Songbird

So, daylight savings time means I didn’t sleep as late as I have the last few mornings–simply because the clocks were turned back an hour. I woke up yet again at ten this morning–I went to bed around ten last night–and slept like a stone yet another night. Sleep really is the best thing, isn’t it? These last few nights of good sleep have been absolutely heavenly, and I feel a million times better than I did before this staycation started. I also can’t help but feel that missing Bouchercon–much as I hated to do so–was probably the smartest thing I could have done; thank you, doctor, for forbidding my travel.

And a belated congratulations to all the Anthony Award winners! I didn’t win for Best Short Story, but couldn’t be happier that Shawn Cosby did! He’s a great guy, a terrific writer, and also supports other writers. His debut novel, My Darkest Prayer, was fantastic; he recently signed a two book contract with Flatiron Books and I can’t wait to see what he does next, quite frankly. The other nominees–Art Taylor, Barb Goffman, and Holly West–are also terrific writers and awesome people who support other writers as well. Being nominated for an Anthony for a short story was one of the biggest thrills of my career so far.

It’s also weird that it’s a Sunday morning and  there’s no Saints game today.  It’s weird that both the Saints AND LSU have bye weeks the same weekend; but next weekend is going to be tough–LSU at Alabama for all the marbles; the Saints playing the hated Atlanta Falcons.

I imagine by the end of that weekend I am going to be quite worn out from emotion and adrenaline.

Angela Crider Neary, who moderated the Anthony Short Story nominees panel yesterday, very graciously sent me the questions she intended to ask me on the panel, so I thought I’d go ahead and answer them today–even though I’ve already lost. 😉

You’ve written in an impressive array of genres – over 50 short stories, two different private eye novel series, young adult novels (some with supernatural elements), and even some erotica as well as some horror and suspense.  Do you like one of these genres or formats (short or long) better than others, and tell us what you enjoy or find rewarding about writing each of them.  Are there any other genres you have written or would like to write?

I’ve also written some romance! I like all the genres I write in pretty equally; I just wish I was better at writing horror than I am. I’ve always had a strong passion for history, so I think historicals is something I’d like to try at some point–it surprises me that I haven’t already. I find writing short to be a lot more difficult than writing long; I always think of ideas in terms of books rather than short stories, and sometimes have to modify the idea down, as I can certainly never write all my ideas as novels unless I have an exceptionally long life. I’ve been experimenting with writing novellas lately–I’m in the process of writing two right now. Of course, there’s little to no market for novellas. I guess I’ll wind up self-publishing them or something.

I love the title of your current Anthony-nominated story, “Cold Beer No Flies.”  Is there a story behind this particular title, and how important do you think titles are for stories or novels?

Thank you, I’m rather partial to that title myself! When I was a teenager in Kansas, there was a bar in the county seat that was very similar to the bar in my story. It was simply called My Place and they had a reader board out on the side of the road and one day it said COLD BEER NO FLIES. That tickled me for some reason, and I never forgot it. About ten years later I wrote the first draft of the story with that title. It sat in my files for a very long time, and about ten years ago I revised it for the first time, shifted the setting from Kansas to the Florida panhandle, and changed the main character from a young woman to a young man. When Florida Happens came about, I revised it one last time and submitted it to the blind read process, and was delighted to have the judges score it highly enough for inclusion. (My story in the Blood on the Bayou anthology also went through the blind read, and was picked.)

You have two PI novel series set in New Orleans.  How would you describe these two series, how they differ from each other, and how you’re able to slip into the separate moods and characters of each of them?

The Chanse series is more hard-boiled than the Scotty series, which is more light and fun. Chanse is a completely different kind of  gay man than Scotty; he was raised working class, his family lived in a trailer park and were evangelical Christians in a small working class town in east Texas. He used football and a scholarship to LSU to get out, and finally came out officially after graduating from college. He’s more scarred emotionally, more bitter and cynical, and has a very low opinion of humanity. Scotty is the polar opposite of Chanse: from a wealthy society family on both sides, he grew up in New Orleans with extremely liberal, progressive parents who never had any issue with his sexuality, and was kind of a fuck-up in some ways, though–flunked out of college, worked as a stripper and a personal trainer, etc. But he has a very positive outlook on life, and has no baggage about his sexuality whatsoever; in fact, he revels in being gay. I’d never read a character like that before, and I felt like there needed to be one. Scotty is much more fun to write than Chanse–I kind of just make up the story as I go, because that’s kind of how Scotty lives his life, up for anything and everything–whereas Chanse is more rigid, more unhappy, and more of a tight-ass, so I have to plan his stories out from the very beginning.

You’re the co-founder of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, which takes place in New Orleans every spring.  Tell us about it.

Well, way back in 2002 my partner, myself, and Jean Redmann went out for dinner and drinks one night, and over the course of conversation the subject of writer’s conferences came up–and how queer writers were often not included, and if they were, were put on what we call a “zoo panel”–a panel where all the non-straight writers are gathered together which, no matter the good intentions, always felt like we were zoo animals people came to see and point at, and those panels inevitably devolved into “let’s teach the nice straight people about homophobia.” We thought it would be lovely to have an event of our own–open and welcoming all who wanted to participate–where being queer wasn’t the topic of discussion. We also thought it would be good to stress the importance of queer literature and its importance in its response to the AIDS epidemic, and try to honor the many writers we lost to the plague years. We figured we might be able to pull it off maybe once or twice before interest died down…and here we are, seventeen/eighteen years later, still going strong. I have less to do with the organizing now than I did in the beginning–most of it is my partner and his team–but I still get credit for it.

Your Lambda Literary Award winning Murder in the Rue Chartres was described by the New Orleans Times-Picayune as “the most honest depiction of life in post-Katrina New Orleans published thus far.”  There was such overwhelming personal and community devastation after the hurricane and flooding.  Why did you choose to write about the hurricane and what was that like for you?

It’s so weird to me that it’s been over fourteen years now. But even now, it’s impossible to describe, or talk about, everything that happened because of Katrina. 90% of the city was rendered uninhabitable, and for awhile we weren’t even sure if the city was going to come back–or if we would ever be able to come home. We were lucky, we were able to evacuate when so many couldn’t–and that guilt lasted a really long time. It took me a long time to forgive myself for leaving New Orleans to die. It’s very difficult to describe how New Orleanians feel about New Orleans, that deep love that runs through, and colors, everything. The entire time I was gone I felt unmoored, unanchored, unsure about the future. I also knew I was going to have to write about Katrina, and I didn’t really want to. I was one of the first to come back–I returned to New Orleans on October 11th, about six weeks or so after it happened. I had been blogging at that time for not quite a year–but I was blogging extensively throughout that time, describing what I was feeling and what I was seeing. (I only wish technology had advanced to the point where phones had cameras–I didn’t have a digital camera at the time and so was unable to document everything with pictures; all I have is memories and the blog.) Katrina was such an enormous event, that the entire world was aware of–I didn’t see how I could possibly continue to write fiction about New Orleans without acknowledging Katrina, but at the same time I didn’t want to write about it, either. The Scotty series–I’d finished and turned in the third book in that series, Mardi Gras Mambo, about three weeks before the storm and I’d intended to start writing the fourth almost immediately, after taking about a month off to rest and regroup. Ironically, the idea was called Hurricane Party Hustle and I wanted to write a book set in the city during an evacuation with another near-miss hurricane–which I’d already experienced three or four times at that point. Needless to say that idea was scrapped. I also didn’t see how I could write a light, funny book about New Orleans when we were still in the midst of everything.* I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write a Chanse book. My editor at Alyson Books, Joseph Pittman, kept after me, telling me I was the perfect person to write such a book, and so on and so on, and I finally agreed to write it–but only on the condition that Chanse, like me, had evacuated and returned on the same day I did. I didn’t think survival stories from Katrina were mine to tell.** Writing the book itself was incredibly difficult, and I found myself drinking a lot whenever I finished for the day. But in the end, it was incredibly cathartic to write the book and I am very grateful, to this day, that Joe wore me down and convinced me to write it.
*Of course, now, all these years later, I can actually see how a funny book could be written about New Orleans in the aftermath–particularly in the way New Orleanians who were here reacted. The ruined refrigerators, for example, that everyone dragged out to the curb for disposal and sealed with duct tape–people decorated their refrigerators or wrote slogans on them; some of them were enormously funny. New Orleans has always had a sort of gallows sense of humor about itself; we always laugh, no matter what, and I do regret that I wasn’t in a place where I could examine that.
**I did eventually write a survival story, “Survivor’s Guilt” (my story in Blood on the Bayou, it was nominated for a Macavity Award a few years ago), and while I still didn’t think I had the right to tell a survival story–I kept questioning myself the entire time I was writing it–I based a lot of it on survival stories I’d been told, and given the response to the story, I think I got it right. I have another idea for a noir story set in the aftermath as well–it came to me on a panel at Raleigh Bouchercon several years ago Katrina Niidas Holm was moderating, and she keeps pushing me to write it–and I think I’ll someday get to it.
I also think sometimes I might go ahead sometime and write Hurricane Party Hustle–probably enough time has passed to write a story about an evacuation and near-miss , and sometimes I think I might go back and write a Scotty book set during that time as well…maybe.
And on that note, back to the spice mines. Thanks to everyone who voted for my story for the Anthonys so it made the short-list; that meant a lot, and I appreciate it.
And here’s hoping I won’t miss Sacramento next year.

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The Boys of Summer

I finished watching Netflix’ amazing series Seven Seconds last night, and it is some of the best, smartest television I’ve ever seen; it takes on so many issues, and handles them so incredibly brilliantly. The acting and writing is razor sharp; the show is moving and heartbreaking and so incredibly complicated. What is has to say about race and justice and family is just…I will be processing this show for several days. It reminded me very much of American Crime in how it realistically and powerfully presented every side of an issue, and how flawed everyone is, and how it makes you question your own assumptions and thought processes and basically, everything you think and believe. American Crime was an exceptional show; I honestly believe that it was low-rated because it was too complex and real for viewers to handle. Seven Seconds is at that same level of expertise and complexity; it also makes me question what I do within my own work; the layers I don’t peel away, and how my own work might be too simple.

Jean Redmann always says–and I shamelessly steal this at every opportunity–that we become crime writers because we have a desire to find justice in a world where justice isn’t always served, and this, as members of a marginalized community who rarely find justice, makes us want to write stories in which victims find justice–we want to create art in which justice is always served and is an absolute and is available for everyone, accessible, even as we know that it is, in fact, not. I know that I was enormously disappointed by the end of season 2 of American Crime; but it was much more realistic with its ending than it would have been had it been emotionally satisfying. We want to see the bad guys get punished, we want the circle that opened with the commission of the crime to close, be wrapped up and packaged with a neat little bow; we want order to be restored.

But we live in a world, and a society, in which order is an illusion; we pretend, just like we like to pretend we have control over our lives. There’s a wonderful quote which I can’t recall exactly, but it goes something like man  plans and the gods laugh. I know, after the Time of Troubles, I focused on working out and my body; because that was something I had control over. Even now, as I write and plan what I want to do with my career as a writer, I ignore the obvious: I can’t control whether an editor wants to publish my story or whether an agent believes they can sell my manuscript; I can’t control whether someone will buy my books and like them. But thinking about those things is part of what destroyed my will last year; I have to not worry about that, not worry about whether people will get what I am doing or whether I am going to get one-star reviews or whether enough copies of the books will sell so my publisher will continue to invest in my career. I can only do the best that I can and focus on the work itself and push all of that other stuff to the back of my mind. Just like I can’t control whether I am going to be killed in a car accident on the way to the grocery store or any myriad number of other things.

All I can do is make plans and try to control what variables I can. I can drive carefully and pay attention to what I am doing and remain alert to the other drivers and try to anticipate what they are going to do and be prepared for eventualities that I can foresee, while recognizing I cannot foresee everything.

As you can tell, Seven Seconds is a powerful viewing experience.

And Regina King is a goddess.

I think the reason the two stories I am currently failing at telling–“Once a Tiger” and “Don’t Look Down”–are failing because I don’t know the story I am trying to tell nor the characters I am writing about. In both cases, I worry that there’s no market for them; why write them if they have no future? But that’s again out of my control; that’s the kind of second-guessing that is fatal for an author. There are things that are within my control, after all, and my entire career has been guided by choices that I’ve made; I chose to write about gay characters, knowing that made break-out success next to impossible. I don’t regret those choices in any way; there’s no guarantee that writing something more mainstream would have brought greater success. And despite my tendency to overthink and self-deprecate, I am proud of all of my books. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. Some are better than others; some have flaws that I wish I hadn’t missed in the process of writing them. It’s difficult to evaluate one’s own work, no matter how clear-eyed one can be; I tend to always be my own worst critic. And as I get older and my memory begins to fail me more, I don’t remember what I meant to do, what was my goal when I was writing some books–hell, many of them. It never occurred to me, as I was writing the Scotty books, that I was writing a series with what is now called a throuple at the heart of it; that Scotty’s personal story was how a non-monogamous, promiscuous gay man came to be in  a relationship with two men, and how that has changed his life. Now, as I write the eighth in the series, they have gotten older and wiser and even have a young “son”–and not in the sexual way; they all look on Taylor, Frank’s nephew, as their child; kind of like My Three Dads–and I don’t even think about how unusual that is to write about. The series has become about aging as a gay man; moving from being that hot guy everyone wants to have sex with to an older guy not quite as motivated to slut around anymore but to help and mentor a younger gay guy, to make his life and his journey easier. I have to push my worries about these changes in Scotty aside and remember it is the character that people relate to, not him being young and hot and beautiful and going out dancing or doing drugs or picking up strangers; but the fact that he is so unapologetically himself.

And that’s what I’ve forgotten over the last few Scotty books; maybe it’s there, but that sense of who Scotty is as a person is something I feel like I’ve forgotten over time; maybe it’s in my subconscious, but I have to remember that: I need to remember the core of who Scotty is.

Anyway, I should probably get back to the spice mines. I am thinking a lot today, obviously.

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