Friday, March 19, 2010

Author Interview: Stephen J. Cannell

Post by NCW Director Kerrie Flanagan

Stephen J. Cannell, best-selling author and Hollywood mogul, is coming to Fort Collins, Colorado to sign copies of his newest book and speak at the Northern Colorado Writers Conference.

If you watched television in the 80’s, then chances are you saw one or more of Cannell’s 42 shows. Hits like the Rockford Files, The A-Team, 21 Jump Street and The Greatest American Hero are just a few of his creations.

He went on to start his own studio and within five years it was the third argest supplier of television and employed 2,100 people.

After selling his company, he changed his focus to writing novels. Most went on to become best-sellers. His 16th book, The Pallbearers was released this week.

The fact the Cannell has found so much success with his writing is amazing in itself, but add to the mix that Stephen Cannell is dyslexic, making reading and writing a challenge, makes it even more incredible.

I had the privilege of interviewing him and he shared his thoughts on writing, dyslexia and his future.

How did you break into Hollywood?

“I wrote every day for five hours a day for about five or six years. I never sold anything. Those were the
hours, though at the time they didn’t appear to be very productive, that qualified me so when I did finally find a hole in the wall and get through, people read my stuff and said, ‘Wow, how do I get you to work for us?’”

“Then I got an agent and finally started to sell. And very quickly after that I was under contract with Universal. A year and a half or two years after that, I created Rockford Files and Baretta.”

Over those five years you didn't sell anything, what kept you going?

"I could see improvement in my work. I am a very tough critique of my own stuff. What I found interesting when I was managing 30 or 40 writers that were under contract to me was that some of them were very unable to look at their own work and accurately judge what it really was. Sometimes we write better than other times and its up to us as the writer to know when we are not drilling it and to know if maybe there is a problem."

"A lot of writers don’t know how to do that. They are so invested in being brilliant that it never enters their mind that anything they write, might not be. I on the other, I flunked the 1st grade, I flunked the 4th grade, I flunked the 10th grade. I have no illusions of being brilliant. So for me it is all about how good can I make it and how much fun can I have doing it. Those are my motives. "

How did you cope with all the rejection?

"Sometimes I’d come home from high school and lay in bed at night. It would occasionally flick in my mind ‘what am I going to do when I can’t play football.' Because that is really all I have in my life. Then I would just say 'well, I am not going to think about it' and I would slam the door shut on that thought. And I would not think about it."

"As a survival technique, that was an amazing one. As I got into show business, and at the beginning of your career, 99% of the things you are trying to do get rejected. I have friends who were always the best and the brightest at school, some went to Princeton and Harvard, and when they started to get rejected, they couldn’t deal with it. I on the other hand would just say to myself, I’m not going to think about it and would just keep going."

You are very open about being dyslexic, but you never refer to it as a learning disability. You call it a learning difference. Why?

“The reason I don’t is because I think it is the greatest gift I have. It is a gift created by the fact that my right side of my brain is much better than the left side. I don’t believe I would have the career I have today. I don’t believe I would have the life I have today. I don’t believe I would any of this stuff if my mind worked other than the way it works.”

You have found success as a screenwriter, a producer, a studio owner and a novelist. What’s next for you?

“As I am aging, I’m finding that I’m getting as much satisfaction out of the success of my children as I am out of my own. I have a daughter who is a film director in Toronto. My other daughter is an on-camera television host. My son is just out of college and starting his career as a musician. It’s been a joyous thing for me to know that my wife and I raised kids that don’t use drugs and who understand that this (life) is a game we’re playing and it is no fun to sit on the sidelines and complain.”


Jemi Fraser said...

Love this interview! I hadn't realized Cannell had an ld - we call them differences not disabilities as well. I'm taking his quote to my classroom - awesome!! :)

Kerrie said...


If you go to his website, he has some great video interviews where he goes into more depth about his dyslexia. They are very inspirational.


Carol Kilgore said...

Wonderful post. Thanks, Kerrie.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I'm really looking forward to hearing Stephen speak next Friday. It's great you were able to get him to Fort Collins for this event. Kerrie rocks!

Mason Canyon said...

Enjoyed the interview. Always loved this TV shows. At one time a woman from my hometown actually wrote for one of his shows. I haven't read any of his books yet, but they are definitely on my wish list. Thanks for sharing Kerrie.

Cricket McRae said...

Terrific interview, Kerrie. I just finished watching every episode of the Rockford Files, and sometimes I actually took notes. Each one is like a mini-movie -- very complex, and with lots of twists and turns. Big kudos to you for bringing Mr. Cannell to Ft. Collins!

info said...

Thanks for all your comments. Mason and Cricket, I read On The Grind and really enjoyed it.

I didn't watch Rockford Files, but I have hear good things about the show. I'm going to have to watch some episodes now. I will have to see if has them.

I can't wait to meet him on Friday!

Jane said...

Great post

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