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An Interview with Joseph Wambaugh, Author of Hollywood Hills

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Joseph Wambaugh is probably one of the best known former police officers. He became so famous after writing his first few books, including The New Centurions, that it caused problems.

He reportedly remarked, “I would have guys in handcuffs asking me for autographs.” He has also said suspects would ask him to describe what certain celebrities he has met were really like.

Wambaugh turned to writing fulltime. He was known for writing gritty stories, some fiction, some non-fiction, most notably the Onion Field. He was named a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master in 2004, an award bestowed on writers for their lifetime of work.

When I last interviewed him, for his book Hollywood Crows, he made some remarks which I followed up on for this interview. This is Wambaugh’s fourth book about the Hollywood division of the Los Angeles Police Department, which gives him many opportunities — which he takes with glee — to poke fun at entertainers, the film industry and related matters.

His last few books have struck me as less gritty — at times they remind me more of books by the late Donald Westlake and up-and-comer Lisa Lutz..

These recent books also thank up to 50 police officers — Wambaugh said in our last interview he asks them to share some of their best stories and he uses some of them in his books.

Last time I interviewed you you said you had planned for the Hollywood books to become a trilogy. How did the fourth book come about? They are fun to read — are they also fun to write?

I think the Hollywood books became so much fun that I had to interview 50 more cops and write a fourth. But now I am finished with Hollywood Station. I think.

What’s the status of the possibility of these stories being turned into a television series and is that one reason you wrote a fourth book. Are you planning a fifth and, if not, what’s next?

The first in the series, Hollywood Station, is currently being adapted as a TV pilot by a top feature film screenwriter, but because there is no guarantee that it will get produced, there is no point talking about it at this time. I am currently interviewing cops from another part of Los Angeles, specifically the harbor area. It’s an interesting place.

In our last interview when I asked you what questions you wish you were asked that you were not normally asked you answered: “I wish that I’d be asked specific questions about the plots and characters so that I’d know that the questioner had actually read the book.

So here’s a plot question: do LAPD cops really have a special division just to deal with people dressed as superheroes and, if so, do they sometimes do scary things with them like the soon-to-retire officer does in this book?

There is no “special” division or detail to deal with superhero street characters. They perform on Hollywood Boulevard by Grauman’s Chinese Theater which is the territory policed by LAPD. Yes, the officer in the book did a “scary” thing, but he was spat upon (twice) by Superman. What would you do if Superman spat on you?

To answer his question, “I would sell Superman’s spit on eBay!”

In your Hollywood books you’ve gotten in a few jabs about the changes forced on the LAPD due to Rodney King and Ramparts investigations, pointing out the problems caused by those mandates. Has anything positive come of those changes?

The positive changes as a result of the federal consent decree have made all members of the LAPD aware that the behavior of a few cops, or even two, as in the case of the Rampart Division scandal, can directly affect the other 9,000 in severely punitive ways. Therefore, all cops have to be more aware of how the public views them.

What parts of being a police officer do you miss? Which parts do you not miss? Did your becoming a successful author force you to essentially end your police career? Is this current lifestyle — writing about cops, using interviews from cops – providing you with a nice compromise?

As the police sergeant known as the Oracle says in Hollywood Station: doing good police work is the most fun you will ever have in your life. Of course I miss it. What I do not miss is being constantly criticized by cop haters in the media and in politics. Yes, my success was so great in the 1970s that it ended my career. Perhaps you are right in that interviewing cops for books does provide a kind of “compromise.” That’s a good word to describe it. Thank you.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.