Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow

Sunday morning and I have a rather full plate today. I need to finish cleaning the downstairs, and I have to get back to work on the revisions. This should all be easy enough to do–my office is in the kitchen, which is also the last part of the downstairs that needs cleaning, so I can go back and forth between the two. Also, while I am waiting for the kitchen floor to dry, I can repair to my easy chair and get back to reading Tomato Red, which is fantastic. I am behind on the revisions; I had hoped to be working on the last, final polish over this weekend; instead I find myself finishing the fourth draft; four chapters to go until it is all done and ready to move on to a final polish. I am hoping that I can get that done today, take tomorrow off, and then focus on the final polish on Tuesday before returning to work on Wednesday.

It’s a good plan, anyway.

I’m still recovering from the enormous shock of the Macavity nomination for “Survivor’s Guilt.” As Constant Reader knows, I don’t have a lot of self-confidence with short stories; I struggle with writing them and I often wonder if even the ones that get published are any good. I remember one anthology I was in, early in my career, in which the editor wrote a lengthy afterward to the book, discussing every story in the anthology in great detail–except mine. He discussed the fifteen or so other stories at great length, marveling about their themes, characters, and the language–pointedly not saying a word about mine. I had been extremely proud of being accepted into that anthology; and once I read that afterward–I never even bother putting the contributor copies in the bookcase reserved for my own work. It was such a stunning slap-in-the-face, and I–always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt even while I am being slapped across the face–could not, and still cannot, come up with any logical or kind explanation why an editor would do such a thing.

How do you discuss all the stories in the collection and leave out ONE?

I’ve never been able to decide if it being deliberate is worse than it being a careless mistake; both, in my mind, are equally bad.

I’ve never spoken to that editor again, either–didn’t respond to emails, didn’t help promote the book, etc. Maybe a bit childish, but that was so rude and so nasty, and I was so early in my career…I considered, and still do, that insult along the same lines of the creative writing teacher who told a nineteen-year-old me that I would never be published. I sometimes wonder if that is where my insecurity about writing short stories comes from; as though in my subconscious my slight success with writing novels didn’t really disprove that teacher’s smug, smiling and ever-so-condescending comments to me; since he was basing his opinion on a short story I’d written for his class, I had to get some kind of success with short stories in order to finally put that damage to my psyche to rest.

“Survivor’s Guilt” was a story I never thought I would write, nor should, to be honest. It’s a Katrina story; and the kind of Katrina story I certainly didn’t think I should ever write, or try to write. I’ve not done a lot of Katrina writing, which may surprise some people. My story in New Orleans Noir, “Annunciation Shotgun,” is a post-Katrina story that doesn’t really address the disaster at all; Murder in the Rue Chartres is the only novel I wrote that dealt directly with the aftermath. My essay “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” is the only one I’ve published about my own personal experience, and what I observed before, during, and after. After Rue Chartres, I pretty much put the disaster in the rear-view mirror and only mentioned it, in my New Orleans novels, slightly in passing from there on out. Scotty never really dealt with Katrina and its aftermath much; just some passing references and so forth, finally having Scotty deal, slightly, with his past issues and his own PTSD a bit, in Garden District Gothic  a little.

“Survivor’s Guilt” was originally inspired by a story I was told sometime in the months after Katrina, after I’d returned, and was at a cocktail party at a friend’s home. In those months after Katrina, we all had a bit of ‘disaster-fatigue’; one of the hardest parts about coming back as early as I did was that as others returned, you had to relive your own experience in conversation while listening to other people’s stories. This went on for over a year before finally, it was happening less and less.  It’s very hard to recover from PTSD when you are constantly being forced to relive the events that led to your psychological scarring in the first place. I kind of refer to the years 2005-2009 as My Crazy Years–emotionally raw and on-edge, never knowing what would trigger a manic episode or a breakdown of sorts.

But I digress. We all saw the images of people trapped on their roofs, begging for help, begging for rescue; those images are seared into the collective American consciousness. But the pictures, those images, didn’t tell the whole story; yes, they were horrifying and heart-breaking, but we couldn’t really get a true sense of the suffering being endured; the unbelievable heat, the humidity from the presence of all that water, the smell, the sense of hopelessness and despair. But it also occurred to me, even then, in my horror–not even sure I would be able to return to New Orleans, not sure if I would ever be able to write again; that such a disaster was also the perfect cover for people to get away with murder, or to cover up one. I sketched out an idea for a short story in a hotel room sometime in early 2006, about just such a thing. I thought of it as a horror story, more so than a crime story, frankly; because I couldn’t imagine having to endure something like what those who didn’t evacuate did without losing my mind. I saw the story as being told by a narrator rendered unreliable by what he was enduring; what was real, what was a figment of his breaking mind? But I put the story aside, because I didn’t think I could write it (certainly not at that time) nor did I think it was my story to tell; I evacuated and watched it all happen from a distant remove.

When I was asked to contribute to New Orleans Noir, I immediately thought of that story and was going to write it; but the authors were all assigned to a neighborhood, and my assignment was my own neighborhood, the lower Garden District, which didn’t flood. So, instead I conceived of “Annunciation Shotgun,” which is still one of my favorite stories of my own, and once again, put the rooftop story aside. A few years later, there was a horror anthology submissions call, and I decided that the rooftop story was a good fit for it. I sat down and wrote it, calling it “Blues in the Night,” which was always what I thought was the right title for it. I wrote it, submitted it, and didn’t get into the anthology. I took that as a sign that I’d originally been right; it wasn’t my story to tell, and it went back into the drawer.

When I got the opportunity to edit the Bouchercon New Orleans anthology, Blood on the Bayou, I wondered about whether or not I should write a story for it myself; there seems to be a school of thought out there that a writer/editor, when doing an anthology, shouldn’t include one of his/her own stories and take a slot from someone else. I have gone back and forth on this myself; and usually my policy is to simply write a story for it, and if someone drops out or I don’t get enough stories turned in, then I put my own story in the book. (The fact that almost all of my anthologies include one of my own stories stands as proof that someone always drops out at the last minute.) But I decided, as I rewrote “Blues in the Night” and changed the title to “Survivor’s Guilt,” that I was going to go through the same process as everyone else who submitted a story: a blind read by a small, select group of readers who would rank the stories. I was enormously pleased that the readers chose my story, and so felt a bit vindicated there. When the book came out, some of its reviews singled out my story as good, which was also lovely.

The story’s opening was cribbed from a draft of another short story called “Sands of Fortune” that I never did anything with; it’s still in a folder and I may do something with it, but that opening sentence: The sun, oh God, the sun, just really seemed to fit in “Survivor’s Guilt.”

Of course, my story was disqualified from various crime story awards for any number of reasons (I didn’t get paid since it was for charity! I edited the anthology so it was really self-published! etc. etc. etc.), and so the Macavity nomination was something I wasn’t even thinking about as even a remote possibility. When I got up Friday morning and the first thing I saw on-line was being tagged on a post of the award nominations, I just assumed Blood on the Bayou had been nominated in the anthology category; as it had been already nominated for an Anthony Award as well. It was quite a shock to scroll through the list and see that there actually wasn’t an anthology category; I was terribly confused, so I started going through the categories one by one and there I was, in the Short Story category, of all places.

I still can’t believe it, frankly; I am not the best judge of my own work, and maybe am far more critical of my own work than I should be–but there were so many damned great stories in Blood on the Bayou that I thought if any stories from it were short-listed for awards, mine was at best a long-shot. (Awards, though,  are also always a long-shot for everyone; they aren’t something you can count on or look forward to; all you can do is hope. So much crime fiction is published every year, and so much of it is fantastic, so you can just do your best work and then it’s out of your hands.)

You can only imagine what a thrill it is to be nominated against such amazing writers as Lawrence Block, Joyce Carol Oates, Art Taylor, Paul D. Marks, and Craig Faustus Buck. (Not a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, either–so I can just enjoy the thrill of being nominated and not get uptight about winning.) The class of 2017 Macavity nominees, all over, includes some incredible writers; people whose work I love and enjoy and respect. I am still processing that, to be honest–that, and having to show up for two award ceremonies at Bouchercon in Toronto this October.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Oh! One of the things I did yesterday while cleaning the living room was put all my author sets on the same book shelf. Don’t they look nice there, all together? The blue ones to the left of the Steinbeck set, which you can’t read the spines on, are the Daphne du Maurier set: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and Jamaica Inn.

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And yes, that is one of our collection of Muses shoes on the shelf above.

Magic Carpet Ride

We had the most marvelous electrical storm last night, which helped me sleep deeply and well. I don’t have to be at work until later–more bar testing tonight–and even as I sit here at my desk, it’s getting dark and gloomy outside, which clearly means another storm is on its way. I also had a weird dream about the Outdoor Kitties last night–I went outside to feed them and Scooter was outside, so I picked him up and brought him in…only another Scooter was inside, along with some gorgeously colored Maine coons and some beautiful kittens. This is when I woke up, confused that Scooter had somehow cloned himself, only to find him sleeping on me. Very weird, right? That’s the first dream I’ve had in years that I could remember when I woke up.

Figures it involves cats.

I still haven’t finished Cleopatra’s Shadows, but since I’m not going in until later today, I might be able to get through it today. It’s irritating, because there isn’t much left, and I really want to get to Universal Harvester. Ah, well. We watched another episode of The Handmaid’s Tale last night, and seriously, with everything else going on in the country today, it’s even more alarming and depressing in its realism. I also want to start watching American Gods; maybe this weekend. I have some appointments on Saturday, and some things to do–I definitely want to start working on the stored books sooner rather than later–and I want to get some work done on the book.

I’ve put the new Scotty aside for now, as I mentioned before. I was talking to a writer friend over lunch the other day–he’s in town for a conference, and very graciously treated me to lunch at Willa Jean in the CBD–and I was able to put my finger on precisely why I wasn’t feeling the new Scotty book. I had a similar problem with Garden District Gothic when I started writing it, and what I really think I need to do before I move forward with the new Scotty is go back and binge-read the first seven (!) books in the series. I kind of think something intrinsic to the series somehow might have gotten lost along the way in the books.

Garden District Gothic wasn’t supposed to be a Scotty book initially; it was intended to be another Paige book. (Just as Murder in the Rue Ursulines was originally intended to be a Scotty, and I turned it into a Chanse.) I won’t get into why the Paige series came to a premature end, but I will say that I love Paige, I loved writing about her, but I will say that I was being pressured to make that series something I wasn’t feeling, and I think it came across in the writing. I had created the character of Jerry Manning for one of the Paige books, with the intent of making him a focal point of the third. But I liked the character so much I also used him in The Orion Mask, and when I decided not to do another Paige, I didn’t want to lose the character in the process. I also liked the idea behind the book, the plot I came up with for it, and so I decided to simply turn it into a Scotty book and rejigger the story somewhat. Jerry was fun–I’ve debated giving him his own solo book, or series; a white trash boy who ran away from his repressive small town in Mississippi where he grew up, and had kind of a hardscrabble life when he got to New Orleans as a sixteen-year-old runaway with not much money. His backstory fascinated me. He worked days as a busboy in a French Quarter restaurant, lived in a crappy, run down roach-infested apartment in the Marigny, and then started dancing at the Brass Rail (my fictional version of the Corner Pocket). But Jerry was ambitious, refused to get caught up in the unfortunate world of the dancers there–although he did things for money he maybe shouldn’t have, while putting aside money with an eye to going to the University of New Orleans and getting a degree in creative writing, which he eventually was able to do. He also became a personal trainer and started working in Uptown, eventually becoming the personal trainer for wealthy women. (Aside: I’ve also always wanted to do a series about a personal trainer. The amazing thing about personal trainers is–at least, in my experience being one and having one–is that they are similar to hairdressers and bartenders, in that there’s a forced intimacy between the trainer and client; I learned a LOT about my clients, things they probably didn’t share with their close friends or in some cases, even their partners. That’s something I’ve always wanted to explore…) Because of this, Jerry was told a lot of insider gossip about New Orleans society, and when a big, shocking murder happened in the Garden District, one that exploded in the national consciousness, Jerry was privy to a lot of insider gossip, which he started recording, and eventually turned into a book he called Garden District Gothic. The book made him rich and gave him a perennial income (sort of like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and as a well-liked gay man who used pseudonyms for the real life people he wrote about, he wasn’t shunned but was actually welcomed into New Orleans society.

I love that character, and I wanted to tell that story.

Of course, I based the murder loosely on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, and since it was fictionalized, I was able to make up all sorts of things and follow my own (disproved) original theories on the case. The family was the Metoyers, old New Orleans society/money; the mother in this case was a former runner-up to Miss Louisiana who was the second wife and stepmother to the father’s twin sons from his first marriage; and the daughter was Delilah Metoyer, murdered and found in the carriage house on the grounds of the Metoyer mansion in the Garden District. By timing it the way I did, I also made it possible for the Metoyer twins to be classmates of Scotty’s at Jesuit High School, and also to give them a history together–one of the twins bullied Scotty for being gay, until Scotty went out for the wrestling team and kicked his ass one day. I also added a new element: the twins’ mother, after leaving their father, disappeared, and the bully now wants Scotty and the boys to find his mother, and maybe figure out what really happened to Delilah all those years ago. I also re-utilized a character from one of the Paige books, Serena Castlemaine, and had her buy the old Metoyer house, and throw a housewarming party. It’s at this party that Scotty runs into Jerry–they slept together a million years ago–and also meets Paige, who I decided to move into the Scotty series as well, since her series was dead in the water and I’d ended the Chanse series (I didn’t want to lose her character). This book also, because of the introduction of Serena, Jerry and Paige, was going to serve as the launching point for the next Scotty, in which I rebooted the second Paige novel about a Real Housewives of New Orleans type show and turned it into a Scotty, and wrote the story the way saw it.

garden district gothic

Writing the book was really a lot of fun, despite the deadline stress, and I liked what I did with it. I liked being able to open it with the Red Dress Run, I liked bringing back the character of Frank’s nephew, Taylor, and showing how he was adapting to life in the Quarter without any worries about being openly gay after being thrown out by his parents. (I still think about giving Taylor his own book someday.)

I also love this opening:

You know you live in New Orleans when you leave your house on a hot Saturday morning in August for drinks wearing a red dress.

It was well over ninety degrees, and the humidity had tipped the heat index up to about 110, maybe 105 in the shade. The hordes of men and women in red dresses were waving handheld fans furiously as sweat ran down their bodies. Everywhere you looked, there were crowds of people in red, sweating but somehow, despite the ridiculous heat, having a good time. I could feel the heat from the pavement through my red-and-white saddle shoes, and was glad I’d decided against wearing hose. The thick red socks I was wearing were hot enough, thank you, and were soaked through, probably dyeing my ankles, calves and feet pink. But it was for charity, I kept reminding myself as I greeted friends and people-whose-names-I-couldn’t-remember-but-whose-faces-looked-familiar, as we worked our way up and down and around the Quarter.

Finally, I had enough and called it a day.

 “I don’t think I’ve ever been so hot in my life,” my sort-of-nephew, Taylor Wheeler, said, wiping sweat from his forehead as we trudged down Governor Nicholls Street on our way home.

“It is hot,” I replied, trying really hard not to laugh. I’d been forcing down giggles pretty much all day since he came galloping down the back steps the way he always does and I got my first look at his outfit. “The last few summers have been mild—this is what our summers are normally like.” It was true—everyone was complaining about the heat because it had been several years since we’d had a normal summer. It hadn’t even rained much the year before, which was really unusual.

“I don’t even want to think about how much sweat is in my butt crack,” he complained, waving the fan he picked up somewhere furiously, trying to create a breeze.

I gave up fighting it and laughed.

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

The Morning After

I got up early this morning (well, early for a Saturday) to take a streetcar named St. Charles down to Audubon Park for the NO/AIDS Walk. I was scheduled to work in the Carevan, our mobile testing unit–and had to wonder, why has it taken me this many years to figure out that clearly the Carevan is the place to work other than the Prevention table? The Carevan is air conditioned. 

It is sad how many years it has taken me to figure this out.

I also took the streetcar home, taking pictures of the beautiful homes on the way home–I don’t know why I didn’t do so on the way there, other than it was early and I’d only had two cups of coffee so my mind wasn’t exactly thinking very clearly–but on both trips, plus the walk through Audubon Park (on the way there, I made a wrong turn at the first lagoon and wound up having to walk all the way around the park–I’d forgotten there was a golf course in the middle of Audubon Park–but didn’t make that mistake on the way back to the streetcar stop) I felt connected to New Orleans again in a way that I haven’t in a while; as ‘touristy’ and ‘cliched’ as the St. Charles streetcar line may be, there’s nothing like taking a leisurely ride on it to make you feel connected to the city again. St. Charles Avenue, and all the houses on it, are so beautiful, and scenic–and all the hidden beauty in Audubon Park, along with the beautiful and massive live oaks everywhere…well, it’s been a while, you know? I love New Orleans so much, but I get so wrapped up in my day-to-day life and existence that I forget sometimes how much I love it here and how grateful I am that I get to live here.

There was, for example, a wedding party having their pictures taken in the park among the live oaks that I stumbled on as I walked back to St. Charles. I didn’t photobomb them–though I thought about it–but they were done and walked back to the Avenue by the time I reached them. There was a portable snowball stand set up on the Avenue, and I took a couple of pictures of the bridal party getting snowballs. It was such a uniquely New Orleans moment.

 

And riding the streetcar, wandering through the park–despite the heat and the heavy air, I couldn’t help but think about the next Scotty book, and how I need to make it more about New Orleans, how I can add layers and more depth to it as a book, about how to connect the characters in the case itself to the city and make it more New Orleans somehow. I feel like that’s been missing somehow in my work lately, at least in the last few books: that sense of New Orleans that was always there before.  I think I managed to get some of that into Garden District Gothic, but I am never sure. I know that the Chanse books were starting to feel like the setting was generic; they could have been in any city, they just happened to be set in New Orleans. That was, I think, why the series was starting to feel stale to me, and partly why I decided to end it.

I’m worn out now, exhausted from the heat and the humidity and the heavy thoughts. I am going to repair to my easy chair for a lovely relaxing day of college football (GEAUX TIGERS!) and reading Leslie Budewitz’ Assault and Pepper, in preparation for spending the day tomorrow in the spice mines.