Love is a funny thing. We fall in love with all kinds of things. People. Stories. Hobbies. Our jobs. Our pets. The most peculiar thing about love is that it can happen at any moment to anyone. Anthony Flacco met his first and longest love when he was 10 years old, when he got his first taste of acting in a community play. The costumes, the sets, the people, the make-believe atmosphere – young Anthony was enchanted. From that moment onwards, the greatest thing Anthony thought he could do with his life was be a writer. “I thought it was magical that people could sit down and think up worlds. It was such a wonderful way to live your life.” That moment in the spotlight set Anthony on a path that would eventually lead him to some incredible writing opportunities as a novelist, but he made plenty of pit stops along the way.
Anthony made his first stop when he was 14 years old. At this time in his life, young Anthony was just starting to learn about the world and the conflict that ravaged it. In his effort to find ways to make sense of what he was learning about the world, he wrote and recorded a folk song called, Soul Composition. The lyrics protested racism and called on people to get along, and for a few unbelievable weeks, the song sat in the Top 20 charts.
After a few years of writing music, Anthony made his next pit stop in his writing journey when he was 19 years old, when he wrote his first non-musical piece of literature. It was an article that was published in Psychology Today, that is until they found out that he was still just a high school student, which made him ineligible to participate, causing them to ultimately pull the article.
In college, Anthony pursued theatre – his next stop in the journey. When he wasn’t studying, he wrote plays and music in his spare time. One of his plays, The Everything Factory, was picked up by a theatre company in Chicago and was produced during his senior year. When he graduated, that same company offered him a job as a staff writer. “Everything that needed writing had such a quick turnaround time, so it was the ultimate bootcamp for a writer.” But Anthony didn’t just write while he was there. He acted, too, clocking more than a thousand performances during his time with them, also working in theaters all over Chicago.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into the world of theatre and theatrical writing?
A: “First and foremost, find a theatre company and join it. No matter what. Even if you have to sweep the floor or clean the toilets, just find a way to join that company. It’s not the kind of work you expected to be doing, especially if you have undergraduate and graduate level education under your belt, but this industry is tough and it demands hard work. Being willing to take whatever job you can get just to be there shows that you’re serious and not looking for a cheap and easy victory. And, I promise, it’ll be worth it. Just by being there, you will absorb incredible amounts of information. You will overhear where the work is. You will learn how to better your craft just by being in the presence of all the talented people in the company.”
Q: What are the pros and cons to this type of collaborative style of creativity?
A: “The advantage of collaborating on projects like theatrical productions is that it brings so many talented people together, and everyone has great insight to bring to the table. But having so many people working on the same project is also the main disadvantage, because everyone will have their own vision for the project, and they’ll all be trying to push for their vision to prevail. And often it’s the person with the most political power in the group who gets their way, and their way isn’t always what’s best for the production. It’s incredibly frustrating when these situations play out and you know there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.”
Q: In your opinion, what makes a play “good”?
A: “It doesn’t matter what kind of play it is, if it’s going to be “good” it needs to grab the audience by the heart and gut from that very first line. It needs to have tremendous emotional strength, to draw the audience in. A “good” play also needs to present the protagonist with a struggle that they have to confront and eventually overcome, but it’s key that they do it in a way that’s satisfying and believable. If your protagonist isn’t believable or relatable – if the audience can’t understand on a personal level why the protagonist made the decisions they made – then the story won’t connect with the audience.”
Anthony went east when a play he wrote, Babes All Night Cafe, was picked up by Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in New York City, and then west when it was picked up by a company in Los Angeles. It was there in L.A. where Anthony parted ways with the theatre industry. “The play had a great cast, great set, great costumes. But the main actress – who was playing the character of a homeless woman – was advised by her agent that the homeless role wasn’t a good look for her since she was trying to get into commercial work. So, on opening night, instead of showing up looking all disheveled and grimy, she was in perfect make up, her hair trimmed and dyed blue. Opening night was a complete disaster.” This trainwreck opened Anthony’s eyes to just how little control he had in such a collaborative space. That one person’s decisions could stain something so great. And he didn’t like it.
After parting ways with the theatre company in L.A., Anthony took his next step down the literary path when he enrolled in the screenplay writing program at the American Film Institute. While there, he wrote a screenplay called, The Frogs Legacy, which found its way to Disney Studios, where he worked as a script writer for a year.
And then finally, after his time with the American Film Institute and Disney Studios, Anthony wrote his first of many novels, which was a Western-style story. It was a big hit with his friends, and one of them introduced him to an attorney called Victoria Doom, who was working on a very difficult case with an incredible story that the plaintiff was ready to share with the world.
A Checklist for Murder: The True Story of Robert John Peernock
This book tells the story of the monstrous Robert John Peernock, who hid his violent and manipulative tendencies behind a well crafted facade and a successful career, and the lawsuit that came after an attempted murder gone wrong that he engineered against his daugher.
“Victoria Doom was the attorney on the case. She was so drawn to Natasha – Robert’s daughter – and was so passionate about getting her the compensation she deserved after the trauma that she had endured that she actually worked the case for free. The lawsuit was against Natasha’s father – Robert John Peernock – who was in jail at the time, having been sentenced to Life Without Parole for murdering his wife and nearly killing his daughter. Robert was a very rich and very violent man with plenty of sinister connections, and throughout the duration of the trial he hired hit men to assassinate Natasha and Victoria. The attempts failed, and despite the target on their backs, they proceeded with and eventually won the lawsuit.
“When I was working on the book, I got to spend time with the people on Natasha’s side of the case. Craig Richmond was the Defense Attorney – a former air force pilot who was just wonderful to be around, the type of guy that you wanted to be friends with. Steve Fisk was the lead detective on the case, and the trial was particularly hard on him. The defense spent a lot of time twisting his image by accusing him of being crooked, even though they never presented any evidence to prove as much. He was villainized for the entire duration of the trial, but like Natasha and Victoria, he never gave up.”
Q: When you uncovered during your research just how violent a man Robert John Peernock was, did it make you nervous to work on the project? Especially given that this was a man willing to put a hit out on his own daughter.
A: “Surprisingly, it didn’t make me nervous. In fact, it had the opposite effect. It made me that much more committed to telling this story. I felt like it was my mission to share with the world the trauma that Natasha had endured and how she had survived and thrived in the aftermath of that horror.
“And, speaking of putting hits out on people, I did find out years later that Robert John Peernock tried to have me killed, too. When Robert’s cellmate was released from prison, he was arrested for shoplifting not long after, and when they caught him they found my name and address on a slip of paper in his pocket. I suspect it was because of the role I played in spreading the story of his violence and terror by partnering with Natasha and Victoria and writing the book, A Checklist for Murder: The True Story of Robert John Peernock. The funny thing about it was, when the book and trial were both finished, which wasn’t too long before my name was found on that slip of paper, Steve Fisk joked that Robert might have put a hit out on me.”
Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan and Her Dramatic Rescue by SEAL Team Six
One of Anthony’s more recent projects tells the story of how Jessica Buchanan and her colleague were kidnapped at gunpoint and held for ransom by a band of Somali pirates for three months, until eventually, after all attempts at negotiating had failed, President Barack Obama ordered Navy SEAL Team Six to rescue them.
“It took six months of daily Skype interviews with Jessica and Erik to accumulate all of the background and details that I needed to write the story. During this period, the persona I like to take on is similar to a therapist. These are sensitive stories and it’s not often easy for them to relive and retell the specifics of what happened to them over and over again, so it’s important to establish trust and let them know that this is a safe, judgment-free space – much like a therapist’s office. I show them that I am actively listening and engaged and present, but I make sure not to come across as opinionated in any way. I ask lots of questions to bring out the details that I need, but I never comment on anything that’s said in a way that could be taken as judgment.”
Q: Since a heavy component of this story has to do with the U.S. military and Navy SEAL operations, was there any collaboration with military personnel?
A: “We had to send drafts of the book to Central Command in Florida to make sure that there were no specific details about military strategy and operation that the government wouldn’t want to be public knowledge.”
The Road out of Hell: Sanford Clark and the True Story of the Wineville Murders
One of Anthony’s earlier projects, this story is told through the eyes of a 13 year old Sanford Clark, who was kidnapped by his psychopathic uncle, Gordon Northcott, and forced to participate in the murder and torture of 22 other young boys.
“Sanford was kidnapped and held at a chicken ranch for two years, where he was forced to help kill and torture other children, until he eventually managed to escape. When his uncle was finally arrested, even though he was a child and held against his will, Sanford was also arrested for the part he played. When the crimes went to court, it became clear that Sanford had been just as much a captive as the other children, so he wasn’t sentenced to jail like his uncle was.
When Sanford grew up, he joined the army and was eventually recognized as a World War 2 hero. After his military career, he got a job as a mailman. Everyone in the community knew him, and they knew what had happened to him as a child. But fortunately, just like the jury, the members of his new community recognized that he was a victim, not a monster, and he eventually died a loved and heroic member of the community.
The story of Sanford’s extraordinary life was brought to me by his adopted son, who loved his father deeply and wanted to make sure that people knew the real story. I was excited to tell this story because it had such a powerful message. Sanford suffered something so traumatic, yet he still managed to turn his life around and live out his final years as a treasured member of his community and a hero. It was inspiring to learn and write about.”
Q: In your opinion, what makes a book “good”?
A: “Just like with plays, a good book will grab the reader’s attention from the get go. When you’re writing, picture a very distracted person who has all these obligations that they’re juggling, and your mission is to make them like the story you’re telling so much right from the start that they’re willing to prioritize it amongst the chaos. I believe the days are gone when an author could count on a reader to stick with a long stretch of exposition in anticipation of the good stuff to come. Your story needs to hook them from the first few pages.”
Anthony Flacco’s website – https://anthonyflacco.com/about