Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cop-Turn-Writer: Interview with novelist John Scanlan

By Mark Young
I was scrolling through my emails recently when I came across one from a debut author from Palm Beach, Florida—author John Scanlan. As I read further I learned that John is a cop-turned-writer and my interest meter shot up. Honestly, as a cop-turned-writer myself, I always want to help out a fellow officer trying to make a stab in the writing business—particularly if they are writing crime-related fiction.

Now, I have not read John’s novel—Of Guilt and Innocence published by Sunbury Press, Inc.—but his story idea seems intriguing. Nothing tugs at the heartstrings of people like the abduction of a child. Five-year-old Ashley Wooten is snatched from her own front yard in a well-to-do community of Boca Raton. The girl’s father must reveal secrets about his past to jump start a faltering investigation. As detectives delve into Ashley’s disappearance, they learn that the suspect might have ties to the murder of an elderly victim, a crime attributed to the South Florida Strangler. Uncertain how these two cases might dovetail, investigators scramble for clues before Ashley or another victim are found dead.

Sound interesting? I thought so.

John is a transplanted ‘Floridian’—is that the word? It seems that most people who have settled in Florida have come from somewhere else—particularly colder climates I would wager. John is no exception. He migrated to the sunny state from a small village in New York, about an hour’s drive east of Buffalo, which I guess accounts for his love of chicken wings. Eight years ago, John began his career as a police officer with the Palm Beach Police Department after a short detour with the U.S. Border Patrol. He is married with two young daughters and a son due in June. This makes 2013 a big year for him—a novel released last January and a son on the way.

Let’s find out a little more about how John balances his life between police work, writing, and a growing family. First, let's find out about his debut novel.

MARK: John, thanks for joining us here on Hook’em & Book’em. Tell us a little more about Of
Guilt and Innocence. What can readers expect when they pick up your novel? How did you come up with the idea?

JOHN:  Thanks for having me, Mark.  I think readers can expect an easy read that will hold their interest until the final twist.  It’s not your typical whodunit crime novel, but with every secret revealed it will really make them consider who is truly innocent and who is truly guilty.  I had decided I wanted to try to write a novel before I developed this particular idea, but I knew I wanted to have three separate storylines that intertwined.  I wanted to make it as emotionally charged as I could and so I used crimes that I knew would accomplish that. 

MARK: What did you find most challenging in writing this novel?

JOHN:  Aside from trying not to make it sound like one long police report?  My biggest issue with writing this novel was that I didn’t know what writing a novel would entail.  I thought every novel had to sound like A Tale of Two Cities and make readers have an open dictionary by them.  So I tried to write that way, until I read an interview with James Patterson where he said, basically, that he could only write the way he was capable of writing.  He couldn’t be anyone else.  And after reading that I looked at writing in a whole new light and felt a bit more confident in my ability.  I readdressed my work and just wrote the best I could.  No more, no less. 

MARK: As the father of daughters myself, I found the most troubling calls I responded to as a police officer where those involving children. In fact, a young girl—friend of my oldest daughter—was abducted and killed near our home which brings your story a little closer to my world. These incidents tear at your heart even though you must deal with the situation as a police officer.  John, as a father of two daughters did you discover writing this novel difficult in that respect? Have you had other experiences as a police officer that you could use to deepen the emotional struggle within your characters?

JOHN:  At times it was extremely difficult for me to write.  I had to really get into the feelings and emotions of the father of the missing girl, which, of course, made me consider what I would do if this had happened to one of my girls.  I remember, after writing portions of it, going into my daughter’s bedrooms after they were asleep (because that was when I usually wrote) and just looking at them and thinking how lucky I was.  And then I had to transition into writing from the perspective of the investigating officers, which provided me with no relief at all.  As a first responder, calls involving children are always the ones you dread.  They affect you deeply and stay with you, well, forever.  I was once first on scene at a house where a child had been pulled from a swimming pool just minutes before I arrived.  She was drifting in and out consciousness and I spent hours with her family at the hospital as they waited to see if their daughter would pull through and at what cost.  To make matters worse for me emotionally she was the same age as my oldest daughter.  I tried to use experiences like this to develop a realistic view as to what my investigators would be going through.     

MARK: Let us switch gears here and focus on your police career.  You  have been with the Palm Beach PD for about eight years. Where have you served and what kind of experiences have you faced?

JOHN:  I’ve served on my department’s Honor Guard Unit and currently serve as a member of the Crisis Intervention Team.  The great thing about working in Palm Beach is that it is a wealthy community that experiences a relatively low crime rate thanks to the hard work of my fellow officers, as well as all the outstanding officers that served before me.  Because of this we get to experience a lot of fun things.  I’ve served on two presidential details when George W. Bush visited and work security details when the NFL owners meetings are in town.   

MARK: Tell us about your assignment with the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). What kind of services does the CIT provide? What are your responsibilities?

JOHN:  CIT deals with individuals in crisis situations.  Officers on the team are trained by mental health professionals to better deal with a variety of crisis situations and are dispatched to handle them should they arise.  Examples of these types of situations would be dealing with individuals suffering from mental illness, individuals who are suicidal, substance abusers, child or elderly abuse investigations, and death notifications.   

MARK: What experiences have you found interesting with CIT? What has been less desirable?

JOHN:  While none of those situations are pleasant, they are important.  It is important to help people who sometimes get overlooked or passed over because they are difficult to deal with.  It is important to console families who are grieving or confused or scared.  I wouldn't say any one experience is more interesting or favorable than another, but there is a bit of intrigue before you arrive at the call because you know it is going to be complex.  You know it is going to make you work for a resolution, and you just hope it will be a positive one.  Of course, that being said, I'm sure every member of the team would tell you that death notifications and child abuse investigations are the absolute hardest to deal with emotionally.

MARK: What has been your most rewarding experience as a police officer?

JOHN:  I'd have to say the most rewarding experience I've had was when I located a man wanted out of Cleveland on ten counts of kidnapping and rape.  The warrant was ten years old and after I put the cuffs on him and shipped him back to finally answer the charges against him. It was a pretty good feeling.

MARK: Leroy, New York is a long way from Palm Beach, Florida. What prompted you to make the switch? Better weather?

JOHN:  In all honesty, yes.  After my time training with the Border Patrol in Charleston, SC I just fell in love with southern living.  I liked having a somewhat constant temperature and the ability to do more things I enjoyed year round.  So I started looking at police departments in different areas of different states that I liked.  Luckily for me Palm Beach was the first to make me an offer.

MARK: How do you balance your day job and your family in order to find time to write? Do you just skip sleeping?

JOHN:  Skip sleeping?  It's probably my favorite past time actually.  Though I admit I do it much less these days.  In actuality my schedule works out quite nicely and I just don't push it.  I generally wait to write until my daughters have gone to bed so I can spend time with them and so I don't end up writing the same sentence six times because they are constantly asking me questions and I can't focus.  And then, depending on if I have to work in the morning, I will write for a minimum of an hour.  Occasionally, I am up until the wee hours of the morning writing, but there are also days, sometimes multiple days in a row, that I just can't fit it in to my schedule at all.  And I'm fine with that.  I have a full time job and a responsibility to my family that come first.  Maybe, someday, writing can be my only job, but until then it is relegated to being done under the cover of darkness. 

MARK: In reading some of your background material, I learned that you were a closet writer for a while—even from  your wife. Tell us how your big secret was finally revealed and why you were keeping it a secret.

JOHN:  I decided to keep my writing a secret simply because when I started I wasn't sure how far I'd get.  I figured no one needed to know if it only ended up being a week long hobby.  My wife had recently gone back to work and so, being a cop with atypical days off, I was left with an abundance of time alone on weekday nights.  I would write while my wife and kids slept and, as the words started flowing and I started really enjoying it, I decided I would tell her when the end was in sight.  But, of course, I got greedy and I got lazy.  I tried to sneak in a quick writing session one day while she was at the store and I left my manuscript up on the computer.  When she found it she was obviously confused, but very supportive and encouraging once I explained.  At that point I was only about half way finished and, with the exception of one other person, she remained the only one who knew about it until I signed my publishing contract.

MARK: What kind of story are you working on right now?

JOHN:  Right now I'm putting the finishing touches on a manuscript about the aftermath of an overturned murder conviction.  A conviction that caused a man to serve twenty years in prison for a crime he seemingly did not commit.  It details the perspective of the murder victim's husband, who refuses to give up his closure or peace of mind and instead chooses to overlook the evidence that supports the release.  It also details the perspective of the man once convicted of the crime and his reentry into the crime riddled neighborhood in which he grew up.  And then, of course, the now cold case investigation into the original murder.  

MARK:  Now that you have one novel under your belt, what do you think about the whole writing process? Worth losing a little sleep trying to balance everything?

JOHN:  Absolutely.  What started out as a secret hobby has grown into a large part of my life.  Though it's a lot of work, which does occasionally make me lose out on some of my beloved sack time, it's a fun part of my day that I look forward to.   

MARK: Any last words for new writers?

JOHN:  Don't try to be someone you're not with your writing.  Have fun with it.  Stay loose.  Don't get intimidated.  I tried not to put any pressure on myself, even with the submission process.  I told myself that if this manuscript didn't get published I'd keep writing them until one did.  And because writing was fun for me I didn't have a problem with that plan.

MARK: Thanks for your time, John. I know you don’t have much time to spare. Best wishes on your new writing career.

Author John Scanlan is a police officer on the picturesque island of Palm Beach in South Eastern Florida where he currently resides with his wife and two daughters. For more information on him, visit John’s website at www.johnfscanlan.weebly.com or visit Sunberry Press.

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