Sleeping Angel

I originally started writing Sleeping Angel in 1994.

That seems like such a long time ago, too. I hadn’t met Paul yet, was still working for that wretched airline at the airport, was broke broke broke and often ran out of money long before payday, and any kind of decent life for me seemed impossible. It was the next year I decided to snap out of the constant feeling sorry for myself, and instead of waiting for the world to come knocking on my door to make my dreams come true, that the only person who could make my dreams a reality was me, and that I needed to make the changes necessary to my life if I were going to become a writer for real–like stop dreaming about it and writing now and then, and start taking it seriously and writing all the fucking time, and trying to make it happen–which meant sending things out to try to get them published.

It’s weird how you forget things about books you’ve written until something out of left field reminds you of something. Julie Hennrikus, during our Sisters in Crime podcast interview, asked me about writing young adult fiction, and how I came to do that. The story is very simple, really; after discovering Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine and other young adult authors who wrote young adult novels that were either crime or horror or a cross of the two, I decided to take the book I was writing at the time–Sara–and write it as a young adult novel instead of as one for adults. It really didn’t take a lot, to be honest–I removed the framing device that firmly set the book back in the 1970’s–and turned it into a modern day story about teenagers (which it always was). After I finished Sara, I wrote another called Sorceress–and when I finished it, I began writing Sleeping Angel. I still didn’t have a strong grasp of how writing actually worked (which is kind of embarrassing when I remember how naive and stupid I actually was back then, but what did I know. seriously? Very little.) and so I never rewrote anything; I just printed them (I had bought a very inexpensive word processor that I loved, and wrote on) out and saved the originals. I was about half-way through Sleeping Angel when I discovered there was such a thing as queer crime novels…so I abandoned writing young adult fiction and started thinking more in terms of writing a gay private eye series…which eventually became the Chanse MacLeod series and Murder in the Rue Dauphine.

Flash forward another decade or so, and in the spring of 2005 I attended BEA and the Lambda Awards in New York. I lost twice that year (Best Gay Mystery for Jackson Square Jazz and Best Scifi/Fantasy/Horror for Shadows of the Night) and then on Saturday night I attended a cocktail party for the Publishing Triangle. (It was at this party that I met both Tab Hunter and Joyce Dewitt.) I also met a very nice man who was familiar with my work, and asked me if I had ever considered writing young adult fiction with gay characters and themes? I laughed and replied that I had two completed first drafts and a partial for another in a drawer back home; he then gave me a business card and told me he would love to take a look at them with an eye to publishing. I lost the card years ago, probably in the Katrina aftermath, but he was an editor for Simon and Schuster Teen, which was very exciting. I told him I would revise one and send it to him as soon as I finished Mardi Gras Mambo, which was at that point over a year overdue (I didn’t mention that part). This was exciting for me, as one can imagine; another opportunity gained by simply being in the right place at the right time, which has been the story of my career pretty much every step of its way. Once I finished Mardi Gras Mambo that August, I started revising Sara.

And then came Hurricane Katrina, and everything went insane for a few years, and I abandoned the attempt to rewrite Sara. There was just too much going on, I was displaced and finding it hard to get back into writing, and I just wasn’t in the right place emotionally to revise or rewrite a book. I’ve always regretted that last opportunity.

Flash forward another year or so and I casually mentioned to a friend this missed opportunity. What I didn’t know when I mentioned it (bemoaned it, really; I still regret this lost chance) was that she had been working for another publisher as an acquiring editor for young adult/children’s work. “Would you rewrite one of these for me? I’d love to pitch this to the company.” So….rather than Sara, I went with a rewrite of Sorceress, which had a teenaged girl lead character and I didn’t see any place to add queer content (I’d been adding that to the revision of Sara ) and sent it to her. Alas, before she had the opportunity to pitch it the line she acquired for was closed down and that was the end of that….until a few years later when she decided to start her own small press for juvenile/young adult fiction, and wanted Sorceress. I sent it to her, we signed a contract…and then I realized I needed to let Bold Strokes Books know I was doing this. I emailed them, and they replied, “You know we do young adult?”

Well.

I wrote back and mentioned I had two others collecting dust, and so I contracted both Sara and Sleeping Angel with them. I decided to do Sleeping Angel first–which is odd, as I didn’t even have a completed first draft; I don’t remember why I decided to do this, frankly–and so I started writing and revising.

The really funny thing–just looking at the cover for the book–is that the character name “Eric Matthews” was one I came up with when I was in college; I had an idea for a book set in my fraternity, and came up with three names for characters that were pledge brothers and friends: Eric Matthews, Chris Moore, and Blair Blanchard. I used Eric and Chris for Sleeping Angel (completely forgetting that I had already used those names in Every Frat Boy Wants It a few years earlier), so yes, even though the fraternity books I used were by “Todd Gregory”, I accidentally re-used the character names.

Whoops.

The original intent with my young adult fiction was to connect it all together, the way R. L. Stine did with Fear Street, and sort of how all of Stephen King’s work is as well. The three books I started with–Sara, Sorceress, and Sleeping Angel–were connected, and were the springboard from which the others would come–or were supposed to come, from. Sara was set in rural Kansas. The main character of Sorceress moved from rural Kansas to a small town in the mountains in California, Woodbridge, which was also where Sleeping Angel was set. The main character of Sara moved to Kansas from the Chicago suburb where the main character of Lake Thirteen was from, and so on. (Likewise, the main character from Dark Tide was also from the same county in Alabama where Bury Me in Shadows took place, and #shedeservedit was set in the town that was the county seat for that rural Kansas area where Sara was set.) I’d consciously forgotten that, but fortunately my subconscious still holds on to things the forefront of my brain doesn’t.

When I originally envisioned Sleeping Angel back in 1993 (or 1994, I don’t remember which), the concept I wanted to explore was something, a concept, that Dean Koontz had used in his book Hideaway–that someone was in a car accident and died, only to be resuscitated by the EMT’s. But when he came back to life, he brought back something with him from the other side that gave him a psychic connection with a serial killer. It was an interesting idea–I wasn’t using the serial killer thing–but I loved the entire concept of someone being brought back with something extra (which, now that I think about it, is also the entire conceit Stephen King built The Dead Zone around). I decided to keep the car accident to open the book in the new version, but the opening I originally wrote had to be tossed. I also came up with an entirely new concept for the book: what if you were in a bad car accident, but there was a dead body in the car who was NOT killed in the accident but had been shot and was already dead when the car crashed? And if the main character has amnesia….who killed the kid in the back seat?

And away we went.

He was driving too fast, and knew he should ease his foot off the gas pedal, bringing the car down to a safer, more manageable speed.

But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“Hang in there, buddy,” he muttered grimly under his breath, taking his eyes off the road for just a moment to glance in the rearview mirror into the backseat. What he saw wasn’t encouraging. Sean’s eyes were closed, and he couldn’t tell if Sean was still breathing.

The blood–there was so much of it, and it was everywhere.

He swallowed and took a deep breath, trying to hold down the panic. He had to stay calm. He couldn’t let the fear take over, he just couldn’t. He had to hold himself together. He had to get to town, to get Sean to the hospital before it was too late–if it wasn’t already too late.

Not a bad beginning, right? Pulls you right into the story.

I don’t remember what–if anything–I was expecting when Sleeping Angel was finally released (it actually wound up coming out before Sorceress, ironically); it had not even been six years since the right-wing homophobes had come for me for daring to accept an invitation to speak to high school students in a Gay-Straight Alliance. And now I’d actually dared to write a book about teenagers, for teenagers. The horror! But the book come out and there wasn’t even the slightest whisper of controversy about the “gay pornographer” writing a y/a book. It got really good reviews for the most part, people really seemed to enjoy it, and it eventually won a gold medal for Outstanding Young Adult Mystery/Horror from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, which I’d never heard of but was kind of a big deal, or so I’m told. The gold medal was nice, too–very pretty (but it’s not the rock from the Shirley Jackson Awards–the smooth polished stone I got for being a finalist may be my favorite thing I ever received as recognition for my writing).

I’m still pretty proud of Sleeping Angel.

If You Leave

Sunday morning.

I wrote another chapter, slightly less than three thousand words, yesterday. I don’t know that I can match the output today, but I’m certainly going to give it another try. I only have five chapters left to go on this excruciatingly sloppy first draft, but a finished first draft is a finished first draft, and I can tear it apart and patch it all back together again in September. Oddly enough, I am looking forward to doing that, to be honest; I just wish these five chapters were finished already.

Heavy sigh.

Last night I took a streetcar named St. Charles down to the Quarter to have dinner with a friend in town for ALA (I am heading back down there again today, to meet the publishers for the Bouchercon anthology), and it was absolutely delightful to talk with someone incredibly smart about books and writing and publishing; it always is, frankly. The heat and humidity were somehow bearable on the way there; it was the way home that was horrific. I was completely soaked when I got off the streetcar and by the time I got to the Lost Apartment, and the heat/humidity just sucked the energy right out of me. I feel icky and sticky still this morning; I feel asleep in my chair and just went to bed from there, forgetting the cardinal rule of summer in New Orleans: always shower whenever you can, especially before bed.

But, it was a lot of fun. I really do have amazing and smart friends.

So I am going to try to get some work done before it’s time to hit the streetcar again. I would prefer to hit my three thousand words today before I get leave, since I probably won’t be in the mood when I get back home again–note to self: take a second shower when you get home, you won’t be sorry in the least.

The next story up in Promises in Every Star and Other Stories is “Desire Under the Blankets.”

Blair lit a cigarette. The light cast from his match flared briefly, casting shadows in the darkened room. He shook out the match and tossed it into an overflowing ashtray as he sucked in hungrily at the smoke. The menthol clotted in his lungs and he fought against the cough that fought its way up his windpipe, determined to expel the poisons. His eyes watered for a moment, and he gave in to the cough at last, muffling its sound. The clock on his desk read four fifteen. The rest of the fraternity house was silent. The majority of them were undoubtedly passed out from too much alcohol; some of them, he was sure, were huddled in rooms smoking pot out of bongs or snorting cocaine off the glass in picture frames. His own supply of cocaine was sitting in a small pile on a framed photograph of his mother on the desk top next to a bong made of glass and plastic in the shape of a dragon.

He opened his small refrigerator and got a can of Pepsi. He was still a little drunk from the evening’s festivities. Big Brother night, a semesterly tradition in which the pledges received their protectors and advisors amongst the group of the already initiated, ended around two in the morning when the keg ran dry and the last pledge had vomited. His own little brother, Mike Van Zale, was sleeping off his drunkenness in Blair’s bed, snoring a little softly. Mike had puked around midnight, thanks to the Jose Cuervo shots Blair had poured down his throat. After Mike had staggered down the hallway to the bathroom and lost the contents of his stomach, Blair took pity on him and led him up to his room. Some of the other brothers would force their new charges to drink again after throwing up, but Blair was a little more compassionate. Besides, the previous semester one of the Alpha Chi Omega pledges almost died from alcohol abuse. Blair’s brothers at Beta Kappa, for the most part, only paid lip service to the new University regulations regarding alcohol hazing of pledges. They were idiots, Blair reflected as he stubbed out his cigarette and made another line from the cocaine.  It wasn’t the first time he’d thought that nor, he reflected, was it likely to be the last.

His nostrils were already numb from previous snorts and he knew that this one wouldn’t restore the high the first one, hours earlier, had given him. All this would do was make his hands shake and his teeth grind. It was a waste but he was in the stage he called the “I  wants”, when he began to mentally crave more and more cocaine. He took a hit off the bong to lessen the edge of the coke when it hit. He held the smoke in as long as he could before it exploded out of him in a massive coughing fit. He grabbed a tissue and spit out a wad of phlegm.

On the bed, Mike shifted and moaned a little.

Blair took a sip of his Pepsi to cool his burning throat and walked over to the bed. Mike was sprawled on his back on top of the covers. In the moonlight coming through the slightly parted curtains, his skin looked like smooth alabaster. His hairless and hard chest gleamed in the ghostly light. Thick wiry hair sprouted from under his arms. A thin line of drool hung from the corner of his mouth. His face was expressionless. A thin trail of wiry black hairs ran from his navel to the waistband of his white briefs.

He was quite beautiful.

I created the character of Blair–along with two others, Chris Moore and Eric Matthews–years before I was published. When I belonged to a fraternity and was actually living in the house, I created these three fraternity brothers that were very close friends, and wrote lots of notes about them. I was originally thinking along the terms of writing a fraternity thriller, with these three characters kind of a Three Investigators team solving the murder. I’ve always thought a fraternity would be a good setting for a murder, and I still do. This entire scene, in fact, was born from that idea for a novel; I’d always intended Blair, whose parents were movie stars, to be flamboyant and gay, if closeted within the hallowed halls of the fraternity house. I wrote this particular story out as an idea; the title was obviously a play on the Eugene O’Neill play. I used this story for an anthology, and then years later incorporated it into my novel Every Frat Boy Wants It, the first of three erotic fraternity novels I’ve done as Todd Gregory.

I always liked Blair, and should have done a sequel about him. (The fratboy series always focuses on a new character with the new book; the main characters from the previous one show up, but don’t have a lot to do .)

Who know? Maybe someday I will.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Nobody Told Me

Friday, and a Holiday Weekend Eve. Huzzah! I am going to get so much done this weekend, Constant Reader, you have no idea. Huzzah! Huzzah!

One thing I did notice this week–and this is really funny–is that when I was posting my book covers and book blurbs on Tumblr this week ((you can follow me here) I saw that in one of my former y/a’s, I’d used a name that I am again using in my WIP; obviously, that’s going to have to change! I also realized I was going to need to reread that book (Sara, in case you were wondering) to make sure I’m not pillaging other names from it, either. This happens, you see, because of manuscripts I wrote in my twenties and early thirties, and names I used in those books that I have re-used in rewrites of them or in new books. I also always would come up with character names for short story or book ideas; and so those names are already lodged in my head and when I need a new character name they boil up in my subconscious. So, now I have to rename this girl…and hopefully, I won’t have to rename anyone else.

(This hilariously happened another time, with two male names: Chris Moore and Eric Matthews. I originally came up with those names in the 1980’s when I was making notes on a fraternity murder mystery–great idea I should revisit–and then, when I was writing Every Frat Boy Wants It, I used those character names. In another irony, they were both from a small town in the California mountains, Woodbridge. When I was revising and rewriting and finishing Sleeping Angel, set in a small town in the California mountains named Woodbridge, I used those character names again and didn’t realize what I had done….which sort of makes Every Frat Boy Wants It kind of a sequel to Sleeping Angel. My work always somehow winds up connected in some way…)

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately; in fact, I’ve read about six over the last two days! How cool is that? I discovered that I had a collection of all Ross McDonald’s Lew Archer stories, The Archer Files, and dug into that last night while I was waiting for Paul to come home. I also can’t stop reading Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives by Sarah Weinman, and also read another couple of Laura Lippman’s stories in her collection Hardly Knew Her. There was a discussion recently on social media about short stories, and how the market has been slowly imploding over the last twenty years or so…it was interesting, and it also made me curious. I generally don’t read a lot of short stories–hence the Short Story Project–and yet, whenever I do read short stories I enjoy the hell out of them. You should always read the kind of things you like to write, and perhaps the reason I have so much trouble writing short stories is because I don’t read them very often (yes, yes, I edit anthologies, but that’s an entirely different thing–but maybe because I’ve done so many anthologies is part of the reason why I don’t read short stories in my free time? Hmmmm, something to ponder there), and frankly, reading these amazing short stories since the Short Story Project started has been kind of inspirational for me. So, the Short Story Project is working. Huzzah!

One of the last two stories I read in the Weinman anthology were “Lavender Lady” by Barbara Callahan; the story was originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in September 1976 and was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Short Story:

It was always the same request wherever I played. College audiences, park audiences, concert-hall audiences–they listened and waited. Would I play it in the beginning of a set? Would I wait till the end of a performance? When would I play Lavender Lady?

Once I tried to trick them into forgetting that song. I sang four new songs, good songs with intricate chords and compelling lyrics. They listened politely as if each work were merely the flip side of the song they really wanted to hear.

That night I left the stage without playing it. I went straight to my dressing room and put my guitar in the closet. I heard them chanting “Lavender Lady, Lavender Lady.” The chant began as a joyful summons which I hoped would drift into silence like a nursery rhyme a child tires of repeating. It didn’t. The chant became an ugly command accompanied by stamping feet. I fled to safety.

Mick Jagger famously said he’d rather be dead than singing “Satisfaction” when he was forty-five; that comment came back to bite him in the ass as he was singing it when he was in his sixties. I often wonder about that; how tired musicians must become of playing songs that are trademarks; the monotony of singing the same songs day after day, year after year. Imagine how many times Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” or Cher has sung “Gypsies Tramps and Thieves,” Madonna “Like a Virgin,” and so forth. How do you manage to do it without it becoming rote, routine, dull and boring?

But what makes this story so strong is that our main character’s signature tune, “Lavender Lady,” has a dark history. The song is beautiful and beloved, but the story behind it, the story that inspired the heroine to write it, is twisted and nasty. She was born into a wealthy family, neglected by everyone, and was kidnapped by her nanny…who was the Lavender Lady. That is the story behind the song, and so you can imagine how anguishing it is for her to sing it, over and over again, to have it be the signature tune that audiences expect for you to perform, come to hear; reliving that awful memory every time you play the first chord and sing the first note.

Terrific story!

The other was written by the amazing Vera Caspary, who also wrote the classic novel Laura, which of course was made into an even more well-known classic film. This story, called “Sugar and Spice,” which is the story of a very twisted relationship between two cousins.

I have never known a murderer, a murder victim, not anyone involved in a murder case. I admit that I am a snob, but to my mind crime is sordid and inevitably associated with gangsters, frustrated choir singers in dusty suburban towns, and starving old ladies supposed to have hidden vast fortunes in the bedsprings. I once remarked to a friend that people of our set were not in the homicide set, and three weeks later heard that her brother-in-law had been arrested as a suspect in the shooting of his rich uncle. It was proved, however, that this was a hunting accident and the brother-in-law exonerated. But it gave me quite a jolt.

Jolt number two came when Mike Jordan, sitting on my patio on a Sunday afternoon, told me a story which proved that well-bred, middle-class girls can commit a murder as calmly as I can knit a sock, and with fewer lumps in the finished product. Mike had arrived that morning for an eleven o’clock breakfast, and after the briefest greeting had sat silent until the bells of San Miguel started tolling twelve.

As I mentioned, “Sugar and Spice” tells the story of two cousins; Nancy and Phyllis. Nancy’s father was the richest man in their small town, and so therefore Nancy was rather spoiled and had a privileged upbringing, was used to getting her own way. Phyllis’ father walked out on her and her mother, and so her mother was forced to give piano lessons to support them. Everyone in town felt sorry for them; as they were quite poor. Nancy was overweight, ungainly and unattractive; Phyllis was kind of effortlessly beautiful, and their grandmother preferred Phyllis, constantly insulting Nancy and putting the two girls at odds with each. Mike Jordan, as mentioned above, is telling the story of the two cousins, and the murder of actor  Gilbert Jones, to his hostess, Lissa. As he gets to know both girls and they get older, the twisted relationship between the two girls becomes even more entangled and bitter and twisted, as they tend to keep falling in love with the same man. The story is fantastic, absolutely fantastic, and a master class in how to build suspense in a short story. Wow. Amazing.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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The Long and Winding Road

Hey there, Tuesday! How are you doing? I slept well last night–we watched an interesting documentary called The Imposter before going to bed, which raised more questions than it actually answered, to be honest–and I woke up feeling rested and rarin’ to go this morning. Well, maybe a little over rested, if you know what I mean; I’d rather have fun than get anything done today. But that is NOT an option. Period.

Since my next Todd Gregory opus is dropping next week, I thought I’d start talking a little about the Todd Gregory books, how I came to be Todd Gregory, etc.

I started publishing short stories as Todd in or around 2003, and primarily it was because I’d been doing wrestling erotica under my own name (which is actually kind of a pseudonym itself, but more on that later) and so anthology editors would request wrestling stories from me when they’d invite me to write something for their next project. While I didn’t mind writing wrestling stories, I also wanted to write other things; so I decided if erotica readers expected wrestling stories from Greg Herren, then I would have to use another name to write erotica stories that didn’t involve wrestling. I chose Todd Gregory because it was also, like Greg Herren, part of my actual name: Gregory  Todd Herren. I’ve always gone by Greg; the only person who ever called me ‘Gregory’ was my maternal grandmother, and in her thick Southern accent it came out as “Gregruh”, which I’ve always kind of liked. So, technically, ‘Greg Herren’ is my real name but isn’t my LEGAL name. So, Todd Gregory kind of worked for me, and I think the first story I published under that name was called “The Sea Where It’s Shallow,” which remains one of my favorite stories of my own. And thus, Todd Gregory was born.

Flash forward a few years, and my editor at Kensington asked me if I was willing to write a gay erotic novel set in a fraternity. I had already edited the anthology FRATSEX under my own name, and it was enormously successful– it had actually earned out before it’s official publication date, and continued to be a lucrative source of income for me for years before Alyson chose to stop paying me–and so I said, “sure.” The working title for the book was Fraternity Row, and while it was going to be a gay erotic novel, I wanted to deal with issues of homophobia within fraternities, and the fraternity closet. The name was changed before publication, and let’s face it, you can’t go wrong with this cover:

every frat boy wants it

Every Frat Boy Wants It.

The title kind of bothered me; once you’ve been in a fraternity, you hate the abbreviation ‘frat’ (you wouldn’t call your country a cunt, would you? echoes through my head every time I see it) but I’ve learned to live with it. It’s funny, though, how you get trained…anyway, part of my character Chanse MacLeod’s scarring past included being in a fraternity while he was at LSU, and I used that fraternity again, Beta Kappa (doesn’t exist in real life). I also decided to invent a small city with a college, Polk, California, and California State University-Polk (‘see as you pee’), which were loosely patterned after Fresno and Fresno State.  I decided to make my main character someone who had moved to California from Kansas, much as I had, and I dug back into my files, where I had created characters for a fraternity based novel years ago–Phil Conners, Blair Blanchard, and Kenny Ryan–and decided to use the structure of that story to create this one, only with a gay twist.

As I walk into the locker room of my high school to get my backpack, I’m aware of the sound of the shower running. Even before I walk around the corner that will reveal the row of black lockets and the communal shower area just beyond, I can smell that pungent smell of sweat, dirty clothes, and sour jocks. I would never admit it to anyone, but I love that smell. Especially when it’s warm outside–the smell seems riper, more vital, more alive. For me, it is the smell of athletic boys, the smell of their faded and dirty jockstraps. At night, when I lie in my bed alone jacking off in the quiet darkness, I close my eyes and I try to remember it. I imagine myself in that locker room after practice, the room alive with the sound of laughter and snapping towels, of boys running around in their jocks and giving each other bullshit as they brag about what girls they’ve fucked and how big their dicks are. I try to remember, as I lie there in my bed, the exact shape of their hard white asses, whose jockstrap is twisted just above the start of the curve, and below the muscled tan of their backs. It’s the locker room where I first saw another boy naked, after a;;–the only place where it’s acceptable to see other boys in various states of undress. The locker room always haunts my fantasies and my dreams.

It was fun to write, and it was about how my main character, Jeff Morgan (I ended up creating a new main character) met Blair, who talked him into rushing the house, and how the two of them slowly developed into a relationship; with Jeff having other experiences along the way as he fell in love with Blair, who didn’t seem to want to be in a relationship with him. The book, with all of its lusty sex scenes, was really about falling in love for the first time, as well as becoming comfortable with your own sexuality.

I still get royalties. It was originally published in 2007, and you can still get the print copies from second hand sources, but the ebook is still available and while the book–which I haven’t read in a while–is probably pretty dated now, it’s still selling ten years later.

Which is kind of cool, really.

And now back to the spice mines.