Q&A with Will Beall
1. So can you tell me the basics about yourself?
I work as a police officer in L.A.'s 77th Division, which is in the heart of South Central. I've spent most of my career, eight years now, in 77th, most of it working patrol, though I've spent some time on anti-gang task forces, and I just started working Homicide. I grew up in Walnut Creek, CA, which you've never heard of. It's about 25 miles east of San Francisco. Walnut Creek's just like what it sounds like: a middle class, suburban town, though it got kind of fancy after I left.
2. How does a kid from Walnut Creek end up a police officer in South Central?
In college, I was an English major, which didn't seem very practical at the time. I thought I maybe was going to be a journalist. As a baby reporter, I was trying things, freelancing, and one of the things I covered was crime, and one of my classmates at SDSU was murdered. They arrested her boyfriend for it. I went to see the suspect in County and interviewed him for the school paper. The guy totally did it and totally lied to me about it, which should have been obvious to me at the time, but I was a dumb kid. I blundered into the homicide investigation in some very peripheral way, running around chasing this guy's self-serving bullshit. I ended up testifying for the prosecution at the guy's trial. They convicted him and he hung himself in his cell the night before his sentencing. The D.A. on the case he's a judge down there now when it was all over, he bought me a beer and we got to talking about it. I was like Shit, I'm not cut out for journalism. He said, Well you know, me and some of the other guys were wondering why you aren't a cop. I doubt if the guy even remembers the conversation, but it was one of those moments that changes the course of your life.
3. And so why LA? Why South Central?
It was always Los Angeles. Once you decide to be a cop, it's sort of like there are two places you'd want to do it: New York and LA. I don't think I'm tall enough to be a Texas Ranger. Once I got out of the Academy, I requested the 77th Division. There are people doing great police work all over the city, but I feel like working in South Central is like getting to play in the Criminal Super Bowl every dayits as intense as it gets. The 77th is less than twelve square miles and we've had 47 homicides here year-to-date and I'm here to tell you, our people work hard. It's humbling to be some small part of this. I'm just a bit player down here. I'm not a central figure at all, certainly not a hero. I've definitely met some heroes down here and not all of them wear badges.
4. How did you decide to sit down and write this novel?
I've always been a compulsive scribbler, writing everything down that I see and feel. If I had more artistic talent, maybe I would sketch things. I've been doing this forever, since long before I came onto the job. But when I made the decision to become a cop, I actually decided that I had to put that behind me. My first week on the job, every night when I came home from work, I would just talk to my girlfriend at the time, until two in the morning, about everything that happened all day. So, within a week of working in 77th, I realized I needed to write about this. And I started filling up notebooks and legal pads. I don't remember exactly when I decided to write the book, but somewhere along the line I had this idea of doing a story about this kid who was just starting out.
5. How much of the character Ben in the book is based on you?
There are some similarities, mostly the whole babe in the woods thing. But I think the main similarity between me and the character Ben, is that like most people, we were both sort of faking it until we weren't. I mean, the mechanics and the technique you learn from the Police Academy and from your training officers and colleagues, but it's the victims who will teach you how to do the job. People who are really hurting are how you learn to be a cop. I wanted a character that comes on the job under false pretenses and becomes something else when actually faced with human suffering.
6. But like Ben, you started out as a beat cop? And then you worked your way up to Homicide?
Yeah, I worked patrol, worked as a gang investigator for a while. I just moved over to investigating homicides, which is some of the hardest work I've ever done, but I honestly would not describe it as a step up. In TV and movies, much is made of detective work, but I think that's because there's an Aristotelian line to investigation. It's an easy thing to fit into a 3-act or 4-act structure. But some of the most courageous, professional, smartest, impressive guys that I've met on the job work a black and white. It's an amazing, amazing job. I don't know that I did it very well, but I was really humbled by how well some of these guys do it. You do a lot of the same stuff in patrol that you do in detective work, but in patrol you have 30 seconds to do it. Patrol can be like speed chess. It's takes a nimble intellect and steely nerve. You've got to make these split second decisions in situations that are scary and dangerous. I've been fortunate to work with people who do this very well, some of the best in the business.
7. And these are the sorts of people that inspired Officer Marquez in L.A. REX?
Yeah, definitely. I think that, especially when I came on the job in 1998, there were a lot more men like Marquez than there are now. There were these legendary guys that were leftover from the Gates era, or maybe in some ways, the Earp era. I was really in awe of them at the time, intimidated too. I'm not saying that I'd want to emulate the way these guys worked, but I was still blown away by their courage. I mean, God help you if you were out there preying on the innocent, sleep with one eye open and all that, because these guys were relentless and there wasn't a kid glove among them. But it wasn't just that these guys could kick ass when they had to, what made them great cops was that they never lost sight of their role as guardians of the weak. You know, rough as they were, they recognized human suffering. They took it personally. These guys got shit on a lot, by the media, by their own department, but they were out there every day, willing to take a bullet for this caste of untouchables, willing to die for people the rest of the country would like to forget about. Im not saying the Department didnt need reform, but I still think some of the most effective police officers Ive met were also some of the riskiest. There are apex predators out there and you're not going to catch them with a Midnight Basketball program. I don't think L.A. REX is an endorsement of 'warrior policing, but for this book I wanted to take some kind of fantastical snapshot of the department in the nineties.
8. How much of the book is fiction?
First of all, it's a novel. Think about the James Bond books. Ian Fleming was a real spy, but he wasn't James Bond. Obviously, Ian Fleming is a much bigger deal as a writer than I am, and he was much bigger deal as a spy than I am as a cop, but the point is that he's writing is from both his experience and from his imagination. In Dr. No, Bond battles a giant squid. I'm guessing that scene springs from Fleming's imagination rather than his work experience, but I dig it. That said, there are a lot of situations in LA Rex that will be recognizable to a lot of people, and a few that might make certain people uncomfortable.
9. I would think what would disturb most people is just how violent the police officers are in the book. How much of that is fiction and how much of that is a culmination of things that you've seen and heard?
Look, police work is messy business. Violence is a part of it. Sit in on roll call in 77th sometime and you'll see these guys with all these patches on their uniforms where they've been torn open on chain link fences in fights. The temptation to clean it all up or to make these characters more palatable or more admirable was supreme. But I would be less interested in writing a book that's all cleaned up like that. The writers I most admire, Cormac McCarthy, James Dickey, Joseph Heller, they don't flinch from violence or ambiguity or even absurdity. And these guys won't let the reader flinch either. There are things about this job that haunt your dreams. There are things you see in South Central that horrify. Ought to horrify. Better horrify. Unfortunately, we're so used to hearing about gang violence in the media that our senses have become deadened, and I think the human tragedy fails to penetrate. The trick is to find a way to write about this violence in a way that it's not just background, not just an anonymous chalk outline. I want to put you right in it, and I need a visual vocabulary that allows these situations to feel as shocking as they are in real life, so they need to be shocking in the book. That's what I was trying to do in L.A. REX. That's what I have to offer, having worked down here.
10. L.A. REX takes place in the mid-Nineties when things were notoriously bad in South Central. Is there still a huge gang problem there?
There's definitely still a problem. Too many black men are still getting killed in South Central. Black-on-black homicide may be the great civil rights issue of our time, because we need to transmit justice to everyone or it's not justice. I don't measure our success by how we solve a celebrity murder or some high-profile Russian Mob hit that happens in a wealthy neighborhood. I measure it by how we get justice for the victims society most abhors: poor black men, dangerous men, criminals, gangsters. Does our system of criminal justice engage for them in the same way it does for Natalee Holloway? Shit, you know it doesn't. The folks down here sure know it doesn't. It's better than it was, but we still have a lot of work to do.
11. In the book, you depict the Eme, the Mexican Mafia, as the kind of all-powerful rulers of the criminal underworld. Is that based in reality? And is Jose Carcosa, the head of the Eme in L.A. REX, based on a real character?
The Eme is definitely for real, it's been around since the fifties. Carcosa's kind of the fifty foot shark that everyone suspects is down there if you dive deep enough. You hear stories about him, but I've never met the guy myself.
12. There are a lot of similarities between the fictional Lethal Injection Records in L.A. REX and the real Death Row records, between Darius and Suge Knight. Is this intentional? And why bring hip-hop culture into the book?
There was just no way for me to write about the LAPD in the late nineties and not touch on all this in some way. LA's got this heavy noir history. You see it in Chinatown, LA Confidential, but when the Rampart scandal broke, it was like suddenly we were all living in it, through the looking glass and all that. The guy the street credits with killing Tupac was himself killed a few years back, and the department just reopened the Biggie Smalls investigation after this huge lawsuit alleging some kind of far-flung cover-up. It's not like L.A. REX is going to solve any of it for you. I mean, it's fiction. But then so is a lot of what I read in the newspaper about it.
13. In the book there are also a lot of flagrantly dirty cops. Does that kind of corruption really go on?
We all know it does. Again, look at the Rampart scandal. Not often, but there are these aberrant guys that pop up from time to time. I've only had a few brushes with it myself. I had this classmate at the police academy that I kind of lost track of after we graduated. The next time I heard of him he was in the federal pen for international drug trafficking. He'd always just told me he loved to travel, loved the women in Spain. There was another cop right here in 77th who got convicted of raping all these prostitutes in the division. He's doing like 99 years or something. I knew him, like just well enough to nod to him in the locker room, maybe share a quick joke. The guy didn't look like a thug, didn't twirl his moustache or anything. The whole dirty cop thing fascinates and disturbs me, the way some of our guys can go so wrong. To me, there's nothing scarier. Like a family dog that suddenly turns bad and tears a toddler's throat open. I wanted to get inside that kind of mind for L.A. REX.
14. Have you talked to your bosses or people you work with about the book? If there's not really a Marquez or a Ben or any of the other characters specifically than it might not be taken as personally, but are people in the force feeling like you're revealing Department secrets?
By now everyone knows I've written this book, but I don't think anyone's worried. I think most of my colleagues are actually really excited. There isn't a lot of fiction out there that deals with the world south of the 10 Freeway, and it's kind of their story. A few people on the job have read the galley and totally dig it. They think the right things are recognizable and they get the jokes, but it's not like I'm burning anybody in it. These characters are all amalgams, or fashioned of whole cloth from my imagination. I would never write some kind of tell-all memoir, mostly because that kind of writing doesn't interest me, but also because I don't want to hurt anybody here. I'm going to be working with these people for the next twenty years and they're like family.
15. Do you think the publication of the book will affect your ability to be a police officer? Do you anticipate staying with the LAPD, or will you quit and just write books for a living?
Obviously I don't really know yet how this will work, being a writer and a cop at the same time. But I don't think it'll be a problem. It's not like I'm doing any undercover work out here. I love being a Los Angeles Police Officer. I take a lot of pride in it and I expect to be working down here until they make me retire.
16. There's a long tradition of LA crime novels, many of which involve the LAPD. Who do you think gets Los Angeles right?
I think James Ellroy is amazing. He writes about the city with the right kind of energy and darkness. And Joseph Wambaugh's novels are great. But I don't think there's anyone who's really capturing street-level contemporary LA not South Central certainly. Walter Mosley writes about this same neighborhood, and brilliantly, but he's writing about a very specific period. When I first read McCarthy's Blood Meridian, I felt like he could have been writing about South Central. This is still the wild fucking west.
17. I understand L.A. REX has been bought for the movies. Are you involved with that?
Yes, Scott Rudin bought the movie rights as soon as we sold the manuscript to Riverhead. They must have spies there or something. I've been working on the first draft of the screenplay, which has been fun. I'm excited for it to become a movie, and Rudin's definitely the guy when it comes to this kind of material. He's also doing The Corrections, No Country For Old Men, Kavalier & Clay, working with these writers I really admire, so I'm in amazing company. Rudin has a reputation for treating novelists pretty well.
18. Is your next novel, The Lion Hunters, a follow-up to L.A. REX?
Yeah it's a follow-up. Pretty much anybody that's still ambulatory at the end of L.A. REX will be in the next book. I like these characters and there are a lot of places I can still take them. Also, there's a lot happening at work, new experiences, and now I have a place to put them. It's my way of making sense of all of it. The stakes will be higher in The Lion Hunters.