Q&A With Tom Coffey
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Q&A With Tom Coffey
I have the honor of doing a Q&A with Tom Coffey! Some of Tom’s many books are Blood Alley, The Serpent Club & coming out on November 21st this year is Public Morals. In a past life Tom was a journalist at The New York Times and also wrote for The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Herald Examiner & New York Newsday!
Q: Tom, would you like to tell the readers of the blog and I about your upcoming release Public Morals? Where did the idea for the story come from?
A: Public Morals began in 1982, when everyone was trying to “Escape From New York.” Terence Devine, a charismatic Vice cop with one eye on removing his family to Florida, is caught on tape taking money from a pimp. Forced to cooperate with the district attorney’s investigation into his own unit, Devine’s position becomes even more precarious when he’s linked to the murder of a sex worker whose customers include some of the most powerful men in the city. Despite his fevered efforts to deflect the inquiry into the woman’s death, Devine receives a life sentence for killing her.
Forty years later his long-estranged daughter, Sheila, a documentary filmmaker, reaches out to him in prison. When they meet, Devine insists he’s innocent. Sheila is reluctant to delve into her family’s troubled history and ridicules her father’s claims, although she sees the box-office potential in making a movie about him. But as she examines his case she starts to question his guilt, and the pointed questions she asks place her own life in danger.
The idea for Public Morals is rooted in the corruption scandals that rocked the New York City Police Department in the 1970s. (For a quick primer on that, I suggest watching the 1973 movie Serpico, starring a young Al Pacino.) Officer Frank Serpico’s revelations to The New York Times led to the creation of an investigative body called the Knapp Commission, which held televised hearings that exposed the corruption. The star witness was a crooked cop named William Phillips, who cooperated with the commission’s investigators after he was caught red-handed taking bribes. He named names, and his testimony riveted the city. It also angered the cops. Phillips was convicted of murdering a sex worker he was trying to shake down in the late 1960s, but he always maintained his innocence and a lot of people think he was framed.
I created the character of Sheila as a device to reopen the case in the new, gentrified New York, of which she is a part. It also gave me a chance to explore the Devine family’s dynamics, and the father-daughter relationship.
Q: When did you know that journalism and being an author were callings in your life?
A: I’ve wanted to write books for a very long time – the urge struck me when I was a schoolboy, and by the time I was in high school I knew it was what I wanted to do. Of course, writing books is a precarious way to make ends meet. I grew up on Staten Island in the 1970s, and being a journalist in New York City struck me as an interesting way to make a living. It is possible to combine journalism and book writing, and working in the media in New York has certainly given me more story ideas than I can remember.
Q: Are you currently working on your next book now and can you reveal any details or, is it too early to do that?
A: Public Morals, which is being published by Level Best Books, is the first book in what I’m immodestly calling The Devine Trilogy, after the family at its heart. The second book is tentatively titled Special Victim, and it’s pretty much written. It’s based on the Central Park Jogger case, in which five young men of color were convicted of the brutal assault on a woman who was taking a nighttime run in the park. Their convictions were later overturned when DNA evidence revealed that the attacker was a serial rapist. Special Victim is scheduled to come out in November 2024, and I’d love to do another Q&A when it’s published!
Q: What was it like being a writer for The New York Times & also writing for The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Herald Examiner & New York Newsday?
A: Actually, I was mostly an editor, though I did some writing for those publications, especially The Miami Herald, where I was a beat reporter in the Broward County bureau (Fort Lauderdale and environs). As a reporter, I was responsible for generating most of my own story ideas, which is good for your creativity. It’s also useful to go through the editing process – you learn what works and what doesn’t. As an editor, I worked with writers who ranged from phenomenal to, uh … challenging, and it certainly helped me to see the mistakes the less gifted writers made, and also how the really good ones practiced their craft. It was an immersive experience that helped me a great deal.
Q: What advice would you give for any of us who would love to submit a piece to The New York Times, The Miami Herald, The Los Angeles Herald Examiner & New York Newsday?
A: Sadly, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and New York Newsday have folded. That pains me, because I had good experiences at both places. Newsday’s Long Island edition is still around, and so are The New York Times and the Miami Herald. If you’re interested in writing for those publications, I’d advise you to study them to see what they’re interested in, and then come up with a number of story ideas you can pitch to the editors. Find out who the editors are for the departments who want to write for and email them with both your ideas and a short bio that explains why you’re the perfect person to write the story. And look over that email carefully. Nothing turns off an editor more than typos, bad grammar, or general incomprehensibility.
Q: What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue journalism and writing books like you have?
A: I don’t want the competition! …. Oh, wait, that’s not the right answer. I recommend perseverance, and curiosity, and keeping an open mind. Everything that happens around you is potential fodder. In terms of setting up a schedule, I was disciplined. I usually started my shift in the afternoon, so I carved out about an hour in the morning for writing. Books don’t get written by themselves, so if you’re not fortunate enough to get a book leave, you should figure out what time of day is good for your writing, and do your writing then … and stick with it!