Interviewed by Jon Michaelsen © 2014
Let’s start off with, where do you live?
West Hollywood, CA. I moved here in early 1992 as a renter, scoped out the place, and bought a small house here in late 1993.
Without getting too personal, would you share a little about your home life?
I live with my companion of twenty years, artist and fashion accessories designer Pietro Gamino. We share our small house and patio with a spirited dog of indeterminate breeds named Jasmine. We live a fairly quiet life on the fringe of the lively cultural and social scene West Hollywood is known for, within walking distance of nearly all our needs. Many of our neighbors know each other; it’s that kind of neighborhood. Now and then a friend or group of friends drops in for dinner. (Pietro cooks; I’m the gardener and general fix-it guy.) Most of my closest friends, some dating back nearly 60 years to grade school, others from high school and college, are scattered now, but the core of our very tight group lives in Northern California. We get together for a reunion once a year, sometimes more often, usually for several days. My basketball and backpacking days are behind me, but I still hike and take long walks, and get to the gym about twice a week. Most days I write for several hours in my downstairs writing room, sometimes more hours than that, with various projects in the works, all fiction, short and long. I also spend time with my beloved Aunt Betty, who’s widowed at 89; she lives about half an hour away, out by the beach. We just set our next outing: the movie Boyhood, followed by burgers.
What would you say is your greatest accomplishment to date?
Coming out as a gay man in 1973 and developing as an activist for LGBT rights, even though I was a drone, not a leader. The act of coming out, not just privately to friends and family but also publicly, was an essential building block of the LGBT movement, which laid the groundwork for the progress still being forged today. I’m grateful to have been a small part of it.
Have you ever had to deal with homophobia after your novels were released, and if so, what forms has it taken?
Homophobia is such a big word and means different things to different people, and varies so much in scope and degree, so that’s not an easy question to answer. I’ve certainly faced the ghettoization of my Benjamin Justice novels, which feature an unapologetically gay protagonist, in many bookstores and other market venues. That said, without that “gay” label and those “gay” sections, it would have been even more difficult to find my audience, so it’s a two-edged sword. I’ve experienced a couple of very nasty reviews that reviewed the content more than the writing. When my first novel, Simple Justice, was reviewed by Publisher’s Weekly, the anonymous reviewer was openly disdainful, citing a “brutal relationship” in the story between Justice, who was 38, and a teenage boy. There was a teenage boy in the novel, in jail on a murder charge, but Justice never met him in the course of the story, never even spoke to him. Then there are publications that ignore you altogether. My series is set in L.A., won a number of awards, including an Edgar for best first novel from Mystery Writers of America, yet not one of my novels was ever reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, where mystery novels were regularly reviewed back then. The LAT did run a feature on me and the Justice novels, however. During the interview, the male reporter, who had just read Justice at Risk, commented on his surprise that Justice was so at ease with and unapologetic about his sexual orientation, “as if it’s no big deal.” He also said something that astounded me: “You must be the only author who’s writing these gay mysteries.” He’d never heard of Joseph Hansen, Michael Nava, Katherine V. Forrest, or any other gay or lesbian crime writer. He thought I was the first one! This was a staff writer for the L.A. Times! That alone tells you what the mainstream mindset and environment was like for LGBT writers back then, even though I had a four-book deal with Doubleday, a major publisher, and very respectable advances. I must add that the mystery reading and writing community was generally very open and fair to me, treating me no differently than other authors, at least not that I experienced, or could see. I do know that many straight readers, particularly the men, are uncomfortable with the sexual frankness of an occasional scene in my novels, but that’s their right to be sexually uptight, and their problem. Sadly, the most vicious hate mail I got was from another gay writer – apparently envious of anyone who received more recognition than he did. I wasn’t the only one he targeted, so I tried not to take it personally.
I am a huge fan of your Benjamin Justice mystery series, with a total of eight novels that feature a disgraced newspaper crime reporter in Los Angeles. Do you recall your inspiration for writing such a flawed, gay and broken character in Simple Justice?
I read a lot of mystery novels as a kid, starting with the Hardy Boys but moving on to a wide range of the genre, from Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle to G.K. Chesteton (the Father Brown stories), Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, et al. As a kid growing up after my parents’ divorce, with emotional chaos and later criminal abuse when my mother remarried, I loved the reassuring structure, the moral lessons, the unfamiliar worlds that mystery novels took me into, the way the chaos was resolved and a broken world was put back together at the end. And, of course, I loved the suspense. But I rarely read crime fiction after I got to college and became engrossed with literary fiction. Then, in the early 1990s, a friend suggested I read Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. I was blown away, not just by the economy and quality of the writing, and the rich characterizations and sense of place, but the way he was able to explore and vent on social issues and social history, in this case from an African-American perspective, within the framework of a compelling whodunit. It got me to wondering if I might do that with a gay protagonist. I started noodling a character and possible premise. Somehow, out of that, came the first novel, Simple Justice, and a series was born. When I started writing, I had in mind a rather light, fast, commercial crime novel, in the vein of Joseph Hansen but slicker. But the moment I started writing in the first person, which I’d never done with fiction, the much darker, tougher voice of Benjamin Justice took hold, and I ended up with a much darker, tougher, grittier novel than I’d ever imagined. I also thought I was writing a fairly straightforward murder mystery, with the colorful West Hollywood setting. What I learned, when I’d written the last line, was that I was actually writing about surviving grief in the age of AIDS and the need to create your own family if your birth family can’t sustain you. When I’d discovered what I was really writing about – the theme, the important stuff beneath the surface – it informed my revisions, and helped me write a stronger novel. It call came the main character. The plot was certainly nothing to brag about.
The Edgar-winning, three-time Lambda Award winning Benjamin Justice mystery series is what fans have come to know you for, starting with the release of Simple Justice in 1996 and ending with Spider Season in 2008. More recently, Bold Strokes Books has re-released the first four in the series in both e-book and print. Are you surprised with the series’ longevity?
Not really. The series did get a lot of attention for a while, and I’ve had a very loyal core readership over the years. The countless emails and other communications I’ve received from readers have been so meaningful and encouraging. Meeting readers over time has been another great reward. At one point, when my fifth novel, Blind Eye, came out, it was number one on Amazon’s gay men’s mystery bestseller list for many months, and pulled up three of the earlier titles to fill out all but one of the top five slots. That was a real revelation to me about how the series has some lasting power. Blind Eye got some good press, including a featured interview on NPR, because it dealt with the priest abuse crisis just as it was making headlines. That kind of mainstream attention can really make a difference, but most LGBT writers don’t get that kind of recognition, which is why LGBT literary organizations like the Lambda Literary Foundation are so important, along with blog sites and pages like this one (and especially now that most of the LGBT bookstores are gone). The Edgar also helped. I’ve been told that I was the first openly gay author with a gay-themed novel to win an Edgar, so I guess I’m a footnote now. What is really surprising to me is how passive I am when it comes to business. I’ve never made the other four novels, the most recent ones, available as reprints or e-books, even though I still get regular inquiries from readers about those titles, six years after the last one appeared.
Can you share why you chose to end the Benjamin Justice series with the release of the eighth and final novel, Spider Season?
I felt I’d gone to the well too many times with that particular character, his raw emotions, his world, the issues that haunted him, etc. Some authors call it series burnout. I found myself repeating myself too much. I was struggling to stay inspired and keep the quality up. I also wasn’t earning my advances back – meaning I wasn’t selling enough copies to earn back my advances and go into royalties – and I didn’t expect my publisher to renew my contract, which they didn’t. So I wrote a final novel that I felt wrapped up some things and gave Benjamin Justice a chance to find some peace in his life. Many years ago, at a reading at A Different Light Books in West Hollywood, a teenage boy came up afterward and told me how important the books were to him, because he’d come from a childhood with a violent, alcoholic father, as Justice did. “I find him inspiring,” the boy told me, “because he always tries to do the right thing and he always perseveres in the end. But he has so many problems. Are you ever going to let him be happy?” I wrote my final Justice novel for that boy.
My favorite Benjamin Justice novel is Justice at Risk, which (I feel) is one of the most suspenseful, brutal, yet deeply personal Justice novels of the series; What has been readers reaction to the terror Benjamin had to endure, to become the man he is by the last novel?
Justice at Risk was the third novel in the series, following Revision of Justice, which I consider the weakest of the bunch. I think I regained my footing with the third one. I don’t recall too much response either way from readers, though it is one of the darkest and most disturbing of the Justice novels, and deals with some provocative themes. I do remember that it got some very positive reviews and won a Lammy. It dealt with some very deep issues, inside and outside the gay community, including the notion that a certain class of people with vast wealth live above the law and literally get away with murder. If it resonated with some readers, it might be because I tapped some very strong personal views and feelings about the world and how it works, especially regarding social justice, and found a story strong enough to support it.
Have you considered revisiting the character of Benjamin Justice in another novel?
Every once in a while the idea pokes me. But I’m very involved now with writing a standalone, written in the third person, alternating past and present, a hybrid of mystery, suspense and multi-generational drama. That’s enough right now, along with the occasional short story for an anthology or publication like Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, where I get published now and then. In college, I wrote my first fiction in the short form, so I’ve kind of come full circle. But regarding a return of Benjamin Justice, I would never rule anything out. That’s one great thing about writing: If you’ve got the discipline, patience, passion, and imagination, you can embark on your own creative journeys and adventures, with endless possibilities.
On behalf of the Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction Facebook Group, thank you so much for sharing your time with us and answering questions fans of the genre would like to know.
I’m flattered to be asked, so thank you, and thanks to anyone who’s tuned in.
Find John Morgan Wilson on the web:
Sorry, no website at this time, and I’m woefully inattentive to my Facebook page, which I probably should close down. Sorry to anyone who might have tried to reach me through FB in the last year or two. Contacting me through Bold Stroke Books is probably your best bet.