Friday, August 13, 2010

My Fictional Hero Has Taught Me Everything I Know by Michael Wiley

Michael Wiley writes the Joe Kozmarski mysteries. The Last Striptease (2007) won the Private Eye Writers of America and St. Martin’s Press competition for best first private eye novel and was a Shamus finalist. Booklist called The Bad Kitty Lounge (2010) “howlingly funny,” but the Washington Times objected that it’s too gritty, though Michael hopes that it’s too gritty in a “howlingly funny” kind of way. St. Martin’s Minotaur will publish A Bad Night’s Sleep in Spring, 2011. Michael lives with his family in North Florida.


My Fictional Hero Has Taught Me Everything I Know
by Michael Wiley

I’ve never subscribed to the idea that you should “Write What You Know.” The problem is that I live a subdued life. I’m happily married, the father of three, with a car in the driveway, a lawn to cut, and currently no out-of-control habits. I spend little time in dark alleys and no time at all catching homicidal criminals, though I like to think that if one knocked on the door I would have the presence of mind to call 911.

I admire the experience of guys like Barry Eisler, who spent three years in CIA Operations, and – I might as well go for broke here – John Le Carré, who spent five Cold War years in British intelligence. But my own sensitive government experience ended when I was about eight years old and stopping spying on my parents’ cocktail parties from behind the banister, and even my experience with local law enforcement (in which I was consistently the one running away instead of running after) ended ten years later when I cleaned up my act and went to college.

So, what is a writer of noir crime fiction to do when he lives mostly on the right side of the law and keeps daytime working hours? What is he to write about?

The answer, I think, is simple. Anything he wants to write about and is willing to learn. Past experience isn’t a requirement for a writer. But lack of experience is no excuse for getting the details wrong. So, if the writer of noir crime fiction is me, he finds out what he needs to know as he goes, and he lets his Private Investigator hero teach him the rest.

What has my PI – his name is Joe Kozmarski – taught me? Well, when I started writing my first mystery, I wanted to give Joe a hard-shooting, reliable, manly, but not macho pistol. So, I went to the Gun Gallery, which is my favorite local gun range, and asked the clerk, “If I want a hard-shooting, reliable, manly, but not macho pistol, what do you recommend?” “How about a Glock 23?” the clerk asked. Fifteen minutes later, I was standing in the range shooting a Glock 23, and that night, when I returned to my computer, Joe had a weapon.

Since then, I’ve talked my way onto construction cranes, ridden shotgun with homicide detectives, toured port-authority anti-terror checkpoints, and visited many of the places frequented by those who inhabit the pulpier and more noir spaces of life. Joe teaches me how to interact in each of these spaces.

He also teaches me how to deal with simpler challenges. For instance, a couple of years ago, I was in a Sharper Image store, looking among various display items for a birthday gift for my father. The White Noise Sleep Machine? I clicked it on. No, it sounded like an electric mixer. The Deluxe Nose & Ear Trimmer with Vacuum? Nah, I’d known since I was a child that nostrils should stay away from vacuums. An Instant Vacuum Meat Marinator? They had to be kidding – and what was it with Sharper Image and vacuums? A pair of Memory Foam Slippers for Men? No, just no. A Quad Action Percussion Massager? Well, not for Dad, but the sign said that it provided “a deep tissue massage wherever and whenever” the customer needed it. That sounded interesting, so I looked around the store and when no one was watching I hit the On button. It sounded like a White Noise Sleep Machine having sex with a Deluxe Nose & Ear Trimmer, so I quickly hit the Off button. But it stayed on. I hit the Off button again. The massager got louder. I smacked it against my leg. That seemed to turn on the hidden Nostril Vacuum. Customers were staring now. One of the sales clerks was crossing the store in my direction. What was I to do? Stick the massager in my pants and pretend all was well? Scream, “It’s alive!” and run out of the store? Though the moment seemed worthy of a dramatic response, I laid the massager – still vibrating – back on the display, glanced around the store as if I were considering other purchases, and then slipped outside.

I made it home. No police cars pulled me over. My mother didn’t call from across the country to tell me she’d seen my picture on TV. So, I sat at my computer and thought about how Joe Kozmarski would have handled the situation. I could see him wanting to stuff the massager in his pants and pretend all was well or to scream, “It’s alive.” But he wouldn’t do either of these things, and he wouldn’t put the massager back on its display and mosey out of the store. I started writing. I set the scene in the bedroom of Joe’s ex-wife. She’s in the shower. She has asked him to get a nightgown from her dresser, and he has reached into a drawer and pulled out a . . . toy, a dolphin-shaped toy, with an On-Off switch. He switches it on. He can’t turn it off. His ex-wife gets out of the shower and he still can’t turn it off. What is a hard-shooting, reliable, manly, but not macho PI to do? He carries the toy into the kitchen and drops it in the garbage disposal. That’s just the beginning of his problems.

Lesson learned.

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