Louisiana Bayou

The traditional mystery, to quote Rodney Dangerfield, “don’t get no respect.”

I’m not sure why that is, to be perfectly honest. I do have my suspicions and opinions, most of which inevitably circle back to the root of so many societal ills: misogyny. Traditional mysteries, often called (both respectfully and derisively) cozies, are, as a general rule, primarily written by women, tell women’s stories, and theoretically, the primary market for them is women. So naturally, much like the entirety of the romance genre, it is subject to derision, not being taken as seriously as darker works, and often is shut out during awards seasons (the primary exception being the Agatha Awards, given at Malice Domestic, which is primarily focused on the traditional mystery). They generally also don’t get a lot of review coverage, because women mystery writers also traditionally don’t get their fair share of print reviews in major publications, either–and the ones who usually do trend to the darker side.

I will also admit that I, too, am guilty of being more drawn to the darker, harsher, more noir side of crime fiction in my reading–which is kind of ironic, as one of my favorite series writers of all time is Elizabeth Peters, who didn’t write dark but rather light-hearted and funny; the Amelia Peabody series is one of the all-time greats. I also love Ellen Hart’s and Donna Andrews’ and and Miranda James’ and Elaine Viets’ series; but a few years ago I realized I wasn’t giving the subgenre enough love and attention, so focused on consciously reading more traditional mysteries. I have since discovered other terrific traditional mystery writers by expanding my scope and not just reaching for the next thing that sounds interesting. I discovered Kellye Garrett’s terrific Detective by Day series, Leslie Budewitz, Sherry Harris, Julia Henry, Hannah Dennison, and far too many others to name. (Also, shout outs to Raquel V. Reyes and Mia P. Manansala for outstanding new series over the last year or so.)

And then of course there’s Ellen Byron.

In some cities, a middle-aged woman dancing down the street dressed as a cross between a 1970’s disco queen and Wilma Flintsone would be unusual. But this was New Orleans, where the unusual was the everyday.

The woman dancing past Ricki James-Diaz, dodging the broken concrete in the Irish Channel’s worn sidewalks, happened to be her landlady, Kitty Kat Rousseau, who lived on the other side of Ricki’s double-shotgun cottage on Odile Street. “On your way to rehearsal?” Ricki called to Kitty from the porch. Kitty belonged to the ABBA Dabbo Do’s, one of the Crescent City’s many synchronized dance and marching troupes that entertained at parades and special events.

“You know it, chère.” Kitty did the hustle, then paused. “Whew, spinning made me dizzy.” She leaned against a lamppost, trying to regain her equilibrium. “I’m glad you caught me. I wanted to wish you good luck today.”

Ricki used the back of her hand to wipe a drop of perspiration from her forehead, the result of nervrs, not the mid-August heat. “Thank you so much.”

I’ve been meaning to read Ellen Byron for quite some time now; I’m not really sure why I haven’t. Ellen and I met electronically, but I am not exactly sure I remember precisely how; a Facebook group, or something. I don’t know, but Ellen–who graduated from Tulane University and whose daughter was attending Loyola–wanted to meet for dinner on a trip here to get her daughter settled into an apartment and the rest was history. She has written two series already–the Cajun Country series (which I need to read) and the Catering Hall mysteries as Maria DiRico. She’s doing a prelaunch party for the first in her new series, the Vintage Cookbook series, the first of which is called Bayou Book Thief. She graciously asked me to do the event with her, and as such I spent yesterday afternoon reading the book…which is absolutely charming.

The premise of the book is the Ricki (full name: Miracle Fleur de Lis James-Diaz, thank you very much) has returned to New Orleans to escape two awful experiences: the freak accident death of her husband, a viral Youtube video-maker (think Jackass) who choked to death doing one of his stunts, and of course the video of his death–he filmed it live–has gone viral. If that isn’t bad enough, her employer (she curated his collection of rare first editions) was convicted of a massive Bernie Madoff-like fraud scheme. Having been born in New Orleans and lived there her first seven years of life till her adoptive (yes, she was abandoned at Charity Hospital as an infant) parents moved to Los Angeles, she has decided to return to the city of her birth, maybe find her birth mother, and start a new business–selling vintage cookbooks and vintage serving ware in a shop in the Bon Vee museum, which used to be the home of one of the city’s legendary restauranteurs, Genevieve “Vee” Charbonnet. The board president approves her idea, and the story is off to the races as Ricki gets to know her co-workers, the Bon Vee family, from administration to the tour guides to the docents, as well as those who work in the little café on the grounds.

Soon, one of the more irritating tour guides (let’s face it, he’s a dick) turns up dead in a trunk and dropped off at the mansion with some boxes of donated books for the shop. Ricki herself has had a few run-ins with the victim, and she’s also the one who finds the body. Worried about whether or not she herself is a suspect, as well as what damage the murder might do to her new business, Ricki starts looking into the murder herself–while also developing a weird relationship/friendship with the female police detective looking into the case. But this murder is just one of several mysteries surrounding Ricki and her life at the mansion, and many complications that arise from her working there and her amateur sleuthing.

Bayou Book Thief is a lot of fun, and is filled with endearing, likable characters along with some marvelous observations and truths about New Orleans–watching out for tree roots as you walk along the sidewalks; the horror of your air conditioning going out while it’s still hot; being in a bar during a Saints game; and above all else, that the city is really a very small town at heart. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to the next in the series, Wined and Died in New Orleans.

Join us tonight at five pm at Blue Cypress Books. It’ll be a fun time.

Denial

And here we are at Tuesday morning already. The weather is supposed to be shitty today–rain and thunderstorms and flash flood alerts for today and tomorrow; it already started last night–and yesterday it was in the 80’s when I got off work. It’s 72 now and the sun isn’t up yet, either–the high for today and tomorrow is in the low 80’s. I suspect this is going to be a long, hot wet summer in New Orleans.

I came home from work yesterday and worked on my book, around the cat neediness (always), watched John Oliver’s impressive takedown of Tucker Carlson (the new Bill O’Reilly) on Last Week Tonight, and then just went to the Taylor Swift World Youtube channel and let her music videos play–along with some live performances–on stream while I put corrections into the manuscript. I am now up to Chapter 5, and am hoping to get even further along with it today. The goal is to get it all finished and input this week, so I can print it out yet again and decide on a structural edit over the weekend, with new writing to be put in place while cutting down excessive wordiness and repetition throughout the entire thing. But it’s going to be a good book–whether it actually winds up doing what I originally intended for it to do when it’s finally finished remains to be seen, but I think I will be pleased with it.

Yesterday the Lambda (Lammy) nominations were released, and as always, there was a bit of controversy involved. It’s inevitable, really; every year when they announce their finalists, people get angry and old grudges come out. I generally tend to avoid these conversations; I came to a place of peace with the organization awhile ago and let go of all the turbulent feelings just the mere mention of the organization or its awards could trigger in me. I worked there twenty years ago, and while it wasn’t a great experience in some ways, I learned an awful lot–about non-profits, publishing, how to put together a magazine, management skills, etc.–while I was editor of Lambda Book Report (it was weird; someone had reminded me of that on Sunday on social media–I had done one of those ‘post a memory of me’ things on Facebook, and Richard Labonte brought up meeting me at a Lammy reading at the San Francisco Library back when I was editor of LBR…it’s been so long even I forget about that; and it’s been scrubbed from my author bio since at least 2004). I also made some great friendships that still exist today. Overall, I prefer to remember the positives from working there now rather than the negatives (there were a lot of negatives, in all honesty). There were changes that needed to be made to the organization back then; changes have been made in the years since Paul and I left their employ (I do remember, with no small amusement, being told when I quit by some people that I was “ruining my career”–over fifty books and fifty short stories later here I am still, so no, people who told me that, you weren’t channeling Nostradamus), but I don’t think some of them were the ones that were needed or even necessary. For about three or four years in the early aughts, after quitting I was still somewhat emotionally vested in the organization…but the more time passed the less vested I felt and now I can read complaining threads on social media about the organization and not have any kind of vested emotional reaction to any of it; and while I do think the history of their awards is important, I do think they’ve kind of lost their way. But it’s not my problem and it’s very easy to be an armchair quarterback and make critiques–it doesn’t cost anything, after all, even in a time investment–when working to make those changes is much harder in terms of work and time. I’ve won the award twice–Best Anthology and Best Gay Mystery–and have been nominated so many other times I’ve really lost count. It’s somewhere in the teens, and I know the most nominated authors are me, Ellen Hart, That Bitch Ford, and Lawrence Schimel, and not in that order (I believe Ellen has the most), but whenever I try to remember which books and what years and what categories was I nominated in, I inevitably forget something–as I always skip something when I am counting how many books I’ve done….just last night I was remembering that I co-edited a vampire erotica anthology with M. Christian for Alyson Books that came out in the August before Hurricane Katrina, and I can’t remember it’s name–Blood something; Lust, perhaps? I only have a few copies and whenever I come across one, it always catches me a bit off guard: “Oh, yes, the book I always forget…”

And if anyone would have told me twenty five years ago I would lose track of award nominations and how many books I’ve actually done, I would have laughed in their face. But awards aren’t as important to me as they were when I was first getting started–don’t get me wrong, they are very lovely and I appreciate making short-lists, which is always a nice pat on the back from colleagues–and so I never see short-lists I didn’t make and think maybe next time. I just don’t like getting caught up in the hoopla of them; wondering if I am going to win, wanting to win, being disappointed when I don’t. That kind of egotism isn’t healthy, frankly, and I don’t like I seem to immediately launch into a competitive mode once the pleasure and surprise of being nominated wears off and naked ambition rises inside me.

While some ambition is necessary–you’ll never finish writing anything without it–out of control ambition is not a trait I like or aspire to; but it does happen sometimes and I have to reel it back in.

I don’t like it, quite frankly.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Tuesday!

Long Train Runnin’

Ah, it’s the weekend. I went to bed relatively early last night, after watching the final episode of The Last Czars (which, of course, included the horrific massacre scene in the basement in Ekaterinburg; which is probably why everyone sees the monstrous, people-abusing, careless Romanovs as tragic figures–the way they died, as opposed to the way they lived; it’s impossible to hear the children screaming and the sound of the guns without feeling badly for them) and before that, I watched Spider-Man Into the Spider-verse, which was, without question, the absolute best superhero movie, bar none, that I’ve ever seen. Well-written, well-voiced, and extraordinarily animated, it was quite an achievement in film making, and definitely a high spot when it comes to superhero films The entire time I was watching I kept thinking imagine how incredible this must have looked on the big screen. It took me a moment to get used to the style of animation, but it was absolutely amazing, and should be used as a blueprint for origin stories for superheroes. I do hope they do another; I really loved the character of Miles Morales and his family.

This morning I woke up well rested with a shit ton of work to get done today. Yesterday I was lazy; I got home from work around one and just cleaned the house. I never manage to seem to finish getting my office in order, because there simply isn’t enough space for me to put things, and I am always afraid to put thing into my inbox because they tend to get buried once they are there. I try to put things into it in ways that they can still be seen; but I don’t always have the best luck with that, and out of sight, out of mind if I don’t have it on the to-write list (speaking of which, I don’t see it anywhere, damn it to hell), which is also ridiculous when you consider how much I have to get written, or hoped to have written, by the end of this month.

One thing at a time, cross them off the list, and be done with it.

I’m also looking forward to spending some time with Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay over the course of the weekend; after which I am going to read S. A Cosby’s My Darkest Prayer. I’d also like to get started reading the other Anthony nominees for Best Short Story (Cosby is one of my fellow nominees, along with Holly West, Barb Goffman, and Art Taylor–three of my favorite colleagues)–I still can’t believe I’m an Anthony finalist. I am very proud of my story, and its genesis; I originally wrote the first draft when I was in my early twenties or late teens, while I was still living in Kansas–close to forty years ago, and here it is, nominated for an Anthony Award.

How fucking cool is that? I had no idea when I wrote that story in long hand on notebook paper that forty years into the future it would be nominated for an award I’d not yet heard of, to be presented at a fan conference I knew nothing about, and that my life would be something I didn’t even dare dream of at that age.

I was thinking about my self-appreciation project last night, the one in which I work on stopping belittling my achievements, learn how to accept compliments, and take some pride in myself and my writing and everything I’ve done thus far in my life. Because I should be proud of myself. I’ve managed to sustain an almost twenty year career in a niche sub-genre of a genre, and not only that, I’ve accomplished quite a bit not even counting the writing itself. I was also thinking last night back to the days when I was editor of Lambda Book Report, which kind of set the stage for my publishing career. I reinvented myself, you know; I went from being a highly knowledgeable industry insider, basically running a magazine that was sort of a cross between a queer Publisher’s Weekly and a queer The Writer; for nearly two years I read a lot of queer fiction, and if I didn’t actually read a queer book, I knew a lot about it. I had already sold Murder in the Rue Dauphine to Alyson Books when I took the assistant editor job at Lambda Book Report, and that was actually the first job I ever had where I kind of flourished. It was the first job that allowed me to be creative in what I did, and where all the lessons I’d learned at various dead-end jobs along the way could be applied in a very positive way. I’d also learned how to treat writers, from being treated myself in very shitty ways by magazines and editors and papers I’d written for by this point–something I continue to do today as an editor (one of my proudest moments of my career thus far was being told by one of the contributors to Florida Happens–Hilary Davidson, a very talented writer whose works you should check out–that working with me was one of the best editorial experiences she’d had in her career thus far). Lambda Book Report seems like it was a million years ago; I actually officially resigned from the job in November 2001, three months before Rue Dauphine was published finally. I resigned because of the conflict of interest involved in running a review magazine while publishing my own novels; there was a strong sense, at least for me, that I couldn’t allow my own books to be reviewed in my own magazine, and as it was the only real game in town nationally (the odds of being reviewed in any of the national gay magazines–Out, The Advocate, Genre–were slim to none; on the rare occasions when those magazines chose to review books, it was either a straight celebrity ally’s (so they could do a feature and put straight celebrity ally’s picture on the cover)or if it was an actual queer book by a queer writer, it was never a genre work. They sniffed disdainfully at queer genre writers; kind of how Lambda Book Report did before I came along, and, all due respect, kind of how the Lambda Literary Foundation (which was always the parent apparatus of the magazine, and now runs a review website) still does. I’ve rarely been reviewed there–either in the magazine I left behind, when it was still being done as a print magazine–or on their website.

But I did a great job running that magazine, if I do say so myself, and I am very proud of everything i accomplished while working there. I met a lot of people, a lot of writers, and made some lifelong friends out of the experience.

I have also been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award, in various categories and under various names, quite frequently. I don’t know how many times I’ve been nominated, to be honest; it’s something like thirteen or fourteen times. I think the only people nominated more times than me are Ellen Hart, Michael Thomas Ford, and Lawrence Schimel. I won twice, once for Anthology for Love Bourbon Street, and once for Men’s Mystery for Murder in the Rue Chartres. The statues are somewhere around here; my Moonbeam Award medals hang from a nail right next to my desk, and my Anthony Award for Blood on the Bayou sits on one of the shelves in the bookcase where I keep copies of my books, but I’m not quite sure where my Lambda Awards are. My Shirley Jackson Award nominee’s rock is in my desk drawer, and even though it just represents a nomination (I didn’t win the award), it’s my favorite out of all the awards I’ve won. I don’t get nominated for Lambda Literary Awards anymore–I think the last time I was nominated was for Night Shadows, which should tell you how long it’s been–and I don’t really care about that anymore, to be honest. After thirteen or fourteen times…yeah, it’s just not quite the thrill it was back when I was nominated the first time. Getting nominated for things like the Shirley Jackson, or the Anthonys, or the Macavitys–those are thrilling because they come from out of nowhere, and are completely unexpected.

And let’s face it, being nominated for Best Short Story awards, for the kid who was told by his first writing instructor that he would never be published, would never have a career as a writer, and had no writing ability whatsoever–opinions all formed by reading a short story written by a kid who’d just turned eighteen–are very thrilling and satisfying. My lack of confidence in my short story writing abilities is pretty extreme, and so whenever one gets published or one gets nominated for an award or I get some great feedback from readers for one, it’s quite reassuring and quite lovely.

All right then–Steph Cha’s novel is calling my name, and I want to get some things written as well before I run my errands later this morning.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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What Makes You Think You’re The One

This week, the Mystery Writers of America announced it’s special awards, to be presented in the spring at the Edgar Awards banquet along with the competitive prizes. All the recipients of these awards–the Ellery Queen for outstanding contribution to editing, the Raven for outstanding contributions to the field, and the Grand Master (s), for an outstanding body of work (like a Lifetime Achievement Award)–are always highly deserving; the first Grand Master, for example, was Agatha Christie, and over the years has included such names as Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Ellery Queen, Ross McDonald, Stephen King, and James Ellroy. This year, the Board of Directors of the Mystery Writers of America chose two Grand Masters, Max Allen Collins and Ellen Hart.

Ellen Hart!

Ellen Hart is not only an amazing crime writer who deserves this honor, she is also the first out lesbian author of lesbian crime fiction to be recognized by the premier organization in our field with the highest honor in our field.

From the press release issued by the Mystery Writers of America:

Upon learning that she was named a Grand Master, Hart said. “A writer’s stock-in-trade is imagination. I’ve always felt mine was pretty good, but never in a million years did I ever think winning the MWA Grand Master award was a possibility. I’m stunned, grateful, and profoundly honored.”

Ellen Hart is the author of thirty-two crime novels. She is the six-time winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery, the four-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award for Best Popular Fiction, and the three-time winner of the Golden Crown Literary Award for mystery. Ellen has taught crime writing for seventeen years through the Loft Literary Center, the largest independent writing community in the nation.

Previous Grand Masters include Walter Mosley, Lois Duncan, James Ellroy, Robert Crais, Carolyn Hart, Ken Follett, Margaret Maron, Martha Grimes, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Bill Pronzini, Stephen King, Marcia Muller, Dick Francis, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, P.D. James, Ellery Queen, Daphne du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie.

I’ve known Ellen’s work for over twenty years, and have known Ellen personally for almost seventeen or so. Ellen is from Minneapolis, and her outstanding Jane Lawless series is set there. I moved to Minneapolis to live with Paul in 1996; and this was around the time I decided to start taking writing seriously (this was in no smart part because Paul believed in me). We lived in Uptown Minneapolis (ironically we moved to uptown New Orleans from there), and right around the corner from our apartment was a mall at the corner of Lake and Hennepin called Calhoun Square, and inside that mall was a Borders. I used to go there every other week and buy books, and they had a huge gay and lesbian section. I had already decided that I wasn’t meant to be a horror or a literary writer, and wanted to focus on writing gay crime novels. It was at this Borders that I discovered both Ellen Hart and R. D Zimmerman (locals), and many other gay/lesbian crime writers and their books. I never met either Ellen or R.D. while I lived there, but it was at that Borders that I first met Felice Picano.

I think the first Jane Lawless I read was Faint Praise, and after that I was addicted.

Over the years I’ve gotten to know Ellen, and am proud to call her a friend. It was Ellen who got me to join Sisters in Crime, and her graciousness and her kindness over the years has been something I’ve, as a writer have tried to aspire to be more like. She so deserves this honor, and I can’t even begin to express how thrilled I am for her, and how happy this has made me; because in recognizing Ellen they not only recognized her for her brilliance as a writer, the longevity and consistent quality of it, but they’ve also, for the first time as a Grand Master and only a second time over all, recognized the sub-sub-subgenre of LGBTQI crime fiction. (The first time was when John Morgan Wilson won the Edgar for Best First Novel for his first Ben Justice novel back in the 1990’s.)

As a writer of gay crime fiction…well, I can’t even begin to say how impactful this recognition of Ellen is for me, personally. This is recognition from the Mystery Writers of America that LGBTQI crime fiction not only has a seat at the table, but belongs there.

It is something I never thought I would see happen in my lifetime; every step forward is amazing.

Now young, aspiring LGBTQI crime writers can actually dream of being MWA Grand Masters.

SO AWESOME.

And go ON with your bad, deserving self, Ellen!