When we last touched base with crime thriller author Neal Griffin just about a year ago, he still readily described himself as a police officer who wrote crime novels on the side. Well, a lot has changed since then. After more than 25 years on the job, Griffin retired from police work this year and has devoted himself full time to his keyboard. And with good reason – he recently signed a three-book deal with Forge books that will both continue the characters from his very successful “Newberg” mystery series as well as something brand new. I caught up with him at the recent San Diego State University Writers Conference to talk about his work and what appears to be a very bright literary future.
Open Mic: A lot has happened since we last spoke, mainly that you recently were signed to a nice three book deal. Congratulations! With that success has anything changed for you?
Griffin: After my second book, A Voice from the Field, came out Forge wanted me to continue that small town Midwestern noir and with the same characters, what they are calling the Newberg mystery novels. So there’s going to be a third book that will be driven by the characters of Ben Sawyer and Tia Suarez, but they also want a stand-alone that will be my first attempt to try and write a novel that’s more close to home in Southern California. That’s just in concept right now. And then my fifth book, which will be the third in that deal, will be another Newberg novel. So that’s where it’s going right now. So I guess to answer your question it’s kind of gone from hobby to job. But that’s fine because I retired last year as a police officer and I’m really enjoying the work.
Open Mic: That’s a fabulous accomplishment. Of course so aspiring writers are trying to get to the point where their work is respected enough that they can get a contract based on future production, so that’s got to be incredibly gratifying.
Griffin: It was a little daunting because you really it’s the second time, considering the first time no one was really looking at me in that way. But when there is a chance to do more you just say, ‘is there another story in me?’ You have to deal with that. When I wrote “The End” on that third novel I just thought ‘I can’t believe I’ve written a third novel and I like it.’ I like the way it turned out. It’s in the single point of view of Tia Suarez, who I really like as a character. It’s been really exciting.
Open Mic: What other stories are percolating in the back of your mind? Are there other genres you want to try?
Griffin: Right now I have four ideas that I’d like to continue into finished products. Certainly the one based in Southern California, which is going to be very close to home. What I learned in police work is just how quickly the lives of young men who grow up in difficult circumstances can just spin out of control. They could be good kids for 17 and a half years and then wind up in one really lousy circumstance and then all of a sudden the state of California has brought the entire power of the criminal justice system down on their head. So I want to write that story. But then there’s a couple of others with the Newberg series that I really look forward to in terms of the small town Wisconsin stuff. So yeah, I’ve got some ideas that I think will keep me busy for at least a few more years.
Open Mic: You’ve had the same agent through all this, right?
Griffin: Yeah, Jill Marr has been great with me, she’s with Sandra Dijkstra Agency here in San Diego and she’s been terrific, as has been my editor at Forge, Melissa Singer. Like I said in my very first book, she’s my precinct sergeant. She keeps me honest, she keeps me dialed in but she also gives me the freedom to go out there and do my own thing.
Open Mic: I’ve read a lot crime novels written by former cops or crime reporters, and the best ones are always those that don’t get overly caught up in the gadgetry or the procedural elements of it all. They never forget these are stories about human beings. It’s one of the things I really like about your work.
Griffin: I appreciate that because I do want the novels to be character driven. I want even the antagonist to be, if not someone a reader would necessarily identify with, one you would say at least grabs a hold of their attention. I think the secret to that is they have to become very real to you. Tia Suarez and Ben Sawyer are very real characters to me, and so when I write them they kind of write themselves because I just think of what would Ben do in a situation and write it out.
Open Mic: When I’m writing a female character I really try to ask myself questions about how I’m writing that person. Am I shading her with my own stereotypes? Am I doing things here that I shouldn’t be doing? You write very strong female characters that are also very real. How do you approach character development when it is someone that you can’t necessarily draw from your own experiences? What’s your process for making sure you get that person right?
Griffin: That’s funny because a lot of people say to me that as far as Tia Suarez goes, the reason I apparently write her well is because I married her. My wife isn’t a police officer, but my wife is a very strong Latina. She came from a very trying, challenging background with immigrant parents and her life was never easy and she’ just doggedly persistent and very successful. So definitely a lot of the characteristics of Tia are in my wife Olga Diaz. So yeah it’s important to me that it be authentic. It’s important to me that the voice be Tia’s. I don’t know where it comes from, but as a law enforcement officer, as a cop, I think I’ve always been very open minded to other people’s perspectives so that probably helped me a lot.
Open Mic: I’m certainly not telling you anything you don’t know, but we are in such troubled times with the relationship between police officers and the community. How much, if at all, does how things are now play into how you write these characters? I’m thinking specifically of your first book when your lead character, Ben Sawyer, had a situation where he went over the line and it pretty much almost ruined his career. How cognizant of all that are you as you think about your new novels?
Griffin: Yeah I’m very cognizant of it because it’s very important to me. The week I retired five officers were assassinated in Dallas. Eight officers in all were murdered in this country that week. And while 2016 was a very violent year for law enforcement officers – I think near sixty were murdered on duty – it’s important to remember that in that same time period there were a thousand citizens who died at the hands of the police in this country. Now as I always say, the overwhelming majority of them raised their hand and volunteered. They behaved in a way that put police in a situation where they had no choice. But that’s still a startling number. With my character Ben Sawyer that was real world, you know. He’s a great cop until the moment he’s not, until that one minute that he goes so far over the line that he commits an unforgiveable sin and it costs him his career. I saw that happen dozens of times in law enforcement. So I think that’s real. But I also think that there is a very precarious relationship right now between the police and the community. But when my guys were getting frustrated with things, I would ask them ‘how many times have you had people come up to you in a restaurant and buy you your meal?’ Everybody’s had that experience, literally dozens of times. I mean it’s hard to buy a meal when you’re a uniformed police officer. Everybody can remember those one or two occasions where somebody came up to curse you. Everybody’s had that run-in with somebody that just didn’t like cops. But those occurrences are really outnumbered by the good. We just we have to remember that in any given community, 95 percent of the people support the police.
Open Mic: It’s very sad that whether it’s the public or uniformed officers that it’s a very small percentage that create the vast bulk of the bad stuff.
Griffin: I used to watch a lot of police video, dozens and dozens and dozens of interactions, and the overwhelming majority were mundane and boring. And then they were often funny and sometimes they were heroic. But they almost never were malicious. I don’t think I can remember any case where I could say that’s a cop that acted maliciously. Now were there mistakes in training or tactics? Absolutely. That’s the real value of those videos. malicious policeman’s conduct is just so exceedingly rare. You know very few of the police-citizen contacts ever even get to force. But when they do I think it’s typically appropriate and necessary.
Open Mic: You said earlier that now you can focus on this writing as a job and not a hobby. Any other changes you feel have come around for you?
Griffin: I certainly feel a greater deal of freedom just to talk and in how it will be perceived. I’m not speaking for any city or organization. I was at a writers group this week at a book reading club that was kind enough to invite me in and we got to talking about these very things. I enjoy the opportunity to talk to people about police work in the real world. As writers we fictionalize the story, but it just serves as sort of a platform for much more important discussion. And now that I can do that and not really worry about how my boss might view it, that’s a good feeling, I’ve enjoyed that.