I Was Looking for Charles Willeford: 2020 update (originally posted 2012)
This precious document appeared on YouTube in March 2020, uploaded by “Parker Siwanoy.” If more details come to light I will update this page.
While short, the interview is a comparatively rare example of Willeford answering direct questions about his life and work in a reasonably frank fashion. The transcription is edited slightly.
Interviewer: My guest is Charles Willeford, a writer of bleak existential crime novels.
Charles Willeford: “I’m going to kill you,” he said through his clenched teeth. “Both of you.”
“I don’t blame you,” I answered calmly. I felt no fear or anxiety at all, just some morbid feeling of detachment.
Q: That “morbid feeling of detachment” recurs in Willeford’s early novels. The reading is from Willeford’s book, Pick Up, which he wrote in the 1950s, shortly before retiring from the military. Back then it was hard to get his books published, and most of the them ended up getting brought out as pulps. Now Willeford’s early books are being read in a new light. Black Lizard press reissued Pick Up, The Burnt Orange Heresy, and Cockfighter. RE/search has resurrected his first novels, High Priest of California and Wild Wives. Literary acclaim for these new editions coincides with the publication of his current series of crime novels, set in Miami, featuring police detective Hoke Moseley.
When we left the main characters of Pick Up, Harry and Helen, they were facing a man who was waving a pistol and threatening to kill them. The would-be killer backs down and Helen says:
CW: “Did you feel sorry for him, Harry? I did,” Helen said.
“Yes I did,” I replied sincerely. “The poor bastard.”
“I don’t believe I would have cared if he had killed us both.” Helen’s voice was reflective, somber.
“Cared?” I forced a bright smile. “It would have been a favor.”
Q: I have to tell you, when I read that for the first time, it was so bleak, I found myself laughing.
Q: Is that an inappropriate response?
CW: Well, this is a novel of despair. They’re both lost already before the book starts. And it can only go down from there.
Q: In your latest book, Sideswipe, the book opens with a quotation that says, “Life is an effort that deserves a better cause.”
Do you think that bleakness and indifference to life, despair, is a theme that runs through many of your books?
CW: Well, usually, yes, but I think there’s enough humor with it to alleviate it — although I have had people say after the’ve finished Pick Up they want to cut their wrists, but I said, “Well, you know….a lot of people like this kind of thing, and people like to read about people who are worse off then they are.”
Q: I guess that’s true. [chuckles]
You’ve had a pretty extraordinary life, and I’m sure that the things that have happened during your life have shaped your writing. You were orphaned when you were 8 years old, your parents I believe died of tuberculosis.
Q: You went to live with your grandmother, and at 15 you became a hobo. How come?
CW: Well, things were pretty tight after my grandmother lost her job. My uncle, her son, had to support her, and he was married with three children. I had to do something. I couldn’t very well support me, and I was too young to work, so I went on the road.
Q: Did you have to learn to talk a good game in order to stay alive when you were on the road?
CW: Yeah, pretty much. You get to be pretty glib.
Q: Did that help you in your writing, do you think?
CW: Well, yes, but I read a lot, too. I always read a lot. Even when I was going to school, I’d read a book in a day, just about.
Q: In your novel Pick Up, the characters basically live for the next bottle of alcohol, the next cigarette, the next cup of coffee. Did you meet up with characters like that or feel that you were becoming that way yourself when you were a hobo.
CW: No, I was always optimistic, you know, and I always had some goal of some kind. Even if the goal was getting to someplace else, I had a destination in mind. A guy told me that, he said, “You always want to have a destination in mind. If you don’t, you’ll drift.” And he says, “When you get to that destination, pick out another one and go immediately to that. That way you won’t get into despair and drift.”
Q: That’s really interesting advice.
CW: Mmm-hmm. It is good advice.
Q: Now at age 16, you lied about your age and you enlisted. How come?
CW: Well, it was a way out, and I figured the Army was the best place for me to go. I come back home, and the situation hadn’t changed any. I was big for my age and I was able to get in, so I went in. It was probably the best thing I could have done at the time. The Depression was still on, there was no place for a 16-year old boy in civilian life.
Q: I have this impression that you are someone who is really born to be a bohemian who ended up in the military.
CW: Yeah, well, you do what you have to do, you know? [chuckles] And I kind of liked the Army, anyway. I kind of liked it.
Q: What did you like about it?
CW: Well, I liked the trade. I liked the weapons, and playing soldier, and I liked fighting in the war. I always felt that I had a charmed life and that I’d never get hit, but I did, I got wounded a couple times anyway, but not bad.
Q: You started writing novels when you were still in the military, right?
CW: Yes, I did. I was still in the Air Force. I had written some short stories and I had always wanted to write a novel. I used to keep saying, “I want to write a novel,” and my roommate finally said, “You’re never gonna write a novel.”
So, that’s when I did. I was up at Hamilton Air Force base, and I used to go into San Francisco on the weekends and rent a hotel room, the Hotel Powell there, and started on this novel, and finally finished it, you know, on the weekends.
Q: When did you decide to leave the military?
CW: Oh, I just retired. I stayed in for twenty years. As a tank commander, I didn’t have any other particular trade, so I decided to stay in.
Q: Except for writing…
CW: Well, except for writing, but, you know, that was an iffy thing, it was a kind of a way to supplement your income occasionally…but to write full time and support yourself is a tough proposition in this country.
Q: When did you actually reach that point of being able to support yourself on your writing?
CW: Oh, about ’82. In 1982 I was able to support myself.
Q: And that’s when you were writing the Hoke Moseley detective novels.
CW: Yep. The detective Moseley series has kind of taken off now, there’s been three, Miami Blues, New Hope for the Dead, and Sideswipe. Sideswipe is coming out in paperback soon, and then there’s a fourth novel coming out in April from Random House called, The Way Die Now.
Hoke Moseley is pretty popular.
Q: For the last few years, all of your novels have been about detective Hoke Moseley. Why did you want to do a detective series that had a recurring character in it?
CW: Well, what I wanted to do, I wanted to write about a detective, I didn’t want to do a private eye. I kind of made up my own Miami police force and my own Homicide thing. And then I wrote a long biography of Hoke Moseley, I know everything about him, where he’s from, his first kiss, his grades in school and everything else. I did a lot of background to invent this character. And then, after I finished the first novel with him, I said, well, I might as well continue on, write another one, because I have all this information, you see, and all I need is another plot.
Q: Which of the characters from your novels you’ve created is closest to you?
CW: I hope that none of them are close to me.
Q: Because they are all crazy? [chuckles]
CW: Yeah. I think that my autobiography there, Something About a Soldier, that’s me, that’s the way I was. But in the characterizations of my heroes and villains and so on in my novels [chuckles] I don’t think I have any of their characteristics. They are invented, created characters.
Q: One last thing: In a lot of your novels, you are interested in people who are sociopaths, who are crazy, and who operate by this strict set of logic but the logic is nuts.
Q: Why are you interested in characters like that?
CW: Well, I was told back in 1958 — I was at a writer’s class and I was told that it’s impossible to make a crazy person sympathetic, so don’t ever do that. I went home and thought about it, and I said, “That’s not impossible! I can make a sympathetic character out of a crazy person!”
And so I wrote this short story, “The Machine in Ward Eleven,” about a movie director who was crazy. He ended up killing his psychiatrist. And he was sympathetic. I sent this story into Playboy, and they bought it for 3000 bucks. He was sympathetic character! That gave me the idea. I realized that these crazy people in this world who’ll do anything anyway, they make life exciting — and people want to read about them because their lives are so dull.
Q: Charles Willeford, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
CW: Well, I enjoyed it!
I Was Looking for Charles Willeford: 2020 update (originally posted 2012)