Fortress Around Your Heart

It’s Monday, and I didn’t get near what i wanted to get done over the course of the weekend; which is something I should simply refer to as Monday’s Lament from now on. I did get Chapter Twelve finished, and I got started on Chapter Thirteen; and I sort of know where the (meandering) story is going; and there are some things I am definitely going to need to go back and fill in later. And it’s Monday, of course; the start of a new week in which I can certainly hope to get a lot finished.

We watched a wonderful series from Australia this weekend on Netflix, called Deep Water. It’s a crime show, and it opens with the discovery of the body of a brutally murdered gay man. As the investigating officer starts digging into the case, she begins to suspect that this murder is somehow connected to some other murders–over twenty years earlier–of gay men in the same part of Australia. The more she digs, the more convinced she becomes, and she soon begins to suspect the accidental drowning of her older brother, on Christmas Eve, 1989, is yet another one of a string of murders, hate crimes, committed against gay men all those years ago. It’s extremely well-written, and powerfully acted; it also deals with sexism against women in the police department; the old boys’ network of the police; homophobia; cover-ups; and how much–and how little–society has changed in the past twenty-five years.

We also watched the second episode of Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale. I had wondered if the second season of this show would be near as bleak, depressing, and heartbreaking as the first, and so far the show continues to deliver. This particular episode, in addition to dealing with Offred’s situation, also brought back Alexis Bledel’s character, off at the brutal world of the Colonies, where the unwomen are sent. If you will recall from the first season, Alexis Bledel played the lesbian Ofglen/Emily; she was originally punished and then committed another crime, resulting in her being sent to the Colonies. This episode, while focusing on Offred/June as always, shows the Colonies and what her life is like there, while she remembers how the downfall of democracy and the rise of religious fascism and its impact on her as a married lesbian with a child. I love how The Handmaid’s Tale is not afraid to go there, quite frankly; and its message is quite plain: women and queers have common cause against the patriarchy.

Coupled with Deep Water, watching this episode put me into a deep, contemplative place. I haven’t really quite formed the thoughts yet, but there are some nascent ideas and thoughts forming in my head. I read a piece this weekend about Mort Crowley, The Boys in the Band revival on Broadway, and the disappearance of gay culture. I also have had come conversations with younger gay men over the course of the past two weeks. Paul and I were also listening to some gay dance remixes from our partying days of going to clubs and dancing the night away last night before bed, and we recalled those times with a bit of sadness; I do miss the fun we used to have, but do I want the full-on oppression that came with it?

It wasn’t that long ago, as Deep Water showed, that we were seen as disposable, human garbage on the fringes of society and no one cared if we were assaulted, murdered, disappeared. (There’s a serial killing investigation going on in Toronto right now that has been glossed over, ignored, despite all evidence to the contrary, for years: Toronto.) One of the reasons I originally wrote Murder in the Rue Dauphine  was precisely for this reason: who cared if some gay man was murdered? I think about the story line for that book from time to time, and often shake my head, thinking, “oh, that book could never be written today; it wouldn’t hold up, no one would believe that a closeted man would or could be blackmailed today.” And yet there is a story line in my current book along those same lines, that i struggle with; is this realistic in this day and time? Is this a secret someone would be willing to protect today? On the other hand, we do still see outings; there was a recent scandal in Metairie where the parish president was outed for pursuing a teenaged boy who worked at Lakeside mall. So, it’s not completely out of the question for a crime storyline anymore.

And this also makes me reflect, again, on ambition, and my tendency to self-defeat myself; my fear of failure, and how I built my career in such a way as to guarantee that I would never become hugely successful; writing gay characters and gay themes in crime fiction essentially guaranteed, almost from the first, that i would never be a New York Times bestseller or would win an Edgar Award or get reviewed in major newspapers; I could be published, but as a gay writer of gay stories, the expectations were low; no one would expect me to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in my little niche within a niche within a niche market. Did I subconsciously set out to sabotage my own career from the very start, setting myself up for low expectations from the start? I’d always intended–and it is there, in my journals–to eventually move to writing mainstream fiction; mainstream crime fiction. And yet, in all these years, of writing millions of words and creating hundreds of characters and telling all these stories, I’ve only recently (in terms of the years of my career) begun to try to write something more mainstream. It would take very little work to make that book appealing to my current publisher; it’s always there in the back of my head as I struggle with it and try to place my finger on what’s wrong with it and why no agent seems to want it–and then I remember that I’ve actually only sent tentative queries to a handful of agents, and am I giving up on it too soon? The amount of time I’ve actually spent on this piece of work isn’t that long in the overall scheme of things; I’ve worked on it around other things I’ve had under contract.

The entire point of last year was to work on it, get it finished and polished and ready for submission, and yet I allowed myself to waste most of the year in feeling sorry for myself and paralyzed and unable to write anything; was this simply another way of defeating myself, of fearing to fail and therefore not even trying?

You cannot succeed unless you aren’t afraid to fail.

Failure is the best way to learn.

And now, back to the spice mines.

17191400_1290543300993731_6767665762992739786_n

Suddenly

Yesterday I finished revisions on four stories, took a deep breath, and submitted them. Now, we wait. I’m not entirely certain the stories were right for the markets I sent them to, but you know what? Letting them just sit in my computer wasn’t getting them out there. Better to try and fail than not to ever try at all.

As I said yesterday, my confidence in my writing, which, despite all appearances to the contrary has never been strong, was dramatically shaken in the last year; I am only now starting to come out of it, and I am coming back out of it by working. I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words thus far in 2018; most of it short stories, some of it work on a new Scotty novel, still other the manuscript I intend to try to lure the ever elusive agent into my web with; and since sitting down and actually taking stock, I am realizing what I’ve accomplished, and am very proud of myself. The stories I worked on again this week, revising and editing and reading aloud, were quite strong; the two I am struggling with perhaps not as strong–although I do like their titles. Forcing myself to continue working on them is futile at this moment; much as I am loath to put them to the side, I am going to; there is nothing more self-defeating and depressing than trying to force yourself to write something that just isn’t coming. The stories are there, of course; I just haven’t yet worked out how to get them down onto paper yet. I think very often we, as writers, get so bogged down in our stubborn determination to finish something we are working on that we just keep fighting, pounding our head determinedly against an immovable wall–when the smart thing is to take a break from it and work on something else; then come back to the wall with fresh eyes and a rested forehead.

A vanity project that I have always had in the back of my mind was to put together a short story collection of my crime stories. I first had the idea several years ago, but didn’t have enough stories and was going to combine my horror and crime together: the folder and table of contents I created at the time was for Annunciation Shotgun and Other Stories. I’ve never forgotten this vanity project; and even now, when I should be preparing the manuscripts of Bourbon Street Blues and Jackson Square Jazz for their long overdue ebook editions, I go back to the vanity project again and again: well, I’ve published THESE stories since then, maybe I can just go ahead and remove these others that don’t fit as well–take these horror stories out, since my horror is clearly not as strong as my crime fiction. I made another table of contents, just the other day; only now I am calling it Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. Whenever I’ve been stuck this past week or so, for want of anything else to do, I’ve started pulling the stories together into a single document to get a word count. The realization the other day of how many stories I’ve done so far this year already, and adding them casually to the table of contents–today it hit me: the manuscript is already publishable length, is over eighty thousand words, without an introduction  and without all of the stories I’ve done so far. I removed all the horror–goodbye, “Crazy in the Night” and “Rougarou” and “The Snow Queen” and “The Troll in the Basement”–and added some more of the newer material. It was astonishing to realize how much there actually was; that I cannot add much more because there simply isn’t room, and that I might have enough for a second volume in a couple of years.

Mind-blowing, really.

Short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, of course; short stories are the bastard stepchildren of publishing, and crime stories even more shunned at the family holiday dinner table. I don’t know if my publisher will want this collection, and I may end up having to self-publish it. Whereas I would have shrank in horror from that possibility a few years ago, it doesn’t matter as much to me now as it did then to have a traditional publisher pull the book together; although I would like another pair of eyes on it, some copy editing, a cover design and packaging done for me. But I am very proud of all of these stories; each one of them means something to me in some way. And if my fears about crime stories with gay characters in them not being acceptable to mainstream short story publications, well, I can always get them seen this way. And I am proud of the new crime stories I’ve written with gay characters in them.

I didn’t write crime stories for the longest time because of that fear; the fear that no matter how high the quality of the story, gay characters would make them unpublishable. The two stories I published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, “Acts of Contrition” and “The Email Always Pings Twice,” were mainstream–not a gay character in either story. I did publish two stories in Novelists Inc. anthologies with gay characters, “A Streetcar Named Death” and “An Arrow for Sebastian.” My stories in New Orleans Noir and Sunshine Noir (“Annunciation Shotgun” and “Housecleaning”, respectively) were about gay characters. My story in Blood on the Bayou, nominated for the Macavity Award last year, “Survivor’s Guilt,” wasn’t gay in any way, nor was my story “Keeper of the Flame,” published in Mystery Week. Some of the new stories are gay, some are not. Two that went out today were about gay characters, two of them were not. I was originally not intending to write any crime stories with gay characters this year; it just sort of happened. I think the Chanse story I’ve written–which needs a new title–is pretty decent; but am I limiting my chances of getting the stories into print by writing about gay characters? It’s already a difficult haul finding markets that still take short stories, and the competition is obviously fierce.

And again, as I said yesterday, you never can be certain your story was rejected because you wrote honestly about gay characters. It’s all part and parcel of the insanity of being a gay writer, or a writer who is gay, or whatever the hell label fits on my sash as I walk across the stage at the beauty pageant of publishing.

But I’ve got more than enough stories for a collection now, and I am going to keep playing with the manuscript; what is the proper mix of previously published stories versus new material? Should it all be new material, or should it all be previously published material?

Decisions, decisions.

Therein, indeed, lies the path to madness.

I also read some short stories. First was “Still Life with Teapots and Students”, by Shirley Jackson, from the  Let Me Tell You collection.

Come off it, kids, come off it, Louise Harlowe told herself just under her breath. SHe smiled graciously at her husband, Lionel’s, two best students, noticing with an edge of viciousness that they both held their teacups exactly right, and said lightly, “You’re going to have a pleasant summer, then?”

Joan shrugged perfectly, and Debbi smiled back, as graciously as Louise had smiled, but with more conviction. “It will be about the same as the others, I guess, ” Debbi said. “Sort of dull.”

They’re both too well bred to tell me what they’ll be doing, Louise thought, and asked deliberately, “You’ll be together, of course?”

Jackson is one of my favorites, and while she is mostly known for “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House and macabre, Gothic work, she wrote a lot more than people think and not everything she wrote was macabre. This nasty little tale, in which a professor’s wife has two of his students over for tea–during the course of which she lets the rich little bitches she knows about their affair with her husband, and what’s more, doesn’t care because they are nothing more than something of the moment, is quite rich and layered and textured. From a modern day perspective the wonder is why she doesn’t leave him, as it becomes clear this happens regularly; they politely discuss another faculty wife who wasn’t quite as calm in confronting the student her husband was messing around with, and it’s all very polite and reserved…yet, in this modern era of #metoo and power differentials, the agency both Jackson and the wife in the story give the students–and the contempt and hatred for them the wife feels, but never reveals–makes me wonder. I’m still unpacking this story, several days after reading it; which is how amazing it–and Jackson–are.

And then it was time for “The Doll” by Daphne du Maurier, The Doll: The Lost Short Stories.

I want to know if men realize when they are insane. Sometimes I think my brain cannot hold together, it is filled with too much horror–too great a despair. And there is no one; I  have never been so unutterably alone. Why should it help me to write this?…Vomit forth the poison in my brain.

For I am poisoned, I cannot sleep, I cannot close my eyes without seeing his damned face..

If only it had been a dream, something to laugh over, a festered imagination

It’s easy enough to laugh, who wouldn’t crack their sides and split their tongues with laughing. Let’s laugh till the blood runs from our eyes–there’s fun, if you like. No, it’s the emptiness that hurts, the breaking up of everything inside me.

DuMaurier’s story often have a polite, observational distance and formality to them; much like her novels, even in the first person. This story, of obsession and lust and desire, all of which are thwarted, is not only reminiscent of My Cousin Rachel, but also, as I was reading, made me wonder. We never learn the name of the first person narrator, but the object of his obsession is a woman named Rebecca–you see where my mind was going with that, don’t you? And in some ways, it works as an almost prequel for the novel; the deep obsession and need; the mysterious woman who plays out her cards slowly. What of course doesn’t fit is the doll itself; the woman owns a male doll she has a strange attachment to, a doll our narrator despises, hates, is jealous of; it’s a terrific story of darkness and deep passion and obsession and perhaps, madness….a great example of why I love du Maurier so much.

And now, back to the spice mines.

IMG_2256

 

You Give Good Love

It’s a gorgeous morning here in New Orleans; glorious because I had a deep and restful sleep overnight; relaxing because I am going to run some errands and do a favor for a friend a little later on. I was exhausted yesterday when I got home; I did some laundry, the dishes and some light cleaning, then settled down into the easy chair to watch this week’s Riverdale, and then ran a few episodes of Versailles on Netflix; as the Affair of the Poisons kicks into higher gear the show is becoming more interesting. We have also been introduced to the Duc d’Orleans’ second wife, Elisabeth Charlotte (Liselotte), the Princess Palatine; whose gossipy letters and diaries about life at Versailles are a treasure trove. Madame Scarron has also shown up as governess to the bastard children of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan; those familiar with Louis’ story will know precisely who she is, and how important she is going to be.

I also watched Peggy Scott Laborde’s WYES show, Steppin’ Out, last night, because Paul made his debut on it talking about Saints and Sinners, alongside Susan Larson, who talked about the Tennessee Williams Festival. It’s hard to believe the events begin in just a few days; I’ve been so wrapped up in my short story writing that the time has simply flown and I was unaware that they were looming so near until some time this past week.

I also read some short stories last night.

Speaking of short stories, I’m trying to develop a plan and a working schedule for myself over the next few months. I was talking to a friend yesterday over lunch–the same friend I am doing a favor for this afternoon–which was more thinking out loud than anything else. The market for short stories has really dried up so much; there are very few paying markets for short stories out there any more–at least ones that pay decently–so that writing them has to be primarily for the love of the form; and of course, crime stories, being genre, have an even more limited marketability; crime stories about gay men even less so. When I started writing these stories back in January I purposely wasn’t writing about gay characters, themes or tropes for precisely this very reason. But the Chanse stories…well, Chanse is gay, even if the stories I am writing aren’t about gay themed; I will be curious to see how that plays out, as I intend to , once they are finished and polished, submit them to mainstream markets. Two of the other stories also have a gay male main character; so we shall see how that plays out. My story in the Bouchercon anthology is also about a gay character and the sexuality plays a factor in the story. Will it be as well received as “Survivor’s Guilt” was two years ago? We shall see; but that is what makes the writer so crazy, you know; maybe the story simply isn’t as good. There’s no way of ever knowing for sure, which, of course, is the path to madness.

So, anyway, the plan is to wrap up all of these stories by the end of this month, which will require focus and work; April I am devoting to the two novels, before diving back into something else for May. I’d love to start writing this noir novel that’s brewing in my head for years; perhaps with focus and hard work I can get it done in May. This does sound terribly ambitious, and I am very much aware of that. And see–if my under-caffeinated fog this morning I forgot all about the y/a manuscript I need to get revised; that was my original plan for May. Heavy sigh.

I also have read two more of the Lew Archer stories by Ross Macdonald collected in The Archer Files. First up was “The Sinister Habit.”

A man in a conservative dark gray suit entered my doorway sideways, carrying a dark gray Homburg in his hand. His face was long and pale. He has black eyes and eyebrows and black nostrils. Across the summit of his high forehead, long black ribbons of hair were brushed demurely. Only his tie had color: it lay on his narrow chest like a slumbering purple passion.

The sharp black glance darted around my office, then back into the corridor. The hairy nostrils sniffed the air as if he suspected escaping gas.

“Is somebody following you?” I said.

“I have no reason to think so.”

“The Sinister Habit” is the more than slightly sordid tale of the Harlans, brother and sister, who have some money and run a private school in Chicago. It is the brother who engages the services of one Lew Archer. His sister has eloped with a man he feels is going to rob her blind and steal all of their money; the sense is given that the brother–who is fussy and prim– is probably gay but it’s never addressed or talked about; it’s that casual homophobia thing I’ve mentioned before. Their mother ran out on them when they were children with another man as well; the mother lives in Los Angeles. The story becomes twisty and turny after that; the man the sister has run off with is one Leonard Lister, who may or not be a four-flusher, as they used to say. People switch sides, Archer keeps digging, there’s a murder and then a gunfight at the conclusion when the true murderer is finally revealed.

This not the strongest story, not one of Macdonald’s best,  but still a pleasant read; while the characters may not always work and the plot itself gets resolved far too neatly at the end, it is a fun read due to Macdonald’s writing style; there are excellent word choices and incredibly clever phrases.

Next came “The Suicide.”

I picked her up on the Daylight. Or maybe she picked me up. With some of the nicest girls, you never seem to know.

She seemed to be very nice, and very young. She had a flippant nose and wide blue eyes, the kind that most men liked to call innocent. Her hair bubbled like boiling gold around her small blue hat. When she turned from the window to hear my deathless comments on the weather, she wafted spring odors towards me.

She laughed in the right places, a little hectically. But in between, when the conversation lagged, I could see a certain somberness in her eyes, a pinched look around her mouth like the effects of an early frost. When I asked her into the buffet car for a drink, she said: 

“Oh, no. Thank you. I couldn’t possibly.”

The vast majority of the Archer short stories begin with someone walking into his office and engaging his services. “The Suicide” is one of those rare cases when a chance encounter somewhere draws Archer into a complicated investigation; in this case, it’s on a train from San Francisco back to Los Angeles where Archer meets a very beautiful young woman who appears to be in some distress. She doesn’t accept the drink offer because she’s not old enough to drink; but when he offers her food, she is more easily persuaded. She winds up eating two sandwiches and pouring out her tale of woe to Archer; she’s worried about her older sister. She is a student at Berkeley, and her weekly check from her sister hasn’t arrived; she has also called and called to no avail. No one seems to know where her sister is, or what has happened to her. Archer decides to help out this damsel-in-distress, and thus begins a wickedly twisting tale that includes a brutal ass of an ex-husband; Las Vegas mobsters; a fortune in missing money; and a horrific, disfiguring beating of a woman. It’s a clever tale; it works better than “The Sinister Habit,” and all of Macdonald’s writing strengths are here; great brief staccato sentences, whip-like descriptions, the world-weary cynicism. Perfection,

And now, back to the spice mines.

IMG_1995

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.

pec9-335x600

 

Part-Time Lover

Friday! I wasn’t feeling well last night, and was worried I was getting sick, to be completely honest. But this morning I feel much better and well-rested (at least for now) and it’s a short day, so there’s that. Huzzah!

Yesterday I managed to get two more chapters sort-of-revised for the WIP; I think I now have enough material for the agent search; I’ll be double checking that today and perhaps getting it together. I also want to work on the new Scotty today; it’s going in a completely different direction than it originally did, and I am really liking it. While I was lying in bed this morning before getting up, I had some really terrific ideas about where to take this–and while it might be a little on the risky side, I am going to do it, I think.

We watched the skating last night, and while it was terribly sad to see Nathan Chen skate so poorly, he’s also very young. He could come back tonight and have the skate of his life, or be so rocked that he skates terribly again tonight. I do think he’s going to win the World title though next month, and this will set him up for the next Olympics as well. He is very young.

Adam Rippon was terrific last night; I am so delighted to see that all the hate being slung at him from the homophobes on the right wing (American patriots my ass; nothing says patriotic American than hoping an American athlete will fail at the Olympics. Trash.) is just bouncing off him and he is having the Olympic experience he’s always dreamed of. I had a geek moment yesterday when I tweeted at him and his mother and she liked my tweet; yes, I may be 56, but I can fanboy with the best of them. I am looking forward to tonight, let me tell you.

I also started reading the stories in the MWA anthology Manhattan Mayhem,edited by the amazing Mary Higgins Clark. The first story is by Clark herself, “The Five-Dollar Dress”:

It was a late August afternoon, and the sun was sending slanting shadows across Union Square in Manhattan. It’s a peculiar kind of day, Jenny thought as she came up from the subway and turned east. This was the last day she needed to go to the apartment of her grandmother, who had died three weeks ago.

She had already cleaned out most of the apartment. The furniture and all of Gran’s household goods, as well as her clothing, would be picked up by five o’clock by the diocese charity.

Her mother and father were both pediatricians in San Francisco and had intensely busy schedules. Having just passed the bar exam after graduating from Stanford Law School, Jenny was free to do the job. Next week, she would be starting as a deputy district attorney in San Francisco.

A very simple set-up–granddaughter cleaning out grandmother’s apartment–leads her to find news stories and information about the brutal murder of her grandmother’s best friend many years earlier…and the story takes some startling twists along the way. I’ve not read any of Ms. Clark’s short stories before, and I’ve not read any of her books since A Stranger Is Watching when I was a teenager; I’m not sure why, to be honest. I loved both it and Where Are The Children? Meeting her at the Edgar banquet the first year I went was one of the biggest thrills of my life, and what a gracious lady she is, too.

The next story was by Julie Hyzy, titled “White Rabbit”:

The young woman sitting on the bench stopped fingering a strand of her white-blonde pixie cut. Startled, she looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Excuse me?”

“I asked you if you were recapturing your childhood.” The man who had spoken reached down to tap a corner of the book lying on her lap. He had a round face and the sort of little-boy haircut most men ditch long before they hit thirty. Wearing black-framed glasses and a bushy brown beard, he carried a soft paunch and a beat-up messenger bag.

“Interesting reading choice,” he said. “Especially considering the view. My name’s Mark, by the way.”

They are sitting near the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, and she is reading Alice in Wonderland. As the two begin talking, the story appears to be going one way, then turns abruptly into another direction, and makes yet another turn. Very gripping, the suspense building as the story goes along, with a most satisfying denouement.

Ah, and now back to the spice mines. Happy Friday everyone.

tumblr_p2iqqx41tz1sh6rbgo1_540

Think of Laura

Zulu is passing now; I can hear the drums of the marching bands. It’s a gorgeous morning, the sun is shining and I am betting the crowds up at the Avenue are deep; they certainly were last night for Orpheus. Paul and I both have to work tomorrow, so we’re ending our Carnival early; taking today to rest and recover so we can hit the ground running on Ash Wednesday. I also have a lot of things to do today; emails to answer, things to write, things to edit, things to read, a kitchen to clean. Even though it was abbreviated this year (I was in Alabama for the first weekend of parades), I enjoyed every bit of Carnival this year; and am already melancholy to see it end as always.

I’ve also been enjoying the hell out of the Winter Olympics, and like millions of people worldwide I am–what’s the word kids use now? Oh yes–stanning Adam Rippon. As a long time figure skating fan, I’ve known of Adam long before these games; I remember when he had a mop of floppy curls; when gossip websites were pairing him and Ashley Wagner as a couple (I rolled my eyes every time I saw the photos), and I remember when he came out. I blogged about homophobia in figure skating a while back; when Adam came out while still on the Olympic eligible circuit I thought to myself you’re never going to win anything now; so I was pleasantly surprised to see him win US Nationals and make the world team in 2016; he missed last season with a broken foot, and this season he is full-on out: his short program is to gay club music, and his long program, as everyone saw the other night, is breathtaking. I’m so happy for both him and Mirai Nagasu, who became the first American woman to land a triple axel at the Olympics that same night; they earned bronze medals as part of the team competition, and I couldn’t be happier for both of them–all of the Americans on the team, to be honest. Adam is so funny and refreshingly himself; a big personality and a natural wit he doesn’t try to hold back, and that honesty…I just can’t get enough. I had tears in my eyes when he finished his long program the other night; Paul and I both screamed when Mirai landed the triple axel. Seeing the trashy homophobes on Twitter trashing him or going after him makes my blood boil; I’ve resisted the urge to reply to them He’s got an Olympic medal and you’re a fifth-rate Twitter troll. Congratulations.

So. There’s that.

And in other news of the fabulous, the lucky world of readers can look forward to the upcoming release of a new Laura Lippman novel, Sunburn. I got an ARC at Bouchercon and read it in one sitting on a rainy Saturday back in October.

sunburn

It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. They’re building a big by-ass so the beach traffic won’t have to slow for the speed trap on the old Main Street. He saw the construction vehicles, idle on Sunday, on his way in. Places like this bar-slash-restaurant, the High-Ho, are probably going to lose what little business they have.

High-Ho. A misprint? Was it supposed to be Heigh-Ho? And if so, was it for the seven dwarfs, heading home from the mines at day’s end, or for the Lone Ranger, riding off into the sunset?  Neither one makes much sense for this place.

Nothing about this makes sense.

Laura Lippman has been one of my favorite writers since I read Baltimore Blues years and years ago. I tore through her Tess Monaghan series, and she very quickly became one of my buy in hardcover authors. I’ve never regretted making that switch, and as she has expanded her skills and pushed herself with her exceptionally brilliant stand alone novels, I’ve never once quibbled but I want another Tess novel! (I do, always, but the stand alones are so fucking fantastic that it doesn’t matter–I really just want a new Lippman, and wish she was on a yearly schedule rather than an eighteen month one.)

Laura’s career trajectory has been most impressive from a writing perspective; because as a writer of stand alones, she has gone from being a literary crime writer to a literary writer about crime, if that makes sense. Each of her stand alones are unique and different from the others; about as far removed from her series as any novels can be and still be by the same author. Each one of these novels are rare pearls, individual and vastly different from the others; different themes, different explorations, different everything. The one common thread that runs through these novels is that they are, for the most part, about women, and what women face in their lives; how they deal with crimes and tragedies that take them out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. Laura also regularly experiments with form and voice and tense; enormous, dangerous risks as a writer that she somehow always manages to pull off, make engaging and enjoyable, and always manages to tell a story that makes a very compelling point.

Sunburn,  her latest, is as different from anything she has done before as it could be unless she decided to write about vampires or a zombie apocalypse; but she also brings her incredibly powerful sense of empathy to this tale of murder, vengeance, and oh-so-careful planning. The book opens with the main character, Polly Costello, walking away from her husband and child on a beach vacation and winding up in the hard-knock town of Belleville; she is being observed by Adam, who is being paid to keep an eye on her, follow her–but not to become obsessed by her, which is what happens. Their story is told in a very limited third person point of view, alternating between them, and as we slowly get to know them, watch their physical attraction expand and develop into something more, the questions remain: why did Polly walk away from her family and child? How could she do such a thing? Who is this enigmatic redheaded bar waitress?

And just how fucking good does Adam’s grilled cheese sandwich taste?

The prose in this book is lean; not an extra word to be found anywhere, and it is an homage of sorts to the kind of lean, tight, dark noir that the great James M. Cain wrote. (Cain is a hero of mine, and I have always wanted to write something that dark and lean and tight…ironically, one of the ideas I had for such a noir–gay, of course–was also titled Sunburn) I’ve seen, in some of the early reviews, comparisons to Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, which seem obvious; there’s an insurance scam buried deep in the plot, it’s set in a bar/diner, it’s about an unexpected, explosive attraction between a man and a woman; there are side plots that end in mysterious deaths… but if anything, I’d say Sunburn is more reminiscent of Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress than anything else.

The book is extraordinary, and probably Laura Lippman’s best work to date; that wisecracking, tight prose; a complicated and complex plot that grows even more complicated as you read another page; fully developed characters you can help but root for, even if their motivations aren’t exactly pure; and ultimately, the book is about a woman with everything stacked against her all of her life, who  never gives up, and makes plans…risky plans; where she gambles everything, including her own happiness and desire, for her future, yet is flexible and smart enough to always adapt.

Polly Costello is a heroine Cain would have been proud to call his own.

I Feel for You

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

1516475432004

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).

Screen-Shot-2017-07-11-at-11.48.49-AM

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.