This Mystery Writer And Teacher Loved Freaking Out His Students

Jun 20, 2019

Betsy Willeford lives in a home surrounded by books. Her prized item is a photograph of her late husband, Charles Willeford. He's sitting on a curbside, glasses in hand, as he stares directly at you. What is he thinking at the moment the camera snapped? 

As a writer, Charles' career was a palet of colors that you might not want to use. And he probably preferred it that way. He wrote poetry, an autobiography, and a long series of stories that only pulp publishing houses would put out. Then he created the character of Hoke Moseley, an unprecedented detective: a sort of anti-hero who can come off less loveable than the villains. 

Charles' book, "Miami Blues," is the June title for the Sundial Book Club. We spoke with Betsy at her home about her fondest memories of him.

He was always amused. He would observe something or he would see something that would remind him of something horrible he'd seen. And then he would retell it in a story. He was not somebody who really wrote detective fiction. He kind of worked against the genre. He wrote a book called "The Guide for the Undehemorroided." It was about his hemorrhoid operation.

How did the two of you meet?

There was a magazine in Coconut Grove and South Miami called The Village Post. And we were writing for it. He took two years at Palm Beach Community College because he'd been stationed at the airbase there. And then he came to Miami to finish up and took a master's degree and started teaching. And when he started teaching he moved to Miami and we had just moved back to Miami from Tampa. And we both started working on this magazine.

I would love to have known what it would be like to take a class with him and I wondered, did you ever get to sit in on a class? What was that like, what's he like as a teacher?

He would tell an outright lie just to perk the kids up. He would announce that he just read that they developed a way of determining your personality by examining your armpit hair and some of the kids would go (gasp) you know, it's outrageous but I think he was facing a bunch of 13th graders really at Miami Dade and he wanted to stir them up, just the way he did when he wrote. He just (believed) something needs to be happening here, this is boring.

He spends years writing all sorts of books and poetry. But then comes "Miami Blues" and it takes him to a whole different level. What was it like when that book comes out?

Well he got an agent really shortly before he finished the manuscript for "Miami Blues" and the company that published "Miami Blues" wanted to do a series. He thought a series was not for him. We kind of refused and his agent talked to him about it. And so he grudgingly wrote another one, but each of the four Hoke Mosley books are different. They're set in different places. Elmore Leonard said that he writes the same book all the time, he just uses different names for the characters which is interesting.

'Miami Blues,' the book, eventually became 'Miami Blues' the movie starring Alec Baldwin.
Credit WLRN

Did you like the way the movie came out at the end? Did they do it justice?

I think Charles is hard to kind of turn into a film. There are a lot of things that they had to cut that I thought were amusing and helpful. It turned out to be a good movie. I thought there probably a little bit more Alec Baldwin, who was very hot right then, he probably could have used a little more Fred Ward and Jennifer Jason Leigh because the balance in the book was a lot different, but the camera loved him and so did the producers. So it came out.

How should we remember Charles the man and Charles the writer?

It's hard for me to say but he was somebody who was very aware of what was going on. We had a kind of a memorial service for him at Books & Books, and I'm walking across the street with my sons. And one of our friends comes up to me and said, "Don't worry you're young yet, get married." And I wanted to turn and share that joke with Charles and he wasn't there, and that was when I realized death is forever. He's somebody you want to look at when something funny or ironic or absurd happens. That's very personal and maybe it doesn't answer your question.

Have you joined our book club? It's free.