Monday, March 15, 2010

Bread, Butter, and Bad Kitties

I'm pleased to have award winning author, Michael Wiley, as my guest today. He wrote The Last Striptease (St. Martin’s Press), which won the coveted Private Eye Writers of America and St. Martin’s Press prize for best first private eye novel in 2006.

I make no secret of the fact I like good detective stories. As a kid I read Mickey Spillane, much to my mother's horror, I loved Mike Hammer, PI. I also loved Philip Marlowe, PI. I graduated to Robert B Parker's books and Spencer.

It's funny how certain characters draw a reader more than another. While I enjoyed Spencer as a hero, I had a crush on Hawk. Why? He was a dark hero. That edge of danger, the knowledge he had lived and seen the really bad side of life, yet he had a goodness about him. Hawk had standards, a code, which as a reader I respected. You knew if Hawk was there, you'd be safe. I like characters like that.

I haven't read Michael's books yet, but I am waiting impatiently for The Last Striptease for the same reason. Characters that are good, bad, and ugly; in other words, interesting and real.

Michael talks with us about moral ambiguity and what draws him to writing characters where the lines between good and bad are a bit hazy.

In the mid-1970s, when I was fifteen, I wasn’t sure which song was more romantic, “Everything I Own” by the bubblegum band Bread or “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. If Bread’s soft melody and promises to give up “my life, my heart, my home” just to “have you back again” clearly set the right mood for making out with my girlfriend in my parents’ basement, I suspected that Lou Reed’s hookers and hustlers knew things about life and love that the members of Bread would never know. Even at my most uncertain teen aged moments, I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to live like Lou Reed’s characters, but the characters fascinated me. I knew that they wouldn’t be caught dead with a Bread record and if they were spending time in a basement it wasn’t in their parents’ house and they were doing more than making out.

I grew up but I didn’t grow much wiser. I live a pretty Bread-ish life. I’m happily married to a woman with whom I gladly share “my life, my heart, my home.” Our friends are varied but over the years even the biggest misfits among them either have drifted away or have settled into middle-aged complacency. Many of them are in relationships in which they also share life, heart, and home with spouses or partners. But I still like Lou Reed’s – still like the danger, the edge, and the sex that Lou Reed conjures in it – still listen to it from time to time, while my Bread records disappeared sometime around 1980.

Moral ambiguity interests me. When I write, I try to catch the ambiguity­ that I’ve experienced and that, if my readers speak truthfully, seems to be a common human characteristic. In my books, I take this ambiguity further than I live it myself. I write about men and women who know the pleasures, safe as they may be, of committed lives, hearts, and homes, but are drawn by forces inside or outside of them to danger and crime. They enjoy being home with their families but find themselves in rooms with murderers and deviant lovers. Worse, they find themselves enjoying the company. “Whoops!” they think later, as they shower off at home, “how did that happen?” And the next day it happens again.

So, in my new novel, THE BAD KITTY LOUNGE, my hero, a private detective who looks like Lech Walesa from the Solidarity days but with abs and no moustache, struggles as hard to reconnect with his ex-wife as he does to find the killer of a nun. But he messes up. Time after time. And others in the book mess up too: the nun, the detective’s ex-wife, his new partner. These characters put themselves on roads of goodness but the roads take them to various kinds of hell. But my hero eventually does catch the murderer and he does find his way to life, heart, and home (even if they don’t look like what he initially has imagined).

Moral ambiguity excuses nothing, of course. But it explains a lot. I believe that most people, even people who do very bad things, are essentially good or would like to be. That’s not to deny that some people are truly evil. I know a few of them. But purely evil characters are tiresome – less interesting in works of fiction than characters who, like the rest of us, possess both good and bad. So, the characters in my books take walks on the wild side. They get hurt. Some recover. Some die. And for reasons that I can’t fully explain, that pleases and satisfies me as both a reader and a writer.

Bad Kitty Lounge

Greg Samuelson, an unassuming bookkeeper, has hired Joe Kozmarski to dig up dirt on his wife and her lover Eric Stone. But now Samuelson has taken matters into his own hands. It looks like he's torched Stone’s Mercedes, killed his boss, and then shot himself, all in the space of an hour.

The police think they know how to put together this ugly puzzle. But as Kozmarski discovers, nothing’s ever simple. Eric Stone wants to hire Kozmarski to clear Samuelson. Samuelson’s dead boss, known as the Virginity Nun, has a saintly reputation but a red-hot past. And a gang led by an aging 1960s radical shows up in Kozmarski’s office with a backpack full of payoff money, warning him to turn a blind eye to murder.

At the same time, Kozmarski is working things out with his ex-wife, Corrine, his new partner, Lucinda Juarez, and his live-in nephew, Jason. If the bad guys don't do Kozmarski in, his family might.


  • What kind of characters do you find satisfying as a reader or a writer? Good? Bad? Somewhere in between? Why?


Michael Wiley is the author of The Bad Kitty Lounge (St. Martin’s Press, March 2010) as well as The Last Striptease (St. Martin’s Press), which won the Private Eye Writers of America and St. Martin’s Press prize for best first private eye novel in 2006 and was nominated for a Shamus award in 2008. He is writing a third novel in the series, which features Chicago Detective Joe Kozmarski, as well as a stand alone mystery, which is set in the wetlands of northern Florida.

  • Michael grew up in Chicago and has lived and worked in the neighborhoods and on the streets where he sets his Kozmarski mysteries. He now teaches literature at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. As part of this other life, he has published books on Romantic Geography (Macmillan-St. Martin’s Press) and Romantic Migrations (Palgrave Macmillan). No one shot at him when he was writing either of them.


~Sia McKye~ said...

Michael, welcome to Over Coffee. I like the twists and turns this book has and it's evident even in the blurb.

I'm looking forward to reading The Last Striptease.

What drew YOU to Private Eyes?

Kat Sheridan said...

Oh, these sound like something I'm going to have to get my hands on, and soon. I love characters like this. I love people with a slightly wonky moral compass.

As I writer (gothic romance), I'm finding I love my villains best. They are so much more satisfying to write. I always start with a goal/motivation/conflict chart for the hero and heroine, and do one for the villain as well. No matter how off-kilter it may seem to a "normal" person, the villain also needs to have believable goals and motivations. And conflict, including internal conflict. Pure evil as a villainous trait doesn't work for me. I want the reader to see that if only one choice, one circumstance, one other thing had been different, the villain might not have turned to the darker deeds.

And I like contrasting that with a main character, who might be confronted with similar circumstances, but who makes a different choice. I don't like squeaky clean heros. I like them a little bit grubby.

Other Lisa said...

Oh, I am all about the ambiguity! Flawed characters are what keep things interesting -- both heroes and villains are more fun with shades of gray!

I am a huge mystery fan, and I will have to check these out. Thanks, Michael, for the interesting interview, and thank you, Sia, for introducing me to another writer!

Tonya Kappes said...

Hi Micheal and Sia! I love to read and write with both heroes and villains. It creates a great dynamic to keep the plot moving forward. Thanks for having coffee with Sia. I love the title of your novel!

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks for having me, Sia! It’s great to join you for coffee. Yes, THE BAD KITTY LOUNGE is full of twists and turns. I hope that they work for you.

I decided to write private detective mysteries both because they’ve given me the most pleasure since I was a kid and because PIs get to say to other people the things we want to but are generally too polite to say.

Michael Wiley said...

I think you hit it on the head, Kat. These also are the characters who most interest me. As much as I love moral ambiguity, though, I have to admit I also love the clearly delineated morality in a gothic romance like Matthew Lewis' s THE MONK.

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, Lisa. Flawless people in real life aren't very interesting, so I'm not surprised that flawed fictional characters are also exciting. I guess that the key for us is to discover new flaws to explore.

Michael Wiley said...

It's great to have coffee in such good company, Tonya. Speaking of villains and coffee, there's a central scene in THE BAD KITTY LOUNGE in which one of the villains uses coffee to harm the hero and another scene in which the hero uses coffee to injure one of the villains.

~Sia McKye~ said...

G'morning Michael.

Coffee is something most people drink, who would think it would be used as a weapon, of sorts. But because it is such an *normal* thing, it would be the perfect thing to use to harm. Drop poison in, knock out drugs, great to toss it in the face of an attacker...possibilities are endless.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

I like your theme of moral ambiguity. People often like to veer out onto the edge between upstanding and risky behavior. It's a good place for writers to explore, especially when our characters make the wrong choices and the readers get to watch what happens.

Helen Ginger said...

I love this line: "If the bad guys don't do Kozmarski in, his family might." Sounds like my family, so I'll have to look for this book!

Straight From Hel

Olivia Cunning said...

Apparently, I'm not very good at giving my villains any redeeming qualities. At the request of my editor, I had to "lighten up" my villain in my first published novel. He was just too mean, mentally unstable and abusive. No redeeming qualities. I loathe the (fictional) guy and it shows. I did try to lighten him up, but alas, he's still a big freakin' jerk. Nothing soft and fluffy about this guy, other than his perfect hair. I do like to let my hero/heroine unleash their dark sides, however.

Your novel sounds very interesting, Michael!

GABixler said...

My kind of book! I think your characters would be much more interesting showing our constant "temptations!"

Sia, Re Spenser...I enjoyed the exchange between Spenser and Hawk...Now Hammer, he did appeal to me a little more than just a reader, but of course, I'm talking about the tv characters...are you?

And in case this is one of your giveaways: address is

Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty...Baaaad Kitty!

VA said...

Great excerpt Michael. Definitely intriguing, nice dime bag.

There are no perfect people, if there were we wouldn't be so fascinated when they fall from Grace. There are the amoral and the psychotic, but most people who "sin" are those who made the wrong choice and whose moral calculus has just dipped into the negative as a result.

I personally believe the more truly heinous acts you've observed the more blurred you realize the lines are, and why you're willing to put up with so much more. But for all but the truly abject, there are limits, boundaries that we don't cross.

I like Joe.

Michael Wiley said...

Half of what I know about moral ambiguity, I learned in my family, Helen. It sounds like your family is a lot like mine. Yes, James, whether it's genre fiction or "literary" fiction moral ambiguity keeps things interesting. I'm in trouble without my coffee, Sia, and the characters in my book are in trouble with it.

Michael Wiley said...

I have the same tendency to write very dark villains initially, Olivia. I've just been reading Lee Child again and am intrigued by how he lightens up Jack Reecher -- Child does a lot with Reecher's obsession with numbers.

~Sia McKye~ said...

GA, I read Hammer long before the TV series, but yes I enjoyed watching it, even though the series softened him a bit.

As for Stacy Keach...sigh, yah, he was tough but sexy as hell.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Michael, what do you like best about Joe? What makes him *cool* for a lack of a better word?

Michael Wiley said...

Thanks, GA & VA, yes it's all about temptation and ambiguity. I suppose that's why we read PARADISE LOST and mostly ignore PARADISE REGAINED. I hope everyone is having a morally ambiguous afternoon.

Michael Wiley said...

What makes Joe cool? I hope that a lot of things do, mostly I like that he's willing to speak his mind no matter the cost and I like that underneath his hard-boiled exterior, he has a very warm heart. One of the best praises that I've received in relationship to my books has been from men who have said they would like to be like Joe and women who have said they'd like to marry him.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Well, as soon as Striptease gets here, I'll *meet* him.

Speaking of moral ambiguity, what about your bad guy? Without giving away your story, are there good qualities there too? Something to make the reader sympathic? Or do we just want to stomp in the ground all the way to China?

Sheila Deeth said...

Sounds an intriguing book. Is the coffee safe?

Michael Wiley said...

Sure, Joe has a lot of good qualities. He's tough, he's loyal, he doesn't give up. He has moral qualms at the right times, but he doesn't let the qualms stop him from acting when action is necessary. He lives according to his own code, but it's a code that most of us approve of most of the time, or if we don't approve of it we at least sympathize with his decision to live as he does.

Michael Wiley said...

Yes, the coffee's safe . . . but hot.

Lisa Cooke said...

I like characters with character LOL. Good, bad or ugly, as long as they're interesting.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Hey Lisa. Yay, It worked! Blog sites get so darn persnickity.