Pittsburgh police officer David Shifren leaves streets, hits the pages
As if patrolling city streets isn’t adventure enough, Pittsburgh police officer David Shifren confronts the forces of good and evil in his off time, too.
In Western fantasy and young-adult mystery genres, Shifren, 61, pens short stories and novels, several of which have been published under his name or a pseudonym. He has written three screenplays, including one that he claims enticed the late actor Tony Curtis.
An alum of the University of Pittsburgh’s master of fine arts program, Shifren of Squirrel Hill, has a flair for mentoring other writers. He has taught creative writing at Pitt, and currently offers a popular film-appreciation course through Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for older adults.
Shifren’s day job — or, rather, his night job — is working as a cop out of Zone 4 in Squirrel Hill. And even there, he is known for his way with words, he says. “I get kudos for my reports. In fact, I’m sometimes criticized for putting in too much detail.”
Fellow cops call him The Professor, according to K-9 officer Tony Yauch. “He writes heads and shoulders above what anyone writes, and he’s more than willing to help any one of the other officers improve their writing skills.”
Yauch has read Shifren’s Westerns and says he likes Shifren’s style.
“You want to turn the pages,” he says. “They read well, especially for a New York guy who never spent a moment on a ranch.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Shifren moved to Pittsburgh in 1989 to study creative writing.
“I’d applied to a bunch of schools, but chose Pitt because Pittsburgh had just been named America’s most livable city,” he says. “I knew the (master of fine arts program)wouldn’t be my whole life, so I wanted a nice place to live.”
Shifren had been teaching at The Hudson School in Hoboken, N.J., and was working part-time as an in-house reviewer for CBS/Fox films, where his job was to watch movies and then recommend which the company should choose for distribution, he says.
Seeing a lot of classic cowboy flicks prompted him to pen a Western of his own.
“I thought, ‘I can write one as good as these,’ ” says Shifren, whose first book, “Last Debt at Newton,” caught the interest of a publisher.
“Seven months after I sent them sample chapters and an outline, I got a call from an editor wanting to see the whole manuscript,” Shifren says. That led to lunch. “He asked me what kind of food I liked. He said, ‘How about Cajun?’ I’d never had Cajun, but I would have said ‘yes’ to anything.”
Because the book was a Western set in the late 1800s, the editor suggested Shifren adopt a more cowboy-like pen name.
“We chose Shif Davis,” Shifren says. “The book was sold in every truck stop between New York and LA.”
Two other Westerns would follow, including, “Clay’s Justice,” which is still available online. Shifren has had some short stories published, including one about a jockey who can think himself to a lighter weight. H
Shifren has ghost-written three books for a long-running series about two teen brothers who solve crimes. Since 1927, the series has used a succession of authors, all writing under a single pen name.
“Another student in the MFA program thought I’d be a natural,” says Shifren, who says his contract with the publisher prevents him from revealing the series title.
Shifren never set out to become a cop. While doing research for one of his books, he convinced police to let him ride along with Pittsburgh detectives on the job. That prompted him, at age 44, to consider a career in law enforcement, first with a suburban force and then with the city of Pittsburgh, says Shifren, who admits to having harbored an admiration for police since he was a kid.
Writing and policing have balanced each other well, in that “writing is solitary and ‘cops’ is very much a team sport,” he says. “Apart from wanting to see justice done, cops, like writers, are always trying to understand people’s motivations.”
Shifren has never written a story about an actual case, but some of the people he has dealt with while in blue have helped him to flesh out characters on a page, he says. “I might not write about a drug overdose I investigate, but I might write about a mother’s reaction to seeing the overdose. I’m trying to find the emotions in a situation.”
Shifren works the 4 p.m. to midnight shift because it allows to him to write in the mornings. “I do my first draft in longhand, and then the second draft on a word processor,” he says. “If I get two or three hours of writing in, after chores, it’s a good day.”
One of his screenplays, about an anti-war protestor, netted him a Pennsylvania Council of the Arts grant, and another, about a Mafiosi who double-crosses the mob, piqued the interest of Tony Curtis, says Shifren.
When the actor was in Pittsburgh in 2002 for “Some Like It Hot,” Shifren wrangled an invitation to a reception and approached Curtis with a copy of his screenplay, he says. “He was nice to me, I think, in part, because I was another Jewish guy from New York.”
Although Curtis wouldn’t accept a copy of the screenplay, he asked Shifren to describe the plot and characters, Shifren says. “He liked it enough he told me to send a copy to his agent.”
One afternoon, Shifren picked up the phone to hear Curtis on the other end of the line. “I told him, ‘I’m speechless,’ and he said, ‘That’s all right. Take a deep breath and let’s talk.’ ”
That conversation led to several others and, ultimately, to Shifren visiting the actor at his Las Vegas home, he says. “He gave me a tour of the house, and then we talked about the screenplay. He explained how the process works, about getting investors, about him possibly directing.”
Although the project didn’t pan out before Curtis’ death in 2010, Shifren says he considers his meetings with the star one of the high points of his life.
Shifren isn’t actively marketing his work these days but has come full circle to his roots in teaching and in film. His Osher courses on villains in film and foreign films are usually packed, he says.
“It’s terrifically stimulating to share films I am excited about … and have a receptive audience. I love the give-and-take.”
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.