J. Scott Coatsworth talks about the re-release of his Liminal Sky books as well as the new Innovation flash fiction anthology. He also discusses what he’s currently working on.
We celebrate the 25th anniversary of John Morgan Wilson’s Simple Justice. John speaks with Jeff about bringing this book, and the rest of the Benjamin Justice Mystery Series, back into print with ReQueered Tales. John also shares Justice’s origin story as well as what it was like to revise the book and the similarities between 1994 (when the book is set) and now.
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Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase.
- Heart2Heart: A Charity Anthology Volume 4 by various authors on Amazon (available until Sept 29, 2020)
- The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters on Amazon
- Second Helpings by Brandon Witt on Amazon
- J. Scott Coatsworth Interview
- J. Scott Coatsworth: website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
- Liminal Sky: The Ariadne Cycle series by J. Scott Coatsworth on Amazon
- Spells and Stardust anthology by J. Scott Coatsworth on Amazon
- Angel Martinez on Amazon
- Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website
- Galaxy’s Edge Magazine website
- #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) on Twitter
- The Last Run by J. Scott Coatsworth on Amazon
- Anne McCaffrey on Amazon
- Innovation: Queer Sci Fi’s Seventh Annual Flash Fiction Contest anthology by various authors on Amazon
- Queer Sci-Fi website
- Other Worlds Ink website
- Queer Romance Ink website
- Kaje Harper on Amazon
- Liminal Fiction website
- The River City Chronicles by J. Scott Coatsworth on Amazon (Italian Edition | Dual Language Edition)
- John Morgan Wilson Interview Interview
- Simple Justice by John Morgan Wilson on Amazon
- Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley on Amazon
- Jon Michaelsen on Amazon
- The Incredible John Morgan Wilson, Author of the Benjamin Justice Mystery Series on John Michaelsen website (2014 interview)
- Gay Mystery-Thriller-Suspense Fiction group on Facebook
- ReQueered Tales website
- The Black Echo by Michael Connelly on Amazon
- Joseph Hansen on Amazon
- Michael Nava on Amazon
- Christopher Rice on Amazon
- Ross MacDonald on Amazon
- Anne Rice on Amazon
- Raymon Chandler on Amazon
- Dashiell Hammett on Amazon
- Episode 222 – The ReQueered Tales Mission with Matt Lubbers-Moore on Big Gay Fiction Podcast
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Patreon.com
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast patrons on BGFP website
- Libro.fm website (use this link to receive your Big Gay Fiction Podcast special offer)
- Frolic Podcast Network website
Interview Transcript – J. Scott Coatsworth
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: Scott, welcome back to the podcast. It’s good to have you.
Scott: Thanks. Good to be here.
Jeff: We’ve got a lot of stuff to talk about, cause you’ve been a busy guy this spring and summer. You’re rereleasing a lot of your work.
Scott: Yeah, it feels like I’m not doing much of anything. I’ve had a couple of stories, but nothing of any length since last October. But a few months ago I decided that I was going to kind of move away from doing the romance stuff. Not that I won’t ever dip my toe in that particular pool again. Cause I’ve got a lot of friends there and I do enjoy it from time to time.
I did pull the rights for my two trilogies. And so I’m rereleasing those. July 10th was the first one and that was for the “Liminal Sky” series. I’m also kind of rebranding. I had the “Liminal Sky” and I had the “Skythane Oberon” series. And they both ended up kind of hooking together at the end in the same universe, which is kind of a cool Easter egg sort of thing.
So I’m rebranding them as a “Liminal Sky: Ariadne Cycle” and then the “Oberon” is now “Liminal Sky: Oberon Cycle”. So they’re both part of the same thing and they’re going to carry covers that have the same font face, the same kind of look. So they kind of tie together as an overall series, even though they have their own books as trilogies. So yeah, by December, I should have all six of my scifi novels back out again.
Jeff: Did you intend to make one big universe or did that just kind of happen as you wrote?
Scott: It just really kind of happened, somewhere around book two on both series, I did this really stupid, weird thing. I decided to write two trilogies at once and I went back and forth.
So I did book one of one and then, but one of the other, and then two and two, I started to realize that maybe the generation ship in the first series ended up at the location of the second series. And so that’s when I started kind of putting together a timeline of thinking how this whole thing might latch together.
There’s actually one item in particular that kind of runs through the entire series and shows up at the end. So you see it in the first book and you see it in the last book. It was kind of cool to put those little Easter egg things in there for folks that really read both series and kind of get into and figure out what they are.
Jeff: You mentioned getting away from romance a little bit. What brought that on and where do you see yourself going forward at this point?
Scott: So I never had romance as one of my first loves.
I got into it in the beginning because my husband Mark was reading a lot of gay romance and he knew a lot of the publishers there, and I had decided to try to get back to writing and all these publishers had these calls for submissions out for anthologies. And I thought, well, I could try that. I could try breaking into it and see if I can get into one of those.
And I ended up getting my first story published, “The Bear at the Bar,” which is actually now out on its own and also it’s in the “Spells and Stardust” anthology. That kinda got me going and so I ended up submitting to a number of publishers and I got published with three or four of them and that was my way in. But I always kind of wrote things that were… Angel [Martinez] would call them probably romance-ish.
She set me straight early on that, you know, romance is its own thing and it has its own rules. And just because your story has a romance in it, doesn’t make your story a romance.
It’s only a romance if romance actually is the plot of the story. So my, “Oberon” cycle– “Skythane,” “Lander” and “Ithani”–they have a very strong romance thread to them, but they’re arguably maybe not romance, even though they were published under that thread. But again, my first love was always scifi and fantasy, which I started reading when I was like in maybe 10 years old, 11 years old.
And I always wanted to be published there. I want that’s where I wanted to go. So yeah, I’m trying to do now is make the leap from the smaller publishers into the mainstream. And so my path right now, It’s either finding an agent and getting into a big publisher or going it alone and doing it myself, or maybe again being kind of a hybrid author and seeing if I can pull off both things. But my thrust now is to really write diverse science fiction fantasy that’s still is a big part of the queer community in it, but that is not romance based.
Jeff: You’ve recently gotten some pickup in some magazines and things that kind of move you more towards that direction.
Scott: I had wanted to get into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association. SFWA so I always thought it was SFWA, but it’s Sifwa and there are two ways to do that. You can either get published in a magazine that pays a certain set rate per word, which was about four times, five times, whatever I made on an anthology.
Or you can sell $3,000 worth of one story in one year, one book in one year. There’s some combinations you can make to get that amount. But basically those, the two bubbles, I was like enough to have a story. And then the second one picked up by the late Mike Resnick who ran “Galaxy’s Edge.”
And it was actually the one story I’d sent it to him and it got bounced back to me by his gatekeeper, but I had sent it to him directly as well because he’d asked for a copy of it. And so I went back to him and I said, well, can I send you another one now because you know, you didn’t want the first one.
Okay. He said, well, actually I wanted to send you a contract. I was just about to buy the thing from you. So that kind of going around the gatekeeper thing actually ended up working. He bought a couple of the stories and that got me into Sifwa and I was later able to level up to the full membership in the organization.
It’s kind of hard to make that leap because you know, people get used to you doing what you’re doing. You get a certain following that’s used to your current stuff and yeah, it was never fully romance, but a lot of my fans are on the romance side. It’s hard to break into the bigger market.
Jeff: But you’re chipping away at it now, which is very cool.
Scott: Yeah, I’m doing that, the whole agent thing and I’m a very, like obsessively organized person about things generally speaking. And so when I decided to look for an agent, I created a spreadsheet, of course, first thing, I started out with about 12 or 14 agents. And I just kept adding to those over time. And there’s a thing on Twitter called #MSWL, which is manuscript wishlist, which you can follow and agents will pop up there with they’re looking for, and sometimes they’re absurdly specific.
Like they’ll say, you know, I want like a Victorian fantasy novel with zombies. And does anybody have that out there? Send it to me. But sometimes they’re more like general, like I’m looking for marginalized writers, writing science fiction. And so I’ll pick up things from there. At my last check, I had 110 agent submissions out there, of the book, the current book I’m working on, or just the one I’m working on for getting into an agent and of those I had about 70 come back and say no, and the rest are active ones, and I’ve still got a batch of ones to try at the same agencies, if those ones reject me. So it’s this huge process and it’s a lot harder then I thought it would be, emotionally, mostly. I’m going to give it basically to the end of the year. I’ll let this kind of cycle run through.
I’m just about completed on another book, my thought is that I’ll finish this through this batch of agents. And if, and when nobody takes it, then I will start working on it and plan to release that on my own and then, do you know what a pitch Wars are? That’s coming up again this month, basically, it’s a mentoring competition where you put in your work and you try to connect with a mentor and the mentor then, if they like you, works with you to try to get your manuscript ready for agents. And then they do an agent showcase in the spring.
I did it last year with this book. It didn’t get picked up by anybody. I found out after the fact that there were about 130 manuscripts for every mentor that was in the competition. So your odds of getting kind of a callback are low and your odds of being chosen are even lower, but I’m going to try it again, see what happens, you know, and then I will probably go the agent route with this one.
Now that I’ve got all these agents in my list and see, you know, the one thing I’m trying to remember is that each one of these things is a learning experience.
And if it ended up just being on my own and publishing, I’ve got a friend of mine is going to mentor me who’s done very well over the last 12, 14 years with his own works. That may be where I end up.
I may just do self published on everything.
Jeff: And what is coming up for new work? You’ve got all these rereleases happening through the end of the year. When do fans get to see something new coming into their TBR?
Scott: The thing that I’m working on right now, I had written this book called “Last Run,” this novella.
This is one of my stories that I tried to get into some magazines to try to get into Sifwa and it never did get picked up by anybody. So I ended up publishing it myself as a novella and it’s a whole new world. I think it’s possible that it will end up being linked back to these other worlds. I’m not quite sure how, because in the connection to the other two series, I had destroyed earth and then I had to undestroy Earth to make it work. And in this one, I destroy Earth at a different point in time. So I kind of have it in for Earth, I think. I don’t know. It may be its own separate universe. I’m thinking about linking it to them.
Some other works I’ve done. But the thing I’m writing right now is actually using this as kind of an origin story and then going about 150 years forward in the future from this book. And it’s a trilogy that’s, it kind of borrows from Anne McCaffrey in terms of having a fantasy sci-fi colonized world. There’s even sort of dragons, but they’re not really dragons. I’m trying to make sure I differentiate that because I don’t want it to be, you know, here’s a clone of Pern basically. But it is letting me play in the fantasy world a bit, even though there’s not magic per se, in a way that I really haven’t done for a while and really enjoying a lot.
And again, trying to apply all those things that I learned from the last couple of books and the lessons from the agent process, to try to make this thing kind of shine. So that’s one. Number two is, in the world of “The Stark Divide,” when I said I destroyed the Earth, some people survived and they were on the moon.
And so I, the book that I’m shopping to agents right now, and that I will eventually release on my own, if it doesn’t get sold, is called “Dropnaughts” and it’s the story of the people that survived back when this ship left the Earth and how after the war cleared up enough, decided to go back down to Earth and what they found and then kind of what it comes from that.
So that is a standalone right now. It might be a series at some point but that’s the one that’s out there. And the last thing it’s kind of in the mix, other than my short stories that I have out, I plan to do the interim series, at some point in the next year or two, between the “Liminal Sky: Ariadne Cycle” and the “Liminal Sky: Oberon Cycle” that tells you what happened after this let’s off, but before, and then once they get to the new world. So kind of fill in those, all those gaps.
Jeff: Now you’ve been known for quite some time for organizing flash fiction anthologies. And this year you’re actually doing one that’s not flash fiction called “Fix the World.” Tell us a little bit about that.
Scott: Yeah, so we’ve always done the flash fiction. This is our most recent “Innovation,” came out about a month ago. They’re, you know, 300 word stories. We do 120 authors that’s through Queer Sci-Fi. But I’ve had this idea of bouncing around in my head for a couple of years to do something hopeful in the scifi space.
And it kind of linked up with this idea of taking our publisher, Other Worlds Ink, and going beyond just publishing these things, for Queer Sci-Fi and publishing my own stuff. The idea is basically, there’s a lot of stuff going wrong. You know, we’ve got racism, we’ve got inequality, we’ve got climate change. We’ve got all of the kinds of big and little issues around the world right now. And there’s times when it feels just like it’s overwhelming and like we’re on this path to destruction. And we may be the last generation that actually gets to live the way that we live. The next generation may have a lot less or the world may be in turmoil.
So I wanted to find a way to put something positive out. So the “Fix the World” anthology, the idea is that we take an existing world problem right now and you jumped forward a bit and you figure out how we fixed it. And you write a story around that, and it doesn’t have to be necessarily the thrust of the story, but it should be an important part of it.
It doesn’t matter how big or small the problem is. You know, it can be as small as a genetic engineering to save a species. It can be as big as, you know, figuring out how to counteract climate change by putting satellites in space and reflecting light back to the, you know, out into the outer reaches.
I’m really excited about it.
Jeff: And does it have a target release date?
Scott: It’s probably going to be in the spring.
Jeff: Fantastic. And talk to us a little bit about “Innovation,” from this year’s flash fiction as well. How did that go this year? How many flash stories ended up in this year’s anthology?
Scott: Oh, it’s 120, it was 110 to last year, then we’d bumped it up a little bit. Yeah. Cause we had so many submissions. We had, I think 256 last year and we did a little lower than that this year, 235, which I was not sure at all how it was going to go because our launch period was March 1st.
And then we ran through April 10th, which put us like dead smack in the middle of when this whole thing just went crazy with the pandemic. So I was a little worried we weren’t going to get enough stories and I was very pleasantly surprised when we actually did. So yeah, it’s got 120 stories. they are heavy sci-fi, like they always are, but each year we’ve noticed we’ve gotten more and more stories beyond the kind of standard male/male stories. This year we actually had more female/female and lesbian stories than we did male/male for the first time. And we also had nice stuff, kind of everything else at the LGBTIQA alphabet. So, yeah, it’s a good collection. I was quite happy with it.
Jeff: Under your banner, you have so many things that kind of come under Other Worlds Ink. Several years ago, came up with Queer Romance Ink which is a great resource, putting m/m romance into one place where it can be found and searched in a way that’s easier than how you might do it on on Amazon or a Barnes and Noble site or something like that. You’ve now rolled out one for speculative fiction.
Scott: Right. It kind of mirrors my own journey.
Queer romance is where I was at the time that one actually came about because of the collapse of All Romance Ebooks, ARE . I remember talking to Kaje Harper about possibly launching a site. Kaje was looking at the possibility of doing a, like a co-op type site. And, you know, I said, we’re looking at doing our own site. We had this idea for it. If you guys do that too, I would happily support that as well.
I think the more competition, the better, the more people out there pushing this stuff the better. That never happened, but Kaje did end up helping me work on some of the basics on getting the site launched. and that site now it’s about 35,000 visitors a month. So it’s doing really well. I’d always wanted to have again, the sci-fi thing going and I thought about launching a sci-fi version of it a year after. But I really wasn’t connected well enough at the time into the sci-fi market, to authors, to everything else. I took the last couple of years and really worked on making those connections. And once the pandemic hit, it was kind of a scary time because one of our main sites is our travel site and our travel site for all effects and purposes is probably dead until next year.
Yeah. Some people are traveling again, people traveling in New Zealand, Australia, people are traveling a bit in Europe, but the market is still really down in the United States. It’s just, there just is no travel market right now. We decided we needed to accelerate some of other plans, some of the things we had in the fire.
And one of those was Liminal Fiction. We ended up launching it. I couldn’t actually get the domain liminalfiction.com cause somebody else owned it. We launched with limfic.com and then I found out his domain was expiring a few weeks later and made him an offer. And now we have both limfic.com and liminalfiction.com. So it worked out. The idea behind the site is basically that it’s author driven like Queer Romance Ink, that authors can put their own books on. It can promote them. And then we also do a lot of work to promote both frontlist and backlist books.
It makes them find-able in ways that you can’t find them anywhere else. Specifically on limfic that means we have, I think 135 sub genres of fantasy scifi, horror and science fiction. And so if you want that one book that is, you know, alien invasion, or are you want the book that is werewolves and paranormal, or you want the book that is comedy horror, you know, you can actually drill down and find those things and then filter them by a lot of other things too – locate exactly the kind of book that you want. So, yeah, we’re excited about it. It’s doing well so far and it’s growing pretty quickly. It’s going to take a while before it gets kind of to where QRI is, but I think eventually it will probably surpass it just because it’s a mainstream market and there’s a lot of folks that read and write mainstream speculative fiction.
Jeff: So I understand you’ve got a little bit of show and tell for us as we wrap up.
Scott: I have my first Italian language book out. People who have read, “The River City Chronicles” will recognize the cover. This is the thing I had translated as I was actually writing the book because I have friends in Italy and a couple of the characters are based on them. I had to translate every week on my blog in Italian and publish it both in English and Italian. So I finally got the Italian version out a couple of months ago and it hasn’t sold a single… actually I sold one copy yesterday, but it’s being read on Kindle Unlimited and I’ve probably had about 15, 20 book reads in the last two or three weeks.
The one that hasn’t been read yet. And this is my real show and tell thing, this is the dual language edition. It’s got both the English and the Italian. Eight hundred pages long. And this is the doorstop.
Jeff: Yes, it is.
Scott: This I basically put out there because Mark and I study Italian. I thought it’d be cool for Italian study groups or schools to have a book. They could use it. They wanted, that was an American story, but in both languages. So, yeah. I only have two copies of this cause they’re not cheap either, but yeah, it’s just kind of fun to have, and it’s a good conversation piece. It will hold your door open if you don’t use it for anything else.
Jeff: So what’s the best way for folks to keep up with you and keep track of new work and find out what you’re doing across all the various outlets that you’ve got.
Scott: So, best thing is to sign up for my mailing list. If you go to J Scott Coatsworth, and it’s just like, it sounds JScottCoatsworth.com. There’s a mail list, sign up and you will get a free ebook copy of “Spells and Stardust,”which is my anthology of eight of my short stories and then I’ll let you know, and my regular newsletter, it goes out once a week, what’s going on with me. You can also find me on Facebook. I have a Facebook page and my own Facebook profile, J Scott Coatsworth there.
I’m technically Twitter and Instagram. I don’t do a whole, a lot with Instagram, but I do put out regular notices on Twitter. So you can follow me on Twitter as well. If you want to get notifications, when I put those out.
Jeff: Fantastic. We’ll link to those plus everything we talked about in the show notes so that folks can get there really easily.
Interview Transcript – John Morgan Wilson
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Jeff: John, welcome to the podcast. It is so excellent to have you here.
John: Thanks, Jeff. And it’s really great to be here. I really appreciate the invitation.
Jeff: We are so excited to have you here to celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Simple Justice,” which kicked off the Benjamin Justice Mystery Series. Now, for those who are unfamiliar with this, tell us about the series.
John: Well, Justice is a former reporter who has been ruined by a Pulitzer scandal of his own making. And he’s grieving the loss of a lover to AIDS living reclusively in West Hollywood and the novel set in 1994, which was a pivotal year in the midst of a crime wave and the AIDS epidemic peaking and a lot going on.
And there’s always a lot going on in West Hollywood anyway, but he’s kind of hiding out in a little apartment, trying to stay away from people. That’s kind of his goal. He’s a very hard guy to live with. He’s abrasive, opinionated, volatile, sometimes violent. But readers still seem to be engaged with him.
At least the ones who followed the series. And I had some really loyal readers through the years. Justice gets involved when an old editor visits him and tempts him and guilts him into getting involved in an investigation involving a murder outside of gay bar in Silver Lake, which is a heavily gay neighborhood just East of West Hollywood. Justice gets involved almost against his will, but when he realizes a confession by a teenager to the murder, there’s something fishy about it. He sees things other people don’t see, which is what made him a great investigative reporter.
He just feels compelled to get more and more involved, which he does with an investigative reporter, Alexandra Templeton, a young Black reporter who’s really promising, really has a great career ahead of her, but really resents Justice for the Pulitzer scandal that he got involved in. And together, they make their way through this very murky investigation, which becomes very dangerous.
And in the end, it collides with Justice’s own troubled past. And in a sense, Alexandra has to solve Justice’s dark past in order for the two of them to move together productively and solve the murderer on a deadline at the end of the story.
Jeff: It sounds like there’s a lot of actual history involved in the book. You touched on the AIDS crisis at the time, the crime wave that was happening in West Hollywood. Did all of that kind of blend together to inspire this particular story and then the series as well?
John: You know, when I sat down to write this, I had decades as a journalist. I was 50 years old when I wrote the book and I really was at a time when I’d moved into television reporting, first news and then documentary writing. And I was kind of leaving my newspaper and magazine reporting behind for the most part.
And when I sat down to write it, I just said, this book has to be different from anything you’ve done before. You’ve got to reach deeper and find something special because otherwise there’s no point in writing a novel like this. And I just sat down to write and the minute I started writing in the first person, in Justice’s voice kind of just from my gut, this character emerged. And he took over. So obviously it was pretty close to me in my heart.
And I wrote the first draft in six weeks, so there was just a lot of West Hollywood in it. A lot of me in it, a lot of my neighbors and my history and the whole Gay movement and AIDS and everything else that had taken place over the last 20, 25 years of my life, I came out in my mid twenties. And that was what ended up being “Simple Justice,” this kind of dark, violent, very sexually charged, emotionally charged book, which kind of set it apart from a lot of the mystery writing that was being done in those days, or at least it was getting noticed.
Jeff: And you mentioned your career in journalism and you’d written some documentary style television as well. Had you ever seen yourself writing a novel?
John: If I probably took a hard, truthful, look back at myself, it probably had been in the mix for a long time, but I didn’t have the confidence to admit that.
But after I read Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress” at the suggestion of a friend, I started thinking very hard about, writing a novel of my own. And please don’t think that I’m comparing myself to Walter Mosley at all. But that book really inspired me because of the history in it, the politics in it, the social issues that he blended so beautifully with the character of Easy Rawlins, in the postwar years in South central Los Angeles.
And that’s really when I started thinking about writing a novel of my own. And then in terms of the history of West Hollywood, the history of the gay movement that worked itself into “Simple Justice,” when I revised the book, in the past six or eight months, I really tried to accentuate all that. I felt like I was writing a time capsule of 1994 in West Hollywood because West Hollywood has changed so much since then. It’s really development driven now. It was never a quiet place when I lived here, but it’s not the same city it was. And I really wanted to capture that as I revised.
I added a lot of historic detail and cultural detail in the revision.
Jeff: For people who may have read the original, how much new material would you say are they going to find if they pick up this rerelease?
John: Well, I hope the writing is better because when ReQueered Tales asked if they could reprint my books, they were going out print and I have to give a nod to Jon Michaelsen the author in Atlanta, who interviewed me for his blog about three years ago and thereafter his Facebook LGBT crime writing group. They started discussing my novel and the fact that it was going out of print.
And a group of them got together and wanted to volunteer their specialized skills to help me bring my “Justice” series back, starting with “Simple Justice.” And that evolved into a full fledged royalty paying publisher ReQueered Tales, put together by this handful of passionate readers out of this Facebook group it was really quite remarkable what’s happened. They’ve now got more than 30 title titles in print with nearly 20 authors. They’re rescuing out of print, LGBTQ classics, and Jon started all that, after he interviewed me for his blog.
Jeff: Could you have imagined at some point that the books would come charging back in such a big way 25 years after they came out?
John: No, I never expected this. In fact, when this Facebook group contacted me and Jon actually personally contacted me, he was the lead guy at the time, I was completely flabbergasted. To be honest, I was very skeptical that this could work. How could a bunch of readers as smart and skilled as they were in their own ways, with some writers among them, bring back an entire mystery series? I just was very skeptical, but I encouraged it and I was grateful. And then it eventually evolved over about a year into remarkable publisher that has all these titles out, bringing back all these LGBTQ classics that otherwise would be out of print.
I wanted to go back to, the question you asked about what changes I’ve made. Did I make many changes when I did the revisions to “Simple Justice?”
I did quite a bit of revision on the novel. When I read it, I was really unhappy with a lot of the writing. As I told a friend I eliminated about six or eight cliches, really bad cliches in the first, two or three chapters that I’m sure I thought were brilliant at the time, there was a lot of ragged writing and there were plot inconsistencies and other issues in the book and I told ReQueered Tales that I really wanted to revise the books before they came back into print. And that’s what I spent much of the next year doing. I cut a couple of characters. I added two new characters, one quite important. I cut two subplots that were minor.
I didn’t mess with the structure too much because when you start messing with the structure of a multi suspect mystery series, when you get into the guts of that you really can go down a rabbit hole and I just didn’t have the time with deadlines. And I, frankly, I didn’t have the physical and mental stamina to just tear the book apart and start over.
I wouldn’t have published “Simple Justice” again if I couldn’t have revised it first and cleaned up a lot of things that I found wrong with it. So you’re seeing, if not a new “Simple Justice,” a heavily revised, “Simple Justice” and updated “Simple Justice”. One thing that I was able to do with hindsight, looking back was to add more historic and cultural history with concrete detail that, I felt, enhanced the book and I hope I’m right. The readers will be the judge in the long run.
Jeff: And you wrote “Simple Justice” originally in, if I did the math, right? It’s like 1996. So you were writing two years back at that point back into 1994. So coming at it now with a whole new lens with the time passed, I can imagine, you know, being able to historically set, the importance of things that were going on in that timeframe.
John: I actually wrote it in 95. So I was looking back from about a year and, there was just so much I missed. And one of the things I added to the book as a thread, it’s a very minor thread, but I felt it really helped the motivation of Justice’s old editor, Harry Browski, to come out of the woodwork and get him involved in this investigation and that was the OJ Simpson trial. That was all going on in the background at the time the novel was set, but it was never mentioned in the first novel. Now it’s threaded in to the revisions of “Simple Justice” and I did it purposely to, sort of, shore up some of the motivations in the book.
Jeff: And of course, when you were writing it and where it’s set, we were in the midst of political upheaval then, and the epidemic of AIDS. And now as you’re bringing this book back out, we’re in another political upheaval and a new epidemic with COVID-19, what’s it like to see those parallels?
John: Yeah, that was really interesting for me as a writer, because 1994 was a pivotal year. That was when Bill Clinton had a shaky first term and the Republicans put up quite a challenge and I believe they took control of Congress. So you had a pivotal election year with a Republican resurgence. You had a crime wave that was virtually at its peak certainly. In terms of violence in Los Angeles. You had AIDS peaking as an epidemic. You had equal rights for women as a huge issue.
Then you switched to 2020 and all of these similar issues, these parallel issues, if you will going on as I’m rewriting. And I think it probably affected my rewriting as much unconsciously as consciously.
Two characters really got my attention as I revised one was, Senator Masterman’s son, for those who’ve read the book already, I renamed him Casey, by the way, he doesn’t have the same first name as his father, because that became a nightmare when I had them in the same scene, trying to refer to each of them.
But Casey, I felt needed more weight and clarity as a character. So I really worked on him. And then Alexandra Templeton, the young black reporter who partners with Justice on this murder investigation. I felt that as an author, I had to give her more respect. She’s always a strong character in the book, a very sympathetic character, but I just felt she needed more dignity. She was probably the character that got the most work, even though a lot of what’s changed about her and what I hope is improved about her is maybe in nuance instead of broad changes. A lot of it’s in the conversation and the interplay between her and Justice.
And so there were definitely some changes that were influenced by the period that we’re in now.
Jeff: Are you making similar revisions to the rest of the books that will be coming out?
John: One by one by one, I’m going to revise each one unless I just collapse and can’t do it. “Simple Justice.” I think, is the one that’s needed the most work. It was my first novel. I was learning as I wrote. It was probably the most complex. I think the plot needed the most work.
I don’t think any of the other books will take that much work. I know the second one is going to need some because it was my second novel and while I was writing that novel, I got an really nice note from Michael Connelly, who had won the Edgar award for best first novel a few years before me for “Black Echo.”
And I had never met him. But we’d worked together at the LA times at around the same time. Our years paralleled there. And I had interviewed him for “Writer’s Digest” before my book came out and he sent me a note saying, congratulating me on winning the Edgar a few years after him, the same Edgar for best first novel and said: Just a suggestion. Be careful. Second novels are often much harder to write and you might want to give yourself more time. And he was absolutely right. “Revision of Justice” is the second one. And it was a very tough novel to write cause I used up so much in the first novel, I felt empty in a sense – used things up creatively, emotionally in terms of background and things.
I wanted to write about things I wanted to express and I sort of had trouble finding what the hook was for me in the second novel. And it was a real hard novel to write. Having said that, for any writers that are listening, I would never advise holding things out of your first novel to save for your second novel because if you don’t write the best novel you can write, the novel you were born to write the first time out, there’s unlikely going to be a second novel. I would say give it your all in the first one and then just plan on working harder on that second book. It’ll work out. You just maybe have to dig a little deeper.
Jeff: For the mysteries that Justice is solving, where did the inspiration for those come through the books? Was it kind of a ripped from the headlines thing or just the fun of making stuff up?
John: All over the place. Sometimes headlines, sometimes a piece of music, sometimes looking out my window at something visually, you know, they’re really all over the place.
Plotting is the hardest thing for me. It’s really difficult. I tend to find my characters through dialogue. Once I get them interacting and talking, I learn more about them. And then I go back and do a lot of revision later trying to strengthen them. Plotting is difficult. I really admire mystery writers who come up with these ingenious, clever, intricate plots that you feel you’ve never quite seen before.
I’m not that writer. I have to work really hard at it. But, you know, you have to go with your strengths and weaknesses, and you have to emphasize your strengths and try to work hard and shore up your weaknesses. And that’s basically what I do with those.
And honestly, I can’t remember the plots of most of my novels. So I’m going to be rediscovering them with any readers out there who might be picking up the series. I’ll be rediscovering them before I revise those because I really don’t remember the plot intricacies and many of the characters and plot twists in these books.
I’m rediscovering them as I sit down to revise. Opening a book I haven’t seen in 25 years, except for passages, maybe at readings, and rediscovering it and getting down to rewriting – it’s a wonderful process. I love it. And some writers absolutely hate the rewriting process because it’s extremely arduous. You just have to really commit and clear your head and find that thing that separates professional writers from less professional writers, which is that objectivity you have to develop in which you become the strictest judge of your own work, and you have to become your own boss and the toughest boss you’ve ever had, and look at your work with as much humility as possible and realize it can be made better. If I had a chance now I’d probably sit back down with “Simple Justice” for another couple of months and go through it three or four times. I drove ReQueered Tales crazy and I apologize to them. They were so patient with me. And it really was months of work and I missed a deadline or two, and they were so patient and good to me and I will be forever grateful for that.
Jeff: You mentioned the Edgar award a few minutes ago, which “Simple Justice” won when it came out as Best First Novel. The series also got nominated and won multiple Lambda Literary Awards over its time. What do you think about the series caught so many people’s attention?
John: I was very, very lucky. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve been told by a number of people through the years that was the first gay themed mystery novel by an openly gay author to win an Edgar. And it was a pretty big deal. It certainly made a big difference for me because gay novels just weren’t getting a lot of mainstream attention at the time outside of Joseph Hansen and Michael Nava. Everybody pretty much struggled to get any attention. And then the Edgar kind of reinforced that and it really helped the series. The series ended up going out of print after eight books, but the Edgar was an important part of keeping it alive for 10, 12 years.
Jeff: “Simple Justice” is also coming out with a new forward from Christopher Rice who of course is one of the contemporary torchbearers for mystery and thriller. How did he come to be involved?
John: Well, Christopher and I have been friends for a long time going way back to, I wish I could remember the year of the Lammys were in Chicago and we were both up for a Lammy in the Best Gay Mens Mystery category. And I met him there and found out that he lived here in West Hollywood, just a few blocks from me and we became friends.
And honestly, after I’d talked to him and after I saw how smart he was, how insightful he was in addition to being such a good writer, I realized he was the next torchbearer for gay mystery writing and gay crime writing. I really felt that strongly. And I went out of my way to befriend him and try to introduce him to things like Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime. I remember, in fact, he alludes to this in the forward. I suggested that he read Ross MacDonald because he was real keen on reading as much mystery writing as he could. And his mom had suggested to him Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. And I added Ross MacDonald to that because he was my favorite of that whole genre in addition to many other writers I really enjoyed.
But Chris and I became friends and we, you know, kind of supported each other in different ways through the years. And so when the book was getting ready to go into production, I just shot him an email. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, but I asked him if he’d write the forward. I can’t think of anyone else I would ask. And I hoped he would kind of put “Simple Justice,” but also Joseph Hanson, Michael Nava and the others in historical perspective, which he did. And he just wrote a very, what I thought was an eloquent and as usual, very insightful, smart, intelligent, foreword for the book.
It was awfully flattering toward me and, I’ll take it, but I was kind of blushing as I read it. He was very sweet. I think that forward stands on its own as a piece of writing. And perhaps he’ll find some future mileage for that particular piece cause it’s something I feel people should read, not because of me, but because of what he has to say about LGBT writing in general and gay activism and and other issues that are important to all of us.
Jeff: Well, we’re really excited that this is coming back out and we’re so very happy you could come to the podcast and tell everybody about this 25th anniversary edition and we’ll certainly be linking in the show notes to this particular book, which comes out the week that this episode drops and we’ll keep everybody up to date as the future editions come out as well. Thank you so much for being here. It’s been a real treat to talk to you.
John: Jeff. it’s been my pleasure and please give my best to your hubby and good luck with the show in the future. You’re doing great things with it, and it’s really an honor to be on.
Here’s the text of this week’s reviews:
The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters. Reviewed by Jeff.
This is the third summer I’ve spent with a book by Julian Winters and it’s a trend I hope never stops. First there was Sebastain in Running with Lions, then Remy in How to be Remy Cameron and now I’ve met Wes in The Summer of Everything. Julian always creates memorable, complex teenage characters but he’s outdone himself in Summer of Everything with an incredible supporting cast and I’d even include the city of Santa Monica itself in that cast list.
Plus, given that we’ve all essentially lost a summer this year, this book is even more meaningful as it allows us to have a summer full of friends, times on the beach along with some love, fun and personal growth along the way.
Wes is just back from spending a bit of his last summer before college in Italy with his parents–his chef dad who is opening a new restaurant and his best-selling YA author mom. He’s back in Santa Monica to be with his friends, work at Once Upon A Page and get ready to go to college. It may sound like an easy summer, but it’s far from it. Wes isn’t sure he wants college. Wes is sure he’s got a major crush on his best friend Nico–but isn’t sure how to tell Nico about it. He’s not back in his job for long before he learns that the bookstore is in trouble too and might have to close.
It’s a lot for him to deal with… luckily his friends are right there with him, trying to help. Then there’s his brother, Leo. Wes and Leo haven’t gotten along well in years and Wes is caught up in some wedding planning too for his soon-to-be-sister in law.
This book soars because of Wes. He’s a comic book geek. He’s passionate about the bookstore, and especially the comics section. He’s freaked out about college and adulting, especially since some of his friends seem to know exactly what they want. It’s an interesting dichotomy because he manages things like the bookstore so well. He’s also fiercely loyal to his friends, even when they piss him off. Enjoying the summer is crucial too–whether its enjoying time at the beach, at a party, at the pizza place or at the bookstore… which of course he gets caught up in trying to save because it’s been such a part of his life and the community. There’s a lot about Wes that, even though we’re three decades separated, so much from high school and college and the things I did with close friends all came rushing back making this book more for me than I expected.
Wes’s friends are everything–his squad as it were. Not only is there Nico, who he’s been through all kinds of stuff with and now he’s trying to sort if there can be even more. But Ella, who is essentially the sister he never had, plus bookstore crew Zay, Cooper, Kyra and Lucas who starts out as a customer and becomes part of the squad. Bookstore owner Mrs. Rossi is right there too as a surrogate mom to some of these kids as well as a beloved member of the community. Julian manages to have a ginormous cast and yet also keep it intimate. I marvel at how he pulled that off in a book that, at its core, is about Wes.
Santa Monica pulled on my heartstrings too. I had a couple of years where I visited frequently for work and I loved it. I know many of the locations Julian calls out. It’s been a hard summer for Santa Monica for many reasons, and I liked reading this version, which is how I remember it.
The Summer of Everything really has everything. I loved the love story. I loved the summer these friends had. I loved the bookstore and how this squad showed its love for the place and its owner. I loved meeting all of these people, even Leo’s brother who starts off as a dick but some interesting things are revealed along the way there too. I liked too out not everything sorted out like I thought it would. If you can’t tell, I highly recommend everyone take a trip to Santa Monica to hang out with Wes and friends.
Two questions I have for Julian: Why on Earth is Wes thinking about taking down his Kim Possible poster? (Seriously…why?) And, can we please get a book or books about Lucas and Cooper. I adored them so much.
Second Helpings by Brandon Witt. Reviewed by Will.
Second Helpings, the novella by Brandon Witt, packs a novels amount of real emotional punch in just few pages.
Isaac returns to his small Missouri hometown for his 20th High School reunion. He’s about to ditch the pot-luck get together (yup, it’s that downhome) when in walks the reason he came, Grant.
Isaac and Grant were inseparable growing up, but the day after graduation, Isaac left for New York. Grant stayed behind.
They drive around town together, getting a cherry limeade at the drive-in. All the years away from each other slip away and they head back to Grant’s place.
The next morning, Grant treats Isaac to breakfast in bed and convinces him to stay just one more day. They hang out, eating at the diner Grant runs with his sister. Their time together is nice, but Isaac can’t help but be haunted by the reasons he left town decades earlier.
Grant tries to cheer him up by cooking for him and it does the trick, but Isaac can’t resist teasing Grant just a little about his homestyle way of cooking (cream of mushroom soup and mayo et al). There’s a lot of food in this story (which I’ll get back too in a minute).
It comes out that Grant was married to a woman for many years (he’s now divorced), which causes a minor rift between our heroes since it was Grant’s insistence that they both come out as teenagers that partially pushed Isaac away. They spend one last night in each other’s arms before Isaac drives away the next day.
It’s in flashback that we learn the heartbreaking full story of his difficult family history and why he left Grant behind then, and why he can’t stay now. Like I said earlier, it’s an emotional gut punch, like seriously.
Back in New York a few months later, Isaac is hanging with his bestie trying to recreate the food that he experienced in his brief time with Grant. His bestie serves up a reality check. Why is he spending so much time trying to re-create something, when the real thing (the food and the man) is just a phone call away.
Isaac invites him to come for a visit, taking Grant on an admittedly sappy carriage ride through Central Park, where they work out the issues of the past while dreaming up a new future together. Grant has already sold all his stuff in Missouri and is looking to take a culinary leap in the big city.
They’re happy. They’re together. Just like it should have been all along.
God, I can’t even begin to go into how much I just love everything about this story. The heroes are both remarkable, and kind, and interesting.
Second Chances is one of my all-time favorite tropes and the way Brandon Witt expertly addresses issues of the past while showing us that Isaac and Grant both capable adults able to work through the difficult stuff to get to their HEA, made all warm and fuzzy.