Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Michael Wiley: Justice in the Sunshine State

INGRID THOFT

Serving on a panel at a conference is always a crap shoot.  Sometimes, the panel gods work in your favor, and you end up sitting next to a true gem, and other times, you'll be just fine if your future interactions are a wave across a crowded hotel lobby.

Luckily, my experience with today's guest falls into the first category.  Michael Wiley and I were on an Sunday 8:30 a.m. panel together at the Long Beach Bouchercon (correct me if I'm wrong, Michael!) and seeing him has been a Bouchercon highlight ever since.  This year, Michael was nominated for the Shamus Award for Best P.I. Novel for his latest, MONUMENT ROAD.  Alas, he didn't win, but this book should definitely be on your TBR list. 

Set in present day Florida, MONUMENT ROAD introduces readers to Franky Dast, an investigator like no other.  Released from prison after being wrongly convicted of a heinous crime, Franky goes to work for the Innocence Project-like organization that won his freedom.  Here's the scoop from Michael.


INGRID THOFT: Franky is an intriguing character because he is so complex; he inspired such mixed emotions!  I felt sympathetic and outraged that he’d been wrongly imprisoned, but then, I’d cringe at his poor choices!  How did Franky Dast come to be?

MICHAEL WILEY: When I was a kid, I was much more disturbed on the few times when my parents or teachers accused me of doing something I didn’t do than the times when they punished me for doing something I did. The failure of adults to see what I imagined must be obvious innocence shocked and shook me. As an adult myself, I’m as interested in moral ambiguity and think I understand it as well as the next crime writer—but false accusations still horrify me. For a long time, I wanted to write a book about a character whose life has been ripped apart by such an accusation and who is struggling to put that life back together, but I couldn’t find the right story.

With all the recent news about false convictions and exonerations, I found the story. Men and women who’ve fought for years or decades against incredible odds—from behind bars, against a criminal justice system designed to keep them there—to convince others of their innocence are some of the most complex real-life heroes I know of. Men and women who run innocence projects and justice initiatives—Bryan Stevenson, Barry Scheck, others—are equally complex sidekicks and often heroes themselves. I model Franky Dast on a number of real exonerated death row inmates. When he gets out of prison, he joins a justice initiative as an investigator.


What looks like a poor choice to you or me may look like a reasonable or at least acceptable one to him. He has lost everything except his life—which he almost lost—and he’s starting from the very bottom, unable to go lower. So he takes risks, sometimes very dangerous ones. The ability to take them is all he has, his only freedom.

By the way, to my thinking, the biggest risk he takes in Monument Road is one most of us take. Through the course of the book, he allows himself to fall in love.


IPT: That's a very good point, and I also love the idea of taking risks being his only freedom.  I was definitely looking at Franky through my lens of experience ("make good choices!") when, of course, his experience has taught him there are no good choices.  You've got me thinking long after I finished the book, Michael!

When reading it, I often felt like I needed to cool off from the Florida heat and humidity because of the terrific sense of place you established.  Did you set out to make the setting a character of sorts?  And/or was the setting critical to the story in your estimation?

MW: I love powerful settings and think they’re just as critical to a story as characters are. In Toni Morrison’s SONG OF SOLOMON, Guitar Bains says, “I do believe my whole life’s geography.” I’ve lived in the Midwest (Chicago), the Northeast (New York), and the Deep South (Jacksonville), and I’ve found Guitar’s words to be true to my life. I’ve also found that other writers’ fictional settings thoroughly color my reading experiences and even color my experiences of real places when I visit them. When I started setting books around the Florida-Georgia border, I worked hard to catch the colors—and the sounds, smells, and humidity—of this place. If the setting makes readers want to turn on the AC, I’m a happy man.

IPT: In addition to writing, you teach literature at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.  Can you name a book or two that you love to teach and why?

MW: The one I’ve just mentioned is among them. To me, SONG OF SOLOMON is nearly the perfect novel. The characters are immensely complex, conflicted, and lovable (even Guitar Bains, who is a psychotic killer). The settings—north, south, in between—are rich and evocative. The plot is gripping. The language is narrative and lyrical. The book is also great crime fiction. All these characteristics—including the part about crime fiction—are also present in many of the other books I love to teach, ranging from HAMLET to Marlon James’s A BRIEF HISTORY OF SEVEN KILLINGS to James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA.


IPT: What has surprised you most about being a published author?

MW: In 2006, when I sold my first book (THE LAST STRIPTEASE, to St. Martin’s Press), I was surprised by the warmth and friendliness of the writing community. That fall, I went to my first crime-writing convention—Bouchercon, in Madison, WI—and writers I’d known only as a fan and admirer took me under their noir-ish wings. The crime-writing community does a better job of passing it around and passing it forward than any other group I’ve met.

IPT: Is there a wannabe book lurking in the back of your brain, something you would write if you didn’t have to consider agents, editors, and fans?  A romance?  Non-fiction?  Cookbook?

MW: I love how successfully crime fiction cross-pollinates with other writing genres: dystopian, fantasy, historical, horror, literary, romance, true crime, western, etc. I know of a basket-load of mysteries that include recipes. So I don’t feel very constrained. In BLACK HAMMOCK, I rewrote one of the oldest crime stories—about Electra and Orestes reclaiming their house from the man who killed their father—setting it on a twenty-first century barrier island off the coast of Florida. Not many people read that one, though, so maybe I should have considered agents, editors, and fans more closely.


I'm off to download a copy of SONG OF SOLOMON, which I'm embarrassed to say I've never read!  Michael will be here today to answer your questions, and he's giving away a copy of MONUMENT ROAD to one lucky reader!  



MONUMENT ROAD
Having spent eight years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit, Franky Dast now works as an investigator for the Justice Now Initiative, seeking to help others in the same situation. But when he learns that Bill Higby, the detective whose testimony helped convict him, is facing his own murder charge, Franky is torn. Should he help the man he hates more than any other, the man who remains convinced of Franky’s guilt to this day?

As Franky delves further, he comes to realize that in order to prove Higby’s innocence, he must also prove his own. Unless he finds out what happened that fateful night eight years before, the night 15-year-old Duane Bronson and his 13-year-old brother were murdered, Franky will always be under suspicion, and the real killer will remain free. What really happened that dark, wet night on Monument Road? And is Franky prepared for the shocking truth?


Along with the Franky Dast mysteries, Michael writes the Daniel Turner Thriller series (Blue Avenue, Second Skin, Black Hammock) and the Shamus Award-winning Joe Kozmarski Private Detective series (A Bad Night’s Sleep, The Bad Kitty Lounge, Last Striptease). He is a frequent book reviewer and an occasional writer of journalism, critical books, and essays.
Michael grew up in Chicago and lived and worked in the neighborhoods and on the streets where he sets his Kozmarski mysteries. He teaches literature at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville—the setting of Monument Road and the Daniel Turner stories.

43 comments:

  1. “Monument Road” sounds like an amazing story, Michael, and it’s going on my to-be-read pile . . . I’m looking forward to meeting Franky. Do you have other adventures in store for him?

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    1. Thanks, Joan -- It's the book I'm proudest of. Severn House published it as the "first" in a Franky Dast series, and I would love to take Franky through news adventures. These ones were pretty harrowing, though, so I'm going to give him a little time to heal first.

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  2. Your book sounds wonderful, Michael. And I'm also sorry to say I have yet to read Song of Solomon. You aren't the first person who has had good things to say about it though.

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    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one, Marla! I wish I could take Michael's class and learn about it from him!

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  3. Sounds like an amazing book. I, too, find false accusations to be maddening, so that caught my interest for sure.

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  4. Thanks for the warm welcome, Ingrid -- Our Bouchercon pleasures have been mutual, and seeing YOU win the Shamus Award for BRUTALITY in 2016 has been among them. Thanks, Joan, Marla, and Mark -- I hope you enjoy MONUMENT ROAD . . . and, Marla, SONG OF SOLOMON!

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  5. I have to agree that SONG OF SOLOMON is one of those rare near-perfect novels that we must cherish forever.

    I also enjoyed MONUMENT ROAD and enjoyed how this interview offered more insight in that complex story and its creator.

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    1. Thanks, Kristopher. I read and reread SONG OF SOLOMON for pleasure and also just to see how Toni Morrison does what she does. It has taught me as much about writing as any other book. Second might be Chandler's THE BIG SLEEP -- another book I often teach . . . and learn from.

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    2. Unknown = Michael Wiley in this case . . . and I hope that names aren't always destiny.

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  6. Michael, the book sounds very compelling. Your character must have flahbacks to his time in prison -- I'm wondering, how did you research what it's like to be a prisoner on death row? Wondering if you think there will come a time when there are no more 'death rows'?

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    1. Thanks, Hallie -- I wanted to get this as right as I could. In the last ten years, a number of powerful firsthand accounts by exonerated death row convicts have appeared in print, and I read everything I could find. SURVIVING JUSTICE, edited by Lola Vollen and Dave Eggers, is an amazing collection of these accounts. I also read everything I could find by people working for innocence projects and justice initiatives. JUST MERCY, by Bryan Stevenson (of the Equal Justice Initiative), was especially important to me. While I don't know anyone on death row, I do have two acquaintances who have been convicted of murder, and I've known a couple other people who've been shot and killed, and I drew from my conversations and experiences with them.

      As for getting to a time without death rows, I hope so. The inequities in sentencing, the potential for mistakes, the huge contradictions in a system that kills people because killing people is evil . . . everything about capital punishment seems wrong to me.

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  7. The book sounds great, Michael, and I liked what you said about how falling in love is the biggest risk Franky takes. Choosing a lifetime partner is certainly a life-changing event, and trusting in the good intent of another has to feel like a huge risk for a man who has been betrayed by a false conviction. Here's hoping that's not one of the "poor choices" Franky makes. I'll definitely put your book on my TBR list.

    On a different front, the Florida/Georgia line has recently taken a beating from Hurricane Michael. I realize you're on the east coast of the state, so I hope you're okay, but do you ever consider massive natural disasters like that when plotting a new book?

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    1. I appreciate the thoughts, Gigi. Falling in love may be Franky's best choice, as hard as it is for him . . . and for the woman who falls in love with him. I hope you enjoy MONUMENT ROAD: it tells a story I really wanted to tell.

      Hurricane Michael passed well to the west of us, thanks. Elmore Leonard advised writers to "Never open a book with the weather," but in Florida the weather has such a presence it's like a character itself. I haven't considered writing a natural disaster book, but the weather is always present, always affecting how how my regular characters live and act.

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  8. I love reading books about the stinking hot and humid South, particularly in the dead of winter. Congratulations on your new release. I look forward to reading it and revisiting Song of Solomon. It's been a while.

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    1. Thanks, Margaret -- The weather doesn't get much hotter or stinkier than in MONUMENT ROAD.

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  9. MONUMENT ROAD sounds great, Michael. I love your point about bad choices being the only freedom Franky has. How many other people on the fringe is that true for?

    Mary/Liz

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    1. I thought that was such a great point, too, Mary/Liz. It's making me rethink my frustration with Franky.

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    2. I have to admit that I'm always a little surprised when readers are shocked by some of the situations Franky throws himself into, Mary/Liz: for me, he doesn't have another choice. Yes -- for how many others on the fringe is this also true?

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  10. Michael, I will add MONUMENT ROAD to my list, along with SONG OF SOLOMON, which I have not read. I particularly enjoyed your point about the intersection between crime fiction and great literature. While I do default to mysteries, I find most great works involve solving some kind of mystery or problem -- it gives structure to the work. On the other hand, most good mysteries are just a structure on which to hang fascinating, compelling characters and settings. So there you go.

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    1. Sometime, I want to teach a course called "Crime Fiction" that includes only writing that people don't usually consider to be crime fiction: we'd start with Sophocles, read through Shakespeare, and maybe end with SONG OF SOLOMON. I also agree with you about the compelling characters in mysteries: they take me places I need to go.

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  11. Monument Road sounds captivating and intriguing. What a fascinating subject. Congratulations and best wishes.

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  12. This profound and memorable novel interests me greatly. Very interesting post about your writing.

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  13. Well, wow, two more books for my TBR. Grew up watching "The Fugitive" so we all knew about that innocent man wrongly accused, but when I said "I didn't do it" I meant break that window, not murder my spouse. Very interesting comment about the bad choices. Everything has been taken away, and even when time is served life is forever different. Thanks for a great post and an intriguing read to look forward to.

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    1. I hadn't thought about THE FUGITIVE. Now I need to watch the old episodes! I'm also interested in the continuum from the false accusation involving the broken window to the false accusation involving murder: in small ways and large (enormous) they shake my confidence in the orderliness of the universe. They make me question, "How could something like this happen?" And they make me answer, "So easily."

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  14. Does Franky suffer from any form of PTSD from his years in prison? As for the heat and humidity, please keep it. We've got it in spades here!

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  15. I can't imagine how horrible it must be sitting in prison, convicted of a crime you didn't commit, especially murder. I watch the shows like Dateline and 48 Hours that chronicle the crime and trials of a murder, and it's easy to fall into thinking that whoever the police have focused on is guilty. But, as shown in the work of the innocence projects, mistakes are made. It makes a fascinating subject for a book, trying to prove one's innocence even after a conviction is overturned. Franky sounds like a character who is a model of strength over adversity, and I can't believe I haven't yet read Monument Road. That Franky has to prove his nemesis' innocence while proving his own is genius storyline. Michael, I've just added Monument Road to my TBR list. Thanks to you and Ingrid for such an interesting interview.

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    1. Thanks, Kathy! I'm also intrigued that so many prosecutors and arresting officers continue to believe in and/or insist on a convict's guilt even after definitive proof of innocence emerges. That tendency seems to be changing now, but we see these situations too often.

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  16. We didn't really discuss it in the Q&A, but the book also features the investigator who put Franky in prison, who finds himself getting the short end of the stick in regards to another crime. Did you enjoy writing that character, Michael?

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    1. Yes, I loved writing that character too, Ingrid. Bill Higby, a homicide detective, seems convinced of Franky's guilt and is obsessed with sending him back to prison. Then Higby is accused of an unjustified killing while off duty. Franky finds evidence that could help Higby. What's a boy like him to do?

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  17. I love the premise of Monument Road, Michael! The moral dilemma of helping an enemy. So good! I can't wait to read it!

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    1. Thanks, Jenn. Crime stories with major moral dilemmas are my favorite as a writer and a reader. Do you have any favorites?

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  18. Franky sounds like someone with a great deal of trouble on his plate--and somehow, I can definitely see more stories from his life coming our way in the future. That's an interesting comment about how so many police officers, attorneys, etc., still believe in someone's guilt even after their exoneration of the crime of which they were accused. One of my cousins was a suspect in his wife's grisly murder many years ago. My dad went to comfort him and came away convinced of his guilt, even though the cousin was never charged. The case was re-examined by one of those TV shows about cold cases--and all the evidence seemed to point to someone else as the probable killer. I wonder about my dad's feelings--what insight into human character, what there might have been in my cousin's behavior, comments, attitude--that led my dad to his assumption of guilt? I think such ideas could cloud the thinking of officers/prosecuting attorneys, such that other potential avenues of investigation are not pursued diligently or are dismissed. All of which provides fertile ground for crime stories!

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    1. I agree, Flora: assumptions, past experiences, attitudes -- all these things can contribute to our judgments of/about others. I'm sorry about the death in your extended family. It sounds as if no was ever caught or charged? That's another kind of tragedy.

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    2. That's fascinating, Flora. Did the rest of the family have an opinion about his guilt or innocence?

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    3. Sad to say, the law enforcement officers in that county were mostly corrupt/inept--bungled so many investigations over the years. The cold case investigators felt the evidence pointed to a revenge killing. A neighbor was jailed because he had sexually abused one of my cousin's children; it is believed that a friend (who was fatally ill at the time) of this man carried out the actual murder; the neighbor remains in jail for other crimes, his friend died. All of my dad's family (except my dad, who only spoke of this to my mom) believed my cousin innocent.

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  19. Ah..... running in so late! Love you, michael! But I am so sick, and have no voice, and I’m going back to sleep. So eager to read Monument Road—congratulations! (And I love “noir-ish wings.”)

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  20. Thanks for having me join you, Ingrid. I had a great time!

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