Today I am off to Alabama. I’ve ordered groceries to pick up for Paul, which I will drop off on my way out of town. I am a bit excited about the trip–it’s always lovely to see Margaret and Tammy–and I just love this event. This is my fourth time going, and I’ve always had a good time whenever I’ve headed up there. I’ll be back here on Sunday evening, probably exhausted and ready for the incredible comfort and joy of my own bed. I am looking forward to the drive (lunch at the Arby’s in Toomsuba! Carol Goodman audiobook on the stereo!) and I’m not in a huge rush to get up there, either. I think it’s about six or seven hours? Never mind, it’s only five total– I also checked the distance and the timing it takes, and I realized last night that I don’t, in fact, have to get on the road by nine or ten. Since it’s five hours, give or take, without stops, so really, as long as I get on the road around noon I’ll be there tonight by six. So, why make myself crazy trying to rush out of here?so yeah, no need to put the pedal to the metal and speed or anything. I’ll probably just put the cruise control on after I get past Slidell and cross the state line into Mississippi. I also checked the distance and the timing it takes, and I realized last night that I don’t, in fact, have to get on the road by nine or ten. Since it’s five hours, give or take, without stops, so really, as long as I get on the road around noon I’ll be there tonight by six. So, why make myself crazy trying to rush out of here? I do have to go pick up those groceries, swing by the bank and post office, get gas, and run another errand. I can also take my time and make sure I have everything packed that I need as well–when I finish this I’ll probably go ahead and make the list after checking the weather. I slept extremely well last night, too.
I was exhausted when I got home from work yesterday, hence the great relief that I could just laze about and not do much of anything last night, which was helpful. I think the malaise really struck hard yesterday, and by the time I got home from the office I was exhausted, so much so that I collapsed into my chair without a second thought and pretty much stayed there the entire night, rather than packing or organizing or anything. Paul did come home so we could finish The Recruit–and I have to say, that was a season finale. It’s already been renewed for a second season, and I can’t recommend this show enough. It’s a lot of fun, has humor, a great plot and story, and the acting is top notch. I also rather like the cynical way the CIA works on the show–as well as its depiction of how Washington works–because I suspect it’s much more like this than people would like to believe. I did go to bed early, too, which helped with the sleep, and even though I woke up at six this morning I chose to stay in bed for another couple of hours like a slug. But it felt marvelous–last night I was thinking to myself I was too tired to make the trip this weekend if I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, and how fortuitous for me that I got one. Here’s hoping I can sleep for the next two nights at a hotel in Birmingham, shall we?
But I can feel my batteries recharging, if that makes sense? And that, too, feels good to me. I know I have a lot of editing work to do in front of me–as well as other writing–but this fallow period is needed to rest the earth of my creativity so it can spring back into action when I need it again. I think I was a bit too ambitious with thinking about my schedule for the year, too–but the schedule has kind of sorted itself out again, which is kind of nice. I’m not sure when I am going to get to some of the things I had planned to write this year–but I do still plan on writing them; I don’t think ambition is going to be a problem to get me motivated this year. In fact, I suspect motivation is actually not going to be a problem for me this year or any year going forward.
Then again, it isn’t summer here quite yet, either. Summer definitely takes its toll on me and my psyche; usually by August I am feeling relatively defeated by the heat and humidity, but I don’t think that’ll be as much of a problem this year as it has been. Now that we have the new HVAC system, it’s always cool in the house in every part of it. And by then I am hoping to have my return to the gym ingrained as a habit by then. 2023 is the year I want to take better care of myself and get things taken care of–hearing and teeth to start with–and of course going to the gym is integral to my health. I need to start stretching at home every day in the meantime, maybe even working my way back up to some push-ups and ab crunches before I start going back to the gym. It also has occurred to me that stretching at home before going to the gym is probably a better approach; I’ll be warmed up and the walk will keep me warmed up as I head over there and then back home again. I also think I’ll feel more like myself once I am going to the gym again more regularly. And feeling more like myself, returning my life back to what it used to be, is really kind of important to me. I feel in some ways like I’ve lost my sense of self and who am I and what really matters to me the most over the course of the last years because I’ve been so busy. It’s also been really tempting to think oh I have so much free time I should start volunteering again, but I cut those thoughts off very quickly and at the pass. This is how I become over-committed and stressed out and inevitably kicks my anxiety into high gear again–so I always have to take a step back and think whenever that impulse rears its head in my life again.
And I won’t feel bad for being selfish and more jealous of my time. I’ve been volunteering almost non-stop since 1998–twenty five years ago–and so see no reason to feel bad about not giving back for a while, if ever again.
And on that note, I need to start getting ready for the trip and ready to hit the road. Have a great Friday, Constant Reader; I probably won’t check in again with you until Monday morning.
I always forget this when I am asked about major influences on my life, writing, and career–but probably the biggest influence on me was the television soap Dark Shadows.
“My name is Victoria Winters…”
So began the first episode, with young heroine Victoria speaking over some rather spooky music, usually with a background scene of a light in the window at the great house of Collinwood in the fog, or waves crashing against the beach, or the family cemetery, or even the Old House.
Dark Shadows is probably the root or seed from which Bury Me in Shadows was grown from, now that I think about it more. A haunted old house, an even older house in ruins nearby in the woods that was the original family home, ghosts and secrets from the past–oh yes, the framework is absolutely there, and it never even occurred to me.
When my sister and I were kids, we moved to Chicago from Alabama. I was about two years old, give or take; I don’t remember moving up there nor do I remember ever living in Alabama; my sister was two years older. My parents both got jobs–the point of the move was for climbing the economic ladder; they both got really good jobs in factories while my dad finished his degree. But because they both worked (our friends and neighbors all felt sorry for us because our mom had to work; their moms all were housewives), we needed to be watched while they weren’t home. Our landlady recommended a woman down the street–a mother of six whose two youngest were in their last years of high school–and so we started spending our days with Mrs. Harris, who fed us breakfast and lunch, and Mom would pick us up on her way home from the bus stop. When we started school, we went there for breakfast and lunch but came home after school; school let out at 3:15 and Mom was usually home by 3:30. But it was Mrs. Harris–and my grandmother, who worked a night shift–who got me started watching soaps in the first place. One Life to Life and General Hospital sort of held my attention, but it was Dark Shadows I couldn’t wait for. I used to run home from school to try to catch the last five or ten minutes during school; it wasn’t a problem during the summer.
I loved Dark Shadows.
I was crushed when it was canceled.
I mean, look at that house!!!!
The show wasn’t canceled, although the ratings were starting to slide a bit in the later years. The truism that Dark Shadows‘ producers and writers discovered is one that practically every other continuing series having to deal with the supernatural and supernatural creatures has had to deal with: how do you keep topping yourself and raising the stakes? True Blood, Supernatural, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and countless others have all run headfirst into that wall. Once you’ve done time travel and vampires and witches and werewolves and Frankenstein and other dimensions, what is left to do? I admire them for pulling the plug rather than getting more and more desperate to get the ratings up and eventually damaging the legacy of the show.
The show was a phenomenon the likes of which had never really been seen before in daytime–and the lesson learned from its success (go for the young audience!) would soon lead to the creation of youth-oriented shows like All My Children and The Young and the Restless–and of course in the mid-1970’s soaps would be forever changed when General Hospital introduced the character of teenager Laura Webber, played by an actual teenager, Genie Francis–and daytime was never the same. But Dark Shadows managed something that other soaps hadn’t–they created teen idols. Jonathan Frid as Barnabas, David Selby as Quentin, and even David Hennessey as David Collins were often on the covers of teen magazines like Tiger Beat and 16. The show even licensed FAN FICTION–a series of books based on the characters from the show, but thanks to all the fun stuff with time travel and parallel dimensions, Dark Shadows was perfect for spin-off books that took place in other Dark Shadows universe; one could even say Dark Shadows was one of the first shows to make use of a multi-verse.
The books were cheap–as you can see in the picture above (a copy sent to me by a friend with whom I bonded over our mutual love of the show) they ran between fifty cents and seventy-five cents a copy; they all had that same gold bordered cover with an oval image of characters from the show, and they were all written by “Marilyn Ross”, which was a pen name for a very prolific Canadian author named William Edward Daniel Ross; he wrote over three hundred novels during his career, and Marilyn Ross was the name he used for Gothics–and the Dark Shadows books. (He also wrote as Clarissa Ross, and I read some of those novels as well, including The Spectral Mist.) They also weren’t particularly well written, and while they did take place outside the show’s continuity, there were also moments in some of them that didn’t make sense; in one of them, in which Barnabas shows up at Collinwood in the 1910’s, the only son of the family dies in a tragic accident…but if he was the only son, where did the present day Collinses come from? (The earlier books were told from the perspective of Victoria Winters, and in some cases the gimmick was some member of the family was telling Victoria a story about the family history.)
That’s the kind of shit that drives me insane.
But I remember when one of the off-brand television channels in Chicago (not affiliated with a major network) started running repeats of Dark Shadows from the very beginning when we lived in the suburbs in the evenings while the networks ran the evening news–guess what I was watching instead? Yup, Dark Shadows. (I always found it interesting, too, that the young actress who played Victoria Winters originally–Alexandra von Moltke–eventually became infamous as Klaus von Bulow’s mistress Alexandra Isles, who was, in the prosecutor’s theory, the reason Klaus injected Sunny with enough insulin to induce the coma from which she never woke up. But I digress.
I always wanted to write a vampire story similar to that of Barnabas Collins; I have an entire idea for a rural Louisiana version called Bayou Shadows that I’ve tinkered with off and on since the early 1990’s…but then Charlaine Harris started the Sookie Stackhouse series, which was essentially the same thing. I still might write about Bayou Shadows–the town called that has popped up from time to time in my books about New Orleans and Louisiana; most recently in A Streetcar Named Murder, actually–and if people think I’m ripping off Charlaine, so be it.
I’ll know that I’m really ripping off Dark Shadows.
The show also spawned two feature films, Night of Dark Shadows and House of Dark Shadows, each featuring one of the show’s leading men, Jonathan Frid and David Selby, respectively; the first did far better than the second. The show was revived in prime time for a single season in the late 1980’s; I watched it and loved it, of course–even got Paul to watch when it became available on DVD and I rewatched. I wish that show had been given more of a chance, because it was really quite good, and I was curious to see where the story went from that first season. It also had an excellent cast, including Hammer Film star Barbara Steele as Dr. Julia Hoffman. I did watch the Tim Burton film from this century, which had some clever moments but wasn’t quite as good; it went for the silly parody thing The Brady Bunch movies of the 1990’s did, but it didn’t land. The actress who played villainess Angelique in the original series, Lara Parker, has also written some Dark Shadows novels (I have copies but haven’t read them; I really should). Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played the original Maggie Evans on the soap (and in the first film) also has written novels; she was at Long Beach Bouchercon, where I met her and got a signed copy of her book Down and Out in Beverly Heels. She was lovely and couldn’t have been nicer; I really should read that book someday.
I’ve had Dark Shadows on my mind lately because I bonded with Carol Goodman at Bouchercon over our mutual love of Dark Shadows, and the Scotty book still in draft form takes place mostly in a rural parish outside of New Orleans; not the same parish where Bayou Shadows is located, but the next one over.
Sometimes I think it would be fun to reboot the show again, retelling the original story, or picking up from where the television series ended, or even doing a new generation, some forty years later, with David Collins as an adult with children and so forth…Carol and I have joked about coming up with a concept and trying to sell it and be the showrunners…which would be a dream.
Well, well, well. This morning I woke up to the announcement of this year’s Malice Domestic Agatha Award finalists, and mych to my pleasant surprise, our very own Gregalicious’ #shedeservedit is a finalist for Best Children’s/Young Adult novel. It was a very pleasant surprise, as I figured the Agatha short-list wasn’t in my future for A Streetcar Named Murder (which was only eligible for Best Novel, and there is WAY too much competition for that category to even consider the possibility) and honestly, I didn’t think #shedeservedit, my only other release for 2022, had a prayer of getting enough votes (if any at all), but hey. I put up a couple of “for your consideration” posts on social media, figuring it certainly wouldn’t hurt anything to at least try, and here we are. Wow. Thanks to everyone who voted for me. It’s very exciting to start out the year with what hopefully won’t be my last Lefty and Agatha nominations. The nominations are a very lovely pat on the back, and will make even nicer additions to my author bio and CV. Added to the two Anthony nominations last year for Bury Me in Shadows, and it would appear that I am having a rather lovely period in my career, am I not? Perhaps a Gregnaissance?
Okay, yeah, I hate when people do that and make up words. Forget I ever said that.
It’s work at home Friday and I have data to enter. I also had to roll out of bed and head down to Quest Labs this morning for a blood draw for my bi-annual physical, so now I have a bruise on both arms since I had my PrEP labs drawn on Wednesday. I had a good day yesterday–I managed to get back into the book, but fell 500 words short of quota, so I need to do that today as well as today’s writing so I am back on schedule. I’ve been having some moments of doubts and imposter-syndrome lately, but that always happens at this stage in a book so I dismissed it and put it right back out of my head. I was very tired when I finished yesterday’s writing, and Paul went to the gym last evening, so I went down a Youtube wormhole of research (yes, yes, justify wasting your evening, Gregalicious) until Paul got back and we watched some of the US Figure Skating Championships, particularly the Rhythm Dance. (If someone would have told me back when I moved in with Paul in 1996 that my eventual favorite discipline in figure skating would be the ice dancing, I’d probably still be laughing…) I also was remarkably hungry yesterday, which really never happens. I was so hungry yesterday afternoon when I left the office that I actually came home and ate a piece of King cake, which kept me through the night, but it was still odd. I rarely ever get hungry–which is why I often will forget to eat, especially when I am on a trip (unless you go to New York with That Bitch Ford–I think I ate more that weekend in New York than I have on every trip I’ve taken in the last ten years combined)–so it bears noting when I actually realize that I am hungry. My weird relationship with food and my body is something I should probably write about sometime.
One of the problems I face when I think about writing personal essays (did you enjoy that segue, Constant Reader? I usually struggle with transitions) is, of course, Imposter Syndrome. Whenever I sit and think about writing a personal essay, I immediately start to doubt myself. What insights and perceptions and conclusions can you possibly draw about this that hasn’t already been said, probably better and more eloquently, by many others already? I can be pretty oblivious, too–something that is patently obvious to everyone else is something that startles me when I recognize it, mainly because I never think about it; it’s just something that already is, so I don’t think about it. Like one day when I was visiting my parents in Houston a news promo ran on the television calling Houston the “space city,” which was something I clearly was aware of since my parents lived two exits from NASA, and “Houston we have a problem.” But when I heard it that day, it connected in my head, oh, Houston the space city, that’s why the baseball team is the Astros and the basketball team is the Rockets. I said this out loud and my mother looked at me like I was insane (a look I am quite used to, so no worries on that score) and started laughing. I guess my obliviousness was amusing, but I just had literally never thought about it–they were the Rockets and the Astros, and that was that; didn’t matter why they were called that. But this is the kind of thing that makes me worried about trying to write personal essays–that, of course, and my faulty and failing memory, which is yet another reason why I don’t write a memoir…although I could write a really good one. But the problem–even if I trusted my memory–is that everyone remembers everything differently, so I could write about something the way I remember it but the other people involved could remember it completely another way. Who is right, and what is the truth? That hurdle is something I’m going to have to clear–after all, “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” is a terrific personal essay, and a piece of work of which I am particularly proud; so I know I can do it. I suppose the true fear is that I won’t strip naked and show myself to the world, and will color and/or distort things to make me not look quite as bad as I actually was in the moment. That’s one of the reasons why I love writing fiction; I can take personal experiences and twist them into something that can fit into a good story, or make them better in some ways.
And believe me, there was a lot of bad behavior in my past.
You learn to live with it.
Sigh. I do have a lot to get done over the course of this weekend–cannot forget the ALA event tomorrow morning–and of course, there’s a lot of writing to be done and the US Figure Skating Championships to watch. I’ll need to make groceries at some point, too, and I have prescriptions to pick up at CVS and of course, next weekend I am off to Alabama (yay!) for two of my favorite events of every year, Murder in the Magic City and Murder on the Menu, which will take me to Birmingham and Wetumpka. Yay!
So, I am feeling a little more confidence this morning about my writing and everything in my life. I’m enjoying my day job and my new responsibilities, my writing career is doing okay, and I can’t really complain about too much. I’m going to return to the gym in April and start working on that part of my physical self. I am getting the hearings aids process started, and at some point I am going to need to have another eye exam later this spring. I have a lead on a dentist to get my teeth fixed so I can stop looking like a hillbilly, and start getting things figured out with a plan for my writing future.
And on that note, this data ain’t gonna enter itself. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader.
Here we are on another gray weekend morning. It was supposed to rain off and on all day yesterday–it didn’t–but it turned out to be a pretty good day. I wrote about eight thousand words or so, give and take, and made groceries in the afternoon. I did take care of some chores around the Lost Apartment, too, and I spent some time yesterday morning with Other Horrors, which I should finish this morning as I only have three stories left. There have been a couple that puzzled me, but overall, I’ve enjoyed the collection for the most part. I’d be pressed to pick a favorite story, though. Reading it has again reminded me that I am not, no matter how much I wish I was, a horror writer. I just don’t have the imagination, I don’t think, to be a horror writer. I can write Gothic suspense–suspense stories with a touch of the supernatural in them, like Lake Thirteen and Bury Me in Shadows–but I just don’t have the kind of mind that goes to horror when I think about writing.
We also finished off That 90’s Show last night and started watching Mayfair Witches, an adaptation of Anne Rice’s Mayfair trilogy, beginning with my favorite of her novels, The Witching Hour. I am predisposed to like this, since I loved the book so much (the rest of the trilogy not so much), and of course I drove past the house they turned into the Mayfair house for filming on Prytania Street all the time. (They did not use the actual house at First and Chestnut; one thing I did have a problem with was the way they showed Dierdre’s porch, which was different on the actual house than how depicted on the show) There are two more episodes for us to get through tonight, which is cool. I slept extremely well last night again–it’s remarkable how well I’ve been sleeping since getting back from New York–and my psoriasis seems to be under control again for the first time in years. There are a few things I need from the grocery store, but I think I can safely put that off until tomorrow and can stop on the way home from work. This morning I did get up earlier than I wanted to–I am sleeping so well I could stay in bed all day without an issue, I think–but I eel good. My legs have finally stopped feeling sore and tired, thank God, and I think I can safely say that I have completely reacclimated to my day to day life again.
I’m still listening to the Hadestown score, but I also started listening to the Christine McVie-Lindsay Buckingham album the two recorded a few years ago, and it’s quite good. The harmonies! Although I can’t help but think two things while listening: first, I wish Lindsay Buckingham had produced one of her solo albums and second, the one thing missing is Stevie Nicks and this would have made an amazing Fleetwood Mac album, which I think was what it was originally intended to be but Stevie wasn’t available or something or another. It’s also sad to know there will never be another Fleetwood Mac album since Christine’s untimely passing last year (not with my favorite line-up, at any rate). I need to move her solo album from the 1980’s back into my rotation–it’s a great and always underrated record. It’s hard to imagine the band moving on without either Christine or Lindsay (whom they fired), and Stevie already has a band she tours with as a solo act…sigh. Fleetwood Mac was the soundtrack of my teens and twenties and it’s just very weird that it’s finally over after all these years for me. When I write about the 1970’s–which I probably will do either later this year or sometime next–it will indelibly have Fleetwood Mac music all over the score of my work.
When I finish this book, I have to spend February revising Mississippi River Mischief and should spend some time doing a massive copy edit of Jackson Square Jazz so I finally have all of the Scotty series for sale as ebooks at long last. Once I get that done, March will be spent revising the one I am writing now, and then finally come April I can get back to work on Chlorine at long last. I’d like to get a draft of it finished in April so I can write another first draft of something else in May (I already know what it is going to be) and then will probably spend the rest of the year writing short stories and novellas and revising everything to see what can happen with them. Next year I want to write yet another Scotty book and that’s when I am going to try to write my 1970’s Chicago suburb boys-are-disappearing novel, too. None of this is carved into stone tablets, either–things always come up along the way, new ideas or hey Greg want to write a book we’ll pay you xxx for it and I never ever say no to things like that. I’d also like to come up with a new short story collection at some time, or perhaps the three-in-one book novella collection; it’s hard to say. And I kind of want to try to write a romance. There’s always so much I want to write, isn’t there?
Heavy heaving sigh. I don’t think I’ll ever match the days when I used to write four or five novels per year, but I do think I am going to be able to get a lot more writing done now in the next few years. Next weekend I am doing a signing at the ALA event here in New Orleans at the Convention Center, and of course the next weekend I am off to Alabama, and then it’s Carnival. Utter madness!
And now I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and I will probably check in with you again later.
I have to say, it’s really difficult sometimes to be a pro-New Orleans person the way I am, but it’s not New Orleans that is the general problem, it’s some people. After the massive debacle around the Krewe of Nyx and it’s problematic and racist leadership (they defiantly paraded last year to non-existent crowds; maybe some tourists who didn’t know better were out there, but after the parade before theirs, everyone left the parade route), I thought it would be hard for any krewe to do a worse job of public relations or, for wont of a better word choice, reading the goddamned room. However, this past weekend the leadership of the Krewe of Endymion basically said to Nyx, “hold our beer” and named noted anti-Semite, misogynist, and homophobic racist Mel Gibson as celebrity monarch (co-monarch, to be precise).
I don’t go to Endymion–it doesn’t go past our corner; we’d have to walk to Harmony Circle (I keep calling it Liberty Circle since it was renamed, anything is better than Lee Circle) to see it–and I’ve only ever seen it on the rare occasions when it does come down St. Charles Avenue (rained out on Saturday; abbreviated route after Katrina), or when we used to go out that Saturday night, walking to the Quarter up the route (and getting buried with beads on the way)–so it’s not like I would be boycotting it anyway; but they did rescind the invitation but rather than admitting they made a HUGE mistake, decided to blame the outrage and cite concerns for their safety as the reason.
Fuck all the way off, Endymion, seriously. Yes, blame the outrage instead of your incredibly poor decision-making skills.
Nyx, by the way. went from 3500 members and riders to less than 200. And yes, that will wind up in a book someday–it’s too good to not use it, you know? Also of note: that last pre-pandemic Mardi Gras, back in 2020? Two people were killed by floats during parades that season–at Nyx and Endymion. Perhaps the gods of Carnival were letting us know in advance?
Then again, Carnival has a horrifically exclusionary and racist past we tend to gloss over a lot here (read Lords of Misrule sometime).
It’s dark out this morning and I didn’t sleep as great last night as I would have liked, which is fine. This is my last day in the office this week, and of course tomorrow morning I’m off to New York, so if I’m tired, I’m tired. I did manage another three thousand words on the book yesterday–it really is going well, and I am actually enjoying writing it, to be completely honest–and I managed to get some chores done yesterday when I got home from work–the dishes, mostly. Tonight I’ll need to pack; the flight isn’t until 12:15 tomorrow, so I don’t have to leave for the airport until almost ten, so I can sleep a little later than usual on a Wednesday; which will prepare me for the insomnia of the hotel…which I honestly am hoping won’t be the case this time. After doing the chores last night and writing, I watched a documentary about the Eastern Roman Empire for a while before switching over to the national title game–which was kind of boring and not much fun to watch; I mean, what the hell, TCU? And how on earth did they beat Michigan? Ohio State was a missed field goal in the closing seconds away from playing in the title game; and they lost to Michigan at home. I know it’s pointless to do comparative scoring and so forth because every game day is different, but I can guarantee you neither Alabama nor Tennessee would have gotten rolled 65-7. Hell, even LSU played Georgia better in the conference championship game and they played terribly. I guess the only teams capable of stopping Georgia from doing what no one else has ever done–three in a row–are from our conference.
But it will be fun watching Georgia fans become even more hated than Alabama’s this coming year. And they play in Knoxville this next season. The 2023 season, I think, is going to be even more interesting to watch than this year’s.
You heard it here first.
I need to make a packing list today, too. I already checked the weather for the weekend and it won’t be much worse than it is here when it gets wintery, so that’s bearable for me. Hat, jacket and gloves are all I need, and I think I can manage without getting super cold and whiny, so we’ll see how all that goes. I’m actually more than a little excited about the trip, to be honest. This may be my last trip to New York for quite some time and I am not going to be there for very long; That Bitch Ford has done an absolutely marvelous job of Julie McCoy-ing our weekend up there; we’re going to see a play (Hadestown), to Chinatown, and we’re going to a noodle place, too–I love noodles–and I am meeting others for drinks and so forth–it’s quite marvelous, really. I just hate the drudgery and getting to and from the airport, and the flights themselves–although usually once I am on the plane and have my book open in my lap, I don’t mind the flights quite as much–and I have no plans for tomorrow evening, so hopefully once I am checked into the hotel and unpacked, I can write for a while and then read myself to sleep…or watch a movie on my laptop, or something. It should be a great trip, and I even have the Monday holiday off so I can recover as well as do things to get ready for the week without having to do it around going to the office.
And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader, and I’ll check in with you again later.
So, when Ellen Byron was preparing to interview me for our live stream event from Murder by the Book, she sent me some questions to prepare myself with. They were good questions, actually, and I thought that taking time to answer them when I can think about the responses would be an excellent BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION post.
So, without further ado, here we go!
What inspired your book? Series premise and the specific story?
That’s an interesting story, actually. I had been toying with the idea of writing a cozy for a long time–I’ve always liked them–but never was sure I could do it; there were rules, after all, and I’m terrible about following rules, always have been. Several friends have been encouraging me for years to do it, but I always hesitated. It was (I thought) outside of my comfort zone, and while I would toy with ideas here and there, none ever came to anything. My partner’s office is near a costume shop, and he’d had to go in there one day for some reason or another, and as is his wont, he struck up a conversation with an employee about the costume business, how they made money, how they stayed open all year, etc etc etc. He’s very curious. Anyway, that night I mentioned to him that someone had yet again suggested I write a cozy, and he wasn’t sure what one was, so I gave him a thumbnail overview, and he said, “Oh, you should do a costume shop” and proceeded to tell me about his conversation with the shop employee. I agreed it was an interesting idea, and stowed it away in the back of my head for future reference, and would think about it now and then, come up with characters and a community for the main character to be a part of, and so on. But at the same time I kept thinking New Orleans wasn’t the right place for a cozy series–basically looking for ways to fail instead of reasons to succeed, which is the underlying theme of my life, really–and so it went. An editor I’ve worked with before was interested in the idea of my writing a cozy series, so I wrote up a proposal and sent it off. They liked it, but couldn’t sign it, and recommended I take it somewhere else, so I did. It evolved from a costume shop to an antique shop during the process of me signing a contract with Crooked Lane; they liked everything about my idea except for the shop itself, so I had to change that. I went down to Magazine Street and walked for a block, writing down every kind of shop I saw, and sent the list in–and we all came to an agreement about the series being structured around an antiques business. As for the story, well, I wanted to talk about and explore the gentrification of New Orleans that has been ongoing almost this entire century, and how real estate has just exploded around here. (It still staggers me that our rent was $450 when we first moved here; the lowest rent I’ve seen advertised in our neighborhood is around $1500 for less than thousand square feet. Our original apartment now rents for $2500 per month now, which is insane.) What happens to Valerie–the fear of a new tax assessment pricing her out of her house–actually happened to a friend of mine; and the prices just seem to keep going up all the time. You can’t even buy a condo in my neighborhood for less than $350, 000 now–the asking prices for houses in the neighborhood are completely insane. Every time I see a new listing in the neighborhood for half a million dollars or more I think, we really should have bought when we moved here–but home-ownership is New Orleans isn’t something Paul or I have ever been terribly interested in. Termites, tornados, hurricanes, floods, black mold–no thanks! But man, what a return on our investment had we bought in 1996!
We both write series set in New Orleans. Why do you find it so inspiring? Especially when you’ve lived in so many other places?
I’ve lived all over the country–we’re from Alabama, and I’ve lived in Chicago on the south side, the suburbs, Kansas, Fresno, Houston, Tampa, Minneapolis and then New Orleans. New Orleans is the only place I’ve ever been to where I felt like I belonged, where I fit in; where I didn’t seem like the eccentric one. New Orleans embraces its eccentrics and doesn’t judge them, and I like that. I knew that first time I came here on my birthday in 1994 that if I moved here all my dreams would come true. And they have, which has been kind of lovely. And no writer could ever exhaust the inspiration New Orleans provides. I’ve written fifteen books set here and countless short stories at this point, and haven’t even scratched the surface. I’ve never written about the music scene here, for one glaring example, or restaurants or the food industry or…you see what I mean? There’s not enough time in my life to write everything I want to about New Orleans.
Tell us about your protagonist. Where did the inspiration for her come from?
My sister never had any interest in going to college or having any kind of career other than being a wife and mother. She was a straight A student and had numerous scholarship offers, but had little to no interest. I used to always think she had wasted her potential, but gradually came to the realization that she has the life she always wanted when she was growing up, and has never missed having a career outside of the home–so rather than feeling bad about her lost potential, I should have been happy that her dreams came true. I started thinking about that more, and thought that would make a great starting place–a woman like my sister who wasn’t really very interested in college but went because it was expected of her…only to fall in love, get married, and drop out when she had twins. I really like the idea of a woman who’s not yet thirty, who wasn’t really sure what she wanted from life and then sidetracked to wife-and-mother, but with her kids now off to college and her husband having died…what do you do for the rest of your life when you’re a widow at thirty-eight and your kids have left for college? And the more I thought about her, the more I liked her and wanted to write about her.
Why did you choose the Irish Channel as the neighborhood?
My Scotty series is set in the French Quarter, and the Chanse series was set in the lower Garden District (where I’ve always lived and always default to it for that very reason), so I wanted to do something different this time out. Before I moved here, I had friends who lived in the Channel and I loved their house and I loved their neighborhood. I had already started writing a novella set in their old house, and I thought, why not use that same house for this series? The Channel did used to be considered a bad part of town, too, when we first moved here (so was the lower Garden District, which we didn’t know), and so I thought the gentrification issue would work better there than in my neighborhood. That part of the Channel is one I used to spend a lot of time in. As my character mentions in the book, I used to hang out at the Rue de la Course coffee shop at the corner of Magazine and Harmony–it was where I would meet friends for coffee. I’m still bitter it closed.
Similarities in our series: both widows, both have family mysteries, both live in the Irish Channel, you have jokes about potholes, I have a plot point about them. Let’s talk about NOLA’s potholes.
Oh, the potholes! Ironically, an active one ate one of my car tires a few weeks ago. Usually, if I am going someplace and have to turn around, there’s usually room for me to make a U-turn or I can turned into a driveway and turn around. This particular day the bar on the corner had reopened after being sold, closed, and renovated for a few months. So, there were cars everywhere, including blocking the driveways, and I thought, fine, I’ll just go around the block, which I hadn’t done in years. Because I hadn’t done that i years, I forgot there’s a massive pothole right when you make the turn so you have to jog left to avoid it. I hit the pothole, hard, and when I did, I thought oh that’s not good and as I continued driving I noticed the car was pulling to the left–which was the tire that hit the pothole. Sure enough, it was flat. It had a nail in it, and I happened to hit the pothole perfectly so that the nail dragged, tearing a hole in the tire. So, yes, New Orleans is a city of potholes–all different shapes, sizes, and depths. When the streets flood the water hides the potholes, and if they are really deep…the one on our street (which is reforming after being filled in and paved over for like the fiftieth time) ate a pick-up truck when that end of the street flooded a few years ago, so our street was blocked until the water went down and a tow truck could get in.
You have a Nolier than thou joke – I have OhNo!LA, an app that’s a runner in the book.
I wish I could claim credit for that joke, but I stole it from Bill Loefhelm, another New Orleans crime writer when we were on a panel together talking about writing about New Orleans and the need to get things right. He responded to a question about accuracy by saying something like “Yes, you really don’t want to set off the Nolier-Than-Thou people” and it still makes me laugh whenever I think about it because it’s so true! In all honesty, I am one of those people–nothing is more infuriating to me than reading something set in New Orleans that doesn’t get it right–but I’ve loosened up some as I’ve gotten older. I was even wondering if that was still a thing while I was writing this book…but since it’s come out I’ve seen any number of locals posting reviews and comments about “how (he) got New Orleans right” so it is still a thing. (And I’m glad and grateful people think I get ir right.)
How would you say your past experiences and jobs in life inform your writing?
I always say that life is material, as is every experience you’ve had. I’ve had so many jobs over the years and have been fired so many times I can’t keep track of them all anymore. But I also had a huge variety of jobs–fast food to retail to food service to banking to insurance to an airline to being a personal trainer to managing a health club to being a magazine editor to my present job working in an STI clinic as a sexual health counselor. Whenever I am creating a character and need a job for them, I inevitably fall back on one of my experiences. The main character in The Orion Mask worked at an airport–I’ve written a lot of characters who work for airlines–and so I try to get away from my own experiences once I catch myself doing it again. I have always had jobs that required interaction with other humans, so I’ve gotten to observe a lot of human behavior. I’ve written about high school students in Kansas (where I went to high school). I’ve written about fraternities because I was in one (hard as it is to believe now). I played football in high school, I’ve written about football players in high school. The only places I’ve lived that I’ve not written about are Chicago, Houston, and Tampa (I have written about Florida, but just the panhandle, where I spent of time as a kid).
I read a blog post where you talked about your relationship with the city. How has it morphed over the years and where does it stand now? It sounded like doing promotion and writing about the city reignited your love for it. What’s your writing process? You write in different genres. Is the process different?
As sad as it is to admit, it’s very easy when you live here to start taking New Orleans for granted. As I said before, I usually am so focused on what I am doing–work, writing, errands, chores, etc.–that I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings as I should (I think we are all guilty of this to some degree). About a year before the pandemic, my day job moved. I had worked in our office on Frenchmen Street for well over ten years–right across the street from Mona’s, in that block between Decatur and Chartres, so I was a block outside the Quarter five days a week, and we also used to do a lot of testing in the French Quarter gay bars and passing out condoms during Carnival, Southern Decadence, and Halloween. So I used to spend a lot of time in and around the Quarter. It was lovely–I could go to the Walgreens or the Rouse’s on Royal and there was a bank branch on Chartres Street, too, by the Supreme Court building. Anytime I didn’t have anything in the house to pack for lunch I could just walk into the Quarter and get something not only amazing but inexpensive. I used to walk past where Scotty lives all the time. After we moved into our new building in the 7th Ward, I don’t go into the Quarter much anymore. So I was starting to feel a bit disconnected from New Orleans already before the pandemic shut everything down. But I realized when I started doing promo for this book that I am not disconnected from New Orleans. I’ve just lived here so long that I don’t take as much note of the unusual or the weird as I used to–it’s become normalized to me. I’ve acclimated. It’s still just as weird and wild and crazy here as it always has been, it just doesn’t strike me as weird and wild and crazy the way it used to. I need to take more walks and spend more time exploring the city and checking things out. I don’t know if all the hidden places I used to take friends to eat in the Quarter are still there, either. Maybe after Mardi Gras…
And here we are, on the final day of the year 2022. Happy New Year, I guess? It doesn’t feel like the year is turning, but everything has felt so totally out of whack since the 2020 Shutdown that it’s not a surprise, really. As I sit here bleary-eyed with my coffee trying to wake up for another thrilling day of writing and cleaning, it seems very weird to look back to a year ago at this time. I was on deadline then, too–and was way behind on that book, too (A Streetcar Named Murder, for the record), but other than that I don’t remember what my mood was like or what I was thinking about going into the new year. We were still in the midst of the pandemic (that hasn’t changed–what’s changed is it isn’t news anymore and everyone seems to be pretending it’s all over), and I know I wasn’t exactly going into 2022 thinking oh this is the year I’ll get the coronavirus! That did happen, and my ten-day experience with COVID-19 was bearable for the most part. I just had intense and severe exhaustion as well as the brain fog, which hasn’t entirely lifted. I still have no short term memory, and am struggling to remember things every day–which has made writing this book more difficult because I can’t remember small details and things that are kind of important. I also think being so scattered isn’t much help in that regard; I’ve never been able to handle getting a grip on things and have felt like I’ve been behind the eight-ball for the last three years, floundering and struggling to keep my head above water, and never confident that I had a handle on everything. It’s been unpleasant, really; I prefer to be better organized and to have things under some sort of manageable control, and this constant feeling that I am behind and will never catch up on everything has been overwhelming, depressing, and damaging.
I read a lot of great books this year–I was going to try to make a “favorite reads of the year” list, but as I went back through the blog for the last year looking at all the books I talked about on here, there’s no real way for me to quantify what were my avorite reads of the year. I managed to read both of Wanda M. Morris’ marvelous novels, All Her Little Secrets and Anywhere You Run; Marco Carocari’s marvelous Blackout; John Copenhaver’s The Savage Kind; Carol Goodman’s The Night Villa, The Lake of Dead Languages, and The Disinvited Guest; Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway and The Woman in Cabin Ten; Raquel V. Reyes’ Mango, Mambo and Murder; Ellen Byron’s Bayou Book Thief; Rob Osler’s debut Devil’s Chew Toy; Mia P. Manansala’s Arsenic and Adobo; Kellye Garrett’s Like a Sister; Alex Segura Jr’s Secret Identity; Laurie R. King’s Back to the Garden; Tara Laskowski’s marvelous The Mother Next Door; James Kestrel’s Five Decembers (which would be a contender for favorite read of the year, if I did such things); and of course several Donna Andrews novels as well. I am forgetting some great reads I truly enjoyed this past year, I am sure–I will kick myself later for not remembering I Play One on TV by Alan Orloff, for one example–but it was a year of great reads for me. I know 2023 will also be a great year for reading.
I also watched a lot of great television this past year as well, and again, I won’t be remembering everything and will kick myself later. If nothing else, it was a year of some amazing queer representation on television; this was, after all, the year Netflix not only gave us the wonderful, amazing, adorable Heartstopper but the equally charming and adorable Smiley (which you should watch, absolutely). It was also the year where Elité continued, but the shine is starting to go off the show a bit. I was very vested in their Patrick/Ivan romance, which they ended in this last season with Manu Rios, who plays Patrick, leaving the show at the end of the season along with his two sisters (spoiler, sorry), which was dissatisfying. I am looking forward to seeing what else Manu Rios gets up to in the future…we also enjoyed 1899, Andor, Ted Lasso, Sex Lives of College Girls, Peacemaker, The Sandman, House of the Dragon, Ozark, and so many other shows I can’t possibly begin to remember them all this morning. But I have no problem saying that without question my favorite show of the year was Heartstopper. Even just looking at clips on Youtube, or those “Ten Cutest Moments on Heartstopper” videos, always makes me feel warm and fuzzy when I view them. The soundtrack for the show was also terrific, with some songs so firmly engrained in my head with scenes from the show (one in particular, Shura’s “What’s It Gonna Be” always makes me think of that scene where Charlie comes running after Nick in the rain to give him another kiss, which is what was playing in the background). Wednesday was another highlight, a surprising delight when I was prepared to have my hopes dashed, and The Serpent Queen was also a lot of fun. We also enjoyed The Bastard Son and the Devil Himself, but it was cancelled after its first season, which was disappointing.
Professionally, it was a pretty good year in which I had three book releases: #shedeservedit in January and A Streetcar Named Murder in December, with the anthology Land of 10000 Thrills, thrown in for good measure in the fall. I sold some short stories that haven’t come out yet, as well as some that did this last year: “The Rosary of Broken Promises,” “A Whisper from the Graveyard,””The Snow Globe,” and “This Thing of Darkness” all came out in anthologies this year, with “Solace in a Dying Hour” sold and probably coming out sometime in the spring. I also sold another story to another anthology that will probably come out in the new year as well, and I still have one out on submission. In what was probably the biggest surprise of the year, last year’s Bury Me in Shadows was nominated for not one, but TWO Anthony Awards (Best Paperback Original and Best Children’s/Young Adult) which was one of the biggest shocks of maybe not just the year, but definitely one of the highlights of my career thus far. I lost both to friends and enormously talented writers Jess Lourey and Alan Orloff respectively, which was kind of lovely. I had been nominated for Anthonys before (winning Best Anthology for Blood on the Bayou and “Cold Beer No Flies” was nominated for Best Short Story), but being nominated for one of my queer novels was such a thrill–and to have it nominated in two different categories was fucking lit, as the kids would say. The response to A Streetcar Named Murder was an incredibly pleasant surprise; people seemed to genuinely love the book, which was very exciting and cool.
I traveled quite a bit this year as well–going to Murder in the Magic City/Murder on the Menu, Left Coast Crime, the Edgars, Sleuthfest, and Bouchercon. I went to Kentucky twice to see my family, which further fueled my love of audiobooks for long drives–on both trips I listened to Ruth Ware on the way up and Carol Goodman on the way back–and also did some wonderful podcasts and panels on-line, which was nice. We didn’t go to any games this season in Baton Rouge, but in all honesty I don’t know if I can hang with a game day anymore–the drive there and back, the walk to and from the stadium, the game itself–I would probably need a week’s vacation afterwards!
College football was interesting this season, too. This season saw the reemergence of Tennessee, USC, and UCLA to some kind of relevance again; the slides of the programs at Texas A&M, Florida, Oklahoma, Auburn, and Texas continued; and LSU turned out to be the biggest surprise (for me) of the year. Going into the season I had hopes, as one always does, but after two years of consistent mediocrity (with some surprise wins both years) they weren’t very high. The opening loss to Florida State was a surprise and disappointment, but at least the Tigers came back and almost made it all the way to a win. The blowout loss to Tennessee at home was unpleasant, certainly, as was the loss at Texas A&M. But LSU beat Alabama this season! We also beat Mississippi, so LSU was 2-2 against Top Ten teams this season–and I would have thought it would be 0-4. And 9-4 is not a bad record for a transitional year, with a new coach rebuilding the program. And LSU beat Alabama. The Alabama game will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest Saturday night games in Tiger Stadium. It was incredibly exciting, and I still can’t quite wrap my mind around it or how it happened. It certainly shouldn’t have; LSU was simply not an elite-level team this past season, but what a job Brian Kelly did coaching in his first season in Baton Rouge. Did I mention that LSU beat Alabama this year? (And one really has to feel for Alabama, in a way; they lost two games by a total of four points on the last play of each game. Four. Points. That would probably be what I would call this season for Alabama: Four Points from Greatness. The LSU-Alabama game this year is definitely one of those that gets a nickname from the fan base, I am just not sure what it would be. The Double Earthquake Game? (The cheers when LSU scored in overtime and then made the two point conversion registered on the campus Richter scale) The Conversion Game? I don’t know what it will be named for all eternity, but it was an amazing game. I do think it also bodes well for the future for LSU. Will both LSU and Tennessee (which also beat Alabama for the first time in like fifteen years) be able to consistently compete with Alabama now? Has Georgia taken over as the SEC behemoth? Has the Alabama run ended? I don’t think so–they have an off year where they lose two or three games periodically (2010, 2019, 2022)–and they could bounce right back. next year and win it all again. You can never count them out, even in their off years.
As for the Saints, they swept Atlanta again this year, and that is enough for me.
I did write a lot this year, even though it didn’t seem like I actually did while the year was passing. I also worked on Chlorine and another project I am working on throughout the year, as well as the novellas, and of course, I was writing short stories and essays for much of the year. I also read a lot more New Orleans and Louisiana history, and I had tons of ideas for things to write all year long. I did make it to the gym on a fairly regular basis at the beginning of the year, but then it became more and more sporadic and after my COVID-19 experience, never again. I also injured my arm a few weeks ago–when I flex the bicep it feels like I have a Charley horse, so not good, but it doesn’t impact my day to day activities. I also had my colonoscopy at last this past year–the prep was horrific, and I am really dreading doing it again at sixty-five, should I make it that far.
Yesterday was a nice day. I was exhausted, and after my work-at-home duties were completed I did some chores–laundry, dishes–and I also spent some time both reading (A Walk on the Wild Side) and writing. I also watched the Clemson-Tennessee Orange Bowl last night before Paul got home from his dinner engagement and we watched a few more episodes of Sex Lives of College Girls. Today I am going to read a bit this morning with my coffee before getting cleaned up and diving headfirst back into the book. Paul has his trainer today and usually either goes to the gym to ride the bike or to his office to work for the rest of the afternoon, so I should be able to have some uninterrupted writing time, which will be lovely. And on that note I am heading into the spice mines. Have a happy and safe New Year’s Eve, Constant Reader, and I will check back in with you later.
The insomnia came back last night for some reason, but I don’t feel exhausted this morning or tired, just like I could have gladly stayed in bed for another week or so. But it is what it is. Yesterday was a pretty good day, all around. I managed to get some more work done on the book again, and was able to do some relaxing last evening. I was tired by the time I had done a load of dishes, so I simply repaired to my easy chair for the evening, doom scrolling on social media with my iPad or reading some history of queer rep on television in The Prime Time Closet, which I think I’ve already read before, years ago–but it’s interesting to look at how we’ve been portrayed on television over the years, especially when televisions stations or religious bigots protested our inclusion.
It really is amazing how much progress we’ve made during my lifetime, even if we are still under constant attack from bigots.
I doubt homophobia and its evil twin transphobia will go away before I die, alas.
I hate being so busy and single-minded during Christmas, which makes it kind of hard to enjoy the holidays. Paul and I have decided to get a new refrigerator as a gift to ourselves–ours is on its last legs. I kind of want one with the freezer on the bottom, since bending down is getting to be an issue for me, but they are ridiculously expensive; even the ones that have side-by-side freezer/refrigerator compartments. But it will be nice to have one that works properly and seals properly when you shut the door, so I am going to take that as a win. The most important thing is having one that works, not getting the specific kind that I want. (I’d love to have one like my mom’s, but Jesus, those are expensive.)
I’m not going to have the time to do cards this year, either, which is unfortunate. Well, maybe. I don’t know. We’re going to Costco this weekend, so maybe I can get some cards there and take care of them over the weekend (again, no college football; I need to do a lot of writing this weekend). Hopefully I can get a lot done this weekend. It’s amazing what a difference no college football on Saturdays can make to my time availability. Anyway, I hope that I’ll be able to find some time to take, at the very least, a walk around my neighborhood to take pictures of the decorations for everyone to enjoy; New Orleans really does Christmas right. One of the reasons I set Royal Street Reveillon during the holidays was precisely because I wanted to write about Christmas in New Orleans–it may not be white, but it’s definitely Christmas down here once Thanksgiving has passed. The weather has remained oddly all right–lows in the 60’s, which is why I think my sinuses have been so out of control lately; the damp and mist and fog wreak havoc on them. I am also not sure what we’re going to do for Christmas day itself. I may drive out to Metairie to get a pizza from That’s Amore (the best deep dish pizza in the New Orleans metropolitan area); I don’t know. I could also order a turkey dinner from either the Fresh Market or Rouses, too. Decisions, decisions.
Apparently, we’re in a severe weather alert with the possibility of flooding through tomorrow night. That should make running my errands after work today rather interesting, don’t you think? New Orleans weather is so much a part of the city that not writing about the weather would be absurd. (That Elmore Leonard advice about not writing the weather, or opening with the weather? I break it all the time. Sorry, Mr. Leonard, but you cannot write about New Orleans and not write about the weather because it impacts everything here.) Imagine writing about New Orleans and not mentioning the heat and humidity, or talking about the torrential, street flooding thunderstorms that make you think you live in a tropical rain forest? Ah, well, I can just pay attention to the weather and in a worst case scenario, can run the errands tomorrow. I just have to mail something as well as pick up the mail, so there’s really not much of a rush for either, frankly. I am not expecting anything in the mail and Paul hasn’t said anything about any packages coming for him, so if it’s nasty today, I can skip it. I also have to wonder how the weather will affect the no-show rate with my clients. AH, well, it’s not like I don’t have plenty of work to do if we do have a high no-show rate today.
And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. May your Tuesday be happy and joyous and fabulous, Constant Reader.
One of the great joys of being a voracious reader is discovering a new-to-me talent: a terrific writer capable of creating relatable characters; telling great stories using wonderfully constructed, lyrical prose; and illuminating experiences and lives that are vastly different from my own, using fiction as a method to not only entertain but educate.
Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of reading Wanda M. Morris’ impressible debut, All Her Little Secrets, which I raved about in a blog entry. Of course, that was her book from last year, so I was very excited to get my hands on a copy of this year’s Wanda M. Morris novel, Anywhere You Run, and it does not disappoint in any way other than coming to an end.
I also had the pleasure of meeting Wanda earlier this year at Left Coast Crime, and she is as lovely a person as she is as a writer.
All four men passed around a bottle of Jim Beam as they peeled up State Route 19, giddy with excitement about what they’d do once they hog-tied those coons and got them to a tree. The engine revved as they hit the crest of the road, doing 80 mph. Getting pulled over was the least of their concerns because Olen’s cousin, Sheriff Bickford, was riding shotgun. Bickford had gotten a tip and rounded up the other three to head from Jackson over to Meridian and then north to Neshoba County.
Olen, sitting there in the back seat, threw back a swig and passed the bottle on, assuring the others they were doing God’s work. “The last thing anybody needs is for them to start votin’. Bad enough the goddamn government wants us to let ’em eat in our restaurants and sit beside us on a bus. If the Lord has meant for whites to mix with coloreds, he woulda’ made the coloreds a hell of a lot smarter. Either we stay all white or we die amongst ’em.”
A couple of the other men nodded in silent agreement.
Anywhere You Run is, in some ways, a kind of prequel to All Her Little Secrets, in that it gives us the backstory on some of the characters in the first novel. Set in the turbulent 1960’s, during the Civil Rights struggle in the old Confederate states and the resistance to racial equality from the Southern bigots, this may be one of the first novels I’ve ever read to show that time from the perspective of a woman of color? (There was a woman of color point-of-view character in William Bradford Huie’s The Klansman, but I’d need to revisit that book to make a comparison, but I know the visceral sense of being othered, of knowing there is no justice for you in this world and society, wasn’t as strong in the Huie novel as it is in this one.) I’m not going to go out on a limb and claim that as fact, but it is likely–and being Southern, and seeing the South of the time through this lens (remember, I was alive then, too, but my perspective was greatly different), was sobering. Morris brings the time to life with a vivid, powerful brush that makes it very clear what it was like to be a second-class citizen in a system designed to keep you there.
The story focuses on two sisters from Jackson, Mississippi–Violet and Marigold. Their parents are dead, as is their older sister, Rose; the two sisters are very different and on different paths, but they love each other very deeply and have a strong sisterly bond. Marigold has been working at a Civil Rights office in Jackson while having an affair with a married lawyer, come south for the summer to work on voting rights, and finds herself pregnant. SHe’s been seeing a man she doesn’t love, Roger Bonny, and decides to marry him and move north with him to Cleveland, leaving the Jim Crow South far behind her. Violet also wants out of Jackson and the book opens with her running–but for different reasons and in an entirely different situation. Violet was raped by a white man, and knowing there was no justice possible for a woman of color under these circumstances, kills him. She’s also been dating a white man, Dewey Leonard, who claims to be in love with her–and wants to run away with her and marry her in Boston. Violet doesn’t love Dewey, but she sees him as her ticket out of town. As the two of them flee, they are stopped by a cop once they’ve crossed the Alabama state line, and the fact Dewey has to act like she’s in his employ to save them both only convinces her that her plan to run away from Dewey the first chance she gets is the right one. She avails herself of the first opportunity that presents itself–ironically, at the same Birmingham Greyhound station where the freedom riders were attacked by a mob and police dogs–and catches a bus to a nowhere little town in rural Georgia–Chillicothe, which is very important in All Her Little Secrets.
But Dewey isn’t ready to let go of Violet, and hires a white-trash no account to track her down for him. He loves her and wants her back–but probably would be willing to let her go except for the wallet, which contains something that puts both Violet and Marigold’s lives in grave danger.
This is an exceptionally good novel, tightly plotted and highly evocative of the period Morris is writing about. It couldn’t have been easy, researching this painful past that we as a nation should be incredibly ashamed of; no writer is powerful or talented enough to truly bring the totality of the horror that was life for people of color in this country, particularly in the South, to life. But Morris does it beautifully; by focusing on how individual lives were affected and impacted, the implications of how truly horrible this time was on a macro level can easily be extrapolated. There are also slurs, accurate to the time and the characters using them, which are jarring to come across in the present day in the printed word.
But I’ve also heard those words used…not in a very long time, but seeing them in print I can hear them again vividly in my head, dripping with venom and hatred and contempt.
This book is fantastic, absolutely fantastic, and I urge you, Constant Reader, to start reading Wanda M. Morris.
It literally has everything I love (well, most of it, at any rate): the St. Charles streetcar, Scooter, and all kinds of fun antiques and artifacts–and so brightly colored and beautiful. They even slipped in a strand of beads cleverly disguised as pearls! It is one of my favorite covers, and not just because it doesn’t have a shirtless man on the cover–I know, I know, it’s been awhile since I actually had one–certainly it’s been since Royal Street Reveillon–oops, no, Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories is post Royal Street Reveillon, so I guess it’s just the last two young adults and this one since then. And as I said, I really love the color scheme. I may have to have this blown up into a poster and have it framed–that’s how much I love it.
So, who is this Valerie Cooper and why did I decide to write about her and from her point of view?
I’d written from a female perspective before–under pseudonyms–and since I generally relate easier to women than I do to (straight) men, most of my reading is from a female point of view. I’ve always wanted to do a series from this perspective; on the rare occasions I’ve written from a straight man’s point of view (usually in a short story, although occasionally under a pseudonym for a novel) but not as often. I had thought about trying to write a cozy series from a male perspective (I have a great idea for one that I don’t think anyone would buy or want, but I love the idea and may try to do something with it sometime) but eventually defaulted to a woman. Most cozies are told from the feminine perspective (there are exceptions), and so it felt more right to have a female protagonist. I learned from the Paige series being marketed as cozies (which they weren’t) that the strong, sarcastic, borderline bitchy doesn’t play well within that subgenre, and so since I knew I was specifically writing a cozy this time, I knew to follow the rules.
One of the things I had noticed in the cozy series I read is that usually the first book in the series follows a transition of sorts for the main character (Mia P. Manansala’s flopped in the big city and returned to her small hometown; Raquel V. Reyes’ character has just moved back to the Miami area from New York, so she’s happy about it but concerned on others–read the book, you won’t be sorry; others have just gotten divorced, walked on a cheating partner, etc. etc. you get the drift), and I wanted to do something a little softer and less jarring–so I went with her being a youngish empty nester. Married young to a handsome fireman several years older (six, to be exact) she is left a widow when he is killed on the job to raise their twin sons by herself. She’s not worked outside the home since she was a teenager, and now the boys are off to LSU and she’s home alone in the big Victorian house she and her husband bought as a fixer-upper and then renovated while raising the kids. The house is done, her husband is dead and her kids are at school–so she is now finding herself at loose ends and not really sure what to do with herself. She dropped out of college after her marriage when she found herself pregnant–not planned, but not a disappointment, either–and now is considering going back to get her degree at UNO, or maybe finding a job–but what can she do?
I did worry about her not having finished college and just being a stay-at-home mother. It didn’t seem very pro-woman to me, but then I chastised myself. My sister was a stay-at-home mom, and I remember that when she finally was given the choice, my mother was one as well…and I realized I was falling into the wrong mindset about Valerie to begin with–there’s nothing wrong with a woman deciding to be a stay-at-home mom and not ever really working outside the home; the point of feminism is that women should be able to choose what they want rather than have limitations placed on their decisions (which a lot of non-feminist women do not understand), and why not write about a stay-at-home mother now finding her own way in life? I also wanted to surround her with friends and support–so she lives next door to her best friend (they became friends after the woman moved in next door) and is also close to Stacia, a divorced lawyer who lives down the street. The gay couple next door in a double shotgun, Michael and John, are also friends, as is John’s mother, who lives in the other side of the shotgun. Her own parents have retired to the Gulf Coast of Florida, and she is very close to her late husband’s family, the Coopers.
Her name is Valerie because I’ve always liked the name (it’s one of my favorite female names, along with Laura), and I picked Cooper because it’s a friend’s maiden name. I decided to make her be an actual local; born and raised in the city–but her parents are not from New Orleans; they moved here for the father’s job. So she was born here, but she wasn’t born into any of the many striations of social class here. Her parents weren’t connected to old-line New Orleans, they didn’t belong to any Mardi Gras krewes, and Valerie herself–while going to Sacred Heart–never got involved in any of the Carnival stuff, preferring, as she says, to participate by going to parades and catching throws. She’s also an only child who thinks of her late husband’s older sister Therese as a kind of replacement older sister since she didn’t have one.
I wanted to upset Valerie’s tame, placid, almost boring life with a series of shocks that upend everything about her life and what she believed she knew about her life, her house, her late husband–and what better way than to have her realize, thanks to someone else–that the notice she got from the city about the house being reappraised for taxes and didn’t think too much about could actually become a big catastrophe for her. The house they bought so cheaply and renovated could now be worth vastly more than she and Tony paid for the house (I named her husband Tony because I’ve always liked that name for a man; Scotty was almost Tony) because their neighborhood, sketchy and dangerous when they moved there, has been gentrified (as so much of the city has been) and when someone she knows and doesn’t like (a very thin line there I was worried about crossing by introducing that character–toning it down to a Valerie level of dislike was something I really had to pay attention to) lets her know what the market value of her home might actually be–Valerie instantly goes into financial panic mode. If the house is worth ten times what they paid for it, wouldn’t that mean the tax assessment would also got up times ten? She’s run into the woman while picking up fresh shrimp at Big Fisherman Market on Magazine (right there by what used to be the A&P and now I can’t recall what chain went in there? BREAUX MART. Whew, was getting a bit concerned there about my brain working) and walking back home, turning it over and over again in her mind as she reflects how much the neighborhood has changed since she and Tony first moved in–and then when she gets home, she finds out a registered letter from a lawyer has arrived for her.
And nothing in her life is ever the same again.
Essentially, the letter lets her know that she and her sons have received an inheritance from an uncle of Tony’s she never knew even existed, and it includes Rare Things, an antiques business on St. Charles Avenue in the lower Garden District, and the story is then off and running.
I do really like Valerie. I hope readers do, too–because I’d like to keep writing about her.