“Race, Corruption, and Cover-ups: Aaron Clark on Under Color of Law” by Johnnie Hobbs III

I wanted to explore themes of social justice, police abuses, race and identity, and the impacts of trauma. In many ways, Under Color of Law is a character study….

Aaron Clark’s fourth novel, Under Color of Law, is an LA crime thriller about a black rookie detective investigating the murder of a black police academy recruit in the wake of police killings of unarmed black citizens. Detective Trevor Finnegan navigates the intersections between race, corruption, and cover-ups within the LAPD with plenty of twists and turns. The novel was released and published by Thomas & Mercer in Oct 2021 and has garnered critical acclaim, most notably as the grand-prize recipient for the Book Pipeline 2021 adaptation contest and a nominee for the International Thriller Association’s Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original

I had a chance to talk with Aaron to discuss the process of the beginning stages of adapting a novel to a series.

Johnnie Hobbs III: Let’s start from the top. Why write a crime thriller?

Aaron Clark: You could say I’m enamored by crime fiction and its possibilities. Crime fiction makes a wonderful landscape for discussing issues of morality and justice while examining society’s ills. Not to mention, crime thrillers are inherently entertaining when successful. I’ve been writing noir/crime fiction since 2008. My first novel, The Science of Paul, was my grad school thesis and then published in 2010. While Under Color of Law explores many themes about race and identity, it was important to craft a compelling story that would take readers on an insightful journey that’s equal parts thrills and social commentary.

JH: What intentions did you have for exploring themes in Under Color of Law?

AC: Well, my intention is to tell a good story. Beyond that, I wanted to explore themes of social justice, police abuses, race and identity, and the impacts of trauma. In many ways, Under Color of Law is a character study of Trevor Finnegan. I like to think the novel strikes a balance between entertainment and education.

JH: How is Under Color of Law unique in the crime/thriller genre?

AC: Within the genre there aren’t many young (millennial) Black detectives. In some ways Trevor Finnegan is an anomaly. Not only is he young and Black, but he’s a rookie detective that makes mistakes. He’s very much in the beginning stages of becoming a solid detective. Secondly, the novel explores character in a deeper way than most crime thrillers. Often crime thrillers are plot-driven and fall victim to tropes and trappings of the more cliche aspects of the genre. However, I hope my novel subverts that on some level. Not that standard-fare thrillers are bad, but I seek to offer something that deviates from that.

JH: This brings us to Book Pipeline. For people who may not be aware, how did you discover the Book Pipeline contest?

AC: Book Pipeline came out of Script Pipeline under the Pipeline Artist umbrella. They have multiple screenwriting and fiction competitions. I heard about Pipeline through Coverfly, another screenwriting contest service. I wasn’t aware that “Pipeline” had a book aspect to the competitions until I read that a fellow author, Matthew Lee Goldberg, was a finalist in a previous year. Once I realized I didn’t need to write the script and only submit the book, I did that right away. Book Pipeline told me a few months later that I was a finalist.

JH: And what do you get as one of the finalists? 

AC: Well, as a finalist, you’ll get some recognition, development assistance, and $500. As a grand prize winner, you receive $10,000 in prize money and early development help as you work on your pilot or however you see the finished piece. Under Color of Law translates best as a series, but other winners have adapted their work as a feature film. 

JH: How does it mean to have a two-book deal with Amazon Books?

AC: Essentially, my fourth novel went to auction, meaning multiple publishers were bidding on it, like a bidding war with a film. These bids can drive the price up. This is great for the author, but if you’re envisioning long-term results or looking to write a series, you want to shoot for at least two or three-book deals. That means you’re given a certain amount of time to produce that second book. Most of the time, it may be two or three years between books, but they’d want it on the heels of the first, so the sooner the better. That’s how you keep that series going and have invested buy-in with readership.

JH: Which is why there’s only one year between you putting out Under Color of Law and the new book in the Trevor Finnikin series, Blue Like Me, coming out this fall.

AC: Exactly. And it depends on your contract. If you’re writing a book that’s a weighty tome, let’s say 500 pages, well, they may not expect another 500-pager in a year. You may have three years to produce a book that long. 

JH: What did your contract say?

AC: One year between each book.

JH: Did you already have a storyline set up for Blue Like Me, or was the idea something that came after Under Color of Law was released?

AC: For Blue Like Me, I already knew the story. I already knew the cases he would work on. And to borrow a screenwriting term, I knew what the inciting incident would be to kick the story off. Coming from the film world, I see the long-term. And so, I kind of know what my character has to go through to get them to a particular point. And maybe that point falls in book four or five, depending on how long the series will be. But I see the long-term impact of what Trevor will have to endure to be a particular type of hero.

JH: Has the process been challenging to develop Under Color of Law as a narrative pilot?

AC: Timewise? Yes, because I’ve been writing the Under Color of Law pilot while I’m doing edits on Blue Like Me. So essentially, I’ll write for multiple hours on the pilot, and then I have to switch over to editing Blue Like Me, which is a tricky cognitive shift because screenwriting is so different. I still think visually in terms of prose, but my mind is editing. So I have to get in a different mindset where I’m looking for areas to make the story tight versus the ability to create visually because now I don’t have to deal with so much dialogue. I can just do it cinematically. 

JH: Looking back at your process with the storyline of the book series, are you only writing the pilot or more episodes? 

AC: As of now, it’s just the pilot. If the response to the pilot is good and gets traction, I’d move forward in writing more episodes. In a way, the pilot is a step above writing on spec (without having a definite buyer or customer but with the hope or expectation of finding one when work is completed) because executives are waiting on it and want to give me feedback. I might have written two more episodes if I were writing on spec. Instead, I have three outlined. It’s about managing your time.

JH: What TV or streaming shows from your past and present have or are inspiring you?

AC: The pilot for The Killing was probably the largest inspiration for the structure of this particular pilot because I enjoy the character building, tone, and structure of that show. Growing up, Homicide: Life on the Street was a brilliant influence. The way that Andre Braugher played Frank Pembleton as this black detective who internalizes the job so much that he ultimately has a stroke that he has to overcome. For me, that was so visceral because police work is so damaging to the psyche. It was the first time I ever saw a show look at it as something detrimental to an individual on that level. Now later, you have Luther, and we see the job as detrimental, especially to his psyche and personal relationships. Another TV series from the early ’00s was Boomtown. I specifically connected to the character “Fearless.” Another black detective whose traumatic past pushes him into law enforcement.

JH: What happens when executives at Amazon start giving input on the pilot?

AC: As a writer, we have to be open to feedback. And we have to look at it from the standpoint where if it applies, we take the note. If it doesn’t, then we keep moving, right? Many people who read the pilot won’t be familiar with the book. They know it’s adapted from something but may not have the time to read the book. So I’ll have to grab them visually. If it gets to the point where they start giving me input? Well, from the standpoint of the industry, it means that you are coming to the table with some sort of offer. Working with Book Pipeline is part of this process to get the conversation going. If the pilot is strong enough where it opens some doors, that’s when you can sit down and talk about your vision and hopefully get people on board. The showrunner for Lovecraft Country, Misha Green, said, “Writing styles differ so drastically that it boils down to who likes your style.” I agree with that.

JH: How do you manage your exceptions in terms of success? How do you not look too much into the future and stay in the moment?

AC: When I first started a very early manuscript process for Under Color of Law, I told myself that I would try things I hadn’t tried before. What that means is previously, having gotten my Master’s in fiction writing, my mentality was I didn’t need help with my query letter. I paid money to a school to learn how to write a query letter. But that wasn’t the case. I learned a lot on my own through trial and error. I also recognized there’s always room for improvement. I had to humble myself. I paid Manuscript Academy to give me feedback on my query letter. Through that, I got offers for representation because the people reading it said, this is pretty good. They also requested the manuscript. Then later, two of those agents offered representation. Previously I would self-talk my way out of potential opportunities because I had already written novels, but I approached the query process for Under Color of Law like a newbie. So my exceptions weren’t high or low. I just went for it. 

JH: What’s more fulfilling? Writing a novel or a pilot?

AC: A novel. When I’m writing a script, that’s a blueprint. For it to reach its pinnacle, it has to be made. But a novel exists on its own. I don’t need anyone to come and say, “Okay, well now we need money, we got to make this thing.” It is what it is. It stands on its own. There’s no pressure as far as I’m concerned because you could easily get something adapted and say, “Oh, that was a terrible adaptation. That’s nothing like what I originally envisioned.” You could put it off on producers, directors, or whoever. But a novel, that’s your name on the cover. It’s all on your shoulders, and in my opinion, that’s an empowering feeling. 

Johnnie Hobbs III is a filmmaker and teacher in Los Angeles, CA by way of Philadelphia. He contributes to Film International. Read his manifesto for a new Black period film here.

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