Go West

Good morning, Thursday; just today and tomorrow before we slide into another delightful three day weekend. Memorial Day! Huzzah! I am always about another day off from the day job–which I completely understand that it sounds like I don’t like my day job, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I just enjoy not having to go to work more than I enjoy going to work; I’m not sure how everyone else comes down on that category, but I’d be more than willing to bet that most people prefer their days off to their days on.

I could be wrong, but I rather doubt it.

Anyway, here I am at the crack of dawn swilling down coffee and trying to get more awake and alert. I am looking at a long day of screening at both buildings (Marine in the morning, Elysian Fields in the afternoon) and right now it seems like its about a million years staring into my face. But I will persevere, and deal with the heavy traffic on the way home just after five. Tomorrow is the Friday of a long weekend, which is absolutely lovely, and my ink cartridge was delivered yesterday so I can pick it up on my way into the office tomorrow and actually start printing shit I need to print again this weekend. Yesterday was a relatively good day, despite being tired–that tired lasted again, like the day before, pretty much all day–but I managed to get my errands accomplished after work and got some organizing and straightening done in the kitchen/office area; always a plus. Paul was a little late getting home last night, but we watched an episode of The Great and then I started streaming The Story of Soaps, an ABC show about the history of the soaps–just to see if it was any good–and it was quite enjoyable; I’ll look forward to watching the rest of it this evening. I watched soaps from the time I was a kid–our babysitter in the summer watched General Hospital, One Life to Live, and Dark Shadows, which is how I got started watching them, and over the years I remained pretty (fairly) loyal to General Hospital and One Life to Live. The summer we moved to Kansas, until we got cable we only got the CBS affiliate from Kansas City, so my mom and I ended up watching the CBS shows–from The Young and the Restless through Search for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, Guiding Light, and The Edge of Night. After cable, we watched General Hospital–it was the late 1970’s by then, and everyone was watching General Hospital by that point.

It’s interesting, in some ways, that our moves–my moves–gradually went west. The suburb we moved to when we left the south side of Chicago was west; from there to Kansas, and from there to California. I started heading more and more east from California, to Houston and then to Tampa, before going north to Minneapolis and coming back south to New Orleans. I never thought about it too much, really; but it’s interesting how I’ve moved around the country and the strange pattern to it. Of course, we’ve been in New Orleans since 1996 (barring that year in Washington), and since I’ve lived here longer than I have anywhere else, I tend to think of New Orleans as home more than I’ve ever thought of the places I’ve lived previously. Granted, had we never left Chicago, I probably would think of Chicago as home, but I’ve literally only been back to Chicago maybe twice, possibly three times, since departing the area in 1975. I’ve never been back to Kansas, and I’ve been to Houston many times since I moved to Tampa–but only twice to Tampa since leaving there (I’ve actually been to Orlando quite a bit; I’d say I’ve visited Orlando more than anywhere other than Houston over the last twenty-odd years).

I tend to not write about Florida, for the most part; while I’ve written about a fictional city in California based on Fresno in the Frat Boy books (the third was set in a different fictional California city, San Felice, based on Santa Barbara), and I’ve written about the panhandle of Florida, I’ve never really based anything on, or written about, the real Tampa or a city based on it (I do have ideas for some stories set in “Bay City”); I’ve not really written about Houston, either. My fiction has always primarily been set in New Orleans, with a few books scattered about other places (Alabama, Kansas, a mountain town in California called Woodbridge) but it’s almost inevitably New Orleans I write about; which makes sense. I live here, I love it here, and I will probably die in New Orleans.

And I’m fine with that, frankly.

“Go West” is also a song I associate with New Orleans, actually. I know it was originally a Village People recording–which I actually never heard before the Pet Shop Boys covered it–but I always associate it with 1994 and when I first started coming to New Orleans; it, along with Erasure’s “Always” were the big hits of the moment that were always being played in gay bars, and I heard them both for the first time on the dance floor at the Parade on my thirty-third birthday; which was also the first time I ever did Ecstasy. So, whenever I hear “Go West” by the Pet Shop Boys, I always think back to that birthday and that trip to New Orleans (“Always” has the same affect, but not as intensely; I’ve never been able to find the proper dance remix the Parade used to play–and in fact, a lyric of the song, “Hold On To The Night”, became a short story I’ve never published anywhere–and haven’t even tried to revise in almost thirty years. It wasn’t a crime story; I was writing gay short stories then, about gay life in New Orleans–and no, I never published the vast majority of them (with the sole exception of “Stigmata”, which was published in an anthology that came and went very quickly), although I did adapt some of them into erotica stories and some could easily be adapted into crime stories…I know a fragment of one, I think, morphed into “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” which was published in Jerry Wheeler’s The Dirty Diner anthology, and was probably reprinted in Promises in Every Star.

I should probably pull those stories out again and see if there’s anything I can do with them,

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

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Squeeze Box

I didn’t write a goddamned thing yesterday.

I did a podcast interview yesterday; Eric Beetner and S. W. Lauden very graciously invited me to be on their Writer Types broadcast, which I had been on briefly before–they’d gone around on Saturday afternoon at St. Petersburg Bouchercon to talk to people, and they caught up to me in the bar where I was drinking with Chris Holm, his lovely wife Katrina Niidas Holm, Stephanie Gayle and I don’t remember who else was around at the time (read: drinking in the bar). I was impressed with the questions they asked me; usually interviews tend to be rather softball and don’t require me to actually think a whole lot. But the questions they asked me put me into a reflective mood, and I kind of spent the rest of yesterday thinking, and remembering. My career as a published author of fiction (I don’t say writer because I started in publishing as a journalist in 1996; and while I continued to write for newspapers and magazines until around 2003 or so, I never really considered myself–and still don’t, to this day–a journalist).

When I started out all those years ago, it was possible to be a gay writer of gay mysteries and stay cloistered away from the mainstream mystery community. There were gay bookstores, newspapers, and magazines; those no longer exist and the publications that do aren’t really interested in books–at least ones that aren’t written by celebrities. I got some local press in the Times-Picayune, thanks to the divine (and still missed) Diana Pinckley and Susan Larson, but I was able to build my career entirely within the gay community. I don’t think that career path is possible for anyone today; I have no idea what to tell young gay writers just starting out nowadays because they can’t do what I did, back in the day–the bookstores I used to always do appearances at (Outwrite in Atlanta, A Different Light in West Hollywood and San Francisco, Lambda Rising in DC and Baltimore, Oscar Wilde in New York, and I forget the names of others) no longer exist. Talking to Eric and Steve, I remembered those days when I used to show up to signings in a baseball cap and shorts and a tank top; and I kind of missed it. I’ve not done a book signing in an actual bricks-and-mortar bookstore since Rebecca Chance and I both appeared at Murder by the Book in Houston, which was either 2012 or 2013? But book signings aren’t as effective a promotional tool for a writer like me, in a niche market–but going to conferences and appearing on panels gets me more bang for my buck and exposes me to a lot more potential readers than appearing in a store ever would. I would love to do another signing at Murder by the Book; John McDougall and McKenna Jordan are two of my favorite people in this business and I have friends in Houston as well…but then I worry about all the trouble a signing would be for the store and worry no one would show up to make it worth their while to have me in the store.

Plus, I have a new car so the drive over wouldn’t be terrifying the way it always used to be.

Well, newer car. I guess now that I’ve had it for two years it’s not really a new car anymore.

Ah, well. As you can tell, Eric and Steve sent me down memory lane. Who knows what blog entries that might lead to?

And now back to the spice mines.

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Baby I Love Your Way

So, it’s Friday, and $562 later (not including the cost of the appointment itself) at the optometrist’s later, I am home. But I have my first new glasses in three years on order, and a year’s supply of contact lenses, which I am trying to get better about wearing more regularly. Part of the resignation to being old and not going to the gym regularly (if at all) anymore was the loss of contact lenses as an option years ago…I still don’t like the progressive lenses, but I am getting used to them, and I am very hopeful my vanity is going to kick in and get me off my ass.

I mean, if I don’t have to wear my glasses…

Don’t hold your breath.

So, here’s an insight into how my brain and my memory works. For years, I’ve been trying to remember the name and author of a book I read during a horror phase in the 1980’s–during that time I fantasized of being a horror novelist. When I worked at Bank of America, I didn’t have a car, and had to take the bus to and from work. I had to change busses at the Manchester Mall, going and coming, and on paydays I would, rather than catching the next bus, going into the mall, go to the B. Dalton and browse the books, and after getting a bag of books, I would eat in the food court–there was a place that had an amazing hamburger with grilled onions and bell peppers, but it wasn’t cheap and this was part of my payday treat for myself. (It was during this time period that I also went through a fantasy period; this was when I read the rest of The Shannara Chronicles and  The Belgariad) There was a horror novel that I read that has always stuck with me; when I moved to Houston from California I left most of my books behind, alas. For years I’ve been trying to remember the author’s name and the book’s title; it was set in rural New Jersey, the main characters were from New York and for some reason were spending the summer, independently of each other, in this small rural town. I remember there was a demon or a devil in a tree in the prologue which consumed someone; but there’s not much more I remember, except how brilliantly and vividly the author described things; there was a scene with the young woman working in a public library in Manhattan that was so vivid I could see the cracks in the paint and the plaster.

Today I was listening to Spotify and cued up The Best of New Order. When the song “Ceremony” came on I thought, that’s a great title for a horror short story or novella sand I was starting to reach for a pen when it hit me between the eyes, that novel set in rural New Jersey you’ve been trying to remember for twenty years was titled The Ceremonies.

A quick check on Google, and sure enough, the book is The Ceremonies by T. E. D. Klein.

And now I need to get a copy so I can reread it.

And now back to the spice mines.

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Small Town

I’m never really certain how to describe where I’m from; because it isn’t simple. I was born in Alabama, which is where my people are from (which is what we say in Alabama), but we moved to Chicago when I was two. We lived in the city until I was ten, which is when we moved out to the suburbs. I was fourteen when we moved to Kansas, and nineteen when I followed my parents to California. Since California, I’ve lived in: Houston, Tampa, Houston, Tampa, Minneapolis, New Orleans, DC, and then back to New Orleans once and for all. So, saying I grew up in Kansas isn’t quite accurate, nor is I grew up in Chicago. I graduated from high school in Kansas, so there is that. I consider New Orleans home; I’ve certainly lived here longer than I have anywhere else in my life, but in a sense, I am kind of ‘homeless’ in that regard. I’ve always pretty much considered wherever my parents live to be home, even though now they live somewhere I’ve never actually lived–so I lazily say I’m going home to see my parents, even though their current home has never really been my home; I guess in that sense that wherever my parents are is home because my parents define, for me, where that indescribable, undefinable place that I call home would be. I also think of Alabama as home, too; though I haven’t lived there in fifty-five years and I have no memory of ever living there.

Does that make sense?

New Orleans is home for me now; Alabama is where I’m from, but I also consider anywhere my parents live to also be home.

Is it any wonder I am barely clinging to my sanity with my fingernails?

And yes, I lived in a very small town in Kansas: I believe the population of Americus was 932 when I lived there (that number is stuck in my head, so it came from somewhere), and moving there, even from a suburb of Chicago, was a bit of culture shock for me. (Not nearly as big as the shock must have been for my parents, moving from a mostly country existence in a remote part of Alabama to Chicago when they were twenty with two toddlers.) The streets didn’t have names or numbers; and at the main intersection in town there was a blinking red light hovering over the center, suspended on wire that waved and swayed in the wind. There was a gas station and a tiny little food place called the Katy Drive-in; what was now the Americus Road that you took to “go to town” (the county seat, Emporia, about eight miles away) used to be the Katy Railroad Line, long gone and almost completely forgotten. We caught the bus at the grade school, which had been the high school until its conversion when the old grade school was condemned by the fire marshall; people in town were still bitter about the loss of the town’s high school and the students being absorbed into the consolidated high school, about sixteen miles from town: Northern Heights High School, about a mile east of yet another small town named Allen. Northern Heights’s student body was an amalgamation of farm kids and kids from five towns: Americus, Bushong, Allen, Admire, and Miller, each of which used to have it’s own grade and high school.

It was strange for me, but being the new kid  had added benefits to it; no one knew, at my new school, that at my previous school I was picked on and sort of mocked and belittled and made fun of; had gay slurs sneered at me in the hallways since the seventh grade, sometimes cornered by a group of boys who got their jollies by mocking me and making me worry about physical violence. By the time some of the kids at my new school realized that I was different not only because I was new and from the big city but because I was harboring the deep secret that I was gay it was the second semester of my senior year and I only had a few months to endure slurs and mocking laughter, of finding Greg Herren sucks cock written in magic marker on my locker or on the desk I usually sat in during a class.

Kansas has been on my mind a lot lately; Constant Reader will no doubt remember that several months ago I had dinner with a classmate, passing through town on his way to a long bike ride along the Natchez Trace. That dinner reminded me of things I hadn’t thought about in years; the smell of corn fields after the rain, the brooding heat, how you could see a thunderstorm coming from miles away across the flat terrain, and the long drive to school. The WIP is set in a town based on Emporia; Sara was set in a high school based on the one I attended. Laura, my main character in Sorceress, was from Kansas and had gone to the Sara high school until her parents’ death, which is the impetus that ended with her in the California mountains. My story “Promises in Every Star” is set at an imaginary high school reunion in Kansas, where my main character returns for the first time in years.

I do have a lot of fond memories of my high school years in Kansas; I don’t want to make it seem as though I don’t. But the passing of time and the malignant spread of nostalgia through my brain hasn’t yet succeeded in dulling the bad memories either, or painting over them with a golden, rosy sheen.

But I also wouldn’t be who I am now were it not for that time, so I can’t be bitter or angry about the bad; you can’t have the good that came from then without having to accept the bad. And there was a lot of good, really, a lot of fun and laughter. Even were I not a gay kid terrified of what would happen if anyone knew–although more knew than I was aware back then–being from the city would have made me different anyway; as would being a creative type who loved to read and aspired to be a writer.

I would have been different anyway; the main issue of almost all of my life experiences before I finally came to terms with who I am, my difference, was always predicated in my mind on my sexuality; it took a long time for me to realize that my difference wasn’t just the gay thing because the gay thing overrode everything else.

Heavy thoughts for a Sunday morning.

And you will be pleased to know, Constant Reader, that I have returned to the Short Story Project. Next up is “Nemesia’s Garden” by Mariano Alonso, from Cemetery Dance, Issue 79, edited by Richard Chizmar:

Why is it that the secrets we don’t like to talk about during our lives are the same secrets we don’t want to take to the grave with us?

The day before dying on a hospital bed after a long battle with cancer, my mother told me a story that happened the year before I went off to college. The story was as strange as the time she chose to share it.

For many years, my mother worked as a cleaning lady in several private residences on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and Upper West Side. She was an illegal immigrant with basic education and poor English-language skills; for this reason she was in no position to negotiate with her wealthy patrons for a fair wage that, at least, was always in cash and tax-free.

This is a creepy ass story about two twisted, elderly sisters–one disabled, the other cruel–which is more than a little reminiscent of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in style and theme and tone, but I greatly enjoyed reading it. It’s told from the perspective of their cleaning woman, an illegal immigrant who is telling the story to her son, as you can tell above, when she is dying, because she can’t go to her grave with the creepy tale on her conscience.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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You Are

It’s raining this morning here in New Orleans, and very dark outside my windows. We’re in a flash flood warning through Thursday, but from everything I’ve seen on-line this morning the eye of Harvey is going to pass far to the west of New Orleans; but a lot of Louisiana is going to be impacted. Not to the extent Houston and Texas were, of course. Just thinking about what’s happened to Houston (still happening, actually) here is terrifying. I saw on Weather.com that three times the water pumped out of New Orleans after the Katrina levee-failure has dropped on Houston…although it’s a much bigger area. Houston is going to need us all, everyone. It’s the fourth largest city in the United States; a major port and contributor to the economy, and a major cog in the oil/gas industry. Most everyone I know and love and care about in Houston has surfaced somewhere on social media, so I know they’re all okay, but the images are absolutely horrific.

It’s odd that today is the anniversary of Katrina and it’s raining, with a hurricane heading for the western part of the state. I’ve thought a lot about the post-Katrina flood these past few days as Houston has been ravaged, and my heart breaks for all the lives that are going through what so many here experienced. So many New Orleanians evacuated to Houston and stayed there, and now are going through the same experience all over again. It makes my heart hurt. I don’t doubt that Houston will rebuild; I lived in Houston for two years and have spent a lot of time there. Houstonians and Texans are, no matter what else you may think about them, are a hardy, tough lot who can’t be kept down.

HOU DAT.

The LSU-BYU game, which was scheduled to be played originally in Houston this Saturday, has been moved to the Superdome; I think we may try to get tickets. It’s going to be interesting trying to drive to work today, and even more interesting trying to get home later this evening after a day of incessant rain. Heavy sigh.

Oh, the wonderful Paul D. Marks did a blog piece about us Macavity Award finalists; you can find it here:

http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2017/08/2017-macavity-award-short-story.html

I started inputting the edits on the WIP yesterday–I stand corrected; that is more tedious than doing a line edit–and have decided my next read will be The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith, a writer I love and admire and haven’t read enough work by; I’ve read some of her short stories (wonderful) but I think the only novels I’ve read (and loved) are The Talented Mr. Ripley (which I need to reread) and Strangers on a Train.

And on that note, ’tis back to the spice mines with me. Here’s a Tuesday hunk for you, Constant Reader:

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Mr. Roboto

I finished the line edit yesterday, thanks be to the baby Jesus. Now I have to input it into the document, but the worst part–the actual line by line edit–is done done done. Huzzah! Huzzah!

I lived in Houston for two years, and of course, my parents lived there over ten. So, I feel connected to that city as well–not to mention all the friends I have there, and my favorite specialty bookstore, Murder by the Book, so my heart breaks every time I see the flooding pictures, videos, and the posts. Keep Houston in your hearts, everyone, and know they are going to need help. Twelve years ago it was New Orleans, and Houston opened its heart to us. Never forget. Rebuilding Houston is going to be a long and incredibly challenging process. We need to be there for our fellow Americans.

I spent the rest of Sunday–pre-Game of Thrones epic season finale, reading Jeff Abbott’s extraordinary Blame.

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What she would never remember: their broken screams starting with I love…and I hate…, the sudden wrenching pull, the oh-no-this-is happening-this-can’t be-happening feeling of falling as the SUV rocketed off the road, the horrifying downward slope of the hillside in the headlights, his hand tight over hers on the steering wheel, the smashing thunder of impact, the driver’s-side airbag exploding in her face, the rolling, the lights dying, the unforgiving rock, and then the blow to her head that undid her and wiped her clean and made her new.

The old Jane died; every version of David died. The new Jane, product of a dark night’s fury and tragedy, knew nothing more until she woke up four days later, remembering nothing, not her name, not her mother’s face, the crash, what had happened to her in that hospital bed, or any of her past seventeen years. Slowly the memories began to seep back: her birthdays when she was a child, cake sweet and soft on her lips; the smoky, rich aroma of her grandfather’s pipe matched with the woolly smell of his tweed jacket with leather elbow patches; her mother’s favorite lavender soap; the notebook she’d filled with short, dark adventure stories one summer and proudly read to her dad; the faces of her teachers; the smile of the librarian who’d give her stickers during the summer reading program; the feel of her hand in her father’s palm; the faces and the laughter of her friends when they were kids.

Sometimes the memories felt immediate; sometimes they felt like something she’d seen in a film, present but distant, nothing to do with the person she was now.

Except for the past three years.

Jane was seventeen, but as the memories surged back, she was stuck at fourteen. Those last three years were gone, all the joy and drama of her high school life, lost in the damage and the trauma. Including those mysterious, unexplained last few hours, when she was with a boy she wasn’t supposed to be with, when she was out doing God knows what. The girl lived and eventually limped back into the bright sunshine, and the boy died and went into the cold ground, a secret sleeping with him.

And so the world she knew turned against her.

Except someone watched, and waited, and wondered how much of that night Jane Norton really remembered.

Amnesia. While not nearly as common as soap operas make it seem, it’s an actual thing. I did a lot of research on amnesia when I was writing Sleeping Angel–most of which I’ve actually forgotten–but if done right, amnesia is an excellent foundation for a crime novel/thriller.

Jeff Abbott has done it right with Blame.

Two years have passed since the terrible accident that took Jane’s memory and killed her neighbor, David–one of the most popular boys in their high school in an affluent section of Houston. Jane’s early memories have come back, but she doesn’t remember high school before the accident, or the tragic accident that killed her father when she was a freshman. Hated and resented by many of her classmates, she’s now homeless, sometimes crashing in one of her few friend’s dorm rooms in a local college. Her mother is too much for her to handle–think Mildred Pierce on steroids–and of course, David’s parents also still live next door; his mother hates her and makes no bones about hating her. Her mother refuses to sell the house, and David’s parents are splitting up. On the anniversary of the accident Jane unfortunately encounters David’s mother Perri at David’s grave, which turns into an incredibly ugly altercation when Perri attacks her; Jane’s Uber driver records it all–and it goes viral.

At the same time, someone named “Liv Danger” is going after Perri on social media–Jane as well–and soon other people involved somehow, even peripherally, the night of the accident are under attack. Slowly but surely, Jane has to slowly start piecing together what happened that day as the Liv Danger’s behavior becomes more and more menacing and dangerous…and other dangerous characters are getting involved.

This book was, quite simply, an extraordinary read. The tension begins on Page One, and not only does it not let up, it builds. I literally took the book into the kitchen with me, reading while I was making dinner because I couldn’t stop, didn’t even want to take twenty minutes away from it because I had to know what happened that night! 

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, but along with that recommendation comes this warning: set aside a weekend to read it because you won’t want to put it down.

Easily one of my top reads of this year.