Exclusive Interview with
When did you start writing?
I decided in high school I wanted to “be a writer” without really knowing what that involved. It stayed with me off and on for many years including through a long career as a lawyer. I wrote some things on a long sabbatical from the law in the 1980s, gave it up for another 20 years, then got back to it in earnest in 2013 and have now published 5 books (including revisions of some of the drafts I did in the 80s) and working on more.
What makes writing your passion?
A troubled childhood? Deep-seated neuroses? On a more upbeat note, telling stories that grapple with the fundamental aspects of human life is certainly a vocation to be passionate about.
How long have you been writing?
See Answer to #1.
What was the feeling when you published your first book?
Relief. And then fear. Would it be successful? Would people like it? What would the reviews say? Would I have the ability to write another book?
What’s the story behind your choice of characters?
I have a number of different main characters depending on the work. In my story collection and in my stage plays, my characters have ranged from a young boy growing up in the 1950s, to an alcohol/drug addiction counselor and his patients, a woman “old and broke in Juneau with winter coming on,” Eleanor Marx (youngest daughter of Karl Marx), and a character inspired by the disc jockey credited with “discovering” rock and roll in the 1950s. My detective series has the primary character, Peter O’Keefe but many other characters as well and will have many more as my goal in this series is, through these characters and others that will emerge over time, to grapple with some of the major developments and issues in American life for a period of 25-plus years, from the 1980s to the present day.
What annoys you the most in pursuing a writing career?
Struggling to overcome blocks.
How do you get over the “writer’s block”?
Usually, it stops me for a while, but then I just finally “gut it out.” But there are a couple of pieces where the block has triumphed. I hope those just weren’t worth doing.
We all know the writer’s path is never easy, what makes you keep going? What advice would you give to new authors?
What keeps me going is the satisfaction in the work when it’s done. I have a lot more stories to tell about American life from the 1980s to the present date and am in a friendly race with old age, senility, and death to tell as many stories as I can before one of that trio nails me. My advice to other writers is to keep at it until you are sure you are not cut out for it. Don’t give up too soon or too easily, but there really might be a time to give up. I’m glad I gave up in the 90s and put things on hold for 20 years but extremely happy I resumed those two decades later.
If you could go back in time and talk to your younger self, what would you say?
Demanding perfection in life, marriage, writing, or anything else will make you and others unnecessarily unhappy and be an obstacle to both achieving your desires and enjoying them when you’ve fulfilled them.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the bad ones?
I am extremely happy and a bit surprised that I have received very few negative ones. Sometimes less than positive but constructive ones usefully identify weaknesses and help me avoid similar ones in the future. Of course, any negativity threatens to paralyze me. But I let the positive reviews and especially the awards overcome the occasional negatives.
What is the feeling when you get a good review?
Validation and an impetus to keep going. A Kirkus reviewer said, “Flanigan manages to conjure deft, hard-boiled, but literary prose that’s reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s best work,” and I have considered tattooing that on my forehead (backwards, so I can see it when I look in the mirror).
Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?
Sometimes the kernel of something that happened to me furnishes a plot or part of one (for example I had a “mink farm” case as a young lawyer, which led to Mink Eyes, the first O’Keefe novel), but the imagination does the really interesting stuff.
Which of your characters you can compare yourself with? Did you base that character on you?
People close to me say they see a lot of me in both Peter O’Keefe and Michael Harrigan in the O’Keefe novels. But I really try not to be autobiographical. Most lives, including mine, have not been richly varied enough to justify indulging in navel-gazing solipsism.
What do you think, the book cover is as important as the story?
Of course not. But it is important, although I am not sure it means as much in the now-dominant digital world as it did in the once-dominant bookstore world. I have been very happy with the designer and other professionals who have helped me with my covers, general layout etc. They have contributed their own originality and creativity but also listened to what I thought was important to get across and adjusted accordingly, preserving the best of both.
Do you connect with your readers? Do you mind having a chat with them or you prefer to express yourself through your writing?
I haven’t had as much of an opportunity to interact with readers as I would like.
How do you feel when people appreciate your work or recognize you in public?
I like to be recognized for my work and much appreciate the awards and recognition I have received and hope more is coming. But I usually don’t like to be directly in the spotlight—a little off to the side.
Who is your favorite author? Why?
No surprise here and the “why” will be obvious: Shakespeare above all, but also Wordsworth, Turgenev, Twain, Yeats, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Camus. A little closer to contemporary would be Robert Stone (especially Dog Soldiers) and E. L. Doctorow. In the detective genre, it’s been a long time, but I remember fondly reading Ross MacDonald a long time ago.
What’s the dream? Whom would you like to be as big as?
Somewhere tagging along behind but within the long shadow of the authors identified in #17. I also write plays by the way and hope to get some traction on those. I think the Peter O’Keefe novels would make for a great tv series or feature films. I have a feature screenplay and TV pilot ready to go once the novels generate interest in doing something in that direction.
Would you rewrite any of your books? Why?
No, although I am planning to reissue my poetry collection, Tenebrae, adding to it and changing the cover but not the existing text. It is very special to me and needs a better, updated, more appealing look to it and a little more heft. Otherwise, no, I think they are what they were meant to be—a “pilgrim’s progress.” I want to do new things, not revise old ones.
If you could switch places with any author – who would that be?
See #17. But a foolish dream that.
What would you say to the “trolls” on the internet? We all know them – people who like to write awful reviews to books they’ve never read or didn’t like that much, just to annoy the author.
“You will be judged according to your works.”
What would you say to your readers?
Thank you. More coming soon.
Share a bit about yourself – where do you live, are you married, do you have kids?
I have a Ph.D. in History and taught at the University of Houston and the University of Virginia. My first published work was my dissertation, The Criminal Law of Slavery and Freedom, 1800-1868. I was a civil rights lawyer for a few years and spent the rest of my legal career in the area of finance including bankruptcy, which has given me a lot of useful experience and scenarios for the O’Keefe series. Except for brief stints in Houston, Charlottesville, and Tucson, and an extended period where I lived mostly in New York City, Kansas City has been and is now my home.
At 17, I met and fell in love with Candy Gambrell, the woman who would be my wife of 41 years until her death in 2011 of cancer. Candy and I founded Sierra Tucson, a well-known alcohol/drug treatment center. Candy and I have a daughter, Meghan, and two grandchildren, Grace and Flanigan (the latter name not my idea but everyone seems delighted with it, even him).
What is your day job if you have one?
I am still a practicing attorney. Someday I might get it right.
What are your hobbies? What do you do in your free time?
Not many (or any?) hobbies and little to no free time. I have lately dedicated myself more to my tennis game and, after years of neglecting it, have vowed to become the best “old man” tennis player I can be. I have always been an avid reader, though lately, except for research for the O’Keefe books (and there has been a lot of that in order to get the 80s right even though I lived intensely through it all), I seem to only buy books and stack them on my nightstand (I am told the Japanese actually have a word for that practice). I am addicted to true crime shows on TV, which I often have on in the background like Muzak. I am a great fan of ballet and modern dance. I do travel for pleasure quite a bit and am an avid whale watcher (though at a proper distance).
Did you have a happy childhood?
Mostly no. But it was still a good one.
Is there a particular experience that made you start writing?
The idea grabbed hold of me in high school for reasons I still don’t understand. But I was just a “wanna-be” and a frustrated, unhappy one until I dealt with my alcoholism at age 35 when I had a burst of activity that I suspended for 20 years but then returned to lately and have been very productive since (5 books now and more on the way).
Do you have unpublished books? What are they about?
I have a couple of notions, some that I have started, some that live mainly in my head. There is a book that I have begun about a man who thinks he sees his dead wife on the streets of New York and sets about “finding” her, much to the dismay and concern of his children, friends, and business associates. My original writing initiatives were stage plays. I have three that I believe are ready or near ready for prime time: Dewdrops (a tragedy set in an alcohol-drug treatment center), Moondog’s Progress (inspired by the life of Alan Freed, the disc jockey often credited with “discovering” rock and roll) and Secrets (based on the life and early tragic death of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx).
What do you think should be improved in the education of our children? What do we lack?
We are moving too far away from a traditional liberal education. They don’t call them “the humanities” for nothing.
If you were allowed 3 wishes – what would they be?
1. That my daughter and grandchildren prosper, but that won’t be possible unless we save this planet so that is my most fervent wish.
2. To see my wife, Candy, again and tell her she could not have been more prescient when she looked up at me with those big brown eyes and said, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
3. More wishes.
What is your favorite music?
I like a lot of things but especially Bach and other Baroque, Bob Dylan and other folk, folk-rock and rock of the 60s and here and there in later decades as well.
Share a secret with us 🙂
I’ve had a crush on Shirley Temple my whole life, from the first moment I saw her.