Everything’s Gone Green

My memory has truly become amazingly awful and limited as I grow older. Yesterday was one of those days that reminded me just how bad it’s become–and how rarely I follow through on plans I make.

I started writing about Kansas when I was a teenager living in Kansas, and I wrote a long, messy manuscript by hand that was essentially a kind of Peyton Place tip-off, with tons of characters and plots and subplots that meandered about and never really had one cohesive central story. Over the years since that handwritten, almost a thousand page first draft was finished, I came to the realization that as a single novel itself I would need to cut out a minimum of fifty percent of the characters and even more of the subplots while tightening it into one cohesive story. The name of the town changed multiple times, as did the names of the some of the characters, while others remained the same from beginning to end. I had no idea at the time of how to write a novel, or how to structure one…but since it already existed, I began mining it for other novels and short stories, pilfering names and subplots and so forth (the murder story in Murder in the Garden District, and the Sheehan family in the book, were directly lifted from this old manuscript; I changed the family name from Craddock to Sheehan). My young adult novel, Sara, also had a lot of story lifted from this same old manuscript–even characters’ names–so when I started building this iteration of what I’ve taken to calling “the Kansas book” over the years, I knew it was possible I was repeating names from the old original, and at some point I would have to check Sara at some point to get the character names from it, to not repeat them. The Kansas book was also intended to be set in the same world as Sara–Sara being primarily set in the county and the small grouping of three small towns consolidated into one high school; with this book set in the county seat, the small city/large town I called Kahola. Kahola never really sat well with me for the town name; it’s perfectly fine for the name of the county as well as the lake (there actually is a Lake Kahola; it’s where we went when I lived there and “went to the lake”), so I decided to change it to Liberty Center (which I got from Philip Roth’s When She Was Good, so it’s also an homage) and Sara geography be damned. So, yesterday while the Saints played terribly and ended their season (and possibly Drew Brees’ career), I was scanning though the ebook of Sara and pulling out character names–even minor ones– as well as place names and so forth.

I am very pleased to report that there is only one character name that traveled from the original manuscript to Sara and finally into this new iteration of the Kansas book, and obviously that needs to be changed. I am not willing to change the name of the county seat back to Kahola; it never really seemed to fit, and Liberty Center works much better on every level, but I can change the name of the character in #shedeservedit to avoid confusion…not that there would be much, since Sara is my lowest selling book for some reason I certainly don’t get, but it would unsettle me, so it cannot be. As I was pulling names out of the ebook, and place names and places of interest, I also began remembering other things.

I had originally intended for all of my young adult novels to be connected in some way, kind of how R. L. Stine had done his Fear Street series, where all of the books take place in the same town and high school, and a minor character in one would become the hero of another. I was reminded of this because Laura Pryce is mentioned by name in Sara; she was the protagonist of Sorceress, and she was from the same rural part of Kahola County and went to the same consolidated high school. Sorceress tells the story of how Laura goes to live with her aunt in a huge house outside the California mountain town of Woodbridge; Woodbridge is also the setting for Sleeping Angel, and characters overlapped from Sorceress to Sleeping Angel. The Chicago suburb in Sara where Glenn is from is the same suburb that the main character in Lake Thirteen was from; it is the same suburb where Jake’s father, stepmother, and half-siblings live in Bury Me in Shadows; and of course, this latter is set in Corinth County, Alabama–which is where my main character in Dark Tide was also from. As I was picking out the character and place names from Sara, I was also reminded of other books I’d wanted to write, and I had introduced some of these characters in this book intending to revisit them again at another time in another book or story–books and stories I have since forgotten about completely, and yet there are the characters, crying out to me from my Kindle app for me to write about them.

Having triggered my brain into the creative mode yesterday by doing this chore during the Saints game (I started during the men’s finals at the US Figure Skating Championships; congratulations to our world team o Nathan Chen, Vincent Zhou, and Jason Brown) I also began remembering other things I was working on–like “The Rosary of Broken Promises” and “To Sacrifice a Pawn,” two stories I started for a submissions call I didn’t manage to make; or some of my pandemic story ideas (inspired by the pandemic or during it) like “The Flagellants”, “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap”, and “The Pestilence Maiden”; amongst so many, many others. This is why I despair of ever writing everything I want to write during the limited time I have on this earth; I could spend the rest of my life trying to write every story and novel idea I already have and would never be able to finish them all.–and I have new ideas, all of the time; it’s almost ridiculous.

I already know I am most likely going to revisit Corinth County in Alabama again–it’s basically where my already-in-progress novellas “Fireflies” and “A Holler Full of Kudzu” are set, amongst many other ideas for short stories, novellas, and novels. I will undoubtedly return to Liberty Center at some point as well; I have ideas for other Kansas books and stories, too; I’ve revisited Kahola County, Kansas in my short stories numerous times already as well. I’ve also got my own parish in Louisiana–Redemption Parish, which I wrote about in Murder in the Arts District, The Orion Mask, and some other short stories. I’ve also already invented a fictional town on the north shore–similar to Hammond–that showed up in Baton Rouge Bingo and will undoubtedly turn up again in my work, although perhaps not under my own name.

I spent some more time with Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and am thoroughly enjoying the ride. King’s authorial voice is so strong (and reminiscent of the late great Elizabeth Peters) that I cannot wait to read more of the Mary Russell series–it’s so different from her Kate Martinelli series, which I also love–and intend to spend some more time with it this morning with my coffee as well; I see a new tradition for non-working days developing; reading with my coffee in the mornings, which is simply wonderful. I recently acquired Alyssa Cole’s thriller When No One Is Watching, which I am also looking forward to, and I have added both Stephen King’s The Stand and Faulkner’s Sanctuary to the reread pile…and I’d also like to get back to the Short Story Project at some point….and of course there are all those ebooks piled up in my Kindle as well.

We also spent last evening after the Saints’ loss getting caught up on The Stand, which I am enjoying, although it’s made some choices I find questionable. I’m okay with everything having to do with the plague and the characters making their way to either Boulder or Las Vegas being done entirely in flashback, but the focus on the character of Harold Lauder–whom, while important to the story, was at best a supporting character in the novel and the original mini-series–is an interesting choice. They’ve certainly spent more time with him than they have with any of the people who were the novel’s protagonists–Stu, Larry, Glen, Frannie–so the focus of the mini-series seems a bit off to me….but props to them for casting the delightful Alexander Skarsgard as Flagg; his beauty and charisma–so evident as Eric on True Blood–playing perfectly into the role of the dark leader of the other side. Over all, the series is well done and well cast (Whoopi Goldberg as Mother Abagail doesn’t quite work for me; in the book she was old and frail and Whoopi is many things but frail is not one of them; I’d have gone with Cicely Tyson or any of the other gifted Black actresses who are older now) and I am a bit more forgiving than most when it comes to adaptations, I think–especially since the key part of the word is adapt. (I saw some more Hardy Boys enthusiasts bitching about the Hulu series somewhere again yesterday; honestly–I really have to center a book and a mystery around a kids’ series’ overly enthusiastic fans) We still have the rest of the first season of Bridgerton to watch, and season two of Servant has dropped on Apple Plus–do NOT sleep on this creepy-as-fuck show; you will not regret it–and I am also anticipating the release of Apple Plus’ adaptation of Foundation, starring Jared Harris, and we’ve also got a second season of The Terror somewhere to watch, and the second season of Mr. Mercedes on Peacock as well…so we seem to be set for things to watch for a good while.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Today is going to be mostly spent reading Laurie King this morning, and then the rest of the day spent with my manuscript as I try to work out the kinks and figure out what else needs to go into it. Have a happy holiday Monday, and do try to remember Dr. King’s message of equality, unity, and freedom for all.

Style

And this is the first Tuesday of 2021, how are you all doing?

I was very tired yesterday. I slept well Sunday night, but the stress of finishing the book was messing up my sleep leading into Sunday night, so yesterday wasn’t an easy day for me. I also think my caffeine intake might have gone up while I was on vacation, so I am not really sure if it was book stress or perhaps caffeine messing with my sleep. I didn’t sleep particularly well last night either–and I am going to the gym after work tonight. I’m a little stressed out because I really allowed the Sisyphean task of answering my emails be pushed aside focused on getting my book finished, and it was more than a little traumatizing yesterday to see how out of control my inbox had gotten. But que sera sera, as Doris Day used to sing.

We finished watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina last night, and bravo to everyone involved. Sabrina was one of the most fun shows we’ve watched over the past few years, I highly recommend it. Kiernan Shipka is pitch perfect as Sabrina–the entire cast is perfect, really; not a false note anywhere–and of course, the guy who plays Lucifer is fucking gorgeous. The four seasons was a wonderful ride, as Sabrina went from wide-eyed, goody two-shoes half mortal/half witch to owning her own power and using it to save herself, her friends, her family–and eventually, the entire cosmos. I was bummed when I heard the fourth season would be its last…but the final season was perfectly written, and ended all of the story arcs satisfactorily, tying the entire run up with a bow. Sorry to see it go, but absolutely delighted that they clearly planned the show’s end.

I do feel a bit at sea, to be honest; the usual disorientation after the tight focus required to finish a book. I printed out #shedeservedit–it’s at around 100,000 words right now and needs to be trimmed down because there’s some additions that need to be made to it, but it cannot come in at 125+. I also periodically have some fears about Bury Me in Shadows–which is inevitable, I suppose; imposter syndrome never goes away, even after you’ve written over thirty books at this point in your career. I’m not certain why this happens to me still–or what I need to rewire in my brain to stop it happening–if that’s even possible at this point in my life. I rather am who I am, and I doubt that change is possible for me now. I do try to continue to learn and grow–I don’t think I ever want to stop learning and growing, as a person or as a writer–but sometimes I wonder if I am so deeply mired in who I am as a person for that to even be possible anymore. I was also thinking about books and stories I’d like to write in the future, and then wondering, am I the right person to tell that story? As an example, I had an idea I really liked a few years back (probably longer than I remember) which was centered around a family of Vietnamese refugees who owned a small business somewhere along the Gulf Coast, either Florida or Alabama, from the point of view of a teenager who was born in the US and so is torn between his family culture and becoming assimilated, when something from the matriarch’s past in Vietnam–from the war days–comes back into their lives,, affecting everyone and changing everything. It’s a really good idea…but then, am I the right person to tell that story? Wouldn’t a Vietnamese-American write a more authentic story, and would my writing such a book take a publishing slot away from a Vietnamese-American writer?

While I do believe that writers have a right–perhaps even a duty–to write the stories they are compelled to write, I also don’t see that compulsion as a “get out of jail free” card. You have to do the work to make sure you aren’t using cheap stereotypes, are creating authentic characters whose experience lives and breathes and is real to the reader, and are telling honest stories about them. You can’t just shrug and smile and say, “well, if people only wrote from their personal experience we wouldn’t have stories about vampires and werewolves and space aliens”; nothing makes me angrier than seeing someone using that to answer criticism about authenticity in their work.

Because people of color and queers, for the record, aren’t mythological creatures that only exist in fiction and in our imaginations. We all exist, and to have our lives, our experiences, and our very existence compared to “vampires and werewolves and space aliens” is not only insulting, it’s dehumanizing–which is absolutely what racism and homophobia are about when boiled down to their base point: people who are not straight and white aren’t REALLY human beings.

And anyone who uses that excuse most definitely should not be writing outside of their own experience, because they are NOT coming from a good place.

When I was first starting out, there was an ongoing debate/discussion about whether we should identify as gay writers or just as writers. The debate died off as traditional publishing backed away from publishing queer writers–and the ones they did continue publishing weren’t marketed as “queer.” I could see the merits on both sides of the discussion; sure, I’d prefer to be seen as a crime writer and have my works stocked in the mystery section of bookstore–but that was also not a reality. As I would say back then–and it’s still true today–“it doesn’t matter what we consider ourselves and our work to be; the publishers and the booksellers are going to label us and or work however they think best in order to sell it, and no matter what we do, our thoughts and opinions and definitions will always be overruled by Marketing.” That label also trumps everything that comes after it–whether it’s romance or mystery or literary or science fiction or fantasy or horror, gay or queer overpowers everything else. I think that is beginning to change. I see books written by queer writers centering queer characters being published by the big houses to great reviews and getting attention, which is lovely. I love the entire “#ownvoices” conversation, and the move to course-correct the overwhelming white straightness in book publishing.

Ironically, it causes me to doubt myself. When I was writing Bury Me in Shadows, I questioned myself constantly: do I have the right to write this book and tell this story? Can a white Southern gay man write about issues of race in the rural South? Am I writing authentic characters or perpetuating rural Southern stereotypes? Do I have anything really insightful to bring to the discussion, or have I gone completely off the rails? It’s a whole new kind of imposter syndrome I wasn’t expecting!

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

Miss Americana and The Heartbreak Prince

One question that always exasperates authors is the old standard, where do you get your ideas from?

I get why it annoys writers to be asked this; who wants to be psycho-analyzed on a panel or at a reading? It’s a process, of course, and one that cannot be distilled into a quick, witty, quotable sound bite–and the ultimate truth is, it’s almost always different in every case–whether it’s a novel, an essay or a short story; I certainly have not gotten inspiration the same way every time. A lot of the Alabama fiction, for example, that I have written/am writing/have thought about writing, comes from stories my grandmother told me when I was a child about the past–mostly her family’s past, and certainly those stories were self-aggrandizing and self-serving, and still others were apocryphal: the ancestress, for example, who killed a Yankee soldier come to rob her during the Civil War? Yeah, that one was almost certainly lifted from Gone with the Wind–but I have since come to find out that Mitchell probably took the story from legends as well–that story seems to exist everywhere in local legend throughout the former Confederacy (I mention this in passing in Bury Me in Shadows, which also originated in one of my grandmother’s stories).

A while back, I started thinking about doing period novels centering gay male characters and telling their stories about the times when prim-and-proper society swept all things gay under the rug and homophobia was king (or Queen, I suppose). I had already come up with a great idea for a gay noir centered around a health club that operated as a money-laundering front for the local mob in a city in Florida called Muscles, which I hope to write at some point…I cannot recall exactly how or why Muscles led into thinking about other one-word titled gay noir novels set in different periods of the twentieth century; but there you have it. I think Muscles led me to think about setting one in a gay bar in the early 1990’s, built around the time gay porn star Joey Stefano was arrested while performing at a Tampa gay bar for public indecency; Indecency was such a great title that I couldn’t forget it–and I also figured I could link the two books, the way I always link my books together in an Easter eggy kind of way that the majority of people don’t notice but pleases me immensely. Right round that same time a gay man who was very active as a fundraiser and a donor for political causes died; he had started out owning a company that published gay-interest magazines with nude models and had been arrested, and served time, for using the mail to deliver pornography; I wanted to write about him and the rise of gay porn films in Southern California and call it Obscenity. So there it was: a trilogy of loosely connected gay noirs I hoped to write someday…and then one day, as I was blogging–I think maybe two years ago? I don’t recall–my mind was wandering (as it is wont to do) and I started riffing about an idea that was forming in my head as I wrote the entry for a book set in 1950’s Hollywood, dealing with the underground gay community, McCarthyism, and scandal-mongering that would open with a gay movie star’s body being found naked in the surf at the beach…only the autopsy found that the water in his lungs actually contained chlorine…so he hadn’t drowned, he’d been murdered and the body moved. I called it Chlorine; and that was, for me, kind of the end of it–I wrote the idea down, created a folder for it, and posted the entry.

So, I am sure you can imagine my surprise when I checked Twitter a few hours later and had a ridiculously high amount of–what do they call them? Mentions? Anyway, I had no idea what had triggered this–I rarely get much interaction there–and so when I went to check…some people had read my blog and were all about Chlorine–and the more they tweeted about it, the more people had gotten drawn into this conversation. I was thrilled, to say the least, to see so much attention on-line for something that was really just an amorphous idea…and then a great first line occurred to me: The earthquake woke me up at nine in the morning. So I opened a new Word document, typed in that line, and next thing you know, I had an over 3000 word first chapter written, and the entire plot was forming in my mind already. I took voluminous notes, and decided that, once I got finished with everything I was in the midst of writing already, I would give Chlorine a shot.

And in the meantime, I could start reading up on the period, gay Hollywood, and root myself firmly in the period.

Which is how I came across Robert Hofler’s The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson.

On November 29, 1954, The Hollywood Reporter’s gossip columnist Mike Connolly wrote about the proud, happiest day of Rock Hudson’s life. The movie star had just been cast in George Stevens’ cattle-and-oil epic Giant, and Connolly’s one-line blurb commemorating Rock’s celebration party was as cryptic as it was pumped with news ready to break: “Saturday Mo-somes: Phyllis Gates & Rock Hudson, Margaret Truman & Henry Willson.”

In one of his rare acts of discretion, newshound Connolly dispensed with the ampersand that should have wedded the names Rock Hudson and Henry Willson. Fifty years into the future, “Mo-somes” could be read as slang for the two men’s sexual orientation. But not in 1954. Back then, “Mo” meant something far less provocative but nearly as colorful

“Mo” was short for the Mocambo, the Mount Olympus of Sunset Strip nightclubs. Pure tinseltown fantasy, the Mocambo was an over-heated study in contrasts where oversized tin flowers and humongous velvet balls with fringe festooned flaming candy-cane columns that framed a dance floor designed to induce claustrophobia when more than two couples got up to fox-trot. The tables were equally miniscule, making it possible for the establishment to charge lots of money for not much food, which nobody could see. Overhead, rococo candelabras gave off so little illumination that revelers kept bumping into each other by mistake, and sometimes now, as they tried to check themselves out in the flecked mirrors that recast everybody’s reflection in tones of warm, flattering, fake gold.

I had a vague idea of who Henry Willson was before I read this book–he appeared in the Rock Hudson bio I read a few months ago as well as in Tab Hunter’s memoirs–and of course, Jim Parsons played him in the Ryan Murphy alternate-history Hollywood. I was also vaguely aware–my memory is a lot dimmer than it used to be–of the gay Hollywood underground; the Sunday afternoon pool parties at George Cukor’s, for example–and I had read some gay Hollywood histories (the ones by William J. Mann are particularly good), but I knew my main character in Chlorine needed a Henry Willson-like agent, and so I needed to research Henry Willson. Willson was, of course, notorious in his time and the passage of time since his heyday has done nothing to soften that image. He was the definitive “casting couch” agent–and per this book, which is very well written and very entertaining–men who wanted to be movie stars (whether gay, straight or bi) were more than willing to service Henry if it meant a leg up in the business. And Henry did work very hard for his clients, polishing rough material into diamonds for the camera. He taught them how to speak, how to walk, the proper silverware, how to behave in public; manners and etiquette. Henry believed that talent wasn’t as important to being a movie star as having star quality–the indescribable something that all major stars have, that is impossible to describe–and he knew what he was doing. He also frequently renamed them–hence the proliferation of the one syllable first names with the two or three syllable last names: Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue, Chad Everett, Guy Madison, etc.

This book provided a wealth of information as well as inspiration for me, as did the Rock Hudson biography I read several months ago. This period of Hollywood history is fascinating, and I love that writing this book–or rather, planning and researching, since I haven’t really started writing it–is giving me an amazing excuse to study gay Hollywood history and the post-war film industry.

Make no mistake about it–Henry Willson was good at what he did, but he was also a terrible person; trying to make it in a homophobic culture, society and industry at the time in which he lived would definitely twist a person. He was an arch-conservative; a Log Cabin Republican of his time, friends with the horrific Roy Cohn. Was it camouflage to help protect him and his clients from the Red Scare days of McCarthyism, when being queer was also just as suspect? Or was he really that terrible of a person? The author makes no judgments; rather leaving it to the reader to. make up their own minds about who Henry was as a person. As terrible as he was–and some of the things he did, like the casting couch, were pretty unforgivable–I did feel sorry for him in some ways, and in basing a character on him I kind of have to find the humanity in the monster. He was not attractive in a business that revolved around beauty; while the straight male pigs who ran the business used their power to force women to sleep with them, Henry used and abused his own power to get beautiful men to sleep with him.

My own main character–a second-tier movie star who slept his way into parts and a career–is also not entirely likable; but I think I’ve gotten deep enough inside of his head to at least make him identifiable and relatable to the reader…but I guess we will just have to wait and see.

I do recommend this book, if you’re interested in Hollywood history in general or gay Hollywood history specifically.

Silver Bells

Still aglow from the big LSU win Saturday night.

Sadly, the Tigers clearly used up all of Louisiana’s football juju, because the Saints played terribly against the Eagles and lost yesterday afternoon. It did occur to me that one of the reasons I dislike the NFL–at least in comparison to college–is because players I rooted against can wind up on the Saints, and LSU players are drafted to other teams and play against the Saints. It’s hard for me to root against LSU players. And while Jalen Hurts wasn’t a Tiger–he played against us several times and I rooted for him to lose each time–I was a fan of his; I could recognize ability and talent on the field, and I also thought how he handled the whole Tua situation at Alabama was pretty damned classy. So, while I wanted the Eagles to lose, I also wanted to see him play well, and he did, and then I felt like a traitor and I do not have these kinds of conflicts watching college football damn it.

Well, at least not so much anymore. The LSU-Auburn game was a tough one for me until Katrina. After that, I was all in for LSU.

It’s back in the fifties today, and we are in a “high wind alert”–gusts up to 35 miles per hour until around seven, which is fortunately around when I have to get in the shower before heading to the office. It doesn’t feel all that cold this morning in the Lost Apartment, which is interesting; usually when it’s that cold outside it’s even more cold inside, but while I did have to put a ski cap on this morning because my head was cold, other than that it’s not so bad this morning. I slept pretty well (obviously, didn’t want to get out of bed at any point once the alarm started going off) and so feel pretty good this morning. I wound up not going to the gym yesterday, which means having to go this evening (which is fine; I’ll be reluctant and tired, undoubtedly, when I do go) but that’s all right, I can deal.

Yesterday I fully intended to work on Chapter 18, but realized that it probably needs to be mostly tossed and completely rewritten from the start, which is something I was really afraid of having to do–and tossing and starting over means I have to redo the ending of Chapter 17–which I actually realized on Saturday night, while I was thinking about it during the LSU game; the ending of that chapter doesn’t make sense, rendering the eighteenth chapter was completely off the rails, which is going to delay my completion of the revision more than just a little bit. I spent most of yesterday trying to figure out how to redo the chapter, and I think I have it down now–we shall see when I get home from the gym this evening, won’t we?

John Le Carre died yesterday–or rather, his death was made public, at any rate–which came as a surprise to me because I had figured he had already died. It was strange that he died around the time I finally got to read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but deepest sympathies for his family, friends, and professional colleagues. Truly a great writer, the book won an Edgar for Best Novel and Le Carre himself was named a Grand Master in 1984; deservedly so. He was nominated three other times–The Little Drummer Girl was nominated for Best Novel; he was nominated for Best Short Story for “Dare I Weep? Dare I Mourn?” in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968; and for Best TV Feature or Miniseries for A Murder of Quality. I am really looking forward to exploring more of his work in the years to come; I am still reeling a bit from the brilliance of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold–and have been assured by others whose opinions I respect that the other novels are just as brilliant and well written. I’m only sorry it took me this long to get to his canon.

And so another week dawns; another week of seeing clients and getting writing done and going to the gym and hoping against hope that I will stay rested and motivated and fresh all week to get everything done.

Have a happy Monday, Constant Reader.

Big Star

Sunday morning, and all is well–as well as it can be, at any rate–in the Lost Apartment. The Saints play the hated Falcons today at noon, with Taysom Hill–he of the sparkling blue eyes, the shredded muscular body, and the big warm infectious smile–getting the start as quarterback in place of Drew Brees, who is injured with broken ribs.

LSU eked out a win yesterday over Arkansas by partially blocking a field goal attempt in the closing minutes, 27-24, but with the only games left being Mississippi (it really requires effort not to say Ole Miss), Texas A&M, and Florida left to play, and a possible rescheduling of the Alabama game (still to be determined), means a losing season is still hanging in the balance. Alabama and Florida are both ranked in the Top Five, and none of those remaining games are going to be easy. They could easily go 0-4; 4-0 is unlikely; 2-2 is possibly the best we can hope for, which would leave the Tigers 5-5 on the season. The officiating in the game yesterday was absolutely terrible–not biased; the calls both for and against LSU were constantly questionable (some of the things that weren’t overturned were astonishing in retrospect).

I got some things done yesterday–the early game time for the Tigers certainly helped in that regard–did some serious cleaning, which was absolutely necessary, as well as some deep filing, which was enormously helpful. I discovered that, much to my surprise, my novella “Never Kiss a Stranger,” actually began as a short story called “A Streetcar Named St. Charles”–which, obviously, I ditched once I wrote a story called “A Streetcar Named Death”–and what was interesting about finding the original story was that I originally intended for my main character to meet the love interest on the streetcar; I think that’s still going to happen in the new version I am doing, but not quite in the same way (plus, that was also how I started “A Streetcar Named Death'”–a chance encounter on the streetcar, so yeah, changes). Some of what I wrote can still be used, of course, in the newer, improved version I have in progress, but what was truly amazing was how completely I’d forgotten the original.

I also started writing another story that formed, somehow, in my brain as I cleaned and filed yesterday: “The Rosary of Broken Promises.” If you will recall, I had started my story for the Christmas horror anthology, “To Sacrifice a Pawn” (really love that title) and then decided I didn’t have enough time to write it and do a really good job….so of course, yesterday I began to form another idea, drawing from the mists of my brain a similar opening as the “Pawn” story, but with a different tone, mood, and main character, and the newer idea was much darker than the original. I love this new story’s title as well; because of course I don’t have enough work in progress already (eye roll).

My back is still sore–I’m not sure what the hell I’ve done to myself, but I’m also not entirely sure it’s a muscle strain issue. I mean, it easily could be, but I am still going to the gym regularly, and it doesn’t affect the exercises I’m doing, nor does it make any of the exercises impossible. In fact, usually after I work out it doesn’t hurt at all, and it takes a while–usually overnight–for it to come back with full force. Yesterday I was aware of it, wincing periodically, with it getting worse the later in the day it got; this morning it is really miserable. Today I am going to use some heat on it with the heating pad; slather it with Icy Hot, and am going to use the yoga roller on it to try to loosen it up.

And of course, periodically I have those “creative mind” moments like, what if it’s something serious, or you had a mini-stroke or something and don’t know it?

A creative mind is truly a curse sometimes.

We watched a delightful film with Sir Ian McKellan and Dame Helen Mirren yesterday, The Good Liar, which wasn’t anything like I expected it to be; for some reason I had gotten it into my head that it was a comedy, and it was anything but a comedy. It was a very dark story about the sins of the past and swindling–very well written, with some terrific surprises in it and some truly terrific acting; Russell Tovey also was good in a supporting role as Dame Helen’s suspicious grandson–and I am surprised this film didn’t get more attention, particularly from fans of crime fiction. Very twisty, very interesting, and very well done. We then moved on to a French limited series, Le Manti (The Mantis) in which a present day serial killer is copying the crimes of a confessed serial killer who has been in jail for twenty-five years–and the serial killer is a woman. Played creepily by former Bond girl Carole Bouquet (For Your Eyes Only), the Mantis offers to help the police catch the killer, a la The Silence of the Lambs, with only one stipulation: her liaison with the police has to be her son, who is now also a cop. Very twisty, very creepy, very well plotted, we tore through three episodes of it last night. I do recommend it, even if there are some plausibility questions. And how nice to see Carole Bouquet so many years after her Bond girl days, still strikingly beautiful as an older woman, and with much stronger acting chops than in her days scuba diving with Roger Moore in the Greek islands.

And on that note, tis time to get back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader–will check in on you again tomorrow morning.

You Need To Calm Down

So, I went to the gym for the first time in nearly five months yesterday morning.

Apparently there’s another tropical storm out there with New Orleans in its Cone of Uncertainty; Wednesday night seems to be when it’s projected to come ashore; they’re saying Category One is about as big as Zeta will get, given conditions in the Gulf and so forth, and while that’s not nearly as scary as the bigger storm, it’s still a cause for concern amongst New Orleanians. We’ve been incredibly lucky this year in this insane season of storms, but every time someone else gets it instead you can’t help but feel that your odds for a direct hit are exponentially increasing every time that happens. And it’s always stressful when there’s a storm coming your way–that whole losing power thing is the least of it, of course, but at least it’s not the dog days of summer right now and losing power doesn’t mean melting into a puddle inside the Lost Apartment.

THANK GOD.

I know I loathe cold weather, but I am also all about the air conditioning.

The track has starting shifting to the east–sorry, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida panhandle–and local meteorologists are saying the longer it stays stationary and slow-moving where it is, the more likely it is that it will continue to shift east. But I’d still rather not have that in the back of my head for the next three days, you know what I mean?

So I went to my new gym yesterday morning–it was quite chilly out for a Sunday morning in October in New Orleans–and did my first workout since May. It was marvelous. I was smart and only did one set of 15 reps with low weight and exercised every body part; I stretched for a good while before going to the weight machines, and did 100 crunches to conclude before walking back home. As always, one must start slow–one set this first week, two sets the next, then three in the third week and then add weight in the fourth–in order to get your body used to exercising again. In about two months of this (full body workout three times per week) I’ll change the workout to different body parts per workout–chest and back one day, shoulders and arms the second, and legs the third–and make the workouts more intense and difficult, in order to begin pushing myself and getting my heart rate up and making my muscles grow so they can burn fat more efficiently. My goal is to get my weight down to 200 by March, and then reassess my goals and where I want to be physically by Memorial Day.

I used to always balance out my workout goals based on gay holidays when I would go out in public with the inevitable goal of removing my shirt at some point. I always wanted to peak at Southern Decadence. hen it was just maintenance through Halloween and Carnival, bulking until Memorial Day and then lean down for Decadence for peak lean muscularity.

Ah, my shallow youth.

I do wonder, though, if having those goals made the workouts easier to focus on and stick to; not using those times as an endgame to work towards might have had something to do with the loss of intensity and interest in regular workouts, along with not caring as much about a healthier diet. Points to ponder.

We started watching the new Nicole Kidman HBO series The Undoing last night, and were quite taken in by it. Kidman is always a fine actress, and the rest of the cast, which includes Hugh Grant and Lily Rabe, is also quite good. We also are continuing with the very strange M. Night Shyamalan series Servant on Apple Plus, which continues to be very strange and remarkably disturbing. It’s quite good, creepy, and rather intense. I’m still not entirely certain I know what’s going on in that house, to be honest, and I’m also not really sure who I am supposed to be rooting for. The episode we watched last night, which primarily focused on Rupert Grint’s character, was rather confusing. But…it’s also M. Night Shyamalan, which means it’s probably intended to be confusing.

I slept very well last night, and I’m not sore this morning, which is, of course, always a plus. My muscles feel tired, in that good way from working them, rather than tight and tired from non-use. Today will be a day off from the gym–I still need to buy a lock to take with me–and then after work tomorrow I’ll walk over there and get in a workout. I’m thinking Saturdays will be the day when I go and use the aerobics studio for my own cardio workout–if, of course, I can still remember my routines from my classes all those years ago–and do weights on Sunday. It means rearranging and rescheduling my weekends so I can make sure I can still get things done and stay on top of things, but adding some structure to my weekends cannot be a bad thing. Structure is always important for me–as well as routine–and I feel like that is what has been missing in my life since the pandemic began–having some sort of structure and routine to keep up with.

The Saints managed to win yesterday–and it wasn’t a guarantee, either, until the final drive–and so we had a good Louisiana football weekend. I am quite pleased with how both LSU and the Saints played this weekend; although one can never be sure if the LSU win actually meant anything, to be honest. Sure, South Carolina managed to knock off Auburn the week before–but in this crazy college football season no teams (besides Clemson and Alabama) seem to have any kind of identity; they are all playing all over the map, and outside those two top teams, it seems like everyone else are all about the same–anyone can win over anyone on any given weekend. Should make the play-offs race interesting, and regardless, whoever winds up winning it all this year should have an asterisk next to their name because the season is shortened, weird, and staggered.

And the pandemic seems to be kicking into high gear yet again, just like the Spanish flu pandemic did all those years ago.

But I am trying something new: optimism. That was why I enjoyed Ted Lasso so much–the show was about kindness, understanding, and optimism–and while all of those things have been in short supply for this horrific year (partly why the show resonated so much; it served as a reminder of what we can be if we choose to be), I am going to try to keep all of those things in mind going forward…knowing full well there are going to be times when it’s not going to be easy to keep any of those mentalities and life philosophies in the forward part of my life and mind…but also understanding and trying to remember that it can be a choice.

And on that note, it is off to the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader–I certainly intend to.

Getaway Car

Saturday was a beautiful day.

I spent far too much time fighting with my dying desktop computer yesterday; in point of fact, I’ve been wasting far too much time lately fighting with the damned thing trying to get it to be functional at the very low level I require.

Since the time lost really cannot be spared any more, I needed to solve this problem rather than just keep bitching about it or else I would be so far behind I could never get caught up. So, I decided I am finally going to have to remove it from my desk and figure out a way to make the MacBook Air my working computer; it’ll also give me a place to put some books (as I will need to raise it to eye level)–some of those coffee table books will do a lovely job, actually–and I already have a keyboard and mouse for it. All I will need else is one of those USB converter things so the back-up hard drive can be hooked up to it (and the printer) and that will have to do until such time as I can afford to buy a new desktop. I know laptops are designed to be used as a main computer, but they just don’t work for me the way they used to. Part of it is the worsening of my aging eyes. The keyboard, the screen…yeah, not big enough, the screen is too small, and the inevitable resting of my wrists on the edge of the laptop simply will not due–it will take some getting used to, but better to start getting used to it now rather than putting it off and wasting more time. So, I need to get batteries for the wireless keyboard, I’ll start picking out the books to stack beneath it, and look for the spare cash for the adapters and so forth I need.

But now that I have made the decision to finally throw away the desktop–or see if I can trade it in, or something–it will be lovely to have that frustration behind me. I am actually writing on the laptop right now, in my easy chair, with it resting on my lap desk and I have the mouse with me as well and this isn’t bothering me near as much as I thought it might.

Maybe switching to a laptop permanently isn’t so out of the question as I had originally thought.

Hmmmm.

And you know what? Just making that decision yesterday loosened a knot of tension between my shoulders blades and my back muscles just unclenched. Clearly, the computer issues have been contributing to stress levels subconsciously; I need to remind myself this regularly from now on–that you can always figure out a way to work around the problem and thus possibly solve it. Look for the work around, rather than just focusing on the head-on approach–I hadn’t realized how stressed this issue was making me.

The weather was gorgeous yesterday as I ran my errands; it’s the fall season that always reminds me how wonderful living in New Orleans is. Our winters–all my bitching aside about how nasty damp cold can be–aren’t that bad, really; they get about as cold as is bearable for me, and the fall and the spring seasons are so amazingly beautiful that our four months or so of brutal summer are worth putting up with in exchange for our glorious falls and springs. I love that it gets chilly (for here) at night; it makes sleeping even easier, and actually using the stove (without setting it on fire) doesn’t turn the kitchen into an unbearable sweatbox. I can start making chilis and soups again; and grilled cheese is even lovelier in the cooler seasons than it is in the summer. Much as I dislike coming home from work in the dark (it’s really the only drawback), I really love this time of year.

Oooh. I should make lasagna.

That actually sounds pretty lovely.

LSU also won last night (GEAUX TIGERS!) and while yes, their 41-7 win over Vanderbilt wasn’t terribly impressive, the defense looked amazing in the second half and Miles Brennan is definitely getting his feet beneath him and is turning into a quite good quarterback. As embarrassing as the loss to Mississippi State was last week (made worse by their home loss to Arkansas yesterday, snapping a 20 game conference losing streak for the Razorbacks), at least the team seemed to gel last night. Who knows how good Auburn is now, but the real danger zones on the schedule now seem to be Florida and (surprise) Alabama, both of whom looked really impressive yesterday and so far this season.

I now have the Air set up as my desktop computer, with the wireless keyboard and Magic Mouse connected to it. I have it sitting atop my The Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Baring-Gould; it may need to go a little higher, but the system is really working well this morning thus far. (Still not a huge fan of the tiny screen, but I can get used to it, methinks.) Just to see how hard it would be, I also started writing a short story from scratch on here yesterday afternoon–a story called “The Last To See Him Alive”, which had no plan, no idea, no nothing behind it rather than the start–which finds police detective Blaine Tujague arriving at a potential witness’s home and finding said potential witness a little the worse for wear; I managed 873 words of a story of which I neither know what the case is, why Blaine is there, and how this is going to end (this happens a lot to me, which is why I have so many damned unfinished short story fragments floating around in my storage), but I showed that if need be, I can write on the laptop keyboard itself, and having the wireless one, along with the wireless mouse, makes it that much easier.

And on that note, it’s time to head into the spice mines.

You’re My Best Friend

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told that I’m a terrible friend, I wouldn’t need a day job.

If I had a ten dollar bill for every time I’ve been told I am a terrible person, I would be debt-free.

Friendship has always been a tricky thing for me to negotiate. It’s something I’ve never really quite understood the rules for–like so many other aspects of life; it really needs, at least for me, a rulebook or a guide of some kind. I was a very sheltered child, and have–this always makes people laugh when I say this, but it’s true–a horrible degree of painful shyness. I never know how to start a conversation with someone I have just met, and social occasions where I don’t know anyone are excruciating, as I can never introduce myself to anyone and just start talking. Social events where I only know one person in attendance is excruciating for the person I know, as I literally glom onto them like a life preserver and refuse to let them out of my presence–and if they do manage to escape, I will find them like I’ve chipped them, tracking them down like an escaped pet.

I always feel bad about it later–wondering, as is my wont, if the poor person I glommed on to even likes me or enjoys my company in the first place. I also wonder if I should apologize.

I don’t understand the rules, you see.

So, as with everything, I have always taken my cues from books, television shows, and movies. Ah, those marvelous friendships that exist in fiction! Trixie Belden and the Bob-Whites; Nancy with Bess and George; Frank and Joe with Chet, and so on and so forth. I always wanted friends like the ones fictional characters had, wanted to be a friend like fictional characters actually were. But, as I grew older and life continuously proved to be much more difficult, as well as vastly different, from the fictional worlds I loved to escape into, I began to learn that I not only didn’t understand what friendships were like in the real world, but that there were rules I didn’t know about, and those rules were different with every person.

One of the maxims I began to swear by when I burned my life to the ground at thirty-three and started to building a life that was more in keeping to what I had wanted and dreamed of since I was a child was the common denominator in all of your problems is you. Neat, simple, and to the point; it’s also true. But there are, as I learned over the year, also corollaries to the theorems; other truths to be considered, proofs and postulates. At thirty-three, I very willingly took ownership that all the issues I had previously, either with friends or in romantic-type relationships, were mine and mine only–any blame for dysfunction or ruptures or bad behavior could only be laid at my own door. I was never able, for example, to understand or figure out where a relationship went wrong, turned sour, when knowing me and interacting with me became so problematic and difficult that it was easier for someone to just walk away rather than try to work it out (which I always believed was something that friends did; one of those rules that were never explained to me). I tried, believe me–so many hours and journal entries wasted on trying to understand what I did wrong, where I went wrong, what was wrong with me, why did this continue to happen?

I thought back to all the times I’d been ghosted by someone, or a friend had informed me that I was a terrible person and a bad friend; in retrospect, it was something that happened so regularly that there had to be some truth in it. I’d always thought, and taken pride in, being a good friend; for always being there with kind words and a shoulder to be cried upon whenever it was needed…and yet–

And yet.

And yet, as I noted on my birthday blog, I found that I was also frequently disappointed by people. Whether it was my birthday, or being included in things, or whenever I needed someone to talk to when I was personally going through something difficult…inevitably, what I made myself available for with others wasn’t being made available to me. When I tried to talk to someone about problems, it was often dismissed–or I was told, “Jesus, you’re such a downer.” I have had friends tell me, through intermediaries, that “so-and-so doesn’t really want to talk to you anymore because they just can’t deal with you anymore.”

I learned this lesson: when you expect things from people you will inevitably be disappointed.

I’m not sure how old I was, or when I discovered an all-too-important corollary to my common-denominator theorem, but it was incredibly freeing. That corollary was certain personality types attract emotional predators, and that isn’t the fault of the person who attracts them.

Narcissists, for example, seek the personality types that will feed their self-obsession–and they aren’t interested in anyone else’s self-obsession unless it correlates with their own; in other words, if listening to your problems and offering comfort will soothe their own self-satisfaction; i.e. see what a good friend I am? I am such a wonderful person.

I know that I have narcissistic tendencies and that I have an ego; I don’t really think it’s possible for someone to become a creative artist without the odd mixture of complicated and complex and contradictory personality traits that inevitably drive so many of us to drink, drugs, and/or despair; the introversion and self-obsession and ego that drives us to create and believe that others will be interested in our creations, while at the same time being harshly self-critical, self-defeating, and utterly insecure about everything.

And while I’ve also come to realize that while friendship isn’t, and shouldn’t be, something where one needs to be constantly keeping score, a lot of people do that very thing.

I also learned to be suspicious of people doing nice things for me–because in the past, that nice thing inevitably would be used to bludgeon me as an example of how much better a friend that person was than I, and therefore I didn’t deserve to have friends.

When you’re told you’re terrible in some way, especially if it comes from more than one person, it becomes easy to believe that it’ s true. I’ve also been ghosted a lot; one day I would be close friends with someone and the next day the same person didn’t want to speak to me, say hello, or even acknowledge my existence. The first time that happened to me was in seventh grade, in junior high school (junior high was a horrible experience for me, but that’s not the point of this entry), and ever since then, I’ve had difficulty in trusting people completely; whenever I met someone new, befriended someone, there’s always been a wariness inside my mind, a little voice saying remember–you can’t trust people to not turn on you and that, coupled with my innate shyness and social awkwardness, has always made it difficult for me to ever get really close to people. It was in junior high, after all, that I learned there were names for what and who I was–unpleasant, insulting names, always said in a sneering, contemptuous manner–and so I kept my true self hidden from people.

Faggot. Sissy. Fag. Cocksucker.

Even before I was completely sure I knew what the words meant, I knew they were bad–they weren’t complimentary–and whatever they meant, it wasn’t anything I wanted to be.

God knows I’ve been told enough times by people that I’m a terrible friend and a terrible person; it used to always slash me to the quick and hurt my feelings. I was ghosted in junior high school by an entire group of friends who suddenly all stopped speaking to me or acknowledging my existence–to this day I don’t know why–and that early experience, combined with innate shyness, has always made it difficult for me to trust people. And as I’ve gotten older, my trust has gotten harder to earn.

But as I said, I wish there was a manual of some kind; instructions or something. I never know what is appropriate and what isn’t; I’ve also certainly been known to misjudge politeness for friendship before. Am I supposed to reach out to someone when they’re going through a rough time, or do I give them their space? Is it more annoying to have to answer emails and messages from friends who mean well when you’re going through something, or is it better to be left alone? I also have a tendency to withdraw into myself whenever things aren’t going so well; I don’t reach out to other people for support when I am going through something, and while I do appreciate well wishes and things like that…I don’t understand the rules.

I know lots of people at this point in my life; social media has made keeping up with people from my past much easier than it ever was before. I do notice there are gaps, though; I have reacquainted myself with people I went to high school with in Kansas, but no one from before that; after high school graduation the next big gap is people I met and knew from 1978-1985. There are people I know from when we first moved to New Orleans, and various writers and authors and editors and actors and actresses with whom I have crossed paths at one time or another, and people I’ve worked with. My friends’ list on Facebook is a curious mixture of people from all over the country with me as the primary common denominator.

But one thing I have definitely learned over the years is when someone abuses you–emotionally, mentally, verbally–they will do it again, and no matter how much you care about them , or how much time or energy you’ve put into the relationship, it will happen again. I’ve gotten much better about recognizing the difference between a disagreement and an abusive friendship, and my go-to has become If I won’t let my mother talk to me like this, well, youre not my mother.

But I still wish there was a guidebook, you know? It would make things so much easier.

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Begin Again

While I am not, precisely, starting over again with Bury Me in Shadows, I am in some ways returning to the drawing board; my memory has become more and more useless the older I get, and the daily beating my psyche and consciousness has taken this year hasn’t helped much in that regard. But it’s kind of sad that it’s been so long now–and really, it’s not been much more than a week–that I’ve worked on it that I don’t remember where I was at and what was going on; I don’t even remember what happens next and where the story goes, or even the ending I wrote for it–which is part of the problem with writing a book while having, for want of a better term, pandemic brain. (I don’t think I should blame my faulty, horrific memory completely on the pandemic, but I think I am willing to agree that it has not helped one little bit with my short or long term memory.)

I started reading The Heavenly Table yesterday–Donald Ray Pollack is the author, and he also wrote The Devil All The Time–and it’s really quite well written. He really knows how to hit that rural poverty note, and does it really exceptionally well; like Daniel Woodrell, Ace Atkins, and William Faulkner. As I was reading it, I was remembering those summers in Alabama when I was a kid, and thinking about the way my parents grew up–and how difficult that must have been for them, even though they didn’t know any different. This also put me in mind of things that I may need to put into Bury Me in Shadows, or save for something else; another novella that I’m writing, “A Holler Full of Kudzu”, keeps going through my mind when I am reading this book.

I didn’t do much writing yesterday; I was interviewed yesterday for Brad Shreve’s Gay Mystery Podcast (link to come) and, as always after something like that, when I was finished I felt terribly drained (caffeine rush wearing off, perhaps? Also a possibility) and so I wound up sitting in my chair, reading the Pollack novel and thinking about my various writing projects. we eventually watched this week’s episode of Ted Lasso, which continues to be quite marvelous and lovely, and then started Ryan Murphy’s Ratched. It’s entertaining and beautifully shot; the costumes are amazing, as are the sets and visuals, and it’s reminiscent of the Douglas Sirk film stylings from the 1950’s–and for a state mental hospital, the place is gorgeous and impeccably decorated and sparkling clean. The acting is quite good, but I am really not seeing the connection to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest other than as a clever marketing tie-in to draw viewers in, but other than Sarah Paulsen’s character being a younger Nurse Ratched, there really is no connection. It could have just as easily been another season of American Horror Story, and it does have connections, in some ways, to the afore-mentioned show’s Asylum season: the menacing and dangerous nurse; the aversion to lesbianism; the crazy and criminal doctor using his patients as guinea pigs; the serial killer; and so forth. We’re interested and intrigued enough to keep watching, and it’s also interesting seeing the additions to what I call the Ryan Murphy Repertory Company–the young actor who played Justin on 13 Reasons Why, Charlie Carver, Sharon Stone, and Judy Davis. (I do give Murphy a lot of credit for casting openly gay actors in his series, playing either gay or straight or bisexual men.)

It’s gray and drizzly outside the windows this morning, and it feels very cool here inside the Lost Apartment. I know this is the outer edges of Beta–I’ve not yet had the heart to look the storm up and see where it is and where it is projected to be going this morning so far–I’m just not in the mood to see what new potential destruction and flooding is now possible for somewhere along the Gulf Coast. Yay.

I do want to get some writing done, even if it’s merely the tedium of taking the second half of the book and adjusting it from present tense to past tense (a decision I made between drafts; I was trying present tense to see if it added urgency to the story, and I don’t think it really did, so am switching it back to past, which is something i am more comfortable with anyway. If it worked the way I had wanted I would have left it that way, but it really didn’t, and so I am changing it back) so that they are more ready for the revising. I would love more than anything to maybe get two or three chapters revised–but I also need to go back and add at least one scene to the chapters I’ve already got done; a scene I put off until later in the book because I wasn’t completely sure how to deal with it earlier. (I also need to reread the stuff that’s already been revised, so I can remember where I am at and what needs to be done with the next revisions; again, as I said before, the problem with allowing one’s self to procrastinate writing for as long as I have is you forget what you’re writing, which is terrifying) But I intend to be as productive today as I can be, and I feel confident, which I haven’t in quite some time. Not sure what that’s about, but I am going to ride that wave as long as I can.

I’m also setting a goal of a short story per week; both reading one and writing/finishing one. This week’s short story to finish is one I started a while back called “Please Die Soon,” which is a Rear Window/Sorry Wrong Number type pastiche; is there anything more terrifying than being bedridden and beginning to suspect the people trusted with caring for you are actually trying to kill you? It’s a terrific title, and I know exactly how I want the story to work, but I’ve never had a lot of confidence in my ability to actually get it written properly. As I said the other day, I really want to get some more short stories out there to markets–you can’t sell if you don’t submit–and I’ve also began to understand that some of my stories aren’t really crime stories/mysteries; which makes finding markets for them even harder. “Burning Crosses” isn’t really a crime story–even if it’s about two college students looking into a lynching from sixty or so years ago–and it might make some markets deeply uncomfortable. Hell, it makes me uncomfortable–I question whether I should even be writing this type of story about racism, but I also need to stop second guessing myself. If I don’t do a good job of it, then the story isn’t any good, and I think the point that I am making with it–the cowardly discomfort white people experience when confronted with past racism–is a valid one. It’s most definitely not a white savior story, for sure–which is something I definitely don’t ever want to write.

There are already plenty of those stories already in print.

The trick is, as always, going to be focus, which has always been my mortal enemy.

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

Country Roads

I am from the South, which is probably something Constant Reader is sick of hearing about–but I feel like I always need to make that clear. While I grew up in Chicago and Kansas, I have always identified as Southern, as being from Alabama. It’s where I was born, and it’s where, as we say down here, my people are from. I was raised and shaped by natives of Alabama, who were raised and shaped and became who they were in Alabama, because of Alabama, and who identify completely as Alabamians.

I’ve now lived in the south for twenty five years this coming August 1st; even though many Southerners don’t think of New Orleans as Southern. (I would not dispute that thought, either; New Orleans is of the South but is not the same as the rest of the South…but once you cross the Orleans Parish line you are definitely back in the South, but southern Louisiana, while still similar, isn’t the same because of Acadiana.)

My relationship with the South, and with being Southern, is a complicated one, and one that I am constantly evaluating and examining, over and over again. I have pride of region, which is definitely a Southern trait; woe be to those who might condemn or stereotype or insult the region to my face. I am aware of the faults, and the flaws, and the horrors; I don’t need anyone to tell me or lecture me about its history and how it came to be the way that it is now., or of it’s racist history or of the current racism which still seems to be the majority opinion here. I’ve heard all the inbreeding jokes, and jokes about toothless people and hillbillies and white trash and people of Wal-mart and so forth; so by all means, keep them to yourselves. I also have always understood the difference between heritage and hate; I may have been very young but I remember the Civil Rights Movement vividly.

I was never a fan of Confederate statues, for example; I never understood the insistence on venerating men I didn’t consider heroes but traitors, even when I was young. I remember always thinking, but they lost, and they hated the United States, why should we revere that? The cognitive dissonance of being “patriotic Americans” while venerating those who fired upon the flag and tried to start their own country disturbed me when I was a kid and it never made sense to me, and no matter how many times the mythology of the happy slave was spoon-fed to me, whether it was Gone with the Wind (both book and movie), or any of the many other examples from fiction, film and television. The Biblical example of Pharaoh and Egypt (beyond their reject of the one God), holding the Hebrews in bondage as slaves was always right there, too.

And if might equals right, hadn’t the complete and utter defeat of the Confederacy, in such an incredibly humiliating fashion, a complete defeat that left the rebellious slave states in smoking ruins and their economy wrecked (much as Germany was after World War II), further proof that slavery and secession were wrong?

And yet it is an incredibly beautiful part of the country, whether it’s the gorgeous Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina or the massive live oaks of New Orleans, the swamps of Louisiana andthe pine forests of Mississippi and Alabama, the lower Ozarks in Arkansas, the beaches of Alabama and Florida’s Gulf Coast. Savannah and Charleston and New Orleans are beautiful cities; the college campuses of the Southern states are breaktaking in their beauty.

Driving through Mississippi and Alabama, the countryside is so beautiful, the , with the pine tree forests and the red earth, the sloping hills and flowing rivers, that it always inspires my creative brain to think about stories and writing and books. I love the South, despite all the things that are wrong with it, because it’s also a part of me, of who I am. I love its contradictions–like how when you drive through the Smoky Mountains at night you will come across three enormous crosses rising out of the fog that announce the presence of a megachurch…and the same highway exit also plays host to Triple X Super Store.

It’s also interesting that I am returning to my first real manuscript about Alabama, set in a fictional recreation of the part of Alabama from which I came originally, while reading Kelly J. Ford’s debut novel, Cottonmouths–because even though Ford’s book is about Arkansas, the small country town and its surrounding rural area is very similar to my Alabama.

From behind, the woman standing with a guy next to the Love’s Truck Stop air pump looked like any other woman: long hair, too skinny, big purse, big sunglasses. But when the woman turned and smiled, Emily’s chest tightened and her insides tingled in a forgotten but familiar way. Rumors of Jody’s return had come as whispers around town, but until now Emily had lacked proof.

A warm breeze blew petroleum fumes and cigarette smoke into her face while she sought further confirmation of who she’d seen. Gas spilled onto her hand. Startled, she released the trigger on the pump and swiped her hand across her jeans. She sheltered her eyes from the sun to scan the parking lot. But the woman and the guy were gone.

Back on the highway, Emily tried to keep her mind as empty and barren as the farmland that rolled by. When that didn’t work, she turned up the radio and hit scan, unable to settle on the station offerings from the nearest town–country or Christian or the same four pop songs on repeat interspersed with commercials for pawn shops and car lots. Midway through the miles she punched the radio off and tried to tell herself that her new fast food job and her time at home were temporary, though she’d been back a month already.

Cottonmouths is many things, all wrapped up into a compelling story told with gorgeous language. Emily, the main character, has essentially flunked out of college and is wrestling, as so many Southern queers do, with the bipolarity of a deeply Christian small town/rural upbringing struggling against her deepest secret of desire for other women. She’s an outsider, which gives her the ability to see everyone and everything around her with brighter clarity than the insiders have the chance to see–she can see the hypocrisy in her deeply Christian town, and the abhorrence of difference, which makes her feel not only like an outsider but horribly, terribly lonely. It is this lesbian desire within her that ultimately led to her flunking out of college, an inability to come to terms with who she actually is despite being raised in a way that makes her loathe who she actually is. So she has returned to the dying little town of Drear’s Bluff, with its explosive boredom, feeling like a failure for flunking out of college and terrified to admit to people outside her parents that she has failed. She can only find a part time job working fast food in nearby Fort Smith–a job she is too ashamed to admit to her parents she has had to take.

And more than anything, she feels trapped. She wants to escape this town, escape its suffocating claustrophobia, and be free–but she needs money to do that, and without money–as is all too true for most people, she cannot escape.

The return of her best friend from high school, Jody, whom she sees at the Love’s Truck Stop, is the trigger that starts the story in motion. Jody, whom the good people of Drear’s Bluff consider “white trash”, has a baby and is unmarried and living in the old trailer parked on her family’s land. Emily’s past with Jody is also fraught; her family took Jody in when she was a teenager when her mother took off, and one night Emily made a move on her–and the next day Jody was gone, back to her mother and out of her life. This guilt has always plagued Emily; wrapped up in the strict confines of the narrow-minded Christianity she was raised with, and with Jody back now, Emily isn’t so sure what she wants or needs–but those unresolved feelings of first love and desire have now bubbled back up to the surface again.

Cottonmouths is what I would call “rural Southern noir;” while crime and criminal activity is a driving force to the story, it’s also more than that–it’s a compelling portrait of a slice of American life so many Americans it doesn’t affect do not want to face: the death of the small town way of life, the loss of employment opportunity, the collapse of hope for something better. It’s about different kinds of yearnings, and how hope can be twisted into seeing criminality as the only way out. Like Daniel Woodrell and Tom Franklin, Flannery O’Connor and so many others, Ford shows us the reality of rural Southern life; how the deep religious belief can go hand in hand with smug superiority and class warfare–how those who theoretically follow Christ, who ministered to the poor and sick, can somehow hate the poor and look down on them.

There are so many little touches here that ring so true–Love’s Truck Stops, which are scattered throughout the south along its highways and byways; the prayer circles where they drink Virgin Bloody Mary mix; the judgment for not attending church twice on Sundays and for Bible study on Wednesdays; and the viciousness of gossip and the fear that everyone will talk about you, and judge you, and laugh at you–or rather, passive-aggressively shake their heads while murmuring Christian platitudes while the gleam of enjoyment shines in their eyes.

I enjoyed this, and I am really looking forward to what comes next from Kelly J. Ford.