The attorney talks murder mysteries, addressing racial identity, and memorializing life during covid-19.
John Adam Wasowicz has used his 30 years’ worth of experiences as both a prosecutor and defense lawyer to create his Mo Katz legal mystery series. In April 2020, Wasowicz took the advice from an op-ed in the Washington Post that suggested keeping a pandemic journal. But instead of just writing things down, he’s memorialized life during a pandemic in his third Mo Katz mystery, Slaters Lane.
Tell us about your method of weaving “a pandemic journal” — life during the covid-19 pandemic — into a mystery story. Why did you take this approach instead of just keeping a diary?
I didn’t write a journal because no one would have read it. As I adjusted to life with the coronavirus — living in a world isolated from others and dependent upon electronic communications for everything — I blended my “new reality” into a murder mystery. I already had a story idea in my head, so it was only accommodating covid-19 into the narrative. I ended up with something unexpected, a hybrid between a historical account of the early stages of a pandemic (like a Daniel Defoe chronicle of the Black Death) and a murder mystery a la Agatha Christie.
How has self-quarantine hampered or aided you in your writing?
I have a full-time job as an attorney. Self-quarantining gave me two-and-a-half hours of additional time to work on the book each day. There was no rush to get dressed and out the door in the morning, no drive time, and no errands to run on the way home from work at night. Plus, the noontime deli was only 10 seconds from the office (i.e., a hop, skip, and a jump from the dining room to the kitchen). I wrote the book in a little over three months.
I needed two things: discipline and luck. Both came my way. I maintained a rigorous schedule and I didn’t get sick. And the book basically wrote itself — sort of a stream-of-consciousness thing.
How does the novel give a shout-out to frontline and essential workers, acknowledging the danger these people face every day?
Without the dedication and fearlessness of frontline workers during the covid-19 pandemic, we would have dissolved into chaos as a society. In the book’s hospital scene at Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere, I tried to show the courage and selflessness of frontline doctors and medical staff. Those professionals showed as much guts as a soldier walking into a barrage of bullets. I am donating part of the proceeds from the sale of my paperbacks, e-books, and audiobooks to those hospital workers.
Have you found any differences between the assumptions and projections you made while writing the book earlier during the pandemic and our situation now, since the book's release?
I think my assumptions and projections changed every day. In fact, they’re still changing. We’re now approaching 200,000 lives lost in the U.S. It was 50,000 at the time I wrote the book. Did I think in April and May that the number of deaths would quadruple without an end in sight? No. I thought we were in for something significant, but not as seismic as it’s turning out to be.
When this thing is over, everything about life as we knew it — schooling, parenting, working, dressing, driving, loving, vacationing, you name it — is going to be different. I don’t think I’ll ever travel again without wearing a mask.
Your protagonist Mo Katz is biracial — half Black and half Jewish. How has his racial identity evolved throughout the series?
In the first two books, it was subtle. The evolution in Slaters Lane is intense — Mo has an identity crisis that jumps to the front of the narrative. The coronavirus is the catalyst. In this story, he calls his parents while he’s driving to the hospital in Baltimore to comfort the victim of a brutal assault. He feels his life spinning out of control and tries to anchor himself by reaching out to his parents.
His parents never immersed him into either of their rich heritages. As a result, both cultures excluded him — he is adrift and apart, half in and half out, belonging to neither. He wants to reconcile with his family — the coronavirus reminds him how important family connections and cohesion are. During the phone call with his father, he learns that his Black mother is in the hospital fighting covid-19.
As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that his sense of disassociation makes him empathetic. People pick up on that vibe and connect to him. It’s his strength, not his weakness, and I think that’s true for all of us.
Is there a message you’d like readers to take away from the novel?
To care about one another. Katz drops everything to solve the mystery behind an attack on one of his chief prosecutors. His troops rally behind him, consumed with finding the reasons behind the attack. It’s their teamwork that solves the mystery.
In the author’s note to Jones Point, my second book, I talk about selling books at a Barnes & Noble at Potomac Yard on the day after the Virginia Beach shooting in 2019. That weekend, the shootings affected people, and they expressed a palpable affection toward one another. I think that’s happening now. Ironically, covid-19 is bringing out the best of us, including caring, reconciling, loving, and respecting one another.
How have your experiences as an attorney informed your novels?
I spent a considerable amount of time in the trenches of the criminal justice system, primarily as a defense attorney, but also a few years as a prosecutor in Arlington County. The experiences of interviewing victims, visiting crime scenes, preparing for trials, representing people accused of crimes, sharing their fears, advocating for justice, fighting for understanding, and proving innocence when there is doubt and uncertainty are seared into my mind. You never forget it.
One way I channeled my experiences was by fictionalizing them. In my criminal law practice, I learned that there is a lot of “middle grey” in life. Anyone who subscribes to rigid rules of right and wrong, good and bad, and guilt and innocence doesn’t understand the vagaries of life. There is a sinner and a saint in every one of us. I try to bring that out in Mo Katz and the other characters in my books. All of them are a composite of judges, attorneys, clients, witnesses, cases, cops, and others I’ve known through the court system.
How was your book signing on August 29, 2020, different because of the pandemic?
The book signing took place at Harambee Books & Artworks, the only Black-owned and operated bookstore in Alexandria. It rained like crazy, but dozens of people visited and bought Slaters Lane and my other books. The small corner store on Prince Street was bulging with customers, although, for the record, we all wore masks and maintained appropriate social distance. I wore blue latex gloves while signing books and handing them to customers. We elbow-bumped and took pictures, smiling as our eyes twinkled over masked mouths and noses. Teaming with Harambee Books to release Slaters Lane was wonderful.
Tell us something about yourself your fans might not already know.
I published the first book, Daingerfield Island, as I was turning 65. It was supposed to be a “one and done.” I didn’t count on the fact that Mo Katz planned to take up permanent residency in the creative part of my brain.
K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: Teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues and loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets but HATES the word normal. Find her on Twitter at @klromo and Instagram at @k.l.romo.