Free Ride

So, where were we?

I managed to finish that enormous volunteer project, with lots of thanks due to the others who worked on it with me; it’s so lovely to not have to worry about being organized because you are working with the “ur organizer” of all time, frankly.

Whew. I do know some pretty amazing people, you know?

I need to get started revising the Kansas book, but have just been so worn out and tired lately…it’s a big deal to finish a draft, a short story, and an enormous volunteer project all at the same time, you know? I now have to write an essay, a short story, and get to revising this manuscript but at the same time…it’s kind of lovely knowing I got all that other shit done.

I also managed to do something to my back yesterday at work–sitting in my chair wrong–and it’s been aching ever since. I used the heating pad last night (using it again this morning) and it’s horrible, of course–I can’t imagine what I did to make it hurt, but then…this is just another one of those lovely surprises about getting older: new aches and pains every day and you don’t know where they came from or why or what caused it.

But my book comes out in less than a week, so I should probably talk about it some more, right?

As I mentioned yesterday, I pretty much only regularly watch The Real Housewives of New York and Beverly Hills. I do keep up with Atlanta, and will check in on Orange County every now and then. I tried both Dallas and Potomac (I never watched DC or Miami), but didn’t get through the first seasons–but I’ve heard they’ve become more entertaining, so might check them out. I’ve not watched New Jersey in a long time; I really gave up on it after Caroline left the show; I know she was problematic to a lot of viewers and she did get on my nerves from time to time–but when she left and the show centered Teresa, I was down with it. While watching these shows, and having my loyalties and allegiances shift over the seasons, as the producers manipulate story-lines and decide what the audience will and won’t see, has been interesting. I’ve also been interested in watching the cultural phenomena around the Real Housewives, and while I rarely (if ever) agree with Camille Paglia, she is also a Housewives fan, and in an interview, when the shows came up, she compared them to soaps, and in particular, the popular prime time soaps of the 1980’s: Dallas, Dynasty, Knots Landing, etc. It was an interesting comparison, and not one I agreed with immediately, but the more I think about–and the way people talk about the shows–the more I think she was right. The prime time soaps were addictive, considered guilty pleasures no serious viewer would ever watch, and while several of them were driven by strong male leads, the women were centered and usually more interesting. There were never any male characters as interesting as the women on Knots Landing, and Blake might have been the main character on Dynasty, but the real driving force behind the show were the two women main characters, Krystle and Alexis. The housewives appeal to, like the prime time soaps, primarily women and gay male viewers. When I wrote my thesis on daytime soaps in college, one of the cultural impacts I wrote about the shows having was the decline of what was called “women’s pictures”–movies centering women characters and female stars. Whereas Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and many other women were big stars of the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, it was the 1950’s and the rise of television that not only killed the studio system, but also killed off the popular genre of women’s pictures…and I do think that was not only due to television, but because all of daytime television centered, and was focused on, women. Women no longer had to pay money to go lose themselves in a fantasy world focused on strong women facing difficult situations heroically; they could spend all day watching heroic women facing difficult situations–and situations they could relate to more–Monday through Friday. The decline of soaps–both prime time and daytime–created another vacuum, and Bravo and these shows stepped up to fill that void.

There have been already some terrific books centering reality television; Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister was, like her debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive, absolutely fantastic. But as I said, I thought it would be interesting to write my own version of a murder mystery centered on a reality show filmed in New Orleans. I’m fascinated by these people, who are willing to have their lives and interactions be filmed for the entertainment of the masses, be judged for it on social media and in recap columns, and ripped to shreds on message boards and Facebook groups. Some of them use their reality show to promote not only themselves but their businesses–the most famous of these is Bethenny Frankel, who became rich through her various Skinnygirl enterprises, all of which were boosted by her popularity on reality television, and Lisa Vanderpump, who used her reality fame to promote her restaurants in Los Angeles, even getting a spin-off show centered around the staff at one of her restaurants, Vanderpump Rules, which is even more popular than the housewives (I abandoned that show somewhere after season two). I think the Frankel/Vanderpump model is the golden ticket these women are looking for when they agree to be cast; but not everyone is as smart about controlling their image as those two are–nor have the kind of influence on production as they enjoy.

My fascination with these women, and their shows, and who they are and why they would do such a show, gave birth to the idea that eventually became Royal Street Reveillon. I liked the idea of Scotty being a fan, and interacting with the women on the New Orleans show while trying to get to the bottom of a murder…or two, or three. It was also kind of fun to write, frankly, and the older i get and the more I do this, the more important it is to me to enjoy myself while I am doing it.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader.

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Neither One of Us (Wants to Be The First To Say Goodbye)

Wednesday, and the midway point of the week yet again.

Today is-payday-so-I-get-to-pay-the-bills day (hurray!), so I’ve been grimly paying the bills all morning. Well, not all morning, but that’s what I’ve been doing for the last few minutes or so. It never ceases to amaze me how embittering paying the bills is; I loathe nothing more than paying bills, and it also makes me resentful. I’m not sure why precisely; everyone has to pay bills,  bills are all part of living in our capitalist society–but I cannot deny that I simply cannot wait to be finished paying off my car. I finally have the loan down to four figures, and I keep hoping that at some point there will be an end in sight. I also cannot help but think that probably the most bitter I will ever be about paying the bills will be the second-to-last car payment; knowing that I am so close to being finished with that debt, and yet so far from the end. But it’s a Honda, and if I take really good care of it, I should be able to make it last for at least another six or seven years minimum after it’s finally paid for.

And I absolutely love the car. Every time I have to drive somewhere, or get on the highway, or have to parallel park into a tight space–yeah, I am so grateful for this car it isn’t even funny.

I have been sleeping extremely well lately–and probably just jinxed it–but it was quite lovely to sleep in this morning and behold all the things that have slid over the last two lengthy days. My kitchen’s a mess, my work space is also a disaster area, and I have to run errands this morning so I have to get a move on quite soon to start getting ready for work and to run said errands. I have a tire that is losing air slowly–I should probably take it back to the dealer and have it replaced or repaired–which means not only do I have to get gas this morning I also have to put air in one of my tires. Hurray? I also had a large project land in my lap this week, and it’s time-sensitive, so I am going to have to spend some time every day working on it in my spare time. That’s what I did last night instead of writing, and will probably have to do so again today. I did watch the second part of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills reunion last night–which was a shit show, to say the least; I don’t understand why Camille has it in for Denise, of all people–and I also can’t help but feel this show either needs to be completely recast and rebooted, or simply canceled. The ratings don’t, apparently, bear this out; but seriously, I was only watching this season simply for Denise Richards, who is worth every penny they are paying her.

I also didn’t enjoy seeing Camille completely losing it, either. I’m not a fan of Camille, really; I felt bad for her in the first season when she was the most hated housewife of all time (I kind of felt like she was getting a raw deal), and then of course she was rehabilitated, and I’ve kind of enjoyed her ever since…but yeah this past season, the behavior on screen the producers chose to share with us, and her tweets in real life, have turned me on her again. It’s amazing how the producers can manipulate the audience into liking housewives and into turning on ones they like; it’s a real skill, and it’s also very cutthroat. I didn’t, perhaps, delve as deeply into reality shows and their behind-the-scenes machination as much as I would have liked to with Royal Street Reveillon, but I was also including murders in the plot, and the book itself wasn’t about the making of a reality show; it was about the aftermath, when no one knows what is actually going to air and be said on camera and how the plot lines are going to resolve themselves….or be created. (Jessica Knoll’s latest novel–which I loved–does a really good job with the behind the scenes stuff; The Favorite Sister is amazing)

I also just got an alert that the low pressure system in the Gulf has a 20% chance of turning into a storm of some sort. Hurray.

Ah well, I need to get this wrapped up so I can prepare for my daily venture into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader.

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Take Me Home

Saturday morning and I feel great. If you think that means I slept well last night, you would be correct in that assumption.  It’s amazing what a difference it makes; those of you who have no trouble sleeping at night and can get amazing rest every night? You have no idea how lucky you are, and how much I envy you.

Today I have errands to run, a house to clean, a workout to do; as long as I stay motivated I can easily get all of these things done. I also have writing to do–I want to finish “A Whisper from the Graveyard” this weekend, and I also want to finish making my notes on the Scotty book, at which point I need to revise the outline I did (after finishing the first draft) so I can start the massive edit/rewrite for the second draft I need to get done. As I also mentioned the other day, I also need to start reading the books on the Anthony shortlist for Best Paperback Original, since I am moderating that panel at Bouchercon this year. To jog your memory, those books are, as follows: The Day I Died by Lori Rader-Day; Bad Boy Boogie by Thomas Pluck; Uncorking a Lie by Nadine Nettman; What We Reckon by Eryk Pruitt; and Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin. I got some good reading ahead of me, don’t I? Yes I do!

Huzzah! This is, after all, always a good thing.

I am, alas, as always, behind on my writing schedule. I had wanted to get Scotty finished this month (ha!) before embarking on an a project that will consume August and September; and then I had wanted to work on the WIP in October and November before starting on Bury Me in Satin in December. I don’t see that happening now, alas, since I got so little done on Scotty this month. Then again, you never know. If I can maintain good sleeping habits and maintain meeting goals and staying motivated every day in the face of the oppressive heat of a New Orleans August, I just might be able to get back on schedule.

Here’s hoping.

I did finished reading Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister this week.

the favorite sister

A man whose name I do not know slides his hand under the hem of my new blouse, connecting the cable to the lavalier mic clipped to my collar. He asks me to say something–sound check–and for a single reckless beat, I consider the truth. Brett is dead and I’m not innocent.

“Testing. Testing. One. Two. Three.” I’m not only dishonest. I’m unoriginal.

The sound guy listens to the playback. “Keep your hair off your left shoulder as much as you can,” he tells me.  I haven’t had my ends trimmed in months, and not because my grief has bested my vanity. I’m hoping viewers are better able to see the resemblance to my sister. I have nice hair. Brett had beautiful hair.

“Thanks,” I reply, wishing I could remember his name. Brett would have known it. She made a point of being on a first-name basis with the crew–from the gaffer to the ever-rotating harem of production assistants. My sister’s speciality was making underappreciated people feel appreciated. It’s a testament to that quality that we are all gathered here today, some of us prepared to tell heroic lies about her.

This is Knoll’s second novel; her first, Luckiest Girl Alive, was stunningly brilliant and I loved it. I also believe she may have made the Edgar shortlist for Best First Novel. In this book, Knoll again takes as her theme ambitious women and the conflicts they have with each other, set against the backdrop of a reality television series which is clearly based, in some ways, on the Real Housewives shows. The show, Goal Diggers of New York, ostensibly focuses on five women who are all entrepreneurs, don’t have kids, and in most cases are also single. Goal Diggers has the same pedigree as the Real Housewives shows; originally intended as a docu-series focusing on real women and the struggles they have running businesses and so forth, it has descended into a ratings-hungry juggernaut predicated on pitting the women against each other emotionally and forcing them into feuds. The ultimate cleverness of the book is it follows, basically, the same trajectory as if it were, indeed, a reality show about women; it reads like a season of a Real Housewives franchise. There are three main point-of-view characters–sisters Kelly and Brett, and Brett’s former best friend, an author of color named Stephanie. Kelly narrates the action in the present, after all the events of the book are finished–the device used is her filming what is known as a ‘talking head’ interview; where the camera is trained on the cast member and asked questions. The rest of the book is about the filming of the most recent season of Goal Diggers, which ended in tragedy; that is shown from the alternating POV’s of Brett and Stephanie, who manufactured a feud for the season as a storyline but the ‘fake feud’ actually runs far deeper, with a far worse betrayal at its heart, than anything that was taped for the series. The book addresses a lot of current hot topics in our culture and society: racism, homophobia, same-sex marriage, sexism. It’s very hard to talk about the book without giving spoilers; like a season of a reality show, the twists and turns the plot takes are part of the joy the reader gets from the story, and to discuss them would spoil it for new readers. But it’s very well-written, and the characterizations are quite strong.

I have to say, I enjoyed every second of reading this book, and I can’t wait for Knoll’s next one.

And now, back to the spice mines.

A Love Bizarre

Wednesday morning, and perhaps the best thing about my new work schedule (Mondays and Fridays) is that I’ve apparently retrained myself to get up at seven every morning. This is not a bad thing. During my most productive years I got out of bed at seven every morning. I am hoping that’s what this means; that my productivity will go back through the roof again.

Yesterday I revised “This Thing of Darkness,” but I am still not completely satisfied with it as of yet. I need to get back to “A Whisper from the Graveyard,” but am also not convinced that I am on the right track with that story, either. It’s probably going to take a lot more brainstorming before it’s right.

The good news is my iPad had indeed been left at the office. The battery was dead, so I plugged the charger in the wall and then forgot about it, leaving it at the office yet another night. Honestly.

Yes, I can be rather foolish at times, thank you for asking.

That’s about it for this morning; sorry to be so dull. All I can say is BUY Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister. I am enjoying the hell out of it.

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Tonight She Comes

Reality television.

I started watching in back in the original days of The Real World on MTV; the social experiment of picking vastly different young people from vastly different places with vastly different backgrounds, to see whether or not they can learn from each other and grow; or simply clash and create drama for the cameras. I enjoyed watching, I’m not going to lie–I didn’t lose interest until later seasons, when it became all about the kids getting drunk and hooking up and so forth. But the influence of The Real World–and its sister show, Road Rules–on reality television is unmistakable.

I’ve stuck my toe in the water with several reality shows–I used to be completely addicted to Project Runway, until it left Bravo for Lifetime and I lost interest–and the same with RuPaul’s Drag Race–after the Adore/Bianca/Courtney season I didn’t see how it could be anything other than a disappointment going forward so I stopped (although I did tune in for the glory that was RPD All-Stars Season Two), but I never got into Survivor or The Bachelor or any of the others. But I do watch the Real Housewives–New York is, without question, the gold standard, with Atlanta a close second with Beverly Hills trailing them both substantially; I can’t with Potomac, Orange County, and Dallas. 

I also really enjoyed the first season of Lifetime’ UnReal, but got behind on Season 2, heard bad things, and so never picked it back up again.

My love of (some of) the Housewives shows has resulted in my winding up on two Housewives related panels over the years at Bouchercon (Albany and New Orleans, to be precise), which were enormously fun; and I have also managed to observe what a cultural phenomenon these shows have become. There are recaps everywhere all over the Internet; there’s the Bravo website itself; and these women are often sprawled all over the tabloids I see while in line at the grocery store. (And no, I have only ever watched about twenty minutes of a Kardashian show and it was so horrible I never went back. More power to you if you’re a fan, but they are just not for me.

I even wrote a very short book–which is no longer available anywhere–based on the filming of such a show in New Orleans; it was pulled from availability primarily because I was never truly satisfied or happy with it. I wrote it very quickly in a window between deadlines and never felt I was able to explore all the things, the issues, with reality television that I wanted to with it. And yes, I decided to use that same backstory–a Real Housewives type show filmed in New Orleans–to write the new Scotty book because 1) it’s a great idea and 2) since I am writing off dead-line I can do it the way I want to and hopefully say the things I wanted to say in the first. Some of the original elements of the story I used before still exist in this Scotty book, but there’s a lot of changes I’ve made so it’s not the same story. The draft is very very rough, and since I’ve finished it and put it aside I’ve had a lot of great ideas for it; fixes and changes and so forth.

I think it might be the best Scotty yet, and it’s certainly the most complicated.

I started reading Jessica Knoll’s The Favorite Sister yesterday, and before I knew what happened most of the afternoon was gone and I was about half-way through. Her book is also built around a reality television show, and boy, is this book biting. I loved her debut, Luckiest Girl Alive, and this one is just as good. You’ll get a full report, Constant Reader, when I finish it.

Next up for the Short Story Project: “Don’t Walk in Front of Me” by Sarah Weinman, from Baltimore Noir, edited by Laura Lippman:

I wanted honest work and got it at Pern’s. A Jewish bookstore is a strange place to work for a guy like me, but I didn’t have much choice; a month of job hunting left me frustrated and ready to break things, and the ad stuck on the store’s main window was as close to salvation as I could get.

Thus Sam–we were on a first-name basis from the beginning–was very particular about which items I could handle and which I couldn’t (“Anything with God’s name on it, leave it to me”), he left me to my own devices when it came to  handling teh cash register, stocking the books, and helping out customers. I hadn’t know much at all about Judaism, but I sure learned fast.

When I told my mother where I was working, she was understandably confused, but got over it quickly enough. I had a job, and a pretty decent one, and that was what mattered to her most.

“I worried about you, Danny, the whole time you were incarcerated. She articulated each syllable, just as she did every time she used the word. Which was a lot, because my mother adored big words. It was her way of showing how much more educated she was than the rest of the mamas in Little Italy.

Sarah Weinman is a fine short story writer; her stories in Lawrence Block’s stories-inspired-by-art are two of my favorites. Her upcoming study of the kidnapping case that inspired Lolita, The Real Lolita, will be out this fall and I can’t wait to dig into it. This story is another one of her little gems: a guy with a criminal past takes the only job he can get, and slowly but inexorably gets drawn into trying to help his boss solve a personal problem, and how things get out of hand from there. Brava, Sarah! WRITE MORE SHORT STORIES.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Private Dancer

Jessica Knoll, whose debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive I absolutely loved, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times recently in which she unabashedly talked about her ambition, how she wanted to not only be a writer but to be a successful one; that she wanted to make as much money as she possibly could from her writing. Called “I Want to Be Rich and I’m Not Sorry” (you can read it here), I thought it was terrific. I thought it was lovely to hear a writer talk about how much they wanted or desired success in their chosen field; I also thought it was interesting to read about how she had always been underestimated because she was a woman; that somehow success isn’t expected for women; and that women are often not only talked out of ambition but derided, mocked, and shamed for having it. It was kind of refreshing, honestly; I also loved reading an author talking, unashamed, about wanting to be successful and make money at writing–as much money as possible.

The comments on the piece were mostly, not surprisingly, negative; everything she talked about in the essay were right there in the comments, posted without any sense of irony by the posters: I’m also a woman writer but I’m looking for books to read that have something to say. I won’t be reading yours.

Oh, the pearl-clutching.

It’s been a while since I read Luckiest Girl Alive, but I do remember it having a lot to say; about class, about success, about being a woman, about dealing with public shame and then trying to insulate yourself from pain and suffering by marrying a successful man and shielding yourself behind his money. The book carried two time-lines: the present day, where the main character was planning her wedding to a wealthy man while filming a documentary about what happened to her back in high school, flashing back to her high school experience and everything that led up to the subject of the documentary. I thought it was rather well done.

I’ve never understood this mentality that writers shouldn’t want to make money from their work; that somehow wanting to be financially successful somehow lessens what we do, somehow makes our work somehow less important; that we shouldn’t, somehow, want to make a living writing. I guess we’re all supposed to hold down full time jobs and treat it as a hobby, carving out some spare time here and there to pursue making art simply for the joy of doing so. I spoke the other day about how my primary sense of self, my primary identity, is author, and I wouldn’t quite know what to do with myself if I wasn’t able to write, if I wasn’t able to publish, if I wasn’t able to keep my writing career going. I do know how awful last year was when I wasn’t really writing, when I wasn’t able to commit to anything, when I stayed away from the computer and the open word documents and kept the word files closed; it fucked with my mind, it fucked with my self-confidence (always shaky, at best) and it was horribly unpleasant. This year I am writing again, and back to berating myself for not spending every spare moment working on something; I’ve written a ridiculous amount this year and yet at the same time, I’m not all that much closer to finishing the Scotty novel or the draft of the WIP as I should be. I find myself being easily distracted by writing short stories, with ideas for new ones popping into my head all the time–thank God for my journal, and thank God for remembering that was a key component of my writing for years, jotting down notes and ideas and thoughts before they slipped away inside my mind–and even now, this morning, I should be working on either Chapter Twelve of Royal Street Reveillon or the WIP, and am doing neither; have already thought about simply cleaning and reading more short stories, avoiding the work that needs to be done, despite knowing that actually doing it will make me happy and feel satisfied.

I am frequently my own worst enemy.

So, bearing that in mind, and bearing in mind Jessica Knoll’s op-ed, I am going to embrace my ambition. I am going to do whatever it is I need to do to become more successful, to reach for every brass ring that I can.

The only thing stopping me is, after all, me.

And bearing that in mind, I shall now bring this to a close.

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Time Has Come Today

I arrived home from a second trip in less than a week about an hour ago. I made fantastic time from Oxford; I made it back to New Orleans in slightly less than fice and a half hours, including two stops for gas. I had the best time there, as well. I have lots of things to talk about regarding both trips, but right now I am decompressing and trying to get organized because I have to work tonight…and am already running out of steam. Whine. Ah, well, I can sleep late tomorrow. I did fall in love with both Montgomery and Oxford, though, and feel strangely reconnected to my Southern roots.

But I  also want to talk about this fantastic book I read on the trip, Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll.

luckiest girl alive

For the record, Constant Reader, anything blurbed by Megan Abbott is generally going to turn out to be fantastic.

I inspected the knife in my hand.

“That’s the Shun. Feel how light it is compared to the Wusthof?”

I pricked a finger on the blade’s witchy chin, testing. The handle was supposed to be moisture resistant, but it was quickly getting humid in my grip.

“I think that design is better suited for someone of your stature.” I looked up at the sales associate, bracing for the word people always use to describe short girls hungry to hear “thin.” “Petite.” He smiled like I should be flattered. Slender, elegant, graceful–now there’s a compliment that might actually defang me.

And so we meet Ani FaNelli, engaged to a successful businessman from old money, and she herself has her dream job at The Women’s Magazine (read: Cosmo). Ani had a horrific experience in her ritzy private high school in Philadelphia, which her social climbing mother forced her to attend, and after this event, focused on reinventing herself and doing whatever she had to in order to get the great life she felt she deserved after that horrific humiliation. But the facade of pretending to be the perfect fiancee is starting to wear thin…and as the book flashes back and forth between her wedding planning in the present day and what happened to her back at the Butler Academy, the edges begin to wear a little thin and she slowly begins to remember who she is beneath her carefully constructed facade, and the unraveling begins.

Ani is probably one of those characters male reviewers like to talk shit about–you know, the “unlikable woman”, which has apparently become so prevalent in suspense thrillers since the enormous success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and this one has the obligatory “girl” in the title, even–but the title phrase does come up during the course of the book, and as the story of Ani’s high school experience unspools…it’s so much much worse than you think it could have been.

This was an Edgar Award nominee for Best First Novel (she lost to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, which also won the Pulitzer Prize), and it’s riveting. Highly recommended.