Few journalists find the level of success that earns a Pulitzer Prize, and few authors can brag that every novel they’ve written has landed on The New York Times bestseller list. Even fewer writers can claim both—but John Sandford can.
Before he began a decades-long career at the top of the thriller charts, the writer born John Roswell Camp was a successful journalist. His career included stints at Southeast Missourian and the Miami Herald, a place on the Pulitzer shortlist in 1980, and the Distinguished Writing Award of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1985. In 1986, Camp was awarded a Pulitzer for Non-Deadline Feature Writing for his St. Paul Pioneer Press article series chronicling the life and work of a Minnesota farm family. Around that time, he tried his hand at long-form nonfiction with two books, one about the paintings of John Stuart Ingle and another about plastic surgery. “Neither,” he says, “will ever be a bestseller.”
In 1989, he wrote and published his first two novels—Rules of Prey and The Fool’s Run. Each would spawn a successful series: Prey, featuring his iconic Lucas Davenport character, a loner detective with a womanizing streak; and the Kidd series, which follows a computer genius who doesn’t mind taking sketchy hacking jobs—as long as the money is good. In 2007, he launched yet another wildly popular series, Virgil Flowers, about a rough-around-the-edges cop who only does “the hard stuff.” To date, Sandford has sold more than 10 million copies of nearly 40 bestselling crime thrillers. This year alone, Sandford released three titles: the 24th Davenport book, Field of Prey; the 8th Virgil Flowers installment, Deadline; and his first young adult thriller, Uncaged, the start of The Singular Menace series co-authored with his wife, fellow journalist-turned-author Michele Cook.
The full WD Interview with John Sandford appears in the November/December 2014 Writer’s Digest. In these online exclusive outtakes, he talks about the series he never wrote, more about writing what you know, and the irritation of printed mistakes.
Have you ever had an idea that just didn’t pan out?
After I had established a career writing fiction, I once had an idea for a series of books that would be based on the idea that a guy—an ex-cop—was a golfer who won a tournament and was invited to the Master’s Tournament. At the Master’s Tournament, a guy gets killed and the people who run the show want to kind of hush things up and find out what’s going on, so they get [this ex-cop, amateur golfer] to do that. So then all these rich golfers find out that this guy can keep his mouth shut, is a good investigator, and so the next thing that happens is that there’s a big scandal involving a Chicago basketball team. And my idea was to have a whole series of sports books.
I never wrote that—another guy did, actually—but the reason I didn’t write that was that I had never covered sports. I didn’t know what the inside of a pro team locker room looks like. I don’t know what jocks act like. I don’t know that stuff, but I know that about cops and judges and courts and detectives and farmers and doctors and medical stuff.
So it’s all about writing what you know.
Yeah, and it’s the same problem young writers face, and that’s that they don’t have that store of images in their head yet. Which they will get, but it takes a while to get that. It’s just a problem that they’ve got to deal with and that’s the thing that journalism gave me. …
One of the benefits, by the way, of being a reporter is that you go to places like courts, and you hear people when they’re testifying. They’re using these great big long sentences, and you’re typing and writing and trying to get it down exact because you’ve got television cameras and you’ve got other people [reporting], too. If you write out a quote, and everyone else picks up that quote and they’re all different from yours, your editor is thinking, You’re an asshole. You’ve screwed this up. So you have to work very carefully to write down the quotes, and that teaches you how people talk and the kind of language they use and when they screw things up.
If a person didn’t want to be a journalist first, how might they go about getting that “store of images” for writing?
When I’ve been asked in the past what I would recommend if a kid’s in college—and no one would ever take this advice—I would tell him to join the army. If you join the army you learn about weapons, you learn about a great swath of society, you learn about all kinds of people doing different kinds of jobs. In the space of two or three years, you get this intense education and learn about a huge variety of things that are useful to writers. An alternative would be to become a social worker or a cop for a couple of years. Any of those things will expose you to the kind of images that you need just simply to write.
Do readers ever send you feedback that you just can’t ignore?
There’s been a little, irritating controversy on my website about my knowledge of guns. I actually have a pretty extensive knowledge of guns because I grew up in the countryside in Iowa and I first shot a gun when I was probably four or five years old. But I made an editing mistake in a novel— I said that a particular kind of gun had a safety, which it does not. It’s a Glock. It does not have a safety on it. And it’s widely used by cops. What happened in that situation was that I was trying to fix a mistake. I had a [scene] where a guy took a Berretta—which does have a safety—from a dead cop. Later, I realized that that cop wouldn’t be carrying a Beretta, he would be carrying a Glock because that was the issue weapon for the Minneapolis Police Department. What I did was I went back through the book and I changed all the Berettas to Glocks. What I didn’t realize was that … I had a guy make sure that the safety was off on the Beretta. And so when I just changed Beretta Beretta Beretta to Glock Glock Glock Glock, I didn’t change the sentence about the safety. So then a lot of people wrote in and said I was an idiot because Glocks don’t have safeties.
I also once made a mistake [in a book] because I went through Arizona in the summertime. And in the book, [my main character] is in Flagstaff, AZ, in the wintertime, and I mentioned that it was hot. Well, Flagstaff has a ski area and it snows like crazy there in the wintertime and it gets very cold. That’s a mistake that I made because I did the location research, but I didn’t do the weather research. And when I shifted time periods from when I was there to when the book was [set], I made a mistake. All of my books, not all them that I know of, but most of them have some kind of mistake that I find really irritating. Usually it’s something very small, but the local people who live in that area will tell me about it.
It’s not usually anger. It’s just, “You know, you didn’t get this quite right.” And I always realize it instantly when they tell me, because I know that they’re telling me the truth! I find it very annoying when I make mistakes. I mean it really, really bothers me.
You have several hobbies. What, aside from art and archaeology, interests you?
I’ve been studying songwriting. … In my music study, I was reading a quote by Metallica. They had a song called “Ride the Lightning,” and it turns out it’s a quote from a Stephen King book about a guy who was about to be sent to ‘ride the lightning’—because he was being sent to the electric chair. So [King] picks up that line from a guy who’s a killer, and then Metallica picks it up [from King] and then puts it in a song, which is completely different from the book. It’s interesting how people are sensitive to language and how it works.
If you enjoyed these outtakes with bestselling novelist John Sandford, be sure to check out the feature-length interview—full of valuable insights about pulling off plot twists, changing directions with your writing, and much more—in the November/December 2014 Writer’s Digest.