If You Asked Me To

It’s Friday! I made it through my first week home after Bouchercon! Huzzah! Huzzah!

I kind of need this weekend, to be honest. I am still kind of discombobulated, out of it, wondering where and what I need to get done and when I need to do it by. I know I need to make a list, but I don’t even know where to start. It feels like whatever I was focusing on or doing before I left for St. Petersburg has been lost forever in the ether of my mind.

A scary thought, is it not?

But I’m working on a new story, and I have another idea for a book that I am noodling around with this week, and we’ll see how much I can get my life reset this weekend.

Yay, weekend!

I’ve also been watching the documentary series Bobby Kennedy For President on Netflix, and enjoying it–if you can say watching the history of a life and the potential for greatness snuffed out too young enjoying–but it has made me think about a lot of things. (I also highly recommend CNN’s documentary series The Fifties and each decade series that followed; we have such a tendency in our country to forget even our most recent history, and this lack of knowledge is at the heart of so many things wrong with our present day world….it makes me sad.) I remember 1968; I remember the night Bobby Kennedy was murdered. I remember the sense that, with all the rioting and murders and lawlessness seemingly running rampant in the country, that the noble American experiment in self-rule was coming to an end; that these seismic social convulsions would end with the downfall of the country and result in an uncertain future. I didn’t know much about Bobby Kennedy before watching this documentary; I know more now, and watching him in action, his speeches and what he believed in and what he was fighting for leaves no question in my mind that had he not been murdered in Los Angeles that fateful night he had a very good shot at becoming president that year. How different would our country, would our history, be had we not suffered through Vietnam until 1975; had there been no Watergate investigation and presidential resignation; had Spiro Agnew not been vice-president when his past crimes as governor of Maryland surfaced in 1973? But then again, who knows what would have happened had Bobby Kennedy not been shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, or what his presidency would have been like. It’s hard to imagine, though, that the next eight years would have somehow been worse.

When I read Taylor Caldwell’s novel Captains and the Kings in the early 1970’s (it was also made into a mini-series) it was fairly apparent to me that she based the Armaghs on the Kennedys; one would have to be an idiot not to realize that, particularly when she wrote, in an afterward, about how she had warned President Kennedy not to go to Dallas. Caldwell, a conservative and a staunch Catholic, believed in what is generally known as a conspiracy theory involving a coalition of incredibly wealthy and powerful men around the world who decide elections and the future of the world, based on how it will impact their wealth to the positive. In her roman-a-clef about the Kennedy family, originally the patriarch was one of those “captains and the kings” who controlled world events; his ambition, however, for his son to become president eventually overrode his loyalty to the cabal, with the end result that his son is assassinated. The family matriarch believes the family to be cursed; there has always been talk of a curse on the Kennedy family as well.

Given the cruelty of fate to the Kennedy family–one has to wonder. So much death, so many young lives cut short. Awful.

I do recommend the documentary series. Kennedy haters won’t like it, but it’s a nice introduction to who Robert F. Kennedy was, and why he was so important to so many people in that terribly turbulent time.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Walk This Way

Yesterday was a good day.

I slept really well Friday night (again last night, but not as well as Friday) and I ran my errands and went to the grocery store. I even went to the gym and lifted weights. I had every intention of doing some writing when I got finished with all of that, but got sidetracked into cleaning and decided to just kind of relax for the day and spend today doing the writing and so forth that I need to get done. (This is the trap, you see–now I have to write today. I don’t have a choice, but trust me, after I run my one errand today watch and see how I rationalize not writing today!) I started reading Lori Rader-Day’s The Day I Died yesterday, and I watched some interesting things on the television–including a short documentary on Studlebrities, hot guys who have big followings on social media and have managed to parlay their looks and followings into cash. It’s an idea, after all, for a story or a book; not sure which. But I do find the whole gay-for-pay/social media famous for their looks thing to be an interesting and fascinating subculture, and something that would probably make for a terrific noir or crime novel.

Yesterday also saw the release of the rave Publisher’s Weekly review of Florida Happens. It’s a great review, with shout-outs to some of the contributors, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

Yesterday I started watching the film version of Phantoms, a novel by Dean Koontz which I remember fondly. It had an interesting cast–Rose MacGowan, Liev Schrieber, Joanna Going, Peter O’Toole and a very young Ben Affleck–and it got off to a really good start…but I gradually grew bored with it and stopped watching. I decided to finally watch it because I’d watched another adaptation of a Koontz novel, one I hadn’t read, on Friday night, called Odd Thomas, which I really enjoyed.

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I became a Koontz fan with the first novel of his I read, Lightning. I bought the paperback at a Sam’s Club in Houston; I went there with my mother on a visit. I’d heard of Koontz and seen his books everywhere, and I was in my I want to be a horror writer phase. Lightning was both clever and brilliant and smart, I thought, and I tore through it in no time flat–particularly enjoying the big twist that came in the middle. Basically, it’s the story of a woman who becomes a very successful writer, who has an ‘angel’ who shows up to save her in pivotal moments in her life–when her life is in danger. But it’s a lot more complicated than that…and it really is a great read. From Lightning, I went on to read the others than I consider his best: Phantoms, Watchers, Strangers, Midnight, and the ones that are probably lesser. I started reading his books when they came out in hardcover, but ironically, when he started writing the Odd Thomas series was when I stopped reading him. The novels had become more hit-and-miss for me; and the switch to writing a detective series–despite my interest in crime fiction–didn’t interest me very much at the time. I hadn’t enjoyed Peter Straub’s switch to crime fiction–Mystery, Koko, and The Throat, collectively known as the Blue Rose trilogy–which, while well-written, just didn’t gel for me. (I have occasionally thought about going back and rereading them; I might appreciate them all the more now.) Anyway, this Odd Thomas series didn’t interest me very much, and so I never read it.

Watching the film changed my mind.

Don’t get me wrong–the film is flawed–but it really is enjoyable to watch, and the mystery element of the plot is quite interesting and surprising and unpredictable. But the strongest part of the film, what holds it all together, is the late actor Anton Yelchin, in the lead.

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Yelchin is best known for playing Chekhov in the reboot of the original Star Trek movies; he was tragically killed when his car rolled down the driveway, pinning him against the gates to his home and he suffocated–his lungs were crushed. (What a horrible way to die, really.) He was good in the Star Trek movies, and kind of cute, but he really shone in Odd Thomas, where he basically carried the film, and his charm and charisma absolutely worked. The role didn’t really require a great deal of heavy lifting from him as an actor–basically, he simply had to be likable, but he really pulled it off. He had that indefinable thing we simply refer to as charisma or star quality; and again, what a shame he died so young.

I think he probably would have wound up being a really big star.

And maybe I’ll go back and read the books.

And now back to the spice mines.

Baby Love

It’s Friday, and the weekend. New Orleans continues to swelter and drip in the midsummer heat, with August just around the corner. August is usually worse than July; the peak being around Labor Day; after which the temperatures starts to drop a bit and the humidity seems to lessen. But it’s hot everywhere; even the UK is, or was, having an intense heatwave. That’s why I am always puzzled by questions about how I stand the heat in New Orleans in the summer time; it’s hot everywhere. The places that aren’t humid are even hotter–and that oh it’s a dry heat really only means the difference between a sauna and a steam room; and the damp heat is better for your skin.

You don’t need to  use moisturizer if you live in New Orleans.

We continue to enjoy Castle Rock, and why did I never notice, ever before, how insanely beautiful Bill Skarsgard is? The resemblance to his brother is there, of course, but he is quite handsome all on his own. I mean, those eyes…eyes are always, to me, the sexiest feature; I am a sucker for someone with gorgeous eyes.

I slept better last night than I did the night before, but still woke up several times during the night, which means I am going to have to shake up what I do before I go to sleep; I’d been reading in bed for a half hour or so before going to sleep and it looks like I might have to go back to that again. I want to finish Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, which is currently my bedside reading, and I also need to get started reading the Anthony finalists for Best Paperback Original, since I am moderating that panel at Bouchercon.

I am sooooooo behind on my reading.

Also: I am very tired. I had intended to go to the gym tonight after getting home from work, but no…that’s not happening. I think I may even be too tired to read. I think I’ll go watch a documentary.

Yeah, that’s the ticket. What an exciting life I lead.

Have a lovely evening.

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No One Is To Blame

Writing has always been my salvation.

That may seem melodramatic, but it’s true. As long as I can remember, no matter what was going on in my life, the dream was always there and after I actually became a writer, it’s been the foundation of my life. The business drives me crazy, but the writing itself keeps me sane. When the rest of my life or the world seems to have gone mad, I can always escape anything and everything by immersing myself in writing or reading. No matter what else was going on my life or my world, I could always escape by either reading a book or getting out a journal and writing. Whenever I had a bad day at a job or some kind of personal-life conflict, I would always think to myself, one day I will be a writer and none of this will matter anymore.

That got me through more hard times than I care to remember, honestly.

Which is why, of course, the weird duality of being a writer/writing fascinates me so much. I actually love being a writer, and most of the time I love writing, but it can be enormously frustrating at the same time. No matter how much I love to write, how much I enjoy actually doing it, no matter how much of my real identity is wrapped up in being a writer–I dread doing it every day and have to actually force myself to do it. Today I need to write a chapter of the Scotty book (at least one) and I need to work on two of my short stories; one has a bigger priority than the other, of course, but we’ll see if I even get to them. I intended to write yesterday, but after running errands and doing all of that I was exhausted, which is also concerning: why am I so easily exhausted, and what has happened to all of my energy? I spent the rest of the day in my easy chair, watching Evil Genius on Netflix and getting caught up on Animal Kingdom (which, in Season 3, I’m not enjoying as much as I was in earlier seasons), and then wasted some more time I should have spent cleaning or doing something productive. But I also need at least one day a week where I don’t really use my brain too much, and even so, as I sit there watching television my mind does tend to wander a bit, and I wind up working out puzzles and problems that I’m encountering in my work.

I had another story rejected yesterday, and I consider it a badge of honor that I no longer get my feelings hurt or react in disappointment or in other rage-y ways to rejections. One, it’s always lovely to receive a direct email rejection from the editor herself when they have a system where you can actually go look and see if your story was rejected; so a personal note from the editor is always appreciated. And as I have mentioned before,  my short stories are crime-related but not mysteries per se; so it’s not really a surprise when they get rejected from mystery markets; the surprise comes when they are actually taken. But never fear, I shall keep writing them, if for no other reason than I enjoy doing so…but I am also very well aware that my writing, and the limited time I have available for writing, should be spent working on things that should make me money.

That’s the other dichotomy of being a writer; writing what you want to write vs. writing things that make you money. I am a firm believer in the axiom you must always pay the writer, and yet many times I’ve written things I haven’t gotten paid for, that I knew up front I wasn’t getting paid for (this is an entirely different thing than writing something you are promised payment for but never actually receive the proffered payment for; that’s fraud) because it was something I either wanted to write or because it meant sharing the table of contents with writers I deeply admire, hoping that sharing the pages of an anthology or magazine or whatever-it-was with those writers would somehow end up with some of their luster and stardust rubbing off somehow on me.

I reflected on this a lot this past week as I wrote my afterward to Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories; some of those stories I never received payment for, or was paid so little for them that the money was merely a token of appreciation rather than something I could get excited about receiving; there’s a significant difference between getting ten or fifteen dollars for a story and getting fifty to a hundred (or more). As I said in that afterward, no one gets rich writing short stories. (Well, maybe Joyce Carol Oates makes money doing it, and names on that level. Those of us on my level of success? Not so much.)

So, on that note, I am about to put on my miner’s hat and head into the spice mines for the day. Have a lovely day, everyone.

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Something About You

Sunday and it’s my Saturday, which is going to really mess up my body clock, don’t you think? Today is going to be my errands-and-cleaning day; the Lost Apartment is, once again, a disaster area, and the bed linens need a-laundering, and I have to get groceries, and…and…and…

At least I have tomorrow off. Today is going to be one of those days where if I get some writing done, terrific, if I don’t, well, it’s a cleaning-and-errands day and it’s miserably hot. I am going to barbecue later on today–I’m also going to cook things for the week—and so am not really sure how much time I would have for writing today anyway.

I watched another documentary the other night–after the Tab Hunter–which also gave me the answer to the noir novel dilemma I hadn’t been able to figure out for quite some time. It was so obvious I don’t know why it never occurred to me before but whatever the reason, I’m glad I know the answer now. Now that another part of the puzzle has been fitted into place, it’s simply now a matter of figuring out the ending, and I can dive headfirst into writing it, once I’m caught up on everything else I am writing. When I get finished with the Scotty and the WIP, that’s when I’ll decide whether I am going to write the noir next or Bury Me In Satin, the y/a I want to do this year.

So little time! The fact that I lazily waste so much time makes me crazy, yet doesn’t somehow motivate me to not waste time somehow.

Anyway, I’ve always wanted to do a classic noir-style novel with a homme fatale instead of a femme fatale, and this particular story has always really worked for me in terms of something I want to write; I have my main character and some of my supporting characters already in place. The enigma I couldn’t solve was the homme fatale; I can see him in my  head; I know what he looks like an d what his body looks like and the charm and charisma–but the motivation was something I couldn’t quite grasp; and that missing puzzle piece was key to who he is as a character, and now I have that piece. Huzzah!

I suppose I need to get back to the spice mines. Sigh. Now that I’m thinking about these projects, I’m feeling motivated to do some writing.

Heavy heaving sigh.

Anyway, here’s the opening of one of my new short stories from my collection Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories, “The Weight of a Feather”:

It was one of those buildings that went up right after the war, slapped together in a hurry because the city needed more living space.  The soldiers were coming home with their grim memories and the city was booming. People needed places to live if they were going to work in the city and there was money to be had. It was an ugly building, yellow brick and cement and uniform windows, with no charm, nothing that made it any different than any of the other apartment buildings that had gone up, that were still being built.

 The Christmas lights winking in some of the windows didn’t make them look any cheerier.

It was starting to snow, big wet flakes swirling around his head and sticking to his dark coat. There was no sign of life from Rock Creek Park at the end of the street. Max had walked past a small diner on the corner, a few lone customers behind windows frosted from cold. He’d thought about going in, getting coffee, but it was too risky.

Best to get it over with.

He buzzed the apartment, and the door buzzed open. There was a big Christmas tree in the lobby, empty boxes wrapped underneath. The white linoleum floor was already showing signs of wear and tear. He ignored the elevators and headed for the stairs. It was hot inside, steam heat through radiators making him sweat under his layers.

The third-floor hallway smelled like boiled cabbage and garlic and onions. He raised a gloved hand to knock on 3-L.

The man who answered the door smiled. Special Agent Frank Clinton was in his early thirties at most, cold gray eyes, his face battered from boxing Golden Gloves as a teen. He was wearing twill pants held up by suspenders over a white ribbed tank top. He looked up and down the hall. “Get inside, Sonnier.” he said in his thick Boston accent.

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Mad About You

Summer has returned, and while expected always, it’s return always, somehow, catches me off-guard; I forget what it’s like to always have damp socks, to have that slick feeling of sticky dried sweat on your skin, the way the sweat affects the corners of your eyes and your eyelids, the way the heavy wet heat drains all of your energy from you. Even after twenty-two years here, every summer there’s an adjustment period of getting used to it. The heat index is in the high nineties now every day, regardless, and life comes about making it from one air conditioned place to another as quickly as possible.

Thursday night Paul stayed at the office late working on a grant that was due yesterday, so I was at home with Scooter and at loose ends. I wasn’t able to get much writing done that day–one of those days–and as I sat in my easy chair with my journal and a cat asleep in my lap, I decided to watch the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential on Prime. In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tab Hunter film (other than Polyester and Lust in the Dust), but I knew he’d been around since the 1950’s. I knew he was a teen idol/heart throb. I also knew he’d been involved with Tony Perkins, and that he’d come out in a memoir also titled Tab Hunter Confidential. As the documentary started, I realized with a start, I’ve met Tab Hunter–several times, in fact and so as the documentary played I kept thinking, wow, I’m one or two degrees of separation from everyone in this, including everyone he co-starred with.

And, I knew how handsome he was because I’d met him in person.

I was completely blown away by how beautiful he was when  he was young.

I mean, wow.

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I mean, don’t get me wrong–he’s still an incredibly handsome man, which should have given me some idea of just how breathtakingly beautiful he was when he was young.

It’s also very weird to be watching a documentary and realize, oh, yeah, I’ve met Tab Hunter a couple of times.

My life is so weird.

It’s an interesting documentary, about being a closeted star in the Hollywood system and having the studio “fixers” cleaning up messes and keeping you out of the papers and so forth. There’s a terrific gay noir novel just waiting to be written about 1950’s gay Hollywood, and I am almost there coming up with the story in my mind.

I already have the two books I am writing though, and once they are finished, I know what the next two are going to be…so Hollywood gay noir will have to be after that, I guess.

I have to work today; I am doing testing all day at Gay Pride, but have Monday off. So, I am going to hopefully finish reading the Roth today between clients, and maybe, maybe, finally get to start reading Alex Segura’s Blackout.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

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The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?