Thursday, November 17, 2011

Of Rocks and Writing

My dad wanted me to be a geologist. When I was seven or eight and took an obsessive interest in fossils, he revved up the VW’s engine, and off we drove to a defunct strip mine where machines had exposed a thick vein of rock impressed with leaves and insects. Every time I split a stone with my rock hammer and exposed a little fossil, I felt that I’d discovered treasure. Yes, son, my dad’s approving glances seemed to say, there’s a livelihood to be made in rocks. I’m pretty sure he was thinking of oil shale rather than trilobites. That Christmas I received a rock tumbler. When I gave my mom amethyst earrings for Mother’s Day and my dad an amethyst bolo tie for Father’s Day and everyone else little polished pieces of amethyst on birthdays, Dad nodded at me again with that look. Yep, oil shale. Or blood diamonds. Whichever you prefer.

I admit to being complicit. I liked and still like rocks. Fossils excite me. When my own kids were seven or eight and wanted to hunt for fossilized shark teeth at a nearby beach, I packed the shovels and the sifters and sat in the car, honking the horn, while they put on their swimsuits. We went on a cold winter day. Shivering in the backseat, one of my kids built up his courage. “Shouldn’t we do this in the summer?” he asked. I gave him my No, damnit look and said, “Less competition from the other fossil hunters this time of year.”

When I went away to college and declared myself an English major, Dad took the news reasonably well. “An English major is good preparation for law school,” he said. “Oh, no,” I said, “I want to be a writer. A poet probably. Or a novelist.” “Oh, shit,” he said.

I bounced around after college. I wrote plays that never got produced. I wrote scripts with a guerilla video company that included for a brief time the young Halle Berry. I took a job as a speech writer for the Illinois House Minority Office. I wrote magazine articles. I worked in a group home for troubled teenagers. I backpacked through Europe and Central America. My dad mostly refrained from telling me that I had gone astray.

Eventually, I went back to school, earned a graduate degree, and took a less bouncy job teaching literature in Florida. All through the bouncing and non-bouncing years, I read mysteries and thrillers for pleasure – but never with much of a thought of writing one myself. Which, I understand now, was pretty stupid. Why not write the kind of book I most liked reading?

Eventually, I did start sketch out possible mysteries. Then I started writing one. The first was the proverbial learning experience, which is another way of saying, an experience that produces a manuscript that no one ever would want to read. The second was The Last Striptease, which St. Martin’s published in 2007, beginning the Joe Kozmarski series.

When I called my parents to tell them about The Last Striptease, my dad said, “Noooo . . . really?” He didn’t tell me that he always knew I had writing books in me, but he also didn’t offer to drive me back to the strip mine.


Meredith Cole said...

And your writing has benefited from all your adventures, Michael! Glad you're writing the books you like to read--and we like to read, too.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

First off: fossils ARE cool.

But I can see why you turned to writing, and we're all glad you did.

Joshua Corin said...

Striptease...strip mining...say difference, really...

Michael Wiley said...

If I'd thought of the striptease-strip mining connection, I would have dedicated the book to my dad. But that might have been weird.

Thanks Joshua -- and Meredith and Rebecca.

Reece said...

When you take a break from the Joe Kozmarksi series, how about a mystery with a geologist as the protagonist? Possible title: A Hard Place.

Michael Wiley said...

A great idea, Reece. I can think of a number of other titles for the series: Blown Away (volcanoes), etc., etc. The problem is they all sound like they also could be porn.