Live With Me

Wednesday and Pay the Bills Day has rolled around yet again. Woo-hoo!

Yesterday I was working on cleaning out my inbox–an ongoing struggle, but it’s suddenly gotten easier lately–and around noonish an email from Left Coast Crime dropped in letting me know that A Streetcar Named Murder had been selected as a finalist for the Lefty Awards! I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like that to ever happen, so thanks to everyone who listed me on their ballot. It’s a tough category–the other nominees are Ellen Byron for Bayou Book Thief, Catriona McPherson for Scot in a Trap, Jennifer Chow for Death by Bubble Tea, and A. J. Devlin for Five Moves of Doom. Such a thrill, really, and to be nominated against authors for whom I have so much respect and admiration for their talents and achievements already? And so many other amazing nominees in the other categories as well–including lots of friends! Kellye Garrett, Alex Segura, James L’Etoile, Karen Odden, Laurie R. King, Gigi Pandian, Rob Osler, Eli Cranor, Wanda Morris, and Catriona again (nominated TWICE!!!!). I’m really sorry I won’t be going to Left Coast this year. I had a marvelous time last year, but it’s also the week before TWFest and Saints & Sinners, and there’s no way I could take that much time off so close together–let alone leave the week before the festivals. I’d come home to find the locks changed, seriously. So many amazing reads this past year on this list, and there I am, right there with some of my favorite people.

It’s always lovely to get recognized, of course. Award nominations are always a lovely pat on the back, and yes, while I often joke about always losing everything I am ever nominated for (I love pretending to be bitter and cynical about losing awards), it is indeed a great honor and a thrill and all those things they’re supposed to make you feel like. Being nominated for mainstream awards, like this and the Anthonys, was never in my thoughts or calculations (to be fair, I never think about awards when I’m writing something)–so yes, for the kid who used to give acceptances speeches to the mirror holding a shampoo bottle as a stand-in for an Oscar, it’s an honor and a thrill and a privilege. I mean, winning isn’t really in my control–anyone who’s ever nominated’s control–so I just look at it as a lovely nice job thumbs-up from the community and add it to my author bio.

I slept really well again last night and this morning I don’t feel tired or sore and my mind is completely alert–yesterday there was some residual fog from my trip still, and leftover exhaustion–but today feels absolutely great. I ran errands after I got off work yesterday–some books and other things came in the mail yesterday, including my Rainbow candles (a client gave me one for Christmas; I loved the smell, and then had to go searching on line to find more of them) and the leather-bound copies of Rebecca and Echoes from the Macabre by Daphne du Maurier as produced by the International Collectors’ Library (about time I got two really nice editions of two of my favorite books). I was terribly tired when I got home from work yesterday so I pretty much melted into my easy chair with Scooter asleep in my lap and just watched videos on Youtube (I went down a Rihanna wormhole for a good while–I’d forgotten how amazing her music was–while also looking up videos from Hadestown, whose score I’ve been listening to every since I got home; I cannot tell you how much I loved this show). I need to pay the bills today and get back to work on the book–I’m behind again and am really going to have to work my ass off to get it done by the end of the month now, no time for goofing off or anything other than a major push; I also have a short story to finish that I’ve promised to a friend for an anthology; that will be a nice creative and intellectual challenge to try to get finished around the book, too.

So, yes, Constant Reader, as you can probably tell I’m in a really good place this morning. My coffee is marvelous, I got a lovely pat on the back from the mystery community yesterday (“they like me! they really like me!”), and I am feeling great about my writing and my future. We’ll see how long this happy feeling and inspiration lasts, won’t we? I also think the cold or sinus thing that’s been going on with me since I flew to New York has finally been given the boot by my immune system, which is really nice. (I always feel terrible when I travel–part of it is the lack of sleep and the dehydration caused by the pressure changes required for flying; one of these days I’ll learn to drink water and replenish electrolytes when I travel instead of just drinking Cokes and coffee and alcohol; you’d think I’d know better by now but I clearly do not) But I feel like me again for the first time in what seems like a really long time, and it’s going to take some getting used to and adjusting again. (This weekend especially is going to feel weird as fuck, to be honest.)

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader, and I will chat with you again tomorrow.

“They told me to take a streetcar named Murder…”

Obviously, that’s not the famous Tennessee Williams line, which actually is “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

The quote, incredibly poetic and evocative, is also wrong. Whoever gave Blanche DuBois those directions at the Greyhound station in the Central Business District, gave her bad directions. The Desire line ran past Elysian Fields–so there was no need for her to transfer to the Cemeteries line, which ran up and down Canal Street. The Desire streetcar would be the one she’d take to get off at Elysian Fields…not the Cemeteries. I’ve always loved that the directions were wrong; thinking that it was a sly little joke Williams played on playgoers, the cast, everyone; Blanche came to New Orleans and got bad directions, and it was all downhill after that.

I love the play, and I love the film. The performances of the entire cast are amazing; Marlon Brando is at his most bestial and beautiful, and Vivien Leigh is just stunning.

And of course, my partner is the executive director of the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, and has worked there since 1998. So I have another connection to Williams, a more direct one than just appreciating his work. At some point in my career–I think maybe with Murder in the Rue St. Ann–I started using Tennessee Williams quotes as epigrams to my series novels set in New Orleans; maybe it wasn’t Rue St. Ann but rather Jackson Square Jazz; I used a quote from Orpheus Descending: “A good-looking boy like you is always wanted.”

SO, today my new book from Crooked Lane launched, and yes, I called it A Streetcar Named Murder. I still can’t believe no one else has ever used that title; it seems perfect for a New Orleans mystery novel. I came up with the title years ago–only it was A Streetcar Named Death, and when I started writing that one about eighteen years ago it was a Paige novel, set during the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and the victim was an Ann Coulter-like writer who came from a New Orleans political family, only her beliefs and what she writes about are anathema to her more progressive family. I got about four or five chapters in when I had to put it aside and move on to something else–I don’t remember what–and when I started writing those Paige novellas whenever the hell that was, I’d moved on from the title…because I’d used “A Streetcar Named Death” as a short story title.

But when Crooked Lane didn’t like my original title for this, and asked for another, well, I suggested A Streetcar Named Murder (they were also nonplussed than no one had used it before) and the rest was, as we say, history.

The first rule of life in New Orleans is any time you leave your house not looking your best, you’ll run into your nemesis.

You’d think as many times as this has happened to me, I’d know better by now. I guess I’m just a slow learner. But in my own defense, I was just walking the couple of blocks to Big Fisherman Market on Magazine Street to get a pound of shrimp fresh from the Gulf, and I figured the odds were in my favor.

It was obviously not the day to buy a Powerball ticket.

I was tucking my wallet into my purse and reaching for the bag of peeled, deveined shrimp resting on the counter when a voice behind me said, dripping with sugar, “Valerie Cooper! Is that you?”

I froze. My heart sank. I knew that voice all too well. I’d become very familiar with it over years of countless, seemingly endless parents’ association meetings and events. When my twin sons graduated last spring, I’d hoped I’d never hear it again.

I took a deep breath and choked back a moan. My chestnut-brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. I hadn’t even put on lip gloss. I glanced down at my worn, ratty old sweatpants. The ancient, paint-stained Jazz Fest T-shirt I was wearing didn’t help either.

I steeled myself, plastering a phone smile on my face.

I turned around to face Nemesis.

Okay, nemesis is probably a bit harsh. Collette Monaghan wasn’t that awful. I’d managed to keep Collette at arm’s length through all the years of being active in the Loyola High School parents’ group, the Cardirents. (Cute, right? Short for Cardinals’ Parents. It started out as the Cardimoms until some moms guilted their husbands into joining. A unanimous vote changed the name to be more inclusive when my boys were freshmen.) I wanted to believe Collette Monaghan didn’t deliberatately try to make other women feel bad about themselves. Her rare compliments always seemed a bit back-handed.

I kind of like that opening.

Feel free to order it from your local independent bookseller, or from your favorite on-line site.

Reflections

Tuesday morning and feeling slightly a little bit off–I am unused as of yet to this entire shift in my work week, which now sees me heading into the office on Tuesdays thru Thursdays. I feel very well rested this morning; I had a lot to get done over the weekend and for the most part, I was finished with everything I needed to get done last night when it was time to repair to my chair for Archive 81, which is hypnotically addicting (more on that later). I slept very well last night–no doubt due to my emotional, physical and mental exhaustion after getting so much work done over the weekend–and feel very rested and awake and slightly a-rarin’ to go this morning. I still have come clean up work to do on A Streetcar Named Murder, and I suspect there will be voluminous editorial notes on it once it goes in, but that’s okay and fine. I am just mostly relieved that I will be able to get it turned in tomorrow the way I am supposed to–two weeks extended deadline–and I am quite sure the release of that particular pressure had a lot to do with the release of the stress valve in my brain last night and why I slept better than I have in weeks last night.

It’s always a stress relief when you finish a book, regardless of what condition it is when you turn it in (#shedeservedit was a total bloody mess; my editor on that one saved me from myself like you wouldn’t believe). And while it’s not finished–there’s still some clean-up on Aisle 10 that is required before I finally attach it to an email and send it off once and for all–it’s going to be, and knowing that I will be able to get it in tomorrow probably also has something to do with my mood this morning. I feel weirdly, oddly satisfied this morning; there’s really no other way to describe it, really. I also feel light, like a weight has been lifted from me. Of course, that doesn’t mean the entire world won’t blow up in my face between now and when I leave for Alabama on Friday; but for now I am just going to relax and enjoy the feeling for as long as it lasts (which probably won’t be that long, in all honesty). I also took some time and thought about my future over the weekend–what’s left of it, at any rate–and made some decisions about what, exactly, I want to do over the next few years. I need to come up with a five-year plan that will carry me through my retirement from the day job; I need to be in a position by then to have that loss of income replaced–Social Security sure as hell isn’t going to cut it, let’s be honest–and of course, Medicare will only do so much so the insurance issue also has to be resolved in five years as well. It’s a daunting through, and more than a little scary–but being afraid of it isn’t going to solve it or make the problem go away.

Although I suppose if I am not working forty hours a week and volunteering the way I have always done, I will have more than enough time to do a lot of writing.

Which of course means I would have to make myself do it–never an easy chore!

Of course, I still have a short story–“The Rosary of Broken Promises”–due on Monday, but I think I should be able to get that finished on time, now that the book is out of the way, and the only other writing commitment that I can think of is “Solace in a Dying Hour,” which I think is due in April, if I am not mistaken. I want to take February to do some finishing touches on things–some of the novellas, other short stories–and then I want to jump into Chlorine in March. If I stay focused I should be able to have a first draft finished by the end of that month, and then I can jump in the next Scotty in April. By June, the plan should be to have all the novellas finished as well as those first drafts; I’d like to spend the summer pulling together the next short story collection, and once that’s done, I want to start revising the manuscripts I finished in the early part of the year, and that should easily carry me into the next year. For 2023, I’d like to maybe write Voices in an Empty Room and possibly start a new series with a gay main character; my gay true crime writer from New Orleans–whom I’ve already introduced into the Scotty series–but the problem is ensuring he isn’t Chanse or Scotty; I tend to get very lazy with things like that. I have some other stand alone ideas, too.

It never really ends, does it?

It’s going to take some getting used to the idea that today is Tuesday and not Monday; it still is bitch slapping me and probably will continue to do so for the rest of the day. Ah, well, there is nothing to be done about that other than trying to get used to it, I suppose.

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Happy Tuesday, everyone!

The Sweetest Taboo

Last night Paul and I had dinner at Galatoire’s.

Galatoire’s is a New Orleans institution; like Antoine’s and Arnaud’s and Commander’s Palace, it is one of those places you simply have to experience. This wasn’t my first time at Galatoire’s, but it was my first time there in a while. Galatoire’s was immortalized by Marda Burton and Dr. Kenneth Holditch in their book Galatoire’s: Biography of a Bistro, and Stella famously took Blanche there for dinner the night of the poker game in A Streetcar Named Desire. I don’t think I’ve ever been into Galatoire’s and left without feeling, at best, tipsy; at worse, staggeringly drunk. Last night I merely had a Bloody Mary and a glass of white wine; fortunately Paul and I had about a six-block walk to the car in the infernal heat of a late June evening, so I was completely sober by the time we got to the car.

We were at a dinner party in honor of author Lou Berney, whose last novel The Long and Faraway Gone is one of the best crime novels I’ve ever read, and whose next novel, November Road, drops in October (we were able to score ARC’s at the dinner). I’ve known Lou since Bouchercon in Raleigh, when he and I graced the stage on a panel with Lori Roy and Liz Milliron, moderated by the incomparable Katrina Niidas Holm. (Lori and Lou went on to win Edgars the following spring; coincidence? I THINK NOT.) It was a lovely evening, despite the extreme heat (and don’t laugh; it is unusually hot, even for New Orleans, this June; this is August weather).

Did I mention I got an ARC of Lou’s new book?

Today’s short story, the next one up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories, is, of all things, a story about a baseball player, “Phenom.”

The arms around me hit a grand slam tonight.

 It didn’t matter; we lost the game anyway. But I didn’t care. I’ve never really cared much about baseball. In fact, I’d never been to a game until our local team signed Billy Chastain. As soon as I saw him being interviewed on the local news, I knew I was going to start going to games. It’s not that I don’t like baseball, I just never cared enough to go. But all it took was one look at Billy Chastain, and I was sold.

The interview had been one of those special pieces. He’d been a high school star, played in college a couple of years, and then one year in the minors, where he’d been a force to be reckoned with; with an amazing batting average and some outstanding play at third base, he’d been called up to the majors for this new season, and everyone was talking about him.  I just stared at the television screen.

Sure, he was young, but he was also composed, well spoken, and seemed mature for his age. He was also drop dead gorgeous. He had thick bluish-black hair, olive skin, and the most amazing green eyes. They showed clips of him fielding and batting—and then came the part that I wished I’d recorded: they showed him lifting weights. In the earlier shots, it was apparent he had a nice build; he seemed tall and lanky, almost a little raw-boned; but once they cut to the shots of him in the weight room, I was sold. His body was ripped as he moved from machine to machine in his white muscle shirt and long shorts, his dark hair damp with sweat. As his workout progressed and his muscles became more and more pumped, more and more defined, I could feel my cock starting to stir in my pants. And then they closed the segment with a shot of him pulling the tank top over his head and wiping his damp face with it. I gasped. His hairless torso slick with sweat, his abs were perfect, his pecs round and beautiful, and the most amazing half-dollar sized nipples which I wanted to get my lips around.

I bought tickets and started going to every home game.

Our team sucked, to be frank, and it was soon apparent that there was no World Series or even division pennant in our future that year. But Billy was a great player and everyone was talking about him. He was leading the division in hits and had one of the highest batting averages in all of baseball. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline PHENOM, his beautiful face smiling out at people on newsstands all over the country. There were several shots of him inside without a shirt on; shots I had scanned into my computer, enlarged and printed out for framing. I made sure my seats were always behind third base, so I could get as great a view of him as humanly possible, in his tight white pants that showed every curve and muscle of his legs—and the amazing round hard ass I thought about when I closed my eyes and masturbated. Every so often he would look up into the stands and smile, saluting us with a wave.

I wrote “Phenom” for the Alyson erotica anthology Fast Balls; I was asked by the editor to write a story.

I’m not a big baseball fan; my parents forced me to play when I was a kid and yes, the experience was incredibly traumatic. I do love going to games and watching in person; but watching on television isn’t something I’ve ever really enjoyed a lot. So, writing a baseball story was a bit of a challenge for me.

Then I remembered, when I was a teenager in high school, following the Kansas City Royals, and a Sports Illustrated cover with young star Clint Hurdle with the word PHENOM on it…and I thought, you know, I can write about a player instead of the game, and that was my starting point: a hot young baseball star turns up in a gay bar after a game and a fanboy’s dream comes true.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Loverboy

The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?