Spies Like Us

SATURDAY! Sorry, I was too tired to post yesterday.

And yes, Constant Reader, we somehow managed to make it through yet another week. I think we deserve a round of applause.

Thank you, thank you.

Thursday I had a late day at the office, so I managed to do three loads of laundry, a load of dishes, and made it to the gym before going to work. I know, right? Who am I, and what have I done with Gregalicious? 

I am looking forward to the weekend, to be honest. I want to clean the hell out of my apartment, have some errands to run, would like to get to the gym, and get some writing done. I think I unlocked the key to “Please Die Soon” last night, but I also realized I need to talk to a friend of mine for research purposes. (I actually need to talk to two friends for separate research purposes, so I should probably get going on that as well. Heavy sigh.) MAKE A GODDAMNED LIST ALREADY.

And now we move on to Florida Happens, and our first story, “The Burglar Who Strove to Go Straight”, by Lawrence Block.

(‘Excerpted from The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling by Lawrence Block, originally published in 1979, when St. Petersburg was decidedly less scenic than it is now.)

Browsers came and went. I made a few sales from the bargain table, then moved a Heritage Club edition of Virgil’s Eclogues (boxed, the box water-damaged, slight rubbing on spine, price $8.50). The woman who bought the Virgil was a little shopworn herself, with a blocky figure and a lot of curly orange hair. I’d seen her before but this was the first time she’d bought anything, so things were looking up.

I watched her carry Virgil home, then settled in behind the counter with a Grosset & Dunlap reprint of Soldiers Three. I’d been working my way through my limited stock of Kipling lately. Some of the books were ones I’d read years ago, but I was reading Soldiers Three for the first time and really enjoying my acquaintance with Ortheris and Learoyd and Mulvaney when the little bells above my door tinkled to announce a visitor.

I looked up to see a man in a blue uniform lumbering across the floor toward me. He had a broad, open, honest face, but in my new trade one learned quickly not to judge a book by its cover. My visitor was Ray Kirschmann, the best cop money could buy, and money could buy him seven days a week.

“Hey, Bern,” he said, and propped an elbow on the counter. “Read any good books lately?”

This is a charming story, and as you can imagine, I was thrilled to death to have something by Lawrence Block to kick the book off. I’m a big fan–although I’ve not read the entire backlist, I certainly have loved everything of his I’ve read–and of course, his anthologies of crime stories inspired by paintings (Alive in Shape and Color, In Sunlight or in Shadow) were also fantastic. I never thought I’d see the day when I edited an anthology that would have a story by Lawrence Block as the lead-off–so you can imagine the thrill; and it’s a story about books and a bookstore. How could I not love that?

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my life?

And now back to the spice mines.

IMG_2383

Lay Your Hands on Me

I managed to get all the errands done yesterday, and didn’t feel exhausted until I was in the process of putting away all the groceries and things. I went to both the grocery store and Costco yesterday; I was rather impressed that I wasn’t worn out much sooner. I did get the bedding laundered as well. But I didn’t get any writing done; I am going to need to do that today.

There are a lot of things I am going to need to do today. Sigh.

I’ve been invited to contribute to an anthology; and I am not certain I have anything ready to send along. I do have this one incredibly disturbing story that I would like to make even more disturbing–that’s just how I roll–and I need to get back to work on the Scotty draft. I’d like to revise Chapter 11 a bit today, get it cleaned up more so it isn’t nearly as sloppy as it currently is, and I want to get these other two stories cleaned up as well. I need to spend some more time with “Don’t Look Down” than I have been; I need to get inside the characters more, understand who they are better, and then I think the story will wind up being a lot more strong. The same goes with the Chanse story; the story is really about his relationship with his brother and that’s not strong enough in the story as it sounds right now. That is also, I think, the problem with the Scotty book. I need to spend some time today with it as well, figuring out motivations and so forth.

Ah, being a writer. Always such a challenge.

We finished watching Collateral last night, and I was rather pleased with it; it was written by David Hare, the playwright, and you could tell it was written by someone good. Carey Mulligan was terrific, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys complex, multi-layered crime dramas. I think tonight we may watch Justice League, to just to see if it really is as terrible as everyone seemed to think; I didn’t hate either Man of Steel or Batman vs. Superman, so I am not going into it as a hater.

I’m also still reading Tinseltown, which I am greatly enjoying. I don’t know a lot about the early days of Hollywood; the early 1920’s and late 19-teens, other than what I know from reading biographies of David O. Selznick, whose father was a producer and tried to build up a studio at the same time Adolph Zukor was building Paramount, and before the big merger that created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). So all this is new information to me, and William J. Mann is a terrific historian and researcher. (I am more familiar with later periods of Hollywood, but hardly an expert.) I’ve always wanted to write about Hollywood’s past; I have an idea for a noir novel to be set in the late 1940’s, but my lack of familiarity with the nuts and bolts of Hollywood in that period makes it difficult–or rather, makes my already vast insecurity about writing about another period even stronger. Although I’ve already written one short story about that time–an ambiguous setting of the early 1950’s–I don’t know. Maybe I should try it as a short story first, see if I can get the sense of the period?

I don’t know.

I’m also saddened to say that I’ve now finished reading both of Lawrence Block’s art-inspired anthologies, In Sunlight or in Shadow and Alive in Shape and Color, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that he is putting together another, which is great. So, for today’s edition of the Short Story Project, I am sad to say this is the last story from a Block anthology: “A Woman in the Sun,” by Justin Scott, from In Sunlight or In Shadow.

Could she change his mind? Four steps to the open window, lean out and call, “Don’t.”

Or walk to the window and call, “Go ahead, do it.Good luck.”

Or stand here and do nothing.

He had left her his last cigarette. She had talked him into leaving the gun and he had kept his word. It was still on the night table, wrapped in one of her stockings. She had the time of the cigarette to make up her mind. More time, if she didn’t smoke it. Let it smoulder.

This is an interesting story; in that it leaves more questions unanswered than it actually answers. We never know the characters’ names, nor do we really know what has brough them to this point. All we do learn, as the story progresses, is that both are at the end of their ropes and done, basically; they are both ready to die. The only question is whether she will stop him or will she join him, and this rather uninvolved, distant approach makes the story even more poignant and sad; there’s a very strong sense of melancholy that runs throughout this story, and the reader soon realizes you don’t have to know the whys and hows and whats of their pasts–all you need to know and feel is their now.

Powerful.

I then started reading through Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music, and the next story up was”Me Untamed” by David Liss.

She covered the black eye with makeup, but I could still see it was there, something alien and unaccountable. Like a vandal’s scrawl across a museum painting, the dull outline of her bruise was an outrage. Carla smiled and greeted everyone good morning, defying us to say a word, to let our eyes linger too long. It was, I supposed, how she protected herself.

Jim Baron, the senior partner in the practice, met my gaze and flicked his head toward Carla as she walked past with a stack of case folders under her arm. Carla was getting ready, as we did every Tuesday and Thursday, for surgeries–no office visits on those days, just procedures. The practice felt a bit like a gastrointestinal assembly line, and sometimes I hated how we moved patients in and out, hardly taking the time to look at them, but Jim cracked the whip. It was volume, volume, volume as far as he was concerned. We were there to heal, not to socialize, and the more healing, the better.

The point of view is that of a divorced, shy, quiet Milquetoasty doctor,  who is kind of in love with Carla, or maybe he is not. She’s married to a thug of a guy, a man’s man, who works out and so forth, the kind of man a Milquetoast would hate. And he decides to do something about Carla’s abuse…decides to make himself into the kind of man he’s always wanted to be, the kind of man that he thinks Carla would like and love. This is a terrific story, with a terrific twist at the end that lifts it up even higher in terms of craft. Well done, sir!

And now, back to the spice mines.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Method of Modern Love

Saturday morning–so lovely to be the weekend! But so many errands to run today, so many chores to do, so much…it’s almost overwhelming. And yet these things need to be done, need to be handled, need to be taken care of; it still doesn’t make doing them any less horrific and horrible, or less time consuming. And really, it’s about the time consumption. There is so much I need to get done, so much I need to do, so much I need I have to get finished and out of the way…that it makes doing the errands seem even less appealing than they usually do.

Sigh.

I just need to get–and stay–motivated.

And isn’t that always the issue?

We started watching a mini-series on Netflix last night, Collateral, starring Carey Mulligan, and it’s quite interesting; every hot button topic you can think of in Britain right now: immigration, crime, drugs, the military and PTSD; it’s quite compelling, and Carey Mulligan is exceptional in it. It all begins with the murder of a pizza delivery boy, and then slowly spreads from there to an enormous conspiracy involving people trafficking and refugees. It’s quite compelling, and all  of the performances are excellent; it’s very similar to Seven Seconds in that the majority of people, no matter what their actions, are understandable through the complexity of their emotional inner lives and who they are…but the underlying villains are quite awful. We watched the first three episodes, and there’s another to watch tonight.

Out of curiosity, we also watched the season finale of The Walking Dead; we didn’t continue watching once the season returned after the winter break because we were, frankly, over it. And while the first part of the show was enormously satisfying, I also understood why there was so much bitter on-line chatter about it afterwards–and I had to agree. I was just glad I hadn’t invested any time on the second half of this season.

I also have some reading to do, and I would like to go to the gym this morning, but I don’t think that’s going to happen, due to that time thing. But perhaps–perhaps--I can get over there after my errands.

We’ll see how it goes.

Meanwhile, for the Short Story Project, I read  “Blood in the Sun” by Justin Scott, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color:

Summer, 1973

New York City

“If you can fly, then this roof is as good as any,” Clyfford Still told Jimmy Camerano.

Jimmy was sitting on the edge of the parapet with one arm hooked around a masonry gargoyle and his legs dangling ninety feet above Tenth Street.

“Zoom from New York. Alight on a calmer island. Paint pictures undisturbed.”

Still was Jimmy’s hero, a unique painter, a founder of abstract expressionism, and a recluse who likened art galleries to brothels, museums to mausoleums, and most of his fellow artists to ambitious backstabbers. Tall, white-haired, and slick in a sharkskin suit, he stood inside the parapet, leaning on his elbows, peering down dubiously at Jimmy’s landing zone.

This is a delightful tale about the world of art in New York City, and how critics apparently wield a lot of power over the work of artists; one of the characters is one of those critics from the New York Times who can either make or break an artist’s career. It’s also a tale of playing a long game for revenge, which seemed a bit much, but only afterwards, when thinking the tale over again–it was enormously satisfying to read but then when you’re finished and remembering you think, well….But the story of an artist on a ledge, ready to commit suicide because a bad review may have destroyed his career, was something a writer (another sort of artist, although I always roll my eyes at writers who call themselves artists and their work art; while i am more than willing to concede that literature is art, styling one’s self an artist always seems pretentious to me) can relate to; although I can honestly admit that while a bad review can make me angry, it never makes me either suicidal or homicidal. But this story was interesting; it held my interest and I was fascinated by the characters and the talk of art, and the twist ending was perfect.

Next up was “Night Windows” by Jonathan Santlofer, from Block’s In Sunlight or in Shadow:

There she is again, pink bra, pink slip, in one window then the next, appearing then disappearing, a picture in a zoetrope, flickering, evanescent, maddening.

Yes, that’s the word. Maddening.

Then he thinks of another: Delicious.

And another: torture.

This story was absolutely chilling, and more than a little disturbing. It’s a stalker story; a man watching a woman from his windows through hers in New York City; watching her undress and move around her apartment in various states of undress, remembering previous victims, thinking about what he’s going to do to her–and the planning stages of how he is going to insinuate himself into her life and destroy her, break her down bit by bit until he has satisfied his disgusting urges. There are surprises here, and twists that tend to catch the reader off-guard; Santlofer delightfully lulls the reader into a sense of security several times about what the story is but actually it isn’t; these twists and turns are wonderful and executed perfectly. I loved Santlofer’s story in the other Block anthology as well; I’m going to have to read more of his work.

And now, best to get those errands and things done.

30624044_10156310060538256_7117381024964967300_n

I’m on Fire

Friday, and the day and the weekend stretch out before me like an unpainted canvas; blank and full of possibilities. I have a short day at work today, and I slept relatively well last night, so am feeling fairly good this morning. My left shoulder is mysteriously sore, tbough. Not sure what that’s about, but there you have it.

We finished watching Episodes last night, and it ended perfectly; very meta, and very funny. The entire show was kind of meta, really, and I have to give Matt Leblanc credit for not only playing himself, but playing himself as a complete egotistical self-absorbed asshole actor. Not sure what we’re going to watch now that we’ve finished both The Alienist and Episodes, but I have faith in us to find something–although we haven’t had much luck lately in finding something new; although The Alienist was absolutely a lucky find.

My kitchen is a mess this morning, which indicates that I need to get this mess cleaned up, and the sooner the better. Heavy heaving sigh. But….since I don’t have to go into the office until later, perhaps I could spend this morning cleaning the kitchen so I don’t have to do it tomorrow, which makes all the sense you can imagine, you know? I generally try to do some cleaning when I get home on my early day as well, so the weekend is freer to write or edit or do whatever it is that I want to. I need to write this weekend, as I’ve not been doing as much of that lately on the weekends as I need to. I’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology this week; which means I need to either find something I already have in a draft form, or write something entirely new. I don’t know how I feel about writing something entirely new, if I am going to be completely honest. I have the book to catch up on, some other stories that need to be finished so the collection is done, once and for all–primarily work on “My Brother’s Keeper” and “Don’t Look Down”–but there are an awful lot of stories that I have in various stages. I NEED TO REVISE THAT STORY BASED ON EDITORIAL NOTES AS WELL. WHY CAN’T I EVER REMEMBER I NEED TO DO THAT?

Heavy sigh.

Okay, I read a couple more stories for the Short Story Project, and first up was “Thinkers” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color:

1970

Leo’s blood, warm against her cold hands, steamed in the frosty night air. Like hot coffee in a paper cup.

Lisa tried not to giggle, because she knew the giggle would be hysterical. She ran a hand over Leo’s face. He was leaning against the marble edge of the empty pool surrounding the Fountain of the Waters, legs splayed, head pointed toward Wade Lagoon.

Irv was just staring at him, and Helen–God knew where Helen had gotten off to, because Lisa didn’t. Her ears still rang from the explosion, which had been louder than she had expected.

This is a good story, flipping back and forth through time. In 1970, it’s about a group of student revolutionaries, planning to blow up Rodin’s “The Thinker” statue as a blow against the ruling class. The bombing goes awry and one of them is killed, and the viewpoint character, seeing death and destruction in person for this first time, starts rethinking her own radicalism and the ‘revolution.’ In the present day, the viewpoint character is a docent/intern/volunteer, working at the museum to advance herself, and she witnesses eventually a confrontation between a museum volunteer and a museum donor, and it doesn’t make any sense to her…but for the reader, they can see that’s the two women from the group in 1970, and how they, themselves, have gone from counter-culture revolutionaries to the ruling class they once despised. It’s very The Big Chill in some ways, and these theme–youthful radicalism aging into conservatism–has been explored in crime novels/films/television shows, and it’s always interesting, at least for me.

Next was “Gaslight” by Jonathan Santlofer, also from Alive in Shape and Color:

It was true, she hadn’t been feeling well, hadn’t been herself, the headaches, the nausea, the slight vertigo. But she was fine. She’d always been predisposed to colds and flu, periods of time when she didn’t feel quite right, sensitive, her mother used to say, and that was true. It was a virus, that’s all, at least she’d thought so for the first few weeks. But now, after three months, she wasn’t so sure.

“Give it time, Paula, you know how these New York colds can linger, especially in winter,” Gregory, her husband of six months, always so sweet, always trying to reassure her.

But what sort of cold lasted three months?

I loved this story; about a young, wealthy woman married to a struggling artist, who soon begins to suspect her husband might have married her for her money and might just be poisoning her…and what is she going to do about it? This is a classic romantic suspense trope, from the title being borrowed from the film that won Ingrid Bergman an Oscar to the trope which was the plot of almost every Victora Holt novel and was also used by any number of romantic suspense writers back in the day–but Santlofer turns it on its head, and shows how the line between romantic suspense and noir is actually rather blurry. The twists in the story are fantastic and earned, and the way Santlofer builds the suspense is magnificently done. Bravo, sir!

And now, back to the spice mines.

30728171_10155109528711486_2604031885516472320_n

Valotte

Tuesday!

It’s supposed to get up to a high of eighty-one degrees today, which would be lovely, considering how cold it was when I woke this morning. Shiver.  Of course, it didn’t snow here and all things considered, I should be grateful that I live somewhere that snow is an anomaly rather than the norm.

We’re still enjoying The Alienist, and I am now rather curious about the book. I’m not going to have time to read it anytime soon, of course, and it’s not like my TBR pile isn’t higher than Mount Everest, but I am curious about it. I know it was extremely popular, and as I said, we are greatly enjoying the show.

I also watched Southern Charm New Orleans last night. I watch reality television; always have, beginning with The Real World back in the early 1990’s. It was…interesting. I will say this; New Orleans looked absolutely beautiful on the show, but…I will probably continue to watch; and I will say this for it: it’s not as bad as the execrable show The Big Easy was. If you have Amazon Prime and want to watch a truly awful show about New Orleans, The Big Easy is just sitting there, free, on Prime.

Yesterday I managed to work on both “Burning Crosses” and “My Brother’s Keeper”; the latter is getting very close to being finished. I also worked a little bit on “Don’t Look Down,” but I think I am going to focus on working on Chapter Eleven of the Scotty next. I am terribly unhappy with it, and while there’s a big part of me urging me to keep moving forward on the book, I am so eminently dissatisfied with this chapter that I don’t know that I’ll be able to. So, I may just give it a light going over before moving on to Chapter Twelve. Plus, the light going over might help me with Chapter Twelve.

Ah, rationalization.

First up today in the Short Story Project is “The Great Wave” by S. J. Rozan, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color:

The water’s cool silk slipped past her shoulders, her breasts, her hips. Terence permitted her to swim whenever and for however long she wanted, in the tiled pool in the basement just outside her suite. He required her to swim nude, as she had done at the beginning, when she was here by choice and the smooth sluicing delight of her swims always brought her out joyful, aroused, and aching for him. Arousal, ache, certainly joy, were no more, but she was she grateful for the sensation, however temporary, of fluid, enveloping protection.

She drew breath and dove. Powerful kicks and strong strokes propelled her through this underground underwater world, and though she still, always, felt a stab of despair when her fingers found the slick hard wall where the water ended, once she kicked off and turned she was again alone and almost free. Terence couldn’t swim. Her life, her body, the place she now lived, he had and would continue to invade; but in the water she could be without him. She knew he was sitting forward in his rattan chair, watching her, and so when she resurfaced to swim laps she alternated the side of her breathing as she changed direction. The whole time she was in the pool she never saw him.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: S. J. Rozan is one of my favorite crime writers–writers in general, really. This is a terrific story; like the Oates from yesterday, it’s about a woman who is being held prisoner by a man, but while it explores the same themes as the Oates story from yesterday, it tackles them in a completely different way, and the story ends perfectly. Two definite thumbs up here, but I have to say I am getting a little weary of “women being held captive” stories–nothing to do with this story, it just seems like I’ve read a lot of them lately. Or perhaps because the Oates and Rozan stories resonated so strongly, I don’t see how another writer could possibly do a better job? The bar definitely has been set pretty high for this theme.

And then there’s “Like Mother Used to Make” by Shirley Jackson, from The Lottery and Other Stories:

David Turner, who did everything in small quick movements, hurried from the bus stop down the avenue to his street. He reached the grocery on the corner and hesitated; there had been something. Butter, he remembered with relief; this morning, all the way up the avenue to his bus stop, he had been telling himself butter, don’t forget butter coming home tonight, when you pass the grocery remember butter. He went into the grocery and waited his turn, examining the cans on the shelves. Canned pork sausage was back, and corned-beef hash. A tray full of rolls caught his eye, and then the woman ahead of him went out ans the clerk turned to him.

“How much is butter?” David asked cautiously.

No one mastered the small short story quite like Shirley Jackson; and what I mean by small is the poignant sadness of a quiet life. David Turner is one of those Milquetoast-y people, but at the same time he is incredibly happy with the quiet, peaceful little life he has made for himself. He is overly fond of a female neighbor, thinks there’s more to the relationship than there really is–and as it turns out, she is actually quite awful–but David is one of those people whose interaction with other people is so limited, so timid, so shy, that he doesn’t even recognize how horrible she really is; and maybe the fact that she treats him so contemptuously when we are seeing everything from his point of view makes her seem much more monstrous. It’s a sad, melancholy little tale, and I couldn’t stop thinking about for quite a while after I finished reading it; wondering about David and where this was going to go from here. Jackson was such a genius.

And now, back to the spice mines.

26904063_2066803340016325_8735152679423967153_n

Solid

It still feels chilly this morning, after a weekend of lowered temperatures. But the sun is shining, and all feels well with the world. I wrote yesterday; a lot, in fact, well over three thousand words; which is a lot for me to do on a weekend day. I even did it all by two pm, so I had the rest of the day to putz around. I finished a very weak first draft of “Burning Crosses,” worked on “Don’t Look Down” some more, and finished a very weak Scotty Chapter 11. But i know how to fix “Burning Crosses,” so that’s not a problem, and I know what I need to do with “Don’t Look Down,” which I just can’t seem to focus on. I also recognize that my feelings about the Scotty manuscript are the usual loss of faith I always have somewhere mid-manuscript; and I just need to ignore it and soldier on, with the mantra I can always fix this later! I can always fix this later!

Which I seem to be using a lot lately. I’m not quite sure what that says about the quality of what I’ve been writing.

I’m in this weird place right now with my writing; trying to feel more confident in it and my ability, while at the same time my insecurity is undermining me while I am actually writing. I need to ignore the things that pop up in my head as I work on the Scotty book, the slings and arrows hurled at me over the years that I can’t seem to get out of my mind and try to remember all the positive things that have been said about me and my work; which I don’t tend to take as seriously as the negative.

Honestly.

We started watching Lost in Space and Troy: The Fall of a City; we stopped because Paul didn’t like them–I was, so it gives me something to watch when I’m on the treadmill at the gym. We also gave Siren on Freeform a try; neither one of us was terribly sold on it, although I’d be willing to give it another episode or two before giving up on it entirely. Then we moved on to The Alienist, and yes, we are both committed to it. I never read the novel when it came out, but I do remember it made quite a stir when it did, and that the queer publishing community stood up and took note of it as well. I never could grasp why, but now that I am watching the show, I see why; there is a serial killer praying on boy prostitutes in 1890’s New York, and the ‘alienist’, Dr. Kreuzler, is rare in that time that he doesn’t see homosexuality or trans issues as either sinful or mental illness; it’s very queer positive, if you can get past the slaughter of the boy-prostitutes, which are particularly gruesome. But it’s very well done and interesting; we’ll keep going.

I also read some short stories. First up is  “Les Beaux Jours” by Joyce Carol Oates, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color:

Daddy please come bring me home. Daddy I am so sorry.

Daddy it is your fault. Daddy I hate you.

Daddy, no! I love you Daddy whatever you have done.

Daddy I am under a spell here. I am not myself  here.

The place in which I am a captive–it is in the Alps, I think. It is a great, old house like a castle made of ancient rock. Through high windows you can see moors stretching to the mountainous horizon. All is scrubby gray-green as if undersea. The light is perpetual twilight.

Dusk is when the Master comes. I am in love with the Master.

Daddy no! I do not love the Master at all, I am terrified of the Master.

I’d not read Joyce Carol Oates before a few years ago; I read her short story that was a Macavity finalist the same year I was, and was blown away by it. I always thought Oates was more of a literary writer, but she writes crime and horror and dark stories, and she does it incredibly well. This story is Oates at her best; disturbing and creepy and horrifying. She manages to get the voice of the trapped girl perfectly; that strange mix of Stockholm syndrome and desperation to get away; the fear that she might die there. Very disturbing.

“Truth Comes out of Her Well to Shame Mankind,” by Thomas Pluck,  also from Alive in Shape and Color:

The cracking of the skulls was performed by a practiced hand. The bowl separated from the eye sockets and teeth. These were no virgin cannibals like the lost colonists of Roanoke, with their hesitation marks. Whatever people had done this had been done before, and had perhaps been doing it for a very long time.

Devin cupped the skull in his palm, reminded of how Danes toasted before a drink.

Thomas Pluck is one of the better writers we have in the crime fiction world right now, and I hope this appearance in the Block anthology is a sign that he’s beginning to get his due. He wrote a story for Blood on the Bayou that was superb; I have his novel Bad Boy Boogie, in my TBR pile. This story, about an arrogant ass of a man who visits an archaeological site, being led by a woman he didn’t get along with in college, is not only chilling but timely; men all so frequently are unaware of the damage they leave in their wake, aren’t they, and this story is about that very thing; carelessness, just as The Great Gatsby was about the carelessness of the Buchanans. Very well done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

30595147_10156310071713256_742405299911118398_n

Too Late for Goodbyes

Well, we made it to Friday, didn’t we? I do feel sometimes as though wishing for the weekend, or counting the days until payday, is kind of wishing my life away. (My mother used to tell me that when I was younger, and it’s one of those things I’ve never forgotten. Whether or not that’s a good thing, I’m not sure. Most of my mother’s sayings are like that; my favorite being always expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed. I’m never sure if that means lower your expectations to avoid disappointment, or if it means the opposite–if you always think the worst is going to happen you’ll make it happen? So confusing. But most of these came from her incredibly pragmatic mother, so I tend to think the former rather than the latter in this case.)

I wrote close to three thousand words yesterday; and yet felt disappointed with my output. Two thirds of them were my short story “Burning Crosses,” which I am enjoying but again am struggling to write and the rest were on the next chapter of the Scotty book, which I actually enjoyed writing. I am hoping to get both this story and maybe two chapters of the Scotty finished this weekend; I want to do some cleaning as well (quelle surprise) and I want to finish reading my Bryan Camp novel so I can blog about it before the release next week. It’s really good, and you NEED to preorder it. Seriously.

I’ve gone back to streaming The Shannara Chronicles, and have seriously gotten sucked into the show. I’ve now watched the first episode of Season Two, and am liking the direction it’s taking. I don’t remember the books; I only read the first two–The Sword of Shannara and The Elfstones of Shannara–and I think the show was culled from the second book on. Paul’s back home now, so it’s going to be tricky watching shows he’s not watching; the Festivals are over and he won’t be home late anymore or working on the weekends.

For the Short Story Project, I offer the following two stories:

First up is “Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity” by David Morrell,  from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color.

Van Dorn’s work was controversial, of course. The scandal his paintings caused among Parisian artists in the late 1800s provided the stuff of legend. Disdaining conventions, thrusting beyond accepted theories, Van Dorn seized upon the essentials of his craft to which he’d devoted his soul. Color, design, and texture. With those principles in mind, he created portraits and landscapes so different, so innovative, that their subjects seemed merely an excuse for Van Dorn to put paint upon canvas. His brilliant colors, applied in passionate splotches and swirls, often so thick that they projected an eighth of an inch from the canvas in the manner of a bas-relief, so dominated the viewer’s perception that the person or scene depicted seemed secondary to technique.

Impressionism, the prevailing avant-garde theory of the late 1800s, imitated the eye’s tendency to perceive the edges of peripheral objects as blurs. Van Dorn went one step further and so emphasized the lack of distinction among objects that they seemed to melt together, to merge into an interconnected, pantheistic universe of color. The branches of a Van Dorn tree became ectoplasmic tentacles, thrusting toward the sky and the grass, just as tentacles from the sky and the grass thrust toward the tree, all melding together in a radiant swirl. He seemed to address himself not to the illusions of light but to  reality itself, or at least his theory of it. The tree is the sky, his technique asserted. The grass is the tree, and the sky is grass. All is one.

David Morrell is a long time best selling author, and I’ve met him several times; he’s an incredibly nice man. He’ll always be known as the author of First Blood–he calls himself “Rambo’s Father,” but he’s enjoyed a lot of success throughout his career. This story is one of my favorites from this collection, and perhaps one of the top five new stories I’ve read for the Short Story Project. It’s fan-fucking-tastic; a story about art and obsession and madness and genius; I could devote an entire entry to simply unpacking and deconstructing the themes and symbols and metaphors in this fucking brilliant story. Alive in Shape and Color is a fantastic collection, frankly, that if you like short stories you should definitely read; but this story is so good I would tell you this book is worth the cover price in order to read this story alone. I fricking loved it. LOVED it.

Next up was “The Preacher Collects,” By Gail Levin, from Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight and In Shadow:

They call me “Reverend Sanborn.” I was born Arthayet R. Sanborn, Jr., in Manchester, New Hampshire, sone of Arthayer and Annie Quimby Sanborn. I graduated from Gordon College, a good Christian school in Wenham, Massachusetts, and in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, before I went to Nyack, New York, where I led the First Baptist Church, located on North Broadway. My job came with the security of a home, just next to the church, where I lived with my wife, Ruth, and our four children.

Before long I met at church our neighbor and long-time parishioner, Marion Louise Hopper. An aging spinster, she lived alone in her family’s old house next door to the church. She liked to boast that her younger brother, and only sibling, was a famous artist, named Edward. Edward Hopper, however, appeared to want as little as possible to do with Nyack and his sister.

I didn’t care for this story as much as some others, but it’s well written. It’s about a minister who basically robs Edward Hopper’s work from his sister, who still lives in the family home, but we never really get a sense of why he does this, his justifications for it, and it just moves from this to that to there to this to that to there; it was kind of emotionally flat for me. Of course, I also read this right after the Morrell story in the other collection, and it may very well be that affected my perception of this story. I’ll give it another go at some point, which would be only fair.

And now, back to the spice mines.

1e3769b75af0e60ee6016d9974644998

Walking on Sunshine

Wednesday. I found my missing copy of The City of Lost Fortunes, which ironically was in my backpack the entire time in a pocket I didn’t check because I wouldn’t have put it in there. Yes, sometimes I wonder about what’s left of my sanity.

Paul returns sometime today; he never tells me his itinerary when he travels, so unless I absolutely pin him down and make him tell me, or forward the itinerary to me, I have no clue when he gets home. It’s usually late in the evening–he is one of those who, no matter how many times I tell him to never do this–always takes the last flight of the day. Rule Number One of traveling is never to take the last flight of the day because disruptions in service can trap you overnight somewhere. And since visiting his family always requires a connection somewhere, it happens almost every single time.

I also finished reading The City of Falling Angels last night; John Berendt’s tome about Venice, and enjoyed it very thoroughly. I have some thoughts about the book, and Venice in general, but I am going to let them percolate for a day or so before talking about them on here.

Yesterday I worked some more on “Don’t Look Down”–again, it is like pulling teeth–and started another short story. I shouldn’t have started writing another story, in all honesty, but “Burning Crosses” has been a story I’ve wanted to write for a really long time, and it starting taking form in my head yesterday so I just kind of dove in headfirst. I also started “Feast of the Redeemer,” my Venice story, which I blame entirely on John Berendt. Today I don’t know what I’m going to write, but I think I am going to start trying to outline the rest of the Scotty book. It may not actually be actual writing,  but it counts as work.

I read two more short stories. First up: “The Daemon Lover” by Shirley Jackson, from The Lottery and Other Stories:

She had not slept well; from one-thirty, when Jamie left and she went lingeringly to bed, until seven, when she at last allowed herself to get up and make coffee, she had slept fitfully, stirring awake to open her eyes and look into the half-darkness, remembering over and over, slipping again into a feverish dream. She spent almost an hour over her coffee–they were to have a real breakfast on the way–and then, unless she wanted to dress early, had nothing to do. She washed her coffee cup and made the bed, looking carefully over the clothes she planned to wear, worried unnecessarily, at the window, over whether it would be a fine day. She sat down to read, thought she might write a letter to her sister instead, and began, in her finest handwriting, “Dearest Anne, by the time you get this I will be married. Doesn’t it sound funny? I can hardly believe it myself, but when I tell you how it happened, you’ll see it’s even stranger than that…”

Sitting, pen in hand, she hesitated over what to say next, read the lines already written, and tore up the letter. She went to the window and saw that it was undeniably a fine day. It occurred to her that perhaps she ought not to wear the blue silk dress; it was too plain, almost severe, and she wanted to be soft, feminine. Anxiously she pulled through the dresses in the closet, and hesitated over a print she had worn the summer before; it was too young for her, and it had a ruffled neck, and it was very early in the year for a print dress, but still…

This story, which is sad and tragic and, like so many Shirley Jackson stories, a real mystery where it’s left up to the reader to interpret what is really is about, is terrific. It resonated with me because I am one of those people who is too excited and restless to sleep the night before something I am looking forward to; and I can never wait until it’s time on that day, having to make myself busy doing things and keeping myself occupied and then, when the appointed time arrives…yeah. One of my neuroses is being stood up; having someone make a date with me for anything, something I am excited about doing, and then never hearing from the person. With this story, we are never entirely sure if this is something she imagined or it was only in her head or if it was real, and this makes it all the more poignant and sad and heartbreaking. There was something of Raymond Carver in this story; in its ordinariness and sadness and poignancy; but Jackson was far superior to Carver–although this story made me want to read something of his again.

Next was “Ampurdan” by Warren Moore, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color.

Alan Bowling was walking again. The golden light of the Colorado autumn played across the rusts and browns of the ground beneath him. Behind him, the city. The air was cool here, away from the shops, the school, the fringes of the city of Ampurdan.

Alan didn’t know why the city–pfft, city. Don’t put on airs; at most, a town, really–was named Ampurdan. He had read that the word was an old name for a place in Spain now called Emporda. He himself privately called it “Ampersand,” a place between two other places, connecting them by force of…by force of what? How did an ampersand connect things, other than by force of will and in the mind of the person connecting them? The and of the ampersand the conjunction, was between whatever two things the speaker, the thinker, chose to conjoin. And since in Alan’s life, the only conjunctions he saw were the compounding of day upin day, there seemed to be little sense of a period to this place, to this life. Merely a string of days becoming ellipsis, until one day each inhabitant reached an end of words.

“Ampurdan” is a perfectly fine story, and similar to the Jackson in its depiction of sadness, loneliness, and poignant in telling the story of lonely Alan Bowling, who goes through his life missing opportunities to be happy through no fault of his own. He knew love once and it wasn’t returned; he was also the kind of person who only loves once. There’s also a bitter horror at the center of the story, but rather than being horrified by what Bowling did, we are sympathetic and understanding because Moore does such an amazing job of painting the picture of who Alan is, what drives him, that aching sadness and loneliness at the core of his being. This isn’t one of my favorite stories in this collection, but it’s certainly a strong story, and an indication of how terrific the entire collection is, honestly.

And now, back to the spice mines with me,

milo ventigmilglio

No More Lonely Nights

Paul returns tomorrow night, so I will return to my usual status as second best to Scooter. I have to say I’ve enjoyed his neediness more than usual this past week, as he cuddles with me in the bed and sleeps in my lap while I read or watch television.

I didn’t get nearly as much done this weekend as I had hoped or wanted to; I did reread the first ten chapters of the Scotty book and got some edits on it done–it does need a lot more work to be smooth–and I am trying to figure out how much I want to have happen here in the second half of the book. I may end up writing it a lot longer than it needs to be–surgically removing the bits that aren’t necessary afterwards. I worked some more on “Don’t Look Down,” which took up the majority of my writing time this weekend, and remained just as difficult and painful to write as I remembered it being. It’s going to be a long story–I am not worried about its length, as it is going into my short story collection rather than being sent out into the open market (gay main character, after all, makes it basically un-publishable).

I also started writing out ideas for three more stories: “Burning Crosses,” “Feast of the Redeemer”, and “Cross Roads.” Not sure if anything will come out of any of them, but there they are.

Today I need to get some things done that are due, and then I can focus on getting back to work on the other writing.

I am drawing to the end of The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt, and really enjoying it; in fact, I am enjoying it more than I enjoyed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, to be honest. Venice is ultimately more interesting than Savannah, sorry; at least to me. (Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to visit Savannah–but if I had to choose between the two Venice would always win.)

I also read a shit ton of short stories this weekend, and sadly, finished reading both Lawrence Block’s wonderful anthologies, In Sunlight and In Shadow and Alive in Shape and Color. I do hope he’s doing another one this year, because they are quite marvelous.

So, for today’s edition of The Short Story Project, I do have a story up from In Sunlight or In Shadow, Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Projectionist”:

There’s some that think I got it easy on the job, but they don’t know there’s more to it than plugging in the projector. You got to be there at the right time to change reels, and you got to have it set so it’s seamless, so none of the movie gets stuttered, you know. You don’t do that right, well, you can cause a reel to flap and there goes the movie right at the good part, or it can get hung up and the bulb will burn it. Then everyone down there starts yelling. and that’s not good for business, and it’s not good for you, the boss hears about it, and with the racket they make when the picture flubs, he hears all right.

I ain’t had that kind of thing happen to me much, two or three times on the flapping, once I got a burn on a film, but it was messed up when we got it. Was packed in wrong and got a twist in it I couldn’t see when I pulled it out. That wasn’t my fault. Even the boss could see that.

Still, you got to watch it.

This is a marvelous story, about a mentally challenged young man who grew up in an incredibly abusive household and never graduated from high school. He’s gotten a job, through a mentor, as the projectionist at a local movie theater. The job makes him incredibly happy, and the voice! Lansdale has nailed the character’s voice so poignantly and beautifully, you can’t help but care about him and his undoubtedly doomed relationship with the beautiful usherette. The conflict in the story comes when two hoods attempt to shake down the theater owner for protection money, and how the staff, how our main character, tries to deal with that situation. A truly great story. Lansdale is a terrific writer, just terrific, and this short story, as well as the one in Alive in Shape and Color, are both so strong that I really want to start tracking down all of his short stories. A quick Google search shows that there are, in fact, quite a few. How lovely!

And then, I turned to “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, from The Lottery and Other Stories.

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post-office and the bank, around ten o’clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they burst into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix–the villagers pronounced this name “Dellacroy”–eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys, and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers and sisters.

“The Lottery” is probably one of the most famous–if not the most famous. American short story of the twentieth century. It was, in fact, quite a shock when I realized, paging through my copy of The Lottery and Other Stories, that I had in fact actually never read the most famous short story written by one of my favorite writers; we did the play in Acting class when I was in high school, and I have seen the short film based on it. But I had never actually read the story itself. I don’t have to get into what the story is about–who doesn’t know what the story is about–but wow, what an exceptional piece of writing. Jackson, as always, just writes about something terrible in a matter-of-fact, nondescript way, like what she is writing about is nothing extraordinary; these lotteries have always happened and will always happen and she’s just recording one of them. I would be willing to go so far as to say (and bear in mind I am not an expert) that this story firmly established New England as the best setting for horror in this country; Jackson’s influence from this story is clearly evident in everything of Stephen King’s,  some of Peter Straub’s work, and most definitely in Thomas Tryon’s. Even knowing what the story was about didn’t lessen it’s chill, and that has everything to do with the authorial voice, and how powerful it is.

Whew.

And now, on to the spice mines.

IMG_1182

Raspberry Beret

I am afraid that the last two short stories I am writing, “Once a Tiger” and “Don’t Look Down,” have stalled for the moment. “Once a Tiger” I just need to step away from for a moment; I am definitely having some issues with that story, and it’s just getting harder. I did start it over yesterday, and do think the changes I made to the beginning make the story stronger, but…yeah, not really sure how to not only end it, but how to get it there. So, I am going to let it sit for a while before getting back to it.

Likewise, “Don’t Look Down”, previously known as the Italy story, isn’t so much that I don’t know how to end it; I do. I really need to go back to the beginning of it and start it over; I didn’t know the ending when I started writing and now that I actually do, I need to go back to the start and weave that story into it. But I opened the file yesterday, looked at it for a hot minute, and then went, not feeling this right now, and closed it again. So, rather than writing anything new, I decided to start editing and rewriting other stories. I also did something that a friend of mine does; I read them out loud to make sure the sentences spoke properly. I do not do that nearly enough, and I found a lot of mistakes in the wording, and I also found a lot of mistakes in the stories that needed correcting. One still needs some more work, but the others are close to being ready for submission. Whether there’s an audience for them or not remains to be seen…because, you see, two of the stories have gay characters.

One of the major problems one faces as a gay author is how limiting writing about gay characters, plots, and themes can be. Yes, we need to tell our stories, but when they are short stories–there’s not really a market for them anywhere. And when you send them to mainstream markets…you’re never sure if they are simply going to be rejected because, you know, gay characters, or if the rejection is because the story’s just not up to snuff. I fucking hate that. Part of the bipolarity of being a gay writer is just that; is my work not good, or is it the gay thing?

But as I was editing the stories and reading them out loud last night, I actually started thinking, you know, you’re actually pretty good at this writing thing. Last year was kind of a bad year for me; it started off with my confidence in my abilities as a writer being shaken to their very core–and let’s be honest, that confidence level has never been particularly high. My parents raised me to always be humble, to never accept compliments without being self-deprecating, to never talk about being good at anything: “if you are, let other people point this out.” As such, the promotional part of being a writer, of having a writing career, has always been difficult for me. Teaching classes about writing has always made me feel like an impostor, always waiting for someone in the back of the room to stand up and scream fraud!

But part of the goals for this year are to stop doubting myself, to stop doubting my abilities, and to believe in myself more. I always tell other writers that rejections don’t necessarily mean you suck, all it means is for whatever reason your work wasn’t right for that editor–as a former editor and an anthologist, I am very well aware that can mean any number of different things, none of which are you suck.

I don’t know why, but reading those stories out loud did something for me, made me recognize that I can, in fact, do this.

And I think the smart thing to do from now on is read my work out loud while editing it.

Thank you, Laura Lippman, for that brilliant advice.

As for the Short Story Project, first up today is  “After Georgia O’Keeffe’s Flower,” by Gail Levin, from Alive in Shape and Color,   Lawrence Block’s anthology I am absolutely loving.

I am so excited that Georgia O’Keeffe has finally agreed to meet with me! Getting her to come around wasn’t easy. At first she wouldn’t even reply to my letters. I kept at it. You know, persisted. Finally I reached her secretary on the phone. When I did get word from O’Keeffe, she complained there had been too many interviewers over the years. When I asked, she admitted that most of them were male journalists.

This story kind of threw me for a loop; it’s really not a crime story at all. It’s about a young feminist art historian meeting one of her idols, and finding that the idol isn’t what she imagined her to be. It’s a poignant story, and one I can certainly relate to: is there anything worse than meeting someone whose work you adore and then discovering that person is nothing like you imagined? That somehow disappoints you, and then you can never enjoy or view their work in the same way again? A really good, thought-provoking story.

Next up is “The Day After Victory,” by Brendan DuBois, from Manhattan Mayhem, edited by Mary Higgins Clark.

It was seven a.m. in Times Square, New York, on Wednesday, August 15, when Leon Foss slowly maneuvered the trash cart–with its huge wheels and two brooms–along the sidewalk near the intersection of Seventh Avenue and West Forty-sixth Street, shaking his head at the sheer amount of trash that was facing him, and the other street sweepers from the Department of Sanitation. He had on the usual “white angel” uniform of white slacks, jacket, and cap–which was stiff and felt new–and never had he seen so much trash. It was almost up to his knees.

Brendan DuBois is one of our genre’s top short-story writers, and his novels are pretty damned good as well. This story, set the day after V-J Day in 1945, is incredibly clever. DuBois gets the period right; I actually felt like I was there on the street with his protagonist that day, and the character is so beautifully drawn that everything he does makes complete and utter sense. He tackles something that I’ve not seen much in WW2 fiction, frankly; how were people who got out of serving viewed? Great, great story; and I would love to see it paired with Joe R. Lansdale’s “Charlie the Barber,” which I talked about earlier this week.

And now, back to the spice mines.

IMG_1092