In September 2001, television producer Dick Wolf (Miami Vice, Law & Order) was weeks away from starting principal photography on a miniseries about a terrorist attack on New York City. When the Twin Towers fell, he canceled the project, but it never curbed his craving to tell a story wrapped in domestic terrorism.
Eleven years later, he's releasing his debut novel, The Intercept (William Morrow, 387 pp., out Wednesday), about a detective's single-minded determination to thwart a New York City bombing.
The miniseries would have opened at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. "It was a class of 10-year-olds with their fists raised, saying 'God is great' and 'Death to America,' " says Wolf in a phone interview from his office in Universal City. Calif. "The older brother of one of them is on his way to America to become a great hero." He and three other young men, Wolf says, were to set off a bomb under Times Square, killing 3,500 people.
Then, 9/11 happened. "I remember talking to Barry Diller and saying, 'Thank God we weren't shooting this when this happened,' and he said, 'No, Dick, thank God it didn't air and then this happened.' "
Wolf tells a different story in The Intercept, which kicks off with passengers and a flight attendant thwarting the hijacking of a commercial airliner.
The plot foilers are hailed as heroes and are feted for their bravery. New York celebrates dodging a bullet, but Jeremy Fisk, a detective in the NYPD's Intelligence Division, has a bad feeling. His gut tells him the hijacking may have been a diversion. Especially after one of the plane's passengers disappears after deplaning. What follows is a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game, as Fisk tries to stay one step ahead of what he believes is the actual terror plot against America.
Early reviews of the book have been positive. Kirkus Reviews writes "Storytelling pro Wolf knows how to ratchet up tension and sustain it until the end." Publishers Weekly notes "the stunning plot twists, graphic violence, and frantic pace of the novel are more reminiscent of a season of 24."
"Anybody who says writing is writing, it's not true," says Wolf, 66, about what it was like to write a novel. "The canvasses get completely different-sized. I've written features and those are sort of like big paintings and television episodes are slightly smaller paintings and novels are kind of like the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It's a much broader canvas. I don't know if it's a different skill level, just a different set of storytelling ability."
Wolf says he's learned a lot about story structure over the years "and hopefully the book reflects that. I hate to make it obvious, but the first 25 pages are really very similar to the teaser in a television show. You do learn after 1,300 hours of television that people like certain things. I'm not selling it as great literature but, hopefully, it's a great ride. That's what I set out to do."
As he researched the book, what Wolf learned about how terrorists are hunted in the real world didn't shock him. Rather, he says, "it was reassuring. Tens of thousands of phone calls are monitored on a daily basis."
Fisk, who Wolf says is "an amalgam of a lot of people I've met over the years," will be featured in another novel, to be published late next year. This time, the plot will center around narcoterrorism.
Wolf, who set his novel as well as the original Law & Order and two of its spinoffs in New York, has lived in California for 37 years. But New York, where he was born, "is much more my emotional home than California. I love living here, but New York never gets out of your blood."
In addition to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, in its 14th season, and this year's debut drama Chicago Fire, Wolf is working on myriad other TV projects.
He's awaiting NBC's go-ahead on two new series: an American adaptation of the BBC miniseries Injustice, which starred James Purefoy as a high-powered defense attorney who kills a client, and The Church, about a family who discovers that the upstanding organization they belong to is really a cult.
Also in development are a project for USA about an insurance investigator and a docudrama for TNT about cracking cold cases
But right now it's all about promoting The Intercept. "You won't be disappointed," Wolf says.