Higher Love

Since Philip Roth died this week, I decided to get down one of my copies of his work and give it a read. Roth is one of those authors whose work I know intellectually I am supposed to like and admire and aspire to be more like, but…I read his first novel several years ago, Letting Go. I was having another one of those periods where I realized that maybe I needed to not focus on reading so much crime fiction and needed to expand my mind more, read more critically acclaimed literary authors. I go through these phases periodically; I remember this particular phase not only included Roth but also William Styron’s Set This House on Fire, Faulkner’s The Reivers, something by Jonathan Franzen, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. As always, I appreciated some of the books and disliked others. My primary takeaway from the Roth, since he is the subject of this paragraph, was this is really well-written but I neither like nor care about any of these characters. The characters were richly drawn, almost intricately so; which is no small accomplishment, but the more I got to know them, the less I liked them and the less I cared about them. Even as I type this I realize how important characters are to my enjoyment of anything; short story, movie, novel, television show. I have to care, or why bother? I got the sense that as I read Roth didn’t much like the characters he was writing about either, which I don’t understand. Perhaps this is why I am not a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner; I cannot write about characters I don’t care about, and I don’t want to watch or read the same.

Why would I invest hours of my time with characters I don’t like when I wouldn’t spend time with them if they were real?

As I said to begin with, I never read Roth again–I tried reading  The Plot Against America, but it lost my interest several chapters in; I do intend to try again–but I do have copies of some of his novels. The one I am going to try to read is When She Was Good. I’ve heard Laura Lippman, one of my favorite writers and intellects, discuss how much she admires Roth while being conflicted about his work; her novel with a similar title, And When She Was Good, is one of my favorite novels of hers. It’s also relatively short–from the looks of things, Letting Go may have been his longest novel–so I will be giving him another shot over the course of this weekend.

So, yesterday on my first day of vacation, I spent the day organizing and cleaning primarily, but I also did some work; I worked on the opening of my short story “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” which, I fear, might actually wind up being a novel; but I am going to continue working on it as a short story in the meantime, I also went to meet a writer friend in town for a few days for drinks at the Saint Hotel bar, which is becoming my go-to. It was fun to talk about writing and laugh about the nonsensical nature of this business with her; one of the best things about being a writer is being able to connect with other writers and in hearing other people are going through the same things.

It really is lovely.

I took the streetcar down there and back, and lugged the Roth with me to start reading. He really is a great writer; I’ve only managed the first chapter and it’s so well-written. I’ll be taking it with me to the Honda dealer today for the car’s oil change, and so I am hopeful the quality will continue; I think it will. I just hope the characters are likable, or at least relatable in some way.

After I finish with the oil change, I’m going to grab lunch over there and then do some errands, and then it’s home to get to work. I have some news brewing, and can’t wait to share it with you, Constant Reader! But until it’s all carved into stone…must say nothing.

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Never

Wednesday. I am working only a half-day today, and then I am taking a short vacation. I don’t have to be back at the office until Tuesday of next week, so I am going to try to relax, get caught up on some things–without any pressure to do any of those things–and recalibrate my head, my heart and my soul.

And do something about how disgusting I’ve allowed my apartment to get in the meantime. I do think a thorough clean will help purge my soul; when my apartment isn’t clean and organized, it weighs on me.

I worked a little on the WIP and the Scotty yesterday, and primarily worked on another short story, “Never Kiss a Stranger.” One of the funny things about me, and my stubbornness, and my tendency to get caught up in tunnel vision, is my regular insistence that I am writing everything in the present day. Part of my struggle with “Never Kiss a Stranger” in the past was trying to make it work in the present; yesterday it occurred to me you can set this in the past, you know, and presto! By moving the story from 2018 to 1994, it clicked into place and started working. My main character is a gay man with twenty years in the military; at age thirty-eight, in those days before “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” being gay was grounds for a dishonorable discharge; after the Gulf War he finds out he is on a ‘to-be-investigated’ list and so puts in his retirement papers. His parents dead and not having a relationship with anyone else in his family, he comes out into the general world and decides to move to New Orleans to start his life anew; it’s also his first opportunity as an adult to live openly as a gay man. As I revised what had already been written, the character’s voice clicked in my head and I was able to remember New Orleans in that time period; when I was visiting and falling in love with the city, as well as remembering what a different time period it was, even though it was only slightly more than twenty years ago. No cell phones or Internet, HIV/AIDS was still pretty much a death sentence (or rather, just a matter of time once infected), and New Orleans was riddled with crime everywhere and inexpensive to live; a beautiful old city decaying in her splendid, rotting beauty in the sun.

And it’s kind of fun writing about the past sometimes, being able to  use my own memories (and my journals) to remember things. And at the same time, incredibly freeing to finally realize something so obvious; that everything needn’t be in the present.

We finished watching both The Terror and Thirteen Reasons Why last night; The Terror, while unsettling, ended inevitably in the only way that it could; I am sorry to be finished with it, and will, when it’s free for streaming, probably watch it again to understand it better. It should be a leading contender for all the Emmys; the question only being which stellar member of the cast should take the trophy home. Thirteen Reasons Why’s second season was…interesting, yet incredibly disappointing in its third season. The resolution of some story lines, which had long since been played out, ended in unsatisfying ways that were, while bitter, realistic and honest and true to life. Rapists get away with slaps on the wrists far too often and our judiciary often lets female victims know that their lives really have no value and there is no justice for them. The final episode, with its bittersweet closure, worked in that respect while at the same time set the stage for a third season with horrifyingly depicted brutality, showing that the damage that was caused by the incidents that triggered the first two seasons have deeper and far more lasting consequences; when damage isn’t repaired and the systems that allowed that damage to occur aren’t corrected, far worse damage can occur. The close of the episode, I felt, was a bit of a cop-out; but I understand why they didn’t see that story through, and it did leave me curious to see where it can go next. There hasn’t been an announcement, as far as I know, that there will be a third season; I’d like to see it, if for no other reason than curiosity to see how these newly planted seeds will grow.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Friends and Lovers

Well, I wrote practically nothing yesterday; maybe a couple of hundred words on “This Thing of Darkness.” I did reread Chapter 2 of the WIP, and realized it needs a complete overhauling, but that’s fine. There’s an endgame in sight, and now I kind of know how to get there, so I don’t mind the massive work that will be required to get me there. Huzzah! And I know that, when it is completed, I will be enormously happy with it.

It’s weird because this story; these characters, have been brewing inside my brain for a very long time; I’ve used this fictional town in Kansas for aborted novels and short stories before. I’ve always wanted to write about this town–I cannot deny that it is based on/inspired by Emporia, Kansas, the seat of the county where I spent five years of my life. When you said you were going to town you meant Emporia, even if you lived in a one of the small hamlets scattered throughout the county. My particular hamlet, Americus, was one of the larger ones; I believe with a population of approximately 932. I do know it was more than nine hundred and less than a thousand. I know that the main crossroads of the town had a flashing red light suspended on wires over it’s center, the town park was right on one corner and the bank was on another. I’ve gone back to the well with Kansas and that area several times in my writing career, but it never really ever seems to get anywhere. Sara was set in Kansas, in a county based on the real one,  in a high school based on the one I attended, but very loosely.

I’ve always wondered if it’s because I’ve not been back there since leaving in 1981 that the stories are so hard, so difficult, to write; the place so hard to envision. And then again, of course it’s ridiculous because any inconsistencies, or changes in my fictional town, might not matter simply because I am writing about a fictional place.

But this manuscript, which I’ve really been working on, in one shape or another, since about 1982 (!), is hard for me because I’ve been trying to write this book for over thirty years. The story and plot has changed dramatically over those years, the names of the characters have been changed, and I’ve blatantly stolen or adapted plots that were originally thought up for this book for others (Murder in the Garden District being one of them; the murder in the back was originally set in my fictional city in Kansas in its original version; for a Chanse novel I had to pare back the literal dozens of suspects and adapt it into New Orleans). For years in the aughts I called this “the Kansas book” as it went through different iterations and ideas and how the story worked; it was originally intended to be a two different time line novel, with a crime that was committed back in the 1970’s with the wrong person convicted and going to prison and dying there; a chance encounter between two people who knew each other back there and then in New York City–one now a successful realtor, the other a successful journalist–and a casual conversation in which the realtor reveals to the journalist that the wrong person was convicted and the murder was a lot more complicated than anyone knew, gets her to thinking. Then she finds out the realtor went back there and also turns up dead; this brings her back as well, as she investigates the current murder and the old one at the same time. I thought it was a very clever idea, but I could never get the story to work for me properly; and I still like the idea; I may write it someday. But I’ve taken the characters and the town from that idea and used it for this one. I also then tried another version, where it was the same town and the same characters and the same set up from the past, only with a dramatically different storyline for the present.

And now, I am using the town and the characters for something completely different.

As I have said numerous times, I am nothing if not stubborn, and apparently I am determined to someday publish a novel about this fucking town and these fucking characters.

“This Thing of Darkness”, the short story I am currently working on, while set in New Orleans, also harkens back to Kansas in some ways. I like this short story, I like the idea behind it, and now it’s really just a matter of seeing whether or not I can pull it off the way I want to. I’ve also realized that my own satisfaction with my short stories is the most important thing, not whether they get published by a magazine or not. I also need to expand my scope of where I submit short stories to; not everything works for the major crime magazines, and who knows? Maybe some of these stories are more  correct for other markets. I’d love to have something in some of the Southern magazines, for example.

Anyway. I am looking forward to this weekend, and hope you all have a lovely, pleasant one as well.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Secret Lovers

I slept so well last night that I didn’t want to get up this morning, which is perhaps the greatest feeling of all. Huzzah! It also means I am not heading into the weekend feeling tired, which will be yet another great feeling. Hurray! Huzzah! Of course, the kitchen’s a disaster area, but I may have the time to correct that this morning before I head into the office. One can always hope, at any rate.

I do think “Burning Crosses” is ready for a read aloud; there’s one more paragraph I need to add, and maybe a sentence here and there, but other than that, it’s close to done. I have also made progress on “This Thing of Darkness,” and I think, as far as short stories go, I am ready to get back to finish/polish/read out loud “Once a Tiger” and “The Problem with Autofill.” I also want to get back to the WIP and the Scotty; I need to read Scotty from the beginning and make notes; and likewise, Chapter Two of the WIP needs to be rewritten, may even need to be a completely newly written chapter because I need to add a scene. But I am hopeful I am setting myself up for an incredibly productive weekend. I am going to a book signing on Saturday afternoon for Bryan Camp’s The City of Lost Fortunes at Tubby and Coo’s (hello, Five Guys!) and I am also supposed to go to a party on Saturday evening, but we’ll see how that all plays out. I may just make Saturday an errand day and try to spend Sunday focusing on writing.

We shall see.

The Terror continues to enthrall, as it moves along to its inevitable end. The ninth episode, which we watched last night, was just non-stop misery and powerful acting from everyone involved. After we finished watching, Paul and I talked about how much we’re enjoying it and The Handmaid’s Tale, and I made the curious realization that the two shows we’re enjoying the most right now are horrific stories of human beings caught up in the most terrifyingly horrible of circumstance, and how interesting is it that we are so enthralled by what basically are, thematically, stories of survival and how much can you take, how much can you handle without giving up entirely?

The writing, and the acting, always stellar, is Master Class worthy in this heartbreaking episode. I fear The Terror will be overlooked for awards, when that season is upon us; which is absolutely wrong. It should win all the awards; I would be hard-pressed, though, to decide on which actor to vote for; there are all that good.

I have to say, yesterday was a lovely day for me professionally. The table of contents for the Murder-a-Go-Go’s anthology I am in was released, and it’s quite stellar. It was lovely to see the social media response; all the likes and retweets and excitement. I am very pleased to be in this book, and I am equally pleased with the story I wrote for it. The book won’t be available until 2019, alas; but it’s going to be a truly good one.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

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On My Own

The Terror continues to enthrall us; it’s such an amazing achievement for a television production; the mood, the eeriness, the sense of dread. The acting and the production values are also amazing. Well done, AMC. The Walking Dead  may have gone off the rails, and we may have lost interest in Fear the Walking Dead early on, but there’s no question that you have become one of the leaders in producing quality television series. I am surprised The Terror isn’t getting more attention than it is; it’s indicative of just how little attention it’s getting that when I started watching I thought the entire series had finished airing. Come on, people; it’s well written, incredibly suspenseful, the acting is top-notch, and the production values are amazing.

I am almost finished with the revision of “Fireflies,” and so it, too, should be ready for a read-aloud this weekend. Once those are finished, I can send off the short story collection and submit “Fireflies” to the appropriate anthology; and then it’s back to the WIP and Scotty. (I also have a thought about a second collection of stories, but that’s a whole other ball game, and I may skip out on it for this year and try for the contest–there’s a contest for a short story collection I’m eyeing, but making the submission for this year might be a push, really; I could always wait and do it next year; when the collection would have matured and I could take my time with the stories. But then again, we’ll have to see how writing goes this summer. One never knows, does one?)

In other exciting news, today I cut the cable cord once and for all. It’s amazing what an exorbitant price we were paying–and have been paying–for years. I simply upgraded my Hulu subscription to include live television, and wound up getting almost all the channels we were getting anyway, losing a few but also gaining a few and said goodbye to the cable bill. We pretty much stream everything anyway these days, so why keep paying? Hulu is $39.99 for live television as well as on demand, and we have all those other apps. And really, if there’s any show we want to see or watch that we don’t get thru Hulu or through one of the apps…I can pay for it. It’s way cheaper than paying almost (gulp) fifteen hundred dollars a year for a lot of shit we don’t watch. Hulu TV isn’t as easy to flip through from channel to channel–which is going to make college football days more difficult….but on the other hand, I also don’t need to spend my entire Saturdays in the fall sitting in my easy chair watching every college game that airs.

And the more we use it, the easier the Hulu TV is going to be to use. It’s about getting used to it.

And I have to say, it’s going to feel good to only pay that much lower bill for simply high speed internet.

Of course, the cable company is already offering me deals to come back. Um, maybe you should offer the deals to have kept me in the first place?

I will keep you posted, Constant Reader, on how the Hulu TV option works for us. But other than an occasional glitch last night, it seemed to work just fine.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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That’s What Friends Are For

So, yeah, yesterday. I get nearly as much done yesterday as I’d intended, despite my plans in the morning. I wound up getting sidetracked (the whole #cockygate thing was fascinating), I also started reading Lori Roy’s The Disappearing (not far into it, but already it’s fantastic–quelle surprise), and I also had dinner with a friend from high school whom I’d not seen in (gulp) forty years.

I don’t really mind, though. Beating myself up over not getting as much done as I wanted is kind of a waste of time. It’s not like it’s an outcome I can change, after all.

And why worry about things you can’t change?

It was fun seeing someone from high school again; a lot more fun than I thought it would be. The other day  I talked about how my life, or my memoir, would be divided up into decades, because it seemed like, in looking back, every new decade of my life almost coincided with a calendar decade and always signified change of some sort. I left Kansas in early 1981 for California, and I never returned. I’ve written about Kansas–not as much as I’ve written about New Orleans, of course; I’ve never written about anywhere as much as I’ve written about Kansas–and sometimes I think I should go back; but when I write about Kansas I make up the towns and the counties and the rural areas I write about, so I can write from my memory so if my memory turns out to be faulty, well, I made up the town. My fictional places are based on real places, but they are fictional.

The WIP, which I can never seem to find the time to get back to, is actually set in fictional Kansas. It’s been kicking around in my head for at least fifteen years, and the story has changed repeatedly over the years. I think I’ve got the right story now, and I really need to finish the Scotty so I can get back to it and finish the final, first person revision, which I think is the right way to go with this.

Anyway.

I don’t dwell on the past very often; but one of the nice things about seeing someone from high school is it kind of forces me to look back over the years. I mean, sometimes I do think about things, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time dwelling on; the past can’t be changed. But you can look back with a different perspective; with the wisdom that comes with the passing of time–or at least, a different perspective. I was desperately unhappy when I was younger; I also now know that my difficulty in focusing and inability to not have my mind wander would now warrant ADD medication. I spent a very long time of my life being unhappy; feeling like the life I wanted to live was something I would never be able to live. And yet I can honestly say I wouldn’t change any of the experiences I had, no matter how unhappy they may have made me at the time–because all of that made me the person that I am now, and I’m kind of happy with who I am now, and the life I have now. Sure, it would be terrific to have more success and more money; but I also think that would always be the case no matter how much success and how much money I might have.

It’s a weird world, it’s a weird life.

I’ve always been weird.  I never fit in anywhere. I didn’t fit in at either high school, I didn’t fit in at college or in my fraternity. I used to think my not fitting in was because of the gay thing; but then, like I said, I never really fit in with other gay men, either. I’m not sure what that’s about; maybe there’s some kind of social anxiety issue I have that hasn’t ever been diagnosed. But I am always uncomfortable at parties or in large gatherings, particularly when I walk into one alone and there’s no one there that I know; I’ve always envied gregarious, outgoing people who can walk up to total strangers and start a conversation. I am horrible at small talk; and live in deathly fear of saying something completely inappropriate to someone I’ve just met and giving offense; God knows someone I’ve only just met has certainly said offensive things to me before.

Ah, life.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

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Born in the USA

Were I to ever write a memoir, I suppose the easiest thing to do would be divide my life into chapters of every ten years or so; my life has sort of been divided that way, almost corresponding with the calendar decades. I was born in 1961; ten years later one chapter of my life closed and another opened when we moved from the city to the suburbs; ten years later we left Kansas for California; 1991 marked my move to Florida, and 2001 was the return to New Orleans from a year in Washington D.C. (what I often refer to, in my head, as ‘the lost year of misery’). 2011 was the year I turned fifty, the aughts being my first full decade of living in New Orleans. Those chapters could then be divided into smaller brackets; the years in the suburbs, the years in Kansas, the bridging year in Houston, the transitional months in Minneapolis, the pre-published years in New Orleans; the pre-Katrina time as a published author, the post Katrina recovery years; I supposed I could mark 2011 as the beginning of another time, the manic productive years when I wrote so many novels and edited so many anthologies and so many short stories. 2017 was the year I took off, to catch my breath and relax and recharge and recover; it was also the year of paralyzing self-doubt and terror that I was never going to write again. Sometimes I wonder if the manic years were precisely what they were because of that fear: the fear that if I ever stopped I would never start again, that I would never start again.

One would think now, after the prodigious output of the last seventeen years or so, I would never doubt myself anymore, would never fear the fount might run dry; but I am just as worried and nervous and as full of doubts as I was in the years I dreamed of making this my reality and wrote and wrote and wrote. It never gets easier, the doubts and fears never go away. At least not for me; I cannot speak for other writers. But I do define myself as a writer. That has been my identity since I signed that first contract all those years ago; above every other identity I can be labelled, be it male or gay or American or New Orleanian or Southern; above and beyond all else I identify as author. 

In an interview recently about Lindsey Buckingham’s departure from the band and Fleetwood Mac’s decision to continue, and tour, without him, Stevie Nicks said, This is terribly sad for me, but I want to be happy and enjoy the next ten years. That may not be the exact quote, but its very close to what she said, and it hit me right at the core of my being. She–and the others–have always been about writing and creating and performing their music; but now they are getting older and wondering how much more time to do they have to do this thing they love so much? I would imagine Tom Petty’s death weighed pretty heavily on her; they were very close. It also made me feel my own age, and wonder about my own future. How many more years do I have to write the books and stories that I want to? What will I do if the day ever comes when I cannot do this anymore, when people don’t want to read what I’ve written, when no publisher wants to invest in getting my work out to readers?

Heavy thoughts, indeed, my own mortality isn’t something I’ve ever cared enough about to think about. But I would imagine, that no matter what else happens in my life, as long as I can type, as long as I can sit up in my chair and see my computer screen, I will keep writing. This compulsion will probably never go away; I know the stories will most likely never stop coming to my mind. Even when I wasn’t writing last year, the ideas were still coming; characters and stories and plots and those stray thoughts that always begin wouldn’t it be interesting if or I wonder what would make a person do such a thing or I wonder what would happen if…

My conscious decision at the beginning of this year to focus on writing, on rediscovering the joy I once always felt when I was creating, the sense of satisfaction felt upon finishing my work for the day, was perhaps the smartest thing I’ve ever done. I do enjoy doing this, even when it frustrates me, when the words won’t come, when I get behind, when I procrastinate and don’t do it even when I know I must, and that the best way to fight off those horrible self-doubts and fears and insecurities is to just fucking do it.

Nothing else matters, really, when it all comes down to it.