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.
What is it about writing fiction that you enjoy the most?
I think it’s the fact that in my fictional world the good guys always win. That doesn’t always happen in real life, a fact I’m all too aware of from my years as a reporter. In my books I can use my characters to explore issues ranging from the often unconscious racism that pervades news coverage to the dangers of religious fanaticism and, in the end, have the good guys triumph.
I’ve read some of your Goodreads blog posts and see that your characters talk to/about you. Is there anything you wish they hadn’t said?
My characters can be pretty blunt when they’re talking about me and they aren’t always complimentary. In the end, though, I think they tell the truth about me and my writing process so, no, there’s nothing I wish they hadn’t said.
I see in an interview with Fiona on Authors Interviews that you say “A writer who can take a serious situation and find a way to insert some humour into it is well worth reading.” What books have you read where the author uses humour well?There are so many including, of course, the Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovitch and the Amelia Peabody Emerson novels by the late Elizabeth Peters. Currently, I’m really enjoying Indie writers who also weave humor into what are otherwise “serious” mysteries and adventure stories. EM Kaplan’s “Dim Sum, Dead Sum,” a mystery featuring Josie Tucker – a food critic with a bad stomach who winds up investigating murders – is a favorite as is Vered Ehsani’s “Ghosts of Tsavo;” a wonderful novel about a proper Victorian lady who investigates paranormal activities in Africa.
Do you enjoy all of the writing/indie publishing processes?
I confess that, while I enjoy the writing and the researching, I’m not really fond of marketing my books. First of all, I’m not really very good at it and, secondly, it takes time away from working on new books. I don’t hate marketing my work, but it’s not something that I look forward to every morning.
When I’m not writing I learn blues guitar. I know that you enjoy drawing and painting in your spare time. Do you have a favourite subject matter?
Birds and people are my favorites and my surroundings influence, to a great extent, how I draw and paint. When, for example, I was in New Zealand a couple of years ago my drawings and paintings were very realistic but now that I’m back in Spain I tend to focus on the fantastic with a lot of very bright colors. I’m not sure why that is but I confess I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it: I just let my pencils and brushes kind of go where they will.
What piece of writing (fiction or non-fiction) are you the most proud of and why?
It would be a toss-up between a series of articles I did in Delaware on infant mortality and “The Third Servant,” a novel based on the parable in Matthew. The Delaware series stretched over 18 months and I wrote it because, at the time, the state had the highest infant mortality rate in the United States. The series was entitled “Cradle of Sorrow” and led to a symposium that brought together people from all over the state to work on the problem. As a result, Delaware’s infant mortality rate went from 50th in the nation to 25th. The idea for “The Third Servant” came to me while I was at Mass one Sunday morning. The sermon was about that parable of the servant cast into the night for not enriching his master and while the priest was talking the thought came into my head that we never find out what happened to him after he is dismissed. Quite suddenly this whole story of the servant’s journey to ultimate redemption unfolded in my mind. It’s radically different from everything else I’ve written but people who have read it have said that it inspired them and, for me, that’s worth so much more than being on the best-seller lists.
Which one of your books have you had the most enjoyment from?
I’d have to say “Corpus Delectable,” my first mystery novel. I had a wonderful time writing it, was actually a little miffed when I had to stop so that I could get some sleep. I have to admit that I read it myself at least three times a year because I really like Marcy Pantano, my 40-something heroine. (I suppose I kind of have a crush on her…)
What do you think makes your novels stand out from all the other novels out there?
Two things, I think. First, they are authentic. When, for example, I write about police investigations I’m drawing on years of experience talking to police from beat cops to FBI agents. I’ve spent a lot of time around the men and women in law enforcement, both on the job and after work over beers and coffee. I even dated a cop for a while when I was a reporter in Buffalo. (We stopped dating because she was afraid I’d write something that could someday get her in trouble and I was always a little worried that she’d shoot me… despite that, it ended amicably.) The point is, I know a lot about police officers and how they think. I also spent four years as a volunteer counsellor working with inmates in Attica. I got to know a lot about how criminals see the world at large by spending hours and hours with them inside those prison walls.
Secondly, all of my novels feature strong female characters. American readers seem to have a tough time with that but, thankfully, readers in Canada, the UK, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Europe do not. The female characters in my books are based on women I’ve known over the course of my life. By having strong female characters in my books I feel that I’m paying those women the respect they often don’t get in society at large.
Which authors have you discovered lately that you would recommend to others?
It’s a fairly long list that includes EM Kaplan; Kory Shrum, Paul Ruddock, Vered Ehsani, Alicia Thomas-Woolf, Lesley Hayes, Ian D. Moore, Michelle Lynn, Rhoda D’Ettore and a couple dozen more. They’re all Indie authors and they all have very interesting characters and some pretty unique ways to tell their stories.
As always, thank you for reading,