The Last Time

Saturday I was interviewed for Brad Shreve’s Gay Mystery podcast (links to come when it’s available), and some of the questions he asked have hung around in my brain for quite a while now. We talked for a while before the taping commenced, and then continued chatting once we’d wrapped up what would actually air, which was also kind of lovely. (I’ve come to realize that one of the many original reasons I stopped using the phone was because I talk too much; phone calls involving me tend to last far too long because I never shut up, as so many unfortunates have discovered at some point.)

I had been remembering the long-gone queer independent bookstores lately, because Facebook memories had brought up a photo I’d posed for in front of the old A Different Light on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, where I was doing a signing/reading for Mardi Gras Mambo in either April or May of 2006. I really do miss visiting those stores–Outwrite in Atlanta was another particular favorite of mine–and it was also interesting to look at the books in the window display I was standing beside; titles by Christopher Rice, Edmund White, Andy Zeffer, John Morgan Wilson, and Joe Keenan, among others. I think that tour was my first time ever signing there; I think I signed there at least once more–on the Love, Bourbon Street tour, and by the time I was touring again–or ready to do appearances again after that–A Different Light in West Hollywood would close; I would eventually do two appearances at the one in San Francisco as well before it closed.

Then again, my memory is sketchy, as I have pointed out quite a bit lately.

But I do miss the queer bookstores–the queer newspapers, too. It was always fun to go into a queer bookstore and look through the new arrivals table, the bestseller racks, and so on. I used to always spend about a hundred bucks every time I signed in a queer bookstore–primarily to thank them for letting me appear in their store, and I have always overspent every time I’ve set foot in a bookstore. I used to always draw decent audiences, too–for me, decent is eight and up–and I remember one time at ADL in WeHo there were about fifty or so people there to see me; that was kind of a trip. (I also hyperventilated before I went out to read to that audience, as well; one thing that has never changed about me, from beginning of my career to now, is that speaking in public to an audience is excruciating torture for me–at least before hand, when I go through every level of stage fright.)

I also managed to get started on working on Chapter 11 of Bury Me in Shadows last evening, and whew–what a piece of shit THAT chapter is. As I went through the file, changing verbs and tenses from present to past, it took all of my self-control not to start erasing and deleting and rewriting. I literally said out loud at one point, “Jesus fucking Christ, this is badly written” just as Paul walked into the kitchen to get something to drink (a diet Coke, for those who pay attention to those sort of details) and he asked, “Who are you reading?” and I laughed before replying “Me. I really suck sometimes.” It’s really true; for someone who has published as much as I have and been short-listed for as many awards as I have (and yes, I know how that sounds, but I’m making a point here, do you mind?) my first and second drafts can be pretty horrible–astonishingly horrible, as I found out last night rereading this chapter. Jesus, it’s terrible. But that’s fine; the manuscript itself is probably too long anyway, and so I should be able to cut quite a lot out of this one during the revision process; there’s a bunch of filler, really, and not particularly good filler, in this chapter that can just be stricken from the record and as such, the chapter can be made much stronger.

Low bar at this point, but there it is.

We’re still in a flash flood watch through tomorrow morning, but a quick glance through social media has shown me that Beta has come ashore in Texas already, but we are still dealing with those break away storm bands, at least through today. Yesterday it actually felt chilly; I put on a sweat jacket at the office, and probably should’ve worn pants. Today it’s not even going to get into the eighties; it’s practically fall.

We did watch the enormously disappointing Saints game last night on Monday Night Football, and of course, this Saturday the LSU season starts with a home game against Mississippi State. It’s very weird; I am not sure how comfortable I am following college football this year. I love college football but this year already is so off and weird, and I’m not sure I should support it or not this year. Should they playing, given how the pandemic has played out thus far? Is watching the games and following how the season plays out actually showing support for young athletes having their health put at risk? Doesn’t playing put their bodies at risk even in a non-pandemic time?

Deep thoughts on a Tuesday morning with the dark pressing against my windows.

And now, back to the spice mines.

All the Gold in California

I often talk about how my education in the so-called “classics” is somewhat lacking; this is also true, not just of the great canon of literary fiction, but within my own genre as well (which is why I never pose as an expert on crime fiction; I am not one). I had never read Ross MacDonald–I was aware of him, and Lew Archer–but never had any real desire to read him until I was on a panel with Christopher Rice, who mentioned MacDonald as one of his favorite writers and an inspiration. Hmmm, I thought, perhaps I should give MacDonald a try.

So, in the years following that panel, I started reading the Archer novels, and enjoyed them tremendously. I’ve not read all of them, and I’ve not read any of his stand-alones…but what I liked the most about them was the style; how MacDonald put words and sentences together to create not only character, but mood and a kind of dark, noir-ish hard-boiled sensibility that I really admired. Early in my writing career, I patterned Chanse–both character and series–after John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series; later, after I started reading Ross MacDonald, I tried to see if I could create my own version of that sensibility and writing style; influenced by both MacDonalds but trying to create my own version, if that makes any kind of sense. I’d say Murder in the Irish Channel came the closest of any of the books to perfecting that style; I don’t know if Murder in the Arts District  replicated the feat (which means I am going to have to reread it, even if cursorily, damn it).

There’s nothing more tedious than rereading your own work.

But I recently decided it was past time to give one of Ross MacDonald’s stand-alones a shot, and chose The Ferguson Affair.

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The case began quietly, on the women’s floor of the county jail. I was there to interview a client, a young nurse named Ella Barker who had been arrested on a stolen-property charge. Specifically, she had sold a diamond ring which was part of the loot in a recent burglary; the secondhand dealer who bought it from her reported the transaction to the police.

Our interview started out inauspiciously. “Why you?” she wanted to know. “I thought people in trouble had a right to choose their own lawyer. Especially when they’re innocent, like me.”

“Innocence or guilt has nothing to do with it, Miss Barker. The judges keep an alphabetical list of all the attorneys in town. We take turns representing defendants without funds. My name happened to be next on the list.”

“What did you say your name was?”

“Gunnarson. William Gunnarson.”

“It’s a funny name,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

Reading books written in the past–no matter how far back–can often be jarring. One has to take into consideration the context of the time in which the book was written; The Ferguson Affair, for example, was published originally in 1960, and if you don’t think the world and society and culture have changed dramatically in the time since the final full year of the Eisenhower administration, you might want to think again. The book was published the year before I was born, so technically the book is only slighter older than I am, and it came out in a world without color television, cable, cell phones, etc. Technology had advanced so far in those fifty-nine years it might as well have been published a hundred years ago.

The Ferguson Affair was published in the midst of the period when he was producing the Lew Archer novels, and a lot of the Archer hallmarks also appear in this book; a complicated, winding plot that begins as something very small–in this case, the arrest of Ella Barker for pawning stolen property–and then continues, over the course of the investigation, to expand outwards into something much bigger, most dastardly, and more deadly. William Gunnarson, the main character of the book, is an attorney in a small California city named Buenavista, reminiscent of the town of Santa Teresa where some of the Archer books are set (and was later borrowed by Sue Grafton for her Kinsey Millhone books in a homage to MacDonald). Gunnarson is married and his wife is nine months pregnant and ready to give birth at any moment; more on that later. He is interviewing his client when word comes that someone had tried to kill the pawnshop owner who turned her in; Gunnarson is allowed to ride along to the pawnshop, which is on Pelly Street–clearly the wrong side of the tracks, and the Latin side of town. Ella was given the diamond ring she pawned for her engagement to Larry Gaines, the lifeguard at the fancy Foothill Club (the Buenavista country club), after discovering he was stepping out on her with retired screen star Holly May. The ring was loot from a robbery; the police suspect Ella knows more about the gang of robbers than she is letting on–because the victims of the robbery have all been patients at the hospital where she works as a nurse.

The book proceeds from there, with twists and turns involving kidnapping and extortion, murder and robbery; and while it is a fun ride as all MacDonald novels are, there is definitely some 1960’s era um, that’s a bit racist stuff when it comes to the Latinx people he comes into contact with over the course of the story.

And that doesn’t even take into consideration how Gunnarson treats his pregnant wife, Sally. Nine months pregnant and about to give birth at any given moment, he can’t be bothered to call her to tell her he’s coming home late for dinner which she is preparing. He never checks in on her to see if she’s okay; and in fact, he’s not around when she finally does go into labor, and someone else has to make sure she gets to the hospital in time for the birth. There’s none of the modern sentimentality about pregnancy and childbirth; he actually teases and mocks her about being so pregnant during the brief time he gives her any attention at all.  I’m not really sure why it was necessary for her to be pregnant, to be honest; it bore no relation to the story in any way, and all it did was make Gunnarson seem, to my modern eyes, like an asshole.

It did occur to me that this story could have just as easily been an Archer novel/story; only set in the past, to give a key insight into who Archer was as a character, and how he developed. I could totally see this being Archer’s marriage, and Archer being the kind of husband who would always put his wife and family last; as was expected of men at the time, and the wife getting tired of it and divorcing him. (I am not an Archer expert; I’ve read some of the books, not all, and while I do enjoy them when I do read them, I don’t have details memorized. I do seem to recall that Archer had been married and divorced; I think his ex-wife is mentioned a few times…but like I said, this works as an early Archer story, but back then it wasn’t common for series books to be written out of order; maybe that was why this wound up not being an Archer? I don’t know, but it’s an interesting theory.)

Reading the book, though, made me think more about writing another Chanse novel, which I think may happen at some point in the next few years. I’d recommend it to you if you’re a MacDonald fan and want to achieve completion with his works; it’s probably not the best place to start with MacDonald if you haven’t read him before.

Daydream Believer

Thursday morning, Constant Reader–we’ve almost made it through the week, and the Carnival parades start tomorrow night! Woo-hoo! I am more excited about this than I probably should be, but I am also going to be on vacation for the entire second week of parades, which means this is the first year I am not going to have to deal with getting to and from work around the parades, and being bone-tired exhausted from all the walking I’ll have to do to get to and from work.

Huzzah!

I did manage to get that chapter finished yesterday, and will try to get another one done today–at least one. Today is, of course, a half-day; I am going to probably stop at Rouse’s on my way home from work to get some things, and will have to make groceries tomorrow in the afternoon as well. Today’s grocery run will be minor; mostly to get a few odds and ends, while tonight I will make a thorough list to get us through until next Wednesday, which will be the next time I’ll get to stop at the grocery store. Then again, we do have a tendency to eat a lot of corn dogs and funnel cakes during the parades…yay for healthy eating!

Last night when we got home from work, we talked about panels and scheduling for Saints and Sinners–Paul’s been working very hard lately, and continuing to work when we get home, so we haven’t really had much chance to hang out and reconnect for the last month or so; so last night was rather lovely.

Yesterday was a tragic day for us New Orleanians; a beautiful historic old home on St, Charles Avenue, commonly known as the “Rex House”–a former King of Rex lived there, and it had become tradition for the Rex parade to stop in front of it so the current King could toast the family there–caught fire and burned. It was a five alarm fire; it took six hours to get under control, and you could literally smell smoke all day all over Uptown; we could still smell it when we got home last night. (Several years ago an abandoned historic church a few blocks away from us also caught fire and the blaze lasted for hours; interestingly enough, where that church once was is now condos.) This made me think about fires in New Orleans. I’ve written two books built around famous fires in New Orleans–Jackson Square Jazz and Murder in the Rue Chartres–and this reminded me that in the first years we lived here, there had been an arsonist in our neighborhood. I don’t remember if the arsonist was ever caught, but the fires stopped. Fires are taking very seriously here, and arson is one of the worst crimes one could commit here; with our old wooden homes and buildings, it’s not difficult for fires to spread and become horrifying conflagrations. Our fire department doesn’t get nearly enough love or appreciation here–they do get quite a bit, but it’s never enough, frankly. It wouldn’t be too difficult for the entire city to go up in flames…Christopher Rice wrote about that in his debut novel, A Density of Souls, where a bomb went off in a gay bar in the Quarter and the explosion spread the fire. I remember reading the first sentence of the chapter after the bomb went off: The French Quarter was burning. 

Just typing those words gave me the shivers.

And now, I am going to finish cleaning the dishes and get ready for my short day at work. Have a lovely day Constant Reader!

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Try Again

Stephen King, in his seminal work on horror Danse Macabre, talked about two different kinds of house horror novels–the haunted house, and the bad place. The primary difference between the two is that a haunted house story is about the actual spirits and what they do; what must be done to put the spirit to rest (Barbara Michaels’ brilliant Ammie Come Home fits into this category), and the bad place where you don’t really know what is causing whatever it is that is going on in the place; it’s just a bad, bad place. Examples of the bad place  are of course Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Stephen King’s The Shining, and Michael MacDowell’s The Elementals.

While I was traveling to and from Toronto, I read two short novels about ‘bad places’; Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings and Christopher Rice’s The Vines. 

I remember Burnt Offerings from when I was a kid, and we used to go to the Zayre’s department store every Saturday. I would spend the entire time my mother was shopping looking at every book in the book racks, and I picked it up numerous times only to always set it back and pick something else; I’m not sure why. I remember it was also made into a movie with Bette Davis that I’ve also never seen, and periodically it appears on lists of ‘best haunted house’ novels. Vaillancourt Books recently reissued it, and I bought a copy. It’s good, even if it subscribes to one of those horror tropes that always requires the suspension of belief–if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. A family from the city–Queens, i believe–take a summer rental out on Long Island that, of course, is too good to be true; a dilapidated but once stately manor. Husband, wife, young son, and the husband’s aunt–despite the husband’s misgivings–move out there for the summer; the only requirement of them (other than the rent) is that three times a day the wife must take a tray of food up to the owners’ mother’s suite of rooms and never knock–just leave the tray outside. The wife soon becomes obsessed with the house and cleaning it, putting it into order; finding treasures in closets and cupboards and bringing them out…and ignoring the distance growing between her and her husband, his aunt, and her son. Strange things start to happen, and occasionally she is aware that something’s terribly amiss…and then goes back to cleaning. The story is told very simply, the setting is perfect, and the descriptions of the treasures she finds are lovingly written–and the sense of growing impending doom and claustrophobia are perfect.

The Vines is Christopher Rice’s second horror novel (The Heavens Rise is the first; it’s still in my TBR pile) and it, too, is a variation of the bad place horror convention; Spring House is a gorgeously restored house outside of New Orleans with a horrifying history of its own. The night of owner Caitlin Chaisson’s birthday party, she sees her husband having sex with a beautiful young woman who works for the catering company; emotionally distraught, she leaves the house intent on slashing her wrists and killing herself in the estate’s gazebo. But as she cuts at her wrists, her husband and his one-nighter come outside to the gardening shed, and something monstrous grows up out of the ground to drink her blood and avenge her betrayal. The one-nighter loses her mind and the husband disappears; none of this makes any sense to the police who arrive and are not willing to upset the wealthiest woman in the parish. There are two other primary characters–Nova, the African-American daughter of Caitlin’s groundskeeper and a student at LSU who is there that night, and Caitlin’s former best friend, a gay nurse who has been estranged from her since he told her the truth about her husband’s infidelities–and years earlier, Blake and his teenaged boyfriend were attacked in a hate crime, the boyfriend dying…the true story of the attack has never come out, and it’s a lot more complicated than anyone ever knew. It’s a terrific tale of vengeance from the past and vengeance for the present, with the tension building as it hurries to its climax. I was also impressed with how Christopher handled the bloody, slave-owning history of Spring House–something I’ve wondered about how to handle without being too heavy-handed with a ghost story I’ve been wanting to write with its origins in the Civil War period in rural Alabama.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Steppin’ Out

Home. Sunday night–early evening, really–and I am exhausted. Bouchercon just sucks the life right out of me every year, but I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I have the best time every year: reconnecting with friends I don’t see nearly enough; making new friends; drinking waaaaaaaaaaay too much; and laughing until my abdominal muscles hurt and hurt and hurt. Right now I think if I started laughing I’d also start weeping in agony–that’s how much I laughed this weekend. (And let’s not talk about the ten hours of non-stop drinking that was Friday evening. Oooooooohhhhhh.) I often have trouble sleeping when I’m home; this is exacerbated when I travel, so I’ve not had a good night’s sleep since I left on Wednesday. I am now very close to running out of steam, but am struggling to stay awake so I can hopefully get a good night’s sleep tonight.

And I won the Anthony Award for Best Anthology; rather, Blood on the Bayou: New Orleans Bouchercon Anthology 2016 won. I just edited it. It’s kind of thrilling; it was an incredibly difficult category and I was seriously just honored to be in the company of the other nominees. Art Taylor deservedly won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story; again, I’m just so thrilled that I was even on the shortlist that I really didn’t care about winning, and Art’s story was simply phenomenal.

Okay, I am too tired to think clearly. I’ve been trying to write this for hours now, and I think I should just go to bed and finish in the morning.

Monday morning. I slept so good last night. I woke up several times during the night, and I did wake up much earlier than I thought I would, but I feel rested; it was good sleep, and that’s always a plus. It’s also weird because it’s not light in the mornings anymore; it’s fine, and I’m going to love the extra hour whenever we get it–but I always hate giving it back.

Wow, what a weekend. As I said before, I laughed so hard all weekend; it was almost non-stop. I can’t believe how much I drank…but every year Friday turns into an epic drinking marathon. (This year broke Raleigh’s record.) So many great friends, so many highlights…the only low light was the “not able to sleep in hotels so am always running on accessory” thing, and that’s my low-light of every year and every conference. I met some amazing new people and made some amazing new friends; I was on two glorious panels with fantastic people and fantastic moderators and fantastic audiences; my biggest regret is the same as it is every year–that I didn’t get to spend as much time as I would like with everyone I would like. Toronto was absolutely lovely, and so was the hotel. (The hotel bar was just okay, but the private lounge on the 43rd floor was fantastic.) I read two books on the trip–Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco and The Vines by Christopher Rice, and started reading Oh, Florida! by Craig Pittman on my way home–which is also fantastic. I got some new books that I’m looking forward to reading: The Blinds by Adam Sternburgh; Sunburn by Laura Lippman; and the new Ivy Pochoda, Wonder Valley. (I finally met Ivy this year, and she told Paul and I a story about visiting Louisiana with her mother that had us both sobbing with laughter.) I had some awesome meals–but I think my favorite was the noodles I had for lunch on Friday, with the fish and chips on Sunday night at Braddock (not sure if that was the place) a close second. I drank wine instead of martinis–the martinis in Toronto were somewhat less than what I would have hoped for–and I got to laugh with so many wonderful friends. Paul, of course, was with me for this entire trip, and he fit in like I knew he would–I swear I think some of my friends like him better than they do me (I’m looking at you, Wendy) and oh, how I could go on.

I even ran into the ChiZine crew–Michael Rowe, Brett Savory, Sandra Kasturi–on Saturday night as two of my writing worlds converged!

And that LSU game on Saturday! That and the books are getting their own posts.

But probably the best–and this is simply because it was bigger than just being a good time for me–part of the weekend was being on the Writing the Rainbow panel. Moderated by Kristopher Zgorski of BOLObooks.com, the other panelists were Owen Laukkanen/Owen Matthews (seriously, buy his books!), John Copenhaver (whose debut novel I can’t wait to get my hands on), Stephanie Gayle (read her books–and she looks like Laura Dern with dark hair), and Jessie Chandler (seriously, read her books). When I was assigned the panel, my first thought was great, three people will show up for this. 

I was wrong, The room was packed. Kristopher had great questions for us, and the answers were all fantastic and thought-provoking. We talked about great queer books and great queer writers, talked about our own experiences writing about queer characters, and the audience was so receptive and amazing. I almost got teary and emotional, honestly; it was the first time I’ve ever be on such a panel at a mainstream event to have such a  great audience and such a great crowd. We’ve come such a long way. I just wish some of the great writers who were publishing when I first was getting started were still publishing so they could have enjoyed this moment as well. It was an honor to talk about Michael Nava and John Morgan Wilson and R. D. Zimmerman and Mary Wings and Katherine V. Forrest and there were so many others we didn’t  get to mention…and there certainly wasn’t enough time to mention all the great people doing the work now–although we were definitely able to plug the two great lesbian writers, Ellen Hart and J. M. Redmann.

And now, I have some things to get done around here while my other blog posts take form in my head, so I will leave you with a picture of me and my partner in crime for the weekend, the always amazing and hilarious Wendy Corsi Staub:

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