NYPL Researcher Spotlight: Michael Cannell

By Andy Mccarthy, Librarian II
May 19, 2022
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

This profile is part of a series of interviews chronicling the experiences of researchers who use The New York Public Library's collections for the development of their work.

Michael Cannell is a former New York Times editor and author of four non-fiction books, now working on his fifth. He's written for The New YorkerTime and many other publications.

When did you first get the idea for your research project?

When I stumble on a possible book topic I write it down and let it sit for months or years. Most die on the vine. In the case of my current book, the rise and fall of two NYPD detectives on the mafia payroll, the story jumped out at me in Technicolor. I couldn’t not do it. 

What brought you to the Library?

For those of us who research and write all day the Allen Room is a kind of Shangri-La—utter quiet, no chattering office distractions and all the greatest resources a short stroll down the hall. 

Describe your research routine.

I know some writers research, then commit themselves entirely to writing. I have to go back and forth. The research informs the writing, and the writing informs further research. And so on.  

What research tools could you not live without?

I depend mightily on Scrivener, a software application made by writers for writers. I recommend it. Much of the pain of writing longform projects comes from the anxiety of organizing information. Where exactly is that quotation? And where in the chapter should it fall? Writing will never be easy, but Scrivener at least brings some clarity to the issues of structure and composition.

What’s the most unexpected item you encountered in your research? 

In my last book, A Brotherhood Betrayed, I found evidence suggesting that a New York City mayor was at least complicit in a mob murder. You’ll have to read the book to find out more. 

How do you maintain your research momentum?

I know that most of my friends would consider my days of research drudgery. I feel the opposite: every tiny bit of information adds to the story’s clarity and color. I sincerely can’t wait to resume the search every morning. 

After a day of working/researching, what do you do to unwind?

Read a book, of course. I’m currently reading The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson. Speaking of research, I cannot imagine the amount of investigation and inquiry required to assemble a cinematic 550-page book.  

What's your guilty pleasure distraction?

Social media, no great surprise. My college roommate bought a sailboat. My daughter ate a taco. My cousin’s dog performs party tricks. Hard to look away. 

Is there anything you'd like to tell someone looking to get started?

The best advice I ever got: find out what your characters want and readers will stay with you to find out if they get it.  

Where is your favorite place to eat in the neighborhood?

Is there any greater New York pleasure than the serpentine counters in The Oyster Bar, that subterranean seafood palace lined with Guastavino tile?