Together We’re Better

Yesterday actually turned out to be quite lovely.

I was a little bleary when I got up yesterday morning (my Fitbit advises me I only slept deeply for 3 hours, 48 minutes; the rest was “light sleep” and I woke up three times), but for whatever reason, I decided to start getting to work on things. I started answering emails (I am very careful with email. I refuse to let it control my life, which it easily can; so I answer emails over the weekends and in the mornings, save my responses as drafts, and send them all after lunch. I do not send emails after five pm CST; I do not read them, either. Email at one point took over my life, which made getting anything done impossible and raised my stress levels to unbelievable heights. I realized anyone who absolutely, positively needs to reach me has my cell phone number…and if I don’t trust you with my cell phone number…you don’t really need an answer right away. And guess what? The world didn’t end, I didn’t miss out on anything, and nothing became harder) while reading coverage of the LSU debacle from Saturday night (one thing I did mean to mention and didn’t yesterday; I try not to be overly critical of college athletes because they are basically kids. It’s easy to forget that when you’re watching on television, but when you see them on the sidelines with their helmets off, or while walking down Victory Hill to the stadium in their suits and ties…you see a bunch of teenagers and young men in their early twenties. They are kids—and those baby faces on those big muscular bodies is a very strange juxtaposition sometimes). I decided on the way home from Baton Rouge that while I do, indeed, love football, I really shouldn’t give up my weekends to it all fall. Now that LSU is definitely out of the running for anything, I’ll probably not watch as much football as I would if they were still in contention for anything. I’ll still watch LSU, and occasionally I may spend an afternoon watching a big game—the SEC title game, the play-offs—I am not going to spend every Saturday pretty much glued to the television all day, flipping between games all day. And I also rarely enjoy watching the Saints—I love them, they’re my guys, my team, my heart—but their games are so damned stressful it’s hard to enjoy them, and when the games is over I am always, win or lose, emotionally and physically and mentally exhausted. So, I decided it made more sense to get things done, check in on the score periodically, and not sweat it too much. (Good thing. Like LSU, the Saints led the entire game, folded like a newspaper in the fourth quarter and wound up losing.) I made groceries, filled the car’s gas tank, and before going, I started weeding shit out of my iCloud and saving it all to my back-up hard drive.  I wound up freeing up over four hundred and seven gigabytes in my flash storage, and suddenly my computer was running very quickly again.

And yes, it’s my fault.* I have a gazillion pictures files, going back to digital camera days. I used to back up my hard drive and my flash drives regularly to the cloud—and those folders are enormous. I don’t probably need all of it—I was weeding through bits here and there as I moved the files over to the back-up hard drive (eventually planning on copying them up to Dropbox), and started finding all kinds of interesting things. Story fragments I’d forgotten, book ideas and anthology ideas and essays I’d started; some of these things are in very rough, first draft form—and got left behind as my addled, AHDH-like brain moved on to the next thirty or forty ideas for all of the above. I also was kind of amused to see how I often I plagiarize myself; I had a completely different idea for the book I wanted to call A Streetcar Named Murder fifteen years ago—which I can still use at some point, just have to come up with a new title. I’d forgotten that all the way through the process Need was called A Vampire’s Heart; my editor suggested changing it after I turned the book it. It was a wise choice; my title was very romance sounding and Need was hardly that. It was also interesting seeing, over the years, how many different ideas I’ve had for a gay noir set in the world of ballet (damn you, Megan Abbott!). I discovered that Murder in the Garden District actually began as Murder on the Avenue (a title I can repurpose for an idea I had last week); I found the original files for Hollywood South Hustle, the Scotty book that turned into a Chanse MacLeod, Murder in the Rue Ursulines; I found the files for the Colin book that tells us what he was doing and where he was between Mardi Gras Mambo and Vieux Carré Voodoo; I found the original Paige novel I started writing in 2004, in which an Ann Coulter-like pundit from New Orleans is murdered; I found the first three chapters of the Scotty Katrina book, Hurricane Party High,  in which they don’t evacuate during a fictional hurricane, and the chapters where I rewrote it, had the, evacuate to Frank’s sister’s in rural Alabama (and we meet Frank’s nephew Taylor for the first time—and I also remembered that they belonged to some weird kind of religious cult and that Taylor was going to come to New Orleans in the future to visit during their version of rumspringa, but eventually abandoned the idea completely and never did a Scotty/Katrina book; was reminded that Dark Tide began as Mermaid Inn; that I wrote the first chapter of Timothy during the summer of 2003; and if I even tried to list all the iterations that wound up being #shedeservedit, we would be here all day (Sins of Omission, I think, was my favorite earlier title; again, a completely different book with some slight similarities…I may have to take a longer look at some of those iterations because being reminded of them all, I also remembered that I really liked all the versions).

I also found many, many nonfiction pieces I’ve written over the years—many of which I’d long since forgotten about—so maybe that essay collection won’t take quite as long to pull together as I had originally thought. Huzzah!

And I also discovered something else that I knew but had slipped out of my consciousness: that Bury Me in Shadows was called, for the first and second drafts, Bury Me in Satin—which gives off an entirely different vibe, doesn’t it? I wrote a very early version of it as a short story while in college, called it “Ruins,” but never wrote a second draft because I knew it wasn’t a short story; it needed to be a book, and one day I would write it. I was never completely comfortable with the story, to be honest; I wasn’t sure how I could write a modern novel built around a Civil War legend in rural Alabama. I absolutely didn’t want to write a fucking Lost Cause narrative—which is what this easily could have become, and people might come to it thinking it is, and are going to be very angry when they find out it is not that—but I really wasn’t sure how to tell the story…and in my mind, I thought of it as Ruins—which I freely admit is not a great title, and has been over-used.

As luck would have it, I was watching some awards show—I can’t begin to try to remember what year—and one of the nominated groups performed. I’d never heard of The Band Perry before; and the song they performed, “If I Die Young,” absolutely blew me away. (I just remembered, I kind of used the title as guidance when writing Need—always trying to remember he became undead very young) The first two lines of the chorus are this:

If I die young,

Bury me in satin

And I thought to myself, Bury Me in Satin is a perfect title for the Civil War ghost story! Melancholy and sort of romantic; I’ve always thought of hauntings as more about loss than being terrifying (you do not have to go full out jump scare, use gore or blood or violence to scare the reader, and if you doubt me, read Barbara Michaels’ Ammie Come Home), which is why I’ve always loved the Barbara Michaels novels that were ghost stories. That was the feeling I wanted to convey, that sad creepiness, and longing—I wanted a Gothic feel to the book, and I felt that line captured what I wanted perfectly. But as I wrote it, it didn’t quite feel as right as it did in that moment (I still love the song—and the video is interesting and kind of Gothic, doing a Tennyson Lady of Shalott thing), and then one day it hit me: changed ‘satin’ to ‘shadows’, and there’s your perfect title.

And so it was.

Oh dear, look at the time. Till tomorrow, Constant Reader! I am off to the spice mines! Have a lovely Monday!

*I will add the caveat to this that anything stored in the Cloud should not affect the flash storage in the actual computer and its operating system, and yes, I am prepared and more than willing to die on that hill.

Dress

And it’s Thanksgiving, and a holiday! Huzzah for holidays! Thanksgiving isn’t really one of my favorites (other than the obligatory four day weekend that results; I wonder who had the brilliant idea to have the holiday fall on a Thursday instead of Friday in the first place? Give that person a Nobel Prize, please, even if it’s posthumous), but I’m really not much of a holiday person now, nor have I ever really been.

For me, it was always about time off–from school, from work, from responsibility–and now as an adult? I just appreciate paid time off from work, which is always welcomed.

I actually slept late this morning, too–almost all the way to nine thirty, without waking up once and looking at the clock and thinking oh go back to sleep for a bit. This is, obviously, unusual; I must have needed the rest, frankly, so I am not going to question it at all. I am taking the day off from everything guilt-free–it’s a goddamned holiday, so my guilt can just fuck right off–and in a moment, once this is finished, I am going to take my cappuccino into the living room and embrace The Hot Rock and some short stories.

I am making a turkey breast roast (that sounds just wrong) in the slow cooker today in a nod to the holiday–it’s a very simple recipe and then when it’s done I shred the meat with a fork, so it’s really pulled turkey–and yes, I make boxed stuffing because a) it’s perfectly edible and fine and b) if you use chicken broth instead of water, it’s even better. Plus, it’s easy. And the older I get, the more I embrace easy. (I still, however, will make a cheesecake from scratch because it’s so much better.)

I try not to engage much on Twitter–tempting as it may be, the amount of trolls there is truly amazing, and I certainly don’t have the time to bother with keyboard warrior trash– but at the same time, Twitter can be highly entertaining. (My standard rule of thumb for engagement is this: if I start writing an angry and/or snarky response to something someone has tweeted, I either report the original or block the person. It’s enormously cathartic.) I remember being riveted last Christmas, for example, by the massive meltdown of RWA (hard to believe we haven’t reached the one year anniversary of that, isn’t it?).

One of the most enjoyable things I’ve watched/read/scrolled through was the conservative reaction, led by Grifter Supreme Candace Owens, to Harry Styles appearing on the cover of Vogue in a dress. Harry, obviously, doesn’t have a fuck to give about pearl-clutching trash like Owens and her audience; it’s actually lovely to see such a handsome young man with a big career secure enough in his own masculinity to don a dress on a major fashion magazine cover–and it’s also historic, as he is the first male to ever grace a Vogue cover (something Owens herself will never do, but the thirst for it is fucking real). As RuPaul has famously said, “we’re all born naked and everything else is drag.” Fashion and styles change all the time–and it really wasn’t all that long ago that men wore make-up, wigs, heels, and tights. So, apparently, Owens doesn’t believe the Founding Fathers were masculine enough for her?

Anyway, it was thoroughly enjoyable watching her get dragged for the filth she is on Twitter. Like so many on the right (and let’s be honest–there are some on the left as well) she’s in it for the grift; being the go-to female black voice for the right is apparently lucrative enough for her–married to a white male whose own “masculinity”, as defined by the right, is questionable–to continue being a sideshow barker trying to stay relevant and keep the cash coming in.

And speaking of grifts, Ann Coulter certainly has become irrelevant, hasn’t she? (I am NOT complaining. Back in the day, I used to read her books–I used to read a lot of right wing polemics passing as non-fiction political tomes because I thought it was important to not only see what they were actually selling and saying, but to try to understand their position. All it did was convince me that they were sideshow hucksters hawking snake oil and grievance, so I abandoned that around 2003. And trust me, if you’ve read one Ann Coulter pack of lies from cover to cover, you don’t need to read any others.)

There’s only so much toxicity one brain can handle, frankly.

We started watching an Australian series on Acorn last night, Mystery Road, which stars Judy Davis and a lot of indigenous Australians (which is awesome); it’s interesting and entertaining, and I would imagine is going to have a lot to say about Australian racism and how the indigenous there are treated. Judy Davis is always marvelous in everything (I can never watch the Renee Zellweger Judy Garland film because I’ve already seen a definitive Judy Garland, and that was Judy Davis’), and the rest of the cast are quite good as well. The premise is very simply that two young man vanish in the middle of a wasteland–taken from their vehicle, with the doors left open and the motor running–and it also is taking a look at the community itself; I suspect the show is a slow burn. They also bring in police detective from elsewhere who is indigenous himself (played by Aaron Pederson). The two boys who disappear are a white backpacker and a local indigenous soccer hero; it’ll be interesting to see where the show goes. (I had to look up the actor, and apparently the second season is set elsewhere, with Pederson working with a new local cop in a different location)

I’m not sure how we’ll spend today, but whatever we do, it will be relaxing and chill.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Cold As You

Politics has rarely interested me when it comes to fiction; the reality all too often reads like unbelievable fiction, and it’s also there to read in all its horror in history. I stopped reading political non-fiction back in the day, probably some time around or after Katrina–and when I became involved with the National Stonewall Democrats, I was actually living in that world part time, and had no desire to read about it any longer. Paul and I avoided The West Wing for years for this very reason–only to become completely addicted to it when Bravo was running reruns, eventually renting the back seasons from Netflix and bingeing through its entire run, while watching the final seasons as they aired. It remains one of my favorite television programs of all time; sometimes I think it would be lovely to go back and rewatch it, but it was a balm for us during the Bush administration.

I used to, as I said, read political non-fiction from both sides of the aisle as well as from theoretically unbiased journalists; I used to read, believe it or not, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Peggy Noonan, along with Al Franken and Matt Taibbi and others. I always felt it was important to read not only those who were in theory unbiased, but also to read the extremes of both sides–it’s always important, I thought, to know what both sides are saying and thinking to rev up their own extreme bases. While I always paid attention to politics I always considered myself more apolitical than anything else; my primary concerns were initially to stop people from dying from HIV and then to get some sort of legal recognition that my sexuality was not grounds for inequal treatment in the eyes of the law. The 2000 election debacle energized me; the country seemed to be veering off course and the results of that election changed the country and not for the better, which meant it was time to get to work.

I never read Allen Drury’s Washington novels; as I said, I was never all that interested in fiction based in politics. Robert Ludlum was the closest I ever came to reading political thrillers, and I was a huge fan of his throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s. But political thrillers can be terrific reads; my question is are they crime novels? Thrillers are a subgenre of crime fiction, but do political thrillers actually count as crime novels? I suppose, in theory, they are; this is the question I’ve been grappling with since I finished reading The Coyotes of Carthage yesterday.

Andre marvels, watching a kid, a stranger of maybe sixteen, pinch another wallet. This lift makes the kid’s fifth, at least that Andre’s seen this morning–two on the train, two on the underground platform, and now this one on the jam-packed escalator that climbs toward the surface. The kid’s got skills, mad skills. He makes his lift and keeps on moving. There. Right there. The kid picks up another, his sixth, with the practiced grace of a ballerino, this time the mark, some corporate chump, probably a lobbyist, with slicked-back hair and a shit-eating grin. No one suspects a thing, and why should they? This kid blends in, looks like a prep-school student–and , who knows, perhaps he is–his aesthetic complete with a bookbag, khakis, and a dog-ered copy of de Tocqueville tucked beneath his arm. The kid reminds Andre of himself at that age–lean, hungry, steel eyes with smooth skin–but Andre concedes that he never possessed this kid’s talent.

Aboveground the kid disappears into the big-city bustle, and Andre thinks, Good for you, li’l man. Go in peace. For sure, the kid has plenty of places to hide. Northwest this morning is a mess: snowy, busy, noisy, the perfect urban jungle in which to flee. Andre works around the corner, and a lifetime ago, his family made a home inside a boarded-up rathole six blocks over. Andre has, in fact, loved in the District his entire life, thirty-five years save a stint across the river, two years in juvie for a grift gone bad on a nearby street. Seventeen years ago, when he left kiddie correctional, he never imagined he’d work on K Street, or that he’d own a walk-in closet full of three-piece suits, and the sudden realization, that he might lose it all, cuts like shards of glass crushed into the lining of his stomach.

Dre, our main character in this exceptionally fine debut novel by Steven Wright, isn’t necessarily likable, but he is understandable, and really, that’s the key with unlikable and unpleasant characters: as long as the reader can understand and empathize with an unlikable character, they will come along for the ride and may even root for that character. (As I like to say, the best note on character I was ever given by an editor when I was writing an unlikable character: even Hitler loved his dogs. ) The key is to find their humanity, and even when the character is doing unlikable things, you won’t lose the reader. It’s a skill set to be sure, but Steven Wright does this extremely well in a debut novel, and that’s really saying something.

Dre is a Black man who works for a political consulting firm in Washington, and one who is very good at what he does. He went overboard on his last assignment and almost blew a slam-dunk election, so his job is in jeopardy and if he weren’t being mentored by one of the founding partners of the firm, he would definitely be out already. Instead, he is given a punishment assignment: to get an initiative passed in a rural backwoods South Carolina county that really isn’t in the best interests of the local electorate but rather that of a large corporation who will poison everything in the county but will inevitably suck it dry of its resources and then leave behind nothing but wreckage. Dre comes from a broken home and has a brother who was also an addict; as teens they were small-scale dealers in order to survive and a deal gone horribly wrong put Dre into juvie. But he came out of juvie determined to go on the straight and narrow and build a life for himself…so politics seemed like a natural place for him to go.

But now in his mid-thirties, his life is crumbling around him: he has self-destructed his career; his fiancee has just dumped him for another man; his brother has ALS and he’s having to pay for his care as well as support his brother’s caregiver/girlfriend; and he’s questioning the decisions he’s made throughout his life to bring him to this place where he is now stuck in a backwoods redneck part of South Carolina running a campaign with no staff other than a rather sweet young intern–who turns out to be his mentor’s grandson. This election is a microcosm of everything that is currently wrong with our political system, and its deep cynicism; and Dre is having to face all of that, along with questioning what he is doing with his life for money, while his world continues to crumble around him.

All of the characters, while seen through Dre’s cynical eyes, are well-developed and well-rounded and completely believable; he sees very clearly their worth and their value and yet is incapable, because of who he has become through this cynical work, of connecting with any of them because of his own loss of humanity. This ballot initiative, so important for him to win if he wants to keep his job, is symbolic of his life; what do you do when you realize that not only have your sold your soul, but it may be too late to buy it back?

I greatly enjoyed this book from start to finish, and it’s a very powerful debut. It says a lot about humanity, the state of politics in this country, and the influence of dark money and how that has further corrupted an already corrupt system. But Dre’s search for his own humanity, his dark night of the soul, is what drives this strongly written story, and through Dre, requires the reader to do the same. The book offers no answers, of course; because those answers have to come from us.

What cost freedom?

Born This Way

Monday and we survived Weekend One of Carnival Parades. *whew*. I am exhausted, though, which is never a good thing for a Monday morning of a new work week. Heavy heaving sigh.

Now I know what ‘bone tired’ means. And speaking of ‘bone tired’….

As Constant Reader knows, I taught a session on writing LGBTQ characters at the SinC into Great Writing workshop at Bouchercon this past September in New Orleans. It was an amazing experience, and it was enormously flattering to be asked to do so in the first place. I was also asked to write something for the Sisters newsletter, pretty much given carte blanche to write whatever I wanted to, and since I had an essay about being a gay writer on the backburner (I’ve been toying with it for almost a year) which I was calling “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” I said sure. As I was wrapping up deadlines and looking ahead to the glory days of NOT HAVING ANY DEADLINES, I started writing the essay again, whittling away things from the original unfinished draft that no longer fit my thesis and…I got about halfway through and stopped.

The reason why I stopped? Because it is next to impossible to write about the challenges of being a gay crime writer writing about gay characters without sounding like the biggest whiner in the world, and I don’t want to be that guy.

Then, a question posted on a list-serve I belong to for crime writers triggered some answers that were so horrific, so thoughtless, and so ignorant that I suddenly knew how to write the essay–or at least how to address it with a starting place.

One of the current ‘boiling points’, if you will, in our current society is the question of ‘cultural appropriation’ as well as ‘cultural insensitivity’, and how these questions apply in a broader sense with the American guarantee of First Amendment rights under the Constitution (without getting into the reality–which most people either don’t understand, or chose to ignore– that ‘freedom of speech’ is actually only guaranteed as a protection from persecution and prosecution from the state; not from other people, and certainly not from consequences. The example I always use is, “Well, when I worked at the ticket counter I couldn’t tell a passenger to go fuck himself, could I, without getting fired?”) Recently–I don’t remember where I saw this, but it was on Facebook; I don’t know if it was from an industry publication or a newspaper or something–I read a piece about the major publishers hiring what were called ‘sensitivity readers’ to read manuscripts dealing with characters who were out of the author’s experience to make sure the characters weren’t offensive. I am of two minds about this, and I can certainly understand why people would find this alarming/concerning; how much control/power would these ‘sensitivity readers’ have over the author’s work? Not to mention the fact that no one can speak for an entire community; what one gay man finds offensive the next three you ask may not.

So, yes, I do have a bit of a problem with the concept of sensitivity readers. However, if I were writing a character from a culture not my own; say, a New Orleanian of Vietnamese descent, wouldn’t I want to talk to a New Orleanian or two of Vietnamese descent? Wouldn’t I want my character to be as authentic and realistic as I can possibly make him or her? I’ve talked to cops, private eyes, and FBI agents to make my characters are grounded in reality as I can. So, why wouldn’t a heterosexual writer creating a gay character want to get some insight from a gay person? And so on, and so on, and so on. I don’t see a problem here, but again, that is the work that should be done before the manuscript is turned into the editor and publisher, and I’m not sure how comfortable I would be with that for myself.

Of course, there are those who, because of this, have pulled out the ‘censorship’ battleflag, thoroughly missing the point. The First Amendment does not guarantee anyone a publishing contract, nor does it guarantee a platform; if it does I’d like to be booked on both The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert when my next book comes out, thank you very much. Oh, wait, it doesn’t mean that, after all?

Blimey.

Which is my roundabout way of getting to the latest provocateur, Milo. People were rightly outraged when the conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster gave him a book deal; people were rightly outraged when he started getting invitations to speak at colleges and universities; people were outraged when he got invited to go on Real Time with Bill Maher (whom I also have problems with, but we’re talking about Milo now). As loathsome as the things he says are, I will defend his right to say them against any attempt by the state to silence him. Simon & Schuster is a business; they have a right to give a book deal to anyone they think will make them money (although I seriously doubt this book will make them any money; I see it going onto the remainder table pretty damned quickly, and not even being released in paperback; unless, of course, conservative clubs and organizations buy it in bulk at a deep discount as giveaways for fundraising drives and so forth–which is often how people like Ann Coulter wind up on the bestseller lists), and likewise, college/university groups have a right to invite anyone they want to come speak to them…but rescinding those invitations (and promise of payments and expenses) when said invitations blow up in their faces is not censorship as defined by the law and the Constitution. The same law that gives Milo the right to say what he does also applies to those who oppose the things he says.

That’s um, kind of how our country works.

Being utterly uninterested in anything he has to say (I’ve never enjoyed listening to transphobia or racism), I didn’t watch Real Time with Bill Maher, only watching the clips of Larry Wilmore telling him to go fuck himself, which I will also admit to enjoying immensely. (Of course, now that clips of him talking approvingly of sex between children and adults have turned up–and really, who didn’t think something like this was going to come up; it was just a matter of time–he won’t be getting invited to speak anywhere anymore, and I suspect S&S will be cancelling their book contract.) But Milo–like Ann Coulter before him–fascinates me. (And for the record, I use ‘fascinate’ with the old meaning of like how a snake fascinates its prey; I do think he is kind of dangerous, and snake-like.) I always wonder how people like him come to be. I wrote eighty pages of a Paige novel in which the victim was a Coulter-like character, attempting to peel back the layers and see what could create someone like her/him (that manuscript is in a drawer, as no one had the slightest interest in publishing it). Coulter apparently sees herself as a comedian/performance artist; I sadly know people who know her, and they state she doesn’t really believe what she says but it makes her money; I suspect Milo is kind of similar to her in that regard, yet at the same time…

Take, for example, his appearance on Bill Maher. Milo is precisely the kind of gay stereotype that triggers homophobic reactions from the right, and even from some gay men: he isn’t particularly masculine, and wore enormous faux pearls around his neck on the show, which he played with as he spoke (damn it, I am going to have to watch); he is an effeminate gay man (think a conservative Jack from Will & Grace, or Emmett from Queer as Folk: the kind of gay man that ‘straight-acting’ gay men loathe and despise). The loathing of homophobes for effeminate gay men (and, let’s be honest, a number of GAY MEN as well) has everything to do with the culture of masculinity and the fear of ‘not being a man’; which, really, is where homophobia and sexism and transphobia comes from.

I just saw on Twitter that Milo may lose his job at Breitbart over the pedophilia comments; I am not holding my breath, nor will I hold my breath about losing the contract with S&S. He has, always, positioned himself as a spokesperson for the First Amendment; all of this should give him more material to work with, and of course, I am sure it’s the fault of the ‘politically correct’ who ‘want to silence him.’

So, I doubt he will go gently into that good night, and he will undoubtedly continue to fascinate me the way cobras fascinate their prey before they kill and eat them.

I always am curious at to what made these types of people what they are.