Author Interviews
5:32 pm
Wed December 26, 2012

'Law & Order' Meets Tom Clancy In Dick Wolf's First Novel

Originally published on Wed December 26, 2012 7:24 pm

If Dick Wolf's record in television is any indication, his debut novel, The Intercept, could be the first of dozens.

These days, Wolf says, episodes of the Law & Order franchise he created run or rerun an average of 109 times a week. He jokes with NPR's Robert Siegel that one secret to the series' longevity is how many of the shows originally aired at 10 p.m.

"The reason it repeats so well, in my opinion," he says, "is because half the audience has fallen asleep and can't remember: How does this end?"

Wolf has spent years shepherding some of the best actors and writers in New York. He's seen his creation branch out from Law & Order to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which is still on the air, and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. But he says writing novels is, in some ways, different.

"I'd say the biggest difference is that you don't have 140 other people to depend on," he says. "One way to describe it is, it's the old dream of, you know, you walk out onstage at your high school and you're completely naked. ... It's, you know, you pays your money and takes your chances, because you hope for a certain type of reaction to the book and you hope it's not, 'Gee, you should really stay in television.' "

Finding Inspiration In Real Life And In Fiction

Wolf's The Intercept is a thriller set in New York after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Its hero is Detective Jeremy Fisk, of the NYPD Intel Division. According to Wolf, the book picks up where a Law & Order project left off after Sept. 11.

"I was in New York with the shooting crew," he recalls. "We were two weeks away from beginning principal photography on a miniseries called Terror, which started in an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan with a class of 10-year-olds, their fists up, saying, 'God is great, death to America.' The brother of one of them [comes] in ... to say goodbye because he was going to America to become a great hero. Cut to the brother in the car with three other guys going to the city, blowing up a bomb under the shuttle in Times Square, killing 2,500 people and then releasing anthrax. ... Needless to say, when the planes went in, we pulled the plug."

So while writing a detective novel marks a big change for Wolf, it's still very much connected to his TV work — and to his style. Even his family thinks so.

"I have five kids," Wolf says, "and the 25-year-old read the book about three or four months ago and came and said, 'Pretty good, Dad, but it reads an awful lot like a script.' I said, 'Thank you!' "

Wolf's television scripts have always focused on dialogue as opposed to action. He says, "When the words are good, that's really all you need. I've said for many, many years ... 'It's the writing, stupid.' And it's always the writing."

But writing a novel requires a different rhythm, and it requires describing all sorts of inner dialogues that don't figure into scripts. Wolf says that to write the book, he drew from his love of thrillers, one of his favorite literary forms since he was 10 years old.

"Sherlock Holmes was probably my greatest influence growing up," he says. "I think it's a very legitimate form of writing. It may not be the most elevated, but it sure is fun. I've told a bunch of people that I've given [my] book to, 'Wait till you've got a nice long flight to New York, or you're going to Europe. It's a great airplane book.' "

'Bigger Stories On A Bigger Canvas'

Wolf's second novel about Detective Fisk is already in the works. It's about narcoterrorism, "a major threat to us now," he says.

But Wolf doesn't view his novel writing as a career change; it's more of a "career enhancement," he says, that allows him "to tell bigger stories on a bigger canvas."

"Look, I've had a tremendous time; I've met new people. It's a completely different world," he says. "If I can come up with the right stories, I think that [Fisk] is as effective a lead in a novel as [Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan character]. I'm not trying to be presumptuous, but that's a pretty good model to follow."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Dick Wolf has written a novel, a thriller set in New York after the killing of Osama bin Laden. It's called "The Intercept." Detective Jeremy Fisk of the NYPD intel division is the hero of the story, and Wolf says there are more Jeremy Fisk stories to come.

If his record in television is any indication, there could be dozens of Detective Fisk books. Wolf is the man who created the "Law & Order" shows. He says these days, all of the shows run or rerun an average of 109 times a week. One secret to the franchise's longevity, Wolf says - only partly facetiously, I think - was how many of the shows aired originally at 10 p.m.

DICK WOLF: The reason it repeats so well, in my opinion, is because half the audience has fallen asleep and can't remember: How does this end?

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: It's also...

WOLF: Yeah.

SIEGEL: It's also your demographic, frankly, that when you get a healthy...

WOLF: Now, now, now, be careful.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...in their 60s, you can show the same show every six months...

WOLF: Endlessly.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: ...and no one can remember. So after all these years of shepherding some of the best actors in New York, some of the best writers, after branching out from "Law & Order" to "Law & Order Special Victims Unit" - which is still on the air - and "Law & Order Criminal Intent," Wolf has taken up the solitary task of writing detective novels. In some ways, it's different.

WOLF: I'd say the biggest difference is that you don't have 140 other people to depend on. One way to describe it is it's the old dream of, you know, you walk out on stage at your high school and you're completely naked, that, OK, if you didn't like it, I can't blame the DP.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Yeah. It's you. It's you.

WOLF: It's, yeah. It's...

SIEGEL: Truly individual work.

WOLF: Well, it's, you know, you pays your money and takes your chances because you hope for a certain type of reaction to the book and you hope it's not, gee, you should really stay in television.

SIEGEL: I am an unabashed Dick Wolf fan. I love the original "Law & Order," even if it was predictable. At some point, it did occur to me that a 10:20 p.m. suspect was just too early, you know?

WOLF: Oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: That just could not be the guy because...

WOLF: I'll tell you one very amusing story because prosecutors would reference "Law & Order" all the time - this isn't "Law & Order." You're not necessarily going to get forensic evidence presented to you the way they do on television. But my favorite was a defense attorney who got up and said: Ladies and gentlemen, the police arrested my client four hours after the crime. And as you all know from watching "Law & Order," the first person they arrest...

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: ...is never guilty.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: They didn't even investigate anybody else.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Is it the second commercial break defense?

WOLF: That's right. He was...

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: He was convicted.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Dick Wolf's novel is suspenseful, and it's reminiscent of his shows, which for fans like me, have been the best stuff on network TV. Wolf says the book picks up where a "Law & Order" project left off on 9/11.

WOLF: I was in New York with the shooting crew. We were two weeks away from beginning principal photography on a miniseries called "Terror," which started in an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan with a class of 10-year-olds with their fists up, saying: God is great, death to America, the brother of one of them coming in - who is about 20 - to say goodbye because he was going to America to become a great hero.

Cut to the brother in the car with three other guys going to the city blowing up a bomb under the shuttle in Times Square, killing 2,500 people and then releasing anthrax. Needless to say, when the planes went in, we pulled the plug.

SIEGEL: So while writing a detective novel marks a big change for Dick Wolf, it's very much connected to his TV work and to his style.

WOLF: I have five kids. And the 25-year-old read the book about three or four months ago and came in and said: Pretty good, Dad, but it reads an awful lot like a script. I said thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: So here's what an old friend of mine, who wrote a lot of scripts for you, told me. He said: A script for Dick Wolf in "Law & Order" for an hour of television is like 10 pages longer than anybody else's script for an hour of television because it's wall-to-wall words. It's all in there.

WOLF: Not much action.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: We didn't do car chases.

SIEGEL: No car chases, not a lot of times cruising around the city getting from place to place.

WOLF: Exactly.

SIEGEL: People talking.

WOLF: When the words are good, that's really all you need. I've said for many, many years, it's - and I gave to the heads of the networks, so it's about 15 years ago, little leather desk cards that said: It's the writing, stupid. And it's always the writing.

SIEGEL: So when you sit down to write a novel, as opposed to a script, you can't count on the expression of Jerry Orbach...

WOLF: No.

SIEGEL: ...telling us what he's feeling at that moment. You've got to now describe people's feelings. And you have to describe all sorts of inner dialogues that don't figure in a script.

WOLF: Well, it's a different - it's certainly a different rhythm. I mean, the novel is about six times as long as any television script. So I grew up - and I hate to even say literary, because I consider this not literature but a thriller, which has been one of my favorite forms since I was 10 years old.

Sherlock Holmes is probably my greatest influence growing up. I think it's a very legitimate form of writing. It may not be the most elevated, but it sure is fun. I've told a bunch of people that I've given the book to: Wait till you've got a nice, long flight to New York or you're going to Europe. It's a great airplane book.

And I try to keep literary pretensions at arm's reach and tell people: I think it's a good story, and it's kind of scary, because virtually everything in there is - as far as I can tell and as far as some of the people who have vetted the book - completely accurate.

SIEGEL: Now, I enjoyed it tremendously. And...

WOLF: Well, thank you.

SIEGEL: ...I have no idea if your recipes for explosives are accurate or too accurate.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: I will say that, you know, I will quibble with you and make one critical comment. One of the scariest things in the book, from my experience as a native New Yorker, was traffic driving uptown on Second Avenue which is a...

WOLF: Aha. Well...

SIEGEL: That's terrifying since it is a one-way street coming downtown.

WOLF: It is.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

WOLF: Look, there are so many details that I was afraid of getting wrong, but the book passes muster with the people that I was most concerned would go, oh, this is - this isn't realistic on any level. I think it's pretty realistic.

SIEGEL: Yeah, and I forgive you with the Second Avenue thing.

(LAUGHTER)

WOLF: I know. It's - I don't - I've been out of the city. But don't forget, when I was growing up, it was two-way, so...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: The - there are going to be more Detective Jeremy Fisk NYPD Intel...

WOLF: Oh, yeah. The second one is in progress. And the second one is about narco-terrorism, which is a major threat to us now.

SIEGEL: So this is a true career change here that you're making. I mean, you're going to hang in there with this book.

WOLF: I'm going to try. I mean, look, I've had a tremendous time. I've met new people. It's a completely different world. And I wouldn't say it's a new career or direction. I would hope it would be a career enhancement that allows me to tell some stories on a bigger canvas. And if I can come up with the right stories, I think that he is as effective a lead in a novel as Jack Ryan. I'm not trying to be presumptuous, but that's a pretty good model to follow.

SIEGEL: Well, Dick Wolf, thank you very much for talking with us, first of all, about your new and first novel, "The Intercept," and for talking about and for providing us with so many years of "Law & Order."

WOLF: Well, thank you. This was fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LAW & ORDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.