Out of Touch

As a general rule, my blog is something that I simply sit down and write while I drink my morning coffee and wake up in the morning. It’s part of my waking up process, so not only is it unfiltered, it’s unedited; I rarely go back and reread it with an eye towards fixing mistakes, sentences where I’ve left out a word, spelling mistakes that spell check  didn’t catch as I write, etc.

But every once in a  great while, I’ll start writing a blog post and am not entirely comfortable with discussing the subject matter publicly. I’ve said things before publicly that later were removed from their proper context and thus twisted by someone with an agenda determined to make me look bad; so when I am talking about a sensitive topic, I tend to either shelve the blog post entirely, or put it aside to read over again at a later date, or post it so that only I can see it. I worry about posting things because the last thing I ever want to do is deal with an angry on-line lynch mob, or say something that, taken out of context years later, will be used to bludgeon me; lynch mobs don’t care about either context or nuance, alas, and once the torches are lit and the pitchforks hoisted, no one listens.

This has happened to me more than once, as I said, so I tend to be careful.

So, in some ways I’ve become self-censoring; but this self-censoring has also saved me a lot of stress, aggravation, and worry. I also rarely, if ever, go off on one of what my friend Jeffrey used to call my Julia Sugarbaker rants. This has helped lower my blood pressure, for one thing; I still do it, of course, I just don’t make it public anymore. My opinion on anything and everything isn’t so amazing and profound that I feel it needs to be shared because it will change minds and make the world a better place. Simply because I can speak my mind freely on-line doesn’t mean that I should. I have a right to my opinion, as does everyone, but I also have a right to keep my own counsel and I also don’t have to argue with anyone I disagree with publicly; and the reality is, I am never going to be convinced that I as a gay man am not entitled to equality; that transfolk have no right to human dignity; that women are lesser than men; or that white people by virtue of being white are somehow superior to people who are not. I also will never be convinced that people do not have the right to be seen as individuals, rather than any subgroup they might be put into by other people. There is nothing worse than being judged by preconceptions you have no control over.

As you know, Constant Reader, I’ve been engaged in something I call The Short Story Project since the beginning of the year; in which I am focusing most of my fiction reading on short stories rather than novels. I’ve not read any novels since the first of the year; I am still reading nonfiction. The reasoning behind this was twofold; because I don’t think short stories get nearly enough attention from readers, myself included, and because I have always struggled with writing them; this was, for me, a self-improvement exercise as a writer. It has helped in that regard; I have written more short stories in the first few months of this year than I have in any year since I decided to pursue this.

One of my favorite writers from the past is Ross Macdonald; he’s a favorite, but he isn’t up there with James M. Cain and John D. Macdonald and Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson and Faulkner and some others than I consider not only to be iconic but also consider to be major influences on me and my work; Ross Macdonald is an influence, but not as much as the others I named and some others unnamed as well. But I do love Ross Macdonald (I love his wife Margaret Millar more, but that’s another blog entry, methinks), and several years ago I bought a compendium called The Archer Files, in which Macdonald’s short stories, some of which were unpublished, were pulled together in one volume and the editor did some academic discussion of them.

I am still kind of processing one of his short stories; “Strangers in Town.”  I have to give Macdonald credit for writing a short story in that time period (early 1950s)  with characters who were people of color who also drove the story, but…yeah, the casual racism of the period slapped me in the face. That story today most likely would not be published as written, but it has value historically since it stands as an example of how casual and easy systemic racism was in that period. He used parts of it in the next story in The Archer Files, and it also apparently structurally was important to his novel The Ivory Grin, which I think I’ve read; I miss my old ability to recall plots and characters and details of every book that I’d read. It would be a lot more helpful now than it ever was when I retained the skill, you know? Heavy sigh.

One of the issues of this new century involves separating the art from the artist; in other words, can you enjoy art by someone whom, as a private citizen, is problematic? The best examples of this, to name merely two, are Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. I am not a fan of Allen’s art nor have I ever been; but Roman Polanski? He fled the United States to avoid jail on charges of statutory rape. Yet I love his films Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown; films I saw and enjoyed before he committed his crime.  Distaste has certainly kept me from seeing anything he has done since. But I still love those two films, and rewatch them on occasion; perhaps someday I will rewatch them to look for problematic tropes to unpack.

Likewise, other works from the American past are rife with tropes of sexism, homophobia and racism; the society and culture were sexist, racist, and homophobic; how can the art from that time not be? Yet but it’s how things were back then seems like a feeble response and defense; but I do think it’s possible to enjoy the art as long as one recognizes the presence of things which would never pass muster in today’s society and culture; there is a wonderful essay/book to be done about homophobia in crime fiction of the past, and how gay characters were seen/depicted/represented. I used to want to write that book, but I will undoubtedly never have the freedom and luxury of time to do the necessary research and writing of a book that would prove, ultimately, to have an exceptionally limited audience.

You can’t truly equate racism with homophobia; while there are similarities in oppression and bigotry, both systemic and personal, faced by the two communities, they aren’t the same thing; the differences can be, and are, as significant as the similarities. As a white gay man, I have systemic privilege of skin; unless my car has bumper stickers denoting it as belonging to a gay man I can feel relatively safe in my car from ‘driving while gay’; and while there are certainly levels of homophobia within law enforcement, just walking down the street I don’t need to be worried about being either harassed by law enforcement or profiled. Reading works, or seeing films, that are blatantly homophobic or have stereotypical queer characters who are there to be laughed at, mocked, or held in contempt, while somewhat jarring doesn’t feel the same to me as reading or seeing something current with those same metrics. I am not willing to judge a writer from the pre-Stonewall culture as harshly as I am someone from the present day; it is how things were. You cannot write a realistic novel or short story today about queer characters in the 1950’s, for example, without including homophobic characters and a certain degree of self-loathing in the queer characters themselves: they were outlaws, held in contempt by the society as a whole.

Yet Macdonald’s story bothered me; despite being written in a time when he was undoubtedly considered brave for writing characters of color who weren’t criminals or the kind of “Stepin’ Fetchit” stereotypes so prevalent in films of the time. And yet…and yet…

“Strangers in Town,” by Ross Macdonald, The Archer Files

“My son is in grave trouble,” the woman said.

I asked her to sit down, and after a moment’s hesitation she lowered her weight into the chair I placed for her. She was a large Negro woman, clothed rather tightly in a blue linen dress she had begun to outgrow. Her bosom was rising and falling with excitement, or from the effort of climbing the flight of stairs to my office. She looked no older than forty, but the hair that showed under her blue straw hat was the color of steel wool. Perspiration furred her upper lip.

“About your son?” I sat down behind my desk, the possible kinds of trouble that a Negro boy could get into in Los Angeles running like a newsreel through my head.

That last sentence! Referring to an adult young man of color as a “Negro boy”! And the story goes on with this sentence: She leaned towards me with the diffident and confiding charm of her race.

Yikes. Yup, no stereotyping going on there.

The murder victim was a “light-skinned brown woman.” Another “had straight black hair, trimmed short, and black-rimmed harlequin spectacles that gave her face an Asiatic cast.” Throughout the story, the word “Negro” is used; this is also jarring, because with all due respect, it’s the word that was used politely, rather than the other “n” word. But…no one said “African-American” back then…the police are also willing to view the murder of the light-skinned woman as a possible suicide–which would mean she’d slit her own throat; I can’t imagine anyone ever committing suicide that way–but the white cops’ willingness to believe that a woman of color could or would is also telling.

Other than these issues, it’s a good story; the way it twists and turns and moves away from the original crime and suspects makes for a great detective yarn; the cops never would have solved this, and the son of the woman who hired Archer most likely would have taken the fall for the crime. So, there’s that.

But the next story in The Archer Files, “Gone Girl”,  a different version of the same story, without the people of color, is also a much stronger story.

It was a Friday night. I was tooling home from the Mexican border in a light blue convertible and a dark blue mood. I had followed a man from Fresno to San Diego and lost him in the maze of streets in Old Town. When I picked up his trail again, it was cold. He had crossed the border, and my instructions were to go no further than the United States.

Halfway home, just above Emerald Bay, I overtook the worst driver in the world. He was driving a black fishtail Cadillac as if he were tacking a sailboat. The heavy car wove back and forth across the freeway, using two of its four lanes, and sometimes three. It was late, and I was in a hurry to get some sleep. I started to pass it on the right at a time when it was riding the double line. The Cadillac drifted towards me like an unguided missile, and forced me off the road in a screeching skid.

Rather than being hired by a mother whose son is being accused of murder, Archer now happens onto a strange situation while driving home from a case. He decides to stop for the night at a hotel, and becomes involved in another murder investigation. The basic story after this is the same, both structurally and thematically, but the casual racism is gone and it’s now about white people, and interestingly enough, not nearly so problematic as “Strangers in Town.” The second story works better as well; I’m not sure why that is; did it work better because he didn’t use the people of color, and thus without the stereotyping it worked better?

I am still processing this. As I said, I love Ross Macdonald, and his writing is extraordinary. He’s one of the greats. But what, and where, is that line?

I don’t know the answers; I don’t think anyone does, nor do I think there even is one answer. I don’t recall ever getting any racist vibe from Macdonald’s work before, but on the other hand, I may not have been looking for it, either; the subtleties of systemic prejudices aren’t always apparent at first glance, or even second. Sometimes it takes someone else to point them out.

While I can’t speak to whether racism in American art from the past should not be seen, viewed or read, I can speak, for myself, about art from our homophobic past (while recognizing they are not the same things). Seeing casual homophobia in American art from the past, while jarring, doesn’t bother me as much because that’s the way things were. I don’t think it should be glossed over, or censored out of existence; if we forget the past and how things were, we can’t make things better for the future nor can we understand not only how far we’ve come but how far we have to go; we cannot truly understand the present without understanding our past–and, for want of a better term, in stark black-and-white; we have to understand and appreciate the shades of gray.

And on THAT note, it’s back to the spice mines with me.

Here’s your Monday hunk.


Things Can Only Get Better

It’s Friday, and I have the morning off in order to once again have an eye appointment. Here’s hoping nothing goes wrong with that one, right? Oy. But…it’s also Friday. Hooray!

I managed to finish the first draft of my story “The Carriage House,” clocking in another 2500 words or so; the story in first draft now sits at about 5350 words, most of them written over the last two days. I had hoped to finish my Italy story yesterday as well, and get started on another Scotty chapter, but alas, that was not to be. It also occurred to me last night that I’ve written a lot of short stories so far this year; certainly more this year than I have in any previous year, and it’s early March only. Three were written to submit to anthologies, and the others were simply written because I wanted, felt the need, to write them. I’ve written a Chanse short story, which is also a first; and that’s kind of cool. I know how to fix it; I actually know how to fix all of the stories that now sit in a first draft form, which is also a first. Usually I have nary a clue on what to do with these stories once the draft is written. I also know how to fix another story that’s just been sitting in my files for years; mayhap I shall work on fixing it this weekend, who knows? I also can’t help but think that all these short stories are happening now because of the Short Story Project.

So, today it’s off to Metairie for the eye doctor, then it’s to the office for testing, and then it’s time to come home (it’s my short day) and hopefully to the gym for a workout. I’d like to spend the evening cleaning the Lost Apartment as well, so I can spend the weekend writing (other than the errands that must be run tomorrow).

Well, I never finished that, did I? Nope; my bad. Before I finished it was time to go, and off I went. I am now home, it’s later on in the day, and I’m a bit tired.

I’ll finish in the morning; sorry, Constant Reader!

I didn’t want to get up this Saturday morning, but I did–I have things to do today, errands and such, and must go to the gym–so I’ll sleep in tomorrow, which is when we lose an hour of sleep anyway. It’s not light out; it’s cloudy. I am not sure if that means it’s going to rain or something, but whatever it means…I’ll be out there dealing with it soon enough.

I also have some chores around here that I have to complete before heading out to face the day.

I am going to take today off from writing, despite being behind. I am very pleased with “The Carriage House,” as I said earlier in this missive, and I am relatively pleased with the Chanse story. It needs some more work, of course–there’s at least one scene missing that I need to put into it, as well as some more layers–but overall, I am quite well pleased with it, as well. I am more pleased, I think, that I’ve written a private eye story; I may write more now that I know I can actually do it. I doubt if I’ll do Scotty stories–there’s just way too much backstory necessary–but I have an idea for another Chanse story, this time set on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. Oh! The title just came to me! “Once a Tiger.” I kind of like that. (The Chanse story needs not only revision but a new title; “Glory Days” doesn’t work with the story as it wound up. I originally set it at a reunion of sorts, but wrote that out of the story.) I do want to finish my Italy story, and perhaps work on a revision of either “The Weight of a Feather” or “The Problem with Autofill.” I also would like to get another Scotty chapter finished. We’ll see.

I’ve done quite a few short stories this year, as I mentioned earlier; even more than I originally thought I had done. I am thinking more about placement for said stories; I worry that some of the better paying markets–there aren’t many of those any more–won’t want a story with a gay male lead, even if the story itself isn’t particularly gay; “The Carriage House,” while not having anything particularly gay about it’s story line, also has gay character and involved murders of gay men. And you know, that’s really the thing about writing gay stories and novels; when you get rejected, when you don’t get reviewed or recognized–you always wonder. Was it really not good enough to get published/reviewed/recognized, and was it because of the gay factor? If I assume it’s the gay thing, am I not being honest with myself as a writer and rather than accepting that it needed more work or wasn’t good enough, am I using that as a crutch/excuse?

Heavy sigh.

All right, back to my chores. Here’s a Saturday hunk for you.



Cool It Now

I still have that horrible throaty cough periodically, but my voice is more normal and I don’t feel off, which I am counting as a win. I also think that my body has changed on me again; my eating habits are bad–I often forget to eat and rarely, if ever, get hungry–but now my blood sugar will drop, leaving me feeling tired and ill. I need to start making sure that I fuel my body properly; gallons of coffee in the morning aren’t the way to go, and that is also inhibiting my sleep at night.

Heavy sigh.

But once the Olympics are over, I can go back to getting in bed at ten and reading for a half an hour or so before going to sleep; I am greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence, as well as my other current non-fiction read, Joan Didion’s essay collection After Henry. Didion is amazing; the way she crafts sentences and paragraphs is both lyrical and beautiful. I wish I had one tenth of her skill. I also made some progress with the Short Story Project, and am thinking I may write a Chanse short story. Reading all these Tess Monaghan (Laura Lippman) and Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton) and Lew Archer (Ross Macdonald) short stories are showing me how it’s possible to write and craft a private eye short story; and I have an idea in my head about one where Chanse goes back to LSU for a fraternity reunion that might turn deadly. It’s just a thought; I’ve always wanted to do that in a novel, but it might just be a short story, you know? One of my problems has always been that I think in terms of novels as opposed to short stories; I’ve certainly turned short stories into novels (Sorceress and Sleeping Angel come to mind), and am even thinking of turning another one into a novel. Reading all these short stories has been inspiring me to write short stories, which is incredibly cool. I have several in progress right now; I’ve been asked to write for two anthologies where the story is inspired by a song; which is something I have certainly done before, and I’m having a lot of fun with those. I also want to write something for the MWA anthology, and I have another I am writing to submit to another anthology as well. I am still working on the WIP and the Scotty, never fear–the Scotty is taking a timely and dark turn, which is kind of cool–but I have all these short stories dancing around in my head!


I also read two short stories over the weekend. The first was Sue Grafton’s “Long Gone,” from her Kinsey and Me collection.

September in Santa Teresa. I’ve never known anyone yet who doesn’t suffer a certain restlessness when autumn rolls around. it’s the season of new school clothes, fresh notebooks, and finely sharpened pencils without any teeth marks in the wood. We’re all eight years old again and anything is possible. The new year should never begin on January 1. It begins in the gall and continues as long as our saddle oxfords remain unscuffed and our lunch boxes have no dents.

My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m female, thirty-two, twice divorced, “doing business as” Kinsey Millhone Investigations in a little town ninety-nine miles north of Los Angeles. Mine isn’t a walk-in trade like a beauty salon. Most of my clients find themselves in a bind and then seek my services, hoping I can offer a solution for a mere thirty bucks an hour, plus expenses. Robert Ackerman’s message was waiting on my answering machine that Monday morning at nine when I got in.

One of the things that rarely gets mentioned in discussion about Sue Grafton’s work is how funny she can; and this particular story, with Kinsey having to interview a husband who wants to hire her to find his wife, and having to deal with his three children, all under five, is actually, despite its dark tone and subject matter, kind of breezy and funny. Kinsey’s droll sense of humor, and her sympathy for the missing wife–which comes from her own dour outlook at marriage and family–made me laugh out loud several times during the course of reading the story. It’s a pity that Grafton didn’t write more short stories, because these are gems.

I then moved on to “The Barber” by Flannery O’Connor, from The Complete Stories.

It is trying on liberals in Dilton.

After the Democratic White Primary, Rayber changed his barber. Three weeks before it, while he was shaving him, the barber said, “Who you gonna vote for?”

“Darmon,” Rayber said.

“You a n*****r-lover?”

Rayber started in the chair. He had not expected to be approached so brutally. “No,” he said. If he had not been off-balance, he would have said, “I am neither a Negro- nor a white-lover.” He had said that before to Jacobs, the philosophy man, and–to show you how trying it is for liberals in Dilton–Jacobs–a man of his education, had muttered, “That’s a poor way to be.”

A writer friend of mine–probably one of my closest friends who is also a writer–is a huge Flannery O’Connor fan. As I mentioned when I talked about reading her story “The Geranium,” I had read her A Good Man Is Hard To Find and wasn’t overly impressed with it. Also, as I said when I read “The Geranium,” the racism and use of the n-word is kind of hard for me to see. And yet…in this story, it fits and has to be used, even though it fills me with distaste to see it on the page and to read it. “The Barber,” you see, is the perfect personification of what it’s like to live in the South and be confronted by in-your-face racism all the time. This doesn’t excuse it by any means, or say it’s okay; but wow, how honest and true this story is.

Rayber is a liberal, who clearly believes in racial equality; he is a teacher at the local college and when he is confronted with the racism from his barber and some of the other men in his shop, he is startled, shocked; doesn’t know what to do. Part of his white privilege comes from being surrounded, he believes, by people who believe the same way he does; that racism and bigotry and segregation is wrong and a moral evil. He doesn’t know what to do when he is confronted by it in the face of his barber, someone whose chair he has sat in for years, presumably, and allowed to apply a straight razor to his face and neck. Now, this pleasant person whom he has never really paid a whole lot of attention to and has never really given much of a thought to, other than he provides a service well that Rayber needs, is confronting him with a hideousness that is quite horrifying while holding a sharp razor at his throat. What makes this all the more brilliant is how O’Connor doesn’t even make that connection for the reader; she just puts it out there and lets the reader come to his own realization. And afterwards, after being mocked by the barber and his friends in the shop for how he chooses to cast his vote, he spends the next week angry and bitter about the experience, and preparing to explain his vote logically and rationally the next time he gets shaved; to reason with the barber and tell him how wrong racism is…and inevitably, when that times comes, as the barber jovially mocks him for his vote, he eventually becomes frustrated and physically lashes out.

This story resonated strongly with me. Whenever I am confronted with something I find morally abhorrent, to my face, it catches me so off-guard that I can’t really respond logically and rationally–sometimes even at all– because it is hard for me to understand that there are people out there who actually can hold positions I hold morally abhorrent; I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around, for example, homophobia. I don’t get it. I do not understand how anyone can simply devalue and deny another human being their humanity. It’s hard for me to write homophobic characters because I cannot fully flesh those characters out and make them anything other than one-dimensional; I cannot grasp hatred like that. But, as one editor told me early in my career, even Hitler loved his dogs. I could relate to O’Connor’s character, and his inability to understand, to realize, what he was dealing with; that behind the friendly face and jovial attitude is someone whose core values and beliefs are so repugnant to him that they didn’t seem POSSIBLE.

And that is the mark of a truly gifted writer.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that story since I read it, and again, the mark of a great writer. Ms. O’Connor made me think, made me reflect, got under my skin and made me question my own self, not only as a person but as a writer.


And now back to the spice mines.


I Feel for You

Adam Rippon is going to the Olympics as the first openly gay American figure skater to compete in Olympic history.


Let’s not be coy, though–there have been plenty of gay male figure skaters throughout the history of the sport–but most came out (or were outed) after their Olympic-eligible careers were over. (And Adam Kenworthy–not a figure skater– is also out this year, but he wasn’t out when he competed in Sochi.)

One of the things that has always fascinated me about figure skating is the contradiction evident in its gender roles. Men are, while being artistic, also supposed to read as masculine and not feminine; likewise the women (it’s still called Ladies’ Figure Skating, for the record) are supposed to be feminine, graceful and lady-like, rather than athletic; a feminine and graceful skater would always win over someone who wasn’t as graceful but was more of an athlete than a ballet dancer. This bipolarity at the heart of figure skating kept gay male skaters deep in the closet, particularly if they were American men; Russian men had no problem with wearing gloves and performing ballet on the ice–but at the same time, those Russian men (Viktor Petrenko, Alexei Urmanov, Ilia Kulik, Alexei Yagudin, and Yevgeny Pluschenko won every Olympic gold medal between 1992 and 2006) clearly were athletes, flying across the ice in footstep sequences with their feet and blades changing directions and edges as rapidly as a machine gun fires; dizzying fast spins with beautiful positions; and of course, landing quad and triple jumps with the greatest of ease, and almost always on the beat of the music they were performing to.

There was also an unspoken understanding that being openly gay would hurt a skater in the marks, which were often subjective, frequently unfair, and, according to the ISU, above reproach. Rudy Galindo was the first openly gay American skater to win US Nationals in 1996, and went on to win a bronze medal at worlds that year; the next openly gay skater to win the US title was Adam Rippon, some twenty years later. Between them was flamboyant Johnny Weir, who didn’t come out until after his Olympic-eligible career was over… (I might add that, despite being US champion and a world medalist in 1996, the USFSA chose not to send Rudy to any of the Grand Prix events the following season; a clear indication to him that his Olympic-eligible career was over, and he went pro.)

Rippon, incidentally, finished fourth at the Olympic trials this year, but was chosen to go to the Olympics anyway; selected over a heterosexual skater who finished with the silver medal. Have things changed with male figure skating since Rudy’s big win in 1996?

As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve always wanted to write a book about a gay figure skater. I did in Jackson Square Jazz, with the character of Bryce Bell, a US Olympic hopeful who is introduced to the reader as someone a very drunken Scotty picked up at a French Quarter gay bar, only to see him competing that same night at Skate America, being held in New Orleans for the first (and clearly fictional) time. (As a joke, I also had Bryce become the first skater in history to land a quad axel; this has still not happened in real life, and may not ever happen.) But Bryce’s skating was relatively unimportant to the story and plot of the book; although his remaining closeted as a skater was.

I never felt that I was able to truly explore the issues of being a gay, Olympic-eligible, American figure skater in the book; Bryce was a supporting character, and the story wasn’t told from his point of view (I’ve been tempted to bring him back, but can never figure out a way to do it organically; just forcibly grafting him onto a story because I want to just feels wrong).


Ironically, Adam didn’t win Nationals until after he came out. Coming out–and being able to truly be himself for the first time–paid off. He’s a much better skater than he was before; but I do remember thinking at the time he came out, well, you’re never going to win nationals now. But by embracing himself for who he really is, he changed; he found a look and costumes that work for him–he used to have this mop of blonde curls–and his short program this year, to what Paul and I immediately recognized as a gay techno dance remix from back in the day–is one for the ages.

So, does the central premise of the noir figure skating novel I’ve wanted to write–a skater being forced into the closet and not allowed to be himself so that I can explore not only the dynamics of what masculinity is but the class issues inherent in figure skating (I still haven’t posted about my thoughts on I Tonya, which have everything to do with femininity vs. athleticism and class); the masks skaters are forced to wear in order to play the game and get the marks they deserve to win–does that premise still exist today? As far as I know, Adam and Rudy are the only American skaters to come out and skate at the Olympic eligible level; are there others? Is coming out still a risk to your career as a male skater?

Probably so.

And on that note, back to the spice mines.

Like a Virgin

Well, it’s a chilly, gray Friday morning in New Orleans, Constant Reader, and we’ve managed to survive yet another week Again, this is a short work day for me at the office, so I’ll be able to make groceries this afternoon and go to the gym this evening before curling up in my easy chair with Karen M. McManus’ y/a bestseller, One of Us is Lying. (I will also continue with the Short Story Project, never fear! I just haven’t decided where I want to go next–whether it’s a single author collection or an anthology I want to dip into; or maybe go back to the Laura Lippman and Sue Grafton collections; mystery or horror.) I’m all caught up on posting about short stories after today’s post, too, so I need to decide, and soon.

Last night I worked some more on the WIP; moving on to Chapter Two. This chapter didn’t flow as easily as the first, and I only got about 1800 words done on it (which made the writing day a bit of a failure) but I also tweaked Chapter One a bit and got another 200 words or so added to it; a two-thousand word day is a win, for me, even if the goal is always to do at least three thousand–particularly considering how just last month I would have considered a hundred words a triumph. So, thus far this year I’ve written four short stories, one and a half chapters of the WIP, and one chapter of the Scotty–and I even know what the second chapter is going to be–which is how Scotty books usually work; no plan, but the next chapter reveals itself as I write the current. I also have tossed out the entire plot as it was; new victim, new everything. But I am hopeful I can get this all finished by the end of February; Mardi Gras notwithstanding. I also solved the problem with another manuscript I’ve been sitting on for a long time, and I know how to make it work as well now, but it’ll have to wait until I am finished with these two projects and another.

It feels so good to have my creativity kicking into gear again.

I also watched Riverdale last night, which has replaced Teen Wolf as the gayest show on television. Oh, sure, like Teen Wolf there’s only one gay character on the show; but all of the guys are fricking gorgeous with amazing bodies that are shown off pretty regularly–you haven’t lived until you’ve seen KJ Apa in a low cut singlet without a shirt underneath–and there was even a locker room scene where Archie was talking to gay Kevin, while in the background between them was some amazing hunk wearing only a towel standing at the sink–yay for gratuitous male bodies!

So, as this weekend looms I hope to get a lot done. We shall see how that works, but…hope springs eternal.

Today’s first short story is Sarah Weinman’s “The Big Town”, from Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block:

You don’t expect to see a portrait of your mother hanging on the wall of your gangster boyfriend’s living room. especially when the portrait shows your mother without a stitch of clothing on but for a pair of green heels.

“Where did you get that painting?” I asked, my voice more querulous than I wished. It was my first time in his house. I hesitated about a return visit even before seeing the portrait, but now I knew. I would not be back.

He turned to face the portrait. I looked at his back, the white collared shirt barely covering dark matted hair. I’d run my fingers through that broad, fleshy forest the few afternoons we’d fucked in a Ritz-Carlton hotel suite. Again I remembered what I found attractive about him: power, status, money. And what I found ugly: body, face, manners.

The story is really quite good and a poignant story about love and loss at the same time. The main character is a rural Canadian girl who ran away to the big city to avoid a prearranged marriage, her only future being a farmwife and having a passel of kids; she’s kind of become a good time girl, doing whatever necessary in order to survive on the fringes of society. But once she sees the portrait of her mother, who died when she was young, she becomes obsessed with getting the portrait away from the vile gangster and learning its history; how it came to exist in the first place.

I’ve read a lot of Weinman’s non-fiction before, and of course, just finished reading her stellar anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives, which was exceptional. Nonfiction writing, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into good fiction writing; but Weinman hits the ball out of the park with this one. That yearning, sense of drifting is captured perfectly, and her main character is the kind of woman I like to read about; transitioning from a woman to whom things happen into a woman who makes things happen. The sense of learning more about her mother, that drive to know and understand her biological mother better, is something that resonates with every reader: how well do we really know our parents? Particularly if one parent died really young? This is a great story, absolutely great.

 The second story I read was the last one in Alive in Shape and Color, Lawrence Block’s “Looking for David.”

Elaine said, “You never stop working, do you?”

I looked at her. We were in Florence, sitting at a little tile-topped table in the Piazza di San Marco, sipping cappuccino every bit as good as the stuff they served at the Peacock on Greenwich Avenue. It was a bright day but the air was cool and crisp, the city bathed in October light. Elaine was wearing khakis and a tailored safari jacket, and looked like a glamorous foreign correspondent, or perhaps a spy. I was wearing khakis too, and a polo shirt, and the blue blazer she called my Old Reliable.

We’d had five days in Venice, This was the second of five days in Florence, and then we’d have six days in Rome before Alitalia took us back home again.

I said, “Nice work if you can get it.”

I’ve not read any of the Matthew Scudder novels Mr. Block has been writing for decades; as I have said before, my education in my own genre is often sorely lacking in many regards. But this story was irresistible to me for several reasons–it’s set in Florence, for one, and of course it is inspired by Michelangelo’s David, which also has inspired me for a novel that I hope to someday write. The story begins as above, with Matthew recognizing someone in the piazza that he had arrested, and soon remembers the gruesome butchery of the case. The man comes over, introduces himself, and then invites them to his villa for lunch the following day. Elaine bows out of the lunch, and over the course of the meal the man explains, at last, why he committed the brutal crime Scudder remembers and never knew the motivation behind (he’d pled guilty, served his time, got out and retired to Italy; would that I could do the same!). It’s a macabre story of a stunted gay life, and how once he fell in actual love with another man he abandoned his old life without a care and took up a new one, that ended in tragedy. It’s actually quite good, and bravo to Mr. Block for taking on such a topic without dealing in tropes, or stereotypes; it was also lovely to read a gay villain, as it were.

And now back to the spice mines.


When You Close Your Eyes

Well, Constant Reader, we made it to Wednesday, didn’t we? I’m going to do this blog and then run off to the gym for my second workout of this week; sorry if this is getting tedious, but I worry that if I don’t say anything that’s when I’ll start slipping and NOT doing my workouts; a slippery slope I am reluctant to set my foot on, if you will. It’s so lovely to be doing this again and being motivated to do it; it’s more than a little infuriating that I allowed myself such a long break from taking it seriously, and doing it so little. But there’s no sense in crying over spilled milk at this point, is there? I am just happy that I’m at where I am at with it.

I am also very stoked to be jazzed about writing again. It’s interesting, on every level, how gong back to the beginning (both with working out and writing) has turned out so well, isn’t it? I am really pleased with these short stories I’ve written over the last week or so, the chapter of the WIP I wrote Monday, and the rethinking of the Scotty book I’ve done. I am definitely going to keep moving positively forward; and I am going to keep seeking an agent once I get this first fifty pages of the WIP whipped into better shape. This weekend I plan on rewriting and editing the four short stories I’ve done, plus I need to start working on the Bouchercon anthology, which I am also excited about–how long has it been since I was excited to edit an anthology, well might you ask? It’s been a long frigging time would be the proper answer, I am afraid.

I also finished reading Sarah Weinman’s sublime anthology Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives, and am the better for it. If you’ve not read this collection, you really should; particularly if you’re a writer. These stories hold up incredibly well, with only the occasional dated reference–and none of them so jarring that they take you out of the story. I’ve also added several new-to-me authors to my TBR list; alas, I shall have to track down copies of their works via secondhand dealers and eBay, as so much has sadly fallen out of print. I am also disappointed in myself for waiting so long to read this collection; but now that I have, I am glad. I am also grateful to Weinman for her hard work in pulling this together and shining a light on these terrific writers of the past.

It also occurs to me that a similar volume could be done for gay and lesbian crime writers whom modern readers don’t recall or remember; I doubt, though, that there would be a market for such a thing. That’s the tricky thing, isn’t it? Finding a market?


troubled daughters twisted wives

First up was “Lost Generation” by Dorothy Salisbury Davis:

The school board has sustained the teacher. The vote was four to three, but the majority made it clear they were not voting for the man. They voted the way they had because otherwise the state would have stepped in and settled the appeal, ruling against the town…

Tom and Andy, coming from the west of town, waited for the others at the War Memorial. The October frost had silvered the cannon, and the moonlight was so clear you could the words FOR GOD AND COUNTRY on the monument. The slack in the flagpole allowed the metal clips to clank against the pole. That and the wind made the only sounds.

Then Andy said, “His wife’s all right. She came up to Mary when it was over and said she wished he’d teach like other teachers and leave politics alone.”

“Politics,” Tom said. “Is that what she calls it?”

This was my first experience reading Mystery Writers of America Dorothy Salisbury Davis; despite being aware of her for quite some time. Sara Paretsky wrote a brilliant tribute to her after she died a few years ago; she’d been on my radar before that, but again, this is my first time reading her. This story is dark and amazing. We never know what the teacher’s politics are, but given the time period it’s not too hard to imagine what they were, given the fact that the group of men who gather to take care of him also include police officers–which was an all-too true and horrible aspect of the anti-Civil Rights whites of the South; the men paid with tax dollars and charged with protecting everyone were racists who abused their privilege and power to abuse and kill people of color and civil rights workers. There’s an amazing twist in this story, and the denouement is eminently satisfying and dissatisfying at the same time–not an easy thing to do.

Some of Ms. Davis’ books are now back in print, so snap ’em up, peeps!

“The People Across the Canyon” by Margaret Millar

The first time the Bortons realized that someone had moved into the new house across the canyon was one night in May when they saw the rectangular light of a television set shining in the picture window. Marion Borton knew it had to happen eventually, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept the idea of neighbors in a part of the country she and Paul had come to consider exclusively their own.

They had discovered the sight, had bought six acres, and built the house over the objections of the bank, which didn’t like to lend money on unimproved property, and of their friend, who thought the Bortons were foolish to move so far out of town. Now other people were discovering the spot, and here and there through the eucalyptus trees and the live oajs, Marion could see half-finished houses.

But it was the house directly across the canyon that bothered her the most; she had been dreading this moment ever since the site had been bull-dozed the previous summer.

I’ve written about Millar before; I’ve become an enormous fan of her work, and have been slowly making my way through her canon over the past few years. I do have the wonderful reprinted set of her books Collected Millar; a quick glance over at Amazon shows that many of her books, including the Edgar Award winning Beast in View are available as ebooks at fairly reasonable prices.

This story, about a couple and their young daughter, whose increasing obsession with the new neighbors across the way makes the stay-at-home mother not only jealous but concerned about the intensity of the obsession, strikes several chords: the mother becoming aware that her child is growing away from her and lamenting the ways her own every day life has allowed time to slip away, regretting that she didn’t spend more time paying attention to her child; the growing realization that you can influence and affect your child’s personality, behavior and temperament unknowingly; and ultimately, the exquisite torture and pain of being a parent. Millar only had one child, a daughter; it’s not hard to imagine where the roots and inspiration for this story came from. Quite excellent.

“Mortmain” by Miriam Allen Deford

“I’ll be back on Thursday, Miss Hendricks, and I’ll drop in here in the afternoon. It’s only three days, and I don’t anticipate any change. You know what to do. If anything happens, you can call Dr. Roberts; he knows all about the case. I wouldn’t go away, with Marsden like this, but–well, it’s my only daughter, and she’ll never be married again–at least, I hope not!–and she’ll be heartbroken if her old dad weren’t there to give her away.”

Dr. Staples turned to his patient.

“Good-bye, old man; I’m leaving you in Miss Hendricks’ charge till Thursday. You won’t be sorry to have three days free of me, eh?”

This gem of a creepy short story is straight out of what (thanks to Stephen King) I call the EC Comics playbook. The sad, dying patient has a load of cash in his safe; the nurse in whose care the doctor has left him for three days wants it to start a new life with the cad she’s in love with, and there we have the setup for a most clever game of cat-and-mouse in which each sentence builds the suspense and tension. If you want a great example of how to write suspense, this short little tale is all you need. In fact, if I ever teach writing again, this story is going to be one of the things I teach. It may even be one of those stories, like du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now,” that I reread every now and again, to savor in its delightful brilliance.

And finally, “A Case of Maximum Need” by Celia Fremlin:

“No, no telephone, thank you. It’s too dangerous,” said Miss Emmeline Fosdyke decisively; and the young welfare worker, only recently qualified, and working for the first time in this Sheltered Housing Unit for the Elderly, blinked up from the form she was filling in.

“No telephone? But, Miss Fosdyke, in your–I mean, with your–well, your arthritis, and not being able to get about and everything…You’re on our House-Bound list, you know that, don’t you? As a House-Bound Pensioner, you’re entitled–well, I mean, it’s a necessity, isn’t it, your telephone? It’s your link with the outside world!”

This last sentence, a verbatim quote from her just-completed Geriatric Course, made Valerie Coombe feel a little bit more confident, She went on, “You must have a telephone, Miss Fosdyke! It’s your right! And if it’s the cost you’re worrying about, then do please set your mind at rest. Our Departmenet–anyone over sixty-five and in need–“

“I’m not in need,” asserted Miss Fosdyke woodenly, “Not of a telephone, anyway.”

The tale of Miss Fosdyke, and why she doesn’t want a phone, is the perfect ending to this wonderful collection of short stories. This story is chilling, surprising, and turns around so brilliantly at the end in a way that you do not see coming, and then everything makes sense. Superb, dark, macabre…you name it, it’s all there in this story…and I’ve added Celia Fremlin to my TBR list. Some of her books are currently in print, and if this story is indicative of the pleasures that await in her novels…well, I just can’t wait.

Well done, Ms. Weinman, well done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

I Still Can’t Get Over Loving You

Wednesday, and Day 4 of Facebook Jail. You know something? I wonder if they’ve heard of unintended consequences over at the Facebook Community Standards department. I usually spend far too much time scrolling through my Facebook feed and interacting with friends. So far this week, instead of doing that, I’ve revised a short story, worked on an outline, read a book (a wonderful history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted), read several short stories, and gotten some other things done. As this thirty day sentence continues, I will probably visit Facebook less and less–it’s kind of frustrating being able to see things and not respond to them–and by the end of the sentence, probably will be completely broken of the need to go there, and hopefully my attention span will have snapped back to what it was in the days before social media. I’m also liking Tumblr, INstagram and Twitter–you don’t wind up spending nearly as much time there, at least don’t, at any rate. Once I get used to not being on Facebook and having all this free time…look out.

I also read Lois Duncan’s young adult novel Ransom. Originally published in 1967 as Five Were Missing, it’s clear to see why Duncan was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America shortly before her death. I’ve not read all of Duncan’s work–I’m working my way through them all–but her novels were startlingly original and fresh, particularly when you consider when they were originally published. Ransom, inspired by a true crime in northern California where a school bus was hijacked and the students kidnapped, reads very quickly. The five students on the bus all are fully developed and fleshed out beautifully; and Duncan uses the kidnapping as a way of getting inside the heads of the characters and exposing them for what they are; the golden boy with dark secrets and feet of lead; the spoiled cheerleader who dislikes and resents her stepfather, only to learn that the father she idolizes is unworthy of her love; the military brat, deeply intelligent, who is the first to realize the truth of their situation and finds depths of bravery she never knew she had; the younger brother of the golden boy who realizes his own identity, and finds he has levels of potential strength his brother can only aspire to; and the orphan, being raised by his bachelor uncle with scars of his own to hide who finds out that self-pity only keeps him from enjoying his life. The dialogue is a little stilted and old-fashioned, but as I said, it reads very quickly.

Duncan was definitely a master.

Speaking of masters, I read a short story by Patricia Highsmith yesterday as well, “The Heroine,” which is the lead off story in Sarah Weinman’s Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives; a brilliant anthology of stories written by women crime writers from the 1940’s thru the 1950’s, a time when women dominated the industry and many of these wonderful writers are sadly, overlooked and forgotten.

troubled daughters twisted wives

The girl was so sure she would get the job, she had unabashedly come out to Westchester with her suitcase. She sat in a comfortable chair in the living room of the Christiansens’ house, looking in her navy blue coat and beret even younger than 21, and replied earnestly to their questions.

“Have you worked as a governess before?” Mr. Christianen asked. He sat beside his wife on the sofa, his elbows on the knees of his gray flannel slacks and his hands clasped. “Any references, I mean?”

“I was a maid at Mrs. Dwight Howell’s home in New York for the last seven months.” Lucille looked at him with suddenly wide gray eyes. “I could get a reference from there if you like…But when I saw your advertisement this morning I didn’t want to wait. I’ve always wanted a place where there were children.”

I love Patricia Highsmith, and I have an enormous volume that contains all of her short stories. It’s really criminal that I, like so many other people, don’t read more short stories (hence my short story project, which I might make a year-long thing rather than just a few months), and it deeply shames me that I’ve had Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives sitting on my shelf collecting dust all this time without taking it down and reading it. This Highsmith story, “The Heroine,” is genius, absolute genius, in the cold, slightly detached way that Highsmith uses as her point of view, which makes her stories and novels so much more chilling. It’s very clear, almost from the start–ah, that foreshadowing–that the Christiansens are probably making a terrible mistake in not checking on Lucille’s references. And how the story develops is so much more chilling than you think it is when you get that uh oh feeling in your stomach when Mrs. Christiansen charmingly says she won’t check Lucille’s references. Highsmith’s authorial voice is so distant, so cold and matter-of-fact, and her word choice is always simple and spare…but she always gets that feeling of suspense, of oh my god what is going to happen that you feel amping up as you finish reading each sentence…and her denouements never disappoint.

Weinman has done an excellent job curating this collection; she also did a two-volume collection of novels by these writers called Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940’s and 1950s: A Library of America Boxed Set. Some of the novels included in that gorgeous set I’ve already read–Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief, Margaret Millar’s Beast in View, Vera Caspary’s Laura–but I am definitely going to have to get that set down from the shelf and read the others as well. Weinman is also pretty expert on the crime genre in general; very well read, fiercely intelligent and deeply perceptive, her newsletter The Crime Lady is amazing, and I read it every week for her thoughts on true crimes, the books she’s read and recommends…you can sign up for it here. You can thank for me for it later. She’s also writing a true crime of her own right now that I can’t wait to read.

And now, back to the spice mines.