Do You Hear What I Hear?

What I am hearing is that Donna Andrews is a master of writing about Christmas.

It’s incredibly easy to become cynical about Christmas; American capitalism’s infection of the holiday has made such cynicism almost de rigueur. The commercialization of what is supposed to be a religious holiday has been a concern for decades–A Charlie Brown Christmas was, after all, produced in 1965–and it is has even been politicized for the last thirty or so years (war on Christmas, anyone?). And while the argument over whether one should say “Merry Christmas” rather than the more inclusive “Happy holidays” has always struck me as particularly stupid (in a multi-cultural society where one cannot easily identify which particular holiday a stranger might celebrate, why would anyone want to risk giving offense? I really don’t understand this modern sensibility that good manners no longer matter), it becomes easier and easier to become tired of the entire thing and want to wash one’s hands of it all.

But Donna Andrews’ Christmas mysteries hit precisely the right chord, and can revive that holiday spirit in even that most cynical of hearts and souls, my own; so much so that I may even revisit the books every December as a necessary reminder of what this season is really supposed to be about.

“Cow manure?”

I was talking into my cell phone, but my friend Caroline Willner, who’d just popped into the kitchen with an armload of brightly wrapped presents, must have thought I was talking to her.

“Is this part of the whole not-swearing-in-front-of-the-boys thing?” she asked. “And what did I do to deserve–oops!” Her voice sank into a whisper. “Sorry! I didn’t realize you were on the phone.”

Although I could see her curiosity was aroused.

“We have access to a variety of manures–cow, horse, sheep, goat, and llama,” I said into the phone. “Much of it’s even organic. Is there a particular reason you want cow manure?”

“Well, any of those would be acceptable,” my caller said. “Especially the organic ones. I just don’t want chicken manure.”

“Of course not,” I said. “It’s so apt to be infected with salmonella. Give me your address and let me know when I can drop by–would sometime later today work? If you can show me the area you want fertilized, I can figure out how much manure is required and how many volunteers we’ll need to spread it.”

It is, as one can assume by the cover and title of this particular Meg Langslow mystery, Christmas time in Caerphilly again, and as always, Meg has her incredibly capable hands full with everything that is going on that she needs to make sure gets taken care of (her competence, list-making, and multi-tasking are all things that I aspire to, and inevitably always fall short on). Caerphilly’s Interfaith Council has, this particular year, come up with an amazing idea to help people out called “Helping Hands for the Holidays”–in which those in need of help can ask for assistance, and Meg and her group will find volunteers to get things taken care of for those in need. It’s an absolutely lovely idea, and who better than mayoral assistant Meg to take charge of such a program as part of her official duties? A Caerfully Christmas, which has become a major source of tourist revenue for the small town, is also in full swing; her house is filled with relatives; and she is hoping, for once, to have a relatively peaceful Christmas.

But that is not to be. One of the projects involved helping Harvey Dunlop (aka Harvey the Hoarder) declutter and de-hoard his home. Harvey’s neighbors loathe him because of his hoarding tendencies (the town has already helped him declutter his yard to mollify his neighbors), and naturally he is suspicious of the de-hoard assistance he is being offered at first, but with so many people willing to chip in and help out–with Meg there to assure him that the purpose isn’t to get rid of everything, but to help him sort and decide what to keep, as well as moving it all out so the house can get some much-needed repairs, Harvey begins to slowly come around. It would be easy to make Harvey the butt of many jokes here, and a lesser writer would probably do so. However, Andrews completely humanizes Harvey, and as we the reader get to know him better, understand his loneliness and sadness and how the hoarding has so completely overwhelmed him…we can’t help but root for him. The lovely people of Caerphilly even throw an impromptu holiday party for Harvey in the warehouse his things are being stored in (honestly, my bitter old cynical self would love to live in this marvelous lovely town full of kind, caring people who look out for everyone), and Harvey actually begins to come out of his shell, has a lovely evening, and everything is look up for him…

..until later that night when he is brutally attacked, and later dies in the hospital.

This was, for me, a complete and total shock. I had suspected that Harvey–with his hateful neighbors and even more hateful relatives–was going to be the murder victim at the heart of this story, but kept hoping he would be the suspect whom Meg would have to clear instead, and as the book progressed and I came to like him as a character more and more, finding so much joy in the way everyone in Caerphilly was working with him to make his life better and the way he was responding to the kindnesses he was being shown, it was a horrible shock to me…which, of course, is yet another testament to Andrews’ gifts as a novelist. I mean, I was seriously upset that he was murdered.

So upset, in fact, that I grimly looked forward to the murderer being caught and thinking of the most horrible ways for them to be punished, and as I kept reading to find out who this monstrous villain was, I was actually angry and outraged and was certain that whatever their fate might be, it wouldn’t be horrible and gruesome enough to satisfy the bloodlust I was feeling.

But this is Caerphilly, and Donna Andrews, and a Christmas book. There are some major twists along the way to the final denouement, and as always, there was a most satisfying conclusion to the mystery and the book, which enabled me to close it with a happy sigh, again reminded of what the season is truly about, and wishing the world was more like the fictional one that exists in this magical series.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Today’s title is my favorite Christmas song, probably because the kids sing it at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Whatever the reason, it and “Silver Bells” are the two I never tire of hearing, no matter how much I do hear them during the season.

I just think they’re pretty.

It was a glorious weekend of rest and relaxation in the Lost Apartment. I spent yesterday finishing getting caught up on The Mandalorian, doing some writing, and reading Watchmen. I only have one chapter of it left; and of course, we watched the season finale last night. I love the Watchmen series (and the graphic novel), and do have some regrets about waiting so long to read the graphic novel; then again, had I read it before, I wouldn’t have the great pleasure of reading it now, so there’s that. The graphic novel is probably the most extraordinary comic I’ve read since Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and there is no higher praise I can give than that. I can also see the influence this has had on the comics industry overall since it was first published. It’s smart, it’s mature, it’s layered, and the story itself is a cautionary tale on many levels. I also love how excerpts from diaries, newspaper stories, and memoirs are interwoven in to provide even more context to the illustrated pages.

In other words, as a friend said to me on Twitter the other day, “it’s nice when something exceeds the hype” to which I replied, “it deserves all the hype and more; it should get all the hype.”

I also got some work, as I alluded to earlier, finished on the book. I feel better about things–about the book, my career, life in general–than I have in quite some time. I feel as thought Ive turned a corner of some sort–not truly sure what that corner was, or what it means, or even if this feeling is going to last–but I woke up with my alarm this morning and rather than grousing about getting up, I just got up, made my coffee, and started working on getting on top of the day already. The only person who can affect positive change in my life is me, and only me, and therefore it’s time to start being a spectator in my life and hoping for the best…it’s time to start working to make things better. Things can always get better; things can always get worse, but we can at least have some say in how they develop…and a lack of participation in one’s life rarely ever makes it better, if you know what I mean.

I haven’t felt like I could make change in my life for quite some time–and the truth is, there are some things that are immutable; I cannot change my salary at my day job; I cannot stop the aging process; I cannot control how many copies of my books get sold. But I can control my attitude and my approach; I can get motivated and make plans; I can write the best books and stories that I can; I can start actively looking for literary representation. It’s a shame that I allowed the malaise to take over, and take over for so long, frankly; I’ve been depressed for quite some time, and the lack of sleep back then didn’t help. But there was also a medical issue involved and now that’s been resolved; I’m sleeping well and getting rest and am not tired all the time–and really, there’s fewer things worse than feeling tired and knowing you aren’t going to be able to get rest when you need it.

I can’t blame the “not writing” on any of that, of course; I could, but the truth was I also saw no point in writing–the depression speaking again–and yes, while it does feel sometimes like I am beating my head against the wall, and perhaps not getting anywhere with my writing career, the truth is I’ve never written for the money or the fame–if I had, I would have taken my career in a much different direction. But I allow those immutable things over which I have no control–sales, reviews, etc.–to color and affect my motivation to write, and I can’t do that; one should never allow things over which you have no control to defeat you. There may be roadblocks or speed bumps you can’t control, but you certainly shouldn’t stop driving because there’s a roadblock or a speed bump. That’s just silly.

I also don’t take the time to ever sit back and revel in what success I have enjoyed thus far in my career. Over thirty novels, over twenty anthologies, and over fifty short stories thus far is nothing to sneeze at; I may not win regularly, but I’ve been short-listed for a lot of awards over the course of this career. (And it makes me appreciate the times I do win much more than I would if I won every time.)

And I do have readers, for whom I’m eternally grateful. One of my co-workers has been working their way through the Scotty series–I gifted her with a copy of Royal Street Reveillon, in gratitude for her buying all seven of the earlier books–and I’ve also enjoyed answering her questions about the books. It’s very weird when my two worlds cross and intersect–the day job and the writing, which I manage to keep segregated almost completely–but sometimes there’s overlap; like weird moments when a client will rather timidly ask me if I am Greg Herren the writer. It’s always a little strange and it inevitably catches me off-guard; I don’t, I think, handle those weird little moments of being recognized for my other career well, as a general rule.

But I do like being called Greg Herren the writer.

I have to say, the teens have been an overall wretched decade–I am hoping the twenties will roar. It’s weird to think we are coming to yet another decade in just a few weeks; that it will be 2020.

Let’s all shoot for the brass ring in 2020, shall we?

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Casanova

It’s Thursday morning in New Orleans and all is well–or right–in the world; well, at least in mine. It was also chilly and my bed comfortable and warm; and as I was sleeping well for yet another night, I didn’t want to get up. But I have things to do this morning before I head into the office, and once I’ve had enough coffee to sharpen and get my brain under control, I shall accomplish these tasks before getting ready for work.

I managed to get some chores done when I got home from work yesterday, so the Lost Apartment’s kitchen is not a disaster this morning. I made mac-and-cheese again (I think this week’s is better than last week’s was, frankly) but used some of my training from McDonalds as a teenager to “clean as I go” and as such, when the mac-and-cheese went into the oven everything I’d used to make it was cleaned and in the dishwasher already. I don’t know why I don’t do this every time I cook; it’s so lovely to finish cooking and have all the dishes and bowls and so forth I used be clean already.

The lessons one learns from working in fast food as a teenager will hold you in good stead later in life, apparently.

My mind is not fully cognitive yet this morning, but the space heater is blowing lovely warm air on my legs and my coffee is delicious and it surely won’t be much longer before I am functional. Or so I hope, at any rate.

Then I’ll start cleaning out the email inbox. I kind of need cognitive abilities to answer them all, and won’t it be lovely to have an empty inbox? That’s always my goal, every morning and every week, and it’s been far too long since I unlocked that achievement.

It also occurred to me–sometime late in November–that I should use my December blog entries to write about my most recent book; focusing not only on my characters but also on New Orleans, Christmas, and Christmas in New Orleans, since the book is set during the Christmas season. And not to worry–I have lots of pictures of hot guys in Christmas-type attire to share along with those entries. So, yes, y’all, Royal Street Reveillon is an actual Christmas-in-New-Orleans book in which I resisted the urge to try to adapt a traditional Christmas story to both Scotty and New Orleans–although it was incredibly tempting and I might do that very thing later in my life and in the series. One of my favorite Christmas episodes of any television series was the very first Christmas episode of Moonlighting–anyone else remember the show that made Bruce Willis a star?–in which Blue Moon Detective Agency secretary Miss DiPesto found a baby in a manger at Christmas time. They played very heavily on Christmas stories and traditions to tell the story in that extremely brilliantly witty way the writers had in the first season or so of the show; those first two seasons are some of the best television ever written and filmed. I thought about trying to do something similar with Royal Street Reveillon, but I also wanted to get the Grande Dames of New Orleans story into the book, and there was simply no way to graft all the reality show stuff onto a Christmas tale; so the book wound up simply being set during Christmas.

The Scotty series, which was originally intended to simply be a stand-alone, and then merely a trilogy, was built around holidays to begin with; the first was during Southern Decadence, and when it became a trilogy I decided to use the trinity of gay holidays in New Orleans: Southern Decadence, Halloween, and Carnival. When Book 4 rolled around, I set it around Easter and had the book open with the Gay Easter Parade. Book 5 was built around New Orleans winning the Super Bowl; Book 6 was built around Mike the Tiger (LSU’s live tiger mascot) and Book 7 didn’t really have a holiday or anything truly local to build it around. I’ve always felt there was some separation between the first three books in the series and the four that followed; primarily because of the gay holiday associations with the first three.

I decided, when putting this one together, to set it during the Christmas season because Christmas in New Orleans doesn’t get as much play as other holidays (not here, I mean nationally; no one thinks of “Christmas” and “New Orleans” together), and I do love Christmas–some of it. I love the idea of Christmas and its message; I despise the unrelenting commercialism and the playing of carols in September and the Christmas stuff being stocked in stores before Halloween and don’t even get me started on the horrors of Black Friday and Cyber Monday and so forth. I did think I could possibly work some of that into the story, of course; but there was literally so much going on in the book that snark about commercializing Christmas wasn’t needed or necessary, even though it would have been fun.

And let’s be honest: Charles Schultz did it best with A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1966.

But I’ve enjoyed Donna Andrews’ Christmas mysteries in her Meg Langslow series so much that I thought I should give one a try. And the result was Royal Street Reveillon.

And now it’s Christmas season in New Orleans; football season is winding up, but I am hoping that after this weekend, I can take a Saturday afternoon to head down to the Quarter–or drive around the city–taking pictures of Christmas lights and decorations and so forth. New Orleans, as I said in the book, loves nothing more than holiday decorating, and it’s so dark here at night the Christmas lights look even more magnificent.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

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Yes We Can Can

It’s Friday and we survived another week, Constant Reader!`

I switched my schedule today to work in the afternoon–we’re short-staffed–and thus was able to get a nice, relaxing night’s sleep (to make up for Wednesday night’s restless night) and hopefully allow my back to get some rest and heal up whatever the hell I did to it on Wednesday. I got a lovely night’s sleep last night, and so today I am going to get caught up on a lot of stuff that had slid while I was working on the massive volunteer project–my email inbox in particular, has raged out of control for quite some time now–and finish paying my bills before heading into the office this afternoon. I did get some work done on a short story last night, and managed to get to bed fairly early.

Royal Street Reveillon officially is released in about four more days, and yes, I am going to talk about the book pretty much every day until it is officially born into the world. The cover is completely fantastic; it might be my favorite Scotty cover ever, and I’ve pretty much loved them all.

When I first wrote about Scotty, obviously the first book was set during Southern Decadence. When I got a two book contract, essentially turning a stand alone novel into the nascent beginnings of a series, I thought well, the personal story can work through a trilogy; and I’ll set the three books during the gay holidays–Decadence, Halloween, and Mardi Gras. And when the series continued beyond the original trilogy, the next one, Vieux Carre Voodoo, opened with the Gay Easter Parade. Eventually, the holiday theme was discarded as the series continued–Who Dat Whodunnit was built around the Saints’ trip to the Super Bowl; Baton Rouge Bingo was built around Louisiana history and the legacy of Huey Long; and Garden District Gothic not only set up the new book, but was built around an unsolved crime in the past that was affecting the present day negatively. With Royal Street Reveillon, I decided to go back to the holiday thing; it’s set during the Christmas season, as the title implies, and the gorgeous cover reflects that (one of the things I love the most about the cover is that one of the lanterns at the entrance to Jackson Square isn’t lit; nothing is more New Orleans than only three of the four lanterns actually working).

It’s funny that it took me so long to write about New Orleans at Christmas time; I wrote and published a Christmas story over a decade ago, “The Snow Queen,” which was included in my anthology Upon a Midnight Clear, which has been out of print since around 2008, and will probably be included in my short story collection Monsters of new Orleans, should I ever get around to finishing writing the stories for that. I love New Orleans at Christmas time; the city always likes decorating for the holidays, and people go all for Christmas. The French Quarter almost becomes like a little Christmas village, with the fronts of houses decorated and bushes and trees and balconies festooned with decor. The massive live oaks that line our streets are often filled with lights; the enormous facades of the houses on St. Charles are also decorated with lights and the yards are filled with reindeer and Santas and snowmen. Celebration in the Oaks is something we try to go see every year–the trees in City Park along the drives are all decorated and holiday decor everywhere–and is simply breathtakingly beautiful.

As I’ve gotten older, I care less and less about Christmas; Paul and I have always been astonishingly not sentimental, and the older we get the less sentimental we are. I generally view Christmas as little more than a paid two days off from work (we also get Christmas Eve as a paid holiday). Scooter’s inability to resist attacking the decorations has resulted in us not decorating the Lost Apartment since he destroyed the Christmas tree that first year he spent the holiday with us; he also tries to chew the wires for lights, so we no longer string lights along the railing for the staircase (Skittle would knock a low-hanging ornament off the tree and then get bored). We still get each other gifts, of course, and I try to remember to send cards every year but don’t always succeed. I don’t watch Christmas movies anymore, or Christmas specials, and we certainly don’t play Christmas music in the apartment–it’s so incessant everywhere else in the world during the season that there’s no need–and other than going to Pat Brady’s annual Christmas party, we don’t really do much for Christmas anymore.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s sad, but then remember it doesn’t bother me in the least, and cease worrying about it.

Writing about Scotty during the Christmas season did raise an interesting question: how would Scotty and his immediate family celebrate the holiday, given his parents aren’t Christians, nor was he or his siblings raised that way? But Christmas, originally a Christian usurpation of a pagan holiday, has really lost its religious meaning here in the United States over crass commercialization (A Charlie Brown Christmas actually explored the true meaning of Christmas versus the growing commercialization of the holiday, seeing it as a huge problem, back in the early 1960’s, and the lesson was clearly lost on its audience as the commercialization has only gotten worse in the decades since, despite the show airing every year)m and it’s actually become a secular holiday; everyone gets the day off from work, pretty much, and much of the symbolism of the holiday as we know it today has no basis in faith. (This is why “merry Christmas” doesn’t bother me–I no longer consider myself to be a Christian, and haven’t for decades, but to me, saying “merry Christmas” is no different than “Happy New Year” or “enjoy your 4th of July” or “happy Thanksgiving”; but that could also be the unconscious privilege of being raised Christian, besides, saying “happy holidays” instead doesn’t hurt anyone other than those whose faith is so shallow it needs to be reinforced by others every time they turn around.)

But one of the great joys in writing Scotty, and why I still write about him, and enjoy almost every minute of it, is that Scotty finds such great joy in life, no matter what’s happening or how bad it may be; his eternal optimism and belief that the world is actually full of good people, and is actually a good place, and bad people are outliers makes writing about him one of the great pleasures of my life as a writer. As I wrote in Mardi Gras Mambo, Scotty loves Carnival and doesn’t understand people who don’t; even saying “You don’t get sick of Christmas, do you?” And there’s really the key; of course Scotty would love Christmas, would love decorating and buying presents and all the things that come with Christmas; he has an almost child-like love of the holiday, and another one of his appeals is that no matter what has happened to him–and bad things have–he never loses that child-like sense of love and wonder and awe for the world at large. Of course he would love Christmas.

Of course he would.

And despite all the crazy shit dropping in his lap this particular Christmas season, never once does Scotty ever think the holiday is ruined. Because of course it isn’t.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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