Yesterday was kind of lovely, really. As I took a vacation day to get caught up on things, get some rest, and try to get the Lost Apartment under control again (I also discovered, among other things, that vacuum cleaners have filters you are supposed to clean monthly, which explains so much), it was kind of a nice day. I did get the bed linens laundered and a load of laundry done; I did the dishes and ran the dishwasher, and I also intended to vacuum, which is when I realized my vacuum cleaner has not been sucking properly in quite some time (I’d even looked into buying a new one, several times) and then thought, why don’t you google it and see if it’s something you can fix, which of course led to the shocking discovery about the filters. I removed it and washed it thoroughly (so disgusting, really). But, embarrassing as that was, it was also lovely to realize that I do not, in fact, need to buy a new one–at least until the filter has finished air drying, I reinstall it, and see if it starts picking things up again.
I also got a lovely notice on Facebook that my former editor at Alyson, Joe Pittman, had tagged me in a post, and when I went there to see what it was, was greeted with a reminiscence of his days at Alyson, and:
Hi everyone, it’s Joseph. It’s September. I’ve got another story of my publishing life, one of the most rewarding moments from my varied career. Let’s call it Love, Alyson Books.Okay, let me go back in time. It’s 2005 and I was hired by a small publisher named Alyson. The company had just relocated from Los Angeles to New York, and they were searching for a new staff. I applied for the Executive Editor position I saw advertised, got called in that day for an interview. I wasn’t exactly dressed for a job interview, but the woman I spoke with said that was fine. “I assume you have grown up clothes.”
I got the job, and two weeks later started. Every staff member had just been hired, and we had lots of manuscripts and contracts to cull through. From the publisher, to the marketing director, an editor, a production editor, and an assistant and me. That’s it, six of us. We had a big task set before us. Alyson had a storied history in the world of LGBT publishing and had released many iconic books. There was a lot on our shoulders.Our job? To bring Alyson into the 2000s, and show how LGBT themes had hit the mainstream. We had to totally revamp the list. We published 50 books a year, we had a very small budget, and as Executive Editor, I was told by the boss that I would be “the face of the imprint.” I embraced the role until it came to an ignominious ending.But in two and a half years, I felt I did some of the most important work of my career.
It started, horribly, with Hurricane Katrina, but led to a book and a series that would help define the LGBT past, present and future. It was a series with titles that began with the word “Love.” And that’s what these books were, love stories dedicated to a certain city, to a movement, to a community.The thing about working at Alyson, it wasn’t like traditional publishing, where agents sent you a manuscript, you read it, you liked it, you acquired it. Sure, we did a bit of that, but mostly we had to come up with our own ideas, track down authors who would be ideal in crafting our idea into a book. I hit the jackpot with an existing Alyson author, mystery writer Greg Herren. Greg lived in New Orleans, and he and his partner Paul Willis went through hell that late August. Katrina ripped their lives apart, as it did to so many others in the region. My idea, let’s get a bunch of writers together to pen nonfiction stories about their city. Why they lived there, what they loved there. Greg was reticent at first. The wounds of the city too fresh. But the book happened.
LOVE, BOURBON STREET was published to great acclaim, and that next year it won the prestigious Lambda Award for Best Anthology. I remember sitting in the audience when the book was announced the winner. I couldn’t have been more proud of Greg and Paul’s dedication to the project, I couldn’t have been happier for the city New Orleans.
Love, Bourbon Street is a book I don’t really remember much about, to be perfectly honest. It happened, and came about, in that gray time after the evacuation and before we were able to move back into the Lost Apartment (which, to me, closed the circle, even though the city’s recovery would still take more time–a lot more time); I think it even came out while we were still living in the carriage house amidst the clutter and boxes and praying every day that the Lost Apartment would be suitable for living again soon. I remember I was still house sitting for my friend Michael on the North Shore in Hammond when Joe called me with the idea–the great irony was earlier that day Paul had called me, and suggested we do a fundraising anthology about New Orleans by New Orleans writers, and I had emphatically said no. Most every one of the writers we knew were still displaced, no one could come back to New Orleans even if they wanted to, and we were all, from the blogs and emails I was reading, in bad places emotionally. I didn’t even know if I could write anymore; I was grimly writing a blog post almost every day so that the creativity wouldn’t completely stagnate, but other than that–nothing was happening. I had pitched a fourth Scotty book to Kensington, but at some point while I was on the road I’d emailed my editor there to say obviously I cannot write that book now–it was, ironically, going to be called Hurricane Party Hustle and be set during a hurricane evacuation when most everyone in the city had left, only for it to turn east at the last minute and spare the city (which had happened at least three or four times since we’d moved to New Orleans in 1996)–and I certainly never thought I was going to write another Chanse book; the second one had come out the previous year while Paul and I were still getting over the Incident and I think I did one signing for it; it came and went with very little fanfare and I had pretty much figured that series was dead in the water as well. I had been rewriting the manuscript that would eventually be published as Sara because an editor at a Big 5 publisher had asked me to write a y/a for them earlier that year and I’d decided that was what I would do after I, if I, ever finished Mardi Gras Mambo.
But I wasn’t sure if I would ever write about New Orleans again, or if there would even be a New Orleans for me to write about.
Given the fact, though, that Paul wanted to do this and my publisher called me later the same day to suggest it, my superstitious lizard brain decided it was something we needed to do; I don’t remember how long it took for me to either call Joe back or email him that we would do it, but we did. It was difficult to do, primarily because recruiting people spread out all over the country wasn’t easy, nor was getting people who were terribly depressed to try to write something about why they loved New Orleans when 90% of the city lay in ruins was a bit much. Also, people would agree to write something and then change their mind right before the deadline, which kept pushing the delivery date–already a tight turn around, because Alyson wanted to release it on the one-year anniversary–back. Finally, I pulled all the essays together into a single document, saw how many words were left to reach the contracted minimum, and started pulling together my own essay, the anchor piece, “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet.” I remember I worked on it over the weekend that Paul had his eye finally removed, and so he was asleep thanks to painkillers most of the time and would only wake up for me to clean the socket before going back to sleep. It ended up being almost thirty thousand words, and I really don’t remember very much about writing it, if I’m going to be honest; I don’t. I just remember pulling it into the word document of the manuscript, seeing that we now had the length requirement covered, saved the document, and hit send.
That same fall, as we were doing the whole Love Bourbon Street, Joe was also calling and emailing me, trying to convince me that I had a duty and obligation to write another Chanse novel. “You’re right there,” he kept saying, “and who better to let the world know how it felt, how it feels, and what’s it like to go through something like this?” Again, I kept resisting. I didn’t know if I could write, I didn’t know when i would write, I didn’t know anything. And then, in late September, I drove back into the city once it was reopened, to check out the damage to the house and see what all we had lost, as well as to see if anything clothes-wise was salvageable from the upstairs. As I crossed the causeway bridge and saw all the damage to Metairie, I recoiled from it all, felt sick to my stomach and a headache coming on; by the time I got onto I-10 I had gone numb again so I could handle it all. As I noticed the mud-line on the walls along the highway, the words It was six weeks before I returned to my broken city popped into my head, and as I came around the curve in the highway, right near the Carrollton exits and the Xavier campus and the Superdome came into view, the words started coming into my head and I knew that not only could I write this book, I needed to write this book.
As soon as I got back to my sanctuary in Hammond, I emailed Joe and said, I am going to do the Chanse book and it’s going to be called Murder in the Rue Chartres.
And yes, both books won Lambda Literary Awards (my only wins, out of 14 or 15 nominations in total) in back to back years.
So that’s the story of how a very kind and generous editor essentially saved my career as a writer.
It’s funny, because whenever I think about possibly doing a collection of essays, it always takes me a while to remember, well, you’ve already published one that will take up a quarter of the book.
And now, to have some serious cleaning joy with my clean-filtered vacuum cleaner.