Joseph Wambaugh is a rarity in the publishing world. The Los Angeles detective-turned-best-selling author no longer accepts an advance for his books. It’s a matter of principle.
“When I write a book, it’s like I’ve baked a loaf of bread,” Wambaugh said during a telephone interview from his home in Southern California. “You want to buy it? You can taste it. If you want to buy it, buy it. If not, I’ll try to find someone else to sell it to before it’s a day old.”
At 72, Wambaugh knows his way of doing business might be a bit out of date.
“I’m old-fashioned,” he offered.
However, the process seems to be working for him. Since 1971, Wambaugh has written 18 best sellers, specializing in telling stories from a cop’s point of view. He has also worked in the entertainment industry, adapting his work for television and the big screen.
His early work, including the ground-breaking TV series, “Police Story,” is credited with changing the genre.
His first effort, “The New Centurions,” received raves from The New York Times: “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.”
From the beginning of his writing career, Wambaugh wanted the focus of his work to be on the realities of being a cop.
“It did change the genre, I suppose,” Wambaugh admitted. “I wanted people to look at the inside of the cop, not the outside.”
A year after publishing “The New Centurions,” Wambaugh had another best-seller, “The Blue Knight,” which was turned into an Emmy-award winning TV miniseries starring William Holden.
Wambaugh took a leave from the police department and jumped to non-fiction next with the publication of “The Onion Field” in 1973.
“The Onion Field” was based on a 1963 incident where two police officers were kidnapped by small-time robbers. One of the officers, Ian Campbell, was killed. His partner, Karl Hettinger, survived, but suffered a nervous breakdown.
“Nothing could have stopped me from writing that book,” Wambaugh told reporters at the time.
After the success of “The Onion Field,” Wambaugh left police work behind and began to work on “The Choirboys.”
“‘The Choirboys’ was a different animal,” Wambaugh said. “In many ways, that was a break-through book for me. I established this dark voice [gallows humor] and I’ve stayed with it.”
The writer said he wasn’t sure what he had when he finished the book.
“My senior editor at the time just said the book was a ‘swing and a miss,’” Wambaugh explained. “He said, ‘We can’t publish this. This book isn’t worthy of you.’”
Wambaugh said that the editor’s comments threw him for a loop and left him depressed for a couple of weeks.
“I went back and started reading it again,” he said. “And, I decided there’s no way this man was right. No way.”
On this occasion, Wambaugh had taken an advance for the book.
“When I left my job [as a police officer], I was insecure about my finances, so I took a big advance,” the author said. “I can’t remember the exact amount, but it was six figures, which was huge at the time.”
Once he was convinced the book was, indeed, worthy, Wambaugh dug in.
“I said, ‘You can use the book to paper your walls or whatever, but that’s the book I wrote and I’m not giving the advance back.”
They published his book and it was another best-seller.
When the paperback version was released, it turned out to be the biggest seller that Dell ever had.
“I think it shot to #2 on the list and the reason it didn’t go to #1 was that Agatha Christie had just died and her last novel, “Curtain,” went to #1.”
Wambaugh said he uses this story to teach writers to “always get a second opinion.”
Although “The Choirboys” was a success in print, Wambaugh was not happy with the way the book translated to film.
The film company made a deal with Wambaugh. He would get 10 percent of the gross profits.
“It was a horrible movie experience,” he offered. “I wrote the screenplay, but the late Robert Aldrich, who was directing the film, may he rest in peace, had his own idea.”
Although they promised to shoot the author’s final draft of the script, they were not true to their word, so Wambaugh filed a lawsuit to get his name removed from the film.
“They settled with me for seven figures in 1975, which was huge,” the writer explained. “The only condition was that I could not bad mouth their movie for a year, so on the one-year anniversary of the movie’s release, I went on Johnny Carson and said, ‘This was a garbage movie.’”
The book follows the ups and downs of beat cops who cover the “stomping ground for transvestite hustlers, drug-crazed tweakers and aspiring actors sometimes criminally desperate for fame.”
Although the book is replete with Wambaugh’s trademark violence and heartache, it’s hard not to fall into Wambaugh’s stories and the characters he creates, including two surfer-dude cops called Flotsam and Jetsam and a really slimy bad guy named Dewey Gleason.
“I’ve always tried not to show how the cop acts on the job – but how the job acts on the cop,” the seasonsed writer explained.
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