Today I’d like to welcome mystery and historical fiction author Mike Billington to the blog. Mike is a Vietnam veteran and was a journalist for 50 years before writing fiction. He has 7 books published and is working on 2 more. Thank you Mike for taking part in this interview.
If you had to pick one, which event that you’ve reported on has been the most influential on your fiction?
That’s a hard question to answer because over the course of nearly 50 years as a reporter I covered a wide variety of stories and many of them had a real impact on me and my writing. I covered the Love Canal environmental disaster, for example, and learned a lot about how ordinary people can rise to great heights when their families are threatened. I spent time living undercover with white-power extremists and learned a lot about how irrational fear can drive people to commit outrageous acts. I think, however, that if I had to choose one event I’d say it was a series of stories that two other reporters and I did on police abuse of the Florida contraband forfeiture law. We started on the project one Sunday night when a guy walked into the newsroom and told us that the police had stolen his boat.
The contraband forfeiture law allows police to confiscate money, property, airplanes, boats, cars and personal possessions from people who are not charged with a crime. To get their stuff back they are forced to sue the police and to win their lawsuits they must prove they are innocent of wrongdoing. That’s a complete perversion of the American concept of justice; it’s also both expensive and time consuming. Over the course of our investigation we learned that cops were taking boats, for example, and using them to go fishing, hold parties, etc. They were taking classic cars and driving them for personal use and they confiscated billions of dollars which they used to buy new equipment and, in one case, to install lights at a church playground. The law was supposed to stop drug lords from using their wealth to hire slick lawyers to beat criminal charges but it was never really used to do that. What is was used for primarily was to, in essence, steal from the public with complete impunity. Of the hundreds of cases we reviewed, not a single “drug lord” had his house or other property confiscated. That project taught me a lot about how both the police bureaucracy and the political system really work and how innocent people can be severely impacted by bad laws. It also taught me how readily societies willingly surrender their rights in exchange for what they consider “security.” That series has had a big influence on the topics I pursue in my novels and how I write them. Continue reading