killers who felt no remorse for their crime. With the release of The Onion Field, Wambaugh was forced to retire; his status as a best-selling writer became a diversion from his work with the LAPD—as he once said, “I would have guys in handcuffs asking me for autographs.”
Wambaugh’s resilience and staying power, throughout a four-decade writing career, is due to his ability to seamlessly change styles. He has shown a remarkable knack for biting satire with books such as The Black Marble (1978), which satirizes dog shows; The Secrets of Harry Bright (1985), which painted an unflattering portrait of wealthy southern Californians who have little regard for anything else but material comforts; The Glitter Dome (1981), a sardonic indictment of the pornography industry; and Floaters (1996), a mischievous tale about the crimes and ambitions of an America’s Cup yachting team.
With the publication of Lines and Shadows (1984), Wambaugh turned his talents to true crime writing. Lines and Shadows chronicled the lives of real-life border police officers as they patrolled the California/Mexico border preventing crimes against illegal immigrants. The Blooding (1989) documented a landmark case in the UK, the first use of DNA fingerprinting to catch a killer. And Fire Lover (2002) delved into the life of an arson investigator turned arson suspect.
In 2006, Wambaugh returned to his first love, fiction, with the release of Hollywood Station, a novel that explores the seamy underbelly of Hollywood through the eyes of two cops working the night shift. As a testament to the author’s staying power, it was, of course, a major best-seller.
Wambaugh’s writing awards have been numerous. In 1981, he received the Best Motion Picture Screenplay Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his screenplay based on his book, The Black Marble. In 2003, he won the Edgar for his true crime book, Fire Lover, and in 2004 he was named a Grandmaster by the MWA.
Wambaugh’s latest novel, Hollywood Moon, will be released this November by Little, Brown and Company.
Andrew F. Gulli: When you were growing up did you ever think you’d become a writer?
Joseph Wambaugh: When I was growing up in East Pittsburgh, I never had dreams about writing, but I loved reading. I found my way to the public library at a tender age and found a world of entertainment. I never imagined myself as a writer until I majored in English in college after serving three years with the United States Marine Corps. But then, all English majors imagine themselves as writers, don’t they?
AFG: You describe your first three novelsas “moonlighting” novels. Did you have any idea that you were reinventing the police story genre?
JW: The first two books—The New Centurions and The Blue Knight—I have described as “moonlighting books.” After those two, The Onion Field made me think that I might be a pretty good writer, and The Choirboys also helped to convince me. As for reinventing the police story genre, I only started thinking of that when I saw critics struggling to describe my work in genre terms. The “police procedural” describes how the cop acts on the job. But I was interested in how the job acts on the cop. I like the critic (New York Times, as I recall) who said that J.W. writes character-driven stories about people who happen to be cops.
AFG: In your novels you take away a lot of the rather false notions people have about cops. How did your colleagues feel about the way you depict the police in your books?
JW: Back in the day, the street cops liked my stuff, but the brass did not know how to take it. They were confused. I think that by now even police brass, though embarrassed by some of the shenanigans I portray, know that my work does more good than harm. I love my long-suffering cops, even if, as Stephen King has written, “it’s tough love.”
AFG: Did you ever feel burnt out when you were in the force? Did seeing crime and misery color your view on mankind?
JW: Of course, I had moments of burnout, and yes, crime and misery made me prematurely cynical. And that’s a big part of my worldview.
AFG: What was the inspiration behind The Onion Field? It’s one of my all time favorite books because it was a big undertaking. It was ambitious and brave but didn’t collapse under its own weight.
JW: I was working as a vice cop at Wilshire Division (which borders Hollywood Division) on the night that Campbell and Hettinger vanished from their car on the streets of Hollywood, and I was later appalled by the “Hettinger Memorandum,” where his action in giving up his weapon was implicitly condemned. Months later, I was working at the Police Administration Building when Hettinger was temporarily assigned there. He was a sad-looking guy. Then when he was caught shoplifting and forced to resign in disgrace, I thought, “Wait a minute. Why was this guy running around shoplifting silly things in broad daylight as though he wanted to get caught?” I thought that if I ever became a writer I would try to discover the “why” of it.
AFG: Who are some of the writers you enjoy reading today?
JW: I wish Tom Wolfe would write more. And I get a huge kick out of P.J. O’Rourke. And if only Philip Roth could find the funny bone he had when he wrote his masterpiece, Portnoy’s Complaint. You’ll notice that I’m only mentioning the funny ones. As to crime and cop stuff? I’m not touching that. Too many friends I might offend by omission.
AFG: Tell us about your latest novel.
JW: My latest is the fourth in the Hollywood Station series and is called Hollywood Hills, and some of the same characters are there from the other three. The through-story deals with an attempt to replicate photographically some valuable paintings owned by a collector in the Hollywood Hills and then replace the originals with the copies. Of course, my Hollywood Station cops appear in wild anecdotes throughout the book. As always, I had to interview more than 50 cops, male and female, before I had enough material to do a novel. (The females are the most forthcoming and verbal and don’t require too many drinks like the guys do.)
AFG: With The Choirboys, you wrote something darkly comic? Would you describe that book as a turning point in your career?
JW: The Choirboys was definitely a turning point in my writing career. I found my specialty—dark humor—which I’ve used ever since to mitigate the terrible things that I sometimes describe. Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five were inspirations for me.
AFG: What do you think is the biggest misconception we have about cops?
JW: A big misconception is that police work is brutal and tedious, punctuated by moments of danger. It can be that, but also—as the sergeant dubbed “The Oracle” in Hollywood Station put it—“doing good police work is the most fun you will ever have in your lives.” I want my novels to show that.
AFG: Was it difficult to make the transition into nonfiction?
JW: Nonfiction came naturally to me because my fiction was grounded in my police experiences. It was thinly disguised journalism at times, rather than novel-writing.
AFG: Have you been happy with the television and film adaptations of your work?
JW: I was happy with the films that I wrote: The Onion Field and The Black Marble. The TV series that I created, Police Story, was very good at least half the time when the network would leave us alone. The movie that I hated and despised, The Choirboys, persuaded me to make films of my own. It was a terrible experience to see what others did with my seminal novel.
AFG: How would you say publishing has changed in the last few decades?
JW: Publishing has become a bottom-line business ever since publishing houses have been bought up by huge conglomerates. Publishing used to be run by people who loved books and authors. Larry Hughes, the former CEO of William Morrow, was like a family member to me. I trusted him so much that I never had an agent and I let him write the contracts as he saw fit. (Sounds crazy in today’s world, doesn’t it?) Now, publishing is mostly run by bean counters who are struggling to keep their jobs in shaky economic times while facing the uncertain onslaught of e-books and the electronic world.
AFG: What advice do you have foi the accountant, lawyer, or cop who is writing after work while putsuing another career?
JW: Write 1,000 words a day, even if you are slumped over your computer in a half-awake mode. You can always rewrite it later when you’re more alert.
AFG: What’s more painful, writing a book or screenplay?
JW: Comparing book writing to screenwriting is, in proctologic terms, like comparing a rectal exam by a willowy MD with the slender digits of a ballerina to a marathon colonoscopy, sans anesthesia, by a guy with a grin like Freddy Krueger and an instrument resembling a fire hose. The book writer is in charge of the product. The screenwriter has to face a gaggle with the power to mutilate his product: the director, producers, studio execs (the worst), producer’s girlfriend (or boyfriend) with an 80 IQ and a SAG card, and so forth.
AFG: Are there times that you wish you could go back to the police force? Do you miss it?
JW: I have had recurring dreams for decades about being back on the Job (always written with a capital “J.”) I have forever missed it. Just by doing good police work, I had the most fun I’ve ever had. And of course, it’s special to work with someone who I knew had my back right to the end of the line. That is extremely hard to duplicate in the civilian world. Everyone who knows me says that I have never stopped being a cop…whatever that means.
AFG: How do you know when you’ve finished a novel?
JW: I think I’m never quite finished with a novel. I am usually making little tweaks right up to the time they are ready to produce corrected galley proofs. Then, after it’s gone, I feel regret about a few other tweaks that I should have made.
AFG: I heard once that you never reread your books after they are published, is it because once you’ve moved on you feel you’re a world away from the last novel you wrote?
JW: I don’t read my books once they are in print for the same reason that Woody Allen doesn’t look at his movies after they’re in the can. He said, in a recent New York Times piece, that he almost always ends up hating his finished movie. I don’t go that far, but I know that if I read the printed book I will find a thousand things that I could have done better, and it will be too painful. One can be far from perfect (like me) and yet still be a perfectionist. It’s a genetic curse. Mother Nature is a pitiless bitch.
AFG: Do you outline or do you start with a premise, write, and see where that ends?
JW: I cannot outline. I have to just let the characters take over.
AFG: Did you know from a very early age that you were going to follow in your dad’s footsteps and join the force?
JW: My dad was a cop when I was very young so it may have influenced me on a subconscious level.
AFG: You enlisted in the marines during the Korean War…
JW: I joined the USMC at the tender age of 17 (with my mother’s written consent), but the war in Korea had ended so I was never in danger. I used the Korean GI Bill—every cent of it—for my college education before and during my 14 years with the LAPD.
AFG: You made some rather biting observations about the rich and famous in The Black Marble. Was the book based on any of your experiences?
JW: The Black Marble was based a lot on my observations of rich and famous people because I had become somewhat rich and famous!
AFG: Do you often ask yourself why people commit crimes? Do you feel that it’s a person’s nature or that poverty and abuse lead to that sort of a life?
JW: The question about whether antisocial behavior (crime) springs from nature or nurture will forever be debated. I suspect that DNA (nature) plays more of a role than we care to admit. I became more convinced of this after going to England and writing The Blooding, the first book about the discovery of DNA typing and its first use in a serial murder investigation.
AFG: Why did you take a break from fiction for 10 years between 1996 and 2006?
JW: I thought I had said all there was for me to say in my fiction and I took a 10-year break. Then the Hollywood Station stories beckoned to me.
AFG: So what was the inspiration for the Hollywood Trilogy?
JW: The Hollywood Trilogy has become The Hollywood Quartet. (Sounds like a singing group.) I think I just wanted to interview hundreds more cops. I missed them. And the word “Hollywood” has a magic to it throughout the world. Also, Hollywood is a very weird place and easy to write about. I used to work out of Hollywood Station on weekends as a juvenile officer when we were sent there from downtown because there were so many Hollywood runaways involved in street crime.
AFG: What are you working on now?
JW: I have nothing to work on at the moment but would like to try another nonfiction book. I have my eye on a story, but it hasn’t broken yet so I’m not at liberty to say.
AFG: When you’re not writing, what are some of the things you enjoy doing?
JW: I don’t enjoy anything but writing. Three of my grandparents were from Ireland, so I’m a pessimist by nature and usually feel that disaster is right around the corner. My fourth grandparent was German, so at least I inherited some discipline to deal with the Irish propensity to have “a jar or two.” You see, I do believe in nature more than nurture!
AFG: Will you ever retire?
JW: Nobody I know, family members included, want me to retire. I’m only tolerable when I’m working.
AFG: Thanks, Joe.
JW: Thanks for the great questions.
Originally published in The Strand Magazine. Posted with permission.