Solid

It still feels chilly this morning, after a weekend of lowered temperatures. But the sun is shining, and all feels well with the world. I wrote yesterday; a lot, in fact, well over three thousand words; which is a lot for me to do on a weekend day. I even did it all by two pm, so I had the rest of the day to putz around. I finished a very weak first draft of “Burning Crosses,” worked on “Don’t Look Down” some more, and finished a very weak Scotty Chapter 11. But i know how to fix “Burning Crosses,” so that’s not a problem, and I know what I need to do with “Don’t Look Down,” which I just can’t seem to focus on. I also recognize that my feelings about the Scotty manuscript are the usual loss of faith I always have somewhere mid-manuscript; and I just need to ignore it and soldier on, with the mantra I can always fix this later! I can always fix this later!

Which I seem to be using a lot lately. I’m not quite sure what that says about the quality of what I’ve been writing.

I’m in this weird place right now with my writing; trying to feel more confident in it and my ability, while at the same time my insecurity is undermining me while I am actually writing. I need to ignore the things that pop up in my head as I work on the Scotty book, the slings and arrows hurled at me over the years that I can’t seem to get out of my mind and try to remember all the positive things that have been said about me and my work; which I don’t tend to take as seriously as the negative.

Honestly.

We started watching Lost in Space and Troy: The Fall of a City; we stopped because Paul didn’t like them–I was, so it gives me something to watch when I’m on the treadmill at the gym. We also gave Siren on Freeform a try; neither one of us was terribly sold on it, although I’d be willing to give it another episode or two before giving up on it entirely. Then we moved on to The Alienist, and yes, we are both committed to it. I never read the novel when it came out, but I do remember it made quite a stir when it did, and that the queer publishing community stood up and took note of it as well. I never could grasp why, but now that I am watching the show, I see why; there is a serial killer praying on boy prostitutes in 1890’s New York, and the ‘alienist’, Dr. Kreuzler, is rare in that time that he doesn’t see homosexuality or trans issues as either sinful or mental illness; it’s very queer positive, if you can get past the slaughter of the boy-prostitutes, which are particularly gruesome. But it’s very well done and interesting; we’ll keep going.

I also read some short stories. First up is  “Les Beaux Jours” by Joyce Carol Oates, from Lawrence Block’s Alive in Shape and Color:

Daddy please come bring me home. Daddy I am so sorry.

Daddy it is your fault. Daddy I hate you.

Daddy, no! I love you Daddy whatever you have done.

Daddy I am under a spell here. I am not myself  here.

The place in which I am a captive–it is in the Alps, I think. It is a great, old house like a castle made of ancient rock. Through high windows you can see moors stretching to the mountainous horizon. All is scrubby gray-green as if undersea. The light is perpetual twilight.

Dusk is when the Master comes. I am in love with the Master.

Daddy no! I do not love the Master at all, I am terrified of the Master.

I’d not read Joyce Carol Oates before a few years ago; I read her short story that was a Macavity finalist the same year I was, and was blown away by it. I always thought Oates was more of a literary writer, but she writes crime and horror and dark stories, and she does it incredibly well. This story is Oates at her best; disturbing and creepy and horrifying. She manages to get the voice of the trapped girl perfectly; that strange mix of Stockholm syndrome and desperation to get away; the fear that she might die there. Very disturbing.

“Truth Comes out of Her Well to Shame Mankind,” by Thomas Pluck,  also from Alive in Shape and Color:

The cracking of the skulls was performed by a practiced hand. The bowl separated from the eye sockets and teeth. These were no virgin cannibals like the lost colonists of Roanoke, with their hesitation marks. Whatever people had done this had been done before, and had perhaps been doing it for a very long time.

Devin cupped the skull in his palm, reminded of how Danes toasted before a drink.

Thomas Pluck is one of the better writers we have in the crime fiction world right now, and I hope this appearance in the Block anthology is a sign that he’s beginning to get his due. He wrote a story for Blood on the Bayou that was superb; I have his novel Bad Boy Boogie, in my TBR pile. This story, about an arrogant ass of a man who visits an archaeological site, being led by a woman he didn’t get along with in college, is not only chilling but timely; men all so frequently are unaware of the damage they leave in their wake, aren’t they, and this story is about that very thing; carelessness, just as The Great Gatsby was about the carelessness of the Buchanans. Very well done.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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We Belong

Wednesday morning, and I have go have blood work done. No worries–it’s just for the semi-annual check-up, but I hate this whole process of fasting/not having anything to drink after midnight, plus the abject misery of having blood drawn–my veins roll, so they always have to DIG for them, generally leaving me with an enormous bruise–blah blah blah. Yay.

Plus, I can’t have coffee until I get back home.

AIEEEEEE!

Heavy heaving sigh.

Well, it wasn’t as bad as feared. She managed to get the blood vials filled on the first try, without having to dig! For once, I don’t mind getting one of those damnable “how was your visit?” emails, as now I get to recognize my technician for a job very well done. I don’t even have a bruise!

It’s been an interesting week. I’m watching the Netflix series Seven Seconds, which I am enjoying the hell out of, and Paul and I are watching also a BBC series called Retribution, which is one of the best concepts for a crime series I’ve seen in quite a while: a young married couple, who grew up as neighbors in rural Scotland, are murdered a few weeks after the wedding by a junkie robbing their apartment; the wife is about seven months pregnant. As the families get the news and grieve, the very next night after the bodies are found the killer for some reason is coming to see them and buys guys at a station twenty miles from where they live. There is a terrible storm that night and he wrecks his car, and the families find him and bring him inside. After they do, they see a news report which identifies him as the killer…and he is at their mercy. They drag him out to the barn, and sometime during the night someone cuts his throat…and now they have to cover up the crime. Juicy, right?

I also started writing two new short stories this week; don’t ask me why, I don’t know why I am on such a short story roll lately. One of them is my Italian short story, the one I’ve been wanting to write since we visited Panzano; I wanted to set a story there ever since I first saw that gorgeous village in Tuscany. The other is one I started a long time ago, but only wrote the opening paragraph; for some reason the rest of the story revealed itself to me this week so I started working on that as well. Who knew?

I also read some short stories this week.

First was “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates; which was originally published in 1966 and is now available for free pdf download on-line;

Her name was Connie. She was fifteen, and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to look into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie was raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once, too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.

I’m not sure how I came across this story, but wow, is it ever disturbing. I’ve really enjoyed my discovery of Oates’ talents through reading the occasional short story, and each one makes me want to read more. Connie, so confident in her looks and the power they give her, unfortunately attracts the attention of the wrong guy who turns up at her house one day with a friend when she is there by herself. As Connie tries to handle the situation…the sense of dread Oates evokes in her prose is palpable. I couldn’t stop reading, while at the same time was afraid to keep reading.

The next story I read was “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell.

When Martha Hale opened the storm-door and got a cut of the north wind, she ran back for her big woolen scarf. As she hurriedly wound that round her head her eye made a scandalized sweep of her kitchen. It was no ordinary thing that called her away–it was probably further from ordinary than anything that had ever happened in Dickson County. But what her eye took in was that her kitchen was in no shape for leaving: her bread all ready for mixing, half the flour sifted and half unsifted.

She hated to see things half done; but she had been at that when the team from town stopped to get Mr. Hale, and then the sheriff came running in to say his wife wished Mrs. Hale would come too–adding, with a grin, that he guessed she was getting scary and wanted another woman along. So she had dropped everything right where it was.

“Martha!” now came her husband’s impatient voice. “Don’t keep folks waiting out here in the cold.”

She again opened the storm-door, and this time joined the three men and the one woman waiting for her in the big two-seated buggy.

When I was in high school, I was in a contest play; one of the many disciplines for what was called Speech Competition in the state of Illinois was one-act plays. I auditioned for the contest one-act at my high school and was cast in Susan Glaspell’s one-act play Trifles, which was based on this short story. As a teenager, I thought the play was kind of silly and dumb, to be honest. We did well, but didn’t make it out of regional competition; we placed third, with every judge placing us third; if any judge had given us a first we would have moved on. But hey, it was my high school’s first time doing a contest play, we had practically no budget or set, and the two schools that beat us did the first act of Antigone, complete with sets and costumes, and the other did the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest, again, with an apparently bottomless budget for sets and costumes; both schools were also known for their drama departments.

Reading the original short story, all these years later, as both a fan and writer of crime fiction, made me appreciate the tale all the more. It’s about psychology; what drove the woman to kill her husband, after years and years of a miserable existence, why now? And the two other wives, the ones who find the motive, and understand it and sympathize with her, have to decide whether to share that with the condescending men/husbands, who basically spend the whole story mocking them and women in general, when they are the ones who actually solve the case…it’s actually genius and actually quite brilliant.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Dancing in the Sheets

The sun is shining, and the temperature has climbed to 49 degrees. The boil-water advisory ended finally last evening–it’s just not a crisis in New Orleans unless we have a boil-water advisory!–and here I sit this morning, ensconced at my desk with a cup of coffee, a load of laundry tumbling in the dryer, with great expectations of the day. I went to the gym last evening after work, and my muscles, while a bit tired, still feel stretched and worked and supple, if that makes sense. Probably the best thing about rededicating myself to physical exercise again is how much better I feel; I don’t ache or feel tired the way I did just last week, and the stretching and the treadmill are also making me feel ever so much better. Today, I am going to clean (if it’s Saturday I must be cleaning) but I am also going to write, edit and read today. Paul is going into the office to work (it’s that time of year again) and so I have the day to myself. I want to finish the first draft of “The Trouble with Autofill” and I want to edit “Cold Beer No Flies.”

Among many other things; my to-do list is ridiculous, quite frankly. But the only way to make progress is not to get overwhelmed by the enormity of the list but rather to keep plugging away at it.

I finished reading Miami by Joan Didion earlier this week, and it was quite good. Didion’s writing style is quite amazing, actually, and while the story of the book might seem, at first glance, to be rather dated; the truth is it is still very much appropriate to our modern times. Miami is a look at the Cuban exiles in the city, how they relate to each other, and how they impact south Florida politically; and to a lesser extent, the relationship between the US government with them as well as with Castro’s Cuba. During the Cold War Cuba was a much more terrifying apparition, close as it was to Florida, and it’s amazing how people do not realize the political clout, as a result of their sheer numbers, that the Cuban immigrants weld in that part of the state, and in the entire state as well. The importance of Florida as a swing state cannot be discounted; and therefore the Cuban-American community’s influence on national politics is something that has to always be considered. (A present day comparison would be the Puerto Ricans moving to Florida today in great numbers as a result of the hurricane destruction of their island; the difference being those Puerto Ricans are already American citizens who can register to vote and can impact 2018 already.) Didion’s look at Miami in the 1980’s, as a Caribbean city on the mainland, is also reminiscent of descriptions of New Orleans as the northernmost Caribbean city; the thing I love the most about Didion’s work is how she makes you think. Reading Miami made me want to write about Miami; I’ve been wanting to write about Florida for a long time, as Constant Reader already knows. Something to ponder.

miami

I also started reading Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, which is a look at the film industry through the lens of the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1967, and how they were made. Harris’ thesis is that was the year that bridged the gap between old and new Hollywood; and the five Best Picture nominees illustrated that perfectly: an expensive musical flop (Doctor Dolittle); two old style Hollywood pictures about race (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night), and two films that illustrated new Hollywood and its influence by European filmmakers like Truffaut and Fellini and Antonioni (Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate). I, of course, have always been fascinated by Hollywood history and have been ever since I read Garson Kanin’s Tracy and Hepburn and Bob Thomas’ Selznick as a kid; this book is right up my alley, and since it’s been awhile since I’ve read any Hollywood history, I am looking forward to reading this (and his Five Came Back–I’ve already watched the documentary based on it).

The Short Story Project also moves apace; I am frequently surprised as I look through my shelves for something to read how many single author collections and anthologies dot them. My Ipad also has quite a few loaded onto the Kindle app; I often buy them when they are either free or reduced in price, and so my Kindle app is filled with books I’ve not yet read, primarily because I don’t like to read on it (which I realize is nothing more than stubbornness; if I can watch movies or television programs on it, why resist reading books there?) Yesterday I found my battered old Dell paperback of Agatha Christie’s The Golden Ball and Other Stories, which I remember loving as a child. I was looking for my copy of Lawrence Block’s first anthology inspired by paintings–those of Edward Hopper– In Sunlight or in Shadow, which I would have sworn I’d purchased in hardcover; yet it wasn’t anywhere on the shelves or in any of the TBR piles, before remembering I’d bought it as an ebook when the Macavity nominations come out; Block’s story “Autumn at the Automat” was a finalist, along with mine (I still can’t believe it) and I wanted to read all the other nominated stories for an entry, so the immediacy of the need required buying the ebook. It is a handsome volume, though, so I’ll need to buy a hard copy to pair with the new one. (New bucket list item: write a story for one of these anthologies by Lawrence Block)

Once I’d located it on the iPad, I scoured the table of contents and landed on a Joyce Carol Oates story, “The Woman in the Window.” I have to confess I’ve not read much of Ms. Oates; I am not even remotely familiar with what she writes. But she, too, was a Macavity finalist last year, for her story “The Crawl Space” (which also won the Stoker Award), and that story creeped me the fuck out. I know she’s been a Stoker finalist before, but I also think she tends to write across genre a lot and therefore isn’t pigeon-holed in one way or the other.

Beneath the cushion of the plush blue chair she has hidden it.

Almost shyly her fingers grope for it, then recoil as if it were burning-hot.

No! None of this will happen, don’t be ridiculous!

It is eleven A.M. He has promised to meet her in this room in which it is always eleven A.M.

This story, frankly, isn’t as strong as “The Crawl Space,” but it’s an interesting exercise in how thin the line between lust and loathing is; the woman of the title is a secretary having an affair with a much wealthier man, and as she gets older and older she is feeling more and more trapped in the relationship; he is married and he often has to break plans with her for his wife. There is also a shift occasionally to his point of view, and he’s not so fond of her anymore, either. Passion has cooled but habit has set in; and the way those lines can get crossed is chilling–and how destructive such a relationship can be to both parties, emotionally and mentally, is explored in great detail yet sparse language by Ms. Oates. The story’s not as creepy, as I said, as the other; but the end–which she leaves kind of hanging–you do feel that something awful is going to happen; maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually.

I’ve not read Joe Hill before, and there are several reasons for that; none of which would make any sense to anyone who is not me; I am nothing if not aware of my own eccentricities, which is why I generally don’t share them with people; I don’t need someone else to point out that something doesn’t make sense. But I do have a copy of his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, which I spied on the shelves as I looked for my copy of the Block anthology. Aha, I thought, perfect. I can read a Joe Hill story for the Short Story Project. So, I curled up under a blanket in my easy chair, waited for Scooter to get settled in my lap, and started reading “Best New Horror.”

A month before his deadline, Eddie Carroll ripped open a manila envelope, and a magazine called The True North Literary Review slipped out into his hands. Carroll was used to getting magazines in the mail, although most of them had titles like Cemetery Dance and specialized in horror fiction. People sent him their books, too. Piles of them cluttered his Brookline townhouse, a heap on the couch in his office, a stack by the coffee maker. Books of horror stories, all of them.

No one had time to read them all, although once–when he was in his early thirties and just starting out as the editor of America’s Best New Horror–he had made a conscientious effort to try. Carroll had guided sixteen volumes of Best New Horror to press, had been working on the series for over a third of his life now. It added up to thousands of hours of reading and proofing and letter-writing, thousands of hours he could never have back.

He had come to hate the magazines especially. So many of them used the cheapest ink, and he had learned to loathe the way it came off on his fingers, the harsh stink of it.

I did not mention the elephant in the room; said elephant, of course, being that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. (The Kings are a very literary family; Mr. King’s wife Tabitha is a poet and a novelist; their other son Owen also writes, as does Owen’s wife, Kelly Braffet; I read a novel by Ms. Braffet sometime in the last couple of years–not aware of the King connection–and greatly enjoyed it.)

But simply based on a reading of “Best New Horror,” I have to say Joe Hill is also a terrific writer. And while it, like some of his father’s work, bears a strong resemblance to something I would have read in an Tales from the Crypt or House of Mystery comic book–that is not a criticism. I loved those comics, and the stories I read in them; they had a deep influence on me not only as a writer but as a reader. “Best New Horror”, as you can tell by the opening, tells the tale of Eddie Carroll, a writing teacher and a long-time editor of the Best New Horror series, a chore he has learned to loathe and, basically, phone in every year for the money. This resonated with me; as an anthology editor myself, one of the reasons I stepped away from editing them–or took a break from doing it–was because it was becoming rote; a chore rather than something I found joy in doing. Eddie is an example of why I stopped–I didn’t want to become like him; embittered by the experience and tired of not finding anything fresh or new (unlike Eddie, I was able to keep the experience fresh because each anthology I did was a new topic; if I had done twenty anthologies with the same theme I would have gone on a killing spree). But in the mail comes a story from a new writer that is simply brilliant; original and fresh and resonant and horrifying in its reality; the story reinvigorates Eddie and makes the editing job no longer a chore; he has to have this story, and will do whatever he has to in order to track the writer down…but as with any horror  tale of obsession, it’s not going to end well. But Hill brilliantly keeps stringing the reader along, and the ending is just absolutely brilliant and clever. I am really looking forward to reading more of these stories.

And now, I must get back to the spice mines. There are clothes to fold, dishes to wash, floors to clean, stories to write and edit; I am probably coming back here for another entry later as I am trying to get caught up on posting the stories I’ve read–but I make no promises. I have another story to write as a call for submissions crossed my computer screen on Thursday; I have an unfinished story that I can repurpose, but I also need to get a first draft done so I can work the story out.

Until later, Constant Reader.

Beatnik Beach

Monday morning! Another glorious week here in New Orleans, late July, and it didn’t really feel that obnoxious this morning when I went out to feed the herd. We shall see, shan’t we? Last night was lovely; we finished watching Ozark, which is sooooooo good, and so twisted; I do hope it’s going to be picked up for a second season. It doesn’t seem to be generating the same kind of buzz as other Netflix shows, like Stranger Things, and so I am not as confident it will be back. But I cannot urge you enough to watch it; it’s absolutely brilliant as a crime-driven narrative, the acting and writing are topnotch, and the cinematography is breathtaking. There’s also a particularly brilliant and heartbreaking gay subplot you don’t see coming, that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen depicted on television (or on film, for that matter) before. I will blog more about Ozark, once I’ve let it digest a bit. I also reread Agatha Christie’s brilliant Endless Night yesterday; something else I am going to blog more deeply about, after letting it sit in my head for a bit. So, I have at least three blog entries brewing for the future: Ozark, The Great Gatsby, Endless Night.

I also spent time yesterday reading a bunch of my own short stories for editorial purposes (I think I may have solved some of the problems! Huzzah!) and I also read the other stories nominated for the Macavity Award, which was rather humbling.

As you, Constant Reader, are probably aware (and tired of hearing about), I was nominated for a Macavity Award for my short story, “Survivor’s Guilt” (from the Blood on the Bayou anthology, which I also edited, and the anthology itself was nominated for an Anthony Award). I am still reeling from the shock and surprise; one of the things I did after the Anthony nominations were announced was buy copies of the other nominated anthologies, and slowly started reading them, story by story. This weekend, I discovered that one of the other Macavity nominees, Paul D. Marks, had posted links to the Macavity nominated stories:

Paul D. Marks, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” http://pauldmarks.com/stories/

Craig Faustus Buck, “Blank Shot”: http://tinyurl.com/BlankShot-Buck

Joyce Carol Oates, “The Crawl Space”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01N6INC6I

Lawrence Block, “Autumn at the Automat”: http://amzn.to/2vsnyBP

Art Taylor, “Parallel Play”: http://www.arttaylorwriter.com/books/6715-2/

Greg Herren, “Survivor’s Guilt”: https://gregwritesblog.com/2017/07/21/cant-stop-the-world/

I am not being self-deprecating when I say that I am in awe that I am somehow on the same list as these amazing writers and their amazing work. Not to mention this pedigree: Lawrence Block’s story won the Edgar; Joyce Carol Oates’ story won the Stoker, and Art Taylor’s won the Agatha. So, three of the finalists are already award winners; and both Art and Lawrence are also nominated for Anthonys this year, along with Megan Abbott’s stellar “Oxford Girl” from Mississippi Noir (which I read and loved);  Holly West’s “Queen of the Dogs” from 44 Caliber Funk: Tales of Crime, Soul and Payback; and probably my favorite title of all time, Johnny Shaw’s “Gary’s Got a Boner”, from Waiting to be Forgotten. 

So, it’s not being self-deprecating when I say I don’t think I am going to win. (Obviously, I would love to, but seriously, being in this company is literally a dream come true for me.)

Naturally, I decided to go ahead and read the stories. (The Block/Oates links are to the books that contain their stories; I don’t believe you can read them for free anywhere. However, I already own the book with Block’s story in it, as it is an Anthony nominee for Best Anthology; I went ahead and bought the ebook for the Oates story–from her collection Dis Mem Ber.)

And so, yesterday I read them all. Wow. Seriously. Wow.

I thought Paul’s story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” would be set in Boston and have something to do with Revolutionary War history; I was wrong. The story is about the Bunker Hill neighborhood in Los Angeles, and is about the shooting of the point of view character, with nods to LA’s hardboiled, noir past pretty much everywhere you turn around. The story is well written and very compelling; but the nods to the history of crime fiction and the greats who wrote about LA (there are also several nods to the exquisite film Chinatown as well). Check out this opening paragraph:

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in midair, ghosts from another time.

Perfect. Paul is an accomplished author; his novel White Heat won the Shamus Award, and he has been nominated for a slew of others. I’ve ordered a copy of White Heat; can’t wait to read more of his work.

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Craig Faustus Buck’s story, “Blank Shot”, is set during the Cold War in East Berlin; a haunting, hard-boiled remembrance of a time when the world was gripped in a struggle between ideologies; communism vs. capitalism, and both sides had access to nuclear weapons. It was a time where espionage ruled; which spawned amazing novels and writers like Alistair MacLean, Helen MacInnes, Robert Ludlum, and John LeCarre. Buck’s story reminded me of those legendary giants.

Check out this opening paragraph:

His face hit the pavement hard. He tried to recall what just happened, but his thoughts wouldn’t sync. His head felt like he’d been whacked by the claw end of a hammer. Blood flowed into his field of vision, expanding on the ground before him. Must be his. Bad sign. He closed his eyes against a stab of afternoon sun reflecting off the crimson pool.

Saying anything more would be to give away too much; the problem with talking about short stories. Craig has also been honored extensively throughout his career; he has already been nominated for two Anthony Awards, a Derringer, and won the Macavity for Best Short Story. His debut novel, Go Down Hard,  was first runner-up for a Claymore Award–and he has been nominated for an OSCAR. Sheesh.

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Art Taylor is kind of indirectly responsible for both my nomination for the Macavity and my Anthony nomination for Blood on the Bayou. Art edited the Raleigh Bouchercon anthology, and he was the one who brought it up to me in Raleigh about who was editing the New Orleans one. I asked co-chairs Heather Graham and Connie Perry, who in turn asked me to edit it. So, thanks, Art! Art is an amazing writer, and an incredibly nice guy. He has won more short story awards, and been nominated more times, than just about anyone, really. Case in point: here is his short bio, from his website:

“Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. He has won three additional Agatha Awards, an Anthony Award, a Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction, and his work has appeared in Best American Mystery Stories. He also edited Murder Under the Oaks: Bouchercon Anthology 2015, winner of the Anthony Award for Best Anthology or Collection. He is an associate professor of English at George Mason University, and he contributes frequently to the Washington Post, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and Mystery Scene Magazine.”

And check out the opening to his “Parallel Play,” from the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (which is also nominated for the Anthony for best anthology):

The Teeter Toddlers class was finally drawing to a close–and none too soon, Maggie thought, keeping an eye on the windows and the dark clouds crowding the sky.

Ms. Amy, the instructor, had spread the parachute across the foam mats and gathered everyone on top of it. The children had jumped to catch and pop the soap bubbles she’d blown into the air. They’d sat cross-legged on the parachute and sung umpteen verses of “Wheels on the Bus” and two rounds of “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The routine never varied, the children’s delight never waned–at least until the time came to raise the parachute with its spirals of color into the air.

Now, how’s that for an opening? Can’t everyone relate to that scene, those images? Immediately we are taken into a normal, every day, everyone can recognize and relate to it scene at a child care center, with an impatient mom waiting for it to be over so she can race an oncoming storm home. Into that normal, every day scene–things are about to take a turn, obviously, a chilling turn that could have been imagined and written by domestic noir goddesses from Charlotte Armstrong to Margaret Millar to Dorothy L. Hughes. And what can be more frightening, more suspenseful, that a mother and child in danger? Genius, really. Art keeps the reader squirming with suspense and unable to stop reading from first word to last.

chesapeake crimes

I am a bit embarrassed to admit I’ve never read Joyce Carol Oates before. I met her briefly at a BEA sometime between 2001-2005, and thought she was very nice and very charming. She is also incredibly prolific; her output puts me to shame and also puts her up there with Stephen King. I know she’s been nominated for genre awards before, but I’ve never really thought of her as a genre writer. But her Macavity nominated story “The Crawl Space” won the Stoker Award for best short story this year, and the title of the collection it is from (Dis Mem Ber) sounds kind of genre. I bought the book yesterday, and started reading her nominated story.

Please. You make us uncomfortable.

You are always watching us. Like a ghost haunting us…

Though her husband had died seven years before the widow still drove past the house in which they’d lived for more than two decades.

Why?–no reason.

(To lacerate a scar, that it might become a raw-throbbing wound again? To lacerate her conscience? Why?)

The story, about a woman whose husband died and couldn’t then afford to keep their house, is creepy and macabre and incredibly sad all at the same time; it reminded me of some of Daphne du Maurier’s and Patricia Highsmith’s short stories–about a woman trying to deal with a tragedy in her life, unable to let go of her past, and possibly, just possibly, reaching the breaking point. It is exquisitely rendered, beautifully written; I am so going to read more of her work! I can also see why it won the Stoker.

oates eqmm

The last story was Lawrence Block’s “Autumn at the Automat,” which recently won the Edgar as Best Short Story of 2016. It’s from Block’s anthology, In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, and the contributors are a who’s who of the best in modern crime fiction, from Megan Abbott to Lee Child to Michael Connelly; Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Olen Butler–I mean, it’s like an anthology editor’s dream of authors to include. The book is also nominated for the Anthony for Best Anthology; I’ve not finished reading all the stories yet, only having read the exquisite Megan Abbott story and now, Block’s.

The hat made a difference.

If you chose your clothes carefully, if you dressed a little more stylishly than the venue demanded, you could feel good about yourself. When you walked into the Forty-second Street cafeteria, the hat and coat announced you were a lady. Perhaps you preferred their coffee to what they served at Longchamps. Or maybe it was the bean soup, as good as you could get at Delmonico’s.

And with that, you are sucked into Block’s story, about a woman fallen on hard times eating at the Automat in New York City; a story that reminded me very much of one of my favorite short stories of all time, Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill,” and like it, this one is more of a character study than a crime story–although there is a quite brilliant crime in the story; one you don’t see coming that suddenly slaps you across the face–and has a neat little resolution that is eminently satisfying to the reader. Block is a master; I’m not as familiar with his work as I should be–that backlist! Just thinking about trying to get caught up on his work makes my head swim–but this story is an absolute gem.

hopper

So, there you have it. Five exceptional, exquisitely honed short stories, all nominated for the Macavity; all of them already recognized as exceptional; all of them written by masters of the art form.

And me. Somehow I managed to slip in there, too.

Thereby proving the adage that anything is possible.

 

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.