The Incredible John Morgan Wilson, Author of the Benjamin Justice Mystery Series

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.

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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?

RhapsodyinBlood

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.

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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?  

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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.

 

 

What Writing GLBTQ Literature Means To Me: Rainbow Blog Hop

What writing GLBTQ literature means to me.

When I heard of the opportunity to participate in the highly anticipated RAINBOW BLOG HOP, hosted by Rainbow Book Reviews August 24-26, 2012, in honor of launching the Rainbow Book Reviews website (http://www.rainbowbookreviews.com/index.php), I jumped at the chance to participate with fellow writers. Below is information posted via the website in the “about us” section for those unfamiliar with the new GLBTQ book review site:

“Rainbow Book Reviews is a site dedicated to GLBTQ-related books, reviews, and authors who write about topics of interest to us and our friends.

We have a wide range of activities for you to check and participate in, if you wish. Feedback is always welcome. We publish new releases on a daily basis, have a team of reviewers who try to help you understand what to expect from a book, we publish monthly author interviews, and have author pages with in-depth information. You can also find out about the many great publishers who publish GLBTQ-related books.

We want to make sure the site offers what YOU (the reader!) want to see, so please contact us with any ideas or feedback at info@rainbowbookreviews.com. For individual staff members, please see the overview below.”

As a participant in the RBH, I was given the task to describe what writing GLBTQ literature means to me. Right off the bat (does this date me?) I am asked to reveal my thoughts about referencing very complicated questions. I will be as totally honest and forthwith in order that you – the reader – may glean some sense of what makes me tick; why I write at all.

I have been writing stories most of my life, beginning around age seven or eight, I’m not really sure. What I do know, however, is the person who first influenced my writing and encouraged me to further explore my “active imagination”, my beloved grandmother, who I affectionately named “Mana” when very young. It was my attempt at mimicking my mother who called her mother, Momma. When she readied for bed each night, I would sit on the side of her bed reciting the stories I had dreamed up – she never once questioned the reasons or motivation driving my need to create make-believe, fictitious imagery of people or animals of whom became characters of my words. I’d jot a few pages longhand on paper while at school during lunch or recess to read to Mana during our nightly ritual. Those times spent with my grandmother are my most treasured memories even today after having lost my best friend three years ago at the young age of seventy-nine years old.

So, getting back to what writing gay literature means to me: at first glance, it’s an opportunity to share ideas, historical or current happenings of circumstance. My earlier pre-teen stories covered popular genres of the day based largely upon what I was reading at the time (I was a voracious reader in elementary school – even winning the coveted “top reader” award each year at the local library during summer break) or had watched on television, which influenced my imagination. I remember the one book and movie that was the catalyst pushing me to start writing my first story: To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, originally published in 1960 (my birth year) and adapted to screen in 1962 (starring Mary Badham and the legendary Gregory Peck), the novel won the Pulitzer Prize and the movie earned Gregory Peck an Oscar for his supreme performance. I didn’t see the movie until I was older (my mother had worried the film was too “heavy” for a young, impressionable boy) and read the book as an assignment for school. I knew then I wanted to write stories. In fact, my first quasi-serious attempt putting pencil to paper was a hysterical fantasy titled “The Ship”, about a pirate ghost ship off the coast of Savannah, Georgia. I even named the main character of the story Atticus, the same as Gregory Peck’s character.

At second glance during my formative years, many stories flowed from my pencil, encouraged both by my grandmother and teachers in school. Born and raised in the south of Georgia, USA, my family could not afford to purchase books for me (I come from a blue-collar family that worked in the cotton mills on the Chattahoochee river) so I lived in the school library checking out as many books as allowed. I read everything from fiction to non-fiction, biographies, and history. I couldn’t get enough. I wrote fantasy, science fiction, horror, mystery, and thriller stories during those years and always wrote for the love of telling a story, which I shared with my family and some teachers. My favorite memories of grade school were each spring when English or History class teachers would read books to us the final week of school. One mesmerizing novel I recall was titled “Island Of The Blue Dolphins”, by Scott, O’Dell, about a young Nicolero Indian girl stranded on an island off the coast of California for eighteen years. The story remains with me even today; the power of the written word is unmatched.

I didn’t realize I was “gay” until later in my teens (this was the late ‘70s), so writing gay stories wasn’t yet a priority. Majoring in English when I went off to college was a no-brainer, even minoring in Broadcasting (go figure!). While seeking my undergraduate degree, I wrote fictional stories for the campus newspaper, often turning them into serials that had attracted a decent readership. I finally came out during my second year in college, and my writing began to steer toward gay characters in the main roles, considered risky in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s here in the south. The first homoerotic novel I ever read is “Good Times/Bad Times” by James Kirkwood. The novel detailed the close relationship between two young men in boarding school and affected me deeply, and I began seeking out other gay-themed novels since finally realizing they even existed, perusing the bookstore’s shelves for hours on end, simply too embarrassed to ask the store clerks for assistance.

I came across the cover of a paperback novel featuring a cute young man sitting on the bench in what appeared to be a high school locker-room. The book was none other than the groundbreaking classic, “The Front Runner”, by Patricia Nell Warren. That novel became the catalyst for my writing gay-themed stories. Going forward, I devoured every novel I came across written by Ms. Warren, even moving on to other gay-centric novels. So important to me during those early years of adolescents, my emerging sexuality, was in reading fictional stories that resembled people like me, what I was all about, or could become. I relied on these stories for self-discovery, unable to speak to my parents or other family members about my being gay.

Fast forward thirty years and third glance; I have been writing stories for several years that have always featured a gay protagonist, concentrating mainly in the mystery/suspense, thriller genres, many with romantic tendencies. But, it wasn’t until as recently as 2008 that I began to submit my stories for publication. Though frightened and unsure, I wanted to share my writing with others besides my family and friends. I am a gay author and I write stories of mystery/suspense and romance novels where the main characters are gay. I don’t feel this fact defines or limit my characters, but more often provides excellent opportunities for exciting plots. Many diverse writers have influenced my written style, such as David Baldacci, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton, along with the groundbreaking gay novelists Patricia Nell Warren, Michael Nava, and Felice Picano. Some of my current favorites and influencers are gay mystery writers Greg Herren, David Lennon, and John Morgan Wilson – and many more.

Finally, writing GLBTQ literature means being true to the gay culture, to create realistic, (in my case, fictional) characters that represent the gay community correctly. Knowing some readers just coming to terms with their sexuality might be reading my stories, I research meticulously to ensure accuracy and strive to present positive role models within my writing even as my characters face bigotry and intolerance, dating, falling in love…and usually, murder! My characters must grow through challenges and experience, be representative of the gay community, whether negative or positive and not all my stories end with a HEA.

I will continue to write as long as I enjoy creating stories, and I am happy to be able to share my writing with others. Recently, I released an erotic thriller, False Evidence: Murder Most Deadly 1 – the first novella of a two-part murder-mystery. I am currently writing a gay, murder-mystery, police-procedural, featuring closeted Atlanta Homicide Detective, Kendall Parker, which I hope to get published sometime in 2013. I am also a Juror for the 2012 GLBT Rainbow Awards sponsored by Elisa Rolle, (http://elisa-rolle.livejournal.com/tag/rainbow%20awards%202012), which I am greatly enjoying.

Links to my titles:

Amazon Purchase Link:

LYD :

PRIZES, PRIZES, PRIZES!

Click on the link below to read more about prizes and give-aways for the Rainbow Book Reviews Blog Hop:

http://rainbowbookreviews.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/the-rainbow-book-reviews-blog-hop-is-here/

In celebration, of the Rainbow Blog Hop, I am giving away two (2) copies of my latest novella, False Evidence. Just respond with your name to be entered into a random drawing set for Saturday, Sept 1, 2012.

I would love to hear your thoughts and what reading/writing GLBTQ literature means to you!