Sweet Freedom

Ah, Monday, which this week is my short day. I didn’t (of course) get as much done this weekend as I would have liked; but the truth of the matter is I really need a day to run errands and do chores–which exhausts me–and then another day to just chill out and relax to get ready for the next week. But I am not beating myself up over not getting things done as planned any more; a to-do list is merely a list of things that have to be done at some point, without deadlines and/or pressure. (Well, actual deadlines do have to be followed, but you know what I mean.) I did spend the weekend getting caught up on things I watch (Animal Kingdom) and some movies I’ve always meant to watch (The Faculty, which was amazingly and gloriously ridiculous) and an absolutely brilliant documentary about Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) and how it changed everything and influenced everything that came after it. It also called to mind how Anthony Perkins deserved the Best Actor Oscar that year and wasn’t even nominated–one of the biggest crimes in Oscar history.

I also did some reading; I read some short stories, which was fun, and I also read more of  Lou Berney’s November Road, which I am trying to read slowly, so as to savor every word and every moment. It really is brilliant; I have to say this is a top notch year in the world of crime fiction, with terrific novels being released left and right–this year has also seen Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, with Lori Roy’s exceptional The Disappearing and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released this week, and so many amazing others I haven’t gotten to yet. My reading isn’t as public or as frequent this year as I would like, simply because I am judging an award yet again so am trying to focus on reading for that–hence the Short Story Project–and I worry that the great books are going to continue to stack up in my TBR pile, and thus defeat me in the process of ever catching up.

I really need to stop agreeing to judge prizes.

One of the stories I read yesterday was “Almost Missed It By A Hair” by Lisa Respers France, from Baltimore Noir, edited by Laura Lippman:

Had it not been his body in the huge box of fake hair, I like to think that Miles Henry would have been amused.

At least, the man I once knew would have seen the humor in it: a male stylist who made his fame as one of the top hair weavers in Baltimore discovered in a burial mound of fake hair at the Hair Dynasty, the East Coast;s biggest hair-styling convention of the year. It had all the elements that guaranteed a front page in the Sunpapers, maybe even a blurb in the “Truly Odd News” sections of the nationals. Television reports swarmed the scene, desperate for a sound bite from anyone even remotely connected to Miles. Yes, it all would have been sweet nirvana to Miles, publicity hound that he was. If he had lived to see it.

I knew him pretty well. I knew him when he was Henry Miles, the only half-black half-Asian guy in Howard Park, our West Baltimore neighborhood. His exotic looks ensured that he never wanted for female attention, although they also made him a target for the wannabe thugs who didn’t much cotton to a biracial pretty boy spouting hiphop lyrics. He was a few years older than I was, so our paths crossed only rarely. Besides, he was the neighborhood hottie and I was a shy chubby teenager with acne. The different in our social statures, as well as the difference in our ages, limited us to the socially acceptable dance of unequals. Meaning, I stared at him and he didn’t know I was alive. It was only when we were grown and found ourselves cosmetology competitors that we began to talk to each other.

This is a great story, and yet again further proof of how important the voices of diverse writers are. A murder that takes place at a convention for African-American hair and nail technicians? And frankly, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a short story as much as I enjoyed this one. I know nothing –or at least, very little– about African-American hair, although I know it’s a very fraught issue. But from the wonderful opening of the discovery of a dead man’s body in a box of fake hair all the way through the finish, the authorial voice is strong, and what makes it even stronger is how she deftly explains, in a non-info-dumpish way, about weaves and wigs and styles and hair sculpting and everything that goes into what women of color deal with when it comes to hair.

Brilliant, and brava.

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Small Town

I’m never really certain how to describe where I’m from; because it isn’t simple. I was born in Alabama, which is where my people are from (which is what we say in Alabama), but we moved to Chicago when I was two. We lived in the city until I was ten, which is when we moved out to the suburbs. I was fourteen when we moved to Kansas, and nineteen when I followed my parents to California. Since California, I’ve lived in: Houston, Tampa, Houston, Tampa, Minneapolis, New Orleans, DC, and then back to New Orleans once and for all. So, saying I grew up in Kansas isn’t quite accurate, nor is I grew up in Chicago. I graduated from high school in Kansas, so there is that. I consider New Orleans home; I’ve certainly lived here longer than I have anywhere else in my life, but in a sense, I am kind of ‘homeless’ in that regard. I’ve always pretty much considered wherever my parents live to be home, even though now they live somewhere I’ve never actually lived–so I lazily say I’m going home to see my parents, even though their current home has never really been my home; I guess in that sense that wherever my parents are is home because my parents define, for me, where that indescribable, undefinable place that I call home would be. I also think of Alabama as home, too; though I haven’t lived there in fifty-five years and I have no memory of ever living there.

Does that make sense?

New Orleans is home for me now; Alabama is where I’m from, but I also consider anywhere my parents live to also be home.

Is it any wonder I am barely clinging to my sanity with my fingernails?

And yes, I lived in a very small town in Kansas: I believe the population of Americus was 932 when I lived there (that number is stuck in my head, so it came from somewhere), and moving there, even from a suburb of Chicago, was a bit of culture shock for me. (Not nearly as big as the shock must have been for my parents, moving from a mostly country existence in a remote part of Alabama to Chicago when they were twenty with two toddlers.) The streets didn’t have names or numbers; and at the main intersection in town there was a blinking red light hovering over the center, suspended on wire that waved and swayed in the wind. There was a gas station and a tiny little food place called the Katy Drive-in; what was now the Americus Road that you took to “go to town” (the county seat, Emporia, about eight miles away) used to be the Katy Railroad Line, long gone and almost completely forgotten. We caught the bus at the grade school, which had been the high school until its conversion when the old grade school was condemned by the fire marshall; people in town were still bitter about the loss of the town’s high school and the students being absorbed into the consolidated high school, about sixteen miles from town: Northern Heights High School, about a mile east of yet another small town named Allen. Northern Heights’s student body was an amalgamation of farm kids and kids from five towns: Americus, Bushong, Allen, Admire, and Miller, each of which used to have it’s own grade and high school.

It was strange for me, but being the new kid  had added benefits to it; no one knew, at my new school, that at my previous school I was picked on and sort of mocked and belittled and made fun of; had gay slurs sneered at me in the hallways since the seventh grade, sometimes cornered by a group of boys who got their jollies by mocking me and making me worry about physical violence. By the time some of the kids at my new school realized that I was different not only because I was new and from the big city but because I was harboring the deep secret that I was gay it was the second semester of my senior year and I only had a few months to endure slurs and mocking laughter, of finding Greg Herren sucks cock written in magic marker on my locker or on the desk I usually sat in during a class.

Kansas has been on my mind a lot lately; Constant Reader will no doubt remember that several months ago I had dinner with a classmate, passing through town on his way to a long bike ride along the Natchez Trace. That dinner reminded me of things I hadn’t thought about in years; the smell of corn fields after the rain, the brooding heat, how you could see a thunderstorm coming from miles away across the flat terrain, and the long drive to school. The WIP is set in a town based on Emporia; Sara was set in a high school based on the one I attended. Laura, my main character in Sorceress, was from Kansas and had gone to the Sara high school until her parents’ death, which is the impetus that ended with her in the California mountains. My story “Promises in Every Star” is set at an imaginary high school reunion in Kansas, where my main character returns for the first time in years.

I do have a lot of fond memories of my high school years in Kansas; I don’t want to make it seem as though I don’t. But the passing of time and the malignant spread of nostalgia through my brain hasn’t yet succeeded in dulling the bad memories either, or painting over them with a golden, rosy sheen.

But I also wouldn’t be who I am now were it not for that time, so I can’t be bitter or angry about the bad; you can’t have the good that came from then without having to accept the bad. And there was a lot of good, really, a lot of fun and laughter. Even were I not a gay kid terrified of what would happen if anyone knew–although more knew than I was aware back then–being from the city would have made me different anyway; as would being a creative type who loved to read and aspired to be a writer.

I would have been different anyway; the main issue of almost all of my life experiences before I finally came to terms with who I am, my difference, was always predicated in my mind on my sexuality; it took a long time for me to realize that my difference wasn’t just the gay thing because the gay thing overrode everything else.

Heavy thoughts for a Sunday morning.

And you will be pleased to know, Constant Reader, that I have returned to the Short Story Project. Next up is “Nemesia’s Garden” by Mariano Alonso, from Cemetery Dance, Issue 79, edited by Richard Chizmar:

Why is it that the secrets we don’t like to talk about during our lives are the same secrets we don’t want to take to the grave with us?

The day before dying on a hospital bed after a long battle with cancer, my mother told me a story that happened the year before I went off to college. The story was as strange as the time she chose to share it.

For many years, my mother worked as a cleaning lady in several private residences on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Upper West Side. She was an illegal immigrant with basic education and poor English-language skills; for this reason she was in no position to negotiate with her wealthy patrons for a fair wage that, at least, was always in cash and tax-free.

This is a creepy ass story about two twisted, elderly sisters–one disabled, the other cruel–which is more than a little reminiscent of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in style and theme and tone, but I greatly enjoyed reading it. It’s told from the perspective of their cleaning woman, an illegal immigrant who is telling the story to her son, as you can tell above, when she is dying, because she can’t go to her grave with the creepy tale on her conscience.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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True Blue

I got up this morning to watch Wimbledon, and while I was sad to see Serena not tie the record for most slam titles ever–I always enjoy watching her play. The men’s semi-final between Nadal and Djokovic was also amazing and great to watch. I have errands to run this morning, but have already started on my household chores. I want to get the errands done and then go to the gym, then come home and finish my chores.

All right, I am home from all my errands and I am exhausted. I still have my chores to do, too. The heat and humidity just sucks the energy right out of you. I may–I may skip the gym today and go tomorrow; I can actually watch the tennis while there on the treadmill, which might be the smarter thing to do. Right now all I really want to do is curl up into a ball and go back to sleep somewhere, but I have to do my chores.

I started reading Lou Berney’s November Road last night, and it is amazing, as I suspected it would be. Maybe I could curl up in my easy chair for a while and just read it. Or maybe after I’ve made some progress on my chores. I’d love to do some writing today; but right now I am so drained and tired…perhaps getting cleaned up might do the trick? Perhaps it might.

Sigh.

Yes, I’m not seeing any writing getting done today, although making notes and thinking about writing might be in the cards. I remembered a tremendous loose end in the Scotty book that needs to be tied up–and it’s a big one. I am also going to do the epilogue differently (every Scotty book has both a prologue and an epilogue; the prologue is where Scotty introduces himself and his family to the reader, while i use the prologue to tie up things and let the reader know what happened after the story) in that this time, for the first time since I think Mardi Gras Mambo, it will actually take place at a reveillon meal, probably at Brennan’s, and while the family is having their meal, Scotty will look around the table and think about everything that’s happened since the end of the story. As I have mentioned before, this is probably the most complicated Scotty plot I’ve done thus far–which makes it the most complicated plot I’ve ever done–and it’s a challenge that, when I think about it more, gets more and more daunting and intimidating.

That could be the exhaustion talking.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

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All I Need is A Miracle

Friday, and is it ever miserably hot in the city today. Of course, it’s July, so it’s to be expected, but nevertheless it is such an awful bitch slap whenever you go outside. I keep forgetting to put extra socks in my backpack, which is completely and totally necessary. Tomorrow I have an insane amount of errands to run, as well as trying to squeeze in a gym visit, but then I’ll spend the rest of the weekend cooped up inside the apartment, cleaning and writing and trying to get organized–which is the endless battle, of course. I did thoroughly clean the kitchen the other night–I had some extra time and I was seriously dreading getting to the weekend with a week’s worth of mess piled up in there. So, I am a little bit ahead, but not much.

But any bit ahead is a good thing.

I’ve also fallen behind on my writing this week; no big surprise there. Being tired all day Tuesday didn’t get my week off to a particularly good start, and it’s kind of never recovered from there. I do have a short story that I need to get finished this weekend, so that is going to be my primary focus, and then I am going to get back to work on revising Scotty and fixing the WIP. In other news, water is wet.

I also have to revise a column I wrote, which I will try to get done after work tonight.

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Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)

Thursday! Yesterday was strange; I was enormously tired all day, it felt like I’d never woken up mentally the entire day. I wasn’t physically tired, I was mentally tired all day, and had little or no energy. I guess I didn’t get good rest on Tuesday night, despite sleeping fairly well. As such, I made little to no progress on anything yesterday.

The other night Paul and I watched the documentary Dancer, about Russian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin. (I guess that makes him a ballerino, which term has never really caught on; most male ballet dancers are just called ballet dancers, which is interesting.) The documentary was pretty amazing; particularly when it focused on showing him dance. I will be the first to admit that I have not watched nearly as much ballet as I would like to have; not as many ballets are recorded on film as perhaps we should wish. I have spent time on Youtube watching Nureyev and Baryshnikov and the gorgeous Italian Roberto Bolle, which is how I originally came across “Take Me to Church,” the video of Polunin dancing to the song and shot by Dave LaChappelle (if you haven’t seen it, you really need to; the things he can do–how high he can leap, how gracefully he can spin–just take your breath away). I really do want to write a noir about ballet; it’s on the list of things I want to write.

Sergei:

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Roberto Bolle:

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I will never, I fear, have the time to write all the books I want to write. This is one of the reasons I always beat myself up when I have either an unproductive day (yesterday) or a lazy one (say, last weekend, for example). But I somehow cannot write every day; no matter how much I try. I need to get focused on finishing my short story “A Whisper from the Graveyard,” and I need to start getting the Scotty rewritten as well as some work done on the WIP. July is slipping through my fingers, and with less than three full weeks left, time is running out. Which is how I then start berating myself and sliding into negativity, which usually correlates with self-flagellation, and a further downward spiral.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

But, as I said earlier in the week, I did have a massive breakthrough on both the WIP and the Scotty; both are going to take some serious work, but I feel confident that I can get them done. Just not so confident that I can get them done by the end of this month, but hey, focus is the key. I want to get the short story finished, or at least a draft of it, before I can focus totally on the Scotty; and I really need to reread the entire WIP from start to finish, to make notes and figure out what and where can be salvaged and what needs to be jettisoned.

But I do highly recommend Dancer. I think, even if you aren’t a ballet fan or don’t know anything about ballet, if you’re an artist of any sort you would enjoy it; it’s really about sacrifice in the name of art and success; Sergei was separated from his family at a very early age in order to pursue his talent for dancing–the sacrifices his own family made are extraordinary (his went to Portugal to work to pay for the training; his grandmother moved to Greece to do the same, and neither saw their family for years; his family never even had the opportunity to see him dance after he went away to London to train) and how the enormous early success, plus not having any family to ground him, caused him to crash and burn–not in a dramatic way, he just had an emotional breakdown and walked away from his career not once, but twice.

One of the things I found most interesting was his own take on things–basically, he reached the pinnacle of dance at an early age, and then, what was there left to achieve? Which is an interesting concept, an interesting question, for any artist: when you’ve reached the top of your field, or produced your best work, what do you do next?  I kind of crashed and burned early last year, which resulted in a desultory year where I not only didn’t write but didn’t really want to; it is incredibly easy to fall into that trap. I failed to see the point in it anymore, and I once heard myself saying to someone during that miserable year, well, I’ve published this many books, no one can ever take that away from me, I will always be an author no matter what, and as the words came out, as I heard them, they bothered me.

It took me a while to realize that they bothered me because I hadn’t accomplished everything I had set out to do when I decided to take writing seriously some twenty-odd years ago; and there was a hint of resignation and defeat in the words. But I do think last year was necessary, for my personal growth as well as my professional. It made me take stock of things, made me remember what I wanted, and even though it took me a long while to get to a point where I was ready to write again and felt invigorated and recharged enough to do so.

I do feel like the work I am doing now is some of the best of my career thus far; so there is also that. Maybe I’m fooling myself and maybe I am not; we shall see.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

 

Why Can’t This Be Love

Wednesday and I am very tired this morning; not sure what that’s all about, but there you have it.

I had yet another breakthrough this week on something I’m working on–which brings the breakthroughs in recent weeks to an almost ridiculous level. I finally recognized, through my own stubbornness, that the story I was trying to tell in the WIP is the wrong story; I kept trying to  make it fit the story I wanted to tell, ignoring the little voice I would hear every once in a while telling me no, this is the real story, why won’t you listen to me? Finally, on Monday night, it hit me upside the head with a two-by-four; and when I finally stopped fighting it and  listened to the voice, the entire plot fell into place and all the problems I couldn’t seem to iron out completely magically answered themselves. And you know what? Once again it all comes down to me being ridiculously stubborn when I didn’t need to be, and not listening to  my inner voices.

Seriously, you’d think I’d know better by this point. But I never seem to learn. And of course, rereading the previous paragraph now I realize it sort of makes me look sort of insane. But you know, I don’t know any other way to say it than a voice in my head. I kept trying to make this manuscript, characters and town fit this story I was trying to tell, with the end result that I wasn’t seeing their real story.

And now I can’t wait to fix it and make it better.

I am so behind on so many things I need to get done–I need to get the Scotty revisions done; I need to get to work on this; I have a short story I need to write….madness. And I have so much reading to do! I need to get back on the Short Story Project, and I want to read Lou Berney’s November Road and Sarah Weinman’s The Real Lolita and Alex Segura’s Blackout and…heavy heaving sigh.

We watched a really good Australian show this weekend, Secret City, which starred Anna Torv (been a fan since Fringe, and she was also terrific in Mindhunter), which had a lot going for it–the cutthroat world of domestic and foreign politics is at the core of the story, which opens with a young man being murdered and a reporter (Torv) happening upon the crime scene and starting to investigate. I do recommend this show highly, and there’s also a wonderful subplot where it turns out that Torv’s ex-husband is a transwoman, and I thought the show handled it beautifully, with one slight quibble.

We also started watching HBO’s Sharp Objects, which I thought was spectacular. I actually preferred this Gillian Flynn novel to Gone Girl, the book that made her famous and a publishing superstar, and I still need to read her other novel, Dark Places.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Word Up!

So, the staycation is over and it’s back to work for me today. Heavy heaving sigh. I shall miss the halcyon days of getting up when I felt like it, of leisurely spending my morning over coffee as I responded to emails or edited a story or wrote something new, the casual approach I could take to chores and errands. Heavy heaving sigh, indeed.

But at least it’s a short work week–only four days–which makes the adjustment back to not having my own schedule much easier to live with.

I didn’t get as much done on this staycation as I had hoped–when do I ever–but I am pleased with the progress made. I am checking things off on my to-do lists, making new ones, and as always, moving forward even if it appears, at times, to be at a glacial pace. Glacial pace, after all, is better than staying put or sliding backwards. And I am seriously trying to not beat myself up about things as much as I did before. It’s a new me.

We’ll see how long he lasts, shall we? But change doesn’t happen overnight, and I am aware that one doesn’t change a lifetime of self-deprecation overnight. I am determined, however, to break this hideous cycle. ’tis a process, my friends, and one that I fully intend to complete. I doubt very seriously that I will rid myself of all my neuroses, but I suspect I shall come rather close.

One of the things I did yesterday was pull all of the individual chapters of Royal Street Reveillon into one document; part of my new let’s try something new with this manuscript experiment. Usually I write each chapter as a separate file, labeled accordingly: “Chapter 12-2” being the second draft of Chapter Two, etc, and that also enables me to measure my daily progress–“oh got another two chapters done today,” etc. etc. However, I am now going do this second draft completely differently; still chapter by chapter, but as one big document and I am going to try to revise it backwards; in other words, I am going to start with the last chapter, revise it, and work my way back to the front. I’ve become, as a result of the chapter method, very rigidly adherent to a mathematical process by which every chapter is the same length, or within 100 words of the same length; I am hoping that by doing the manuscript in this way the chapters will be as long as they need to be while I keep an eye on the overall length. Right now, at 25 chapters it comes in at slightly more than 77,000 words and that is without either the prologue or the epilogue….and this book’s epilogue is going to be longer than previous ones, so I need to be more mindful of length. I am also going to follow the outline I did Sunday, so I have a better idea of what needs to go in. (I am going to start the revising by grabbing the notes I made while outlining and going back in to fix those issues up.) I also think there are two important characters I’ve let languish on the sidelines a bit much; I’m going to try to figure out how to work them into the story more completely. This is a bit of a chore, since I am juggling one of my biggest casts ever, but it simply must be done.

And above all else, I’ve got to get Scotty’s voice right.

The voice must be right.

And I have to say, I do enjoy being in Scotty’s headspace.

And with a bit of trepidation, I venture back out of my home and into the world again; back to the spice mines. Wish me luck.

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