Separate Lives

Well, in typical Greg screw-up fashion, I screwed up this morning. I’d signed up to tour the local FBI office and attend two presentations, all of which I was looking forward to, but I had the time wrong. As Constant Reader knows, I am not good in the mornings. So, I thought I had to be there for nine a.m. No, everything started at nine a.m. I needed to be there for eight thirty. As I was getting ready to shave, I double-checked the address and noticed that on the agenda I needed to be there for eight thirty. It was eight-oh-five; I hadn’t shaved, showered, or dressed, let alone drive across town to the lake front. In other words, I wouldn’t been able, even if I hurried, to leave the house until it was time to be there, and then had to hurry to get there. Sigh. So, I made another cup of coffee and felt like a complete idiot.

And now have my morning free.

And before anyone says anything, no. I won’t show up late. I am not that person. It’s disrespectful to everyone who showed up on time, it’s disrespectful to the FBI, and if they want you to allow half an hour to clear security screening, then I need to be there half an hour ahead of time. Period. Plus, you don’t mess with the FBI. Trust me on this one.

Sigh. I hate when I fuck up. Especially after the chapter went to all the trouble to get this sorted out and put together.


I was really looking forward to it, too.


I finished watching season 2 of Versailles last night, and I have to say, it really ended well. You really can’t go wrong with the Affair of the Poisons and the involvement of the King’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, and her subsequent fall from glory. The show is incredibly well done, and they managed to get the character of the second Duchesse d’Orleans, Elisabeth Charlotte, the Princess Palatine, absolutely correct. Liselotte was always one of my favorite people from this period of French history, and the rapprochement between her and her gay husband, and her gay husband’s lover, was incredibly unique in history. I was worried they’d gloss over it, but no, there it was, front and center. Why no one has done a biography of Monsieur, I’ll never know; I suppose everyone is so dazzled by The Sun King that no one has ever thought that, you know, a view of the French court and Louis XIV through the eyes of his gay brother could be interesting.

Believe me, if I spoke French I’d be all over it.

Then again, were I able to speak French, there are so many things I would have written by now.

Sigh. I often regret my monolinguism.

This weekend I managed to read a lot of short stories, giving me a lot of material for The Short Story Project over the next few days, but the weekend was pretty much a bust for writing. I only managed to eke out slightly over a thousand words on one short story and perhaps one hundred on another, which was, as one would imagine, enormously frustrating for me. I am still choosing to see that as a win; getting closer to being finished and all, but still enormously disappointing. The thousand words or so was basically wheel-spinning, because I don’t know how to end the story yet, and I know I need to go back to the very beginning and start revising it so I can figure that out. It’s so weird; I do this with novels all the time but with short stories, I resist doing it until I’ve got a draft version finished. So incredibly stupid, I know, and yet…here we are.

Heavy sigh.

All right, enough of that nonsense. Here are two of the short stories I read over the weekend, both from Alive in Shape and Color, edited by Lawrence Block.

First up, we have Jeffery Deaver’s “A Significant Find.”

“A crisis of conscience. Pure and simple. What are we going to do?” He poured red wine into her glass. Both sipped.

They were sitting in mismatched armchairs, before an ancient fireplace of stacked stone in the deserted lounge. The inn, probably two hundred years old, was clearly not a tourist destination, at least not in this season, a chilly spring.

He tasted the wine again and turned his gaze from the label of the bottle to the woman’s intense blue eyes, which were cast down at the wormwood floor. Her face was as beautiful as when they’d met, though a little bit more worn, as ten years had passed, many of which had been spent outside under less-than-kind conditions; hats and SPF 30 could only give you so much protection from the sun.

If you’ve not read Jeffery Deaver, you simply must read the Lincoln Rhyme series. I am terribly behind on it, but tore through the available volumes over the course of a month or so when I first discovered him. He’s also a very nice man, and it’s lovely when someone nice enjoys exceptional success.

Anyway, this story is terrific. The couple we see in these paragraphs, whom are the main characters of the story, are an archaeologist team at a conference in France. They, while enormously successful with publications and so forth, have never made what is known in their field as a ‘significant find.’ There’s a very strong possibility that they are about to  make one; based on some information passed on to the husband in casual conversation in the bar; undiscovered cave paintings. It turns out the person passing the information on has his own information, collected from a local boy, wrong; the couple figure out what he had wrong, and are about to go look for the cave. The crisis of conscience is whether or not to share the discovery with the colleague who originally got the information. This is the kind of moral dilemma that characters in Tales from the Crypt episodes find themselves in and almost without fail made the wrong choice; so the story always ends up with their come-uppance. This was what I was expecting out of this story; but Deaver manages some exceptionally clever sleight-of-hand and thus the ending of the story comes out of nowhere and is satisfying in its own way; the pay-off is quite good.

I then moved on to “Charlie the Barber” by Joe R. Lansdale.

Charlie Richards, who thought of himself as a better-than-average barber, was lean and bright-eyed, with a thin smile, his hair showing gray at the temples. He loved to cut hair, and he loved that his daughter, Mildred–Millie to most–worked with him. They were the only father-and-daughter barber team he knew of, and he was proud of that. He was also glad she lived at him with him and her mother, Connie, at least for now.

Next year she was off to the big city, Dallas. Graduated high school a couple years back, hung around, cut hair, but now she was planning to attend some kind of beauty college where she could learn to cut women’s hair as well. Planned to learn cosmetology too. Claimed when she finished schooling she could either fix a woman up for a night out, or spruce up a dead woman for a mortuary production. Charlie had no doubt that would be true. Millie learned quickly and was a hard worker.

This story was inspired by one of those classic Norman Rockwell paintings, with it’s homey, almost propaganda-like charm about American simplicity and virtue. Being a story by Joe R. Lansdale, who is embraced by both the horror and crime writing communities–he won an Edgar for Best Novel, and numerous Stoker Awards–you just know this euphoric American idyll story of a small town barbership in the 1950’s is going to take a truly dark turn. Charlie was a POW during World War II and still suffers from a degree of PTSD; the supply closet in the back of the barn, with its tight, confined space and darkness, always takes him back to the horror of the camp and what he had to do to escape the butchering of the prisoners; he was one of the few survivors. And sure enough, the peaceful charming world of the barbershop is turned upside down just before closing time when something wicked that way came. The story is both horrifying and brilliant; the juxtaposition of the Rockwell Americana painting/world view and the automatic nostalgia the time period conjures, steeped in nostalgia for the 1950’s as a more innocent, charming time (which is completely false), against the horror that walks through the barbershop door and what they have to endure to survive it–the sort of thing that did happen, but without 24 hours news channels and the Internet most people never heard about these things–is stunning. Lansdale is a terrific, terrific writer, and this story is one of the best ones I’ve read thus far in this Short Story Project.


You Give Good Love

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

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

I also read some short stories last night.

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

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

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

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

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

“Is somebody following you?” I said.

“I have no reason to think so.”

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

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

Next came “The Suicide.”

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

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

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

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

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

And now, back to the spice mines.


Out of Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes. Yup, no stereotyping going on there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s your Monday hunk.


All I Need

Sunday, Sunday. Can’t trust that day, especially when an hour was stolen from me during my sleep. Sunday is my sleep-in day, and while it’s not entirely unusual, I absolutely detest that I woke up at just before what-is-now-ten-thirty. Since I can’t drink coffee after noon for fear of its impact on my sleep–but I like my coffee in the morning–I will be able to have only, at most, two cups. This is also infuriating.

It’s not sunny out there this late morning, but more grayish again, as though it might rain. It may just be a cloud cover, but the sun is always bright in New Orleans; the lack of brightness is bizarre and also feels off–in addition sleeping  in until not-really-ten-thirty. But looking on the positive side, I worked out yesterday and the rest seems to have helped my muscles recover; they don’t feel either sore or tired or both this morning. I should be grateful for small victories, I suppose, and stop complaining.

I watched two more episodes of Seven Seconds last night, and it is absolutely riveting. It reminds me a lot of the lamented American Crime, where you saw everyone as three-dimensional characters; I like seeing it from every perspective, and while it’s easy to feel some sympathy for the guy who committed the actual crime and why he covered it up; the pain of the family of the victim is almost unbearable to watch–but Regina King is such an amazing and brilliant actress you can’t help but watch. I’ve always been a fan of hers; she was exceptional in American Crime, but this? Give her all the awards right now, and please cast her in everything; she is so good that as I watched I thought if I ever write a television show or movie I want to write a great part for her to play. As good as the show is, as it progresses it is starting to drift away from the nonjudgmental view that it had in the first episodes, which is fine–I think part of the reason American Crime failed to find an audience was because you didn’t know who to root for, or if you should root for anyone, which makes viewers uncomfortable, as they, for the most part, want to have good guys and bad guys–but I kind of wish they hadn’t gone so far with making the guy who committed the crime a villain. I felt sorry for him before; I am losing sympathy, and that’s why they are doing it; but when he was sympathetic it made the show more layered, complex, and nuanced.

Heavy sigh.

I got all my errands done yesterday, but forgot to get something I need for dinner today–but it’s just a twenty ounce bottle of root beer and I can walk to Walgreens and get that when I’m ready to put everything into the crock pot. The St. Patrick’s/St. Joseph’s Day Irish Channel parade is today, so I’m not moving my car. I decided to wait to go to Costco until next weekend; I am going to take one of my co-workers car shopping that day, and as punishment he’ll have to go to Costco with me when we’re finished.

I started writing yet another Chanse short story yesterday; “Once a Tiger.” It’s an idea for a Chanse novel that I had a long time ago and always wanted to write, sort of like how the Chanse short story I wrote last week was a book idea I never wrote. I had intended to get some other things done, but after the errands and the gym I was tired, so I sat down to watch Seven Seconds (Paul was at the office) and got sucked into it. I also watched two episodes of Versailles–this season is about the Affair of the Poisons–and read short stories. I need to clean today–I’m hoping it won’t rain so I can finally do the damned windows–but I also want to write today. So I should probably wrap this up and get back to work, so I can get the root beer from Walgreens and be done with it all, you know?

Sigh. Heavy lies the head, and all that, you know.

The first story I read was a reread; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil”:

THE SEXTON stood in the porch of Milford meeting-house, pulling busily at the bell-rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on week days. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Hooper’s door. The first glimpse of the clergyman’s figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.

“But what has good Parson Hooper got upon his face?” cried the sexton in astonishment.

All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the semblance of Mr. Hooper, pacing slowly his meditative way towards the meeting-house. With one accord they started, expressing more wonder than if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Hooper’s pulpit.

“Are you sure it is our parson?” inquired Goodman Gray of the sexton.

“Of a certainty it is good Mr. Hooper,” replied the sexton. “He was to have exchanged pulpits with Parson Shute, of Westbury; but Parson Shute sent to excuse himself yesterday, being to preach a funeral sermon.”

I read this story either in high school or in college originally; whenever it was that I originally read it, my young mind was bored with it and thought it rather silly. I hated The Scarlet Letter, still do so much that even thinking of rereading it gives me dyspepsia; but I greatly enjoyed The House of the Seven Gables, although I remember nothing much about it except that the old woman’s name was Hepzibah, which I always thought was a great Gothic name for a creepy old lady. Rereading this story, it made a little bit more sense to me; it’s really a parable. Parson Hooper, for a reason unbeknownst to his parishioners and to the reader, has chosen to hide his face for the rest of his life behind a black veil; I remember reading this and being deeply annoyed about never finding out the reason. But rereading it now, I got a stronger sense of it; the parson has done this and the reasons why really aren’t important; what’s important is how uncomfortable it has made everyone else, and why; it’s about human nature and psychology, and is a lot more clever than I thought as a teenager. It still, however, reads in that stilted, archaic early nineteenth century formal style that is grating and annoying to the modern reader, however.

I then moved on to “The Last Temptation of Frankie Lymon” by Peter Blauner, from the anthology Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli. I originally bought this anthology because it had a story by Alison Gaylin inspired by a song recorded by the band X, whom I used to love in the 1980’s–the story is quite brilliant, I might add–but had never gone back and read any of the others. So, I picked it up and this is the lead-off story for the collection.

He walked into the bar wearing the jacket that Sam bought for the Ebony photo shoot last year. A mostly wool blazer with two rows of brass buttons, that must have cost–what?–like forty to fifty dollars at Blumstein’s. He felt bad because Sam was living on about two hundred a week as a food inspector in the Bronx, while trying to manage the comeback for him, But what could you do? All the star clothes he used to have in his grandmother’s closet were either child-sized and long ago outgrown or had holes in them because he’d nodded off with a cigarette in his mouth.

So now the jacket felt heavy as a burden on his shoulders as he eyed his surroundings and tried to get comfortable. The bar was around the corner from his grandmother’s and he half recognized some of the people from the neighborhood, where he hadn’t lived since back in the day. There were mailmen and bus drivers wearing turtlenecks or open-collared shirts with jeans. Doormen and janitors in T-shirts and growing out their hair into bushy naturals as they rapped effortlessly to short-skirted former double Dutch girls from the block with sleepy eyes and soft mouths, who kept going “uh-huh, uh-huh, right on” as that Gladys Knight “Grapevine” song played on the jukebox.

Frankie Lymon was a real person; the lead singer for Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, known for their hit “Why Do Fools Fall in Love”. Lymon’s story is one of those cautionary tales about the music industry, fame, and hitting it big when you’re young; he was only twenty-four when he died of an overdose–a has-been at 24. This story, which is basically a fictionalized imagining of his last day, is heartbreaking. He has fallen on hard times but has cleaned up and gotten to a point of recovery from his addiction; he’s trying to make a comeback but makes the sad, fateful decision to go into the local neighborhood bar near where he is staying with his grandmother–and runs into someone from his past, with her own broken dreams and broken life. It’s powerfully written and the characters realized strongly; you can’t stop reading even though you know it’s all a train wreck unfolding in front of you. Kudos to Blauner for such a powerful story.

I then went back to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me collection, where the next offering was the story “The Parker Shotgun.”

The Christmas holidays had come and gone, and the new year was under way. January, in California, is as good as it gets–cool, clear, and green, with a sky the color of wisteria and a surf that thunders like a volley of gunfire in a distant field. My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed, bonded, insured; white, female, age thirty-two, unmarried, and physically fit. That Monday morning, I was sitting in my office with my feet up, wondering what life would bring, when a woman walked in and tossed a photograph on my desk. My introduction to the Parker shotgun began with a graphic view of its apparent effect when fired at a formerly nice-looking man at close range. His face was still largely intact, but he had no use now for a pocket comb. WIth effort, I kept my expression neutral as I glanced up at her.

“Somebody killed my husband.”

Grafton never disappoints, and as I have mentioned before when talking about these Chanse short stories (it pleases me to no end that I can now talk about them in the plural), reading Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone short stories, along with the Lew Archer short stories by Ross Macdonald and the Tess Monaghan ones by Laura Lippman, have been an education in writing the private eye short story; something I never felt confident about doing before. This story is excellent in that is has a great opening–how can you not keep reading after that–and Kinsey’s detecting skills are put to a great test here. I also learned a lot about shotguns in reading this story. I guess the thing that’s so terrific about reading these private eye short stories is seeing, while reading them, how they could have easily been expanded into novels while also seeing how the author pared down what could have been a novel into a pleasing, satisfying short story.

I also picked up the MWA anthology Vengeance and started reading some more of the stories in there; I believe I may have blogged about one of them already. But when reading Alafair Burke’s “The Mother”, the story began to sound familiar; and sure enough, I was right: I’d read it before. I started paging through the stories and yes, I’d read them all; I read them flying back from a trip to New York on a plane. The book includes Karin Slaughter’s chilling, and Edgar winning, short story “The Unremarkable Heart,” which is one of my favorite short stories of all time. But I had to put Vengeance back up on the shelf because I’d already read those stories, alas; I will only allow myself to reread, and write about, short stories I originally read before I started blogging back in 2004 (!), so as to avoid repetition.

And now, I am going to get my second and final cup of coffee before walking to Walgreens. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader!


Things Can Only Get Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy sigh.

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




Yesterday I kind of hit a writing wall; not a big deal, really, just that I was mentally and physically tired for some reason (I suspect upsetting my usual routine by having to go have blood work done in the morning, and now of course I want to write a story called Blood Work), and so I was only about to get about 2300 words out on a short story. I had hoped to not only finish the draft of that particular short story but also get another one done, perhaps even getting to work on a Scotty chapter. Heavy heaving sigh. Ah, well. I’m not going to beat myself up over the lack of productivity here; I am simply going to embrace that I got a pretty decent 2300 words done. So, that is a victory, and one that I am very pleased to have. Each word is another step closer to finished, after all, and once should never berate one’s self for not getting everything done you wanted to as long as you got something done.

I’d intended to go to the gym this morning but didn’t want to get out of bed. I had a good night’s sleep for the first time this week so, well, yeah, that happened. I’ll just have to go after work tomorrow; I have to keep my eye appointment tomorrow morning before work. It’s getting increasingly harder to keep to three times a week; primarily because of my problems sleeping. Heavy heaving sigh.

But…I am liking what I am writing, and I do enjoy going to the gym. (I was wondering what to watch now that Black Sails is over, only to discover season 2 of Versailles is up on Netflix, and I believe this is the season of the Affair of the Poisons!) I just wish I didn’t always get off so late at night that I can’t make it to the gym. There has to be a more efficient way of doing this; there simply has to be.

So,  my plan is to get these two short story drafts finished this week, as well as another chapter of Scotty; I want to have this finished by the weekend, which means a lot of writing today and tomorrow. I also need to get some short stories read for the Short Story Project, and then I think I want to read a novel. (I’ll still read short stories, but I want to read a novel; it’s been awhile since I’ve plunged into the pages of one. Kellye Garrett’s Hollywood Homicide is calling to me, for one thing, and there are any number of wonderful novels in the TBR Pile, you know.) I also want to get the order of the Bouchercon anthology stories finished this weekend, and I need to get my taxes finished and off to my accountant: MUY IMPORTANTE.

The Lost Apartment is again a pigsty; it’s amazing how easily that happens. It’s not as bad today as it was last Thursday, but still. I just don’t seem to be able to manage time properly anymore. I don’t know what that’s all about, but it definitely needs to STOP.

All right, I need to get some things done before I leave for the office this morning; I need to run errands as well before I head in.

For today’s short story discussion, we are going to look at a crime story by Lia Matera, and a literary fiction story by Irwin Shaw.

Lia Matera’s story is “Destroying Angel,” copyright Lia Matera, 1990, and this short story was first published in Sisters In Crime Volume II, 1990, edited by Marilyn Wallace.

I was squatting a few feet from a live oak tree, poison oak all around me (an occupational hazard for mycologists). I brushed wet leaves off a small mound and found two young mushrooms. I carefully dug around one of them with my trowel, coaxing it out of the ground.

I held it up and looked at it. It was a perfect woodland agaricus. The cap was firm, snow white with a hint of yellow. The gills under the cap were still white, chocolate-colored spores hadn’t yet tinged them. A ring of tissue, an annulus, circled the stipe like a floppy collar. A few strands of mycelia, the underground plant of which the mushroom is the fruit, hung from the base. I pinched the mycelia off and smelled the gills. The woodland agaricus smells like it tastes, like a cross between a mushroom, an apple, and a stalk of fennel.

Lia Matera is one of my favorite crime writers, and her Star Witness is one of my favorite crime novels; deliciously sly and incredibly witty and clever. As I was reading this short story of hers, I also lamented that she’s not published a novel in quite a while. This story is incredibly well-constructed, and devious as well; there’s a lot of information in it about mushrooms, as Our Heroine is a mycologist who works at a local nature museum and is dramatically underpaid; as she talks about her work and her mushrooming and working at the museum, and of course how careful one must be to differentiate between the deadly ones and the safe ones…well, you just know someone is going to be poisoned by mushrooms, don’t you? Matera pulls off a delightful sleight of hand in that regard, though, and the overwhelming sense of melancholy and sadness she permeates the story with is masterful. Her novels are available as ebooks now; treat yourself to one and you’ll never look back.

The Irwin Shaw story I read (reread, actually) was “The Girls in their Summer Dresses” by Irwin Shaw.

Fifth Avenue was shining in the sun when they left the Brevoort and started walking toward Washington Square. The sun was warm, even though it was November, and everything looked like Sunday morning–the buses, and the well-dressed people walking slowly in couples and the quiet buildings with the windows closed.

Michael held Frances’ arm tightly as they walked downtown in the sunlight. They walked lightly, almost smiling, because they had slept late and had a good breakfast and it was Sunday. Michael unbuttoned his coat and let it flap around him in the mild wind. They walked, without saying anything, among the young and pleasant-looking people who somehow seem to make up most of the population of that section of New York City.

“Look out,” Frances said, as they crossed Eighth Street. “You’ll break your neck.”

You never hear much about Irwin Shaw anymore, but he was one of the more successful American writers from the 1950’s to the 1970’s; his books were critically acclaimed and best sellers; the novels in included The Young Lions, Rich Man Poor Man and its lesser sequel Beggarman Thief, Evening in Byzantium, and Aurora Dawn (which was lesser known but one of my favorites; it was about a radio show sponsored by Aurora Dawn soap and was clever and biting satire about art vs. commerce). I read most of Shaw’s work in the 1970’s when I was a teenager; I would love to reread some of them again.

I read “The Girls in their Summer Dresses” for an English course in college; I don’t remember which course or which college; but the fact the story was taught gives you an indication of how well-regarded Shaw was. The insights the instructor gleaned from the story–a switch of roles between the young couple, where she took on the more traditionally masculine role while the husband took on the more passive, traditionally feminine role–struck me, at the time and on this reread some thirty years later as more of that MFA program claptrap taught and regurgitated by people who don’t really understand and appreciate the art of fiction. (Yes, as you can tell, I embrace my role as a non-intellectual.) At the time I read the story in college it struck me as a really sad story about a newly married couple whose relationship was, in fact, doomed to fail; and the point of the story showed how it was either doomed to fail, or if it was going to last, how the wife was going to have to completely subsume herself and sublimate her own needs and desires to his, constantly biting her tongue and becoming increasingly bitter about those compromises as the years pass. The young husband is a narcissist and an asshole, who, despite his wife very clearly telling him how much his ‘window shopping’ of every woman they pass on the street bothers and disturbs her–cares so little about how this behavior hurts and disturbs her that his attitude is too bad so sad I’m the man and I’m not going to change so you need to get over it. This is kind of the prequel, in some ways, to Susan Glaspell’s “A Jury of Her Peers”–I can see this woman gladly strangling her husband in his sleep in the future after twenty years of being beaten down and humiliated over and over again.

Of course, I always tend to look at stories from the perspective of a crime writer now; so there’s that, too.

And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s a Throwback Thursday hunk for you:


We Belong

Wednesday morning, and I have go have blood work done. No worries–it’s just for the semi-annual check-up, but I hate this whole process of fasting/not having anything to drink after midnight, plus the abject misery of having blood drawn–my veins roll, so they always have to DIG for them, generally leaving me with an enormous bruise–blah blah blah. Yay.

Plus, I can’t have coffee until I get back home.


Heavy heaving sigh.

Well, it wasn’t as bad as feared. She managed to get the blood vials filled on the first try, without having to dig! For once, I don’t mind getting one of those damnable “how was your visit?” emails, as now I get to recognize my technician for a job very well done. I don’t even have a bruise!

It’s been an interesting week. I’m watching the Netflix series Seven Seconds, which I am enjoying the hell out of, and Paul and I are watching also a BBC series called Retribution, which is one of the best concepts for a crime series I’ve seen in quite a while: a young married couple, who grew up as neighbors in rural Scotland, are murdered a few weeks after the wedding by a junkie robbing their apartment; the wife is about seven months pregnant. As the families get the news and grieve, the very next night after the bodies are found the killer for some reason is coming to see them and buys guys at a station twenty miles from where they live. There is a terrible storm that night and he wrecks his car, and the families find him and bring him inside. After they do, they see a news report which identifies him as the killer…and he is at their mercy. They drag him out to the barn, and sometime during the night someone cuts his throat…and now they have to cover up the crime. Juicy, right?

I also started writing two new short stories this week; don’t ask me why, I don’t know why I am on such a short story roll lately. One of them is my Italian short story, the one I’ve been wanting to write since we visited Panzano; I wanted to set a story there ever since I first saw that gorgeous village in Tuscany. The other is one I started a long time ago, but only wrote the opening paragraph; for some reason the rest of the story revealed itself to me this week so I started working on that as well. Who knew?

I also read some short stories this week.

First was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates; which was originally published in 1966 and is now available for free pdf download on-line;

Her name was Connie. She was fifteen, and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to look into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie was raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once, too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.

I’m not sure how I came across this story, but wow, is it ever disturbing. I’ve really enjoyed my discovery of Oates’ talents through reading the occasional short story, and each one makes me want to read more. Connie, so confident in her looks and the power they give her, unfortunately attracts the attention of the wrong guy who turns up at her house one day with a friend when she is there by herself. As Connie tries to handle the situation…the sense of dread Oates evokes in her prose is palpable. I couldn’t stop reading, while at the same time was afraid to keep reading.

The next story I read was “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell.

When Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away–it was probably further from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.

She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too–adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scary and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was.

“Martha!” now came her husband’s impatient voice. “Don’t keep folks waiting out here in the cold.”

She again opened the storm-door, and this time joined the three men and the one woman waiting for her in the big two-seated buggy.

When I was in high school, I was in a contest play; one of the many disciplines for what was called Speech Competition in the state of Illinois was one-act plays. I auditioned for the contest one-act at my high school and was cast in Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles, which was based on this short story. As a teenager, I thought the play was kind of silly and dumb, to be honest. We did well, but didn’t make it out of regional competition; we placed third, with every judge placing us third; if any judge had given us a first we would have moved on. But hey, it was my high school’s first time doing a contest play, we had practically no budget or set, and the two schools that beat us did the first act of Antigone, complete with sets and costumes, and the other did the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest, again, with an apparently bottomless budget for sets and costumes; both schools were also known for their drama departments.

Reading the original short story, all these years later, as both a fan and writer of crime fiction, made me appreciate the tale all the more. It’s about psychology; what drove the woman to kill her husband, after years and years of a miserable existence, why now? And the two other wives, the ones who find the motive, and understand it and sympathize with her, have to decide whether to share that with the condescending men/husbands, who basically spend the whole story mocking them and women in general, when they are the ones who actually solve the case…it’s actually genius and actually quite brilliant.

And now, back to the spice mines.