An Emmy Award-winning writer and producer of some of television's best-known pop cop dramas, including The Rockford Files, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street, The Commish, and Wiseguy, Stephen J. Cannell has spent more than 35 years of writing for the big and small screens.
However, in one of crime fiction's most successful second acts, Cannell's career as a bestselling novelist began over two decades after he left his prints on the television world.
His debut novel, a political thriller called The Plan, burst onto the crime fiction beat in 1995. Said the New York Times Book Review of his first literary outing: "The thrust of the novel is unassailable." Cannell's follow-up, Final Victim, was a serial killer tale in the popular Silence of the Lambs vein. "Relentless.... Mesmerizing... Stephen J. Cannell is a great entertainer. The man can write," said The Washington Post Book World of Cannell's sophomore smash. Feature film rights to his third outing, a rollicking mob tale entitled King Con, were sold to MGM for $1 million, with Cannell writing the screenplay for the film and John Travolta slated to star.
Two other stand-alone thrillers, Riding the Snake (1998) and The Devil's Workshop (1999), were also well received, both critically and commercially. But Cannell would truly hit paydirt with the introduction of Shane Scully, a renegade LAPD sergeant who would come to star in a string of bestsellers beginning with 2001's The Tin Collectors. Named for those Internal Affairs officers who "police the police" -- and take the badges of cops who don't play by the rules -- the new turn displayed Cannell's "knack for character and a bent for drama that will satisfy even the most jaded thrill lover," according to Publishers Weekly.
Cannell's most recent books -- The Viking Funeral (2001) and Hollywood Tough (2002) -- continue to find Scully getting into all manner of dicey situations. but Cannell will always be there to bail him out for another adventure.
(Amanda H. Reid)
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Cannell has severe dyslexia, a learning disability that forced him to be held back three grades before graduation from high school. Says Cannell in our interview, "I made one up, but I was certainly thought Least Likely to Succeed. This condition has helped to motivate me and has allowed me to enjoy my unexpected success as a writer for 35 years."
He has never had writer's block, which Cannell says he thinks "is usually caused by the desire to be perfect. The idea that I would be perfect at anything was knocked out of me by third grade. I write to entertain myself."
On his approach to writing, Cannell tells us, "I always try to write something I have never written before. This is why I have created such diverse TV series, ranging from the cartoonish A-Team to dark, cerebral dramas like Wiseguy."
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In the winter of 2003, Stephen J. Cannell answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I read this book when I was 15, and it turned me on to the joy of reading. Also, I love all the works of John D. MacDonald. His Travis McGee character inspired me to create The Rockford Files. Jim Rockford was my Travis McGee.
What are your ten favorite books -- and why?
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger: See above.
- The works of John D. MacDonald: See above.
- Silent Joe by T. Jefferson Parker: I loved the destroyed face and overly polite character of Joe. It's a very compelling book.
- The Stand by Stephen King: The ultimate contest between good and evil on earth.
- The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe: It's a very dark and funny take on society.
- The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris: The best serial killer book written to date.
- The First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Saunders: This was the first serial killer book and a great read.
- The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille: This book was funny, sad, and erotic. A terrific read.
- The Blue Knight by Joseph Wambaugh: The first book that offered me real insights into the police world.
- Mystic River by Dennis Lehane: A really compelling story with finely crafted characters and complex relationships.
I like rock 'n' roll, country rock, and anything you can dance to.
- La Femme Nikita: Because of its innovative female lead character and cinematic style.
- Manhunter: Michael Mann's version of Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon.
- True Romance: Tarantino's dialogue is masterful. The scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken is the best I have seen in an action movie.
- Gone with the Wind
- The Sting
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Popular fiction. Most book clubs read "literature" but I love popular, bestseller fiction.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
What are you working on now?
- Nelson DeMille: His humor and storytelling are captivating.
- Michael Connelly: I love his attention to police detail, dialogue, and his writing craft.
- Dennis Lehane: Compelling stories told with real insight into the human condition.
- Linda Fairstein: She is a real sex crimes prosecutor in New York City. Her books crackle with reality.
- T. Jefferson Parker: Jeff always satisfies. He writes unique and compelling characters.
- James W. Hall: He's the new John D. MacDonald.
I just finished a stand-alone novel called Love at First Sight, which is about a middle-aged, married man who sees a woman and is knocked off his feet. His life and the lives of five other people are destroyed by this event. I'm also currently plotting a new Shane Scully book, which will be the fourth in the series.
What else do you want your readers to know?
I've been married to my eighth-grade sweetheart for 39 years. She is my best friend and mother to our four children. I love the beach. I like to run (especially at the beach) and spend about four hours a week weight training. My family is the reason for my success. My wife gave me permission to leave my father's business and take a shot at writing. I would have never done it if she hadn't agreed.
I'm a very positive person. I believe that positive thought brings success in life. Negative feelings and thoughts get you nothing, and are a complete waste of time. Get over it -- move on!
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