|Scott Flander: Riding Philly's Mean Streets with Pen in Hand|
Philadelphia Daily News reporter Scott Flander's newsroom often takes the form of a police car's front seat. He seems to feel comfortable sitting right in the middle of the action, soaking up the images and nuances of a Philadelphia police officer's daily routine. This unique perspective provided the essential insight he needed to whip up the mélange of reality and fiction that characterizes his two very satisfying action novels.
Taking some time off from trailing the bad guys and writing about the good guys in blue, Flander shared his reflections on his dual role as journalist and novelist with Crescent Blues. But like the investigations described in his novels, Sons of the City and Four to Midnight, the scope of the conversation soon expanded to cover topics as diverse as Star Trek and tips for budding authors.
Crescent Blues: Sons of the City and Four to Midnight contain what appears to be an authentic depiction of the cop on the street, which obviously reflects your personal experiences. What first attracted you to begin riding with police officers on patrol?
Scott Flander: I'm a crime reporter with the Philadelphia Daily News. Several years ago, I spent about six months with a squad of uniformed cops in a high-crime area of Philadelphia, to do stories on what a cop's life was like, day in and day out. It was fascinating and exciting -- instead of working on the usual news stories, I found myself screaming through the city streets in a patrol car, on the way to a shooting or some other crime.
I was also intrigued by the world of cops, which I think very few members of the public understand. I wanted to help bridge that gap, to portray that world in both newspapers and fiction. In recent years, I've been on more than 300 ride-alongs with not only street cops, but also specialty units, such as Homicide, the Crime Scene Unit and Narcotics. I've developed friendships with officers throughout the Philadelphia Police Department, often talking to them late into the night in a patrol car, or even later over a beer, about the things most important to them.
Crescent Blues: Politics, police corruption and race play important roles in both Sons of the City and Four to Midnight. How has your straightforward approach to these volatile subjects been received by your peers and your friends in the police department?
Scott Flander: Since I cover the police for my newspaper, I was a little concerned that the cops would be angered by my portrayals of police corruption. But I've yet to run into anyone who has been offended. When I ask them about it, they usually shrug and say something like, "Hey, some cops are bad. That's reality." What's far more important to them, it seems, is that I'm able to show what it's like for cops trying to do the right thing. Particularly when, they feel, the public doesn't understand them, the media seems out to get them, and the bosses will hang them out to dry at the first sign of trouble.
I was even more apprehensive about how my take on race and racial politics would be perceived by Philadelphia's black community, particularly because in my novels this is all seen from a white police officer's point of view. But my books have been well received. I was recently doing a radio interview on a station that calls itself "the voice of the African-American community," and the host said, "This is an important book. It should be in every home." I work hard in my books to get to a deeper reality, and that made me feel that I was successful.
Crescent Blues: Having grown up in a small town like Coalinga, California, who or what motivated you to write?
Scott Flander: My parents were both newspaper people -- they owned and ran the local paper. They were both big readers -- and still are -- and they passed that love along to me. I think it was all that reading that made me want to write, even as a kid. I saw how it was done, and thought, I wonder if I can do this, too? It turned out I could.
Crescent Blues: What drew you to journalism as a profession, and how did you land your first newspaper job?
Scott Flander: When I was in growing up, people often asked me, "Are you going to be a newspaperman like your father?" To be contrary, I guess, I always shot back, "No!" But after college (where I majored in English), I started looking for a job where I could write. Someone suggested trying newspapers.
I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, and I heard about an opening on a weekly in the small Maryland town of Havre de Grace. I had no journalism degree, no newspaper clips to show the editors. They told me to just walk around town for a while, and come back with something. I walked out the door and came back an hour later, and wrote (in longhand), about how Havre de Grace was remarkably similar to the small California town in which I had grown up. One of the editors read it and said, "It has a beginning, a middle and an ending. You're hired. But you're going to have to learn how to type."
Crescent Blues: What inspired you to make the transition from reporter to novelist?
Scott Flander: When you're writing newspaper stories, you can only deal with the specifics of the moment, and really can't get to the deeper reasons and motivations. I found that in portraying the world of cops, I could only go so far in my stories. But I did want to go deeper. I wanted to show the world what I saw. I decided to portray a fictional version of the squad of street cops I had spent so much time with. It was my first effort at fiction, but it seemed to flow very naturally.
Crescent Blues: The tone of Four to Midnight seems much more intense and less, for want of a better word, flamboyant than that of Sons of the City. How did your approach to the two stories differ if at all?
Scott Flander: With Sons of the City, I simply wanted to tell a fun, exciting story about the world of cops, to put the reader in a cop's head for a while. In Four to Midnight, I wanted to go a step further, to more fully explore the ethical and moral decisions that cops sometimes have to make. I've long been fascinated by this, as well as by the often tense relationship between police and minority communities, and how racial politics plays a role. The challenge in Four to Midnight was to go after the truth in all these things, and at the same time tell a story that draws the readers in, and makes it immediate and real.
Crescent Blues: Let's talk a little about your main character, Eddie North. You wrote an article about the conflict between duty and loyalty some minority police officers face. Eddie North seemed to face that same obstacle in Four to Midnight, but he generally looked the other way when confronted with dishonest officers. What does that say about his character and his loyalties?
Scott Flander: This is something I'm hoping the reader will decide for himself or herself. Because the question for the reader is, would you do the same thing? Four to Midnight puts Eddie into increasingly difficult moral and ethical dilemmas, and in a way I want to put the same challenge to the reader. How far would you go? Because if you would do what Eddie does -- or at least seriously consider it -- then you can begin to understand how difficult it is to be a cop.
Crescent Blues: Captain Oliver Kirk, the Star Trek aficionado who appears in both novels, is an interesting minor character. Where did you get the idea for his somewhat eccentric hobby? Are you a "closet" Trekkie?
Scott Flander: I have no idea how I came up with the idea of giving a police captain the last name Kirk, and then having him collect Star Trek memorabilia in his office. Just one of those flashes of inspiration, I guess. A lot of people have told me they like this quirk. I don't consider myself to be a Trekkie, but I've enjoyed watching Star Trek with my wife (who is a Trekkie).
Crescent Blues: North and his comrades seem to take delight in putting it to reporters in general and broadcast reporters specifically. How were you accepted by the police officers when you first began riding with them as a reporter?
Scott Flander: Most cops, particularly veterans, are very suspicious of reporters, and when I first started riding with them they were friendly but tight-lipped. Many told me their horror stories of dealing with the media, usually TV reporters. They opened up fairly quickly, though, when they saw that I was there to tell their story, not get them into trouble.
Crescent Blues: How closely do incidents in your novels mirror your personal experiences with police patrols?
Scott Flander: All the incidents in my books are made up. But the "feel" of them is identical, I hope, to the real incidents I've seen -- for example, cops rushing in their patrol cars to reach a fallen comrade, or dealing with a confusing, dangerous situation. The emotions my cops feel are the same as those felt by the cops I've ridden with -- the excitement, fear, the anger, the friendship and brotherhood. It's all out there on the street, every night.
Crescent Blues: I'm interested in your approach to the writing process. Since you have a day job, how do you manage to organize the time to write novels?
Scott Flander: At my request, I work 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. in my newspaper job. I get up as early as possible each morning and write until it's time to go into work or when I have to take care of one of the endless details of life, like a trip to the drug store. I also try to fit in exercising (I have a road bike) and visiting my father, who's in an assisted living facility. I usually write on Saturdays as well. All this enables me to get the bulk of the novels written, though with my last one I took a two-month unpaid leave of absence from the paper to finish it up. That was great, though it put me into debt. My advice to your readers: marry rich.
Crescent Blues: Do you set a goal of completing a certain number of pages each session or do you just let your creative instincts guide your activity?
Scott Flander: Some days I can write four or five (single-spaced) pages, other days (often after a long night at the newspaper), I find I can't get much going. On those days, I'll try to use the time in other ways. Instead of writing the scene at hand, for example, I'll skip ahead and sketch out the next one, just typing every thought about it that comes into my head. This will become the raw material when I'm ready to write the scene. Sometimes when I'm tired, and my brain is on standby, I'm at my most creative. The difference is, I can only jot the ideas down, not form them into a smooth narrative.
Crescent Blues: What usually triggers your ideas -- dialogue? A character? A scene?
Scott Flander: With each scene, I usually start out with, "What would happen if…"And start writing. Everything seems to follow naturally. For example, I wondered, "What would happen if two of Eddie's white cops get accused of beating up a black city councilman?" That's the premise that begins Four to Midnight. I put Eddie in his patrol car, took him to the scene, and everything just flowed from there.
Crescent Blues: Do you plot in detail before beginning to write, or do you wing it and see what happens?
Scott Flander: I generally know where the novel is headed, but I only plot out two or three chapters in advance. With Four to Midnight, I had to submit a synopsis to the publisher to get a contract, so basically the whole book was loosely plotted out. But as I wrote, I realized that the ending I had imagined wasn't going to work -- the characters weren't the type to do some of the things I had planned for them. So I had to completely rethink the last third of the book as I went along. I had only a vague idea how it was going to end -- and I ended up changing that as well. But it was fun, and exciting -- I wanted to know what was going to happen!
Crescent Blues: What is the easiest and hardest part of the writing process for you?
Scott Flander: The hardest part, by far, is finding time to write. The easiest for me is developing scenes -- thinking of all the things the characters are going to run into. I usually come up with more ideas than I need.
Crescent Blues: Who do you consider the greatest influences on your writing style?
Scott Flander: My style was developed from years of writing every day for the Philadelphia Daily News, and for the three newspapers I worked on earlier. My fiction style is not the same as my newspaper style, but they're cousins, and both have the same goal: that every paragraph, every sentence, will reach through the page and put the reader in my head.
Crescent Blues: I notice you have links to several web sites featuring mystery novels. Which other genres do you enjoy reading, and what do you find appealing about them?
Scott Flander: My favorite books are the classics. I'm a real big fan of authors like Dickens, Conrad, Melville, Hugo, Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Their descriptive powers are phenomenal -- basically, I sit back with their books and read slack-jawed in amazement.
Crescent Blues: What is the single best advice you could give to aspiring writers?
Scott Flander: Write the kind of book (or story) you would want to read. Write it the way you would want to see it written, if you were reading it. Pretend every reader is someone just like you -- someone who laughs at the same jokes you do, who thinks exactly the same things are interesting as you do. If you can do this, then your writing will be from the heart. It will be real. And you'll realize there are more people like you than you might think.
Crescent Blues: Is there another Eddie North book in your immediate future, or do you anticipate going in a different direction with your next novel?
Scott Flander: This is the most difficult question yet! I'm sure I'll do a third Eddie North novel at some point -- I already have a great idea for a story -- but I don't yet know yet whether it will be my next book. I'll probably decide very soon, though.
Crescent Blues: Is there anything you would like to add? Any subject you would like to address that wasn't covered? Any special messages to our audience?
Scott Flander: I wish every one of my books came with a coupon for a real Philly cheese steak. Then I would be truly successful as a novelist.
Click here to learn more about Scott Flander.
Click here to read Clint Hunter's review of Four to Midnight.
Click here to read Clint Hunter's review of Sons of the City.