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Interview: January 23, 2004

January 23, 2004

In this interview, Emmy award-winning writer and bestselling novelist Stephen J. Cannell talks about his latest thriller VERTICAL COFFIN, his fourth featuring LAPD Sergeant Shane Scully. He discusses the ongoing conflict that Scully is facing in his professional life and why he decided to create such a strong female character in Scully's wife, Alexa. Cannell also shares with readers his thoughts on what makes a strong novel and who some of his favorite authors are.

Q: VERTICAL COFFIN centers on the deep-seated enmity between the L.A. Sheriff's Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB) and the federal ATF Situation Response Team (SRT). Does such a hostility really exist between these elite local and federal SWAT teams?

SJC: Yes. This novel is based in part on a real incident that took place in 2001 in Santa Clarita, California, at Stevenson Ranch. The Sheriff's Department served a warrant using information supplied by ATF. A deputy was gunned down in the perp's doorway. Later, the Sheriff's Department charged that ATF had not included the fact that this man was suspected of possessing automatic weapons. There is still a great deal of hostility between these two agencies over the incident. Lawsuits were filed and are pending.

Q: Your protagonist Sergeant Shane Scully is put in charge of investigating the murders of members from both the SEB and the SRT. In the process, he is forced to team with Josephine Brickhouse, a crack investigator from the police department's Internal Affairs Division. Tell us something about her character and why you chose to have Scully pair with her.

SJC: Josephine Brickhouse is openly gay. But that isn't the only thing that makes her an interesting mix for Shane Scully. They start as two people who share a case, but not one single opinion. As the relationship grows, Scully first comes to see her value as a police officer, then later to admire her and deeply care about her. She shares many of his own internal conflicts and, in the end, makes a huge sacrifice to save him.

Q: The scene of the final showdown in VERTICAL COFFIN is a Navy Seal training camp in the California desert. Does this place really exist? If so, it has to be off-limits to civilians, so how did you go about researching this aspect of your story?

SJC: The Navy Seal Camp is located in the desert near the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range. I took some liberties with the geography but it isn't hard to learn about these types of facilities by searching the Internet. All information depicted in this story regarding the Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range is accurate.

Q: Shane Scully continues to question whether or not he wants to remain on the LAPD. Talk a bit about the emotional arc of his character.

SJC: Scully is in conflict with himself. As he grows and changes, he is getting to a place where it is getting harder for him to deal with the b.s. that he runs into down at headquarters. On the other hand, his wife, Alexa, who is also his commanding officer, is much more adept at navigating department politics. One of the things I really like about their relationship is that Shane is a modern enough male to be able to have his wife be his boss and not be threatened by that. He sees her as an incredibly competent person with qualities that he doesn't possess, to whom he can turn for help and advice. Yet, he has other traits that allow him to be a pretty good, hard-nosed, cut-to-the-chase cop. Scully will certainly continue to live close to the edge.

Q: You mentioned Scully's wife, Alexa. Why did you decide to create such a strong female character?

SJC: In THE TIN COLLECTORS, Alexa was the internal affairs sergeant assigned to prosecute Scully. I thought that it would be interesting to have Scully fall in love with the one person who could get him kicked off the force and put in prison. In order to write that relationship, I had to create a very strong, confident, self-possessed character. Initially, Shane views Alexa as the enemy and there is a good deal of animosity between them. Once he is able to convince her of a widespread conspiracy within the police department, they are compelled to work together, even though she is simultaneously prosecuting him. Slowly they begin to fall in love. What I like about Alexa is that she is her own woman. I think that's very unusual. I haven't read that a whole lot. In most novels, the cops have wives that either turn into bitches or alcoholics. Alexa knows how to hold her ground with Scully, even though there are times when she gets very frustrated with him. The bottom line is that she loves him and he loves her, and there is a tremendous friendship at the heart of their relationship.

Q: Looking back over your past seven novels, is there an underlying theme that runs through your work?

SJC: If there is an underlying theme, it's that I tend to write about David, not Goliath. Generally, my heroes and heroines are put upon by the system and have to overcome tremendous obstacles. When writing my characters, I always want them to be on an emotional journey, to learn something, and to be stronger and better people at the end of the novel than they were at the beginning.

Q: What do you think makes for a good novel? Which writers do you read?

SJC: The simple answer is a good story with realistic characters and vibrant relationships. I usually prowl around looking for an idea and search until something really lights me up. I spend more time deciding what I'm going to write as a novel than I ever did trying to come up with a TV series. With a novel, I may spend two or three months researching a specific topic, only to chuck it all. I don't want to get stuck writing about something I don't love.

In terms of my favorite authors, I like Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Nelson DeMille, Linda Fairstein, Janet Evanovich, and James Lee Burke, among others. I have observed something that always amuses me, which I call the "Dead Authors Club." Whenever you see famous writers on television talk shows and that question gets asked, they usually start listing dead authors who can no longer compete with them in terms of sales. They'll say, "Well, lately I've been re-reading Faulkner" or "I've just gotten back into Hemingway." They will never say that they read any of their contemporaries' work, against which their book is vying for a place on the bestseller lists. I'm just the opposite. I figure that if an author is doing good work and giving me enjoyment as a reader, then I owe it to them to mention their books.

Q: You have been married to your wife for more than thirty years, an impressive achievement in and out of Hollywood. To what do you attribute the success of your marriage?

SJC: My wife is my best friend and we spend a lot of time talking. If we have problems, we try and sort them out. You have to work at a marriage. It isn't always easy. There were times when our marriage was in trouble. It's great when you have a long-term relationship. You have something that is very valuable to the both of you. It's our friendship that transcends a lot of stuff and gives both of us strength.