By Chris High
Once a detective for the Los Angeles Police Department himself, multi-award winning author, Joseph Wambaugh, has been writing stories about the lives of cops and the criminals they encounter for over 30 years. From his non-fiction works like The Onion Field to the fictional The Choirboys, his best selling books are still the criteria by which others in the genre are measured.
After a ten-year hiatus from fiction and twenty from the streets of Los Angeles, Joseph has returned to both in one sitting with his latest novel, Hollywood Station, published by Quercus Books. ‘I have been trying to diversify by doing other books in the meantime, including The Blooding, the non-fiction account of the discovery of genetic fingerprinting and its first use in a murder inquiry,’ Joseph explained. ‘That book took me a bit off my beat and into the villages of Leicestershire. In fact, the memories of a pint or two of “Midlands Mild” still haunt my dreams.’
Quercus are delighted to have Joseph join their lists, but what made the author join the relatively new publishing house? ‘Two things: Anthony and Jamie Cheetham, chums of mine from way back in The Choirboys years, when Anthony was my publisher at Futura. I first set eyes on him while having breakfast with my family at a west end hotel in 1975. He was busy telling another man about my deliciously evil, lascivious and potentially profitable cop book and I was busy eavesdropping. Anyway, we became pals and through Anthony I met his brother, Jamie, and we shared many a vodka together during my many trips to London, back in those pre -geezer days,’ Joseph laughed.
There is quite a lot laughing with Joseph Wambaugh and the personable warmth of the man shines through in his work. Hollywood Station is no different in this, with the book carefully balancing its dark scenes with many lighter moments. ‘Just about all of it is based on actual events. I interviewed 54 coppers in order to get all of the terrific anecdotes. Believe me, neither I nor any male novelist could have invented episodes like the one involving the woman cop who is lactating and using a breast pump who then has to dash to a code-three call, leaving her gun behind but saving the milk.’
Was that balance difficult to maintain? ‘I don’t have much trouble balancing “darkness and light” in my novels because I know from experience that no matter how distressing the job can become, and how emotionally dangerous, doing good police work is still the most fun a person will ever have in a lifetime. And that is an explicit theme in Hollywood Station.’
Another trait in Joseph’s style are his predilection for not using “real” names. ‘I think that using the nicknames heard around the station is more effective in identifying a character than proper names could ever be. The Oracle, Flotsam and Jetsam, Hollywood Nate and the rest are made all the more individual and, I believe, stronger than they would if they were Tom, Dick and Harry.’
Hollywood Station depicts women officers in a very strong light, yet still has them needing to almost “out-do” the men at every turn. There seems also to be an underlying tolerance rather than of acceptance of women officers. ‘Police work is stressful and difficult for anyone, but particularly so for women. After all, they are still a minority – about 20% of LAPD – in a man’s world. But women have special skills. They are usually more verbal and sometimes can talk through a tense situation better than a man. Macho males hate to admit it, but they need the women out there.’
Moving away from the writing, Joseph does not have, as yet, his own Website. How does he feel about the necessary promotion side of the job? ‘I can only say that in this era of a less literate population, authors, and especially novelists, no longer get invited onto the chat shows as we did in former times. It is hard to find venues for book promotion these days. I’m a dinosaur who resisted computers almost until the end. Hollywood Station was the first book I have ever written on a computer. I’m still not computer literate but must admit that I should not have waited so long.’
With that said, of what does Joseph’s writing day consist? Is there any form of routine to his writing? ‘When I am working on a book, I do not rest or stop until I have written at least one thousand words on a given day. If one does that, a first draft will be finished in three or four months. Today, the main obstacle for authors is that the percentage of readers has dropped. When I began, everyone read newspapers, magazines, books. Nowadays, newspapers are failing, great magazines have gone out of business, and the average person might read one book a year, if that. Computers and TV have triumphed, sad to say.’
When can UK readers expect to see Joseph over in this country next? ‘Alas, I’m getting on. In fact right now I’m resisting the urge to burst into cries of horror. Today is my seventieth birthday. When I finish here I think I shall go back to bed and have a good cry. Seventy years old? This can’t be happening to me. In answer to your question, I honestly don’t know but I hope its soon.’
Who are Joseph’s major influences in writing? ‘I like to read authors who, like myself, go out and get the stories. I am weary of reading the work of authors who sit in their studies and try to nurse an idea into a four hundred-page book that should have ended two hundred pages earlier. Tom Wolfe, among others, goes out and interviews people, much like journalists do, and then retreats to the writing places and write novels armed with the stuff of life. I had to interview 54 cops before I could even begin Hollywood Station. I had to recreate more than create. I think that makes it much easier to bring a novel to life than trying to drag out what’s left in the closet of imagination.’
Read Chris High's review of Hollywood Station
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