From collegiate wrestling and wilderness trekking to writing in a wide range of fields, adventure and ambition have been driving forces in the life of WeHo resident John Morgan Wilson.
After breaking into newspapers at age 19, he earned a journalism degree at San Diego State. A few years later, he founded Easy Reader, an alternative newspaper in Hermosa Beach that is still thriving online in other hands. In 1972, Wilson came out and joined the gay movement, freelancing as a journalist and breaking into the New York Times at age 29. Hundreds of bylines later, he joined the staff of the Los Angeles Times as an assistant editor.
His first novel, “Simple Justice” (1996), was a dark, gritty mystery with a local twist – protagonist Benjamin Justice was a gay man living in West Hollywood. “Simple Justice” won a prestigious Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. Three other novels in the eight-book series were awarded Lammys for best gay men’s mystery by the Lambda Literary Foundation. For more than two decades, Wilson has shared a home in WeHo’s historic Norma Triangle district with artist Pietro Gamino.
This month, the Lambda Literary Book Club is reading “Simple Justice.” John Morgan Wilson will be joining the discussion on May 30 at 7 p.m. in the West Hollywood Library Community Room. Everyone is welcome. He recently sat down to answer some questions for WEHOville about his first book, with West Hollywood as a setting, and how personal experience has influenced his work.
Q. What prompted you to move to West Hollywood?
A. I left Venice Beach for West Hollywood in 1991. My longtime partner had died in 1987, and I found myself isolated too much of the time, as many single writers do. I felt the need to live in a community where I could meet more people in a natural way, at the market or library, out walking our dogs, out for coffee or a drink. As a walking community, so culturally vibrant, West Hollywood seemed ideal.
Q. Why did you select WeHo as a setting for the Benjamin Justice Series?
A. West Hollywood is one of the most culturally, politically and historically interesting cities anywhere. There’s a wealth of inspiration to draw from. Using it as a setting, and making my protagonist a former newspaper reporter, also helped keep my research to a minimum. Extensive research had never been my favorite part of reporting. It was more about the people and the issues I was writing about, and the writing itself. Time was also a factor. I wrote the rough draft of “Simple Justice” in six emotionally charged weeks, between a TV gig and a late summer backpacking trip, before the later work of revision began. So I went with that old adage, “write what you know.” Still, a fair amount of research was needed over the years. When writing fiction, detail and authenticity can’t be neglected.
Q. In what ways has your own personal life influenced the series?
A. Benjamin Justice is clearly my alter ego, as so many series characters are. He’s definitely more volatile, courageous and reckless than me. But a great deal of my personal history was built into that character and the stories he inhabits, often unconsciously, and certainly endless streams of anger and other emotions, giving me a chance to vent and explore some personal issues.
From the first line, I wrote in a voice I didn’t know was inside of me. The words just poured on to the page. It was totally unexpected but thrilling. The first-person voice I discovered that day opened me to a much more personal way of writing, and shaped the story. It became much darker and more serious than I’d envisioned. I’m not claiming that it’s a great book. It certainly has its flaws and limitations. But it was the most personal and honest writing I’d ever done.
Q. This year marks the 21st anniversary of that first novel. Did you intend for it to become such a long-running series?
A. It was in the back of my mind when I started. But my goal, first and foremost, was to write the best mystery novel I could. As it turned out, my agent sold “Simple Justice “quickly in a generous, four-book deal with Doubleday. The books sold decently, especially for a gay-themed series, but the mainstream crossover many publishers expected with LGBT literature never happened. After eight books, I wasn’t earning back my advances, and I felt the series had run its course creatively. It came to an inglorious end, but the time was right.
Q. What are you currently working on?
A. I’m polishing an offbeat crime story aimed at one of the mystery magazines I write for semi-regularly. The tone is darkly humorous, and it’s been fun to write. I don’t want to say more, because I don’t like to spin off creative energy that needs to go into the writing itself. I try to contain and protect that for when I write, as focused and immersed in the characters and their world as possible. If I can’t do that, I’m unlikely to produce anything worth reading.
Q. Given your wide-ranging life, often as a journalist covering notable people or exploring far flung places, have you considered writing a memoir?
A. I noodle the idea from time to time. If I ever give it a shot, it would have to be very personal and intimate, threading my evolution from a child who survived cancer to my self-discovery as a gay man, through the horror of AIDS to the hard-earned triumphs of gay rights.
Writing a book gratuitously studded with celebrity names doesn’t interest me, though that aspect of my life would certainly have its place. But I’d have to be burning to write it. As I get older, I choose more carefully. Part of that is no longer writing on contract or deadline, with the pressure off. But it’s also about the years running out, not to mention one’s physical and mental stamina. It’s like I used to say to my students, when I was teaching for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program: “Writing is easy. Writing well is hard work.”