Interview: Brian Pinkerton

by Randy Richardson

Crime and sleuthing runs in Brian Pinkerton's blood. He shares common ancestry with Allan Pinkerton, a detective and spy, best known for creating the Pinkerton Agency, the first detective agency in the United States.

So perhaps it's only natural that the North Shore communications specialist would write mysteries and thrillers. He's the author of two suspense novels that take ordinary people and throws them into extraordinary situations.

In his debut, Abducted, it's a devastated mother who sees the face of a young boy on a bus, and she knows it is her son. The son who had been kidnapped two years before and had been presumed dead.

In Vengeance, it's a high school English teacher who witnesses an angry driver intentionally sideswipe his fiancé and knock her off her bike to her death. Then he can only watch helplessly as the driver gets off with a slap on the wrist.

A versatile writer, Pinkerton is also a cartoonist and an award-winning screenwriter. Chicago and its environs provide the backdrop for much of his work, including his latest, a short story called "Lower Wacker Blues," which is featured in the "Chicago Blues" anthology edited by Libby Fischer Hellman.


Write City: First, tell us why the FBI is coming for Brian Pinkerton.

Brian: When I'm conducting research for a crime novel, my Internet cache fills up with all sorts of questionable material. So I figure it's only a matter of time before the FBI comes knocking on my door. For Vengeance, I wrote an entire chapter in street gang lingo to establish a character's point of view. To get the slang and rhythms right, I entered a chat room for gang members. They were boasting about recent killings and threatening each other in graphic detail. I also took an online tutorial for drug dealing. I'll spend all night surfing the darkest corners of the Internet for details on poisoning techniques, firearms, child abduction, snuff films. But it's all in the name of research. I only use the information for my fiction. That's my alibi and I'm sticking to it.

Write City: Now that we know that you're not really one of America's Most Wanted, please tell our readers a little about yourself. Just who is Brian Pinkerton?

Brian: People sometimes assume it's a pen name because of the natural connection between Pinkerton and mysteries, but it's my real name. Allan Pinkerton was the first private eye, and we have common ancestry.

My background includes a Master's Degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a B.A. from the University of Iowa, where I took undergraduate classes of the Iowa Writers Workshop.

I have a family and a day job, business communications for a local corporation. The books are a creative outlet. It's something I really enjoy.

Write City: You live on Chicago's North Shore. Are you originally from Chicagoland? How do Chicago and its environs influence your writing?

Brian: I've lived in the Chicago area most of my life – both inside and outside the city. It's hard to get a perspective on its impact to my writing, but I think the qualities of the Midwest show up in my lead characters. They're down-to-earth, pragmatic and determined. I like to take everyday Middle America – a teacher, a bookstore clerk, a computer consultant – and throw them into extraordinary situations. If readers can identify with the main characters, it helps drive the suspense and I can send them on a wild ride. It's mystery and mayhem erupting in your own backyard.

Write City: Tell us about your publisher, Dorchester Publishing. How did you land a deal with them? Did you go through an agent? Were there many rejections before you signed with Dorchester?

Brian: Dorchester publishes mass market paperbacks, and they've been around for many years. For a new thriller line, they were willing to consider unagented manuscripts. I sent them a one-page query letter for Abducted, which intrigued them, and they requested the first three chapters. I mailed them the first three chapters and after they reviewed it, they asked for the full manuscript. They read the full manuscript and offered me a contract. It was a dance that lasted several months, but the patience paid off.

I had collected plenty of rejections before I got published. It was a struggle just to get my manuscripts read. Most of the responses were generic form letters. It was the classic Catch 22: agents saying they were no longer looking for new clients, and publishers saying they would not consider unagented manuscripts.

Write City: You also write screenplays. You co-wrote a screenplay that is currently making the rounds of Tinseltown. Tell us about that screenplay and how it came about.

Brian: Like many other writers, I have some unproduced screenplays in a drawer. One of them is “Perfect Order,” a military thriller that takes place on an aircraft carrier. It's about a young sailor who witnesses a crime in the engine room and he's targeted for murder while the carrier is out to sea. He doesn't know who to trust and there's nowhere to hide. I wrote it with a friend of mine, John Zoppi, based on the true experiences of someone John knew.

Write City: Your screenplay was selected to the Top 100 Round of the Project Greenlight competition and HBO/Bravo TV series produced by Ben Affleck and Miramax. Tell us what that was like.

Brian: It was fun. We were asked to tape a short video audition. I remember there was a mixture of disappointment and relief when we didn't win. I wanted the script to be produced, but I really didn't want to be featured on a reality TV show. I'm a writer because I'm an introvert.

Write City: You also released a book titled “Unreleased”, which is a collection of three other screenplays you've written. Tell us about that book and what, if anything, is happening with those screenplays.

Brian: I spent several years, off and on, writing screenplays and pitching to Hollywood. There was enough encouragement and excitement to keep it going for a while, but in the end, I felt like I was chasing my tail. I met with various producers in L.A. and succeeded in some of the big contests, like Project Greenlight and the Nicholl Fellowships, but it was very difficult to pursue from Chicago. You need to live in the belly of the beast. You can't just dabble in it remotely.

For fun, I self-produced a collection of three of the screenplays, interspersed with my anecdotes about pitching to Hollywood. The book, Unreleased, was a limited run and I ran out of copies, but I might rerelease it someday. (Rerelease Unreleased – that sounds ludicrous.) It's a matter of finding the time. It's just a vanity project. I'd rather push my real books. My real focus now is novels.

Write City: What came first for you, novel writing or screenplay writing? Which one do you prefer writing? Which one comes easier for you?

Brian: I'm comfortable writing both. Screenplays are easier to write. They're short, the writing is bare bones and immediate. In a book, you might spend several pages setting up a location and atmosphere. In a screenplay, all you need is EXT. NORTH AVENUE BEACH – DAY and then you put the plot in motion and write clever dialogue for your characters. You don't decorate the sets. You don't even put much physical description into your characters – it would limit casting.

In a book, you can enrich a character through the narrator's voice, descriptive writing and backstory. In a movie, you have to define a character through their actions and keep the plot moving forward.

A book is more exhausting to write but more satisfying and personal. It succeeds or fails on its own merits. A script is just one component of a big colla