Michael Wiley belongs to a select group of writers who got their start in the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First Novel contest. The book, published in 2007, was The Last Striptease, featuring P.I Joe Kozmarski, and it went on to earn a Shamus Award nomination for best first novel. Two more novels in the Kozmarski series followed, including the 2011 Shamus Award winner A Bad Night’s Sleep. Michael is a professor of English Literature at the University of North Florida as well as a book reviewer and “occasional journalist.” He manages to juggle it all while continuing to produce both more books—his two upcoming titles, Second Skin and Tar Box (Severn House) are both thrillers featuring series character Daniel Turner—and short stories. He first appeared in EQMM in December of 2014 with the story “Concrete Town,” and he has another story, “The Hearse,” coming up in EQMM soon. How he does it all is a secret he shares here.—Janet Hutchings
Like many other book-loving kids, I believed that writers live solitary lives. If they were like Nathaniel Hawthorne, they would stay in their mom’s house until they were in their thirties, refining their craft, pounding out short stories. Or if they were like Joseph Conrad—parentless and adventurous—they would lock themselves in a ship cabin with a pencil and paper while storms howled around them. When they shimmied down a tree from their childhood bedrooms to meet with an editor, or passed a homeward-bound steamer that might deliver a manuscript to a publisher, they exchanged only a few words before disappearing back into the realms of the lone imagination.
I still believed in this myth when, as a would-be writer, I graduated from college in the early 1980s. I rented a studio apartment and furnished it with a mattress, a table, and two chairs (the second being for an editor if one ever stopped by to exchange a few words before abandoning me to my lone imagination), a stereo, a television, and a writing desk. The stereo and television disappeared in a burglary, but the thieves left my typewriter, so I was all right. I had a place to sleep, a place to eat, and, most importantly, a place to write.
But I didn’t write. Not much, anyway. I sat at my desk day after day and waited for writing to happen to me. I figured it must be happening elsewhere to others—in childhood bedrooms, in ship cabins, on the banks of a secluded pond, in garrets around the world. I spent two years in that apartment and completed three published articles, a handful of unpublished poems, and a couple of unpublished short stories.
Then I moved in with my girlfriend—now my wife—and, as happens, a new love replaced a love for writing.
I put my fingers back on the keyboard to write fiction again only years later when my wife and I started having children and all of the chaotic noise of existence meant I could barely think straight, much less put together a sentence. Oddly, though, I now had something to say—stories to tell. Surrounding myself with infants and toddlers and coming to understand the complex emotional and psychological business of life taught me how to write the kind of crime fiction I’ve always enjoyed. Yes, having children taught me how to write about murder.
My first, unpublished book manuscript, written in sleep-deprived incoherence, is now in a box, where it will remain. Then St. Martin’s published my second manuscript, The Last Striptease. And my belief in the myth of solitary writers collapsed.
When my editor called to tell me she would be publishing the book, she wanted to do more than exchange a few words before abandoning me to my lone imagination. At that time and in future conversations, she wanted to talk, really talk—about books, mine and others’, about the many writers she loved and thought I should read and love too, about the publishing process, about her own background as a reader, writer, and editor.
In our first telephone conversation, she also invited me to the Bouchercon Mystery Convention, held that year in Madison, Wisconsin. On that island in the middle of cornfields, I confirmed that my image of the writing life—at least the crime-writing life—had been all wrong. The writing life doesn’t look like an individual in a lonely garret. It looks like a party with a thousand close friends. At Bouchercon—and at any of the dozens of smaller crime-writing conventions held around the world—you can hang out at panel sessions with dozens of likeminded fans of crime fiction. And you can walk into the coffee reception first thing in the morning or into the bar at any time of the day or night and chat with a New York Times bestselling writer or a short-story writer who has published a dozen mysteries in the pages of Ellery Queen.
These people may spend their days and nights scheming of new criminal plots, but they are friendly and generous of time and spirit. There are exceptions, but the truly hard nuts are few. When I was passing through airport security in Anchorage, returning from another Bouchercon, the guards grabbed a woman I’d seen at the convention because she had concealed a pistol inside her jacket. But somehow—even in the post-9/11 anxiety—she convinced the guards that she had no ill intent, and they sent her on her way. Maybe Alaskan guards are used to such things. Or maybe they looked into the woman’s eyes and decided she was more interested in imagining murder than committing it.
In the ten years that I have been publishing crime fiction, I have talked at many bookstores, libraries, and other venues for book events, and at every one of them people have been excited about making connections with others who share an interest in crime, criminals, and crime detection. And when I’ve gone home after events, I’ve turned to social media to make more connections and continue the conversations.
It’s true that there are some J.D. Salingers among crime writers, as there are readers who would rather hole up with a book than spend an afternoon with Salinger. I’m guessing that most of us in our community have hours and days when we would prefer to bury ourselves alone in a mystery than see or hear from our friends.
And it’s true that, between events, when I’m in the middle of a manuscript, with a deadline still months in the future, I happily spend a lot of time alone. Like most writers, I’m self-motivating and sometimes even self-satisfied. I might get an occasional e-mail or phone call from an agent or editor, but most of my messages consist of spam promoting sexual aids or get-rich schemes based in faraway countries. And a lot of my calls are wrong numbers or requests for donations to one charity or another.
But even when I’m most alone I’m not really apart from the community. I hear the voices of characters from others’ books that have influenced me. I live among my own characters, too. And sooner or later an infant or toddler—or, in recent years, a teenager—will scream bloody murder because a sibling has committed some minor offense. Or music will turn on in a farther room. Or voices will come through the window from outside. And those will be the people—the voices and sounds—that make me imagine and that lead to the stories and books I write.