Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

So we had a major thunderstorm yesterday afternoon, complete with street flooding and thunder and lightning and all the fixin’s. This naturally led me to wonder, as the lights flickered at the office and Elysian Fields (the street, not the Greek afterlife) filled with water, whether or not to wait until the advisory was lifted (in theory at 5:45 pm), or head home when my work day was complete? One can never be certain where and when parts of the city are going to flood; and the last thing in the world I need–being this close to having the car paid off–is to risk flooding it out and possibly ruining it.

Sigh. It’s never easy living in New Orleans.

Getting home was a challenge; Claiborne Avenue’s low-lying areas were filled with water, water was pouring down not just from the clouds but from the I-1o high-rise, and I decided to risk going through the CBD, never the best option, but potentially even worse than usual since the Plaza Tower started falling apart and

And now for some blatant self-promotion, The Queer Crime Fiction roundtable I participated in for Crime Reads can be found here. And my brief appearance on Writer Types recommending queer crime writers can be found at this link right here.

Thanks again to Lisa Levy for the roundtable, and to Eric Beetner for inviting me onto his podcast. Both were a lot of fun, frankly, and it’s always fun for me to have the chance to talk about books and writers and make recommendations of books and writers I admire and enjoyed. I really missed that during the pandemic.

We got caught up on Lisey’s Story last night–we were both dismayed to see that it hasn’t all aired yet, and so no new episode until Friday–and then went on to the second chapter of The Underground Railroad, which was equally as disturbing as the first, but in a completely different way; I do remember, reading the novel and thinking, my God, so many different ways white people have found to punish and hurt black bodies and souls throughout our history. The show, being a visual medium, is even more disturbing than the book, because my imagination wasn’t quite strong enough to erase the imagery from my head I had grown accustomed to throughout a lifetime of privilege, that kept elbowing the stark realities Colson Whitehead so poignantly and beautifully wrote about in his book, out of the way; the show does not allow this, and the beautifully way it is filmed so poetically reflects the beauty of Whitehead’s language, even as the subject matter in truly an abomination.

Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl drops today, and so those of you not fortunate enough to get an advance copy can now indulge yourselves in reading a truly marvelous book by a great thinker and a terrific writer. I need to get back to reading; Robyn Gigl’s By Way of Sorrow needs to be finished, and on deck I have Bath Haus by PJ Vernon, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Arsenic and Adobo by Mia Manansala, and several others. So much reading; I really need to focus on getting my reading done and caught up. Now that I’ve finished the novella I can take a look at duMaurier’s “Don’t Look Now” again, as well as her “Ganymede”; I already know, from doing some post-writing research today that there are some major adjustments that need to be made to my novella, and it may wind up being longer than than 20, 430 words it sits at now–not the least of them the days of the week, and so forth. I also have to figure out some way to make the story work a little better, more suspenseful, than it sits right now; but that has a lot to do with figuring out the story as it went. I also want to start pulling together the next short story collection–madness, I know–but I do love when I am basically overwhelmed with projects; so I always have something to be working on if something stalls out or I just don’t want to work on something in particular.

I also took some time and started plotting out another Scotty; yes, I know–I really need to dive into Chlorine again, but I had also decided that I was going to do that in July; it doesn’t hurt to have the Scotty’s various intertwining plots planned and mapped out. I generally don’t do this with Scotty books, primarily because the writing inevitably takes me in much different directions than I had planned, and thus inevitably all the planning turns out to be waste time. Also ironically, despite having any number of possible and potential titles on hand, none of them seems to fit this story–and since I can’t ever really work on anything without a title, and knowing that the title can be eventually changed–I am calling this one, for now, Mississippi River Bottom, which was actually the working title for Jackson Square Jazz. My editor didn’t like Mississippi River Bottom (which I rather thought was a clever play on words) and asked me to change it. I also know that this working title doesn’t really fit the alliteration patterns of the rest of the series, and thus will inevitably have to be changed. Perhaps while I am actually writing it, the title will come to me; stranger things have, indeed, happened before.

Last night’s sleep was terrific–there were strange dreams, of which I’ve been having a plethora of lately; last night was me working at Target for some reason–but I again feel terrific and rested this morning; everything looks wet outside, so I am assuming the rain continued over night. It must not have been terrible or dangerous, as we never got one of those horrible WARNING alerts during the night on our phones. Tonight when I get off work I’ll go uptown and get the mail before heading home and to the gym. The Tuesday night workout is somehow always rushed, with me skipping things–more to do with too many people being there than me being lazy, really; the free weight area is always so crowded I inevitably skip the two exercises I used free weights for–and then it’s back home to watch some television and possibly do some writing. This weekend is going to see weird; I have a broken tooth that needs to be extracted, and I scheduled that for Friday afternoon. That inevitably will mean a strange diet of soft food over the weekend and pain killers; but better that than the dull throb and swollen gums I’ve been dealing with since the molar broke. Ah, the endless saga of Greg and his bad, bad teeth. One thing I definitely envy in other people is good teeth…I also want to get to work on “The Sound of Snow Falling.” I am assuming I’ll be incapacitated this weekend after the tooth extraction, but I am hoping I can at least sit in my easy chair and edit.

And yesterday, the first active roster NFL pro football player to come out came out! Yay, and welcome to the team, as it were. I’m old enough to remember when David Kopay came out in the 1970’s; the first former NFL player to do so.

And on that note–writing ADHD, my bad teeth, NFL player out of the closet–I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely and winning Tuesday, everyone.

Dreams

One of the challenges of being a writer is keeping your work fresh and new and interesting; it becomes easy -for want of a better phrase–to just phone it in and repeat yourself. This is particularly true for crime writers/writers of series; how do you continue writing about the same base foundation of characters without recycling plots or falling into formulaic structure?

One of the primary reasons I stopped writing my Chanse MacLeod series was precisely because of this; as I was writing the last book (thus far) in the series, Murder in the Arts District, I found myself thinking things like okay now it’s chapter five, I need some action here or I need to have a twist in the story before I get to chapter ten…and so on. I didn’t even think about it as I was writing the story–but when I was doing the revisions and edits, I remembered having those thoughts (I generally don’t have them while writing Scotty, but that’s a story for another time…and of course, as a reader pointed out, how many car accidents has Scotty been in, anyway?), and when I turned the book in, I went back and speed-read the entire series over again, and after about the fourth book, the writing pattern became rather obvious to me; and if it was apparent to me, I would imagine it was also fairly obvious to the readers. So, I decided to either end or take a lengthy break from the series unless another great idea for him jumped out at me; I have had several ideas since then, but the longer I go without writing about Chanse the less likely it becomes that I will write about him again. (Caveat: I have written a Chanse short story and have a novella in progress with him as the main character; I guess it is more accurate to say that I am not done with the character completely, yet I cannot see myself writing another novel with him as the point of view character–and will have to go another step forward with that as well to say at least not one set in New Orleans, as I am toying with an idea for a Chanse case in Louisiana but not New Orleans. Yes, that’s me–definitely not definite.)

I have nothing but the utmost admiration for series writers who manage to keep their series going for decades and dozens of books without writing the same book and structure over and over and over again; Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, and Sara Parestky are just a few of them I can name, and their achievements have made them legends in the field. But other legends who wrote series took a different approach to their careers. Agatha Christie wrote several series–Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence–but also wrote a lot of stand-alones over the course of the years. (Seriously, when it comes to crime fiction, Christie did everything first) Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben started out writing series and moved on to stand-alones; as have numerous other authors.

And then there’s Laura Lippman.

Gerry Andersen‘s new apartment is a topsy-turvy affair–living area on the second floor, bedrooms below. The brochure–it is the kind of apartment that had its own brochure when it went on the market in 2018–boasted of 360-degree views, but that was pure hype. PH 2502 is the middle unit between two other duplex penthouses, one owned by a sheikh, the other by an Olympic swimmer. The three two-story apartments share a common area, a most uncommon common area to be sure, a hallway with a distressed concrete floor, available only to those who have the key that allows one to press PH on the elevator. But not even the sheik and the swimmer have 360-degree views. Nothing means anything anymore, Gerry has decided. No one uses words correctly and if you call them on it, they claim that words are fungible, that it’s oppressive and prissy not to let words mean whatever the speaker wishes them to mean.

Take the name of this building, the Vue at Locust Point. What is a vue? And isn’t the view what one sees from the building, not the building itself? The Vue is the view for people on the other side of the harbor, where, Gerry is told, there is a $12 million apartment on top of the residences connected to the Four Seasons Hotel. A $12 million apartment in Baltimore.

Nothing makes sense anymore.

The apartment cost $1.75 million, which Is about what Gerry cleared when he sold his place in New York City, a two-bedroom he bought in the fall of 2001. How real estate agents had shaken their sleek blond heads over his old-fashioned kitchen, his bidet-less bathrooms, as if his decision not to update them was indicative of a great moral failing. Yet his apartment sold for almost $3 million last fall and, as he understood the current was laws, he needed to put the capital gains, less $250,000, in a new residence. Money goes a long way in Baltimore, and it was a struggle to find a place that could eat up all that capital without being nightmarishly large. So here he is at the Vue, where money seems to be equated with cold, hard things–marble in the kitchen, distressed concrete floors, enormous light fixtures.

I’ve been a fan of Lippman’s since I read her debut, Baltimore Blues, mumbledy-mumble years ago. I absolutely loved it; I loved the character of Tess Monaghan, former reporter turned private eye, and the cast of regular characters who she interacted with on a regular basis throughout her amazing series run. Tess remains one of my all -time favorite series characters; the books were always compelling, interesting, and very hard to put down. Lippman is also that writer who can write short stories that are just as powerful as her novels, and over the last few years she has taken up writing personal essays that are also rather exceptional (her collection, My Life as a Villainess, was a bestseller during the pandemic). Her writing is always whip-smart and intelligent; following her on social media one can see how widely and perceptively she reads. About seven years into her career she took the risk to move from her series to stand-alones; a calculated risk, to be sure–but she then spent the next few years alternating between the series and stand-alones (alas, it’s been a while since the last Tess book, Hush Hush, although she has occasionally made guest appearances in her stand-alones when a character needs assistance from a private eye). Her books have explored themes of motherhood, what it means to be a good girl, and have also paid homage to time-honored sub-genres (Sunburn is one of the best noir novels of this century) and classic novels by either flipping the script (for example. Wilde Lake owes an enormous debt to To Kill a Mockingbird, imagining, really, where the characters and story would be decades later). She has also played with form, tense, and character–Lady in the Lake is almost Faulknerian in its use of point-of-view; I lost track of how many different point of view characters were in this book, and every last one of them rang completely true–and she has become, over the years, a true artist.

In my often-benighted first writing class in college (whose scars I still carry to this day),my incredibly pompous professor once berated one of the students for writing a story about a writer. “It’s the laziest form of writing, and character,” he proclaimed from his lectern at the front of the classroom, “and it tells you more about who the writer is more than the character ever will. If you ever start reading anything where the main character is a writer, you should run from it as fast as you can.”

I guess he wasn’t a fan of Philip Roth. (To be completely fair, neither am I. I’ve tried, but have never really got the magic there, but have always accepted that as my failing as a discerning reader rather than his.)

Stephen King often writes about writers; ‘Salem’s Lot has Ben Mears; The Shining has Jack Torrance (and the most deadly and horrifying case of writer’s block in literary history), It has Bill Denbrough, and on and on–but of course the most famous, and best, example would be Paul Sheldon in Misery. While I always have enjoyed King’s writing, and have gleaned things from his writer characters, Sheldon and Misery, for me, has always been the best. Sheldon was perhaps one of the most realistic and compelling writer characters I’ve ever read about–the man with aspirations to becoming a critically acclaimed literary writer, who yet makes a living by writing a bestselling romance series about a character named Misery Chastain whom he has come to hate and despise even as she makes him enough money to live well and focus on simply being a writer (the dream of all of us, really). He has killed her off finally in his most recent book, ending the series at last and finally taking the leap to write what he thinks will be the game changer for his career–until he has a horrific car accident and is rescued by Misery’s biggest fan.

The parallels between Misery and Dream Girl are there, of course, and easy to spot; Lippman’s character Gerry Andersen is an enormously successful literary writer (a la Updike or Roth) who is also kind of a dick in how he has treated the many women who have come through his life, and of course, his ego justifies all of his bad behavior until he, too, has an accident in his home that winds up with him trapped in a hospital bed in his secluded apartment (despite it being in Baltimore; the appeal of the place is its privacy and seclusion). But while Sheldon is being victimized by his sociopathic fan/caregiver in Misery, what is happening to Gerry is very different; he has his original fall that causes his injury because he receives a weird letter from someone claiming to be the real person whom he based the title character in his biggest success, Dream Girl, on, and she wants financial compensation. In his shock and surprise–people have always wondered, and have always asked him, if she was a real person and he has always said no–he falls down his stairs and busts up his leg. Once he is housebound, he has a night nurse AND his personal assistant there–rarely being ever alone in the apartment–but he starts getting strange phone calls from the woman claiming to be the real ‘dream girl’–but there’s never any record of the calls on his called ID, and the original letter disappeared as well. Is his medication playing tricks on his mind, or is there something more sinister at work in his cold, sterile, remote apartment?

As with so many other things, that writing professor was wrong about writing about writers. I’ve stayed away from it myself for most of my career–as I said, the scars are still very much there–but I have started dabbling into it a bit (my Amazon single, “Quiet Desperation,” is one attempt, and I may go even further; I’ve created a character who’s appeared as a minor character in some of my Scotty books who is a writer). The mystery here is quite compelling, and more than enough to keep me turning the pages to see what happens next. But I was also enjoying the insights into another writer’s life, albeit he was a fictional character; I find it incredibly easy to identify with characters who are writers because despite the fact that all writers have different methods and different careers and different mental processes, there are always those little nuggets of oh yes I know that feeling or I thought I was the only person who experienced this or ah yes this is exactly what it’s like.

Dream Girl is an excellent edition to the Lippman canon.

Who Do You Think You Are

Sunday morning is here, and along with it sunshine and no doubt smothering humidity–later today I will be heading to the gym for the beginning of this week’s workout schedule and also trying to get some other things done today. I have to finish the web copy I promised to do today, and I am itching to get back to my writing. Yesterday was a very good day on every level–I was highly functioning for a change, and it felt wonderful, more like the kinds of days I am used to having, or rather, got used to back when I was regularly highly functioning. I did sleep very deeply last night–I did have some very strange dreams, though; all I remember is they involved Taylor Swift and losing teeth–but I woke up very well rested this morning and ready to go. I am awake and not sleepy-tired, my muscles don’t ache or feel tired, and we watched some amazing television last night.

And I actually started writing another Scotty book yesterday–nothing like creative ADHD, right?

But the opening scene for this book has been in my head for quite some time now. One day recently as I was toying with an idea for the next Scotty book, this line popped into my head: “I’m really worried about Taylor” (those who have read Royal Street Reveillon will understand) and then another sentence came to me recently: It was the Monday after Mother’s Day and the termites were swarming. I’d initially thought the swarming termites line was the opening for a short story, and yet…couldn’t figure out a story for it to go along with. The other day it hit me: the two sentences go together, and are the perfect opening for the next Scotty. Yesterday when I sat down to write, these two sentences were swirling together in my head and I thought, why not go ahead and put it down on paper, so it’s there when I’m ready to go back to work on another Scotty? I don’t even know what I am going to call this one yet. I had already–because of these openings, and knowing they wouldn’t work for the next Scotty I had planned to write–so I decided to push Twelfth Knight Knavery back in the Scotty schedule to be the one after this one. I am going to leave it as “untitled Scotty book” for now. I have two stories I want to weave together into this one, and another subplot, but I’ve not taken the time to actually map any of that out or anything as yet. But hey, I wrote nearly twelve hundred words before turning my attention back to “Festival of the Redeemer,” and I am going to take that as a win.

And “Festival of the Redeemer” is now sitting at over seventeen thousand words. Not too bad, really; I’d estimate that I wrote well over four thousand words between the Scotty (around 1200) and the novella yesterday. The story also took an incredibly dark turn, too–I’d always intended it to, of course, but still–the turn was so much darker than I’d planned it even kind of caught me a bit off-guard. I do like it, though–it is a first draft, and as such is very sloppy and slipshod and is going to need some serious revisions and edits, but I am pleased with it. This twisted tale seems so perfect for Venice–and it may turn out, after revisions and edits, to be much longer than the original planned twenty thousand; but word counts are inevitably goals, anyway, and more a measure of progress than anything else.

Have I ever mentioned how much I actually love writing? It makes me so happy to be writing, and it’s so satisfying; there’s really nothing like it, and I can’t even remember the last time that I derived so much pleasure from actually doing it; I don’t remember going into the zone the way I have been lately–I feel like it’s been years since I went into the zone where the words just flowed out of me and I lost track of time and word counts and so forth; which is probably why I’ve been having so many concerns about burn out and losing my ability to write–always a fear for me, always–and yet here it is back again, and I feel centered again. I feel like the last malaise last forever–at least for years–and now I am past it, and even if what i am writing is not anything I should be writing… but if I am going to publish a collection of novellas I have to actually write them, don’t I? And this one is really going somewhere–even if that place is somewhere incredibly dark…and you know what? HUZZAH FOR SOMEWHERE INCREDIBLY DARK.

But when I get this done–I think I may even get this first draft finished today or tomorrow-I am going to get that short story draft finished next and then I am going to get back to Chlorine. I need to get that first chapter revised and rewritten; a good task for this week, I think, and then I am going to work on that other proposal I want to get turned in to see if anything comes of it. Hey–you never know, right? You never know until you put it out there.

I also managed to clean the kitchen yesterday and worked on the filing, The area around my desk is a lot more neat and tidy than it has been, and my inbox is almost completely emptied out. This feels like a major accomplishment, and it’s nice to look over there and see just a few loose papers in there–which I may even get rid of today.

It’s amazing what I can do when I’ve slept, seriously.

We finished watching Elite last night, and it was terrific–perhaps not as good as the earlier seasons, which is a very high bar to reach; but with a cast reshuffle and an effective reboot of storylines, not surprising. We had three seasons to get to know the original cast, and with half of them gone (oh, how I miss Lucrezia!) and their replacements coming in, the story had to go into a bit of overdrive to get them involved with the original cast, and there were times it felt a bit forced and like it went too far too fast. The ending of the season was satisfying, and the next season–with two more characters being added–is now really well set up.

We then moved on to Apple Plus, with Rose Byrne’s new starring vehicle Physical, and I really enjoyed it–the three episodes that had dropped already, at any rate. Byrne plays a dissatisfied housewife whose own gifts and talents are being subsumed by that horrific housewife trope of the time–and even her supposedly “progressive” husband subscribes to that old patriarchical notion of what women’s value was in the progressive movement–they were there to fuck, feed, and clean up after the men; the men did all the thinking and the women did all the work. Then she discovers an aerobics class at a mall…and finds it incredibly empowering; rediscovering herself and who she is through the class. She’s not completely likable–she has a horrible inner monologue voice that is snarky and bitchy and judgmental (if funny at time)–but she’s understandable, and Byrne brings her charisma and likability along with everything she does. It will be interesting to see how the show develops.

After that, we switched over to Amazon Prime to watch the first episode of their mini-series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book that I loved and thought was absolutely brilliant. Here is slavery in all of its degradation, abuse, and horror–the Georgia plantation depicted here isn’t the prettified Tara of Gone with the Wind, and these slave owners and overseers aren’t the genial paternalistic Gerald O’Hara the Lost Cause movement insisted were the reality. It was incredibly difficult to watch, but necessary; my own discomfort in watching, I kept reminding myself, was nothing compared to what the enslaved people endured, and my white fragility needed to look the reality directly in the face and deal with it. These are my ancestors; and even if the family legends my grandmother told me when I was a child was mythology and lies, they certainly believed enough in this horrible system to fight and die for it.

And if I learned anything from Hurricane Katrina, it’s that no matter how terrible something looks and appears on television, the reality and its scope is a thousand times worse. The show is beautifully shot–the cinematography is stunning; and the beauty of the production, and the care taken, only adds to the horror of what the viewer is witnessing.

I kept thinking, the entire time I watching, heritage not hate, huh? Fuck all the way off.

And now I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, everyone.

Believe It or Not

I picked up a copy of Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show: A Political History of New York 1987-1993, this week at the Latter Library. I imagine it’s going to be a rather painful read, and probably difficult at times, but I also feel that it’s important for me to read it. I am pleased that she, one of our community’s best writers and brightest thinkers, has written it. Sarah, whom I have known now for over twenty years plus, has written extensively about HIV/AIDS, both in her fiction and non-fiction; her non-fiction work is always thought-provoking, incredibly well thought out, and written beautifully. Her fiction is always fascinating; she always tackles enormous and important themes in her work–and often plays with form and style, in innovative and creative ways that would never occur to me, let alone attempt (Empathy is one of the most creative novels I’ve ever read; she reminds me of Faulkner in her willingness to experiment with styles and narrative form). She’s always incredibly fun to talk to–I have greatly enjoyed every conversation we’ve had; she is fiercely intelligent and yet has the remarkable ability to not make you feel stupid, or incapable of understanding what she is saying. (As someone whose intellect has always been somewhat less than, or been made to feel less than, I’ve always appreciated her speaking to me as an equal and peer; even though I am inevitably humbled and awed by how her mind works.)

Lately, I have found myself worrying that the truth and actual history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the societal neglect and systemic homophobia that made it so much worse than it could have, should have, been would be erased from history and forgotten. I am reminded of this every day at work, really; as I’ve aged in my job, the people I test and see regularly become younger and younger. At first, I was always a little taken aback by clients born in the 1980’s; now those people are nearing forty. As we move into the third decade of the twenty-first century, I am now starting to see people born after the turn of the century; 2000 babies are turning twenty-one this year, which is stunning to me. Those born in the 1990’s don’t remember a time when infection was a death sentence; and slowly but surely the horrors of the height of the plague seem as distant as the Spanish flu epidemic of the World War I era, or the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages.

This month was the fortieth anniversary of the New York Times article announcing the discovery of the first cases of what was soon to be called the “gay cancer”, eventually renamed GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) before it was finally labeled as HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome)–this is a vast over-simplification of the history of the disease and its naming; you can find an excellent timeline for it here:

https://www.avert.org/professionals/history-hiv-aids/overview

1981 was the year I turned twenty; it was also the year I moved to California, putting Kansas in my rearview mirror once and for all (I’ve never returned); and I can remember the feeling, the excitement, of moving to a more progressive state (or so I saw it at the time) from one that was deeply mired in conservative values and Christianity. I already knew I was a gay boy before we moved to Kansas when I was fourteen, but that short period of time spent there (short in the overall scheme of my life; at this point as I stare down sixty rapidly approaching on the road ahead, I spent about a twelfth of my life there) was warping. (Then again, what part of my life wasn’t warping?)

It’s also very weird to think HIV/AIDS has now shadowed two-thirds of my life.

I tend not to look back at the plague years before 1994 very much; it’s all a part of my “never look back” mentality. I made some great friends in college–the ones who didn’t give a shit when I finally came out to them; I relish and love those memories made with them during the 1980’s, but the shadow always falls over that part of my life too; I was, as I said on the San Francisco Public Library panel the other night, trying everything I could think of to make myself straight (or able to push my true self so deeply into the closet that it would never ever see daylight) and yet there was still the other part of my life my straight friends knew nothing about; the sneaking out at night to gay cruising areas where other closeted types like myself met up; the furtive visits to gay bars and hoping no one from my other life saw me coming or going or saw my car parked nearby; the trips to hospitals to visit the always held at arm’s length gay friends who tried so hard to help me be myself, even when they were dying alone and unvisited in their quarantined hospital beds. The specter of HIV hung over me at all times; the shame of what would happen if I got infected, and the certainty that my family and straight friends would turn away and leave me, too, to die alone and unmourned, getting what I deserved.

And even when I moved to Florida, getting away from Texas and California and trying to get my life and act together, trying to be who I was, to live openly and honestly for once on my life, the phantom was always there, just out of my line of sight: the death sentence we were all sentenced to by fate, by timing, and by the callous indifference of the mainstream American community.

By some strange twist of fate I survived the plague years, never got infected, never got the bad news I expected was my inevitability.

I merely served witness, and even then, I was never anywhere that saw the worst of the decimation: New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and even New Orleans; this small Southern city’s community was ravaged and decimated; that shadow was over this city too. I can remember coming to New Orleans every month after I discovered its magic, and seeing the evidence of the plague here in the disappearances of people from previous visits; a waiter at the Clover Grill, a bartender here or a bar back there–service people who made me feel welcomed, made me feel like a part of the family, helped convince me that my gut feeling New Orleans was the right place for me, helped me believe that gut instinct was correct. Now, years later, I don’t remember their names and maybe, if I try hard enough and come up with other memories, I can also summon up their faces but the names are gone–just like those I lost in the 1980’s, names I never recorded in my journals for fear someone might find and read them, experiences and joy and laughter gone forever because I was too afraid of leaving a record behind if and when the plague came for me.

Never look back was the theme of my life from 1994 on; a maxim or motto that should have been cross-stitched onto a sampler for me; the only words I ever thought about having tattooed on my body: NEVER LOOK BACK. There was only pain in the past, and I wanted to move beyond that pain, forget the scars, and try to live in the now and for the future–whatever it might hold, if I was even fated to have one.

I always thought, even as a child, that I was destined to die young. When I became aware of HIV/AIDS, I assumed that was the ticket to the hereafter I would eventually punch. And yet here I am, nearing sixty, and the last twenty-seven years of my life have held more joy than I ever dared to dream were possible for me, and the dreams I held wrapped so tightly to my chest, those dreams that got me through even the most difficult of times, eventually did come to pass, and came true for me.

Watching It’s a Sin earlier this year brought it all back to me; as I have mentioned to friends, it hit me much harder than any other HIV/AIDS film or series; primarily because in films like Longtime Companion and in the fiction that has come to be known as “witness” or “survivor” fiction inevitably the story began in the pre-HIV hedonism of the 1970’s before the change; and while the lives were always cut dramatically short, they were somewhat older. It’s a Sin was the first time I saw it all through the eyes of characters who were the same age I was when it all started; and while their experiences and what they went through was so different than my own, it was impossible not to watch and remember and think my God, we were all so young when it hit. Watching the show allowed me, for the first time, to grieve; I know at some point back then I simply went numb. I know where my aversion to funerals comes from; I’ve always known, really, just never faced up to it before.

I’ve never wanted to write about the plague years, never wanted to write about what I witnessed and what I saw, the unbearable sadness I lived with for so many years. Others had it so much worse than I did, and so I never really felt like it was my story to tell; there was always a sense, a feeling, a fear, that I would make it all about me when it wasn’t, and sometimes I do wonder–since watching the show–if the work I do at my day job is, in some ways, an atonement for still being alive when so many are not. Survivor’s guilt is very real, and something I think about on those days when the pendulum of my moods swings too far in the wrong direction, when despite my best efforts not to look back, I do. I also think I don’t ever want to write about that time because my memories are so untrustworthy; and I am not entirely certain that I can tell those stories without centering myself…because it’s not my story but theirs.

So, I am both looking forward to and dreading reading this book, but no matter what, I am very grateful that it exists and that the record of the times, the anger, and the way the community rose up to challenge authority and thus changed the world will not be lost to the passage of time.

There is still, to this date, no vaccine for HIV–and yet, one was developed in less than a year for COVID-19.

Rather telling.

Last Train to Clarksville

Tuesday and I have survived yet another Monday, which I am putting in the “win” column.

It was a grim, gray, rainy Monday yesterday in New Orleans, and all I wanted to do was curl up under a blanket and nap. But I managed to get quite a bit done yesterday, which is always a joy–I actually had my email inbox down to almost completely empty at one point–and didn’t start getting sleepy until after lunch, when the caffeine from my morning cappuccinos wore off.

Meh, it happens.

It’s raining again–it started last night while I was sort of sleeping (yes, another one of those nights again)–and parts of the city are in a flood warning; eastern New Orleans, which I assume means the East (but then again, compass directions are so completely useless here) and frankly I’m really not looking forward to going out to the car this morning, or the drive to work; rain makes the horrible New Orleans drivers even worse than they normally are…which is pretty fucking bad. I’m also having dinner with a friend in from out of town tonight after work–hoping it doesn’t get canceled because of this weather–but on the bright side, my car will look pretty clean thanks to this non-stop downpour.

We got caught up on Mare of Easttown last night, and my, what an intense and twisty episode this was! Certain shifts and twists we certainly didn’t see coming; and then it was over, all too soon. Kate Winslet and Jean Smart are killing it in this (Smart is also killing it in Hacks, I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to predict two Emmy nominations for Smart, one for each show; she could quite easily win both as well–although the actress who played Liza in Halston is going to be hard to beat), and the writing is quite extraordinary. It’s the best crime show I’ve seen in quite some time that isn’t based on a novel.

Speaking of writing, I’ve not been doing any lately of note. I think I’ve started a couple of short stories, as well as a personal essay about being a sixty-year-old Swiftie; but there’s simply no motivation there. It’s entirely possible I’ve fried my writing machine by writing two books back to back; I also know there are more revisions to come on Bury Me in Shadows as well as the initial ones for the Kansas book, so perhaps my subconscious knows better than for me to get going or involved in writing something else before those are completely out of the way. But it’s frustrating as well as worrisome; although I did at least get the outline of the first act of Chlorine written last week. I know I won’t get any writing done while on my trip this week–hopefully From Here to Eternity will engage my mind and keep me entertained; I think I am going to take the iPad with me as well so I have access to all the ebooks I own in case I either hate the book so much I stop reading, or it engages me so much that I tear through it till the end. I’d rather not take another hard copy with me on the trip, but I’ll probably end up doing so because I always need options for reading when I travel. The question is what to take? I certainly don’t want to be at the mercy of the airport bookshops.

Oh yes–Stephen King’s Fever, his latest work for Hard Case Crime. That should do nicely; and I’ve not read any King since I finished the Hodges Trilogy, which is kind of strange for someone who is such a big fan of King’s. I’ve somehow managed to fall way behind on his books–still buying copies, of course–but they are so big and long and daunting I’ve not been able to face one of his big books with my addled, short attention span brain lately–and most of his books are extremely long these days. Perhaps I should make getting caught up on King a project for the summer; after all,. reading King is always inspiring to me; I love how he creates characters and relationships; I don’t think I have ever been bored reading a King book–because he just draws me into the world he creates so easily and effortlessly.

Last night as I was lying in bed with my eyes closed in the dark listening to the rain, my brain dredged up yet another memory of a horrible writing experience I had in college–it really is astonishing how little I was encouraged, and how hard my writing professors tried to extinguish the desire to write in me. I took the basic English course all incoming students take my first semester; it was an hour and a half every Tuesday and Thursday. On the first day, we had to do one of those incredibly tedious writing assignments: if you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island, what three things would you take with you? or something along those lines. I don’t remember what three things I took; but I can assume they included music and books–because quite frankly I could easily go the rest of my life without human contact if I had both of those and a computer (there were no computers in 1978, obviously, so that wasn’t one of my three things). When I went back to class on Thursday, the professor pulled me aside and told me the assignment was really for him to assess our writing abilities, our grasp of grammar and paragraph construction, etc. etc. etc., and that my skills were too advanced (at sixteen!) for his class and he feared it wouldn’t challenge me enough; he had talked to an Honors English professor, showed her my essay, and she agreed to allow me to enroll in her class late. So after class, he and I walked to the Admin building and effected the shifting of classes, and you can imagine how thrilled I was at this turn of events–a college professor thought I was a good writer!

Unfortunately for me, I was not to experience that feeling again for many years–at least, that was the way I remembered it….

The Honors English class wasn’t hard, but the professor was horrible, absolutely horrible. There were only ten of us in the class, and we all bonded over how awful we thought she was. She had no sense of humor, and we had to construct our essays only in the way she believed essays must be written; she was constantly assigning us to read boring, uninteresting essays “so (we) could learn how to properly write one.” She never gave me higher than a C on anything I wrote for her, and she seemed to take particular relish in ripping my essays apart in class as an example of what not to do for the others. Lord, I despised that woman. The other students would often grab me after class for a soda or coffee or something and try to make me feel better; that is how awful she was. I was just grateful to get out of that class alive with a passing grade, but alas…the second semester of Freshman Honors English wasn’t much better. The professor was much nicer than the first, but she had absolutely no qualms with letting me know how bad of a writer I was–and clearly felt there was nothing to be done about it. Towards the end of the semester, as we had one final paper to do for the class, she called me into her office and told me she was regretfully going to have to fail me. “The only way you can pass this course is if you get an A on your final paper, and frankly, I don’t believe you can do that. But if you retake the class in the fall, it will erase your F for this semester–or I will sign off on you dropping the class.” I had already selected Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes as the subject for my paper, so I told her I was willing to take my chances and write the paper anyway. She was clearly not happy–I will give her credit, she clearly hated failing people and didn’t want to fail me–but I was determined.

I wish I still had a copy of that paper. It was brilliant, if I do say so myself. I had read a biography of Bette Davis (Mother Goddam), and the author actually used her films as a way to write her biography and even gave her the opportunity to comment on her performances. It was a great biography–I’ve always thought that was the best way to do one of a film star, if the star was still alive and able and willing to participate–and Davis had played Regina in the film version of the play (and was nominated for an Oscar). I had never seen the film, but I had read the play and the biography, and Davis’ insights into who Regina was served as the launching pad for my essay.

I got an A on the paper, and the professor actually wrote on it, “Well, I’ll be damned if you didn’t pull this off. Congratulations.”

But given this past history, and my psyche’s uncanny ability to keep the negative and not remember the positive, is it any wonder I have little to no confidence about writing essays? But now I do remember that I finished Honors English with an impressive triumph–the highest grade in the class on the final paper–and with that knowledge, perhaps I will be a little less hard on myself when it comes to writing essays in the future.

And on that note, I need to take a shower and head for the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader!

Lightnin’ Strikes

I have mentioned numerous times that I was asked last year–early last year? I don’t recall precisely, but that’s a pandemic year for you–to write a Sherlock Holmes story. I was enormously flattered–and let’s face it, if anyone offers to pay me to write, I will–as I inevitably am whenever someone wants me to write for them; as I have mentioned before (a lot), it’s rare for me to get validation for my writing, and so being included (which is a whole other neurosis I will inevitably write about someday) is so enormously flattering that I feel like I can’t say no; being asked to write something also is such a rare thing for me that I am always afraid to say no because I fear I won’t ever be asked again.

Ah, the joys of being a writer. I probably could stand to be a little more egocentric when it comes to my writing, and build up more confidence…I seriously aspire to the confidence of a mediocre straight white male writer.

In those first few years during which I shared the upper floors at 821 B Royal Street with Mr Sherlock Holmes, it was my custom to rise early in the mornings and take a walk on the earthen levee containing the mighty river. Holmes was by habit a late riser, rarely springing out of bed before the noon-time whistle rang along the waterfront, but taking such exercise was good for the damage to my leg caused by the wound – a souvenir of the Spanish War.

I enjoyed those quiet, early mornings, watching the ships sailing up the river to the docks from foreign ports, and the barges floating down the currents from points as far north as Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis, all while I strolled with my walking stick along the levee. Seeing the large bales of cotton being unloaded as the morning mists arose from the dark muddy water, the unloading of crates of coffee and bananas from the central American republics, I marveled each morning at the hubbub of activity that created and maintained this most curious of American cities, rising from the swamps like something from a forgotten myth.

After, I would adjourn to my favorite café, the Aquitaine, mere blocks from my home, where I would read the morning papers while enjoying coffee and Italian pastries.

This particular morning in early December, I cut my morning walk short. The temperature had dropped most precipitously overnight, and I had not chosen a heavy enough jacket. My leg ached terribly from the damp and the cold, and I limped along the banquettes to the café. My usual table was in the back, away from the hustle and bustle and smells of Royal Street. In those days, the French Quarter stank to high heaven, malignant odors hanging in the thick wet air from breweries and sugar refineries and, of course, seafood. Holmes often burned heavily scented candles in the various rooms of our apartments, particularly the parlor whose windows opened out onto our third-floor balcony facing Royal Street.

But on this morning, there were no tables to be had. The cold and damp had driven others inside, seeking the solace of warm air, fragrant Italian pastries, and piping hot café au lait. So, disgruntled, I paid for my papers.

I noticed a headline in the lower right corner of the front page of the Daily Picayune: FAMED ITALIAN OPERA SINGER ADDS DATES FOR NEW ORLEANS ENGAGEMENT.

I have mentioned before that I’ve never been much of a Sherlock fan, as written by Doyle. I read The Hound of the Baskervilles when I was a child, and didn’t really like it near as much as I felt I should, and never went back to read the rest of the Holmes canon (yet another reason I say my education in the classics–in general and in my chosen genre–was sorely neglected). I read the Nicholas Meyer pastiches in the 1970’s, and have since read other Holmes-fiction by modern writers; there was a story in particular by Lyndsay Faye in one of The Best American Mystery Stories collections I particularly enjoyed, and of course I am completely smitten by Laurie R. King’s take on the character in her marvelous Mary Russell novels. I’ve watched a lot of Holmes film and television adaptations (not caring particularly for the Robert Downey Jr version, alas), and of course like so many others was completely smitten by Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation in the modern series (I also liked Elementary, but we never finished watching its run). I had bought the Baring-Gould compendiums a few years back from eBay; lovely, enormous and richly bound editions that I treasure. In preparation for writing my own story I went into the Baring-Gould to read some of the short stories, to get a feel for Doyle’s style and his characterizations.

(It is interesting, though, that my favorite fictions about Holmes are written by women…and King’s stories center a woman.)

I had come up with this title, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy,” years ago. Little known fact: I originally envisioned the Chanse series to have titles all derived from Poe: Murder in the Rue Dauphine of course was paying homage to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue; and I thought the next would be The Purloined Stripper and go from there. Alyson Books said not to the Poe conceits, although they liked Murder in the Rue Dauphine as a title (another little known fact: the book was originally called Tricks; when I first met Felice Picano and picked him up at the airport here for the Williams Festival we chatted on the drive into the city and he nixed Tricks, and the Poe homages were HIS idea, which I don’t even think he himself remembers) and wanted me to brand the book with “Murder in the” titles. But I always liked The Purloined Stripper and kept that title in my back pocket, as it were, and when editor Narrelle Harris reached out to me for a Holmes story, to be set in New Orleans during any time period I chose, that title sprang into my mind and, having only recent read some New Orleans history (and been fascinated, at long last, by Storyville and the tales of the old Quarter) I thought to myself, yes, I can write about the pre-Great War period and include Storyville in it…and instead of a stripper I’ll use a rentboy. There had been allusions to rentboys and gay bars in the Quarter in the New Orleans histories I’d been reading–often times, when a client’s tastes ran that way, a madam would send one of her bouncers to the gay bars to find someone who fit what the client was looking for, appearance wise; I thought that was interesting. Only a few bordellos houses actual rentboys permanently; even in the bawdy houses of Storyville men who were interested in other men were reticent about putting voice to their desires….and isn’t “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” a lovely title?

And yes, it’s one of my favorite titles, and one of my favorite stories of my own.

As I said, it was a challenge for me to write it–the original submission required a significant revision; but as someone who appreciates editorial input I didn’t mind in the least–and as previously mentioned, it also inspired an appreciation for Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle in me. I keep thinking it would be fun to do more “Sherlock in New Orleans” stories; I may do just that very thing. I have some ideas that have been bouncing around in my head for him since finishing this story; I also liked the new universe of New Orleans I created for him–which inevitably will be tied in some way to my other New Orleans universe as well– I really cannot help myself when it comes to linking all of my work together.

Here is a short interview I did about my story: https://www.clandestinepress.net/blogs/clan_destine_press_blog/the-only-one-in-the-world-greg-herren-interview?fbclid=IwAR10KeDfVRv9Tcp9xioQ4aE7Fj4CUNdibVdVwdsjONN7ozvxKVFfF6gUTxw

And here is the editor talking about my story: https://narrellemharris.com/short-stories/narrelle-m-harris-on-greg-herren/?fbclid=IwAR0ei8LLFJjZaB0ATV3IKwg1s8NBcgapvQOFYe0PaGVNdV2LFMBOf5bw_8A

Unlearn This Hatred

Tuesday morning and it seems quiet outside; rain is still in our forecast (every day for two weeks, with the exception of this Saturday) with thunderstorms predicted to roll in around this very time that I sit here writing this–but as I said, at the moment there’s nothing but stillness and quiet outside my windows. How long that will continue to hold remains to be seen, however; although the old adage about our weather forecasts from May thru October certainly holds true all too often: every day’s forecast is hot , humid, chance of rain.

I slept pretty decently again last night, which is remarkable and lovely; I was very tired last evening and as such, was fairly confident that a good night’s sleep could be had, and I was correct. I forgot to set the alarm last night, but woke up five minutes before it would have gone off had I turned it on, so rather than risking it, just went ahead and got out of the bed. Yesterday was a fairly good day, all things considered; I got my inbox under control (thanks primarily to all the work I did on it Sunday afternoon; now it’s a matter of keeping up with it so it doesn’t get so out of control again) but I can also look at it now and not feel defeated before I even get started with it this morning, which is an enormous plus. I do have some things to take care of today; the kind of odious chore I inevitably always put off–I have to make phone calls. Yesterday I made two of the odious calls I hate making; scheduling an appointment to take my desktop computer into the Apple store to see if they can install an OS into it (scheduled for this Friday morning) and I also scheduled an eye appointment in Metairie that same morning (the Apple Store is actually in Metairie, at Lakeside Mall); today I have to schedule the dentist and I have to call my doctor’s office regarding prescriptions. I am not certain why I hate doing these sorts of things and put them off always; they inevitably are never painful to experience and yet somehow…I just can’t make myself do them, ever; I just don’t like doing things that other people describe as adulting.

I suppose it has something to do with my innate refusal to accept the fact that I am, in fact, not only an adult but an older one, at that.

We watched some more episodes of Jupiter’s Legacy last night, which is entertaining in and of itself, but there are some issues with it–we really don’t like the character of Chloe, and they seem determined to shove her down our throats all the time–although I imagine had we read the graphic novels the show is based on (as were Watchmen and The Boys) that might have made a difference in our perceptions. I would go so far as to say of the three shows about alternative superheros (non-DC and non-Marvel, which have become cultural touchstones for us all), this is probably the weakest entry; it clearly didn’t have the money behind it that the other two shows did, and sometimes the cost-cutting measures are fairly obvious. It’s also incredibly difficult to structure a limited series with two different timelines (I frankly admire the attempt to do so), one which is set in a distant past and intended to show how the original superheroes on the show got their powers in the first place, as well as a modern timeline in which the question of adapting the heroes’ code of honor and behavior must needs be changed and adapted to fit threats which are becoming more and more dangerous and lethal; with some heroes dying as a result. That, to me, is the heart of the show’s present-day story, and much more interesting than the one set in the past; if the story of how they originally got their powers doesn’t somehow tie in conclusively to the current time story, then the origin story (not really explored in either Watchmen or The Boys) will seem as though it was merely filler, padding the show out to more episodes than perhaps necessary.

On the other hand, maybe I should just kick back and enjoy the show for what it is and not think about it too hard: sometimes a show is, in fact, merely intended as an entertainment with no deeper meaning.

Although sometimes I wonder if that is part of the problem with my writing; I never think about a “bigger picture” when I come up with an idea for a book or a short story; I just want to tell the story I am thinking about, rather than trying to place it into the context of our modern day world or culture and just try to tell it. It’s definitely harder when you do try to make a bigger point, and incredibly disappointing when people consistently don’t see it–which is, of course, the writer’s issue, not the reader’s; which also leads to the beginning of the spiral into Imposter Syndrome, which I usually don’t need any help to reach–but I do remember that I used to take those things–themes, points, underlying messages–into consideration when I used to write my books. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I have continued to do so, and simply don’t remember anymore; it is truly terrifying how bad my memory has become over the years.

Ah, there’s the thunder–which means today’s storm is arriving just in time for me to leave for the office! Hurray. Can the flash flood watch be far behind? I think not.

And on that note, best to head into the shower so I can go to work. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader!

Plastic

Sunday and a gray morning here in New Orleans. We’re supposed to have thunderstorms (some severe) throughout the day; of course I have to make groceries and go to the gym at some point–which means watching the weather to see when I can make a break for it. But other than that, I have the entire day relatively free; I finished the revisions of Bury Me in Shadows and turned them in yesterday to my editor. I think I caught everything; it’s a tricky manuscript. But as I revised and edited yesterday, I was pretty pleased with it, overall; which is a switch from the usual. I also realized one of my problems with reading my work once it’s finished is that I am rarely, if ever, able to turn off editor-mode; because I generally read my work with an eye to editing and fixing and making it stronger–and I use that mindset when I go back and read things after they’ve been published. I don’t know if there’s a switch in my head I can flip to make that change, but here’s hoping.

Paul went to a party last night–I could have gone, but was a little worn down from finishing the edits, so I stayed home and watched a documentary series on the Smithsonian Channel called Apocalypse: The Second World War, which was quite interesting to watch. Almost all of the footage used in the series was shot either by professional documentarians or journalists covering the war, or amateurs…I never cease to be amazed when I see how young the American military were during this conflict. World War II is endlessly fascinating to me, because it was such an enormous turning point for the world and civilization; the world was a vastly different place after the Axis surrender than it was before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. It’s been a while since I read any fiction about the war–when I was a teenager I read a lot of it, as well as a lot of post-war fiction–and I realized I’d rarely read any fiction from the point of view of soldiers actually fighting on the ground or in the air (other than The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw, for the most part I read things like Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War/War and Remembrance, etc.). I’ve never read Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, for example, or any of the post-war novels that sort of glutted the market in the decades following. I got down James Jones’ From Here to Eternity–I bought a copy of the unabridged version, which was released by the estate sometime in the last decade, with all the parts the publisher originally removed restored–and I think I am going to take that with me to read when I go visit my parents later this month. It’s one of my father’s favorite books and movies–it’s also been a hot minute since I’ve seen the movie–and since my main character in Chlorine served, it’s probably not a bad idea for me to read it. I read the first couple of pages yesterday evening before I went to bed, and it’s actually quite good…so I am looking forward to reading it. After I finish the things I need to get done today, I am going to curl up and read The Butcher’s Boy with an eye to finishing it today, so I can dive into A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King.

One of the more interesting things about having all these streaming services and apps is the ability to find treasures like the Smithsonian Channel buried inside of them. As Constant Reader has undoubtedly noticed, I love documentaries, and now that we have such a glut of streaming services we pay for, I am now searching through them for documentary channels and so forth, and have been enormously pleased with what I have found thus far. (I also took advantage of a special deal for Shudder yesterday–two months at 99 cents each, before reversion to regular pricing, so am going to up my horror game for a while) There’s really never a reason to be bored, is there, with the wealth of streaming services out there? I can certainly always find something, no matter how obscure–which is also why I refuse to “rent” something to stream–although I am thinking about biting the bullet and paying to stream The Last Picture Show, which I really do want to see again.

I cleaned and organized and filed yesterday as well, which has left the kitchen looking–well, if not tidy, certainly in much better shape than it had been in–and I also started another donation box of books. I also want to start clearing out the storage attic here in the Lost Apartment, which isn’t going to be easy, and will certainly make a mess in the living room–which still looks like a storm struck it–but I really do want to start getting rid of things we don’t really need anymore, and there are a shit ton of boxes up there of unnecessary things. Progress may be incremental, but progress is progress.

And I should probably, at some point, start revising and editing the Kansas book, but I think I am going to take this week off from novels.

I started writing a short story this past week–really, just the opening sentence and a second paragraph–which also came from a novel idea. The book idea arose from a joke with some writer friends about noir fiction and noir covers, with their scantily clad sex bomb femme fatales; I joked that someone should write a noir about a strip club in the French Quarter and call it Girls! Girls! Girls! so the cover could have poll dancers and so forth on it; which then of course started the wheels in my creative brain turning and meshing the gears. A character I introduced in the later Chanse books–who eventually got her private eye license and he took her on as a partner–had worked as a stripper in the Quarter to put herself through UNO; I liked her a lot (even though her name is escaping me at the moment) and had even thought about making her the main character in a series, with Chanse as part of her supporting cast. But this was different, and called for a different character–for a while, when thinking about this, I toyed with the notion of an undercover cop or FBI agent; but then thought, in this time, could a woman be assigned to go undercover as a stripper? Maybe, but it could prove problematic. And then I remembered an intern from years ago, when I worked at the Community Center, who worked part time at the Hustler Club as a “shot girl”–her job was walking around with a tray with shots in test tubes. When someone bought one, she’d place the test tube in her cleavage and have to lean forward to dump the shot in his mouth. She hated it–she was a lesbian–but the money was so damned good she only had to work two nights a week and made enough to pay the rent and the bills and so forth. Someone could easily go undercover a shot girl–which, while still demeaning, wasn’t as demeaning as stripping. But the other day for some reason I was thinking about this again, and the thing that made the most sense was that one of the shot girls gets picked up by Vice and is forced to become an informer….which would make her walk the line between the cops and her crooked, organized crime employers, as well as with her co-workers. So, when the opening occurred to me the other day, I wrote it down and saved the file as a short story called “Shot Girl” (thereby adding yet another file to the “unfinished short story” list). I think maybe this week I’ll work on one of the unfinished stories in the drawer.

And on that note, it’s time to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you again tomorrow morning.

Salvation Theme

Reading has always been my escape from the realities of the cruel, cold world. As long as I can remember, I found solace in books–I could always open a book and escape from realities I didn’t want to participate in, or when the world became too much, there was always the comfort of a story about other people and another world where I could go to get away from it all.

When I was a kid, I was more interested in stories about women and girls than I was in stories about boys; I couldn’t really relate to boys as easily as I did to girls. This was, I think, a part of the strict gender divide in the society and culture I was born into; there were specific and clear differences between things for boys and things for girls. Girls played at housekeeping and mothering; boys were supposed to be outdoorsy and adventurous and active. I was not an outdoorsy, adventurous, active little boy; all I wanted to do was be left alone with a book–and the more my parents tried to get me interested in boy things the harder I stubbornly resisted. I never understood why it was so wrong that all I ever wanted to do was read.

I think that part of the reason I’ve always preferred books by and about women are because I can relate to them more, if that makes sense. As someone who never became vested in what society viewed as what masculine behavior is, those behaviors–not always necessarily toxic, but certainly steeped in it–inevitably make me lose interest in the character and their story.

Likewise, one of the reasons I preferred Mary Stewart to Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney (still love Holt and Whitney, though) is because her heroines weren’t passive; they didn’t sit still for being victimized or playing the victim but rather took charge of the situation and were just as capable as any man. This is why one of my favorite fictional series characters of all time were those created by the great Elizabeth Peters: Jacqueline Kirby and Vicky Bliss were also take-charge characters who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and of then there’s her creation who may be my favorite series character of all time: Amelia Peabody. God, how I love Amelia Peabody. Peters’ death was a blow for me; knowing there would be no more books with Peabody and Emerson and Ramses and Nofret and Walter and Evelyn and David….

But then I had the enormous good fortune to discover Mary Russell.

I sat back in y chair, jabbed the cap onto my pen, threw it into the drawer, and abandoned myself to the flood of satisfaction, relief, and anticipation that was let loose by that simple action. The satisfaction was for the essay whose last endnote I had just corrected, the distillation of several months’ hard work and my first effort as a mature scholar: It was a solid piece of work, ringing true and clear on the page. The relief I felt was not for the writing, but for the concomitant fact that, thanks to my preoccupation, I had survived the compulsory Christmas revels, a fete which ha reached a fever pitch in this, the last year of my aunts controls of what she saw as the family purse. The anticipation was for the week of freedom before me, one entire week with neither commitments nor responsibilities, leading up to y twenty-first birthday and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. A small but persistent niggle of trepidation tried to make itself known, but I forestalled it by standing up and going to the chest of drawers for clothing.

My aunt was, strictly speaking, Jewish, but she had long ago abandoned her heritage and claimed with all the enthusiasm of a convert the outward forms of cultural Anglicanism. As a result, her idea of Christmas tended heavily toward the Dickensian and Saxe-Gothan. Her final year as my so-called guardian was coincidentally the first year since the Great War ended to see quantities of unrationed sugar, butter, and meat, which meant the emotional excesses had been compounded by culinary ones. I had begged off most of the revelry, citing the demands of the paper, but with my typewriter fallen silent, I had no choice but crass and immediate flight. I did not have to think about y choice of goals–I should begin at the cottage of my friend and mentor, my tutor, sparring partner and comrade-in-arms, Sherlock Holmes. Hence my anticipation. Hence my trepidation.

I first encountered Mary Russell last year when I read the first of her adventures with Holmes, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which took place over several years and was really a loosely connected series of different stories that showed the growing bond between the teenaged girl and the retired detective. Her wit, her style, her fierce intelligence–and her refusal to be a sidekick or passive made me fall madly in love with her–despite my long-held antipathy towards Sherlock Holmes. (I have since read more of Doyle, and find the antipathy I once felt fading; in no small part, I think, because last year I had to write my own spin on Holmes and Watson, which really changed everything I thought, felt, and believed about them.) I’m not sure what made me select the second Mary Russell to read recently; I do intend to read them all, of course, but there are sixteen or so (!) of them, and then there are King’s stand alones, and I’d also love to revisit her Kate Martinelli series, which is how I first came to read King in the first place. But I digress.

A Monstrous Regiment of Women is, of course, a terrific title; and I knew, of course, the source for it: the tedious Scot religious bigot John Knox’s 1550’s pamphlet primarily attacking Queen Mary I of England (aka Mary Tudor), “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” in which he blamed the sad state of Christendom at the time at the irreligious and unprecedented amount of women in power at that time in Europe–and, as I have said many times before, the sixteenth century had more powerful women running countries than any century before or since (and I’ve always wanted to write a history of that century, focusing on those women, and using that very same title King used here). So, going into the book, and knowing that Mary was studying theology at Oxford in the latter half of the first book, I assumed (correctly) that this book would have religion, and women, at its heart, so I sat down with the book rather eagerly.

It did not disappoint.

The book opens, as noted above, around Christmas time, just before Mary finally achieves her majority and comes into the inheritance her benighted aunt/guardian has been enjoying herself with since Mary’s family perished in an auto accident when she was fourteen. Rather the celebrate the holiday with her aunt and the aunt’s hangers-on, Mary escapes the house and goes in search of her old comrade, Holmes. This leads her to London and an encounter with a friend from earlier in her education at Oxford, which in turn leads her to the New Temple of God and its leader, Margery Childe–charismatic, suffragette, and also a religious mystic. (I was put in mind of Aimee Semple McPherson, who has always fascinated me and I’ve always kind of wanted to write about.) But there’s something unholy going on at the New Temple, and perspicacious Mary can’t quite put her finger on what’s wrong there–but it intrigues her and she gets deeper and deeper into what’s going on there.

There’s also a switch-up in the dynamic between her and Holmes in this book, but it is also to King’s credit that the groundwork for this was laid almost from the very beginning of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, and it neither seems out of place or untoward, either for the story or the characters–and despite the awkwardness this change-up creates between the two of them in their all-too-brief encounters in the story (for make no mistake about it; this is clearly Mary’s story, and Holmes no more than a supporting player on this stage), it makes sense and it also answers one of the questions the first book aroused in me; how can King keep writing about this opposite-sex pair through an entire series without the question of chaperoning and so forth not coming up, or them simply remaining good friends while the deep and growing affection between them is so plainly right there on the page?

The writing is masterful and intelligent, and the story–with its interesting twists and turns, along with some exciting ventures along some of the more disreputable sections of London–is so well paced and plotted that you simply cannot put the book down. I was, quite literally, only on chapter three when I picked the book up again yesterday morning; within moments I was a captive of King’s magic and completely incapable of putting the book down–to the point that I resented having to take breaks to get coffee or go to the restroom or feed the cat. I had decided, when I sat down with the book, that I had to stop reading at noon so I could get back to my own manuscript. Noon came and went, and still I kept reading. At one I flipped to the back to see how many more pages were left, and decided that it was ridiculous and incomprehensible to stop reading so close to the end, and I wouldn’t be able to completely focus on my own while I was so worried about how Mary was going to escape the peril in which King had placed her. So…rationalizing if I don’t finish my own editing today I can always finish tomorrow I plowed forward.

And–without spoilers–I will say King did an incredibly accurate and chilling depiction of how drug addiction takes hold of people.

She also explores the question of women’s role in the Christian religion beautifully, weaving these theological questions and issues seamlessly into the narrative. Each chapter begins with a quote about just that–either from the Bible or the great Christian philosophers, exposing the vicious misogyny that has poisoned that faith almost from the very beginning.*

I loved this book, loved loved loved it, and am really looking forward to the next, A Letter of Mary.

If you’ve not yet started this series, wait no more.

*I also made note of these quotes so I can shamelessly use them myself!

Face Up

Wednesday has rolled around again, as it always does, and last night was another restful sleep of the same sort I had on Monday; restful but awake or half-awake the majority of the time. I am beginning to wonder, quite frankly, if this is just another affect of getting older; the inability to sleep deeply every night. Yesterday I wasn’t as tired as I feared I would be, which actually was kind of nice, and I do think this will be the case this morning too. I intend to go to the gym this evening for a workout with weights after work–so being tired will not be helpful in the least. Maybe that will put me into a deep sleep tonight.

Maybe it won’t–which is more likely.

We watched two more episodes of The Capture last night on Peacock, which is incredibly good. I still have absolutely no clue what’s going on, but the suspense is so ratcheted up that I cannot wait to get home tonight so we can finish watching it. I want to start reading Laurie R. King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second in her Mary Russell series, but focus is so important when reading and what little focus I have these days really needs to be spend on the revision of Bury Me in Shadows, which needs to be finished by the end of the month–so time is running out on me, as always. I was thinking about how I reacted to rereading the manuscript with an eye to edits last weekend, and how I always am enormously dissatisfied with the final product when it is released. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of every book I’ve written, as each represents surmounting a struggle of some sort in some way, and finishing and publishing a novel is always an accomplishment, regardless of how it turned out in the end. I was dissecting this in my head last night while I was making tacos for dinner (nachos for Paul); my strengths are premises, titles, and character–but inevitably whenever I start writing a book most of the time I don’t know how it’s going to end. I try to figure out how to end a book before I start writing it–but on the rare occasions when I have figured out the end beforehand, I question that as I write and inevitably change my mind at least once, if not twice, and as a result, I never am completely confident in my endings. Adding to the neuroses in my brain, the last few chapters of a book generally don’t get as much attention as earlier chapters, either, which makes my insecurity even worse.

I really do wish I could slap my first creative writing teacher across the face for doing such a number on me that it has lasted all these years. FUCKER.

Then again, he typed smugly, I’m about thirty-six novels, five novellas, and fifty short stories into my career; he’s still unpublished, forty years later. So, there’s that…and the fact I never forget a grudge.

I’ve also been toying with some 1970’s research in my spare moments–looking up things and trying to remember things from my tween years–like “sissy bars” (and no, it’s not a bar for effeminate gay men, though it is a great name for a gay bar). I remembered “sissy bars” as being the high bar on boys’ bicycles that girls’ bikes didn’t have back then; turns out it’s actually the back bar at the end of a bike that the passenger behind the driver/rider can lean back on for balance. (I still remember it the other way; and that other bar doesn’t seem to have a name, which is weird.) I’ve been wanting to write about the early 1970’s in the Chicago suburbs for quite some time–I have an idea based on a murder that happened in our suburb when I was a freshman in high school, You’re No Good, which could be a lot of fun to work on and write–and my main character from Lake Thirteen (Scotty?) was from that same fictional suburb…which leads me back into that weird Greg Universe where all of my books are somehow connected, between New Orleans, Alabama, Chicago and it’s suburbs, California, and Kansas–which I completely forgot that I was doing. (Aside: Bury Me in Shadows is set in Corinth County; which is where the main character in Dark Tide was also from; where I set the story “Smalltown Boy”; and where Frank and Scotty’s nephew Taylor is from, making his first appearance in Baton Rouge Bingo.) But the early 1970’s was an interesting and somewhat volatile time, between Vietnam, the economic crisis, and Watergate; where television gave us stuff like The Partridge Family and Love, American Style and horrible variety shows; when the post World War II economic boom in the United States was beginning to crumble and fade away; when Top 40 radio ruled the AM channels and everything was still on vinyl or eight-track tapes, before cable television and 24 hour news and no Internet or cell phones. But… as I mentioned earlier, while I have a great premise and a terrific title, I don’t know the story or how it ends…but that won’t stop me from obsessively researching the period.

And on that note, tis time to head back into the spice mines. Have a great day Constant Reader!