While it is lovely–it was quite lovely–to not have to get up and go to the office (or make condom packs, or do data entry) this fine morning, it’s also a bit bittersweet: this is the vacation time I took to attend Bouchercon a mere fifteen minute walk from the Lost Apartment. If this was NOT pandemic time, a friend would be arriving at the Lost Apartment around noonish; we’d store her bags in my car and we were going to have lunch and hang out until other friends arrived later, whom we would be joining for a lovely dinner at Coquette. I would also be checking into the Marriott on Canal Street at some point today; probably not staying there tonight, but definitely heading down there tomorrow morning as my first panel would be that afternoon. *sobs softly to self; shakes fist in fury at anti-vaxxers*
Ah, well. Things don’t always work out as they were planned, do they?
I slept in a bit this morning, which was lovely–I feel very rested and not a bit in the least groggy this morning, which is marvelous. The kitchen is a horrifying mess this morning, so once I’ve finished my coffee that’s the first thing on Today’s Agenda, among other things–first is actually making Today’s Agenda, so I can put clean the kitchen on the top of the list. The living room is also a mess; but I am going to make “room by room” the working theory of this lovely if too short vacation. I am starting small, in the laundry room today–the books! Dear God, the books in the laundry room! But if I don’t get everything done that I need to get done over this vacation–the most important thing the corrections and revisions to the book, of course, more on that later–but it feels rather nice to not have to go to the office today, or have condom-packing/data entry hanging over my head as I swill my coffee here at my marvelous new computer. But yes, this mess around my work space is a bit much–and the Lost Apartment itself is a disaster area from top to bottom. I worked on the manuscript last night some more, and am at the halfway point. But as I get deeper into the manuscript I am finding even worse mistakes than in the beginning, and some really atrocious writing. I literally was squirming in embarrassment as I corrected and cleaned up this horrifically sloppy manuscript last night. When I called it a night and started rewatching episodes of Ted Lasso (this show is really amazing; if you haven’t checked it out yet you need to) while waiting for Paul to come home. He was rather late, so after rewatching two of my favorite episodes (“Make Rebecca Great Again’ and “All Apologies”) I switched over to TCM and started rewatching The Way We Were, which is what I was doing when Paul got home and I stopped–Redford and Streisand were still at their unnamed college–and I was thinking, outside of the fact that they were clearly too old to be playing college students, there are other parts of this movie that actually would no longer fly today; I am going to have to finish watching it at some point because I want to review it as part of the Cynical 70’s Film Festival (it’s from 1973). I can’t think why I never activated the TCM app on my Apple TV before; just scrolling through the offerings last night before settling on The Way We Were was very exciting, as there are so many classics there I want to either rewatch or see for the first time (including Nightmare Alley, In a Lonely Place, and some classic Katharine Hepburn films I’ve never seen). Exciting!
Today’s Agenda also includes a short exploration trip for this book I just signed a contract for; I need to explore the particular neighborhood of the city where I am setting the book so I can take pictures and have more of a feel for the book. I’m now creating secondary characters for the regular cast (it always seems so weird to talk about books like they’re films; but blame it on all those Agatha Christie/Erle Stanley Gardner/Ellery Queen novels I read as a kid that had the list of the cast of characters at the beginning with a snide sentence or two defining who they were as people….which I miss terribly!), which I am really enjoying doing. This is maybe the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying part of writing any book–building the foundation for it with the creation of characters and the establishment of place–it’s certainly a lot more fun than rereading a manuscript and finding all the mistakes and fuck-ups, that’s for sure.
And of course I do want to spend some time with Megan Abbott’s The Turnout today, and I have to go to the gym at some point as well. MY DAY IS JAM-PACKED. But I do need to make today’s to-do list, as well as an overarching one of all the things I need to get done so I have a template to follow for my vacation daily agendas. (Rereading that last sentence made me realize how absolutely batshit insane I must come across…but that’s not telling you, Constant Reader, anything you’ve not been able to ascertain already for yourself, is it?) I also need to do some male grooming things–I’ve not shaved my face in days (thank you, mask mandates; which do not get enough credit for relieving men of the necessity to shave every fucking day) for one, and I also need to do some computer file organizing and rearranging and so forth. So many projects….which is why I need that overarching list of things to do.
And on that note, tis time to make lists and buckle down for the day. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader, and I will chat with you again tomorrow morning.
One of the challenges of being a writer is keeping your work fresh and new and interesting; it becomes easy -for want of a better phrase–to just phone it in and repeat yourself. This is particularly true for crime writers/writers of series; how do you continue writing about the same base foundation of characters without recycling plots or falling into formulaic structure?
One of the primary reasons I stopped writing my Chanse MacLeod series was precisely because of this; as I was writing the last book (thus far) in the series, Murder in the Arts District, I found myself thinking things like okay now it’s chapter five, I need some action here or I need to have a twist in the story before I get to chapter ten…and so on. I didn’t even think about it as I was writing the story–but when I was doing the revisions and edits, I remembered having those thoughts (I generally don’t have them while writing Scotty, but that’s a story for another time…and of course, as a reader pointed out, how many car accidents has Scotty been in, anyway?), and when I turned the book in, I went back and speed-read the entire series over again, and after about the fourth book, the writing pattern became rather obvious to me; and if it was apparent to me, I would imagine it was also fairly obvious to the readers. So, I decided to either end or take a lengthy break from the series unless another great idea for him jumped out at me; I have had several ideas since then, but the longer I go without writing about Chanse the less likely it becomes that I will write about him again. (Caveat: I have written a Chanse short story and have a novella in progress with him as the main character; I guess it is more accurate to say that I am not done with the character completely, yet I cannot see myself writing another novel with him as the point of view character–and will have to go another step forward with that as well to say at least not one set in New Orleans, as I am toying with an idea for a Chanse case in Louisiana but not New Orleans. Yes, that’s me–definitely not definite.)
I have nothing but the utmost admiration for series writers who manage to keep their series going for decades and dozens of books without writing the same book and structure over and over and over again; Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, and Sara Parestky are just a few of them I can name, and their achievements have made them legends in the field. But other legends who wrote series took a different approach to their careers. Agatha Christie wrote several series–Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence–but also wrote a lot of stand-alones over the course of the years. (Seriously, when it comes to crime fiction, Christie did everything first) Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben started out writing series and moved on to stand-alones; as have numerous other authors.
And then there’s Laura Lippman.
Gerry Andersen‘s new apartment is a topsy-turvy affair–living area on the second floor, bedrooms below. The brochure–it is the kind of apartment that had its own brochure when it went on the market in 2018–boasted of 360-degree views, but that was pure hype. PH 2502 is the middle unit between two other duplex penthouses, one owned by a sheikh, the other by an Olympic swimmer. The three two-story apartments share a common area, a most uncommon common area to be sure, a hallway with a distressed concrete floor, available only to those who have the key that allows one to press PH on the elevator. But not even the sheik and the swimmer have 360-degree views. Nothing means anything anymore, Gerry has decided. No one uses words correctly and if you call them on it, they claim that words are fungible, that it’s oppressive and prissy not to let words mean whatever the speaker wishes them to mean.
Take the name of this building, the Vue at Locust Point. What is a vue? And isn’t the view what one sees from the building, not the building itself? The Vue is the view for people on the other side of the harbor, where, Gerry is told, there is a $12 million apartment on top of the residences connected to the Four Seasons Hotel. A $12 million apartment in Baltimore.
Nothing makes sense anymore.
The apartment cost $1.75 million, which Is about what Gerry cleared when he sold his place in New York City, a two-bedroom he bought in the fall of 2001. How real estate agents had shaken their sleek blond heads over his old-fashioned kitchen, his bidet-less bathrooms, as if his decision not to update them was indicative of a great moral failing. Yet his apartment sold for almost $3 million last fall and, as he understood the current was laws, he needed to put the capital gains, less $250,000, in a new residence. Money goes a long way in Baltimore, and it was a struggle to find a place that could eat up all that capital without being nightmarishly large. So here he is at the Vue, where money seems to be equated with cold, hard things–marble in the kitchen, distressed concrete floors, enormous light fixtures.
I’ve been a fan of Lippman’s since I read her debut, Baltimore Blues, mumbledy-mumble years ago. I absolutely loved it; I loved the character of Tess Monaghan, former reporter turned private eye, and the cast of regular characters who she interacted with on a regular basis throughout her amazing series run. Tess remains one of my all -time favorite series characters; the books were always compelling, interesting, and very hard to put down. Lippman is also that writer who can write short stories that are just as powerful as her novels, and over the last few years she has taken up writing personal essays that are also rather exceptional (her collection, My Life as a Villainess, was a bestseller during the pandemic). Her writing is always whip-smart and intelligent; following her on social media one can see how widely and perceptively she reads. About seven years into her career she took the risk to move from her series to stand-alones; a calculated risk, to be sure–but she then spent the next few years alternating between the series and stand-alones (alas, it’s been a while since the last Tess book, Hush Hush, although she has occasionally made guest appearances in her stand-alones when a character needs assistance from a private eye). Her books have explored themes of motherhood, what it means to be a good girl, and have also paid homage to time-honored sub-genres (Sunburn is one of the best noir novels of this century) and classic novels by either flipping the script (for example. Wilde Lake owes an enormous debt to To Kill a Mockingbird, imagining, really, where the characters and story would be decades later). She has also played with form, tense, and character–Lady in the Lake is almost Faulknerian in its use of point-of-view; I lost track of how many different point of view characters were in this book, and every last one of them rang completely true–and she has become, over the years, a true artist.
In my often-benighted first writing class in college (whose scars I still carry to this day),my incredibly pompous professor once berated one of the students for writing a story about a writer. “It’s the laziest form of writing, and character,” he proclaimed from his lectern at the front of the classroom, “and it tells you more about who the writer is more than the character ever will. If you ever start reading anything where the main character is a writer, you should run from it as fast as you can.”
I guess he wasn’t a fan of Philip Roth. (To be completely fair, neither am I. I’ve tried, but have never really got the magic there, but have always accepted that as my failing as a discerning reader rather than his.)
Stephen King often writes about writers; ‘Salem’s Lot has Ben Mears; The Shining has Jack Torrance (and the most deadly and horrifying case of writer’s block in literary history), It has Bill Denbrough, and on and on–but of course the most famous, and best, example would be Paul Sheldon in Misery. While I always have enjoyed King’s writing, and have gleaned things from his writer characters, Sheldon and Misery, for me, has always been the best. Sheldon was perhaps one of the most realistic and compelling writer characters I’ve ever read about–the man with aspirations to becoming a critically acclaimed literary writer, who yet makes a living by writing a bestselling romance series about a character named Misery Chastain whom he has come to hate and despise even as she makes him enough money to live well and focus on simply being a writer (the dream of all of us, really). He has killed her off finally in his most recent book, ending the series at last and finally taking the leap to write what he thinks will be the game changer for his career–until he has a horrific car accident and is rescued by Misery’s biggest fan.
The parallels between Misery and Dream Girl are there, of course, and easy to spot; Lippman’s character Gerry Andersen is an enormously successful literary writer (a la Updike or Roth) who is also kind of a dick in how he has treated the many women who have come through his life, and of course, his ego justifies all of his bad behavior until he, too, has an accident in his home that winds up with him trapped in a hospital bed in his secluded apartment (despite it being in Baltimore; the appeal of the place is its privacy and seclusion). But while Sheldon is being victimized by his sociopathic fan/caregiver in Misery, what is happening to Gerry is very different; he has his original fall that causes his injury because he receives a weird letter from someone claiming to be the real person whom he based the title character in his biggest success, Dream Girl, on, and she wants financial compensation. In his shock and surprise–people have always wondered, and have always asked him, if she was a real person and he has always said no–he falls down his stairs and busts up his leg. Once he is housebound, he has a night nurse AND his personal assistant there–rarely being ever alone in the apartment–but he starts getting strange phone calls from the woman claiming to be the real ‘dream girl’–but there’s never any record of the calls on his called ID, and the original letter disappeared as well. Is his medication playing tricks on his mind, or is there something more sinister at work in his cold, sterile, remote apartment?
As with so many other things, that writing professor was wrong about writing about writers. I’ve stayed away from it myself for most of my career–as I said, the scars are still very much there–but I have started dabbling into it a bit (my Amazon single, “Quiet Desperation,” is one attempt, and I may go even further; I’ve created a character who’s appeared as a minor character in some of my Scotty books who is a writer). The mystery here is quite compelling, and more than enough to keep me turning the pages to see what happens next. But I was also enjoying the insights into another writer’s life, albeit he was a fictional character; I find it incredibly easy to identify with characters who are writers because despite the fact that all writers have different methods and different careers and different mental processes, there are always those little nuggets of oh yes I know that feeling or I thought I was the only person who experienced this or ah yes this is exactly what it’s like.
Dream Girl is an excellent edition to the Lippman canon.
I slept late this morning–I didn’t even, as I inevitably do, wake up at five and fall back asleep, instead sleeping until almost eight thirty and then taking another fifteen minutes or so to acclimate myself to the idea of getting up. It wasn’t easy, as my entire body was still relaxed and the bed so accommodating and comfortable, but there was simply no way I could stay in be any longer. I have, as always, too much to do and get one today and as lovely as the thought of staying in bed for another couple of hours may have been, it was simply not to be. But the sleep felt marvelous; I don’t think I’ve slept so deeply in quite some time, to be honest, and while you may not be as fascinated as I am by my sleeping, I did feel it necessary to comment on such a good night’s sleep for a change.
I was talking to a friend recently about Lolita–I can’t remember how or why the subject even came up in the first place–butthat conversation put me in mind about how we as a society have changed when it comes to the sexualization of teenagers by adults. I recently watched a terrible show called A Teacher, about a woman in her twenties who teaches high school and ends up having an affair with one of her students, and how this basically ruins their lives on both sides. There has been a lot of that in Louisiana over the past decade–there were two teachers in Destrehan having affairs with male students, occasionally have three-ways with them a while back–and it seems like these kinds of scandals break down here all the time. Teenaged boys and older women have long been looked at societally as not the same thing as the reverse–inevitably triggering responses from adult men things like I wish I’d had some older woman to teach me a few things and so forth, that whole “boys will be boys” mentality that still pervades the culture and society to some degree. This is something I may write about at some point, because it interests and intrigues me–even if it is a bit of a third rail, a dangerous path to follow with lots of potential pitfalls along the way. Teenagers often confuse hormonal responses as love–the whole conflation of sex and love that usually most grow out of it at some point–and of course, teenage boys are easy to manipulate because of their hormones. I think the primary problem I had with A Teacher was I never understood the woman’s motivations; it never made sense to me that she would be so self-destructive; they tried tacking on some back story after the affair was exposed which involved a difficult relationship with her own father, but it didn’t work for me. I also think back to all of the “coming of age” fiction I read when I was a kid, and how inevitably such romances/relationships were always seen as positive things, or depicted that way; there was always some inexperienced teenaged boy falling for some beautiful older woman who inevitably will take his virginity–going back as far as Tea and Sympathy, where the woman did it to “cure” the boy of suspected homosexuality, through Summer of ’42 (I also read the book of this, which impacted me with its tale of loss and longing, and how thirty years after that summer the now adult man still remembers her with love and longing; it would not be depicted that way now) to Class, which really does not hold up well AT ALL. There was a few of these in the early 1980’s–I remember another one called My Tutor, where a wealthy man hires a beautiful woman to tutor his son, they have sex eventually and then the boy (played by Olivia Newton-John’s then husband, Matt Lattanzi, who was stunningly beautiful) finds out his father not only hired her to tutor him but to seduce him (“make a man out of him” is how it was put, how it was always put)–but for a very long time adult/teenager relationships like this were seen as no big deal, at least in films; but I also think it’s pretty safe to say that this was also true societally as well; a father would tend to be proud of his teenaged son for fucking a teacher, rather than being horrified and pressing charges….I think A Teacher missed a beat there, frankly; by having the main male character being raised by a single mom instead of a single dad or at least both parents (or one being even a step-parent) they miss the chance to really address this aspect of toxic masculinity; naturally a mother would think of her child as being molested, whereas a father….that would have been interesting.
It is something I am considering for a Scotty story; it’s all amorphous up there in my brain right now, but it’s slowly forming.
And of course, if the teenaged son was having an affair with an adult male, the father’s reaction would be vastly different than if the affair was with an adult woman.
Yesterday I watched the film version of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which wasn’t nearly as good as it could have been. The film came across as very cold, and also got off to a very slow start. It was enjoyable for the acting, which was top notch–and one can never go wrong casting Charlotte Rampling–and it was a beautifully done film; a very quiet British style ghost story (I really have been enjoying British ghost stories over the past few years, and now I want to read The Little Stranger, of which I have a copy somewhere), and the film has a very dream-like sense to it that is rather marvelous…but that same sensibility also keeps the viewer at a slight distance, which results in the viewer not getting emotionally invested in the characters or the story. (At least, that’s my takeaway from it.) It also put me in mind of Sarah Waters, who is an enormously talented, award-winning British lesbian writer. I reviewed her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, years ago when I still a reviewer, and was blown away by it completely. At some point since then I stopped reading her–not sure why, and I don’t think it was a conscious choice, to be completely honest; I think she somehow just fell off my radar–but watching this film reminded me of what great writer she is, and perhaps I should go back and read her entire canon, including rereads of the first couple of books–I believe her second novel was Affinity–but…as always, time stands in my way.
I also was thinking of revisiting some Agatha Christie; Catriona McPherson posted on Facebook the other day about a talk she is giving for a public library (I believe in South Carolina?) about Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie, which put me in mind of Christie again–sending me own a rabbit hole of memories of her novels–in particular my personal favorite of hers, Endless Night–and how I came to read Agatha Christie in the first place. (I picked up a copy of Witness for the Prosecution off the wire paperback racks at Zayre’s; I knew it had been a movie and I knew who Christie was, but had never read her and was beginning to transition from kids’ mysteries to adults. I also didn’t catch the smaller font words beneath the title reading and other stories; I thought it was a novel and was most startled to discover it wasn’t. So the first adult mysteries I read were Christie short stories, which blew me away. The first actual Christie novel I read was The Clocks–after which I was hooked. Remembering this made me also remember the great mass market paperback publishers of the day: Dell, Pocket Books, and Fawcett Crest. Almost every paperback I read as a teenager was from one of them, and I do remember those publishers very fondly.) I have some Christies here in the Lost Apartment,–I was thinking of rereading either A Caribbean Mystery or Nemesis. I always, for some reason, preferred Miss Marple to Poirot; still do, to this very day. I read the first few paragraphs of Nemesis last night, and was, as always, entranced. So perhaps for this weekend I shall reread Nemesis and some short stories, around working on the book.
Because I absolutely, positively, must work on the book.
And on that note tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader, and don’t forget there are panel discussions for Saints and Sinners up on the Tennessee Williams Festival’s Youtube channel.
Saturday rolling into our lives and taking no prisoners!
I slept really well last night, which was a good thing. Yesterday wasn’t a good day–suffice it to say I got through it–and after I finished my work-at-home duties I went to the gym, which was lovely (and my muscles are feeling it this morning, which is perfectly fine with me). Paul will be going in to the office later this morning and most likely will be gone for the rest of the dy, leaving me home alone. It occurred to me the other day that this year’s Festival widowhood is different; usually I don’t get off work most nights until eight or so, so I only have a few hours home alone in the evenings before he gets home. Me finishing work every day by five stretches the entire evening out in front of me alone; I think that might be part of the doldrums. It’s noticeable in a non-pandemic year, but this year those lonely evenings are taking a bit of a toll on me. Paul has always been my favorite person to spend time with, and always will be; his absence is always noticeable.
I asked for a two week extension on my deadline for the book, and they actually gave me a month. The weight of that deadline stress lifting off my shoulders was considerable; that means I can try to spend this weekend getting caught up on everything else that has been piling up (and dear God, has it ever been piling up) while also working on the book without the great stress of “oh my GOD it’s due on Monday!”) as well as working on cleaning. Cleaning for some reason is calming and relaxing to me–plus being occupied with my hands frees up my mind to be creative (Agatha Christie said, in my favorite writer quote of all time, “my house is never so clean as when I am on deadline”). I’m also becoming less attached to my books, which are sprawling everywhere and taking up so much room it isn’t even funny. My goal is by June to have cleared out, through donating to the Latter Library’s weekend book sales, most of the piles of books. Should we ever have the means or find a place to live that will provide me with an actual room to serve as my office–so I can have walls and walls of bookshelves–I should have no problem whatsoever with filling those shelves. It’s a long time project, of course, and will require, in many instances, the purchasing or repurposing of boxes, but the truth is the only books I should be holding onto are research ones–and even those can be replaced with ebooks as needed; and let’s face it, ebooks are much easier to use than hard copies because you can search for key phrases and words, etc. much easier than flipping to the index and so forth.
The pandemic, of course, has had a lot to do with the weird, eerie, dream-like existence of the last year; and these additional stressors in my life have, like the Katrina aftermath, affected my short term memory. This entire last year–our office officially shut down services on March 16th last year–is kind of blurry to me; I don’t remember when this happened or when that happened and so forth; I thought, for example, we had closed down earlier than March 16th and opened up for limited services much later than we actually did. I have no recollection of my birthday in August. This is also kind of understandable, as there were none of the usual markers of the year that generally mark the passing of time: no Southern Decadence condom outreach, no Halloween, no Jazz Fest, no Bouchercon, no board meeting in New York in January. I miss those things; I miss my annual events and seeing everyone that I usually see and the social interactions…and given my general misanthropist attitude, that is saying a lot. I miss my friends, I miss my co-workers, I miss the way things used to be. (I do not, however, miss the past administration in the least.) And that’s okay; that’s normal, and I really need to get to a place and point in life where I stop beating myself up for, you know, having the same feelings and experiences everyone has.
I’ve been doing a lot of unpacking in my mind over the last few weeks of issues–and yes, pain–from my past as well as reexamining things that happened. I’ve always been hesitant to write about my past–I’ve always been uncomfortable about writing my memories or a memoir or anything like that, simply because none of the people I’ve known and/or interacted with over the years ever gave me permission to write about them, or tell my version of their stories, which is also why I generally don’t talk about people I know or interactions with them or so forth on here. What constitutes an invasion of privacy in these cases? I really don’t want to find out the hard way. But I am going to start, I think, writing personal essays that will most likely never see the light of day–or maybe, I don’t know. But writing about things has always been the easiest and best way for me to process and deal with them, and while I may not want to pull off the scabs in public here on my blog…I don’t know, maybe someday I could pull together a collection of them. I know when I was using the discography of the Pet Shop Boys for my blog titles last year I kept thinking that not only do their songs have great titles, but those titles would also make great titles for essays, as well as great starting points and inspirations for the essays themselves. Do I have anything interesting to say, anything deep or profound? As Eve Harrington said as she accepted the Sarah Siddons Award for a role written originally for Margo Channing, “everything wise and witty has long since been said–by minds more mature and talents far greater than mine.”
I really need to watch All About Eve again.
So, we will see. Once I finish slurping down my morning coffee and get my gears in order this morning, mayhap I’ll start writing an essay. I am going to spend some time with the manuscript for #shedeservedit–I’ll have the cover art soon, and I can’t wait to share it, y’all–and clean, clean, clean and organize, organize, organize.
I also started watching Allen v. Farrow last night on HBO Max. It’s very well done. I’m very curious to see the rest of it. I never followed the story that closely back in the day–but it was one of those things you couldn’t help but be aware of and everyone had an opinion. I’ve never been a particular fan of Woody Allen, and haven’t seen many of his films–of the ones I’ve seen, my favorite is Bullets over Broadway–nor do I have much inclination to go back and watch them now. I recognize this is yet another one of those “art v. artist” things; and perhaps the distinctions I make in other cases (I won’t watch anything made by Roman Polanski after his crime, but will rewatch both Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown–justifying those as being before he turned to criminal assault against minors, but apparently he was horrible to Faye Dunaway during the production….at the same time Dunaway is also notoriously difficult, so who is at fault in that instance?) are rationalizations to excuse myself. I won’t read Orson Scott Card nor Dan Simmons anymore, and really–there are so many books I want to read that I will never have time to read that cutting bigots out of my reading schedule isn’t an issue. I suppose the same goes for film–I’ll never have the time to watch every movie that I want to watch, so cutting out films made by predators or abusers or bigots really shouldn’t be an issue.
The art v. the artist! That could be an essay!
And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader.
When I was a child and lived on the south side of Chicago, elementary school was dismissed every day at 3:15 pm. It took about ten minutes for my sister and I to walk the block home, meaning we usually could just catch the last minutes and closing credits of Dark Shadows every day. This was disappointing, of course, because we loved the show and tried to keep up with it; the older woman down the street with whom our mother left us every morning on her way to catch the bus for her shift spooling wire at an electronics factory in Cicero and fed us both breakfast and lunch also watched, and would tell us the following morning what was going on in Collinwood (she also got us to watch One Life to Live and General Hospital with her; but we weren’t as veste in Llanview and Port Charles as we were with the haunted Collins family).
But at three thirty every day one of the affiliate networks in Chicago showed reruns of old movies, and we generally watched the movie–we weren’t allowed outside unless our mother was home–and she usually got home around four. My grandmother had already given me a taste for old movies and mysteries, so watching the afternoon movie wasn’t a hardship for me, and it kept my sister and I quiet while Mom made dinner and did whatever housewifely and motherly chores she had to take care of before Dad came home.
It was watching those afternoon movies where I first encountered The Bad Seed.
Later that summer, when Mrs Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic, was the day of her last happiness, for never since then had she known contentment or felt peace.
The picnic was an annual, traditional affair held on the beach, an among the oaks, of Benedict, the old Fern summer place at Pelican Bay. It was here that the impeccable Fern sisters had been born and had lived through their languid, eventless summers. They had refused to sell the old place, and had kept it up faithfully as a gesture of love even when necessity made them turn their town house into a school for the children of their friends. The picnic was always held on the first Saturday of June since the eldest of the three sisters, Miss Octavia, was convinced, despite the occasions on which it had rained that particular day, and the picnic had to be held inside, after all, that the first Saturday of June was invariably a fine one.
If The Bad Seed has lost its ability to shock and horrify, it’s because in the decades since it was published (and adapted into both a play and film) the notion of a child being a killer has gone from being shocking to the general public to one that is kind of accepted; children do kill, and despite all the societal push towards sentimentality toward children. Rhoda is a sociopath, if not a psychopath; her inability to feel remorse or empathy or any other kind of human emotion is chilling to read about–she’s a stone cold killer, and clearly, she thinks nothing of killing to get something she wants: whether it’s the penmanship medal from her school, or a nice trinket promised to her, and then to shut up the janitor who sees through her and threatens to expose her; there’s a progression there. First she kills on impulse to get something she wants, then she coldly and calculatedly kills to protect herself. Rhoda is maturing as a killer, which is very chilling for the reader. The book is told entirely from the point of view of Rhoda’s mother, Christine–who is very slowly coming to realize, time after time, that her child is a monster, despite the innocence of childhood and everything we are taught to think, sentimentally, about children.
Psychology was starting to come into its own in the United States during the 1950’s, and you can see how crime writers took to psychology in that decade: The Bad Seed asks the question of nature v. nurture (although its answer is that it’s nature, genetic, and cannot be helped–and there’s some truth to that. I’m not entirely sure that sociopathy or psychopathy is learned behavior; are these cold-blooded killers born that way or are they creations of their environment? The solution Mrs. Penmark comes up with and executes in the novel is dramatically different from the film–the film had to abide by the Production Code, whereas novels had no such restrictions on them–and I believe the book’s ending actually works better than the film’s.
One thing that the book does brilliantly is depict the emotional turmoil and distress of the mother, slowly beginning to suspect and find proof that her child, that she loves so dearly, is actually a monster.
I first read this book when I was a teenager; I’d already seen the movie when I discovered the book on the shelves at the library, and so I checked it out and read it. I enjoyed it tremendously at the time–and it also had me watching other teens and young children for signs of sociopathy for a few years–and so thought it might be worth a revisit. It was, most definitely; it’s a bit dated, and of course the notion of a killer child isn’t quite so shocking as it was back during the Eisenhower administration–we’ve seen too many real life examples of this, and of course the trope of the killer child has been used, over and over again, in crime fiction and in films, so it’s not the brace of cold water in the face that it once was (kind of like how Beast in View by Margaret Millar was groundbreaking in its time–its still a great read–but what Millar did in that novel has been copied and imitated so much that it’s almost a cliche; one has to read these books with those sort of things in mind). Agatha Christie also used the trope of the sociopathic child (although in a quick google search it turns out Christie’s sociopathic child killer predated The Bad Seed; honestly, Christie did everything first).
It was a very pleasant reread, and as always, it’s interesting to visit (or revisit) books that were considered shocking in their time, only to have them turn out to be fairly tame–I’m looking at you, both Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls–as well as to see how far the crime fiction genre has progressed. (I still consider Peyton Place to have a place in crime fiction, even though most people don’t. And while the crimes in the book may not be the driving point of the story, those crimes do impact everyone in the town in some way….there’s another essay to be written, probably after I reread the book at some point. It’s been awhile since I’ve revisited both Peyton Place and Valley of the Dolls….perhaps that can be my Christmas present to myself.
I was–doubtless like any number of Agatha Christie readers–already aware that Poirot was already elderly and retired from the police force in his first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles; by the 1960’s when he was still solving cases he would have had to have been, per the piece, about 130 years old. Likewise, Miss Marple was already an elderly woman when she debuted in the 1930’s in Murder at the Vicarage, and while later Marple stories talked about how old and frail she was, by the time her last case–Sleeping Murder–rolled out in the 1970’s she also would have been well past one hundred. (The piece also discussed how old Nero Wolfe would have been by the time his final case was published, if the fiction matched reality.)
This is something that has been preying on my mind for quite some time, because of course, Scotty was only twenty-nine in Bourbon Street Blues (published in 2003), which, if we follow linear time, would make him around forty-six now. That’s not terribly bad–he typed as he eyes his own sixtieth birthday coming the following year–but it’s not Scotty’s age that concerns me so much as the age of everyone else in the series. If Scotty is forty six and the youngest Bradley child, and Storm was old enough to be a senior in high school when Scotty was in eighth grade–that puts Storm firmly at around fifty-one, which would put Scotty’s parents into their seventies and his grandparents in their nineties–at the very least. Scotty is actually younger–I didn’t follow linear time in the series (Katrina forced me to start aging him; I had intended for him to be twenty-nine forever)–and so he actually was 29 in 2004 and turned thirty just before Katrina–but that only shaves about a year off his age. I’ve not wanted to deal with the deaths of his grandparents or his parents becoming frailer with age, so I just pretend when I write about them that they’ve not aged. Scotty has, but they haven’t–and also, Frank is pushing sixty himself now no matter how I arrange the ages and timing of the series, and still wrestling professionally. Again, I’ve not really wanted to deal with the age issues–he retired after twenty years of service with the FBI, as a matter of fact–retiring in the period between Jackson Square Jazz and Mardi Gras Mambo, but I have intellectually accepted the fact that Frank is probably going to have to step away from the ring and the bright lights; it’s just a matter of when. I’ve always wanted to do a Scotty case built around the professional wrestling promotion Frank works for and will need to be retiring from; this was always going to be the premise behind Redneck Riviera Rhumba…but a Scotty book not set in New Orleans?
Anyway, I’ve really not wanted to deal with the deaths of Scotty’s grandparents, but I also know I am eventually going to have to–I can’t keep having them be just an amorphous age known as “old” and live to be over a hundred (although people do live that long, but it’s patently absurd that all four of his grandparents are remarkably long-lived; perhaps I’ll start killing off the Bradley side of the family first. I never liked the Bradley side, but have always had a soft spot for the Diderots.)
I can probably get away without killing the grandparents off for another couple of books, but…the clock is ticking. Although a Bradley death being the springboard for another case would be interesting. Hmmmm. *makes notes*
I also discovered an interesting location in Louisiana yesterday, Fort St. Philip. And yes, while that may not be completely factually correct–I’d heard of it vaguely before as one of the Mississippi River forts below New Orleans that were built to help defend the city–I’d never really learned much about it, but yesterday I discovered this weird abandoned location was actually home to a religious cult from 1978-1989, when they all moved away. Interesting, no? I could easily do a Sherlock story back in the 1910’s set there, or even have it be a weird Scotty story, or even simply a stand alone; an abandoned fort once home to a religious cult is like the perfect setting for a horror novel as well, isn’t it? Hmmm. I could also do all three, frankly; a Sherlock story in 1916; a Scotty story in the present; and a horror novel at any time. SCORE.
I did watch The Conversation while I was making condom packs yesterday, and am really glad I did. The film was incredibly timely when it was released back in 1974; the Nixon administration was crumbling because of it’s illegal electronic surveillance of the McGovern campaign, and the ensuing cover-up–although Francis Ford Coppola knew none of that would be the case when he wrote and directed the film. It was also overshadowed by his other film release that year–The Godfather Part II–which is really a shame. The Conversation has a plot, of course–and a pretty decent one–but the film is really a character study of Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who works pretty much alone and is legendary in his field–which few people really know about. The entire film hinges on the performance of Gene Hackman in the lead, and it’s one of Hackman’s best performances, understated and nuanced and completely immersive; I don’t think he got an Oscar nomination for this but he definitely should have–and it should have been a very close race for him. The film opens with Harry and his team–mostly hirelings, as he prefers generally to work alone–following and recording a young couple (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams) as they walk around a crowded Union Square. Harry is also haunted by one of his greatest achievements–he managed to eavesdrop and record a conversation between a corrupt union boss and an accountant about their embezzling of union funds; the boss assumed the accountant had talked and had people kill not only him, but his wife and children in a particularly brutal way. Harry looks at every job as a challenge, and his particular genius is conquering jobs most experts reject as impossible. But after those murders, Harry is beginning to question his own morality and his own ability to distance himself from what results from him doing his job…and as the film progresses, he begins to distrust his own client, and suspects the client (played by Robert Duvall and only ever known as “the Director”) is going to murder the young couple–the woman happens to be his wife. (A beautiful, very young pre-Star Wars Harrison Ford plays the Director’s assistant, and Harry’s contact–and his motivations are also murky and peculiar.) Harry is already paranoid–he refuses to have a phone in his apartment, and early in the film gets a post office box so no one will have his address–and watching the paranoia and fear build in him throughout the film is very impressive. It really captures the cynicism and paranoia of the 1970’s; it could be considered a defining film of the decade, and is definitely an excellent addition to your own Cynical 70’s Film Festival.
I also watched an old horror movie from the 1980’s called Witchboard, which I had enjoyed at the time but now–well, calling it “terrible” is actually a complement. The script is bad, the dialogue is bad, the cast has no chemistry together, and none of the relationships make any sense. The cast, led by Todd Allen (who is supposedly hot and sexy–okay, 1980’s straight masculinity), Tawny Kitaen (perhaps best known for the Whitesnake music video for “Here I Go Again”, for dancing erotically on the hood of a car; this film definitely answers any questions anyone might have about Kitaen’s acting abilities–they are virtually non-existent) and Stephen Nichols, who would go on to great fame on soaps like Days of Our Lives (as Patch) and General Hospital (as a Cassadine in love with Genie Francis’ Laura Spencer), but is frankly terrible in this. It came in late for the Halloween Horror Film Festival, but dear Lord, it is terrible. I have yet to decide which films to watch during today’s condom packing adventures, but I did find some more interesting looking 70’s films–along with some really terrible-looking horror movies from the 1970’s on.
And of course, there is always a lot of writing for me to do; volunteer work, and so forth….but I intend to really enjoy this weekend as much as I can. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, as I put on my helmet and once again head to the spice mines.
November 1st, or All Saints’ Day; which is the perfect day for a Saints game, don’t you think? LSU lost yesterday, badly, and while it was incredibly disappointing to watch, I felt worse for the players. We always forget, regardless of how talented they are, they’re really little more than kids. And since so many starters are either true freshman or sophomores…I think they’ll be really good next year…if they can survive what looks to be a season on par with the late 1990’s. Yeesh.
I am up ridiculously early because of Daylight Savings time; I’d be up early regardless, but I am wide awake and decided, since I have to get up early the next three mornings, that it made sense to go ahead and get up now–one advantage of the so-called “extra hour” (because if 2020 needs anything, it’s more time) is that by not using that hour to get extra sleep, I can recalibrate my body clock to my own advantage for the next few mornings. The sun isn’t up yet completely, but the cutting down of the crepe myrtles next door–many of them, but not all–means that my workspace and kitchen are going to be flooded with a lot more direct sunlight, which is going to make it unbearable in here once it gets hot again; which means I am going to need to do something about window coverings, whether it’s curtains or blinds. We’ll see how much time I have before that becomes a massive priority–hell, it might become one later this morning.
I was still very tired and physically exhausted yesterday. I ran my errands, and then working on cleaning up our side of the house–leaves, branches, debris–and so I watched the LSU game, doing some cleaning and organizing around here in the meantime, and then for Halloween watched House of Dark Shadows on Hulu. I originally saw this movie in the theater–my grandmother, who got me started watching the soap in the first place–took me, and it was a very different take on the Barnabas Collins story. For one thing, there was no redemption of the character; he remained an evil, cruel vampire till the end, when he was killed for his crimes, and he also kind of killed off the entire family, other than Elizabeth and David, by the end. It was straight up more horror than melodrama, and the movie did well enough to inspire a sequel (with none of the same characters or actors), but it really wasn’t as good a story as the redemption of the vampire arc the show did.
I also took the time to read four novellas of Cornell Woolrich, collected together in one volume with the name Four Novellas of Fear (which is really not the best title, as it gives the impression that the novellas are more horror than suspense/crime; which is what they really are). The novellas are all interesting takes, some of which are dated and wouldn’t work today, alas: “Eyes That Watch You”, the first, was my favorite, in which a woman who is completely paralyzed and cannot speak overhears her daughter-in-law and her lover plotting to kill the woman’s son. Unable to communicate and warn him, the crime takes place…and then she becomes determined, somehow, to expose the murderers to the cops and send them to the chair. Great concept, marvelously handled. The next, “The Day I Died,” is about a man who finds out his wife is planning to kill him for the insurance; he comes home early from work and surprises her with the man she has hired to kill him. The hired assassin winds up dead, and the hard-boiled heroine convinces her husband to go through with the plan–they have a ready made corpse whose face they can disfigure and claim it’s suicide. But as he leaves town he runs into a co-worker on the bus…and now he has to kill the co-worker somehow. It’s very noir, very well done–but again, wouldn’t work in a modern setting because of technology and the difficulty of disappearing in the modern world. The third story, “You Won’t See Me Again,” is about a young newly married couple who have an argument, and she walks out–storming home to mother. When she doesn’t return–as he suspects and expects her to, after a day or so–it becomes a missing persons case and of course, the husband is always the prime suspect in those cases. So now he has to find not only the wife he loves to make sure she’s safe, but also to clear her name. It’s yet another story that wouldn’t work in today’s world because of technology, but it’s a charming time capsule. Likewise, “Murder Always Gathers Momentum” is about the slow descent into crime of a person who is broke and desperate and owed money he was cheated out of; rather than confronting the man and asking for his money he decides instead to break into his house and steal it. He’s caught, commits murder, realizes how easy it is to become a criminal, and starts killing people to cover his initial crime….(this is very similar to Agatha Christie’s Murder Is Easy, in which Dame Agatha and Miss Marple also explored the idea that once you’ve killed, it becomes easier to keep killing) and there’s a terrific ironic twist at the end, worthy of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Despite being dated, I enjoyed all four novellas–which were all very distinct and different, and cynical in their own ways. I certainly enjoyed them more than I enjoyed Night Has a Thousand Eyes, that’s for certain, and my own curiosity about Woolrich–who was a gay man, an alcoholic, and horribly unhappy in his personal life–deepened. (Just as watching The Other the other day, and thinking about the author of the book, Thomas Tryon–a closeted gay actor of the 1960’s who turned to writing novels in the 1970’s–reminded me that I had once thought him worthy of a biography, and I still kind of think that way; I just wish I had the time to devote to doing the research and traveling to Connecticut to examine his papers and so forth; he was also the long-time lover of the first gay porn star, Cal Culver, which is also an interesting footnote to his interesting life as well as of gay historical interest.)
I’m trying to decide what to read next, and have narrowed it down to four options (and may choose something else entirely): Owen Laukkanen’s Deception Cove; Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages (which I may have already read, but I don’t remember finishing it); The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier; or The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake. I am leaning toward to du Maurier because I am thinking it may be time to finish her canon; but the others all look tremendously good, which inevitably always makes choosing difficult. I also want to start reading short stories again–I still have two volumes, for example, of Shirley Jackson stories to read–and I need to get back to my writing–if I can only remember where I was. I know I was rereading Bury Me in Shadows in order to get a grasp of the story–I also have been thinking about the tweaks it needs–and the deadline looms. I also need to revise my story “The Snow Globe,” there’s about a million emails to catch up on, and there’s also the bills to pay.
Heavy heaving sigh. I also want to make it to the gym this morning. One good thing that has happened in this past week is managing three workouts; my body feels wonderful, my muscles feel more stretched and better than they have since the pandemic closed my old gym (we belonged there for eighteen years) and that’s got to count for something, doesn’t it? I think so, and I like that I am developing better workout habits. I’ll worry about correcting my diet and going full on Mediterranean diet after a few more weeks.
I’m also going to write a story–or rather, try to finish one–for the next Mystery Writers of America anthology. Getting a short story into one of those is on my bucket list, and I have two potential in-progress stories for this one; three, really: “Condos for Sale or Rent,” “Please Die Soon,” and “A Dirge in the Dark”. I guess I’ll need to read what’s been done on all four stories and then see about finishing any or all of them…it’s not a bad idea to get all three stories written, pick one to submit to the MWA anthology, and then send the others to other markets.
So many stories in progress.
The sun is rising and the loss of the trees has also made a significant difference to my view–which isn’t nearly as pretty or scenic as it was before, and will take some getting used to. The great irony is my landlady has been trying to get the property owner next door to trim the trees back for years–and trying to get her to trim them regularly, as they are problematic for hurricanes/tropical storms. It took Zeta for her to take the risk presented by the crepe myrtles seriously, with the end result that some were not only trimmed back dramatically, but others were removed entirely. I may have to hang up a small blanket or something in the meantime as a stopgap until I have the time and financial means to get curtains or blinds.
And on that note, I must head into the spice mines and start working on getting caught up, a Sisyphean task at best. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and enjoy your Feast of All Saints.
Not only do I write two private eye series, erotica, and the occasional stand alone, I also, sometimes, write what’s classified as young adult fiction. I have not published anything that could remotely be considered y/a in quite a while, and therein lies a tale (I think the last book I published that could be considered “young adult” was Dark Tide; I could be wrong. I no longer remember when and in what order my non-series books came out).
To be clear, the fact that I even call those books “y/a” even though I don’t really think of them as young adult fiction is a marketing thing, really; in my mind, they’re simply novels I wrote about teenagers. I started writing about teenagers when I actually was one; the stories I wrote in high school weren’t bad, for a teenager, and were the first indication–from my fellow classmates, and my English teacher–that I could seriously become a published writer if I chose to try to do so; the utter lack of seriousness my writing aspirations received from my family was kind of soul-crushing. But I always wanted to write about teenagers, from the very beginnings; I wanted to do my own Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys style series, and then progressed to other stories.
I progressed as a reader pretty quickly when I was growing up; I went from the series books, like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, and the Scholastic Book Club mysteries, to Agatha Christie, Charlotte Armstrong, and Ellery Queen when I was around eleven or twelve, if not younger; I know I read both Gone with the Wind and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots when I was ten. The few books I read that were considered “children’s books” (there was no such thing as young adult fiction then) were books like The Outsiders and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit and I did enjoy them; I just didn’t think of them as either being particularly authentic or realistic. Nor did they have any bearing on my life, or the lives of my friends–I viewed them like youth-oriented television shows like The Brady Bunch, existing in some bizarre alternate universe that has no basis in actual reality or what those of us who were that age were actually experiencing. I always thought there was something missing–complicated and authentic books about the lives of real teenagers and the real issues they faced everyday, without getting into the insanity of the preachy-teachy “issue” books that usually wound up as ABC After-school Specials, which I loathed.
Not all “issue books” were bad, in all fairness; some, like Lisa Bright and Dark, about a girl struggling with mental illness whose parents refused to face their daughter’s reality, so her friends tried to help her by serving as amateur psychologists, and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, about a teenaged girl in a mental hospital dealing with her illness were actually quite good. But I loved books like The Cheerleader, about a poor girl in a small New England town with ambitions and dreams that far exceeded those of most of her friends…dealing with issues of popularity, sex, and first love. David Marlow’s Yearbook was also a favorite, and while not marketed to kids, was about high school, but had some themes and plot-lines considered far too heavy for teens to digest in the 1970’s. You can also see it in the pap that was considered movies for teenagers; G-rated bubble-gum like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and inevitably came from Disney and starred Kurt Russell. (These movies are an interesting time capsule; I did try to watch one of them recently on Disney Plus and didn’t last three minutes in that squeaky clean, sex-free college environment.)
(Also, I would like to point out at this time there were terrific books being published in the 1970’s for teens that dealt with major issues and were groundbreaking; Sandra Scoppetone was writing about queer teens back then, and there were some others doing terrific work at the time–I just wasn’t aware of those books until much later.)
My first three young adult novels–Sorceress, Sleeping Angel, Sara–were written as first drafts in the early 1990’s, put in a drawer, and forgotten about for nearly twenty years. Sorceress had no queer content in it at all; it was my version of the truly popular trope of romantic/domestic suspense where an orphaned girl goes to live in a spooky mansion far away from her old life (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, almost everything written by Victoria Holt), and slowly becomes aware that everything in the house isn’t as it seems. It was a lot of fun to write–I loved those books and I loved putting a modern spin on them. Sleeping Angel’s first draft was never completed, and the published version is vastly different than what the original first draft contained; there are still some vestiges of the original plot there in the book that are never truly explained, and by the time I realized, after many drafts, that I hadn’t removed those vestiges from the book it was too late to do anything about it other than hope no one noticed. The book did well, won an award or two, and is still a favorite of my readers, according to what I see on social media. One of the things I added to the story was a queer subplot about bullying, which is what I think readers truly responded to, and I also feel like adding that to the story in addition to the other changes I made to it made it a stronger book. Sara was always intended to have gay characters and a gay plot; I originally started writing it as a novel for adults and realized, over the course of writing it, that actually the teenage story was the most interesting part and I could deal with some issues there if I switched the focus of the book to the teenagers. One thing that changed from the 1991 first draft to the draft that was published is that the character I originally had being bullied for being gay, even though he wasn’t (another character, one of the biggest bullies, actually was), was actually not only gay but had come out, and so the book also talked about the reverberations of a popular football coming out, and what impact that had on the school social structure and hierarchy.
Sara, incidentally, is one of my lowest selling titles–which also kind of breaks my heart a little bit.
Since those three, there have been others I’ve written–Lake Thirteen, Dark Tide–and I’ve also dabbled in what is called “new adult fiction”–books about college-age or just out of college-age characters–this is where The Orion Mask and Timothy and the current one I’m working on, Bury Me in Shadows, fall on the marketing spectrum.
One of the questions I had to deal with in writing young adult novels with queer content was the question of sex. I had already been through being banned in Virginia because I had written gay erotica (a really long story that I revisited recently with Brad Shreve on his podcast; I really do need to write in depth about the entire experience); what would happen if ‘notorious gay porn writer’ Greg Herren began writing fiction specifically aimed at teenagers? But the truly interesting thing about being used as a political pawn by the right-wing fanatics in the power games they play is that once they’ve made use of you, they forget about you and move on. My young adult fiction was released without a single complaint, protest, or any of the sturm und drang that my speaking at a high school to a group of queer and queer-supportive youth created scant years earlier.
Interesting, isn’t it?
And yet…there is no sex in any of those books. None. I don’t remember my gay teens even getting a chaste kiss, let alone a sex life, or fantasies, or a boyfriend.
And what about desire?
A couple of years ago someone tagged me on Facebook on an article about just that very subject; that was when I started writing this post (three yeara ago, looks like) but I never finished writing this until this morning.
I know, it’s a lot of information to process, but it’s something we should all be thinking about, particularly as the calls for diversity in publishing and popular culture continue. Sex is, quite obviously, a touchy subject when it comes to young adult fiction, but when it comes to questions of sexuality and being a sexual minority, what is too much and what is not enough? Even depictions of straight sexuality is frowned on and controversial when it comes to young adult fiction. (For the record, that is also considered the case for crime fiction–no explicit sex scenes–or at least so I was told when I was first getting started; doubly ironic that my mystery series were what the right-wing Virginian fanatics considered porn–I really do need to write about that.)
I also have noticed the elitism evident in hashtags like #ownvoices and #weneeddiversevoices that have come and gone and return periodically on Twitter; those actively involved in promoting those tags, when it comes to queer books, make it abundantly clear they only care about those published by the Big Five in New York–which is a good target, I agree, and they do need to be doing better when it comes to diversity and “own voices” work–but this focus also ignores the small presses, particularly the queer ones, who have been doing this work all along and making sure queer books were still being published for all ages and getting out there and made available to those who want and need them. I am absolutely delighted to see queer books by queers being published by the Big 5, and young adult work in particular…and yet…there are some serious issues still with the Big 5–and with what is called ” young adult Twitter”.
I do find it interesting to see who they decide are the “cool kids” and who they banish to the outer tables with the freaks and geeks.
It’s part of the reason I don’t engage with young adult twitter, to be honest. I really have no desire to return to the high school cafeteria at this point in my life.
And I’ll write about teenagers whenever there’s a story I want to tell involving teenagers–which currently is the Kansas book; I turned my protagonist in Bury Me in Shadows into a college student because it actually works better.
And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. (And huzzah for finally finishing this post!)
As far as summers go, I’d say this is one of the cruelest of my life thus far. (Nothing, however, including this one, has been as bad as 2005; let me make that very clear–but this one also isn’t over yet and apparently the Saharan dust storm that was hindering the formation of hurricanes is over now. Yay.)
I read an interesting piece on Crimereads about Robert S. Parker and his creation of his iconic character, Spenser, which put me back in mind of how I came to create MY character, Chanse MacLeod–who I have been thinking about lately ( I’ve decided that rather than writing novels about him I’m going to work on some novellas, and then put four of them together as a book; currently the working titles for the first three are “Once a Tiger,” “The Body in the Bayou,” and “The Man in the Velvet Mask”–I still need a fourth, and it’s entirely possible that any of these could turn actually into a novel, and I do have some amorphous ideas about what the fourth one could be), and reading this piece, which is excerpted from a scholarly tome about the genre I would like to read (Detectives in the Shadows: A Hard-boiled History by Susanna Lee), made me start thinking about how I created Chanse, and the entire process that the series actually went through over the years of his development.
It also made me think about looking at Chanse, the series, the characters, and the stories I chose to tell in a more critical, analytic way; I am not sure if I can do this, actually–while I’ve not published a Chanse novel since Murder in the Arts District back on October 14, 2014 (!!! Six years? It’s been six years since I retired the series? WOW)–which means I do have some distance from the books now, I still am the person who wrote them…even though I barely remember any of them now; I cannot recall plot points, or character names, outside of the regulars who populate every one of the books (I also cheated by using some of the same regulars in the Scotty series; Venus Casanova and Blaine Tujague, the police detective partners, appear in both series; and Paige Tourneur, Chanse’s best friend and a reporter, originally for the Times-Picayune who eventually moved on to become editor of Crescent City magazine, also turned up in the Scotty series, in Garden District Gothic and then again in Royal Street Reveillon. Serena Castlemaine, one of the cast members of the Grande Dames of New Orleans, who shows up in the most recent two Scotty books–the same as Paige–is a cousin of the deceased husband of Chanse’s landlady and erstwhile regular employer, Barbara Palmer Castlemaine).
I first created the character of Chanse MacLeod while I was living in Houston in 1989, and the series was intended to be set in Houston as well. I didn’t know of any crime novels or series set in Houston, one of the biggest cities in the country, and I thought that was strange (and probably wrong). Houston seemed like the perfect city for a crime series–huge and sprawling, economically depressed at the time but there was still a lot of oil money and speculators, con artists and crime–and the original story was called The Body in the Bayou (a title of which I am very fond, and is currently back in the running to be the title of a Chanse novella), because Houston also has bayous. I was reading John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series at the time, and loving them–I particularly loved the character of Travis McGee–and how twisty and complicated (if sometimes farfetched) the plots of the novels were. I had read The Dreadful Lemon Sky when I was thirteen, and liked it; but promptly forgot about MacDonald and McGee; a Book Stop in Houston that I frequented reminded me of them and I started picking them up. I had also discovered Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky by this time, and was falling in love with the crime genre all over again, developing a taste for the more hard-boiled side I disliked as a teenager. This was when I decided to try writing in this field again–for most of the 1980’s I was trying to write horror and science fiction (and doing so, very badly).
But coming back to the field that I loved as a kid, tearing through the paperback stand alones from Scholastic Book Club and all the series, from Nancy Drew to the Three Investigators to Trixie Belden before graduating on to Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner, seemed preordained, and also seemed somehow right; writing mysteries, or crime fiction, seemed to me the right path to becoming a published author (turns out, that was the correct assumption for me to make, and one that I have never regretted).
Chanse was originally, as a straight man, a graduate of Texas A&M and a two year veteran of the Houston Oilers; an injury eventually led to early retirement and joining the Houston PD, where he only lasted another three years before quitting and getting a private eye license. He had a secretary, a woman of color named Clara, who was heavyset and in her early fifties. That was about as far as I got; I think I wrote a first draft of a first chapter which established him as having his office near NASA, in Clear Lake (which was near where I lived) and his first case was going to involve a wealthy oil family in River Oaks. Chanse was also six four, dirty blond hair, green eyes, and weighed about two-twenty. When I fell in love with New Orleans four or five years later, I started revising the character and started writing The Body in the Bayou while I lived in Minneapolis. By this time I’d discovered that gay fiction was actually a thing, and that queer mysteries actually existed: Joseph Hanson, Michael Nava, RD Zimmerman, etc. I wanted to write about New Orleans, and I wanted to write a more hard-boiled, MacDonald like hero than what I was reading. (Not that Hanson, Nava, and the rest weren’t doing hard-boiled stuff; they were–I just wanted to subvert the trope of the straight male loner-hero detective.)
Chanse was definitely a loner, and after I moved to New Orleans I once again started revising the manuscript and story that eventually became Murder in the Rue Dauphine. He was cynical about life, love and relationships, even as he was slowly inching his way into a relationship with a flight attendant named Paul Maxwell; he had only two friends, really: Paige Tourneur, who’d been his “beard” while he was at LSU and in a fraternity and was now a reporter for the Times-Picayune; and Blaine Tujague, a former one-night stand and fellow gay man on the NOPD (I changed his backstory to having attended LSU on a football scholarship and a career-ending injury in the Sugar Bowl at the end of his senior year, which led him to joining NOPD, where he lasted for two years before going out on his own). He also lived in a one bedroom apartment on Camp Street, across the street from Coliseum Square in a converted Victorian, the living room also served as his office–and that was the same place where Paul and I lived when we first moved to New Orleans.
The series and the character evolved in ways I didn’t foresee when I first imagined him as that straight private eye in Houston; or even when I rebooted him into a gay one in New Orleans. The original plan was to have him evolve and grow from every case he took on–which would parallel some kind of personal issue and/or crisis he was enduring as he solved the case–the first case was about his concerns about getting involved in a serious relationship as he investigated a case that made him realize he was very lucky to have found someone that he could be with openly; the second case was about investigating someone who wasn’t who they claimed to be while at the same time he was finding out things about Paul’s past that made him uncomfortable. Katrina, of course, came along between book two and book three and changed everything; I know I also wrote another that dealt with the issues between mothers and children which made him reexamine his own relationship with his mother.
The great irony is I probably need to revisit the books to talk about them individually, or to even take a stronger, more in-depth look at the character; maybe that’s something I can do (since I have ebooks of the entire series) when I am too tired to focus on reading something new or to write anything.
And it’s really not a bad idea to reexamine all of my books and short stories at some point, in order to get an idea of what to do (and how to do it) going forward.
Ah, Sunday morning, how are you doing out there, Constant Reader?
I spent some time, as I threatened yesterday morning, with the bottom drawer of my file cabinet. I found all kinds of interesting things in there–as well as a lot of junk. I also found something interesting–something I’d completely forgotten about; an episodic soap I wrote to entertain my friends in college that I called The Young and the Pointless. There were three seasons of four page episodes containing several scenes that would last about three paragraphs each; and while I’m not sure that’s necessarily as entertaining as it was back then–my friends used to hound me for new episodes, probably because I used them as the characters by using the metric “If so-and-so was a character on an actual soap, what kind of character would they be?” and it actually worked–seeing it reminded me of something I learned as a writing lesson from actually doing it: basically, that soap characters are basically archetypes (hero, heroine, bitch, bastard, anti-hero, etc etc etc) and that Agatha Christie was also right in her Miss Marple books about being able to recognize behavior from observing human behavior in the past. (Miss Marple’s shrewd and keen-eyes observations about human behavior was almost always spot on, and when I read the books as a teenager I didn’t believe this could be true–that it was a poetic, literary license Christie took. Marple would always starts off by giving some anecdote about someone she knew in the past, “She reminds me of the Fielding girl…” and compare how the Fielding girl’s behavior was something she recognized in someone current, and was inevitably right. The older I’ve gotten, the more I find that to be true.)
It’s funny, but I always think that I never really started writing until about 1998 or so; when I started Murder in the Rue Dauphine, but the truth is I was always writing, my entire life. And I have the ancient files to prove it.
I also kind of had the ambition to be a soap writer back then. Apparently, at some point in my life I’ve wanted to write everything, it seems. You name it, at some point I wanted to write it.
Yesterday was lovely; while it is very tempting to spend today working on the top drawer of the filing cabinet, I decided that is a one-day-per-weekend chore, and so I am saving the top drawer for next week. The end goal is to get rid of duplicate files–they are legion–as well as get rid of things I no longer have any need for. The organizing of the files is, of course, key; my goal is to get rid of almost all of these files cluttered around my desk and free up my inbox by moving things into an easily accessible system. I probably also should go through my files quarterly as a reminder of things that I don’t want to forget about; plus I found all kinds of things that could prove incredibly useful for current projects…and that is, quite frankly, lovely.
We finished watching the first season of Dark last night, and I must say, this show is quite extraordinary. The cliff-hanger at the end was pretty amazing, as well. We then watched Netflix’ Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga, which we really enjoyed for a silly movie about Eurovision–and the original music was fantastic. There was also an enormous production number at a party where several songs were mashed up together–“Believe” by Cher, “Ray of Light” by Madonna, “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson, and “Waterloo” by ABBA, if not more–which also featured former Eurovision winners and contestants that was quite marvelous. It’s not very deep, and sometimes it’s just silly (it is a Will Farrell movie, after all) but Rachel McAdams is quite exceptional. If she does her own singing, I am even more impressed–and there’s also a terrific cameo by Demi Lovato.
We are in a heat advisory this morning in New Orleans–hurray for July!–so I had planned on barbecuing later this afternoon, but am not sure it would be advisable for me to be outside in the heat around more heat, given the Dehydration Sickness of last month. Then again, I know how to handle that now, so there is that.
And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.