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Dick Wolf on Law & Order, Surveillance and His New Book The Ultimatum

7 minute read

Fans of the Law & Order family will find plenty to love in creator and producer Dick Wolf’s latest novel: The Ultimatum. The third book in his Jeremy Fisk series has that same blend of criminal intrigue and New York bureaucracy that has delighted his TV audiences for decades. This time around, the plot is packed with surveillance, security leaks and lots and lots of drones. We caught up with Wolf to talk about the new book, Edward Snowden, Homeland and Mariska Hargitay’s icon status.

TIME: How does working on novels compare to working on television shows?

Wolf: Alone time versus collaborative time. I don’t consider myself a novelist as much as a thriller writer. When people say they like the books, I’m thrilled, but nothing’s really changed [from the TV shows]—if you look at the structure of the books they’re a teaser in four acts. When my now-28-year-old daughter who is a blogger read the first one, she came up with the perfect comment. She grew up watching me write scripts and by the time she was 10 reading some of them, and she said, “It reads like a long script with no dialogue indents.” “Thank you!”

You don’t learn any new storytelling tricks, it’s just a different medium. Something that I’ve told writers on shows for years: it’s always a good trick if you get stuck on an outline, do it backwards and figure out where you’re going. Especially on a thriller because ideally you’re building momentum that’s almost mathematical.

The Ultimatum deals so much with data collection by the government. What’s your opinion on these programs and technologies?

Absolutely necessary—and over-broadly, a ridiculous waste of money. [To have] data collection on every living American including children under three who dial the phone by mistake—it’s just ridiculous. I’ve said for years to everybody who works for me, never send an email that you don’t want to see on the front page of the New York Post. And voila, what was on the front page of the New York Post this year? I’m not throwing stones, but how could Petraeus send emails? He reads people’s emails. But am I against this? Absolutely not. And the duplicity of whether it’s the Germans or the Chinese, “Oh my God, you’re tapping somebody’s phone?!” What do you think they’re doing? It’s just that people should be aware of how much information barely literate rural police officers can get up in about 15 minutes.

But you do think that it’s necessary.

Absolutely! How can you not have it? With keyword technology, you say ‘bomb’ and there is a level that you can put on language that can be monitored. I would say to 99.999% of Americans, this isn’t a problem. You think they’re actually gonna listen to your phone calls? They’re gonna listen to your phone calls if a key word goes off. And they should be! No matter what you think about the Patriot Act, all you’ve gotta do is look at the sophistication of ISIS. It’s a whole new ball game.

What’s your opinion on someone like Edward Snowden?

I think he should stay in Moscow. There is a lot to be worried about, but having your phone calls monitored should not be high on the list. But if the guy three doors down is planning to blow up the stock exchange and is stupid enough to be talking on the phone, I hope they’re monitoring it!

What was the inspiration for the character of Chay Maryland, the New York Times journalist?

I wanted to put a journalist in an interesting moral conundrum. I’m totally in favor of freedom of the press, but where do you get into areas of what is, not only the moral, but the legal and social responsibility? I hate to make it sound too grand, but that’s been the thesis of everything [my] company has done whether it was Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee or Law & Order.

A long time ago I said to a shrink, “Am I paranoid?” He said, “No, you just carry around a lot of anticipatory negativity.” I said for years that there are no black and white issues, everything is shades of gray. That still holds true—there are things in terms of barbarity toward civilians in a variety of venues where I can’t see much of a shade of gray. But short of terrorist acts, there is a legitimate point of view for many, many sides of very difficult questions.

It’s a scary time. I think “If you see something, say something” is very true. I’m not suggesting that we should all go around paranoid about strange-looking delivery vans, but if somebody had seen the first Tsarnaev put down his backpack and walk away from it—who knows?

What do you think is our biggest national security threat?

Terrorism writ large—and that’s domestic and foreign.

What new TV shows, movies and books do you think are addressing issues like terrorism in the most interesting ways?

I hate to say, not many. Homeland, obviously. The Americans, which I have no objection to but don’t watch on a regular basis. I’m at a loss, I don’t know, really nothing is leaping to mind.

Do you think more people should be trying to make art out of these issues?

Look, “making art” is complimentary, but I’ve never considered myself an artist—I’m a storyteller and a producer. Honestly, I can say Law & Order and SVU have done a good job at being incredibly accurate in their depictions of many issues. I’ve said for years, the first half is a murder mystery and the second half is a moral mystery in the episodes that really work. Those types of moral conundrums to me are morally interesting, but they are not the raison d’être for many other shows on television. Mariska [Hargitay] has become not a feminist but a female icon for an incredibly important cause: rape kits—it’s kind of mind-boggling that the information is literally sitting on shelves. Anytime I get an opportunity and can wrangle everybody around the idea of doing difficult areas, it’s great. The books are an attempt to explore [these] areas in more depth than you can in an hour of television—but I sure hope somebody will buy them, because I think they’d be a great hour-long, standalone series.

Speaking of new series, what can your fans expect from your new show You the Jury?

If we get to do this and it comes out the way we all hope it will, it’s going to be unique and really fun to take the type of technology that’s already being used in The Voice and have an audience be able to literally participate in a trial by having the ability to answer the question, when somebody is testifying, of, “Do you believe this guy or not?” The cases are misdemeanor civil cases so it’s not as if you’re going to have to judge somebody going away for 20 years—although I sure would love to do a criminal version, but that’ll never happen. But I don’t consider that a moral issue show, I think that’s bread and circuses.

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