Interview With Peter Lance
by Claire E. WhitePeter Lance is used to controversy. As a five time Emmy award-winning investigative journalist for ABC News who conducted major investigations on the JFK Assasination, the Pershing II Missile Crisis, and the Iran-Contra scandal, he is used to ruffling some feathers. So, when he landed on the cover of the Wall Street Journal because of his innovative methods of marketing his first novel, First Degree Burn, it shouldn't have been a surprise. After several years as a screenwriter on television shows such as Miami Vice, Crime Story and Wiseguy, Lance turned his hand at novel writing. Released in late July, 1997, First Degree Burn has been wildly successful and has just about sold out of the 55,000 copies which made up its first printing. We caught up with Peter in the middle of a whirlwind book tour to talk about life as a television writer and screenwriter, his battle to promote his own book after his break with Berkley and the personal elements in his life that led to the creation of his lead character, Fire Marshall Eddie Burke.
From award-winning journalist to television writer, screenwriter and novelist. What prompted the change?
The change to novel writing? Screenwriting is an extremely collaborative medium -- that's a nice way of putting it!-- (Laugh) in the sense that you have a whole lot of people giving you what they call notes and this is a Hollywood word for criticism. So (I've said this before) but there's a joke out here that goes "How many development execs does it take to screw in a light bulb?" and the answer is "does it have to be a light bulb?". When you're a screenwriter it's like having 30 people looking over your shoulder everyday. So the novel writing experiece is really a very liberating experience in that it's really the writer, the editor and the publishing company and then ultimately the people, with a copyeditor thrown in there to make sure that you don't get embarassed by your grammatical mistakes and it's very gratifying -- you rise and fall on your own merits.
Your personal promotion campaign has caused quite a stir - there was even an article about it and you in the Wall Street Journal. What prompted you to launch your own promotion campaign for your book and what all did the campaign entail?
When I found out that my publishing company had sort of abandoned me and had not sent my book out to reviewers such as Publisher's Weekly, I sent it out over the transom to Publisher's Weekly and we got this starred review. So then I said, "You know, I am going to try to send this book out to as many mystery reviewers as I can." I called the publicist who had sort of disappeared on me and when she heard me asking for this she acted like I was asking for a relic of the true cross or the formula for Coca Cola or something. She was really like "Oh no, you can never have that". So I got on Dorothy L, which is a daily mystery digest of about 3500 mystery authors and mystery readers --
Yes I am an avid reader of it--
-- and I asked for suggestions and I got about 44 leads. Then I just started putting together this list with the help of my assistant Hay Tanning who has helped me with this promotional effort that I have done for my book, and we came up with this list. We basically called every major newspaper in the country and we asked: a) do you review mysteries specifically with a specific mystery critic? b) would you take books over the transom? and c) would you review a paperback book? And we got a total of 155 bona fide critics with one or two minor critics suggested by people on Dorothy L.
I feel what has happened with my publisher is that -- and this is my opinion -- because I broke off the deal with them, it's almost like there's a certain corporate mentality that you find in movies and in Hollywood studios.
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I asked the publisher of Berkley, Leslie Geldman, -- I was on the phone with her 3 weeks ago -- and I asked her three things. First, when were they going to do the reprint. And she said, "Well, we'll do the reprint when we decide we want to." "Ok, would you move books to Amazon.com?" "No, we can't do that." And the third thing I said was, "Would you do me this favor then, I'm doing this benefit signing for the FDNY in New York, would you at least donate the books?" "I'm sorry Peter, at your level we have zero dollars in the promotional budget." They wouldn't even give books to a tax deductible benefit to help the firefighters. And this was a book that had sold 51,000 copies in 3 weeks! I didn't say this to her but I wish I had said, "If this is what you do to the guys who do well, how do you treat the guys that screw up?"
I'm glad you asked me about the Wall Street Journal article because it started out as the little guy fights the system; what does it take for an unknown author to break into the system today? And the reason that the WSJ was willing to do the article at all was because (I don't mean to sound arrogant) it's had an amazing success. For example, the first run was 55,000 copies which is a lot for a first time paperback (everyone acknowledges that except Berkley) and the other thing is that the first
The upshot to me was: "Here's this maniac promoting this book." That's the way I felt about it. For example they took Berkley's line that the sales were typical. They just accepted that. So the piece in the end was "well, he spent almost 40 grand how interesting, pathetic or however you want to take it", and didn't tie into the fact that it was a success. After the WSJ article, the reaction was very favorable to me both online and offline. From the writing community and on Dorothy L there was a tremendous outpouring of support from other writers who said they wished they could do what I was doing, and then I got 3 meetings in New York with Avon, Scribners, and Harper Collins about the next book. But the most important thing to come out of it was someone emailed me and asked me, "Do you know about Ingram's A List?". I didn't know what it was. But it shows how the WSJ really missed the story.
Ingram is the largest wholesaler of books in the country. The bookstores like the big chains and all the independents purchase all their books from either Ingram or Baker and Taylor, which is a smaller version of Ingram, and a couple of other wholesalers. But Ingram is the big daddy. They have warehouses in like 12 states. Even Barnes and Noble, say they were doing an initial buy of 5,000 First Degree Burns (or in the case of Grisham, maybe 500,000). Once those books are sold they don't inventory. Barnes and Noble and these huge chains don't have warehouses; when they sell out, to get their orders refilled they go to Ingram..
The A List basically is a Top 50 -- it's kind of like the Billboard List. It's the top 50 mysteries titles requested each week in the country. Not a lot of people know about it. The week of August 25, First Degree Burn was 24th out of 50. Number 24. This list includes Grisham, Kellerman, Hillerman, Cornwall -- everyone. The giants. That was before WSJ. Then I came off the list for a couple of weeks. I dialed in on Monday and I am 34 on the list 10 weeks after the book was published. I was just below L.A. Confidential the week before the movie opens. How do you explain this except through the fact that this book has succeeded through word of mouth? The WSJ piece, I felt, missed this. But I was just glad to get on the front page of the WSJ the day after Labor Day with actually a decent picture of myself; it's a good thing. It's not bad.
|"I got enough feedback from them to suspect that the real success of this book has come because working firefighters have found it and talked about it, and the word of mouth from them has spread out and to me that's the best kind of success to have."|
I started going to these firemen's musters. Firemen get together on weekends and they have these events where they get together and they have apparatus and they have demonstrations and things, and I hand sold 500 or 600 books over the course of the summer to these firefighters. They would come up to me and say, "We heard about this book in the firehouse -- we heard it's really great." And I got enough feedback from them to suspect that the real success of this book has come because working firefighters have found it and talked about it, and the word of mouth from them has spread out and to me that's the best kind of success to have.
Given the recent trend of the publishing houses to cut back on marketing for all but the top bestsellers, do you see a trend of authors promoting their own books? Should they have to promote their own books?
Well, unfortunately they have to. HarperCollins, one of the companies I met with recently, cut huge numbers of their midlist writers. I've operated now since 1987 -- Iran Contra was the last piece I covered for ABC News -- and I've been out in the L.A./Hollywood world, if you will, working as a screenwriter which is my day job and I have a little bit of the sense of the corporate entertainment mentality which is: publishing and filmaking used to be miles apart and now as all these media conglomerates merge there is a kind of similar thinking that permeates all of them. Look, in movies there are the Miramax small movies that break out and there are the blockbusters. You don't see as many midrange movies anymore and I think that's the way it's going to be in publishing. You don't have to be a pundit to figure that out. So therefore, what are little guys like me supposed to do when they set up their lemonade stand on the street for the first time? How do you avoid getting run down by the big trucks? My answer was this. So, I used the Internet, which is another reason I think for the success of the book. One of the things we did was we ran an ad in Firehouse Magazine which has a circulation of half a million. It's a fire and arson investigator magazine and even though I was originally going to sell books through there, where they'd contact us and we'd sell a signed first edition. We really only sold a few hundred that way, but I learned something. People don't usually pick up a magazine and call for a book. What they do is they see an ad and they say, "Hey, I want to go down to Barnes and Noble and buy that book."
Right. So it's an indirect effect.
Yes, it's indirect marketing. And then I began to see how many fire and mystery websites there were. So the guy who did my site Brett Wilcox -- and I can't say enough about him -- he's in La Quinta, CA near Palm Springs -- he did an incredible job on my website. What he does is he goes in every night and he contacts let's say a dozen mystery and fire websites and makes them aware of our website and asks for a link. We've now linked up with maybe 30 other websites which are either one or both. We are linked directly to Amazon.com where people can buy the book.
Which leads me back to the story I was going to tell you about Ingram. One of the things that happened (and this is another example of the problems that I've had with Berkley) a month ago when I decided to do this link to Amazon.com, I noticed that my book was showing a one to two week availability as opposed to the 2 or 3 days that was showing for other books.
|"[I]n order for there to be justice in the world, even in a Western modern democracy you need people who are truthfinders, fact finders -- be they journalists, police investigators, fire investigators, private detectives, medical investigators, or pathologists -- you need these people as surrogates for the common man and woman and who go out and find the truth."|
Yes, let's talk about that, it's my understanding that First Degree Burn was originally written as a screenplay then turned into a novel?
Yes, that's so. You've done your research.
Oh, yes. (laugh) How did that happen?
I have been working as a screenwriter for about 10 years. I make my money in television, almost exclusively and I am what they call an tv episodic show runner, so I create television episodic dramas. Happily, writers are the ones that produce television shows and directors come in for short terms, whereas feature films are a director's medium. But in our business because you do 22 episodes a year the writer has to keep the through line. So, that's my day job. I had written on spec a feature script called Angels of Death and it was a thriller based on Iran Contra, kind of the story we never heard come out of the Iran Contra hearings. And Michael Douglas bought it several years ago and it never got made but it's gotten me a lot of work since. So I figured, wow they must all sell, so the second one I wrote was First Degree Burn. And it came very close to a sale and then for whatever reason it didn't sell. My agency at the time was ICM and someone at ICM - New York in the literary department said you should write it as a book. I thought, well if I ever get 6 months on my hands I will. Actually I was able to do it in a shorter period of time. ICM sold it and made this 3 book deal. And that's kind of the genesis of it. But I found that it's much harder to write screenplays than novels, in my humble opinion. I've written many screenplays and I've only written one novel, but this is what I believe, because when you deal in the film medium you're really confined by time and space, right?
You have to think visually and it's a very restrictive writing medium. Whereas with books it's very liberating you can kind of just "go off". If you want to go back to explain some history between the characters, you just do that. But in film it's more difficult. When you want to give what we call "back story", what you end up doing in movies to establish character is you either use flashbacks, which work occasionally for example as they do in -- I don't know if you've seen it-- The Game.
Yes, I just saw it. It was great.
The flashbacks work well there. Because they are for a limited reason and you understand the history with the father etc.
But, most of the time they're heavy-handed. Or, you end up with dialogue that's like this, "Hey Claire, don't you remember the time we..." People don't talk like that. They already know each other, so when they talk they don't usually reminisce the whole time on camera so that the audience that is out there in the dark can tell who they are. It is very challenging to establish a character in a movie, whereas in a book it's easier. For example, the book I wanted to tell the story of Big Eddie Burke. One Sunday I was wracking my brain; I wanted to show his tenacity because I knew if I established the father's tenacity we'd know who the son was, because the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. I came upon the idea of using the case of Kitty Genovese, which is an actual real life tragic case about a woman who was raped and murdered in New York and nobody did anything. People looked out their windows; didn't call the cops; she might have been saved if people had responded earlier. I fully and meticulously researched that case then inserted the character of Big Eddie Burke in the story. That was his first case as a cop. Now that's the kind of thing I was able to do and I thought it was one of my more successful chapters. I just did it. Whereas, if I'd been doing a movie, well...
How would you handle that problem if you were writing the screenplay?
Well, I'm hoping that I face that challenge as we get closer to a deal now again on the screenplay. That is going to be an interesting thing. I don't know how I might do that. It may be something that has to get left out or that has to be dealt with using a flashback. I think if there's anyplace in the movie version of this that needs to be dealt with in a flashback for Big Eddie has to do with the mystery between the father and the son.
How did you create the character of Eddie Burke? How much of you is in Eddie Burke?
Boy, that's a good question. I don't really know how I created him, to be honest with you. I was an investigative reporter and there is a scene one night where Eddie is going through all these phone books trying to find this guy. A lot of the investigative, tenacious nature of Eddie Burke, the bulldog stuff, is really me. It's my life; it's what I used to do. I'm a townie -- a local kid from Newport, Rhode Island which is this extremely beautiful resort city in New England.
Yes, I've been there - it's lovely. I've been through all those preserved beautiful homes.
It was the summer playground of the robber barons. Yes, the "little cottages". People like to joke that the entire state of Rhode Island could fit inside the King Ranch, but it's a little jewel. And most of my relatives were descendants of or worked as servants in some of these big houses. And I'm Irish, Italian and Portugese -- enough to get elected governor in Rhode Island. So anyway, I come from kind of a working class and blue collar background where we would look at these houses and see the way these people lived. And my background is what I would describe as populist, in the sense that in all the work that I do and in all the news stories I ever did, I always did enterprise work. The first news job I ever had was as a daily reporter for my hometown for $50 a week. I did a story on substandard housing in the town that won the Sevellon Brown Award given by the A.P. Managing Editors Association. I was 18, and that gave me my first sense that you could accomplish things in journalism without just taking an assignment from the desk.
The gathering of hard news, which is what most reporters do day in and day out, be it covering an event, covering a hearing or a hurricane, the normal hard news events that you come in the morning and the editor says, go out and cover this, is the 10% of reality that's above the surface that people can see. But like icebergs, 90% of reality and the stuff that can really hurt you is below the surface. Early on I got interested in trying to cover that, and one of my heroes was H. L. Mencken who used to say, "The proper role of the journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Not in the paparazzi or tabloid sense of the word, but in the sense of the word that you uncover the truth. I think Justice Cardozo once said that, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." For a democracy to thrive, there must be debate. Another judge that they called the 10th Justice -- Learned Hand -- he was the presiding judge of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington -- they called him the 10th Justice because he ruled on many of the regulatory agency issues in Washington once said, "From a multitude of tongues comes the truth." Given all of that background, I grew up with this populist sense. Populism permeates all of the Warner Bros. Movies from the 30s and 40s. It is a belief that cuts diagonally through American culture -- the notion that unites the Weather Underground on the left and the militias on the right that the rich guy has his own private playbook and everybody else pays retail. There are forces on high that manipulate the little people down below and in order for there to be justice in the world, even in a Western modern democracy you need people who are truthfinders, fact finders -- be they journalists, police investigators, fire investigators, private detectives, medical investigators, or pathologists -- you need these people as surrogates for the common man and woman and who go out and find the truth. And so, to me, Eddie Burke is an embodiment of that. That's what I lived for x number of years of my life before going to Lotus Land. So a lot of that Eddie Burke character comes from me -- it's where I came from.
Some of the scenes that I really enjoyed were between Caroline and Helen together. I thought you did a really great job there. How did you get inside those female characters' heads?
I knew I wanted Caroline to have a similar obsession to Eddie's which relates ultimately to her father, as Eddie's relates to his. And I had done a pilot a few years ago we dramatized an actual case for NBC, we had F. Lee Bailey host it -this was before the O.J. trial-called "On Trial" and the idea was to dramatize from the transcript an actual case. So we took this famous or infamous multipersonality MTV disorder case out of Appleton, Wisconsin. This guy was being indicted for raping one of the multiple personalities of this woman. So we dramatized the whole thing. In the course of it I really researched regression therapy much of which is bogus and much of which has really been abused. But there a lot of good practicioners of it too, who do take it seriously. So that is where I got the idea for the dream and to not make the dream hoky, to make it believable and to make it pay off I came up with Dr. Lieberman. I loved the relationship between those two women; I really dug that. And it also gave Caroline, who spent most of the book kind of whimpering and withdrawing and being weak an opportunity to be strong. There's this one scene where she goes to the apartment to get the journal and find the tapes where she drives the action. That was important to me to show her strength.
Yes, because that can be irritating sometimes in films or movies.
I just came up with the scene in the hospital when she goes up against the nurse-
I loved that scene! (laugh) It was hilarious.
(laugh) Yes -- and you can just see how Michelle Pfeiffer might play that, couldn't you?
Well, I took a chance. I want to say one thing, I would probably tone down some of the profanity and I would never have as much explicit sex in the second book.
Now that I've spoken to about 1000 human beings about it including the little old ladies in my home town who were friends of my late mother, I;ve had a chance to think that maybe some of it was unnecessary. However, with respect to the profanity -- when I go into the field I heavily research; I carry a microcassette recorder and I hang out with these fire marshals and every other word is the "f" word .(laugh) In fact last week I was in another enormous city, I won't say what city, but pick another huge, northeast city -- the fire commissioner invited me into his office because he'd heard about the book, and he was using the "f" word like some people use commas!
The point is, I could have said "freakin" or "friggin" but instead I said "blank-ing".
I don't think that would ring true, though. To me, the dialogue and the sexual content are two different issues. When you read the book, you have a sense of really being in the scene. As Edna Buchanan said, you can feel the heat. You can hear what characters are saying and I don't know that it would be the same without the profanity. That's the way those guys talk. It is strong, but it's real.
Yes -- and you know what I do? My technique is this. I transcribe myself all of those hours of tape I might have had 80 single spaced pages of notes from my New York trip. By the way, I wrote the book first on spec and it sold and I made up all the stuff about the fire marshalls. At the time I wrote the screenplay I hadn't done the research. When the book sold, I thought, "Oh my god, I better get to New York and learn about these guys because I don't want to say stuff that's inaccurate." So I went to New York, and I got, luckily, through a series of connections, I got to Louis Garcia who is now the Deputy Chief Fire Marshall who became my mentor. He's this incredible guy, he took me to dozens of fire scenes. I can't tell you how long I spent in New York, and I came away and thought, "Whoa! I've really got a franchise on my hands." For the reasons I point out in the acknowledgements and early in book, fire marshalls are like detectives only more so because they're all ex-firefighters.
But we never hear about them.
No, we never hear about them. Ever. It's amazing. And that's part of the reason that firefighters have responded to the book. Because, except for Earl Emerson who writes a wonderful series, the Mac Fontana books set in Seattle, a woman called Shelly Rubin, and Ross Kasminoff, an ex-fire marshall in New York who wrote a hardcover book, generally no one has really ploughed this field before.
I just thought, "Wow, these guys are awesome". And when I was in New York a couple of weeks ago I got a really great letter -- the best letter I've gotten about this book -- from the Dragon Fighters of Chinatown on Canal Street. And in New York, Little Italy is now like 5 restaurants and Chinatown encompasses all of what was Little Italy and goes over to the Lower East Side. It's enormous. It's unreal. Imagine being a firefighter in the teeming, narrow streets of Chinatown. These guys have a dragon on their truck, because the dragon is the beast of fire. So what I want to do is set the third book (I've already written the second book as a screenplay) in this firehouse in Chinatown. And I want to have Eddie check in again with Superman who hopefully will become the Hannibal Lector of the series. He is going to be in and out of the stories as Eddie's obsession.
I threw this little benefit for the FDNY because at lot of these fire musters I would see guys coming up to me with these burn scars on their arms and I would think, "Whoa! I am just on the edge of their world; these are the real guys." So I called the FDNY in the middle of the summer because I knew I was going to be in New York and asked if I could give some money to the burn fund or something and they said well, let's read the book. And the Deputy Commissioner read it and she loved it, so we set up a benefit and I paid for the whole thing. We held it at the fire museum in SoHo and we charged $15 bucks a head and gave the firemen chili, beer and a signed copy of the book, and we raised a couple of thousand bucks for the FDNY. The Commissioner himself, Tom Van Essen, showed up and afterwards I went out with the boys to have a few beers and they said, "Wow, he never comes to these events or he goes in and out." But he stayed like an hour and a half; he really dug it.
So what I want to do is to bring Eddie back to his firefighting roots and put him in a firehouse for part of the book -- not that he becomes a firefighter but maybe he does for a time because he has to track somebody or I don't even know what the plot would be -- but I'd like to get actually into the gritty world of firefighting in the third book.
Eddie evolves personally a great deal in the book. Will he continue to evolve along those lines? Can you give us a sneak peek about what's next for Eddie Burke?
I don't know if you'd call it a criticism as much as people say they're disappointed -- well, I don't want to give this away for those who haven't read the book -- but some are disappointed about what happens with Eddie's father. Well, Eddie's father dies. There, I said it. The reason I wanted to do this was for two reasons. One, I wanted Eddie to assume his father's mantle, if you will. He started at the bottom and he had to resolve this thing with his father. And then he is his father's son. And in fact I have a great quote that someone sent me that I am going to use in the next book. In this book I have the Dashiel Hammett quote at the beginning, "Everybody has something to hide..."?
Well this quote is from Edmund Burke and I didn't intend to name Eddie after the great Edmund Burke, but I'm going to use it anyways -- "He wasn't a chip off the old block, he was the block itself". That is such a great quote, you know? And the other reason is that once Eddie and his father resolved their differences that I didn't want to have to play the scene over again throughout the books and I didn't want them to be arguing. They would have no reason to argue - and I didn't want to make it a team like Eddie and Dad. I like Eddie as a loner. So that's why I brought in the character of Denny Walsh, who's this kind of Irish curmudgeon who has a lot of the father's qualities who Eddie can turn to if he needs a mentor that he can trust. I didn't want the dynamic to be a father and son detective team.
Why don't we talk about pacing. In this type of book it would be easy for the pacing to drag in the middle, yet in First Degree Burn , the pace never flags. How did you manage this? Is this a skill learned from television and screenwriting?
I think it's a skill I got from journalism. Because all of the stories that I did from the time when I was good enough never to take an assignment from the desk, which was fairly early on, I would come up with my own stories. I had to figure out what was the beginning, the middle, and the end of this story. News stories are fairly easy. You go out, there's a flood, there's a fire, you shoot the video, you interview some people, you do your stand up close and that's it. But when you have to figure out an enterprise story like what is the crime, who are the bad guys, who are the good guys, who are the victims, what is the solution, what is the beginning, the middle and the end of the story, it is more difficult. And in network television news pacing is very important. Driving the story along from scene to scene is very important. So I think I just got that in my blood, and I'm a type A personality and I am very impatient when I read books. What I do is I buy 6 books or so, and like most people, and I just pick them up. And if they don't grab me in the first couple of pages, I move to the next cover. I suppose that's terrible because I am sure there's a lot of great literature that I'm missing, but I really like to be engaged. Because time is tyranny. I don't have a lot of time to read as most people don't. Therefore I like to be propelled through the book.
Do you ever get writer's block? What's your cure?
I had writer's block once. Ironically, I was doing a pilot for ABC about my life as an investigative reporter. I got so spun around by the note givers at ABC because it was partly about my life yet they were coming up with all these notes. And I got writer's block. Stephen J. Cannell, who has since also become a very successful mystery writer and who's one of the more successful and prolific producers of network television from Rockford Files to Wiseguy - he took me to lunch and just talked me through it by saying that it had happened to him three times in his career. and I just looked at him and said, "It's happened to you, Steve??" This guy practically dictates scripts, he's so prolific, and he just made me feel comfortable about it. And the main thing about it is like any anxious kind of thing where if you get more and more anxious about it, you augur in and just spin yourself into the ground. What you have to do is to is to be able to step back and relax. Look at your body of work look at what else you've done in your life. Just go away for a week, then you'll come back to it and it will regenerate. I'm not a shrink, but I'm sure a lot of it is just tied to stress and burnout.
When you're not working, what do you do to relax?
Well I have a sailboat I sail. I have a Hunter Vision 36 which is a sloop with a freestanding mast -- it's a great boat. I keep it in Marina del Ray. Although I haven't had much chance to use it very often with this tour.
Do you ever miss the hectic (and sometimes dangerous) life of an investigative journalist?
Well, most of the time I don't because every Sunday night when the little clock on 60 minutes would tick I used to get this knot in my stomach as I thought about what I had to do in the morning, what plane I had to jump on. Because I was doing almost about 100,000 miles on the road a year towards the end. And it's kind of a young person's game. But when something like Princes Diana happens -- it's almost like the Kennedy assasination of our time in a way -- not a head of state -- but in terms of uniting people around the world with a person that they felt they knew. And I would have loved to just have been dispatched to Paris. What I would want to know right now is what the bodyguard has to say. He's the survivor. He's the living Zapruder tape, that guy. It just really got my juices flowing. So that part of me would just love to get back into it all.
Peter, thank you so much for coming!
It was my pleasure!