Always

Kansas.

We moved to Kansas the summer I turned fifteen. It was a bit of culture shock; we’d been living a middle-to-upper middle class suburb of Chicago for about four years then, after spending eight or nine years in a working-class, very blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, populated primarily with eastern European immigrants, or second, maybe third, generation Americans from central to eastern Europe. All I really knew about Kansas, before moving there, was that it had been a part of the Dust Bowl during the depression; I’d read about “bleeding Kansas” in history books; and of course, tornadoes and The Wizard of Oz (which is a movie I’ve never cared for; I watched it once as a kid and never again). Neither Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys ever had an adventure there; nor had any of the other kids’ series or Scholastic Book Club mysteries I’d read. But it was in Kansas that I actually started writing seriously, and began to think about being a writer when I grew up. (It was also in Kansas that I had the bad creative writing professor, and other bad history professors; I actually cannot think of a single decent teacher I had at the university level in Kansas–but then again, I was incredibly miserable when I lived in Kansas and it’s entirely possible that misery bled over into every other aspect of my life.)

I also don’t want to make it seem as though the five or so years I spent there were completely miserable. I did have fun–I was always desperately trying to have fun to distract me from the terror that arose from my sexuality, which was a secret that must be guarded from everyone at all times; it’s laughable to think about it now, but that terror was very real to me then.

It was in Kansas I started writing about teenagers, and while none of that stuff I’d written was publishable–I still have the handwritten novel I started writing there somewhere; the thought of rereading it turns my stomach as I can only imagine how incredibly bad, trite, and cliched it all was–but those characters have lived on and appeared in my actual published work as an adult; primarily I kept the character names and the basis of who they were, fleshing them out and (hopefully) making them three dimensional. Sara is, to date, the only book I’ve published that is set in Kansas; Laura, the main character in Sorceress, is also from Kansas–but the book is set in California. And of course I’ve been playing with the Kansas book now for something like fifteen years–hopefully, that will be finished and done this year.

I love to read about Kansas, and two of my favorite crime writers–Lori Roy and Sara Paretsky–are also from Kansas; Lori’s first novel, Bent Road (it’s brilliant, as is everything she writes) is set in Kansas; Sara, of course, primarily writes about Chicago but wrote a stand alone several years ago called Bleeding Kansas I’ve always wanted to get around to. Nancy Pickard also wrote two stunningly brilliant novels set in Kansas–The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning; I cannot recommend them enough. One cannot talk about Kansas books, either, without mentioning Truman Capote’s “true crime novel” In Cold Blood, which I like to reread every now and then.

There’s just something noir about Kansas; I don’t know how to describe it, or why it feels that way to me; but there’s just something about the wide open spaces and the wind, that Peyton Place-like feel to the small cities…Emporia (the county seat; we lived about eight miles out of town in an even smaller town called Americus) even had its own full blown scandal where a minister and the church secretary had an affair and murdered their spouses; it was even made into a two-part mini-series filmed on location in Emporia starring Jobeth Williams as the femme fatale. Those small towns, scattered all over the northern part of Lyon County, once thriving and bustling but now barely hand on when I lived there…the abandoned schools, still standing (they’d all been consolidated into one high school in the 1950’s) in the emptying little towns…our consolidated high school, out in the middle of the country with the football field backing up to a pasture; and the explosive boredom for teenagers. I always turn back to Kansas somehow, whenever I am thinking creatively or wanting to write a new short story–so much material, really. Emporia even had a cult; the old Presbyterian College of Emporia had gone bankrupt sometime in the early 1970’s and The Way International had bought the campus, turning it into The Way College of Emporia and I have to tell you, those kids from The Way College were terrifying–and there were lots of stories and urban legends about what went on there on that campus; how much was true I’ll probably never know, but I do know they used to have armed security guards patrolling the edge of campus, and every teenager knew not to ever get cornered anywhere with no possible escape by two or more of those kids….they always traveled in groups, never less than two and rarely more than six, but always in multiples of two. They always looked very clean cut, but you knew them by the nametags they were required to wear, their empty glassy eyes, and the big smiles on their faces.

There’s also the story of the bloody Benders, serial killers who operated an inn and murdered their guests in the nineteenth century before disappearing; I’m sure every nook and cranny of Kansas has some kind of horrible tale of murder hidden away.

And about three or four miles from our high school–you had to turn right when you reached the state road from Americus to get there; if you turned left towards Council Grove you’d pass this place: an abandoned nuclear missile base, that is still there. We used to go there sometimes for kicks–opening the door and listening to the strange sounds from deep inside and water dripping. I had plenty of nightmares about that missile base.

But the only other gay novelist I know from Kansas is Scott Heim (or at least the only one I know of who sometimes writes about Kansas). I read his debut novel Mysterious Skin sometime in the mid to late 1990’s, and was blown away by it (the film is also quite good). Mysterious Skin is set in Kansas, of course, and while it is a literary novel, and a quite good one, for me there were some elements of noir to the story; I have moved it to the The Reread Project pile and hope to get to it again relatively soon, so i can discuss it with more credibility and authority. I’ve not had the opportunity to read his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear, but I’m adding them to the “need to get a copy” list.

Over this past weekend I read a short story Scott wrote for Amazon; part of something called The Disorder Collection, along with stories from several other authors. You can buy “Loam” here; it’s well worth the ninety-nine cents.

We agreed to share the driving. The early-morning flights had left us feeling run-down, but my sisters said my eyes looked the least bleary, so I should drive first. The clouds had gone gray; it had started to rain. But we could take our time. The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood.

At the rental counter, a cheery, silver-haired clerk had offered us a white sedan, but Louise had disapproved. “A simple compact is fine,” she said, “and no extra options. Just make sure it’s as black as possible. Is ‘funeral black’ a color?” She’d glanced across the desk to Miriam and me, urging us to smile. No one had smiled since we’d met in the arrival lobby with hesitant hugs.

The clerk didn’t seem to grasp Louise’s reference, but when she collected our licenses, she was attentive enough to catch our dates of birth. She turned and yelled, “Girls, come look–triplets!”

It had been years since we’d been subjected to this kind of foolishness. We watched as her pair of coworkers stood from their desks and approached the counter. I could guess what was coming next: we didn’t look anything alike; we had varying shades of brown and blond hair; even our bodies and the ways we dressed, so different. Louise stopped their small talk before it could start, outstretching her hand to silence the room. “Look, our father just died, okay? Let’s sign what we need to sign and get this over with.”

One of the things I love about Heim’s work–and having only read one novel over twenty years ago and now this short story–is that he often writes about the aftereffects, and the aftermath, of traumas and how the victims deal and cope. This is something that interests me; I often think and wonder about how people who’ve dealt with something–my husband is a serial sex offender; my father murdered my mother, my grandfather was a serial killer–they had no control over cope and go on with their lives; I’m actually writing a story dealing with that sort of thing right now (one of the many stories I have in some sort of progress right now; it’s called “He Didn’t Kill Her”), and also those who were directly victimized–how do they deal? How do they cope? How do they go on with their lives after something so traumatic happens to them?

This is why this century’s reboots and sequels to Halloween interest me, because they show how Laurie Strode, years later, was psychologically damaged and who she became; one of the things I loved about the Scream films is they showed how everything that has happened to her has turned Sydney into a different person from who she imagined she’d be before the murders started.

Heim doesn’t write about the peripherally damaged; he writes about those who actually were damaged first-hand. In “Loam”, his triplets are clearly damaged by something that happened to them when they were children; they are returning to bury their father and clearly have not been back to Kansas in years. It isn’t clear what happened to them–it may have just been bad parenting in the beginning–and it isn’t until they stop at a second-hand store (what we used to call “junk shops” when I was a kid) and find some strange and mysterious pictures of their first grade classmates on a table that the memories of the past–and what they went through–begin to come to the fore.

I do wish Scott Heim would write more. This story, sad and dark and mysterious, is everything I love to read.

This: The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood–I wish I’d written that.

Buy it or borrow it if you have Amazon Prime. It’s very well worth the time.

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Coal Miner’s Daughter

Wednesday, and here we are, in the middle of the week suddenly. It’s also a new month; didn’t March seem to last forever, to the point where it actually felt like it wasn’t just March but Bataan Death March? Does anyone besides me even know what the Bataan Death March was? Americans’ grasp and knowledge of our own history is astonishingly slender and leaves a lot to be desired–which is why the same policies that have failed, repeatedly, throughout our history–“trickle down economics”, anyone–always end up coming back around and fucking us all over again, repeatedly, as new generations continue to be fooled by the desire of the rich and the corporations to fuck us repeatedly, counting on the knowledge that no one knows it has all happened before.

It is astonishing how no one studies the past so we can learn from mistakes made and not repeat them, isn’t it?

I’m actually not, as today’s title might suggest, a coal miner’s daughter but actually a coal miner’s grandson; my grandfather was a coal miner, and received disability until the day he died for the black lung disease he acquired as a result. Alabama isn’t known for coal mining, and I do know that he used to go away to work in the coal mines, so I’m not exactly sure where it was he went to do the work; as a child I didn’t really listen to the stories as closely as perhaps I should have, or it’s the old memory-sieve thing, but I do remember seeing Coal Miner’s Daughter in the theater when it was released, and thinking, when they showed the shack Loretta Lynn grew up in, how similar it was to my maternal grandmother’s house. The house my father grew up in–where my grandfather lived up till pretty close to when he died, I think–wasn’t as ramshackle as my maternal grandmother’s. It never dawned on me to think about how much poverty my parents grew up as children; my maternal grandfather died when my mother was around eleven, and so the only money they ever got was his military pension from serving in the Pacific during the war–and it wasn’t much. My grandmother used to make most of her children’s clothes as well as her own; when I was a kid I remember my mother had mad sewing skills, but they fell into disuse as we moved up the economic ladder as I got older. My parents were, in fact, a perfect example of the upward mobility, the American dream, as it used to exist in those decades that followed the second world war. They married young and moved to Chicago when they were barely twenty and had two small children; they both worked in factories while my dad went to school at night to finish his engineering degree. By the time they were thirty they owned a house in the suburbs and my father was on his way up the corporate ladder; my mom stopped working when he finally made it to management and we were transferred to Kansas. It was always ironic to me that when I was a small child my parents both worked while everyone else I knew’s mom was a housewife; when the economy shifted in my teens my mother became a housewife while most other families became two income.

I didn’t grow up in Alabama, but I grew up thinking of Alabama as home and was raised to have a fierce, deep pride in not only being Southern but in Alabama. I grew up understanding the importance of both Alabama and Auburn football to the pride of the state, and pride in that the fierce rivalry between the two programs was one of the biggest and best in college football. My love for Alabama has grown more conflicted over the years, as I began to reexamine things I was raised to believe in as moral and right and developed my own code of ethics, morality, and right and wrong. Writing Bury Me in Shadows is, in some ways, an attempt to regurgitate and make sense of that through writing. The vast majority of my writing has always firmly centered New Orleans, and writing about New Orleans is probably what I’m best known for, if I am known at all. I have written bits and pieces here and there about other places I’ve lived; I turned Fresno into Polk for the frat boy books, and Tampa into Bay City for other stories, and of course, with the exception of Dark Tide, which was set in the panhandle of Alabama, I primarily fictionalize where I’m from in Alabama as Corinth County–which is where the main character of Dark Tide was from.

Bury Me in Shadows is my first book-length writing about Corinth County; and I decided to show it from the perspective of a native who didn’t grow up there, whose mother moved away before he was born, and has spent very little time there–and hasn’t, in fact, been there since he was eight years old. I am having some fun with it–you can’t go wrong with a meth lab, a burned out plantation house, and the rural woods in northwest Alabama–but it needs some work, and I think I’ve been away from it long enough now so that when I do have the time to go back and start revising and reworking and getting it ready to turn in, my eyes and perspective will be fresh.

I am starting to get more tired though, and it’s harder to get up in the morning than it was earlier in the week. I am only working the morning shift today; this afternoon I have some errands to run and I am going to do some work at home. I think that will help me with the tiredness–the screening process can be draining–and if I get my work done early, I can maybe spend some time reading or writing. I was too tired to read much more of “The Archduchess,” the du Maurier tale I am trying to get through this week, but it’s very interesting. The darkness that always imbues her work is there as the story goes on, which is about a very small European nation whose spring water has some kind of mystical rejuvenating power, but I haven’t gotten to the meat of the story as of yet. But it’s interesting, and I am curious to see where she is going with the story.

I also have a gazillion emails to try to get answered at some point today.

Just thinking about it makes me tired.

And on that note, it’s off to the spice mines. Have a lovely, lovely day, Constant Reader.

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All I Want for Christmas

Joan Didion once wrote “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” in her title essay in the collection The White Album. 

I have grown to love and appreciate Didion’s work over the last couple of years, but I’ve always puzzled over that particular quote. The full quote is “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Often that first sentence is taken from its original context and used as a stand-alone quote; my first thought on seeing it somewhere (without having read Didion) was, yes, this is true. This is why our memories of the same event are all different; we interpret and remember that event through the prism of our personal experience and therefore it is colored by who we are as a people; we are all unreliable narrators of our own lives.

This is one of many reasons I am hesitant to even attempt to write personal essays or a memoir; my memory lies to me all the time. It was only recently that I realized, for example, that my recollection of when we moved from Chicago to the suburbs was in 1969; I’ve always believed that, but recently remembered wait, I was ten when we moved; I turned ten in 1971 and sure enough, looking at the dates on some old pictures, yup, it was December 1971 when we left the city for the burbs…so writing personal essays, or a memoir, would require me to research and fact check my own life.

Which would be bizarre, to say the least.

So, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Christmas is sort of like that, isn’t it? All of these Christmas stories, all these myths…all these stories and traditions that have absolutely nothing to do with what the actual holiday means and was originally intended to be; it’s also kind of amusing to me that something that theoretically began as a Christian religious holiday has been so thoroughly secularized; and at the very least, the majority of Christmas “traditions” are heavily Catholic; so much so that in the early days of the Reformation Protestants didn’t celebrate Christmas (or Easter); some still don’t to this very day. Santa Claus is derived from St. Nicholas; so evangelical children who are taught about Santa Claus are actually celebrating Catholicism–which is why I am always amused by the bumper stickers and billboards stating “Keep the Christ in Christmas.”

Um, there’s no Rudolph or Frosty or Santa Claus or reindeer in the New Testament, so telling your children those stories, or letting them watch the specials or movies, or making that a part of their Christmas isn’t keeping the Christ in Christmas; if anything, it’s helping take the Christ out of Christmas. (And Christmas is a contraction of Christ Mass, so again, Catholic in the first place.) What do lights and a Christmas tree or any of that have to do with the birth of Jesus?

NOTHING

Most Christmas stories–novels or film or television–inevitably are predicated on a belief in Christianity; the stories always boil down to having faith in the unseen and having that faith reaffirmed, or developing that faith. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol probably did the most in popularizing and secularizing Christmas; it’s a morality tale which everyone knows by heart–how many fucking adaptations of that classic story have their been? (I think the first one I saw was with Mr. Magoo.) But it’s a ghost story–ghost stories have always been a part of Christmas, for some reason; the Holy Ghost, perhaps?–and it’s a classic story, even if repetition has made it cliche and tired. It’s also a compelling psychological breakdown of a desperately unhappy man, who takes out his misery on everyone else around him and doesn’t celebrate, or enjoy, Christmas; the ghosts of his past Christmases show him how he became the man he is today–and his future. It has been adapted so many times–even It’s A Wonderful Life is a variation on the story–that is, as I said, the hoariest of all the Christmas cliches; I think the vast majority of sitcoms when I was a child would always, inevitably, do a take on the story for a Christmas episode, to the point that I would cringe when it opened. I read the actual story about twenty years ago, and I was quite surprised to see the changes that were made to it in order to film it…changes that were incorporated into every version filmed ever since. (Bob Cratchit wasn’t Scrooge’s family in the original story; just an employee. Scrooge’s nephew is never in the story, except at the end when Scrooge joins his nephew’s family, not the Cratchits, for the holiday feast.)

But none of these traditional stories, as I’ve mentioned, center queer people–or even include them. A queer version of A Christmas Carol has probably been done by someone–I don’t keep up with queer publishing outside of mysteries the way I used to–but it would be incredibly difficult to do it well; making Scrooge a gay man wouldn’t be enough of a change to make it fresh and new…although the nineteenth century trope of the “broken hearted man who vowed to never love again and thus died a confirmed bachelor” has always read as code for “big old homo” to me (hello, James Buchanan?) because it is incredibly difficult for me to believe that a man of any time would go his entire life without having any sexual experience; although I suppose they wouldn’t have recorded “So instead of a loving marriage, Buchanan spent the rest of his life using prostitutes for his needs.”

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines.

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Jacob’s Ladder

Tuesday morning and all is fine…at least so far.

I managed to finish the reread/outline of Bury Me in Shadows last night, which is very cool, and as I said the other day, it doesn’t need nearly as much work as I thought it did–which, given how it was written in fits and starts over the period of a few months, I figured there would be tons of repetition. As it is, I did repeat something–the first time my main character, Jake, was ever called a gay slur–about three or four times. Obviously, I only need to have that in there once.

What’s funny about it, though, is that each instance is based on a different time it happened to me when I was a kid–and I managed to remember four different times. Who knows how many others I can remember? Ah, the joys of being a queer kid in America back in the day.

But the book is, as I said, in much better shape than I remembered or thought, and so it’s not going to be as much work to finish it as I thought. Don’t get me wrong–it’s still going to be a lengthy slog, it’s just not going to take me as a long to finish this final edit than I thought it might. It’s still entirely possible that I could have it finished and ready to go sometime next week, which would be really lovely. One can certainly hope, at least.

I’ve managed to sleep well both nights so far this week–I didn’t even feel tired yesterday until after I got home from the office. I somehow managed to make it through an entire twelve-hour day without feeling exhausted or worn out. On the other hand, we were also pretty slow yesterday; perhaps not having client after client after client made the difference.

We finished watching Big Mouth last night, which is easily one of the funniest things on television right now, and will now slide back into watching our other shows each evening, trying to get caught up on them all. A plethora of riches for us to choose from, and we still have only watched the first episode of the first season of Succession, so there’s also that.

I’m not as energetic this morning as I was yesterday; but that’s probably par for the course. I may not have been as worn out as I usually am on Monday evening last night, but it was still a twelve hour day, and today is probably a vestigial hangover from that. That doesn’t bode well for the day, but I”m hoping it’s just a slow waking up morning type of thing. I’ve still got so much to do it’s not even funny. Motivation is the primary problem I am having this morning, and my coffee doesn’t seem to be working the way I generally expect/need it to. Oh, wait–there it is. Hello, caffeine!

There was a cold front that came through last night so today is supposedly going to be cooler than it has been–sad that temperatures in the mid-80’s is “cooler than it has been,” but that’s life down here in the swamp. This summer has certainly lasted longer than any have seemed to before, but that could also just be my own faulty memory. My memories are questionable, it seems. That’s why people who can write their own memoirs or autobiographies amaze me so much–how do you remember all of that? There are so many gaps in my memories, and memories that are simply flat out wrong; for example, I would have sworn on a Bible and testified to it in court that we moved from Chicago out to the suburbs in the winter of 1969, which is incorrect. We moved in the winter of 1971, two years later; I was ten years old and in the sixth grade. I knew I was ten when we moved, and yet somehow I always managed to convince myself we moved in 1969. Why or how or when that year became fixated in my brain as the year we moved is beyond me; I’ve always been able to remember the year we moved to Kansas because it was the summer before my junior year. I graduated in 1978, so we had to have moved to Kansas in 1976. It was also the Olympic year–Montreal–and the same Olympics where Nadia Comenici started throwing perfect 10’s in the gymnastics competition.

Why have I been thinking about the past so much lately? I’m not sure. Maybe because Bury Me in Shadows is set in a fictional county that is based on the county where my family is from, so I’ve been drawing on childhood memories to construct a fictional place based in reality from my past. It’s strange to look at Google Earth renderings of where we’re from, and see that my memories are, in fact, incorrect; but in fairness I never drove anywhere in Alabama. I was always a passenger, and I think driving cements directions and so forth in your mind–when you’re just riding in the car you don’t pay as much attention as you would if you were driving. I’m also writing “Never Kiss a Stranger,” which is set in New Orleans in 1994, so I’m having to delve into my memories of visiting here and remembering what the city was like then. It does seem different now than it was then–certainly the city has changed since that first visit all those years ago, when I first explored the gay bars and the Quarter and fell in love with New Orleans; part of the reason I am writing the story and setting it in that time is to write about, and preserve in fiction, my memories of the city back then and what it was like. I’m also glad I decided to turn it into a novella–I may do a book of four novellas, like Stephen King’s Different Seasons and Full Dark No Stars–which would be kind of a departure for me. I already have “Never Kiss a Stranger” in progress, and there’s also “Fireflies,” and perhaps I have two other stories on hand that could easily be adapted into longer novellas….often the problem I have with writing short stories is the word counts; some stories struggle to come in under 6000 words.

Which, now that I think about it, could easily make “Once a Tiger” and “Please Die Soon” and perhaps even “Death and the Handmaidens” work; simply make them longer and that will probably solve the issues with all three stories.

An interesting and intriguing thought.

And on that note, tis time for me to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader.

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Funny Face

Monday, Monday. Can’t trust that day, you know?

Saturday night I watched a documentary about college football on ESPN, Football is US: The College Game. It was interesting–I didn’t know who Walter Camp was, but I’d heard the name before. I also knew who Amos Alonzo Stagg was–there’s a high school in Chicago named for him, and I also knew that the University of Chicago was an early power in college football, until they disbanded their team and stopped playing. It lightly touched on how college football parity helped desegregate the Southern universities–their football teams were mediocre, once other schools started recruiting, and playing, black players–but there was one line, when talking about the civil rights struggles in the 1960’s, and how Southern people, especially those in Alabama, focused on football as a source of pride for their state, that was particularly true and honest, and I wished they would have followed up on it some more: they didn’t like the way their state was being portrayed on the news, and felt like these representations of Southern states as hotbeds of racism was unfair.

Yes, indeed. It was incredibly unfair how the national news depicted Southern racism as how it actually existed in the real world. This resentment of how they are viewed by outsiders is keenly felt down here, and that sense of resentment is very key to understanding their behavior.

I reread the final few chapters of Bury Me in Shadows yesterday, and then planned out the final three, so I have a good shot at making my deadline of finishing the first draft by September 1. I also revised both “Moist Money” and “This Thing of Darkness” yesterday, so it was a fairly productive day for me on the writing front. Both stories need to be gone over again before sending them out into the world–both are rather dark stories; I sometimes shock myself with how dark I can go if I set my mind to it. (Fully cognizant of the notion that other people’s opinion of what dark is can vary wildly.)

We are still watching the third season of Thirteen Reasons Why, and I have to say, the show is both ridiculous and over the top–last night I said to Paul, “you know, this high school is completely fucked up–I can’t imagine anyone I went to high school with being murdered, let alone that almost everyone I was friends with would have a motive for killing another classmate”–but the show’s true appeal lies in the cast, how good they are in their roles, and the chemistry they have with each other. And let’s be honest–it hasn’t come remotely  close to Riverdale when it comes to plots going over the top. While watching last night, it occurred to me that the show is really kind of an Edge of Night type serial, only set in high school; every season’s plot has had something to do with death and crime. There has been at least one suicide, one suicide attempt, an almost-school shooting, several rapes–one particularly brutal one involving a young man and a broom handle–and so I can see why teenagers who’ve been through a trauma of some sort would find the show hard to watch.

I also watched Roll Red Roll, a horrifying documentary of the Steubenville rape case–which also is an exploration of rape culture in small towns–and that case was what initially inspired my own in-progress manuscript about the same thing; rape culture in a small town. Watching the documentary, and remembering how awful the story was as it unfolded–several other cases broke around the same time; there was another in Marysville, Missouri, and another in southern California, which were the subjects of another documentary–also made me see, again, what are the many problems and holes in the plot of the book I wrote on the subject, and what needs to be fixed about it.

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

Happy Monday, everyone.

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Wham Bam

So, I burned my upper lip over the weekend (my lower lip also, but not as bad as the upper) and this is something I’ve never done before, so am not really sure how to deal with it. My lips hurt, of course, and it’s not like you can bandage your lip. I just kept putting Blistex on them the last few days whenever it felt like they were cracking (yes, that’s a thing) but I ate pizza for dinner last night and must have burned the upper lip even more because this morning I woke up with it covered in dried blood and kind of scabby. I carefully washed it, clearing off the dried blood, and then of course it started bleeding again. It has since stopped, thanks to regular blotting with tissue, but nonetheless, it was a rather traumatic way to start the day, but there we are.

I set my alarm to get up at seven, allowing myself an extra hour’s sleep than Monday and Tuesday, but naturally hit snooze and wound up getting up at eight thirty. Not disgraceful, mind you, but not pleasing in my eyes.

I wound up not working on the book yesterday, after all; a review of Chapter Eleven showed me that writing it disjointedly the way I had meant that there are things in the first part of the chapter that I repeat in the second half, which means I need to revise it before moving on. This was actually fine with me; I used the day to start rewriting “The Snow Globe” based on the lovely notes I’d received from the editor who’d rejected it (thank you again and a big shout out to Sandra Kasturi!) and the story is better and more cohesive now; it actually makes sense, and again, returning to a story months after the last time I’d looked at it–yeah, clunky sentences and paragraphs that don’t flow into each other, etc., to the point that I was actually embarrassed I’d let Sandra read it in the first place as she is an editor I admire. Oh, well, I’m sure it was neither the first nor the last time an editor read something of mine and thought, how in the hell did he get published, and how the hell did he win those awards?

Sigh.

I decided to take Friday off so I have a four-day weekend to look forward to, which is, naturally, quite lovely. I hope to get a lot done–don’t I always–but if I don’t, I am fine with just getting rested and doing some writing and some cleaning. I will, of course, come up with an enormously lengthy list of the things I want to get done, but we’ll see how it goes. I made a to-do list for the week yesterday, which is a lovely and nice change–I really need to get back into the habit of doing that–and I also made an eye appointment so I can get new glasses/contact lenses. Look at me, getting things done!

We also watched the most recent episode of Fosse/Verdon last night. The show is amazing on every level, and not just for the stunning performances of Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams in the leads. Williams deserves an Emmy, but the Actress in a Limited Series or Movie category is going to be a tough one, I suspect, this coming year. But as I watched the original production of Chicago coming together, and Gwen baring her teeth–especially when she had to have surgery on her vocal chords and walk away from the show for six weeks, being replaced by Liza Minelli, who then turned the show into a huge hit–I couldn’t help thinking of Valley of the Dolls and Helen Lawson, which then led me down a primrose path in my head of imagine if this story was being told by Jacqueline Susann, a thought that’s still, obviously, lingering in my head this morning.

The other interesting thing I am taking away from watching the show is astonishment at realizing just how HUGE a star on Broadway Gwen Verdon actually was; I’d heard of her before, of course–who doesn’t know Damn Yankees, and we actually did it in high school–and Sweet Charity, but I’d literally no idea precisely how big a star she actually was. She was considered the best singer/dancer on Broadway in the 50’s/60’s–and you have to remember who the other women appearing on Broadway during that time were to realize how important she must have been: Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews, and Chita Rivera, to name a few–and she won four Tonys. FOUR.

Damn it, now I am going to have to read the book the series is based on, Fosse.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Happy Wednesday, Constant Reader!

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Song of the South

I am a son of the South; Alabama born and bred. Southerners like to think, or believe, that they are different from other Americans; they also believe they are the most patriotic Americans, despite the prevalence of Confederate flags and dedication to preserving memorials to traitors. I was born and grew up during the height of the Civil Rights movement. I remember the day Dr. King was murdered. I grew up amidst racism and segregation–there were no black children in my elementary school in Chicago, and the story was our principal would tell black families trying to enroll their children that the school was at capacity–but would then enroll the children of the next white family to come along. That racism at our school didn’t extend to Hispanics/Latinx; I shared classrooms with kids who were born in Mexico or Central America, whose families had come to the United States and Chicago–where my family moved when I was two–to escape war and poverty. Several of my teachers liked to call attention to the immigrant children in my classes, as examples of the American melting pot, how the country was a country of immigrants, and how our nation’s strength came from the combination of cultures and national identities.

Race has always been an issue in this country since the day the first slave ships arrived; the deadly seeds of poison and discord planted in a nation as yet unborn in the notion that some people are less than others, that owning human beings as though they were cattle was a legitimate enterprise. Slavery almost split the country in two; it took a rebellion and a bloody war to put an end to it…but that war didn’t solve the ultimate problem of slavery because it was never addressed: white supremacy and the belief that the US was a country of white people exclusively for white people. If you weren’t white, you could benefit from being an American but never as much as white Americans. I remember hearing, during the Civil Rights era, that Americans of color should be grateful they were Americans because they were better off as Americans than they would be anywhere else.

Even as a child, this begged the question, but isn’t the point of being American the idea that the next generation is better off than the previous? That the reason our country is great is because we all strive to do better than our parents? Isn’t that what people of color are trying to do?

Race issues in America has always been complex and complicated and nuanced.

I sometimes have wondered if I have failed as a writer by not dealing with issues of race in my books. I told a friend the other day that I will have to go back and reread all of my books to see if I allowed any racist ideas or sentiments to creep into it; even if it’s as little a thing as describing a person of color by their color, and if I fell into the horrific racist tropes of using food or drink to indicate the color of their skin–mocha, chocolate, cinnamon, etc.

Getting inside the head of racists…and people who are involved in the Klan…is something that is difficult for a lot of Americans. The rise of social media and the most recent elections have exposed a lot of people to shocking discoveries about relatives and friends, who harbor racist or at the very least, borderline racist ideologies. I’ve been pushing myself to deal with race and in particular how prevalent in can be in the rural south lately, so I am reading a lot more about it.

Lori Roy, on the other hand, decided to write a novel about it.

gone too long

The truck driving toward our house is black. Lots of cars drive past our house because there’s a good turnaround spot just down the road and the interstate is the other way. Most every car driving past wants to go the other way, and usually they’re in a hurry, but not this truck. It drives slow and it glitters when the sun hits it and the tailgate rattles like pennies in a mason jar. I hear it even though all the windows and doors are closed and locked, have to be. That’s the rule when Mama’s at work and I’m home alone.

The driver, he is a man. One of his arms hangs out the window, and something dangles from his hand. I don’t know what it is, but then he keeps slowing down, almost rolls to a stop, and as soon as he flings that something, I know. It has happened before. If Mama comes home and finds it, she’ll be angry and maybe even cancel her going-out plans for tonight. And if going-out plans are canceled, Julie Anna won’t come.

I wait until the truck rolls past before I slide off the sofa. Making sure no one will hear, I touch my feet down real soft, don’t jump like I sometimes do, and tiptoe to the front door. The lock is stiff and I have to use both hands to turn it. Mama’s big enough, it only takes her one hand to open the door, and someday, that’ll be me. The lock makes a loud click and I freeze. I tru to be quiet because I’m doing wrong and I know it. Someone is always watching, that’s what Mama likes to say, so I guess I’m sneaking so the someone, whoever that someone is, won’t see.

Lori Roy is one of our top crime writers publishing today–she has, over the course of four novels, won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and been nominated for a third. Gone Too Long is her fifth novel, and it, too, is an impressive achievement.

The book opens with the afore-mentioned first person characterization of a young girl named Beth, and the horrific thing that happens to her. She is kidnapped and held hostage in a basement somewhere, after witnessing the murder of her babysitter, Julie Anna. As if that isn’t horrific enough, we also know that it takes place seven years earlier, and that the action of the story is going to flash back and forth in time between the present and the recent past. The modern day character is a damaged young woman with red hair named Imogene, still recovering–through the use of alcohol and meaningless sexual experiences with men selected when she’s drunk–from the deaths of her husband and son in a car accident several years earlier.

Imogene just also happens to be the daughter of a recently deceased high-ranking member of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. In the present day, her father has just been buried, and her mother has found a strange wire…and asks Imogene to follow where it leads from their house. She does, comes upon an older house on their property that has been abandoned for years, and finds, in a basement similar to the one where Beth was taken, a young boy who would be about the age her son would be had he not been killed. The discovery of this child–and the discovery that the new Klan leader’s son’s girlfriend has tried to sell two incredibly expensive watches–triggers a series of events and revelations that expose the ugliness of the Klan, the ugliness of human nature, and the ugliness of life in general when your family has been devoted to the Klan for generations.

Gone Too Long is a brilliant read, immense in its scope of human emotions and the nuances of how people can rationalize the irrational, and how that irrationality can lead to the self-justification  of doing the most horrible things to other human beings; yes I know it’s wrong but I didn’t have a choice.

This is an incredibly powerful novel, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Alas, it won’t be available until its actual publication date on June 25th, but it can be pre-ordered, both on-line and from your local independent. Do so; pre-order it now so you can experience what is definitely going to be one of the top crime novels of 2019.

Stunning. Just stunning.

Sleigh Ride

Today we’re going to see Aquaman. I am very excited for this, if you couldn’t tell by me pretty much mentioning it every day for the last week. I didn’t discover Jason Momoa until Game of Thrones (I know, I know, bad gay), but have been a huge fan ever since. And while my initial reaction to the news of his casting was problematic (but Aquaman is blond!) I got over it pretty quick. I’ve always been a fan of Aquaman–yes, I love Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, but have always had a place in my heart for the ‘lesser’ heroes–Flash, Aquaman, Green Lantern, etc. So I am excited to see Aquaman get his own movie, and I do hope someday they give Green Lantern another shot.

I slept in this morning, later than usual–last night I even fell asleep in my easy chair, showing how tired I was (although that’s happened twice this week), and I feel very rested this morning. I have to run to the post office this morning, and I have some things to get at the grocery store (the Saturday before Christmas! Hurray!) before we head out for the movie. I did work a little on Bury Me in Satin a little bit last night, but I also had dinner with some friends in from out of town, which was lovely, and then we also watched the Schitt’s Creek Christmas special. I do want to talk some more about this show, but I am going to give it, I think, it’s own entry because it deserves it. Seriously, people, if you aren’t watching this show you need to. It’s hilarious, but incredibly warm and sweet at the same time.

It definitely deserves an entry of its own.

My kitchen is a mess; and I have loads of chores to do this morning. I’d like to, obviously, get as much done today as possible, so tomorrow I can focus on the Saints game and editing the Scotty book, maybe log some time in on Bury Me in Satin, do some reading, etc., and then have both Christmas Eve and Christmas to not only do some writing/editing in the morning, but spend the rest of each day relaxing, which will be lovely. I get a three day work week this week and next (huzzah!) and so here’s hoping that some of that free time will be spent productively.

Or not. We’ll see. Oh! I have to stop at the library today, too. They’re holding a book for me. Yay! I love having a library card, and being able to reserve books on-line. I do think one of these days I need to just go spend a day in the library, though; try to remember what it was like when I was a kid and used to spend whole afternoons in the Tomen Branch of the Chicago Public Library on Pulaski Boulevard. And the Latter Library on St. Charles Avenue here in New Orleans is so, so beautiful.

I am also, by the way, in total denial that Carnival is just around the corner.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Free Your Mind

Well, I slept deeply and well last night, only waking up twice–and both times I was able to go back into a lovely, lovely deep sleep. I also didn’t wake up until almost nine. I know, right? It’s so lovely to feel rested.

LSU’s game isn’t on until tonight, but there are some terrific games on throughout the day. I suspect I can finish the floors and cleaning the living room around and during some of these games; I can also get some writing done as well, methinks. I am leaning towards editing some short stories rather than working on the book–yes, I know that will put me two days behind where I want to be with it, but I am also stuck. (And no sooner did I type that, did I come up with a way to start Chapter Four in a way that will help advance the plot somewhat. Huzzah!)

Yesterday, as I mentioned, I stopped at the Latter Library on my way home from work to pick up a book I’d requested on-line, Volume 2 of Otto Penzler’s Bibliomysteries. If you aren’t familiar with the “Bibliomysteries,” these are slightly longer than your average short stories, written by today’s top crime writers, and have to focus or be centered around a book or a bookstore. I first became aware of them when I was a judge for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story a few years ago (maybe more than a few; time has become so fluid and untethered for me–particularly when I realize it’s fucking 2018 sometimes), and in fact we picked John Connelly’s Bibliomystery, “‘The Caxton Lending Library and Book Depository,” as that year’s Best Short Story winner. Since then, I’ve read others–Megan Abbott’s “The Little Men,” Laura Lippman’s “The Book Thing,” Denise Mina’s “Every Seven Years”–and been blown away by their absolute brilliance (which reminds me, I really need to get back to the Short Story Project, which has sadly fallen by the wayside); so I am very excited to read this second collection of these singles; the stories are, you see, originally published as singles–you can buy them as ebooks or you can get a print copy.

I love the library, and was extremely pleased with myself, as Constant Reader is probably already aware, for finally getting my library card. I haven’t had one since I left Kansas in 1981; and even in Kansas I hadn’t used mine for years when we moved. Libraries were very important to me, as a kid and as a teen; I don’t know why I stopped using them–other than the fact that I often lost library books, or forgot to return them on time, which meant fines, which meant lectures from my mother about irresponsibility and on and on and on it went–but I remember the Tomen Branch of the Chicago Public Library fondly; the library on 6th Street in Emporia, and the little library in Americus, as well as when the Bolingbrook Library opened. I often spent time in my school libraries as well as a kid. Stupidly, I suspect I stopped using libraries when I started working and had my own money to buy books with; I loved owning books, always coveted other people’s, and for years was also sentimentally attached to books and didn’t want to get rid of my copies of them. I still am, and I still hoard books, always buying more when I haven’t read all the ones on hand, and I was the same with the library; always checking out more than I could possibly read because I also wanted choices about what to read. I’m looking forward to reading–and reporting back–on the stories in this book I haven’t already read–the Abbott and Mina stories are also inside this collection of them. Writing a Bibliomystery is a bucket-list thing for me; but I will also need to become more important of a writer to be asked.

Last night, as I laundered the bed lines and blankets and coverlets, it took longer for the dryer to dry things then planned–it was damp yesterday, and damp always affects the dryer–so I had to stay up a little later than I wanted to, so I started streaming an 1980’s classic thru Prime: Night of the Comet, starring Robert Beltran, Catherine-Mary Stewart, and Kelli Maroney. I saw this movie in the theater when it was released; it’s not the greatest movie in the world, but it also recognized that it wasn’t a great movie and embraced its camp sensibility. The premise of the movie is this: a comet with an enormous orbit through space is going to pass close by Earth again for the first time in sixty-five million years (hello, dinosaur extinction event!), and of course, it turns into this thing, with comet-watching parties and so forth. Our two leading ladies manage to miss the comet by falling asleep inside of steel–Stewart in the cinema where she works in a steel-walled room for storing film; Maroney in a steel shed in the backyard–and the comet turns everyone into either dust or murderously insane zombies, and they have to survive somehow. Fortunately, the women–sisters–have a father in the military who taught them how to protect themselves. Beltran plays a truck driver (who passed the night inside his truck) they encounter, and eventually team up with for survival. I was just far enough into the movie to get to the part where they run into Beltran for the first time–having already realized most of the world is dead–when the blankets were finished. I also remembered some trivia–Stewart’s big break was being the original Kayla on Days of Our Lives (her replacement became one of the most-loved and popular stars of the show), and Maroney started out playing a manipulative spoiled bitch teenager on Ryan’s Hope. Stewart was also the female lead in a favorite scifi movie of mine from that same period, The Last Starfighter. Both kind of faded away which I always thought was kind of unfortunate–although watching the movie again last night and seeing their performances clearly, it’s really not that surprising.

And Beltran, of course, was part of the Paul Bartel stable, also appearing in Eating Raoul and Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. Interesting that Bartel’s films, which were kind of the same style as John Waters movies, aren’t remembered or talked about much anymore. (Bartel and his usual female muse, Mary Woronov, also were in another classic from the period, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School–but I don’t remember if Bartel directed that one.)

I may finish watching Night of the Comet at some point today; we shall see how the day goes.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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I’ll Be There

I loved to read when I was a kid; it’s something I came to early in my life and has never left me, really.

I used to  buy books through the Scholastic Book catalogue (which didn’t count against my allowance), and check out books from the school library and the Tomen branch of the Chicago Public Library, which was about three blocks from our apartment and on the way to Jewel and Woolworth’s; my mom used to drop my sister and I there while she went to the grocery store. When we got our allowances, she would walk us up to Woolworth’s, so we could spend our dollar-a-week. My sister would get 45 records, which only cost 79 cents.

I spent my money on comic books.

I started with Sugar and Spike and Archie comics; eventually I moved on to super-heroes and horror comics. My parents never restricted my reading material–they preferred to restrict my reading time only–and so i kept buying comics, all the way through high school, with occasional other forays into the world of comics throughout my life. (I have the comixology app on my iPad, and scores of comics I’ve bought and downloaded but have yet to read.) But comic books have always played a part in my life, inspiring me and teaching me how to tell stories in a different way than books do.

Recently, Alex Segura tagged me in a “post a comic book every day” thing on Facebook, and digging through the Internet to find the comics that influenced me brought back a lot of memories.

One of the strangest–but true–stories about my books and how they came to be is that Dark Tide was inspired by a comic book. This one, in fact:

bloody mermaid

January 1972, when I was eleven years old, I chanced upon this comic book on the comics rack at the Woolworth’s a few blocks from our apartment in Chicago. I often bought horror comics from time to time, mixing them in with my super-heroes, but this one, for some reason, always resonated with me. I don’t know why I bought it, but that cover is pretty fucking spectacular, isn’t it?

In the 1980’s, when I wanted to be Stephen King, I started writing a horror novel called The Enchantress, which was totally about a killer mermaid. I wrote an introduction and four chapters before giving up because I didn’t know where to go with it from there–like I’ve said before, plot is always my biggest problem–and in all honesty, it was totally,  at least in structure, a rip-off of Peter Straub’s Floating Dragon. I also used the same types he did for the main characters: a woman, a young boy, a man in his early thirties, and a retired older man. All of it was bad other than the chapter introducing the woman, which I’ve tried at very times to reshape into a short story. It was also set in the panhandle of Florida in a small town named Tuscadega; which I used again as the setting for my story “Cold Beer No Flies”, in Florida Happens (available for preorder now!). I eventually renamed and revised the story into one called Mermaid Inn; again, keeping the story about vicious, killer mermaids. Mermaid Inn eventually morphed into Dark Tide; in fact, the entire story is pretty much set at a place called Mermaid Inn, only I moved it to south Alabama, below Mobile.

Wild that something I read when I was eleven inspired a book I published forty years later.

And were there killer mermaids? Afraid you’ll have to buy the book to find out. 🙂

And now, back to the spice mines.