Contributing editor Michael Leonard interviewed Spider Season author
John Morgan Wilson about haunted pasts, tangled mysteries, and what makes L.A. so irresistible as a noir setting.
Interviewer Michael Leonard: Spider Season proves to be a unique installment in the Benjamin Justice series. For the first time, we see Benjamin’s past choices and mistakes come back to haunt him in extreme ways. What circumstances led you to highlight and write so passionately about Ben’s past?
John Morgan Wilson: In Spider Season, the eighth novel in the series, Benjamin Justice is turning fifty. Many people begin to reassess their lives, choices, goals, and priorities around that age. In fact, my first novel, and the first novel in the series, Simple Justice, was written when I was fifty. When I started writing, I intended only an entertaining mystery novel but it turned into a deep examination of grief and the need for family, issues I was dealing with at the time. (Simple Justice and the other early novels in the series have recently been reissued by Bold Strokes Books, by the way.)
Spider Season picks up Benjamin's story twelve years later as he's publishing his memoir and hoping it puts a lot of his troubles behind him and his demons to rest. Instead, it draws out a number of people from his dark past, at least one with deadly intentions, who force Justice to finally face some of his most troubling personal history. Like many of us, he learns that one cannot ever completely escape the past. It's always with us, infused with who and where we are.
How it difficult or challenging was it to integrate the seemingly disparate elements of Ben’s early life into this novel and still write a compelling murder mystery?
Spider Season probably has the most complicated plot, with several important subplots, of any novel I've written. It was a real challenge to weave them together into a cohesive whole. How well I succeeded is something readers will judge, I guess. In a sense, each subplot stands alone from the others, yet they are all tangled up in the same knot of problems that has become Benjamin's messy life, with the threat of murder and a possible unsolved murder or two in the past casting a shadow over the entire story.
I usually write a more traditional mystery, a whodunit, but this one is a bit different. There is a mysterious death at its core, but that's not the driving force of the novel. I took a bit of a chance by experimenting with a different story structure this time around. If one were to have to label it, it's probably as much or more a suspense novel than a classic mystery, one in which character and psychological complexity is as important as plot.
Ostensibly, Ben wrote his memoir, Deep Background, to finally put some of the demons of his past to rest. Do you think he’s surprised when the book stirs up so much trouble and brings on the “pack of snarling dogs”?
Well, given how he reacts in the story, I'd say he is certainly surprised, and then some. But surprise gives way to fear, then paranoia, and eventually grief, as the harassment and intimidation grows more dangerous and hits closer to home. Making matters worse for Benjamin, he feels responsible for the trouble that ensues and what others suffer, a deep, unforgiving guilt that he's carried most of his life.
The scene when Benjamin first battles with Lance outside of Fred and Maurice’s West Hollywood home gives us some early clues into Ben’s current psyche. Obviously the testosterone shots contribute to his state of mind, but what else is at work here?
Benjamin grew up with an alcoholic, abusive father. A running theme throughout the novels, and again in Spider Season, is how anger and violence is often handed down from father to son and through the generations. So that's part of it. As a gay man, he's also something of an angry outsider, who doesn't take crap from anyone. As an ex-college wrestler, he's always been able to handle himself and it's gotten him into a lot of trouble.
In Spider Season, he's getting too old for this macho nonsense, but with the boost of testosterone injections, he finds renewed strength, and his bloody encounter with Lance, which opens the book, gets him in trouble once again. He knows how foolish and reckless he is and constantly fights the urge to play the tough buy, with mixed results. He tends to be his own worst enemy.
Benjamin is smart enough to realize that his roles as a detective, a lover of men, and a shamed ex-alcoholic journalist seem to have been driving his existence so far. In the light of this, what is Benjamin ultimately looking for in life?
In Spider Season, he finally emerges in some ways from his darkness and his demons to realize that whatever our backgrounds, we all have choices in life, good or bad, that can influence our destiny and the quality of the lives we live. We might not be able to control all of life's forces, but through our mental outlook and attitude we can make the best of it. But to do that, we have to tap that unique power that is inside each of us to grow beyond the past and do a better job of playing the hand we've been dealt. To say more, or to be more specific, would give away more of the story than I want to.
Ben’s fiftieth birthday approaches, and he’s reached a point where he’s beginning to question his achievements, or lack thereof - his past feels littered with of bad choices and trouble. Why does Ben remain such a sympathetic character and a gutsy, effective protagonist?
I'm glad you see him that way, because he is definitely a flawed and complicated man who sometimes finds trouble where he doesn't need to. In the end, though, I think he's basically a decent guy who tries to do the right thing, and is always willing to take up the cause of the underdog, with whom he identifies so strongly. He carries a lot of emotional baggage, and it weighs heavily on him, but he's aware of it and always trying to dump the load. I also think Benjamin's voice -- that is to say, the first person narrative voice in which I write the series -- might have something do to with it. Readers often tell me that the voice connects with them in a very direct way, that they feel as if Benjamin is talking to them, and revealing so much of himself in the process. I hope it makes him more human, someone to root for despite his maddening complexity.
This seems to be a deeply reflective time for Benjamin, thinking of all the people he has abandoned and the challenges that he’s run away from, especially his true love, Jacques, who needed him the most in his last dying days. Why does Ben continue to blunt the pain of Jacque’s death?
Justice is someone who feels very deeply but deadens the pain through alcohol, violence, and taking care of other people's problems instead of his own. (Though in Spider Season, he hasn't had a drink in many years.) In part, the Benjamin Justice series grew out of the terrible years of AIDS, before the new drugs began to save lives, when an entire generation of gay men was decimated by the disease. I went through that period myself, losing a lover of many years and most of my closest gay friends.
Some people coped with this devastation better than others, but I don't think its impact ever completely disappears. We were all scarred by it, we all carry some part of it inside us. Benjamin embodies that, I suppose. He's tried for years to get beyond it. In Spider Season he faces what might be his last chance to move on and have some peace. The question is whether he's strong enough to face himself and make the right choices.
Benjamin’s anger always seems to be percolating in the background. What part does Ismael Aragon, the “tawny Aztec beauty,” play in keeping Ben‘s anger in check? What is it about Ismael that keeps Ben on a more compassionate track?
While hardly perfect and without troubling questions of his own, Ismael Aragon, an ex-priest, demonstrates a special kind of goodness, decency and forgiveness, an unselfishness, if you will, that draws Benjamin to him. Benjamin sees in Ismael qualities Benjamin wishes he could muster. Ismael inspires Benjamin to be a better person and loves him unselfishly, and touches Benjamin's heart as no one else ever has, perhaps not even Jacques, Benjamin's first serious love.
Both Benjamin and Ismael come across as damaged souls, but damaged in different ways. They have vastly different personalities with different life experiences. What initially attracts them to each other?
Well, besides a strong sexual attraction for each other, I guess I answered that one with the last questions. I would add that part of what attracts Ismael to Benjamin is Ismael's essentially kind nature, and the need to take care of people, to help people in need. This can often be a bad reason to get involved with someone with a history of self-destruction, but opposites also often attract, and it can work out. Both men also have a deep and profound yearning for family and want this relationship to work. Will it work? Time will tell.
How does Benjamin’s possible connection to Lance complicate his investigation into the murder of Silvio Galiano?
The presence of Lance, who hovers over and around Benjamin's life in mysterious and seemingly intimidating ways, certainly complicates things. For one thing, we don't know for some time whether the mysterious Lance or the obsessive Jason Holt are responsible for the harassment, at least not for many chapters. And we never know quite what Lance is up to until the latter half of the novel. And by then he's disappeared. Or has he? It causes all kinds of complications for Benjamin, not the least of which are emotional, sending Benjamin on an emotional roller coaster ride.
You use symbolism in the novel to great effect: the nest of doves at Fred and Maurice‘s home, the spiders weaving their webs in gardens and in letterboxes, Jason Holt’s disfiguring plastic surgery. What made you want to use these particular symbols in the story?
I don't plan ahead on these things. They happen in the writing. The opening scene with the stalking feral cat and the hysterical shrieking crows is something I experienced right outside my West Hollywood house. I thought it was an ominous and effective way to open my story, and it kind of established a symbolic thread, if you will, involving wild creatures. The title, Spider Season, came to me as I worked in my garden and stumbled upon a bulbous black widow guarding her nest of cocooned eggs. It seemed apt for a story about venomous creatures crawling out of the woodwork to do harm and possibly kill.
I also personally experienced the nesting of the doves at my house, and wove that into the story as it came to me during the writing. There are also a pair of coyotes in the story, down from the hills into the busy streets of West Hollywood, which occurs here. It's a strange and unsettling sight. I didn't really intend any of these as symbols but rather images that fit into and enhanced the overall mood of Spider Season.
Cathryn Conroy is a fascinating character, a tough-minded and focused drinker, perhaps a female version of how Benjamin used to be. Do you think Ben sees himself in Cathryn?
Benjamin certainly sees a lot of himself in Cathryn but he's most uncomfortable when he senses she's on to something as a reporter that he'd rather not have exposed.
Fred and Maurice play a far larger part in this installment, while the lovely Alexandra Templeton seems to take more of a back seat. Alexandra is growing apart from Benjamin and getting on with her own life, while Fred and Maurice seem to be closer to Ben. Why did you decide to give Fred and Maurice a much bigger role in this installment?
The story dictates which characters get more stage time. There simply wasn't as much for Alexandra to do in this particular story, the way it played out. Also, the writer of a series needs to find ways to shake it up from time to time, or else the series can become formulaic, stale, in a rut.
Jason Holt is almost a caricature of Hollywood gone bad. He’s an insidious and evil creature, spider-like and almost totally out of touch with reality. What gave you the idea for his character?
I've reported on and worked in Hollywood, which is to say the film and television industry and its environs and characters, for a few decades. Along the way, I've met quite a few people who are so narcissistic and self-absorbed that they seem to be totally out of touch with reality. Hollywood is a magnet for all kind of people, good and bad, realistic and unrealistic.
Jason Holt is a fictional amalgam of quite a few people I've run into over the years, with bits and pieces borrowed from each of them. Holt is someone who has never actually acted, never written anything, never produced or directed anything, never had real training, never worked at it, never paid his dues, yet feels he could do any of these things quite successfully, if he chose to.
He has a totally unrealistic sense of his looks, talent and skills. You'd be surprised how many people there are in Hollywood who see themselves similarly. Jason Holt is just a bit more grotesque than the many real individuals he's modeled after. I should add that his obsession with Benjamin Justice is a plot element inspired by an experience I had during my own college years. Years after I graduated, I learned that a male classmate of mine had had a crush on me that was so severe (and completely unspoken) that he suffered a nervous breakdown. We were both in the closet at the time and I was almost completely unaware of this guy, even though he was always hovering around me, trying to get close.
It's a great example of what a terrible toll being in the closet can take on a person, and why coming out is so important to one's sense of self and self-worth. I should also add that this particular fellow, from what I recall about him, was actually a very sweet guy and nothing like the loathsome Jason Holt in Spider Season, who is completely fictional.
Where did your inspiration for the artist Charles Wu come from? Is Charles’s situation in life fairly typical of men like him?
Wu wasn't based on anyone in particular. I've known a few painters in my time, and one in particular who painted much like Wu does -- geometric shapes seemingly devoid of any feeling -- but Wu isn't directly patterned after any of them. As for gay men who marry women, and the women who marry them, I go into a riff about that in one chapter that readers can look for, if they're interested. But yes, I do think he's fairly typical of one type of man who marries one type of woman -- a women who knows he's gay and like him that way, for a number of reasons that are explored in Spider Season.
I couldn’t help but be struck by Ben’s romantic - and sometimes sexual - impulsiveness. What drives Benjamin’s need for love and acceptance? Will Benjamin ever learn from his failings?
Loneliness is another theme that's explored Benjamin. It's haunted him most of his life, for reasons that should be clear in the book. In one scene, Benjamin elderly landlord Maurice is having a serious conversation with him that goes like this: “You’ll learn soon enough, if you haven’t already, that companionship with someone you respect and care deeply about is what makes life bearable, even worthwhile.
Loneliness is the great burden we all face, Benjamin. But how we face it and meet its challenge, how it shapes and transforms us, all that is within our power. And the power of two is infinitely greater than the power of one.”
You touch on religion in Spider Season. Ismael has anguished, suffered, and wrestled with his decision to leave the Catholic church, and his plight reminds Ben of the flames he once felt for crucial causes. What do their respective attitudes towards religion tell us about them?
Well, they are both gay men who have been involved in the Church -- Ismael as a priest, Benjamin as someone raised in the church and now a lapsed Catholic. They both have experienced the guilt the Church can instill in a man who loves men, the pain and conflict it can inflict. And they are both very aware of the hypocrisy of the Church in dealing with the sex abuse crisis that exposed thousands of priests and Church officials as child molesters or as culpable in the cover up. Both men have a strong sense of justice for the victim and the downtrodden and the behavior of the Church has repulsed them and, ironically, helped unite them.
Memory as a theme repeats throughout the novel. For Ben, memory proves to be “a slippery thing.” How important is memory, particularly in the way that it has formed and shaped Ben’s life up until now?
He's been in denial about a lot of things, partly out of guilt, partly out of self survival, partly to avoid the pain of choices badly made. Which is true of most of us, I imagine. I grew up in a family where there was both physical and sexual abuse inflicted by a violent stepfather. As I grew older, I was astounded to see both my stepfather and my mother convince themselves that nothing remotely abusive had ever occurred in our family. They slipped deeper and deeper into denial until they were true believers that nothing wrong had ever been done. It was a startling lesson to learn about levels of self-deception and self-delusion.
For Benjamin, writing his memoir, he has to face questions that all of us must face -- how truthful are we really being about ourselves and our pasts? How much do we remember with perfectly clarity and how much do we see through the prism of our own needs, refracted through time? And so on. Justice is always on a quest for the truth and that search inevitably leads him back to himself.
Toward the end of the novel, Maurice comments to Benjamin that he’s a man who “always looks for the dark side in life and in people.” What exactly does Maurice mean?
Benjamin has been shaped to a great extent by his dark and violent past. It's hard for him to trust, to believe in the goodness of people, though he desperately wants to.
In Spider Season, Ben seems to move effortlessly throughout Los Angeles. He feels so comfortable and so familiar with the suburbs that make up greater LA - Los Feliz, Silver Lake, Brentwood, and parts of East LA. You make a point of highlighting so much of Los Angeles in your novels? What is it about Los Angeles that lends itself so readily to crime/noir writing?
It's a sprawling, noisy, crowded, messy and amazingly diverse metropolis, a place built to a great extent on dreams and illusions -- Hollywood again -- that has spread like a cancer from the mountains to the desert to the sea, with no signs of slowing down. There are good stories in every community, from tiny town to enormous city. L.A. just has a whole lot of them, with lots of interesting backdrops. I grew up here and know it well, so I write about it. Benjamin Justice has lived here, first as an inquisitive reporter, for many years. He owns a car. Anyone with a car can hop on the freeway and explore at will, which he does.
You also imbue Spider Season with a timely political relevance, especially regarding the vote on Prop 8 (which we now know has passed). Fred and Maurice had recently been married. Can you tell us a bit about your feelings on Prop 8 and what it might mean for couples like Fred and Maurice who have been together for years?
I actually got caught in a time crunch regarding the publication of Spider Season and Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage amendment proposition that passed in the November, 2008 election. Originally, Spider Season was planned for publication in September, ahead of the election but after the California Supreme Court had upheld the right of gays and lesbians to legally marry. When the pub date was changed to December, after the election, I had to rewrite the passages dealing with Fred and Maurice being married not knowing what would happen in the election.
Frankly, I can't remember how I handled it. I hope it makes some sense. My understanding is that couples who were married before the Prop 8 passed still have valid marriage licenses. As for all those other couple who would like to be married, it's one more fight to be fought in the long struggle for LGBT rights. We've made some progress but obviously have a long way to go.
As in your other novels, Spider Season is peppered with eccentric characters. You have some real people turning up here and there, but are the majority of your characters completely fictional, or do you base them on actual people?
Whenever I've based a character on a real person, I've always asked their permission beforehand, and I've identified those people in the acknowledgments pages in my novels. I've done the same with names I've borrowed from friends and colleagues. But the vast majority of my characters are purely fictional. I've only based a few characters on real life men and women, again, with their permission. If I do borrow a tic or characteristic from a real person, it's always just an ingredient or two that goes into a composite character who often has elements inspired by many other real people.
How much of you is in Benjamin Justice?
Inevitably, a strong protagonist, especially written in the first person, is the alter ego of the author. I wouldn't want to parse it specifically or quantitatively. I'd like to leave Benjamin Justice as the fictional character he is, with some mystery to him. I can tell you that he's a lot braver and more reckless than I am, and that, unlike Benjamin, I still have all my hair.
Do you have another Benjamin Justice novel planned? If so, can you share something about it?
At this time, I do not have another Benjamin Justice novel planned. Spider Season is the eighth in the series. There might be more. I don't really know for sure.
How has the Benjamin Justice Series been received by the critics and the public-at-large? What kind of reaction have you had from the fans of Benjamin Justice? And ultimately, what would you like readers to take away from the lessons of Benjamin Justice?
As with most novelists, the reviews have been mixed, though generally positive. Some of the novels have gotten flat out raves. Simple Justice, the first in the series, won the Edgar Allan Poe Award (AKA "the Edgar") from Mystery Writers of America for best first novel. That's a very prestigious award in the mystery genre, dubbed "the Oscar of mystery writing" by some. The Benjamin Justice series has also won three Lambda Literary Awards from the Lambda Literary Foundation for best gay men's mystery. Some of the novels are better than others, I think. You do your best each time out but each novel will be influenced by all kinds of factors, including imagination, health, finances, relationships, and on and on.
I have a core readership of loyal fans who sometimes let me know if they like a book or they don't, and why. I always appreciate hearing from them. When you write a dark, more serious and character-driven series, as I do, you walk a fine line between writing for the reader and writing for yourself. You have to try to satisfy the reader, give them a good story, but it's also a form of self-expression, finding a vehicle for your personal voice. As for lessons, I'll let readers draw their own, if they choose to. Some will read the books primarily for entertainment, others for more than that, but that's up to each reader. I respect and value them all.
John Morgan Wilson is the author of several novels in the Benjamin Justice series as well as two co-written books with band leader Peter Duchin. He's the winner of the Edgar Award and three-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for the Benjamin Justice novels. He lives in West Hollywood, CA. You can read the first chapter of his novel Spider Season at his website,
Contributing editor Michael Leonard interviewed John Morgan Wilson, author of Spider Season (A Benjamin Justice Novel) (see accompanying review), about
his book for curledup.com. Michael Leonard/2009.