Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1994, in an upstairs office, in a borrowed room with a beautiful balcony and a window air conditioner pumping coolness across my desk, I became a writer.
Of course, I had been writing for a while, starting and stopping, trying and failing––sad and bad attempts, beginning some five years prior.
But it was the summer of 1994 that everything finally aligned, as I was completing my graduate degree in theology, and I traded time spent in academic for creative endeavors, that a writer was born.
From that time till this I have not just written nearly all day every day, I have lived and moved and had my being as a writer, I have experienced and processed the world in that inimitable and idiosyncratic way.
And from the very beginning North Florida has been my beat, my canvas, my palette, my muse.
I’ve often been called a regional writer, and that really resonates with me because I write not about a central, major city, but a region—its small towns (Thunder Beach), its river swamps (Double Exposure), its massive prisons in rural areas (Rivers to Blood).
There’s a certain way of life in North Florida, and it’s as different from South Florida living as the North is from the South. In fact, Florida is in many ways a microcosm of the country in reverse, (the north part of the state resembling the south part of the country; the south part of the state resembling the north part of the country).
My Florida is a wild, untamed place—backwoods, dirt roads, untouched, unspoiled, in some ways, unwelcoming. Not unwelcoming enough to those of us who call it home. It’s both my natural and spiritual home, and I love it like only a native can.
My Florida is a place of sunshine and shadow, darkness and light, heat and humidity, beauty and danger, a place of crackers and snowbirds, shotgun houses and beachfront mansions—an environment of great risk and great reward.
Amid seemingly endless rows of slash pines, a flat land lined with dirt roads covered by oak tree canopies, the Spanish moss draped over their branches blowing like a lace curtain in a summer breeze, awaits discovery, and like most native peoples, those of us who live here hope it’ll stay that way. It’s a paradise, unlike the lower parts of the state, still preserved in much of its natural beauty and splendor, an Eden as yet untouched by original sin.
In my John Jordan mystery series (Blood Sacrifice, Rivers to Blood) I write about two Floridas-one virtually unknown, the other virtually unseen. The first Florida, the one I was born and raised in, is Gloria Jahoda’s “Other Florida,” the panhandle, which, unlike the southern part of the state, remains virtually unknown to most of the world. The second Florida, the one I worked in for nearly a decade is Ted Bundy’s hidden Florida, the Florida State prison system, which remains nearly invisible even to most Floridians. In addition to being the Floridas I know, they are the Floridas I love… and sometimes hate.
One of the writer’s jobs is to take his readers on a journey—preferably to a place they have never been, perhaps to a place they will never go. I often take my readers to such a place. I carefully lead them through the electronically locked gates of the chain-link fences, beneath the looping razor wire glinting in the sun, and into the strange world of a Florida State prison.
It is in this Florida, more than any other, that culture, class, and race clash and collide in an inescapable cauldron, the heat of which is so intense that it often explodes. Unlike free Florida, the Florida behind the chain-link and razor wire is the same in the north part of the state as it is in the south, and the fragile alliances of the strangest of bedfellows are put to the most rigorous of tests. This Florida has its own rites and rituals, its own unwritten laws and silently agreed upon conventions.
It is down these meanest of streets that I send my protagonist, Chaplain John Jordan—who is himself not mean, who, though tarnished and sometimes afraid, is not just the best man in his world, but a good enough man for any world. An ex-cop who still thirsts for justice, as well as strong drink, Jordan solves temporal mysteries while bearing witness to eternal ones. And he, more than anyone, can move among both the cops and the criminals using his insight into the nature of humanity to divine the guilty party, the one tree hidden in the forest, which like Poe’s Purloined Letter, is cleverly hidden in plain sight.
I also write historical hard-boiled noir thrillers (The Big Goodbye, The Big Beyond, and The Big Hello) featuring Jimmy "Soldier" Riley, a wounded, woman-haunted PI in Panama City during World War II, literary thrillers (Double Exposure, Burnt Offerings, and Separation Anxiety) and a contemporary crime series featuring former reporter, Merrick McKnight (Thunder Beach and A Certain Retribution)—all set in various times and places within my Florida.
To celebrate my first two decades as a Florida writer, we have some very special events, activities, and publications planned.
This year will witness a new novel published in each of my 3 main series––John Jordan, Jimmy “Soldier” Riley, and Merrick McKnight.
First up is Rivers to Blood, the sixth John Jordan mystery, following 2012’s Florida Book Award-winning Blood Sacrifice.
Next is The Big Hello, the third Jimmy “Soldier” Riley 1940s noir novel, following 2013’s The Big Beyond.
These two novels are connected by a certain theme of love and honor and a single stanza of Lovelace poetry: "Yet this inconstancy is such As you too shall adore; I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not honor more."
The second Merrick McKnight novel, following 2010’s Thunder Beach, is my first to be set in my hometown of Wewahitchka and is titled A Certain Retribution.
Written over many, many years, these books will be released this anniversary year in celebration and also appreciation of my faithful, supportive readers.
There will also be an old-time radio show production of The Big Hello with a full cast and sound effects performed live before an audience and several readings and signings throughout the year.
I hope you'll help me celebrate what I hope is just the beginning. For more information you can check out my website: www.MichaelLister.com. And if you sign up for my newsletter, I'll send you an ebook edition of one of my novels.