Songbird

So, daylight savings time means I didn’t sleep as late as I have the last few mornings–simply because the clocks were turned back an hour. I woke up yet again at ten this morning–I went to bed around ten last night–and slept like a stone yet another night. Sleep really is the best thing, isn’t it? These last few nights of good sleep have been absolutely heavenly, and I feel a million times better than I did before this staycation started. I also can’t help but feel that missing Bouchercon–much as I hated to do so–was probably the smartest thing I could have done; thank you, doctor, for forbidding my travel.

And a belated congratulations to all the Anthony Award winners! I didn’t win for Best Short Story, but couldn’t be happier that Shawn Cosby did! He’s a great guy, a terrific writer, and also supports other writers. His debut novel, My Darkest Prayer, was fantastic; he recently signed a two book contract with Flatiron Books and I can’t wait to see what he does next, quite frankly. The other nominees–Art Taylor, Barb Goffman, and Holly West–are also terrific writers and awesome people who support other writers as well. Being nominated for an Anthony for a short story was one of the biggest thrills of my career so far.

It’s also weird that it’s a Sunday morning and  there’s no Saints game today.  It’s weird that both the Saints AND LSU have bye weeks the same weekend; but next weekend is going to be tough–LSU at Alabama for all the marbles; the Saints playing the hated Atlanta Falcons.

I imagine by the end of that weekend I am going to be quite worn out from emotion and adrenaline.

Angela Crider Neary, who moderated the Anthony Short Story nominees panel yesterday, very graciously sent me the questions she intended to ask me on the panel, so I thought I’d go ahead and answer them today–even though I’ve already lost. 😉

You’ve written in an impressive array of genres – over 50 short stories, two different private eye novel series, young adult novels (some with supernatural elements), and even some erotica as well as some horror and suspense.  Do you like one of these genres or formats (short or long) better than others, and tell us what you enjoy or find rewarding about writing each of them.  Are there any other genres you have written or would like to write?

I’ve also written some romance! I like all the genres I write in pretty equally; I just wish I was better at writing horror than I am. I’ve always had a strong passion for history, so I think historicals is something I’d like to try at some point–it surprises me that I haven’t already. I find writing short to be a lot more difficult than writing long; I always think of ideas in terms of books rather than short stories, and sometimes have to modify the idea down, as I can certainly never write all my ideas as novels unless I have an exceptionally long life. I’ve been experimenting with writing novellas lately–I’m in the process of writing two right now. Of course, there’s little to no market for novellas. I guess I’ll wind up self-publishing them or something.

I love the title of your current Anthony-nominated story, “Cold Beer No Flies.”  Is there a story behind this particular title, and how important do you think titles are for stories or novels?

Thank you, I’m rather partial to that title myself! When I was a teenager in Kansas, there was a bar in the county seat that was very similar to the bar in my story. It was simply called My Place and they had a reader board out on the side of the road and one day it said COLD BEER NO FLIES. That tickled me for some reason, and I never forgot it. About ten years later I wrote the first draft of the story with that title. It sat in my files for a very long time, and about ten years ago I revised it for the first time, shifted the setting from Kansas to the Florida panhandle, and changed the main character from a young woman to a young man. When Florida Happens came about, I revised it one last time and submitted it to the blind read process, and was delighted to have the judges score it highly enough for inclusion. (My story in the Blood on the Bayou anthology also went through the blind read, and was picked.)

You have two PI novel series set in New Orleans.  How would you describe these two series, how they differ from each other, and how you’re able to slip into the separate moods and characters of each of them?

The Chanse series is more hard-boiled than the Scotty series, which is more light and fun. Chanse is a completely different kind of  gay man than Scotty; he was raised working class, his family lived in a trailer park and were evangelical Christians in a small working class town in east Texas. He used football and a scholarship to LSU to get out, and finally came out officially after graduating from college. He’s more scarred emotionally, more bitter and cynical, and has a very low opinion of humanity. Scotty is the polar opposite of Chanse: from a wealthy society family on both sides, he grew up in New Orleans with extremely liberal, progressive parents who never had any issue with his sexuality, and was kind of a fuck-up in some ways, though–flunked out of college, worked as a stripper and a personal trainer, etc. But he has a very positive outlook on life, and has no baggage about his sexuality whatsoever; in fact, he revels in being gay. I’d never read a character like that before, and I felt like there needed to be one. Scotty is much more fun to write than Chanse–I kind of just make up the story as I go, because that’s kind of how Scotty lives his life, up for anything and everything–whereas Chanse is more rigid, more unhappy, and more of a tight-ass, so I have to plan his stories out from the very beginning.

You’re the co-founder of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, which takes place in New Orleans every spring.  Tell us about it.

Well, way back in 2002 my partner, myself, and Jean Redmann went out for dinner and drinks one night, and over the course of conversation the subject of writer’s conferences came up–and how queer writers were often not included, and if they were, were put on what we call a “zoo panel”–a panel where all the non-straight writers are gathered together which, no matter the good intentions, always felt like we were zoo animals people came to see and point at, and those panels inevitably devolved into “let’s teach the nice straight people about homophobia.” We thought it would be lovely to have an event of our own–open and welcoming all who wanted to participate–where being queer wasn’t the topic of discussion. We also thought it would be good to stress the importance of queer literature and its importance in its response to the AIDS epidemic, and try to honor the many writers we lost to the plague years. We figured we might be able to pull it off maybe once or twice before interest died down…and here we are, seventeen/eighteen years later, still going strong. I have less to do with the organizing now than I did in the beginning–most of it is my partner and his team–but I still get credit for it.

Your Lambda Literary Award winning Murder in the Rue Chartres was described by the New Orleans Times-Picayune as “the most honest depiction of life in post-Katrina New Orleans published thus far.”  There was such overwhelming personal and community devastation after the hurricane and flooding.  Why did you choose to write about the hurricane and what was that like for you?

It’s so weird to me that it’s been over fourteen years now. But even now, it’s impossible to describe, or talk about, everything that happened because of Katrina. 90% of the city was rendered uninhabitable, and for awhile we weren’t even sure if the city was going to come back–or if we would ever be able to come home. We were lucky, we were able to evacuate when so many couldn’t–and that guilt lasted a really long time. It took me a long time to forgive myself for leaving New Orleans to die. It’s very difficult to describe how New Orleanians feel about New Orleans, that deep love that runs through, and colors, everything. The entire time I was gone I felt unmoored, unanchored, unsure about the future. I also knew I was going to have to write about Katrina, and I didn’t really want to. I was one of the first to come back–I returned to New Orleans on October 11th, about six weeks or so after it happened. I had been blogging at that time for not quite a year–but I was blogging extensively throughout that time, describing what I was feeling and what I was seeing. (I only wish technology had advanced to the point where phones had cameras–I didn’t have a digital camera at the time and so was unable to document everything with pictures; all I have is memories and the blog.) Katrina was such an enormous event, that the entire world was aware of–I didn’t see how I could possibly continue to write fiction about New Orleans without acknowledging Katrina, but at the same time I didn’t want to write about it, either. The Scotty series–I’d finished and turned in the third book in that series, Mardi Gras Mambo, about three weeks before the storm and I’d intended to start writing the fourth almost immediately, after taking about a month off to rest and regroup. Ironically, the idea was called Hurricane Party Hustle and I wanted to write a book set in the city during an evacuation with another near-miss hurricane–which I’d already experienced three or four times at that point. Needless to say that idea was scrapped. I also didn’t see how I could write a light, funny book about New Orleans when we were still in the midst of everything.* I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write a Chanse book. My editor at Alyson Books, Joseph Pittman, kept after me, telling me I was the perfect person to write such a book, and so on and so on, and I finally agreed to write it–but only on the condition that Chanse, like me, had evacuated and returned on the same day I did. I didn’t think survival stories from Katrina were mine to tell.** Writing the book itself was incredibly difficult, and I found myself drinking a lot whenever I finished for the day. But in the end, it was incredibly cathartic to write the book and I am very grateful, to this day, that Joe wore me down and convinced me to write it.
*Of course, now, all these years later, I can actually see how a funny book could be written about New Orleans in the aftermath–particularly in the way New Orleanians who were here reacted. The ruined refrigerators, for example, that everyone dragged out to the curb for disposal and sealed with duct tape–people decorated their refrigerators or wrote slogans on them; some of them were enormously funny. New Orleans has always had a sort of gallows sense of humor about itself; we always laugh, no matter what, and I do regret that I wasn’t in a place where I could examine that.
**I did eventually write a survival story, “Survivor’s Guilt” (my story in Blood on the Bayou, it was nominated for a Macavity Award a few years ago), and while I still didn’t think I had the right to tell a survival story–I kept questioning myself the entire time I was writing it–I based a lot of it on survival stories I’d been told, and given the response to the story, I think I got it right. I have another idea for a noir story set in the aftermath as well–it came to me on a panel at Raleigh Bouchercon several years ago Katrina Niidas Holm was moderating, and she keeps pushing me to write it–and I think I’ll someday get to it.
I also think sometimes I might go ahead sometime and write Hurricane Party Hustle–probably enough time has passed to write a story about an evacuation and near-miss , and sometimes I think I might go back and write a Scotty book set during that time as well…maybe.
And on that note, back to the spice mines. Thanks to everyone who voted for my story for the Anthonys so it made the short-list; that meant a lot, and I appreciate it.
And here’s hoping I won’t miss Sacramento next year.

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I’ll Be Good To You

Well, wasn’t yesterday an amazing day for one Gregalicious? Not only was it payday, but I stopped and got the mail on my way to the office (there was a check!), and then right around the time I got to the office my phone (which was in my pocket) made the sound of breaking glass, indicating I’d gotten a notification from Facebook; I pulled it out of my pocket on my way up the stairs and lo! The Anthony Award short-lists had been announced, and I’d been tagged in the post. This usually means one thing and one thing only–a nomination–but I thought, no, that can’t be. But sure enough I clicked on the notification, scrolled down the list, and there I was, nominated for Best Short Story for “Cold Beer No Flies” from Florida Happens…along with four other amazing writers–Art Taylor, S. A. Crosby, Barb Goffman, and Holly West!

Wow.

It’s really lovely to be nominated for awards, and I know I’m luckier than so many others–who can go their entire careers without ever getting any award recognition. This is my second time up for an Anthony (I won, in Toronto, for Best Anthology for Blood on the Bayou), and came as an incredibly pleasant surprise; the decision to not have a Best Anthology Anthony for Dallas Bouchercon was, I thought, the death knell of any shot I might ever have at possibly getting another Anthony nomination. I certainly never dreamed I’d somehow make the short-list for Best Short Story for my contribution to Florida Happens, “Cold Beer No Flies,” a story that’s been hanging out in my files in various different forms since the late 1980’s. But I am also pleased that it’s a story about a young gay man trapped in a small, conservative Florida panhandle town who has big dreams to get out of there–and isn’t afraid to break the law in order to make those dreams come true. This is also my second time nominated for a Short Story award from the mainstream mystery community–the first was the Macavity in Toronto, and the nod was for “Survivor’s Guilt” from Blood on the Bayou–and I also can’t even begin to tell you how thrilling it is to be nominated for a short story in the mainstream; but “Cold Beer No Flies” is, as I said before, a story with gay character/themes…and it might be the first time such a story has been nominated. (John Copenhaver is also nominated for Best First Novel, for Dodging and Burning–still in the TBR pile–and he’s also an openly gay writer of a book with gay characters and themes; I think it’s possible the two of us may have made history with our nominations as the first time this has happened; I could be wrong.)

This is especially thrilling when I take into consideration the fact that my writing self-esteem (never high in any discipline) is particularly low when it comes to short stories, as Constant Reader is undoubtedly aware. I love them, and I love the challenge of writing them, but…I’ve never had much luck with selling or placing them in places, but sometimes I do catch lightning in a bottle and the story works.

I spent most of yesterday trying to keep up with the congratulatory posts, comments, tweets and emails yesterday but failing miserably; I woke up this morning to a lot more of them and I suspect a lot of my free time today will be spent making sure I thank everyone.

Which is, frankly, kind of a lovely problem to have, amirite? I mean, I’d certainly rather spend a day basking in the glow of warm congratulatory messages/posts/tweets/comments than pretty much anything else, to be honest. Who woudn’t?

And to be on a short-list with talented writers like Art, Barb, Holly, and Shawn? Very very cool, quite frankly, and just the kind of flattering ego-stroke I needed at this moment as I struggle with the WIP (which I didn’t touch yesterday, for obvious reasons) but I am hoping to get back to today because things will, I am sure, be settling down somewhat. What’s interesting is that Holly is also nominated for her Florida Happens story; Barb also has a story in Florida Happens but is nominated for another work; and Art was the person who got me involved in working on Bouchercon anthologies in the first place. I met Shawn briefly in St. Petersburg at this last Bouchercon, and I am certain at some point in the future we’ll have a professional connection of some sort like these others–I certainly hope that’s the case, at any rate.

And now it’s back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, everyone, and thank you!

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Live and Learn

So, the governor declared a state of emergency last night for Tropical Storm Gordon, which may be a Category 1 when it comes ashore tonight. Right now it’s projected to pass through here around one in the morning, which means when it’s time to get up in the morning and head to the airport it might still be raining, but the storm should have passed long before. Our flight should be fine, barring any complications from airport damage or a power outage there. Fingers crossed! Paul and I discussed it at great length last night, and decided that in a worst case scenario–rebooking and an inability to get out of here until Friday–that we would just turn it into a stay-cation and bid adieu to Bouchercon for this year. It cannot be helped and while it would be an enormous disappointment, there’s no point in being sad, depressed or upset about it, since it’s completely outside of our control.

I did get some things done yesterday that I needed to get done; today’s plan is to take Scooter to the Kitty Camp where he will board until we return, finish packing, get some things done around here cleaning-wise, and get back to reading The Gates of Evangeline, by Hester Young, which I started last night and am enjoying tremendously. Lori Roy mentioned it recently in an article about top Southern Gothic novels, and I remembered that I had a copy; Lori is someone whose opinion about books I deeply respect (check out her most recent, The Disappearing, which is exceptional, but you can’t go wrong with any of her amazing novels) and she has again proven my faith in her taste to be correct. It’s gorgeously written and perfect Southern Gothic–which last night got me to thinking about Southern Gothic. I really think Southern Gothic, and Southern noir, is really what I should be writing; my best short stories (and therefore what I consider to be my best work) really are Southern Gothic; “Survivor’s Guilt” is a good example of that.

Something to ponder, at any rate.

I also finished reading Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie yesterday morning, so my Bouchercon homework is complete, one day ahead of time.

bad boy boogie

When Jay Desmarteaux walked out the gate of Rahway Prison, the sun hit his face like air on a fresh wound. The breeze smelled different, felt charged, electric. A rawboned middleweight, he was broad at the shoulders and hips, as if God had attempted to halt his growth and he’d thickened out of spite.

“Go one,” the guard said. Jay couldn’t remember his name, but he was all right, as far as CO’s went. “Ride’s waiting for you at the curb.”

Jay squinted at the road. The only vehicle waiting in the early summer heat was a black Suburban parked at the yellow curb. The wind played with his shock of black hair. He had spent twenty-five years locked inside a dank Shaolin prison dedicated to violence and human predation while the men who put him there lived free from fear.

Men who needed killing.

Mama Angeline raised him to understand that some folks just needed killing. There was nothing you could do for them.

And she’d been right.

And so begins the final Anthony nominee for Best Paperback Original. I was already acquainted with Jay–he appeared in Pluck’s short story contribution to Blood on the Bayou, “Gumbo Weather,” and was delighted to read about him again. The book reads like a classic old black and white film, as Jay tries to figure out what happened to his life and the people he cared about while he was locked up–as well as looking out for vengeance–and it reads like a cross between a Jim Thompson novel and perhaps a Lee Child; non-stop twists and turns and surprised, written in a style the compels you to keep reading.

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

I’m Too Sexy

How lovely to wake up to a terrific review of Florida Happens on the Mystery Scene website! You can read it here.

Huzzah!

I have to say I am very proud of this anthology, but even prouder that my story “Cold Beer No Flies” was also singled out for praise, which is lovely. As Constant Reader is aware, I don’t have a lot of confidence when it comes to my short stories, so those rare occasions when they get mentioned by reviewers is always a treat for me. (Which reminds me, I need to work on some this weekend. Sigh.)

It’s been a long week; I had trouble sleeping in the middle of the week but bounced back really nicely in the latter part of the week. Last night’s sleep was wonderful, long-lasting and deep and relaxing; I am still in sort of a rest-coma this morning. My kitchen is a mess–and something will have to be done about that sooner rather than later–and other than a social obligation today and a couple of errands that must be run (mail, prescriptions) the rest of the day is mine to do with as I please. The clock is running out on my Bouchercon homework, so I am going to need to curl up with James Ziskin’s Cast the First Stone in order to have time to read Thomas Pluck’s Bad Boy Boogie before Bouchercon, so I am prepared to discuss their books with the fine panelists on the Best Paperback Original panel. I also booked my rental car and paid for the  early check-in on Southwest–which apparently now is automatic; you don’t have to do anything and it checks you in thirty-six hours before your flight, which is actually kind of lovely. I need to read “A Whisper from the Graveyard and “This Thing of Darkness” aloud this weekend, and I want to start working on the revision of Royal Street Reveillon which I’ve been avoiding all month (now that the month is almost over, sigh).

So. Much. To. Do.

We started watching Kim’s Convenience last night, which is, simply put, a very endearing and funny show about a Korean family–the Kims–who own a convenience store in Toronto. I was worried, of course, that the show might deal in stereotypes, but the family dynamic and the relationships between the characters is very complex, and underlying it all is a deep sweetness; there is more to the Kims than you think at first, and the show is actually funny but not at the expense of the characters. Of course, I’m not Korean, so I can’t speak to its authenticity or to its not being offensive, but Paul and I are both really enjoying it. And Jung–the son who is estranged from his father for being a bit of a juvenile delinquent when a teen, even serving time in juvie–is sexy.  I highly recommend it.

The next story in Florida Happens is  “Frontier Justice” by John Floyd.

John Floyd’s work has appeared in more than 250 different publications, including Strand MagazineAlfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineEllery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Woman’s World, Mississippi Noir, and The Saturday Evening Post. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, he is also a three-time Derringer Award winner, an Edgar Award finalist, and a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. One of John’s stories appeared in the 2015 edition of Best American Mystery Stories, and another is forthcoming in the 2018 edition.

John is also the author of six books: Rainbow’s End, Midnight, Clockwork, Deception, Fifty Mysteries, and Dreamland.

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The car was waiting in the alley, with Eddie Stark at the wheel and half a dozen cigarette butts littering the pavement below the driver’s-side door. Eddie had flipped a seventh out the open window and exhaled a lungful of smoke when he saw Charlotte Baxter stroll around the corner and head in his direction. Even from a distance, Baxter’s face looked as calm as always. Eddie Stark’s was sweating.

Baxter climbed in, set a thick brown attache case on the seat between them, and peeled off her honey-colored wig. She also took off a pair of glasses and removed two wads of cotton from inside her cheeks. Eddie hefted the case up and over into the back seat. It didn’t feel as heavy as it had been, twenty minutes ago, and he knew why: half its contents had been left in the building across the street.

With trembling hands Eddie started the engine and steered the big Lincoln out of the alley and into the downtown Tallahassee traffic. Finally he turned to look at Baxter.

“How’d it go?”

“Fine.” Baxter leaned back and closed her eyes. “Mission accomplished, package delivered.”

“Sure nobody recognized you?”

“Would you have recognized me? What they saw was a blonde with a chubby face.”

John Floyd is one of our best short story writers; I first met him at the Edgar Symposium several years ago when he was on a panel I moderated. He was nominated for the Edgar for Best Short Story for “The Ledge,” which I thought was simply brilliant. His work has been nominated and/or won many awards, and I am always excited to read a new story from him. He contributed a great story to Blood on the Bayou, “The Blue Delta,” and I am more than thrilled to have “Frontier Justice” in Florida Happens.

“Frontier Justice” is about a heroin ring’s decision to kill the investigating district attorneys by planting a bomb in their office. Charlotte Baxter, as seen in the opening excerpt, is the woman they hired to blend in and plant the bomb. But as always with a Floyd story, there’s more going on beneath the surface than is readily apparent to the reader, and the way the story flips on itself in the closing pages shows just how much mastery Floyd has over the form.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Would I Lie To You?

Is it sad that I will read a themed anthology, and then will think up a short story based on that theme that I would have written had I been asked?

I find myself doing this a lot lately; I think it has a lot to do with the Short Story Project and reading themed anthologies. As I read the terrific stories, I start wondering what would I have written for this had I been asked and then my mind starts to wander a little bit, which is both irritating and distracting. Yesterday I went looking for Edward Hopper paintings, and found two that would have worked as story inspirations. One day last week I found an image of my favorite Salvador Dali painting on-line, and grabbed it to my desktop so I could look at it and wonder what kind of story it would inspire within me. And obviously, Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music made me wonder what song would inspire me to write a crime/music story, and of course, thought of a Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac song, and then scribbled down a potential title and some thoughts on the story.

Because I don’t have anything else to write, obviously.

I did get some things done yesterday; I cleaned the kitchen and get caught up on laundry. I must have left my copy of Bryan Camp’s The City of Lost Fortunes at the office, as I could put my hands on it anywhere, which was really annoying as I had intended to finish reading it this weekend; I can’t find it, so I must have taken it out of my backpack at the office on Thursday and walked out at the end of the day without putting it back. At least, I hope that’s what happened to it. I’d really hate the have to wait until I buy the hardcover before I can finish reading it. But in lieu of that, I read a shit ton of short stories yesterday, getting very caught up on the Short Story Project. I will probably get even further on that today, since I don’t have my novel to read. Today I need to write and edit, finish cleaning the living room, and get everything ready for tomorrow; the final day of my three day weekend, and I need to definitely make progress, else I will spend most the week berating myself until the next weekend rolls around. Paul will return home on Wednesday. If I can simply stick to what I need to do, and check things off the list, I can go to work on Tuesday feeling terribly accomplished.

It’s very cold this morning; it rained most of the day yesterday, so today we have the predictable temperature drop. It’s really making me want to just curl up in the easy chair with a book–which is fine, I can do that, as long as it’s the manuscript or one of the short stories or all of the above.

Must. Stay. Focused.

I did watch a couple of movies yesterday; the original 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar (I didn’t remember what a fucking hot daddy Caiaphas was) and Legion, a horror film that came and went many years ago; the Syfy series Legion, which I started watching and never finished, was a sequel of sorts to it. I never finished watching because it was difficult to find, or when I remembered to try the episodes weren’t available anymore, and having not seen the film, I was a bit lost. Now that I’ve watched the film, which I kind of liked, I am looking forward to starting the TV show over again.

All right, I need to get some things done around here. So here are two short stories I read yesterday:

First up is “Shaderoc the Soul Shaker” by Gary Phillips,  from Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli.

On for the days when he could snort him a line of flake while some groupie was down on her knees, her head buried between his spread leather-clad legs, pleasuring him like he was a visiting pharaoh. Goddamn, that time in his room backstage at the Forum…the two big-titty blondes. Sheeet, the top of his head damn near blew off that night as they sexed him up, down, and sideways.

Churchill “Church” Gibson shook his head, regretfully cycling away from the glorious past into the stone-cold reality of now. He glared at the screen of his laptop as if it were an adversary. He put aside his coffee and tapped the keyboard and the music app replayed his most troubling tack through external speakers. The green audio readout traveling from left to right as the music filled his compact home studio space.

This is a terrific story. Gary Phillips is one of those crime writers who should be much more successful than he is; he wrote a story for Blood on the Bayou that was fantastic and this one–about a formerly successful, hard-living musician whose career has waned but has a chance to get back on top by writing the soundtrack to a film but is having a terrible time creating anything decent, is terrific. As a writer, I can certainly understand that feeling of why can’t I do this anymore and it used to be easy to do this. But as he works, he starts seeing people from his past, who talk to him and remind him of what he used to be capable of, and as he creates he remembers past times and past crimes…it’s absolutely fantastic.

Next up, also from Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music, was “The Long Black Veil” by Val McDermid.

Jess turned fourteen today. With every passing year, she looks more like her mother. And it pierces me to the heart. When I stopped by her room this evening, I asked if her birthday awakened memories of her mother. She shook her head, leaning forward so her long blond hair curtained her face, cutting us off from each other. “Ruth, you’re the one I think of when people say ‘mother’ to me,” she mumbled.

She couldn’t have known that her words opened an even deeper wound inside me and I was careful to keep my heart’s response hidden from my face. Even after ten years, I’ve never stopped being careful. “She was a good woman, your mother,” I managed to say without my voice shaking.

Jess raised her head to meet my eyes then swiftly dropped it again, taking refuge behind the hair. “She killed my father,” she said mutinously. “Where exactly does ‘good’ come into it?”

This is a haunting story about love and family, friendship and class, all set in a small town somewhere which is never specifically named. McDermid, an enormously successful and award-winning crime writer (you should read her if you haven’t; start with A Place of Execution and The Mermaids Singing), manages to tell this story from two different point of views, and so captures small town America perfectly that it is almost eerie. It’s a terrific story, heartbreaking and tragic in its very simplicity. I don’t think I’ve read a McDermid short story before, but this is a great example of why her work is so popular.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me.

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Suddenly

Yesterday I finished revisions on four stories, took a deep breath, and submitted them. Now, we wait. I’m not entirely certain the stories were right for the markets I sent them to, but you know what? Letting them just sit in my computer wasn’t getting them out there. Better to try and fail than not to ever try at all.

As I said yesterday, my confidence in my writing, which, despite all appearances to the contrary has never been strong, was dramatically shaken in the last year; I am only now starting to come out of it, and I am coming back out of it by working. I’ve written well over a hundred thousand words thus far in 2018; most of it short stories, some of it work on a new Scotty novel, still other the manuscript I intend to try to lure the ever elusive agent into my web with; and since sitting down and actually taking stock, I am realizing what I’ve accomplished, and am very proud of myself. The stories I worked on again this week, revising and editing and reading aloud, were quite strong; the two I am struggling with perhaps not as strong–although I do like their titles. Forcing myself to continue working on them is futile at this moment; much as I am loath to put them to the side, I am going to; there is nothing more self-defeating and depressing than trying to force yourself to write something that just isn’t coming. The stories are there, of course; I just haven’t yet worked out how to get them down onto paper yet. I think very often we, as writers, get so bogged down in our stubborn determination to finish something we are working on that we just keep fighting, pounding our head determinedly against an immovable wall–when the smart thing is to take a break from it and work on something else; then come back to the wall with fresh eyes and a rested forehead.

A vanity project that I have always had in the back of my mind was to put together a short story collection of my crime stories. I first had the idea several years ago, but didn’t have enough stories and was going to combine my horror and crime together: the folder and table of contents I created at the time was for Annunciation Shotgun and Other Stories. I’ve never forgotten this vanity project; and even now, when I should be preparing the manuscripts of Bourbon Street Blues and Jackson Square Jazz for their long overdue ebook editions, I go back to the vanity project again and again: well, I’ve published THESE stories since then, maybe I can just go ahead and remove these others that don’t fit as well–take these horror stories out, since my horror is clearly not as strong as my crime fiction. I made another table of contents, just the other day; only now I am calling it Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. Whenever I’ve been stuck this past week or so, for want of anything else to do, I’ve started pulling the stories together into a single document to get a word count. The realization the other day of how many stories I’ve done so far this year already, and adding them casually to the table of contents–today it hit me: the manuscript is already publishable length, is over eighty thousand words, without an introduction  and without all of the stories I’ve done so far. I removed all the horror–goodbye, “Crazy in the Night” and “Rougarou” and “The Snow Queen” and “The Troll in the Basement”–and added some more of the newer material. It was astonishing to realize how much there actually was; that I cannot add much more because there simply isn’t room, and that I might have enough for a second volume in a couple of years.

Mind-blowing, really.

Short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, of course; short stories are the bastard stepchildren of publishing, and crime stories even more shunned at the family holiday dinner table. I don’t know if my publisher will want this collection, and I may end up having to self-publish it. Whereas I would have shrank in horror from that possibility a few years ago, it doesn’t matter as much to me now as it did then to have a traditional publisher pull the book together; although I would like another pair of eyes on it, some copy editing, a cover design and packaging done for me. But I am very proud of all of these stories; each one of them means something to me in some way. And if my fears about crime stories with gay characters in them not being acceptable to mainstream short story publications, well, I can always get them seen this way. And I am proud of the new crime stories I’ve written with gay characters in them.

I didn’t write crime stories for the longest time because of that fear; the fear that no matter how high the quality of the story, gay characters would make them unpublishable. The two stories I published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, “Acts of Contrition” and “The Email Always Pings Twice,” were mainstream–not a gay character in either story. I did publish two stories in Novelists Inc. anthologies with gay characters, “A Streetcar Named Death” and “An Arrow for Sebastian.” My stories in New Orleans Noir and Sunshine Noir (“Annunciation Shotgun” and “Housecleaning”, respectively) were about gay characters. My story in Blood on the Bayou, nominated for the Macavity Award last year, “Survivor’s Guilt,” wasn’t gay in any way, nor was my story “Keeper of the Flame,” published in Mystery Week. Some of the new stories are gay, some are not. Two that went out today were about gay characters, two of them were not. I was originally not intending to write any crime stories with gay characters this year; it just sort of happened. I think the Chanse story I’ve written–which needs a new title–is pretty decent; but am I limiting my chances of getting the stories into print by writing about gay characters? It’s already a difficult haul finding markets that still take short stories, and the competition is obviously fierce.

And again, as I said yesterday, you never can be certain your story was rejected because you wrote honestly about gay characters. It’s all part and parcel of the insanity of being a gay writer, or a writer who is gay, or whatever the hell label fits on my sash as I walk across the stage at the beauty pageant of publishing.

But I’ve got more than enough stories for a collection now, and I am going to keep playing with the manuscript; what is the proper mix of previously published stories versus new material? Should it all be new material, or should it all be previously published material?

Decisions, decisions.

Therein, indeed, lies the path to madness.

I also read some short stories. First was “Still Life with Teapots and Students”, by Shirley Jackson, from the  Let Me Tell You collection.

Come off it, kids, come off it, Louise Harlowe told herself just under her breath. SHe smiled graciously at her husband, Lionel’s, two best students, noticing with an edge of viciousness that they both held their teacups exactly right, and said lightly, “You’re going to have a pleasant summer, then?”

Joan shrugged perfectly, and Debbi smiled back, as graciously as Louise had smiled, but with more conviction. “It will be about the same as the others, I guess, ” Debbi said. “Sort of dull.”

They’re both too well bred to tell me what they’ll be doing, Louise thought, and asked deliberately, “You’ll be together, of course?”

Jackson is one of my favorites, and while she is mostly known for “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House and macabre, Gothic work, she wrote a lot more than people think and not everything she wrote was macabre. This nasty little tale, in which a professor’s wife has two of his students over for tea–during the course of which she lets the rich little bitches she knows about their affair with her husband, and what’s more, doesn’t care because they are nothing more than something of the moment, is quite rich and layered and textured. From a modern day perspective the wonder is why she doesn’t leave him, as it becomes clear this happens regularly; they politely discuss another faculty wife who wasn’t quite as calm in confronting the student her husband was messing around with, and it’s all very polite and reserved…yet, in this modern era of #metoo and power differentials, the agency both Jackson and the wife in the story give the students–and the contempt and hatred for them the wife feels, but never reveals–makes me wonder. I’m still unpacking this story, several days after reading it; which is how amazing it–and Jackson–are.

And then it was time for “The Doll” by Daphne du Maurier, The Doll: The Lost Short Stories.

I want to know if men realize when they are insane. Sometimes I think my brain cannot hold together, it is filled with too much horror–too great a despair. And there is no one; I  have never been so unutterably alone. Why should it help me to write this?…Vomit forth the poison in my brain.

For I am poisoned, I cannot sleep, I cannot close my eyes without seeing his damned face..

If only it had been a dream, something to laugh over, a festered imagination

It’s easy enough to laugh, who wouldn’t crack their sides and split their tongues with laughing. Let’s laugh till the blood runs from our eyes–there’s fun, if you like. No, it’s the emptiness that hurts, the breaking up of everything inside me.

DuMaurier’s story often have a polite, observational distance and formality to them; much like her novels, even in the first person. This story, of obsession and lust and desire, all of which are thwarted, is not only reminiscent of My Cousin Rachel, but also, as I was reading, made me wonder. We never learn the name of the first person narrator, but the object of his obsession is a woman named Rebecca–you see where my mind was going with that, don’t you? And in some ways, it works as an almost prequel for the novel; the deep obsession and need; the mysterious woman who plays out her cards slowly. What of course doesn’t fit is the doll itself; the woman owns a male doll she has a strange attachment to, a doll our narrator despises, hates, is jealous of; it’s a terrific story of darkness and deep passion and obsession and perhaps, madness….a great example of why I love du Maurier so much.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Lucky Star

New Year’s Eve, a time to look back on the past year and reflect on goals either achieved or missed; to look at what was accomplished and what wasn’t, to think about and make plans for the future year.

So, what kind of year was 2017? I didn’t achieve many, if any, of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of the year. I intended to write more short stories (which I sort of did) and publish more short stories (which I didn’t really do); I intended to start my search for an agent (which I did); but I didn’t seem to get much else done. I didn’t start working out more, but I did lose weight–so that one’s kind of a toss-up; I weigh 15 pounds less than I did a year ago. I did buy a new car, which was also a goal, and I’ve not regretted it once, despite the impact on my finances. I also didn’t write nearly as much this year as I had hoped/wanted to; there were no new novels published under my name this year; which is the first time I think that’s happened since 2005. That doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it did in 2005, to be honest; my self-worth and identity as an author apparently no longer requires me to write and publish at the insane pace that I used to keep.

I read a lot of good books in 2017, discovered a lot of great new-to-me writers, watched some amazing television shows and movies, but creatively I spent most of the year in stasis; just kind of getting through the day every day and then watching as those days turned into weeks and then months. I started a number of short stories that I either didn’t finish, or finished but didn’t know how to fix. The WIP, the manuscript I am shopping to agents, needs some more work. I had started sending it out in the fall, but I am going to hold back on it for a few more months as I revise and polish it some more. I always felt it was missing something, even though I thought it was a good manuscript, and I’ve recently figured out what that something is; and I’ve also realized part of the problem I had with the manuscript and fixing it has to do with my own stubbornness. It’s starting point needs to be before where I start the book; I flash back to the beginning of the story and that kind of is not only a cliche but also steps on the action. Also, where I start the book itself is kind of hackneyed and cliched. There’s another subplot or two that needs to be woven into the story, and I  need to develop my main character more; and there are things about him that know that are kind of crucial to the story that don’t actually appear in the story, and some of the relationships between the characters need to be developed and deepened, more layered. It’s a very basic story right now, and it needs to be more complex; and it needs to go deeper into its theme.

So, that’s something, at any rate.

I also had a good year in that I was nominated for a Macavity Award (Best Short Story, “Survivor’s Guilt”) and an Anthony Award (Best Anthology, Blood on the Bayou). Both were completely unexpected surprises, and enormously gratifying.  As Constant Reader knows, I struggle with short stories and have very little to no self-confidence when it comes to them. So, to get nominated for a Macavity Award for a short story I wrote? That was probably one of the most meaningful things to happen to me in my career thus far. And I was nominated against some amazing writers–I read all the stories–and wasn’t in the least surprised when Art Taylor won; any of the other nominated stories were award-worthy. It was such an honor.

I was so certain I wasn’t going to win the Anthony Award that Paul and I booked our plane tickets home from Toronto for Sunday morning; I was boarding my flight to New Orleans when I started getting texts and tweets and Facebook messages that I’d won. It, too, was an incredibly lovely surprise, and I was extremely happy for the contributors, and thankful to them for their amazing stories.

I also realized this year that something I used to do when I was writing–something that was highly effective, and I don’t know why I stopped doing it–was write about whatever I was working on in long-hand in notebooks. I started doing that again this year, in these last few months–and it proved incredibly helpful with a couple of things I was working on at the time. So, I am going to make that a goal for the new year; to return to buying a blank book to carry around with me at all times, to use for notes and questions I have for myself, for developing characters and things. I think I stopped using the blank books because I started keeping physical files, and it was easier to use a spiral notebook for notes that could be removed and put in the files. There’s no reason I can’t stop doing that, either; but the point is that I need to start doing things like that in long-hand again. It was an excellent way of brainstorming and free-associating that I’ve sadly gotten away from over the years.

Despite getting off to a rough start, LSU also had a great season, one with lots of highlights and excitement, and wound up 9-3 on the year, with a chance for a ten-win season with a bowl win. The future also looks fairly bright for the Tigers going forward; the Saints are also having a great season. Back in September this football season was looking really bleak; who could have foreseen that both of our teams would have such a remarkable turnaround?

I had a lot of fun this past year. Last January I did two library events in Alabama, which were way fun, and was invited back again this year; I also spoke at an event at the University of Mississippi as well as at the Alabama Book Festival (both events were in teh same week, so I was driving around the deep South quite a bit then), and of course, Bouchercon in Toronto was a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to this year’s event in St. Petersburg, and I am also looking forward to a trip to England this spring.

We’re having lunch later at Commander’s Palace; our annual New Year’s Eve meal with Jean and Gillian, which is always a lovely way to ring out the old year. I’ve started reading John Hart’s Redemption Road–I greatly enjoyed his The Last Child and Iron House, so am greatly looking forward to this one. Next weekend I am appearing at Comic Con at the Convention Center every day; that should also be a lot of fun.

And so, I should get some things done before it’s time to go to lunch. The spice mines are always calling me, so here’s one last hunk for 2017, Constant Reader, and have a lovely and safe and happy new year.

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