By Stephen Jay Schwartz
Despite the fiercely intense gaze and the eyebrows slightly arched, as if to say, “I’ve got a shiv in my hand that could sever your carotid in the time it takes you to avert your eyes,” Author Sean Black is the sweetest guy I’ve ever met. His author photo delivers the kind-of tough-guy persona you’d expect to find behind his popular LOCKDOWN series, featuring bodyguard-turned-avenger Ryan Lock.
To research the series, Sean trained as a bodyguard with former members of the Royal Military Police’s specialist close protection unit, spent time inside America’s most dangerous maximum security prison, Pelican Bay Supermax in California, and underwent desert survival training in Arizona.
He was born and raised in Scotland and attended college at Oxford, where he graduated with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. After college, he spent a summer teaching in a housing project in New Orleans before following former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke’s campaign for US Senate. Having whet his taste for America’s diverse culture, Sean won a place at Columbia University in New York to study for his Master of Fine Arts in Film. He lived in New York for three and a half years, before moving to Los Angeles, where he met his wife.
After a short stint living as a screenwriter in Hollywood, Sean returned to England to teach college before landing his first television-writing gig. Between 1999 and 2008, Sean wrote over seventy episodes of some of Britain’s best-known television dramas.
In 2006, as part of the research for a television series he was developing, he enrolled on an intensive 24-day bodyguarding course. The TV series wasn’t picked up, but it gave him the idea for a series of thrillers about an ex-military bodyguard who finds himself working in high-end private security. In November of 2007, he started writing the first book in the series, Lockdown.
In September of 2008, after a heated auction, Lockdown sold to Bantam/Transworld in what Publishers Weekly categorised as ‘a major deal’.
I met Sean a few years ago at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, California, the night before the L.A. Times Festival of Books. He was absolutely charming; a humble guy from across the pond who hadn’t let his success in television go to his head. We kept in touch over the years — I think he’s read every Murderati blog I’ve ever written — and recently we brought our families together in Hermosa Beach for a brunch he wouldn’t let me pay for. His family is adorable, and his daughter is the type of precocious young woman who will surely break the hearts of all the young men she meets, including my two boys. She has the kind of clever that inspires strong female characters, and I am sure we will see her influence in the pages of Sean Black novels yet to come.
Today, Sean and his family live just outside of Dublin, Ireland.
With that, I bring you Sean Black…
Stephen: Sean, you’re pretty much my hero when it comes to taking life by the horns. I love the way you throw yourself into research in an effort to bring a sense of reality to your writing. How the hell did you get into Pelican Bay, and what did you do while you were there?
Sean: Thanks, Steve! It was not easy getting into PB because we went through the official channels and they are seemingly not that keen on people from outside coming into Pelican Bay. I still didn’t have a yes when I flew out but I’m a believer in getting off your ass to make things happen. Finally, a few days before I had my flight booked to come home, I got the go ahead. I was inside for the day. They did offer me a place to stay overnight but I politely declined. They had just had a minor riot so it was relatively chilled when I got there. Days before they had a young white inmate who was a Crip (a predominantly African-American organization as many readers will know). He decided that despite words of warning, he would hang with the Crips on the yard – a Pelican Bay no-no. He was attacked as he walked back into his unit and it turned into a fairly serious incident with live rounds fired from the tower, but thankfully no-one killed. The white and black inmates were on lockdown when I visited so the other inmates were pretty damn happy as they didn’t have to watch their backs for a few days. Mixing with someone of another race is a no-no for the prison gangs. The most nerve-wracking part was going inside the SHU or secure housing unit. They give you a protective vest. I was puzzled because I thought, “Wait, they’re in their cells.” “Oh, yeah,” I was told, ” but sometimes they try and spear us.” They make little darts in their cells, dip them in, well use your imagination, and fire them through the holes in the cell door with the elastic from their shorts. If you have someone with Hepatitis or HIV and it breaks your skin, well, it ain’t nothing good.
Stephen: What other cool research experiences stand out in your mind?
Sean: What got me started was doing a three and a half week close protection operative (bodyguard) course in the UK and Eastern Europe. It was right around the time when companies like Blackwater took off and there were hundreds of guys signing up to go to Afghanistan and Iraq and work as private contractors. I stumbled across this world and was fascinated. I thought it would make a great TV show but I couldn’t get the pilot episode away (still open to offers on that one) so I wrote Lockdown instead. The best thing about it was meeting the two former British Royal Military Police close protection unit guys, Andy and Cliff. In a world full of bullshitters, they were the real deal, and they gave me this amazing insight into a world very few people see. I also got to smash up cars on a dis-used airfield, did firearms training in Prague, and generally live out every twelve-year-old (thirty-seven-year-old?) boy’s fantasy for almost a month. When I got home I spent a month praying someone would break in so I could kick the shit out of them. Thankfully for all concerned, no one did.
Stephen: Your history really reminds me of another talented author we know here at Murderati – Gregg Hurwitz. Did you run into Gregg at Oxford?
Sean: No, bizarrely I met Gregg at my mother-in-law’s house. She and her husband had been on a USC alumni cruise and Gregg had been there helping his Dad who, if memory serves, had broken his arm. I was writing TV at the time so she wanted us to meet. And, well, if you’ve met Gregg he is one of the most talented, coolest people you will ever meet. I read his Rackley series and loved them and I loved his whole approach to research, which just comes off the page. One of the great things over the past year or two has been seeing him hit it big in the UK, having spent several years banging on to everyone I met, especially in London publishing, about how good he is. No one deserves it more than he does. I just wish he wasn’t quite as good looking. It’s really not fair to be that talented and have that face as well.
Stephen: How does a kid from Scotland end up following David Duke during his campaign for senate? How does that process even get started?
Sean: During summer vacation, I went to New Orleans to volunteer for an anti-death penalty group. The death penalty is something I still oppose. Not because I don’t feel that need for punishment but because, let’s be honest, in the southern US, there are dozens of black men on Death Row who are, and have been proven to be, innocent. DNA is no safeguard either, incidentally. Anyway, while I was there, Duke was running for Senate so I went to interview him. Of course he talked in code for most of the time. So he would talk about welfare mothers, which was code for black women with kids. He was an utterly bizarre, quite seductive individual. And, he came within a few percentage points of unseating one of the strongest Democratic incumbents in the US Senate. He did not like me one little bit, which I took to be a great compliment.
Stephen: You must have been your parents’ dream, coming out of Oxford with a degree in Politics and Economics. What sort of psychotic break did you experience that made you decide to study film at Columbia?
Sean: Ha ha ha ha. That’s how it feels some days. Most writers have that “What the hell have I done with my life” moment, don’t they? A lot of my friends went to work for the UN, or into the City of London, or to work as management consultants. I had already started writing journalism and fiction and it was that dumb ass romantic notion of wanting to be a writer. Anyway, one day I picked up this career magazine and it was about film schools. I thought “aha, screenwriting, you can write and make a living.” Cue hollow laughter. I went, had a great time, and then spent the next seven years trying to break in. It was great though. I got to live in New York in my early twenties and Columbia is a great school.
Stephen: What was your “Hollywood” experience like? Was it anything like you expected?
Sean: My original experience was straight out of film school and didn’t work out, which I am very grateful for now. One of the people I have got to know over the past few years is David Seidler who wrote The King’s Speech. He told me that part of the reason for the longevity of his career was that he came to Hollywood when he was forty. Hollywood is all about the new thing, and the flavor of the month. Lots of people break through, they have ten years if they’re lucky, and then they are done. A very few like David reconnect with their passion, stick at it and they get a second shot. I was so happy watching him pick up that Oscar knowing what he had been through. Also, last time we were out to dinner, I got back to the parking garage in Santa Monica after it closed (because I am an idiot) and he gave me a toothbrush and let me sleep on his couch so, great guy. So, yeah, Hollywood. I think as long as you don’t take it too seriously it’s hugely enjoyable. It is full of very talented people who I enjoy meeting immensely but don’t get sucked in by the mirage and you’ll be fine. I mean who doesn’t like being told how great they are? Just remember though that behind door numbers two through ten are a bunch of other people who are going to get the same speech. It’s that old saying, isn’t it? Hollywood is the only town where you can die of encouragement. I have a Scotsman’s cynicism so that’s helped me.
Stephen: Do you feel there are more opportunities to write for television or film in England than the U.S.? How are the industries different in the two countries?
Sean: TV in England is producer led, which in terms of drama doesn’t work that well. I know lots of very talented TV writers in the UK but it’s like a big sausage machine so it’s hard to discern just how good some of them are. Americans see the best of British TV, and vice versa, so we both have a skewed view of how good each other’s television is.
Stephen: How did you segue from writing television to writing novels? Were you able to bring fans of your TV series to your books?
Sean: With a few exceptions, I don’t think anyone who watches TV has a clue who wrote it, or cares, so not really. It gave me some amazing things, the best of which was a lack of attachment to my words,and an ability to know a good note from a bad note. Most of all though I wrote a LOT, and saw hours upon hours upon hours of my work on screen, so you get to see what works. You learn fast in that environment or you don’t work. It’s brutal in that regard. It was a wonderful training ground where I met some very talented people.
Stephen: Do you feel more satisfied writing novels than television? If so, how?
Sean: Novels are infinitely more satisfying although I do miss the contact with other writers and all the people who make a TV show possible. One of the big differences is that if you want to blow up a building in a novel, you write it. Good luck trying to get that scene past a producer. So you have that freedom to go anywhere and do anything and immerse people in a world in a book. On the other side, if someone thinks you suck, well you can’t exactly blame the director. It’s all on you, but overall, novels by a long way. As a side note, when someone told me it was harder to sell a debut novel than get a TV show commissioned, I can remember laughing. A debut costs what at the low end? Well, nothing now, but with a big publisher? Say fifty to eighty grand? That’s going to cover the catering on a TV show – if you’re lucky.
Stephen: Currently you’re living with your wife and beautiful little daughter in my favorite country in the world – Ireland. Why did you make the move? Does Ireland offer advantages to authors that are not available in the U.S or U.K.?
Sean: The best thing about being here for us are the people and the education system. The economy is in the toilet but the people (if we can talk about them as a monolithic entity) are just great. There is still that sense of community here. I would argue we all need that sense more than ever these days. I wish the weather was better, I guess. Oh, and our politicians are for the most part, to use an Irish expression, a bunch of ‘cute hoors,’ but that goes for most politicians these days. Apart from that though, I love it.
Stephen: Tell us a bit about your Lockdown novels. The series became very popular from the start – what is it about your books that draws the readers in?
Sean: I still feel like I’m on the nursery slopes in terms of readership, with a very long way to go, but yes the reaction has been great. I’m not sure that I’m that beloved of the cognosceti because the books are very stripped down in terms of prose. I think people tend to enjoy the pace of the books, and the interplay between the two main characters, Lock and Ty. Lock is more of your buttoned up good guy and Ty is a self-styled bad boy, ladies man. Interestingly, female readers seem to really love Ty. I make no comment. I hope that above all, the books are fun. Whether they are thrilling fun or scary fun or funny fun, it doesn’t matter to me. I want to engage people and I will go anywhere and do anything and screw up my back sitting at my desk for hours to make sure that happens.
Stephen: Is there a TV series or film version of your books in the making?
Sean: We’ve had interest but nothing firm on the horizon. I’m in no rush. The books are there for people. Plus, I know how hard it is to get a movie or TV show made these days so even if you get an option, well, that takes you to the first base camp with the rest of the mountain still to climb. If the right people come along, great. If not then I’m not going to cry myself to sleep.
Stephen: What’s next in the series – do you have a book coming out now?
Sean: Over the summer the fourth book in the series was published, The Devil’s Bounty. Lock and Ty are recruited as bounty hunters to go after a very wealthy serial rapist who has fled across the border into Mexico and is being protected by a very violent drugs cartel. I also just published a novelette, if that’s the term, called Lock & Load. It’s a pretty simple story about a young Hollywood actress whose movie star ex-boyfriend won’t leave her alone. Lock and Ty deal with him in a slightly atypical fashion. It’s a bit lighter than The Devil’s Bounty, not that it would be difficult.
Stephen: What’s in store for Sean Black? Will you continue to write novels, branching out into new series characters? Do you anticipate a return to writing for TV, or possibly film?
Sean: Lock and Load was a way of keeping the series ticking over while I work on two different novels. One is finished. One is halfway done. I can’t say anything much about either of them just yet, although one is a big thriller, and the other is also big canvas but a completely different genre and something I just wrote for myself. Once they are done, I will come back to Lock and Ty for a fifth novel that I already have planned out in my head. Thrillers are hard to write because there is so much reverse engineering but I love those characters and I have readers who will hunt me down and kill me if I don’t give them more books. And readers after all are the people who make me get up in the morning when it comes to the work. They are the start and the end. In terms of TV, as big Sean Connery said, Never Say Never Again. If the right project came along, or I came up with an idea that seemed like TV or a movie, then who knows. It’s not something I am actively seeking out.
Stephen: Well, I’m real proud of you and happy for your success, Sean. It’s great to see smart, talented authors being rewarded for their efforts. It’s even better when they’re truly wonderful people, like yourself. Thanks for stopping by on Christmas Day.
Sean: Thanks so much, Steve!