I grew up loving both horror and crime stories–those wonderful old black and white Universal monster movies used to scare me to death, not to mention all the marvelous ghost stories and mysteries that got filmed back in the day. I also watched a lot of the 1950’s paranoia horror monster movies–Godzilla and its ilk–and those also used to give me horrible nightmares. I also liked how twisted horror comic books like The Witching Hour, House of Mystery and House of Secrets were. I’ve always wanted to write those kinds of stories, but if you think I have zero confidence in my abilities as a crime/mystery writer, there’s even less when it comes to my writing of horror. I never feel like I ever get it right, you know, and my stuff is macabre and peculiar and slightly twisted, but it’s not really scary. But like I did with the mystery novels and movies I watched as a child, I was always looking for myself in those tales and not finding myself. Oh, every once in a while there would be some homoeroticism in some horror I would be reading (Peter Straub’s If You Could See Me Now comes to mind), but for the most part, there wasn’t much. Thomas Tryon’s The Other resonated with me–it wasn’t until decades later that I learned Tryon was gay, and that sensibility infused all of his work, hence my connection with it–but usually when gays showed up in horror they inevitably were effeminate and soon to become victims. (Kill your gays has always been a thing, clearly.)
When I was going through my “I want to be the gay Stephen King” phase in the 1980’s, I didn’t put gay characters or themes in any of my stories–although rereading my attempts at horror from then now, I can see the sensibility was always there–but the horror novel I started writing in about 1986 or 1987, The Enchantress, had a gay point of view character, even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was always afraid, you see, to include gay characters in anything I hoped to get published because I was so busy keeping my two lives completely separated that I feared writing sympathetic gay characters would out me. (During my many writings about my high school students from Kansas, one of them was actually gay and was probably the most realistic and honest character in all of those writings) Trying to salvage those stories now, decades later, I sometimes will revise one and make the point of view character gay–which inevitably makes the story work better, incidentally–and they see publication eventually; “Crazy in the Night” was one of those stories, and another morphed into Bury Me in Shadows, actually. Just this morning I was thinking about some more of those old stories and how to make a couple of them work–partly because I spent the last two mornings reading Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology from the Horror Writers Association, edited by my friends Vince Liaguno and Rena Mason. The point of the anthology was to focus and highlight horror stories from marginalized writers–where they are marginalized by race or religion or sexual orientation or gender identity, and it includes stories from some of the top names in horror publishing today.
As with any anthology, some stories stick with the reader more than others; this isn’t a dis on any of the contributors to the anthology–every story was incredibly well-written–it’s just that everything is subjective and some stories stick with the reader longer than others. For me, the standouts were Jennifer McMahon (“Idiot Girls”); Alma Katsu (“Waste Note”); Gabino Iglesias (“There’s Always Something in the Woods”); Hailey Piper (“The Turning”); Larissa Glasser (“Kalkriese”), Michael Thomas Ford (“When The Lovelight Gleams”); M. E. Bronstein (“The Voices of Nightingales”); and S. A. Cosby (“What Blood Hath Wrought”). These were the ones that really resonated me, with the connections of strong writing, three dimensional characters, and completeness of the story. For many of the contributors, this is my first experience with their work, and I will definitely look out for more of their work. These were the ones that made me start thinking about ideas and stories and characters; stories that not only were enjoyable and immersive to read but also kick-started my own creativity and inspiration.
And what more can you ask from a reading experience, as a fellow writer?
Now I want to write more horror.
Definitely check the book out, Constant Reader, I think you’ll enjoy it.
So, when Ellen Byron was preparing to interview me for our live stream event from Murder by the Book, she sent me some questions to prepare myself with. They were good questions, actually, and I thought that taking time to answer them when I can think about the responses would be an excellent BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION post.
So, without further ado, here we go!
What inspired your book? Series premise and the specific story?
That’s an interesting story, actually. I had been toying with the idea of writing a cozy for a long time–I’ve always liked them–but never was sure I could do it; there were rules, after all, and I’m terrible about following rules, always have been. Several friends have been encouraging me for years to do it, but I always hesitated. It was (I thought) outside of my comfort zone, and while I would toy with ideas here and there, none ever came to anything. My partner’s office is near a costume shop, and he’d had to go in there one day for some reason or another, and as is his wont, he struck up a conversation with an employee about the costume business, how they made money, how they stayed open all year, etc etc etc. He’s very curious. Anyway, that night I mentioned to him that someone had yet again suggested I write a cozy, and he wasn’t sure what one was, so I gave him a thumbnail overview, and he said, “Oh, you should do a costume shop” and proceeded to tell me about his conversation with the shop employee. I agreed it was an interesting idea, and stowed it away in the back of my head for future reference, and would think about it now and then, come up with characters and a community for the main character to be a part of, and so on. But at the same time I kept thinking New Orleans wasn’t the right place for a cozy series–basically looking for ways to fail instead of reasons to succeed, which is the underlying theme of my life, really–and so it went. An editor I’ve worked with before was interested in the idea of my writing a cozy series, so I wrote up a proposal and sent it off. They liked it, but couldn’t sign it, and recommended I take it somewhere else, so I did. It evolved from a costume shop to an antique shop during the process of me signing a contract with Crooked Lane; they liked everything about my idea except for the shop itself, so I had to change that. I went down to Magazine Street and walked for a block, writing down every kind of shop I saw, and sent the list in–and we all came to an agreement about the series being structured around an antiques business. As for the story, well, I wanted to talk about and explore the gentrification of New Orleans that has been ongoing almost this entire century, and how real estate has just exploded around here. (It still staggers me that our rent was $450 when we first moved here; the lowest rent I’ve seen advertised in our neighborhood is around $1500 for less than thousand square feet. Our original apartment now rents for $2500 per month now, which is insane.) What happens to Valerie–the fear of a new tax assessment pricing her out of her house–actually happened to a friend of mine; and the prices just seem to keep going up all the time. You can’t even buy a condo in my neighborhood for less than $350, 000 now–the asking prices for houses in the neighborhood are completely insane. Every time I see a new listing in the neighborhood for half a million dollars or more I think, we really should have bought when we moved here–but home-ownership is New Orleans isn’t something Paul or I have ever been terribly interested in. Termites, tornados, hurricanes, floods, black mold–no thanks! But man, what a return on our investment had we bought in 1996!
We both write series set in New Orleans. Why do you find it so inspiring? Especially when you’ve lived in so many other places?
I’ve lived all over the country–we’re from Alabama, and I’ve lived in Chicago on the south side, the suburbs, Kansas, Fresno, Houston, Tampa, Minneapolis and then New Orleans. New Orleans is the only place I’ve ever been to where I felt like I belonged, where I fit in; where I didn’t seem like the eccentric one. New Orleans embraces its eccentrics and doesn’t judge them, and I like that. I knew that first time I came here on my birthday in 1994 that if I moved here all my dreams would come true. And they have, which has been kind of lovely. And no writer could ever exhaust the inspiration New Orleans provides. I’ve written fifteen books set here and countless short stories at this point, and haven’t even scratched the surface. I’ve never written about the music scene here, for one glaring example, or restaurants or the food industry or…you see what I mean? There’s not enough time in my life to write everything I want to about New Orleans.
Tell us about your protagonist. Where did the inspiration for her come from?
My sister never had any interest in going to college or having any kind of career other than being a wife and mother. She was a straight A student and had numerous scholarship offers, but had little to no interest. I used to always think she had wasted her potential, but gradually came to the realization that she has the life she always wanted when she was growing up, and has never missed having a career outside of the home–so rather than feeling bad about her lost potential, I should have been happy that her dreams came true. I started thinking about that more, and thought that would make a great starting place–a woman like my sister who wasn’t really very interested in college but went because it was expected of her…only to fall in love, get married, and drop out when she had twins. I really like the idea of a woman who’s not yet thirty, who wasn’t really sure what she wanted from life and then sidetracked to wife-and-mother, but with her kids now off to college and her husband having died…what do you do for the rest of your life when you’re a widow at thirty-eight and your kids have left for college? And the more I thought about her, the more I liked her and wanted to write about her.
Why did you choose the Irish Channel as the neighborhood?
My Scotty series is set in the French Quarter, and the Chanse series was set in the lower Garden District (where I’ve always lived and always default to it for that very reason), so I wanted to do something different this time out. Before I moved here, I had friends who lived in the Channel and I loved their house and I loved their neighborhood. I had already started writing a novella set in their old house, and I thought, why not use that same house for this series? The Channel did used to be considered a bad part of town, too, when we first moved here (so was the lower Garden District, which we didn’t know), and so I thought the gentrification issue would work better there than in my neighborhood. That part of the Channel is one I used to spend a lot of time in. As my character mentions in the book, I used to hang out at the Rue de la Course coffee shop at the corner of Magazine and Harmony–it was where I would meet friends for coffee. I’m still bitter it closed.
Similarities in our series: both widows, both have family mysteries, both live in the Irish Channel, you have jokes about potholes, I have a plot point about them. Let’s talk about NOLA’s potholes.
Oh, the potholes! Ironically, an active one ate one of my car tires a few weeks ago. Usually, if I am going someplace and have to turn around, there’s usually room for me to make a U-turn or I can turned into a driveway and turn around. This particular day the bar on the corner had reopened after being sold, closed, and renovated for a few months. So, there were cars everywhere, including blocking the driveways, and I thought, fine, I’ll just go around the block, which I hadn’t done in years. Because I hadn’t done that i years, I forgot there’s a massive pothole right when you make the turn so you have to jog left to avoid it. I hit the pothole, hard, and when I did, I thought oh that’s not good and as I continued driving I noticed the car was pulling to the left–which was the tire that hit the pothole. Sure enough, it was flat. It had a nail in it, and I happened to hit the pothole perfectly so that the nail dragged, tearing a hole in the tire. So, yes, New Orleans is a city of potholes–all different shapes, sizes, and depths. When the streets flood the water hides the potholes, and if they are really deep…the one on our street (which is reforming after being filled in and paved over for like the fiftieth time) ate a pick-up truck when that end of the street flooded a few years ago, so our street was blocked until the water went down and a tow truck could get in.
You have a Nolier than thou joke – I have OhNo!LA, an app that’s a runner in the book.
I wish I could claim credit for that joke, but I stole it from Bill Loefhelm, another New Orleans crime writer when we were on a panel together talking about writing about New Orleans and the need to get things right. He responded to a question about accuracy by saying something like “Yes, you really don’t want to set off the Nolier-Than-Thou people” and it still makes me laugh whenever I think about it because it’s so true! In all honesty, I am one of those people–nothing is more infuriating to me than reading something set in New Orleans that doesn’t get it right–but I’ve loosened up some as I’ve gotten older. I was even wondering if that was still a thing while I was writing this book…but since it’s come out I’ve seen any number of locals posting reviews and comments about “how (he) got New Orleans right” so it is still a thing. (And I’m glad and grateful people think I get ir right.)
How would you say your past experiences and jobs in life inform your writing?
I always say that life is material, as is every experience you’ve had. I’ve had so many jobs over the years and have been fired so many times I can’t keep track of them all anymore. But I also had a huge variety of jobs–fast food to retail to food service to banking to insurance to an airline to being a personal trainer to managing a health club to being a magazine editor to my present job working in an STI clinic as a sexual health counselor. Whenever I am creating a character and need a job for them, I inevitably fall back on one of my experiences. The main character in The Orion Mask worked at an airport–I’ve written a lot of characters who work for airlines–and so I try to get away from my own experiences once I catch myself doing it again. I have always had jobs that required interaction with other humans, so I’ve gotten to observe a lot of human behavior. I’ve written about high school students in Kansas (where I went to high school). I’ve written about fraternities because I was in one (hard as it is to believe now). I played football in high school, I’ve written about football players in high school. The only places I’ve lived that I’ve not written about are Chicago, Houston, and Tampa (I have written about Florida, but just the panhandle, where I spent of time as a kid).
I read a blog post where you talked about your relationship with the city. How has it morphed over the years and where does it stand now? It sounded like doing promotion and writing about the city reignited your love for it. What’s your writing process? You write in different genres. Is the process different?
As sad as it is to admit, it’s very easy when you live here to start taking New Orleans for granted. As I said before, I usually am so focused on what I am doing–work, writing, errands, chores, etc.–that I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings as I should (I think we are all guilty of this to some degree). About a year before the pandemic, my day job moved. I had worked in our office on Frenchmen Street for well over ten years–right across the street from Mona’s, in that block between Decatur and Chartres, so I was a block outside the Quarter five days a week, and we also used to do a lot of testing in the French Quarter gay bars and passing out condoms during Carnival, Southern Decadence, and Halloween. So I used to spend a lot of time in and around the Quarter. It was lovely–I could go to the Walgreens or the Rouse’s on Royal and there was a bank branch on Chartres Street, too, by the Supreme Court building. Anytime I didn’t have anything in the house to pack for lunch I could just walk into the Quarter and get something not only amazing but inexpensive. I used to walk past where Scotty lives all the time. After we moved into our new building in the 7th Ward, I don’t go into the Quarter much anymore. So I was starting to feel a bit disconnected from New Orleans already before the pandemic shut everything down. But I realized when I started doing promo for this book that I am not disconnected from New Orleans. I’ve just lived here so long that I don’t take as much note of the unusual or the weird as I used to–it’s become normalized to me. I’ve acclimated. It’s still just as weird and wild and crazy here as it always has been, it just doesn’t strike me as weird and wild and crazy the way it used to. I need to take more walks and spend more time exploring the city and checking things out. I don’t know if all the hidden places I used to take friends to eat in the Quarter are still there, either. Maybe after Mardi Gras…
Thursday morning and I slept really well last night. About time, right? But it’s amazing what a good night’s sleep makes, especially coming after two consecutive nights of insomnia. It’s lovely not to feel tired, you know? I was so tired when I got home from work yesterday that my eyes were almost crossing. I was too tired to think, too tired to write, too tired to do much of anything, so I just collapsed into my easy chair–Scooter actually slept in my lap all evening, and when I got up, he’d curl up in the chair again waiting for me to come back, which was very sweet–and then I watched the documentary God Forbid, which focuses on the Jerry Falwell Jr. pool boy scandal that ended Falwell’s career, from the pool boy’s point of view, which made it a lot more interesting.
It also explored how Falwell’s father led the evangelicals into politics and set us on the downward path that put our entire democracy into the peril it still faces today. The original Falwell was a monster–racist, homophobic, misogynist–and perverted Christianity for money and power. He isn’t the first to do this–look up “Father Coughlin” sometime–and maybe not event the worst (anything is possible), but the damage done to the fabric of the culture and society, predicated on the evangelical desire to make this a Christofascist nation (definitely not what the Founders wanted), by this man and his son may even prove irreparable in the long run. Who knows? Falwell Jr. was important to the election of Trump and the evangelical embrace of this thrice-married ungodly and unChristian wannabe dictator, too. And it got the evangelicals what they’ve wanted since Falwell Senior realized that open racism wasn’t a winning ticket–but abortion could be: the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Would Falwell have backed Trump if Michael Cohen hadn’t known about the sick sexual games the Falwells were playing with a young, naïve young man named Giancarlo Granda? It would make an epic crime novel, truly–I loved John D. Macdonald’s examination of a Midwestern megachurch, One More Sunday, which I really enjoyed.
I have had this idea for a crime novel built around a cult-like church for quite some time. When I was living in Kansas, there was a college in Emporia that was owned and operated by just such a cult-like church. The College of Emporia, a Presbyterian school, had gone bankrupt and closed in 1973. A few years later it was purchased by The Way International and transformed into The Way College of Emporia. The Way College was strange. Their campus was closed to outsiders and patrolled at night by armed guards. There was all kinds of gossip around the county about what went on there and the kinds of things they believed and did; the students always wore name-tags and travelled in pairs–and would often try to corner other young people and proselytize. When I was working at McDonalds, for example, I observed them do this to a girl who was cleaning tables in the lobby. They essentially waited until she was in a part of the place that had only one way out, and once she was back there cleaning tables, they blocked the way out to talk to her. They always had this weird look on their faces, too–their eyes always seemed either glazed or vacant or both, and they always had a zombie-like smile that didn’t reach their eyes. One of the many iterations of the Kansas book took place over two time-lines, one in the 1970’s and the other the present day; where the quarterback’s murder in a sex scandal in the 1970’s gave rise to a megachurch in the town. I have done some research in the Way International (they sold the Way College and its campus to Emporia State University sometime after we left Kansas) and even have a book written by someone who belonged and got out.,,so I would never say never.
Oh, and thank you, Brazil, for ousting your Fascist. Well done!
Unfortunately, my exhaustion last night means that I have fallen another day behind on the book, which isn’t good. But it was really out of my hands, to be honest. I was so tired I don’t even really remember driving home from work last night–which is NOT a good thing at all. But I am hoping that feeling rested and not being exhausted will make a difference tonight. I am halfway done–it’s planned to be twenty chapters, and I finished Chapter Ten on Tuesday–so tonight I am going to go back and reread and edit the first half of the book. It’ll take some serious work–the kind where I have to close the Internet browsers to avoid distraction–because some of the earlier chapters need to be moved around and rearranged; the order in which the story unfolds needs to be switched up a bit–and I need to outline the first half as well as make a character list and due a timeline. I also realized that my usual Scotty thing to do–parody the opening of a famous novel–doesn’t have to be a parody of a famous novel opening–and I’ve always wanted to write something that opened the way Dark Shadows did (“My name is Victoria Winters”), so why not do that? “My name is Scotty Bradley” or something along those lines. I wonder if Victoria’s opening monologue from episode one is on-line anywhere? Better add that to the list.
And on that note, Constant Reader, I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a great Thursday, and I will talk to you again tomorrow.
I often refer to ‘salem’s Lot as “Peyton Place, but horror.” Because while Stephen King’s second novel (and still one of my favorites) absolutely does its job as a wrenching piece of horror fiction, it’s also a truly insightful and meaningful look at a small town (population 1300) and how everyone knows everyone, as well as the way their lives intersect and connect and cross intricately; we get to know a lot of the townspeople before they succumb to the horror that is overwhelming their little town. If you took the vampires out of the story, you’d have to replace them with something, as there’s no story without them, but at the same time, this novel along with Needful Things some twenty or so years later, are remain two of the best books about life in small towns that I’ve ever read.
I used to reread old Stephen King novels a lot for comfort, losing myself in the worlds he creates and enjoying the stories, the writing, and the characters. ‘salem’s Lot is definitely one of my favorites of his; definitely always in the Top 5, with perhaps only The Stand outranking it.
Almost everyone thought the man and the boy were father and son.
They crossed the country on a rambling southwest line in an old Citroen sedan, keeping mostly to secondary roads, traveling in fits and starts. They stopped in three places along the way before reaching their final destination: first in Rhode Island, where the tall man with the black hair worked in a textile mill; then in Youngstown, Ohio, where he worked for three months on a tractor assembly line; and finally in a small California town near the Mexican boarder, where he pumped gas and worked at repairing small foreign cars with an amount of success that was, to him, surprising and gratifying.
Wherever they stopped, he got a Maine newspaper called the Portland Press-Herald and watched it for items concerning a small southern Maine town named Jerusalem’s Lot and the surrounding area. There were such items from time to time.
He wrote an outline of a novel in motel rooms before they Central Falls, Rhode Island, and mailed it to his agent. He had been a mildly successful novelist a million years before, in a time when the darkness had not come over his life. The agent took the outline to his last publisher, who expressed polite interest but no inclination to part with any advance money. “Please” and “thank you,” he told the boy as he tore the agent’s letter up, were still free. He said it without too much bitterness and set about the book anyway.
The boy did not speak much. His face retained a perpetual pinched look, and his eyes were dark–as if they always scanned some bleak inner horizon. In the diners and gas stations where they stopped along the way, he was polite and nothing more. He didn’t seem to want the tall man out of his sight, and the boy seemed nervous when the man left him to use the bathroom. He refused to talk about the town of Jerusalem’s Lot, although the tall man tried to raise the topic from time to time, and he would not look at the Portland newspapers the man sometimes deliberately left around.
When the book was written, they were living in a beach cottage off the highway, and they both swam in the Pacific a freat deal. It was warmer than the Atlantic, and friendlier. It held no memories. The boy began to get very brown.
This is the cover of the version I originally read in high school–I bought it off the paperback rack at the Safeway in Emporia, Kansas. I kept that copy for years; eventually replacing it with a hardcover reprint in the 1990′, before finally getting an old copy with the original cover on eBay (which has since turned out to be a first edition; I love finding all the mistakes in it as I reread it).
I had read Carrie in paperback in one night when I’d borrowed it from a friend; it was only in the last decade that I finally acquired a copy of it to keep and reread periodically (I bought it to read the opening shower scene at Banned Books Night; ironically, the objections to the book have nothing to do with explicit talk about menstruation, or bullying, or violence…people object to the book because of its depiction of Christianity, particularly in the case of Carrie’s fanatic mother, Margaret (whom I always see in my head as Piper Laurie, who should have won an Oscar). I don’t think Carrie was the book that made me begin to question Christianity, to be honest; I think I already was questioning it before I read the book, but it was one of the first times I’d see a disparaging representation of someone committing horrifying abuses in the name of Jesus, or how the way the religion viewed sexuality could be taken to such horrific extremes. But I loved the book and became interested in Stephen King as an author. I was aware of ‘salem’s Lot before I found a copy while grocery shopping with my mom; I’d known he’d published a second book because I saw it in the book club ads (Doubleday, Book of the Month, etc.) in magazines. I had no idea what the book was about when I started reading it–I had no clue it was about vampires, and vampires never even crossed my mind when I started reading. It was a Saturday (Mom always drove into Emporia on Saturday to buy groceries), and I repaired to my room with the book (my homework was already done, and whatever college football game was on that Saturday was of no interest to me) and started reading. I finished reading it at around two in the morning, and was completely blown away by it. There was no way I was going to stop reading, and there was no way to stop reading once the big reveal about the vampires happened and the pace picked up.
The book was utterly terrifying, and it started raining later on that day as I read. I was living in a small town (population 973) and my bedroom window looked out at a corn field that was right across the street. I started seeing, as I read, a lot of similarities between Jerusalem’s Lot in the book and my little town–the characters, the interconnectedness of the community, and like Ben Mears, I was still kind of a stranger in the town. I just remember that when I got to the part where Danny Glick comes to Mark Petrie’s window, the storm outside brushed a tree branch against my window and I literally jumped, the book flying out of my hands and landing across the room in the middle of the floor.
It was also the first time I remember reading a book whose main character was a writer–something Stephen King returns to quite regularly, write what you know indeed–which also helped me connect with the book more; Ben Mears was a publisher novelist of minor success, but had published three books already and hadn’t graduated from college. He also seemed like a real person, living and breathing and absolutely real; it wasn’t until this reread that I realized how much physically he’s like King–tall and slender with thick black hair.
But it was also the first time I’d read anything about vampires that was so clearly set in the real world, in the real present, and with real characters I could relate to–which made it even more terrifying. I started thinking about how easy it would be for, say, a vampire to come to our small little town and how quickly people could be turned, primarily because no one would believe it was actually happening until it was too late–which King handled beautifully in the book.
Sunday morning and there’s an LSU game tonight (GEAUX TIGERS!). There’s no way of knowing how good LSU is going to be this year, so I guess tonight’s the night we find out. I watched some of the games yesterday–Georgia certainly looked impressive, and good for Florida and Ohio State winning their big games yesterday, but again, it’s also too early to know anything for sure. Were the two top-ranked teams from the PAC-12 (Oregon and Utah) overrated, or will they rebound (although that shellacking the Ducks got from Georgia had to sting) to make a play-off run after all? The only thing you can ever be sure of in college football is Alabama will be a contender.
Yesterday was a very good day. We had a downpour and flash flood warning for most of the afternoon, but fortunately I had already run the errand I had to run; this morning I have an errand to run as well, and then i am going to come home and order Costco for delivery (just a few things we need) and I intend to spend the day writing. I spent the day organizing and cleaning (which is always an incredibly pleasant way for me to spend the day) and cleaned out kitchen cabinets in order to throw away a lot of items that I had purchased for single, one-time use and had never used again. My cake carrier, for example; I bought that to carry birthday cakes I’d made to work. I used to make our nurse a red velvet cheesecake for his birthday every year–but he’s left the agency and it is highly unlikely I’ll ever make another cake that needs to be transported; if I do, I guess I can just get another one. I also was throwing away things I don’t use but take up space in the kitchen–the big metal salad mixing bowl, the big plastic salad container, muffin tins, etc.–and then reorganized the shelves and made more room for things. I also cleaned things off the tops of the cabinets. It now looks a lot less cluttered in the kitchen and when I open the cabinets.
There’s still some work to be done on the cabinets, but I feel very good about the progress made yesterday. I also did the floors.
I also spent some time revisiting Bourbon Street Blues yesterday. I didn’t give it a thorough read, more of a skim, but it had been a hot minute since I last read the book and…Constant Reader, it wasn’t bad. The book came out nineteen years ago, and I of course wrote it twenty years ago. It’s had to believe it’s been that long, isn’t it? I wrote it when we lived in the apartment on Sophie Wright Place after we moved back to New Orleans in 2001; it’s the only book I wrote there, because I wrote the next two after we moved onto this property and were living in the carriage house. I also realized that the reason I am so hard on myself when I read my own work is primarily because I have trained my mind over the years to read my stuff critically and editorially, with an eye to revision–and that doesn’t change once the book is actually in print. Bourbon Street Blues is not a bad book at all–there’s even some really clever lines in it. Someone had actually responded to one of my blog posts about the stand alone books that they’d like to see me do the same for the series book; I feel like I may have done that already, but it’s not a bad idea. I need to revisit the Scotty series anyway in order to write the new one (which was part of the reason I picked up Bourbon Street Blues yesterday) and since I have trouble focusing enough to read other people’s work at the moment, why not reread the entire series from start to finish? It certainly can’t hurt.
I have been bemoaning how bad the writing is for this new Scotty book I am writing and yesterday, as I cleaned and organized and reread Bourbon Street Blues, I began to see why precisely the work I’ve already done isn’t good and what precisely was/is wrong with what I’ve already done. The bones are there, of course, and it can be saved, which is what I am going to do today. I know precisely know how to make this book work, how to structure it, how to introduce the new characters and the plots for the book, and it’s a marvelous feeling. After I finish this–and then write my entry on Bourbon Street Blues–I am going to go run that errand, come home and get cleaned up, place the Costco order for delivery, and then dig into redoing the initial three chapters of the book and maybe even dive into another. I also am going to spend some time today with Jackson Square Jazz; I may bring the iPad with me so I can keep reading the Scotty series during Bouchercon–but then again, I have other things I am taking with me to read, too. But those are for the airport and the flights primarily; I can lug my iPad around in my backpack and then between panels or when I am sitting alone in the lobby I can pull it out and scan through another Scotty book quickly. It’s also not a bad idea for me to start working on (at last) pulling together the Scotty Bible I’ve always said I needed to pull together. (I also kind of need to pull together all the information on the Gregiverse; the world in which all of my books are actually set, from Alabama to New Orleans to California to Kansas to Chicago’s suburbs…)
I also have a short story submission I need to look over before sending it in for the blind read–next year’s Bouchercon anthology is the market–but I am not sure I’ll have the time or if I know precisely how to fix it.
And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. I’d like to have another productive day today, so…lots to do before the LSU game tonight.
I also love the word “enchantress.” Go figure. Must be something about the sibilant s.
I moved from Kansas to Fresno, California in February of 1981. It was cold and there was snow on the ground when I boarded an Amtrak train at 2 in the morning with my mother. I fell asleep before the train left the station in Emporia; when I woke up it was gray outside and we were in western Kansas. The trip seemed endless, and our train was delayed because of weather crossing the Rocky Mountains; that part was terrifying, honestly. There were times when there was only enough room on the mountain ledges we rode over for the train tracks, and the wind was powerful enough to rock the train. I’ve always been afraid of heights, so obviously this was completely terrifying for me. I had brought books with me to read on the train, but I’d finished them all by the time we reached Barstow, California–missing our connecting train by half an hour–and thus were stuck there for twelve hours until the evening train to Fresno.
You haven’t lived until you’ve spent twelve hours in a train station in Barstow, California.
(Although reading everything in the magazine rack in that train station completely fueled my soap opera obsession–but that’s a story for another time.)
After I finished writing the first draft that became Sara I put the manuscript aside and started working on another one, which I called Sorceress.
Why was the move on Amtrak to California pertinent to the story of Sorceress and how it came to be? Because it’s one of the few books–in fact, the only book–I’ve written under my own name that is set in California (all the Todd Gregory ‘fratboy’ books are set in California).
It was a beautiful day to die.
The sun was shining and she could hear the birds singing in the trees outside. Through the window on the other side of the room she could see a gorgeous blue sky with wisps of white cloud drifting aimlessly. The house was silent around her, and she closed her eyes again, biting her lower lip.
Her throat was sore and she was thirsty.
There was a glass pitcher of water sitting on the nightstand just out of her reach. Drops of condensation glistened in the sunlight as they ran down the sides, pooling on the wood. She licked her lips and dry-swallowed again.
“Please.” She’d intended to shout, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper. Tears of frustration filled her eyes.
This can’t be happening to me, she thought as the tears began to run down her cheeks. She felt the wetness against her lips, flicking her tongue out to catch the moisture.
It might not be much, but it was something.
She tugged at the handcuffs again, and moaned as the raw skin around her wrists rubbed against the metal, dull arrows of pain shooting up her arms.
That isn’t going to work. You’ve got to think of something else. There has to be something.
As if on cue, the phone on the other side of the room began ringing.
If only I could reach the phone!
“If only I weren’t handcuffed to this stupid bed,” she said aloud.
If only, if only, if only.
A grandfather clock began tolling somewhere in the house.
Five o’clock. Maybe four more hours until the sun goes down.
She was safe until the sun went down.
She heard footsteps comingdown the hall towards the closed door.
“I’m thirsty!” she shouted. “Please! I’m so thirsty!”
The footsteps stopped. She was about to shout again when heard the footsteps start again—only now they were moving away from her door.
She closed her eyes.
Not a bad opening, huh?
I started writing the novel Sorceress sometime in 1992 or 1993; I’m not sure which. Sorceress was the easiest of the early manuscripts for me to write, and this was because I knew the story, from start to finish, before I started writing it–which is incredibly rare for me; I even knew the middle, which I always have the most trouble with. I originally wrote Sorceress in the late 1980’s as a novella that originally clocked in at around seventeen thousand words. But even as I wrote that incredibly long short story (at the time all I knew about novellas was that Stephen King sometimes wrote really long stories, like “The Mist”) and had always put it aside, because I knew there was more story there and it needed to be longer–novel length, in fact. So when I finished the first draft of Sara and was ready to move on to something else, I decided to finally expand Sorceress out into a novel.
Fresno wasn’t a pretty city, by any means. It had a desert climate (the entire San Joaquin Valley has a desert climate) that was very dry and climbed to well over 100 degrees in the heart of the summer (sometimes even getting up to over 110) and was all brown, mostly; brown, palm and orange trees, and concrete in the unforgiving sun. My parents bought a house in a subdivision in a city that bordered Fresno yet somehow wasn’t considered a suburb. It had a pool, two orange trees, and several eucalyptus trees. These seemed exotic and cool and fun–until you realized how much fruit one tree, let alone two, could produce, and there was no way to keep up with them, either; inevitably, the back yard was always dank with the sickly-sweet smell of rotting oranges. The eucalyptus trees with their slim, silvery leaves were also a pain in the ass; those leaves would get into the pool, and unless fished out, became water-logged and sank to the bottom, where they would stain and/or discolor the bottom of the pool. It seemed like those little leaves were always fluttering through the air and unerringly landing in the water.
Never again will I live a place where I am responsible for a swimming pool.
But the true beauty of Fresno was its location. It was within a few hours’ drive of many wonderful places: Yosemite, Sierra, and Kings Canyon parks, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. LA was the furthest away–four hours down the Grapevine; and the final descent through the mountains into the plains on the other side was one of the steepest highways I’ve ever driven down–but in college I also made friends with students who came from some of those mountain communities–Sonora, Oakhurst, Coarsegold, Tuolumne–and wound up visiting them at times. I spent most of my time visiting the mounts in either Sonora or Tuolumne. I’d never spent much time in the mountains before or since, and the thing that always stuck in my head was how close the stars in the night sky seemed up there, almost like you could reach up and grab one. I decided to create my own version of these small mountain towns and call it Woodbridge. When I started writing Sorceress as a novel, I set it in the countryside in the mountains outside of “Woodbridge.” By this time, I had already discovered y/a horror, obviously, and so “Woodbridge” was going to be the anchor of all my stories–they were all going to be connected, and in some ways the center of that fictional universe I was building was going to be Woodbridge (Sleeping Angel is also set in Woodbridge). I also put a college there; a campus of the University of California (UC-Woodbridge) which also gave me college students to play with as well as the high school kids. Laura, my main character, was originally from the same area of Kansas where Sara was set; I even mentioned her in passing in Sara, as a friend who’d moved away to California and who had been betrayed after she left by her best friend and her boyfriend…which also figured into the plot of Sorceress.
Sorceress was also the first book I wrote where I followed the Gothic tropes: a young woman all alone in the world after the death of her parents is summoned by an elderly aunt she didn’t know existed to California. The elderly aunt has a huge Victorian mansion in the mountains, a man-servant/housekeeper/butler, and once there Laura begins to suspect that not only are things not the way they seem, but that her own life might be in danger. There’s also a hint of the paranormal here as well…and some of the kids Laura meets in Woodbridge also figured into some of my other books for young adults as well.
When I had the opportunity to write something on spec for Simon and Schuster teen in the summer of 2005, Sorceress was the one I chose to revise and rewrite for them. I felt it was the most complete and needed the least amount of work, plus I loved the entire Gothic mood of the story. Then of course Katrina came along and knocked that right out of my head; I kept trying to revise it but focus was incredibly difficult, and finally I gave up. This is the story I mentioned in conversation with a friend, who was later given a job as an acquisitions editor, and this is the story she wanted me to pitch to her. I did, but they didn’t pick it up, but when she went out on her own later and started her own small press specifically for juvenile and y/a fiction, she wanted Sorceress, so I dragged it back out and went to work on it again. It was released in 2010, I believe; it’s hard to remember dates these days for me. Anyway, this is the book where I told Bold Strokes I was publishing a y/a with a friend’s small press, which got the response “you know, we do y/a too” that led to me giving them both Sara and Sleeping Angel, and led to all the others.
I also wrote another Woodbridge story–a very long novella–that I intend to either revise as a novella or expand out into a novel. This story directly references events in Sorceress and Sleeping Angel, as well as characters…so while it might be entirely too late to release another book in that linked universe I originally intended to create, a good story is a good story. I just am not sure about the ending of that one, which is one of the reasons it remains in the drawer.
Ah, Sara. The first actual book I wrote for a young adult audience, and what a long and tortured history this story actually had.
I started writing stories when I was really young, my own versions of the kids’ series books I was addicted to and were blatant rip-offs, frankly, but it was good practice, I started writing original fiction when I was in high school; basically, I started writing about a group of high school students at a small rural high school (kind of like the one I was going to), and always felt that someday I would turn them all into a book about those kids. A couple of years after high school I abandoned the first actual novel I tried to write (I don’t even know if I still have it anywhere but I don’t think so; it most likely got lost in one of the many moves over the decades), and decided to write a novel about high school students in Kansas. Writing in cursive longhand, I expanded the story beyond the teenagers–who were still the primary core of the story–but also wrote about their parents and siblings as well. It was very soapy–this was the time when my daytime soap addiction was at its highest–but ultimately, the real story was the murder. I wrote whenever I could, often changing character names and ending subplots and starting new ones willy-nilly as my mind bounced around, always coming up with new ideas for it. I started in 1980, and I finally wrote the end on it in 1984; four years. I had thousands of wide-ruled paper filled with my loopy, pretty handwriting; now the trick was to somehow type it all up and edit it, cut out all the excess and tighten it, decide on final names, and so forth.
Needless to say, I never did that. I still have it all somewhere, in a box–it did survive all those moves–but over the years I pilfered plots and character names and stories from it. I have a tendency to come up with character names for ideas for stories and books that never get used; I then turn around and use those names again in something else I am writing (I talked about Chris Moore and Eric Matthews before; I came up with those names for an idea I had for a book set in a fraternity, and have used them in Todd Gregory “fratboy” books and they’ve turned up elsewhere, too).
Sara is one of those books born from that original manuscript, and no, despite the opening sentence of this entry, I didn’t take the title from the Fleetwood Mac song. I’ve always liked the name, and right around when I started writing the book as a young adult novel, I went to a family reunion and met a cousin’s daughter for the first time, and she was absolutely adorable. She actually looked like she would grow up to look like my mysterious title character–and her name was Sara. (I had originally named the character Tara; it was an easy switch.)
Being a senior sure doesn’t feel any different, I thought as I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, and I sure don’t look any different–besides that damned pimple on my chin.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting. I;’d been looking forward to my senior year almost from the very day I started high school. This was it–when the year ended, I’d be an adult. No more being treated like a kid, no more getting up Monday through Friday at six thirty, no more being at the mercy of teachers and coaches and guidance counselors–it would all end when I cross the stage, took the diploma, and put the tassel on the other side of the cap.
It couldn’t happen soon enough, thank you very much.
And then I could get the hell out of this podunk town in the middle of nowhere, and never look back.
I finished toweling my hair and hung the wet towel on the rack. I looked in the mirror again. I touched the angry-looking red blotch in the direct center of my chin. It might as well have been blinking and neon–no one could miss the stupid thing. I sighed and wondered what kind of omen that would turn out to be as I put on my underwear and a pair of jean shorts. Probably not a good one, I thought, sighing again as I brushed my damp hair into place. I was out of hair gel, so I just parted it on the side and combed it flat.
I was already starting to sweat. It wasn’t even eight in the morning yet, and our crappy house was already turning into a sauna. The house didn’t have central air conditioning–all we had was some window units in the bedrooms. Mom kept saying when she got a little bit ahead she’d buy one for the bathroom, but until then we’d have to make do with fans.
I walked down the hall back to my bedroom, wiping sweat off my forehead. I stood in front of the window unit and raised my arms so my armpits would dry. When I didn’t feel damp anymore, I reached over to the bed for my purple Trojan Football T-shirt. I pulled it over my head, but had to yank it down hard to get it past my chest. The weightlifting I;d been doing all summer had worked–the shirt stretched so tight across my pecs it looked like it might rip. I looked into the full-length mirror hung on the back of the bedroom door and smiled. It made my muscles look huge–so maybe no one would notice the stupid pimple. I tucked the shirt into my shorts and rubbed some antiperspirant into my armpits, hoping it would work this time. I picked up my backpack and made sure one more time I had everything: notebook, pens, my cheap cell phone–yeah, I hadn’t forgotten anything. I put my wallet into my back pocket and sat down on the edge of my bed to put on my socks and shoes.
I’ve often joked that Sara is my “get even with everyone I went to high school” book, but that isn’t true. Yes, I did not have a great time in high school–either of them–but it wasn’t all bad; I did have some friends, even though it often felt like I didn’t have any, and after graduation, I decided to shut that door behind me firmly and move on with the rest of my life. I harbored a lot of anger and bitterness about my high school experience, but time does provide some healing, even if there’s a scar left behind. I was weird and different from my classmates from kindergarten on: I was gay but I was also an artistic child with a wild and vivid imagination in an environment where no one knew what to make of either. I was different, and that was all that mattered, even if they couldn’t quite process that I wasn’t from another planet or an aberration that needed to be shunned and excluded and mocked.
As I have mentioned before, I started writing in high school about a group of high school kids in a rural high school similar to the one I was attending. That eventually morphed into a lengthy, hand-written (and incredibly amateurish and terrible) first novel from which I have pilfered plots, stories and characters ever since. Sometime in the mid-1980’s, as a fan of Stephen King and Peter Straub, I decided to try my hand at writing horror short stories, with an eye to maybe writing a horror novel. I even started writing a horror novel(The Enchantress, which I occasionally think about getting back out of the drawer and working on again; it did, however, lead me to write a different book decades later, but I still think about The Enchantress from time to time). By this time I’d taken a junior college writing class and was starting to get my confidence in my dream back after the horror of my first creative writing course in college; I took another course in it when I started going to Fresno State (CSU-Fresno at the time, to be correct) and that teacher, in a conference about one of my stories (which he really liked), told me, when asked about writing a novel, “The best way to study how to structure a novel is to take one that you really like, and then break down how it’s structured; how the story and the characters are built and the pattern and rhythm of how action is interlaced into the plot.” I’ve always remembered that, and sometimes when I am stuck on a book I think about his advice and think about how a book with a similar story to the one I am trying to tell is structured.
I put The Enchantress aside and decided to try, once again, to do something with fragments of that horrible first novel I’d written, and introduce an element of horror to it. I decided to structure the book the way Stephen King structured Christine–something awful happened when we were in high school, and now, many years later, the main character is looking back and remembering, and at the end of the story we find out that the reason he is telling us this story is because he’s afraid the awful thing is coming back again (reoccurance/revival of something evil is a strong theme in horror, and King has gone to that well numerous times, most famously with It and the dueling timelines). So, I started writing Sara with a prologue written in the present day; ten years later, the main character has gotten an invitation to the high school reunion and starts remembering back, and then in the first chapter we’re back in the late 1970’s and don’t return to the present again to the epilogue. I also decided to do the different POV thing King did in Christine (which I still think is one of his most underrated novels of all time); he tells the first part and the third part of the book in the first person point of view of Dennis, but the second section is the third person and bounces around from character to character before the return in the final section of the book (it really is a three-act structure). I thought this was very clever and decided to use it in this book, too. But instead of an evil car, we had a mysterious new girl at the rural high school who dazzles and enchants all the boys–but there’s something not right about her.
I decided that the book–primarily focusing on teenagers–would work best as a young adult novel (ater discovering there even was such a thing as y/a horror) and so I dropped the looking back prologue/epilogue framing and moved the action into the present day. I finished a first draft in about six months, and then put it in a drawer for about fifteen years before returning to it, overhauling it and dragging it into the new present day and publishing it.
Revisiting Sara now, thirty years after I first conceived it and ten years after publishing it, the first thing I noticed was “hmmm, you should have reread this before turning in the final draft of #shedeservedit, since technically the two books were supposed to be connected; with the newer book set in the county seat and Sara taking part in the rural southern part of the county” but I am also recognizing that my books don’t, in fact, all need to be connected together; there’s no reason why this particular county and its county seat can’t be a county or two away from this one, even if they are remarkably similar geographically; it’s the plains, after all. There may even be characters in this one with the same name as a character in #shedeservedit, but again, it doesn’t really matter–and I’ve written other stories set in Kansas in the same area where the geography is the same and maybe even some of the character names. I used the ten-year-reunion (or possibly twenty) in rural Kansas thing in my story “Promises in Every Star,” for example, and revisited the Kansas well for “This Thing of Darkness” too.
And will probably return to that well at least once more for a book, if not more than one.
I originally started writing Sleeping Angel in 1994.
That seems like such a long time ago, too. I hadn’t met Paul yet, was still working for that wretched airline at the airport, was broke broke broke and often ran out of money long before payday, and any kind of decent life for me seemed impossible. It was the next year I decided to snap out of the constant feeling sorry for myself, and instead of waiting for the world to come knocking on my door to make my dreams come true, that the only person who could make my dreams a reality was me, and that I needed to make the changes necessary to my life if I were going to become a writer for real–like stop dreaming about it and writing now and then, and start taking it seriously and writing all the fucking time, and trying to make it happen–which meant sending things out to try to get them published.
It’s weird how you forget things about books you’ve written until something out of left field reminds you of something. Julie Hennrikus, during our Sisters in Crime podcast interview, asked me about writing young adult fiction, and how I came to do that. The story is very simple, really; after discovering Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine and other young adult authors who wrote young adult novels that were either crime or horror or a cross of the two, I decided to take the book I was writing at the time–Sara–and write it as a young adult novel instead of as one for adults. It really didn’t take a lot, to be honest–I removed the framing device that firmly set the book back in the 1970’s–and turned it into a modern day story about teenagers (which it always was). After I finished Sara, I wrote another called Sorceress–and when I finished it, I began writing Sleeping Angel. I still didn’t have a strong grasp of how writing actually worked (which is kind of embarrassing when I remember how naive and stupid I actually was back then, but what did I know. seriously? Very little.) and so I never rewrote anything; I just printed them (I had bought a very inexpensive word processor that I loved, and wrote on) out and saved the originals. I was about half-way through Sleeping Angel when I discovered there was such a thing as queer crime novels…so I abandoned writing young adult fiction and started thinking more in terms of writing a gay private eye series…which eventually became the Chanse MacLeod series and Murder in the Rue Dauphine.
Flash forward another decade or so, and in the spring of 2005 I attended BEA and the Lambda Awards in New York. I lost twice that year (Best Gay Mystery for Jackson Square Jazz and Best Scifi/Fantasy/Horror for Shadows of the Night) and then on Saturday night I attended a cocktail party for the Publishing Triangle. (It was at this party that I met both Tab Hunter and Joyce Dewitt.) I also met a very nice man who was familiar with my work, and asked me if I had ever considered writing young adult fiction with gay characters and themes? I laughed and replied that I had two completed first drafts and a partial for another in a drawer back home; he then gave me a business card and told me he would love to take a look at them with an eye to publishing. I lost the card years ago, probably in the Katrina aftermath, but he was an editor for Simon and Schuster Teen, which was very exciting. I told him I would revise one and send it to him as soon as I finished Mardi Gras Mambo, which was at that point over a year overdue (I didn’t mention that part). This was exciting for me, as one can imagine; another opportunity gained by simply being in the right place at the right time, which has been the story of my career pretty much every step of its way. Once I finished Mardi Gras Mambo that August, I started revising Sara.
And then came Hurricane Katrina, and everything went insane for a few years, and I abandoned the attempt to rewrite Sara. There was just too much going on, I was displaced and finding it hard to get back into writing, and I just wasn’t in the right place emotionally to revise or rewrite a book. I’ve always regretted that last opportunity.
Flash forward another year or so and I casually mentioned to a friend this missed opportunity. What I didn’t know when I mentioned it (bemoaned it, really; I still regret this lost chance) was that she had been working for another publisher as an acquiring editor for young adult/children’s work. “Would you rewrite one of these for me? I’d love to pitch this to the company.” So….rather than Sara, I went with a rewrite of Sorceress, which had a teenaged girl lead character and I didn’t see any place to add queer content (I’d been adding that to the revision of Sara ) and sent it to her. Alas, before she had the opportunity to pitch it the line she acquired for was closed down and that was the end of that….until a few years later when she decided to start her own small press for juvenile/young adult fiction, and wanted Sorceress. I sent it to her, we signed a contract…and then I realized I needed to let Bold Strokes Books know I was doing this. I emailed them, and they replied, “You know we do young adult?”
I wrote back and mentioned I had two others collecting dust, and so I contracted both Sara and Sleeping Angel with them. I decided to do Sleeping Angel first–which is odd, as I didn’t even have a completed first draft; I don’t remember why I decided to do this, frankly–and so I started writing and revising.
The really funny thing–just looking at the cover for the book–is that the character name “Eric Matthews” was one I came up with when I was in college; I had an idea for a book set in my fraternity, and came up with three names for characters that were pledge brothers and friends: Eric Matthews, Chris Moore, and Blair Blanchard. I used Eric and Chris for Sleeping Angel (completely forgetting that I had already used those names in Every Frat Boy Wants It a few years earlier), so yes, even though the fraternity books I used were by “Todd Gregory”, I accidentally re-used the character names.
The original intent with my young adult fiction was to connect it all together, the way R. L. Stine did with Fear Street, and sort of how all of Stephen King’s work is as well. The three books I started with–Sara, Sorceress, and Sleeping Angel–were connected, and were the springboard from which the others would come–or were supposed to come, from. Sara was set in rural Kansas. The main character of Sorceress moved from rural Kansas to a small town in the mountains in California, Woodbridge, which was also where Sleeping Angel was set. The main character of Sara moved to Kansas from the Chicago suburb where the main character of Lake Thirteen was from, and so on. (Likewise, the main character from Dark Tide was also from the same county in Alabama where Bury Me in Shadows took place, and #shedeservedit was set in the town that was the county seat for that rural Kansas area where Sara was set.) I’d consciously forgotten that, but fortunately my subconscious still holds on to things the forefront of my brain doesn’t.
When I originally envisioned Sleeping Angel back in 1993 (or 1994, I don’t remember which), the concept I wanted to explore was something, a concept, that Dean Koontz had used in his book Hideaway–that someone was in a car accident and died, only to be resuscitated by the EMT’s. But when he came back to life, he brought back something with him from the other side that gave him a psychic connection with a serial killer. It was an interesting idea–I wasn’t using the serial killer thing–but I loved the entire concept of someone being brought back with something extra (which, now that I think about it, is also the entire conceit Stephen King built The Dead Zone around). I decided to keep the car accident to open the book in the new version, but the opening I originally wrote had to be tossed. I also came up with an entirely new concept for the book: what if you were in a bad car accident, but there was a dead body in the car who was NOT killed in the accident but had been shot and was already dead when the car crashed? And if the main character has amnesia….who killed the kid in the back seat?
And away we went.
He was driving too fast, and knew he should ease his foot off the gas pedal, bringing the car down to a safer, more manageable speed.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“Hang in there, buddy,” he muttered grimly under his breath, taking his eyes off the road for just a moment to glance in the rearview mirror into the backseat. What he saw wasn’t encouraging. Sean’s eyes were closed, and he couldn’t tell if Sean was still breathing.
The blood–there was so much of it, and it was everywhere.
He swallowed and took a deep breath, trying to hold down the panic. He had to stay calm. He couldn’t let the fear take over, he just couldn’t. He had to hold himself together. He had to get to town, to get Sean to the hospital before it was too late–if it wasn’t already too late.
Not a bad beginning, right? Pulls you right into the story.
I don’t remember what–if anything–I was expecting when Sleeping Angel was finally released (it actually wound up coming out before Sorceress, ironically); it had not even been six years since the right-wing homophobes had come for me for daring to accept an invitation to speak to high school students in a Gay-Straight Alliance. And now I’d actually dared to write a book about teenagers, for teenagers. The horror! But the book come out and there wasn’t even the slightest whisper of controversy about the “gay pornographer” writing a y/a book. It got really good reviews for the most part, people really seemed to enjoy it, and it eventually won a gold medal for Outstanding Young Adult Mystery/Horror from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, which I’d never heard of but was kind of a big deal, or so I’m told. The gold medal was nice, too–very pretty (but it’s not the rock from the Shirley Jackson Awards–the smooth polished stone I got for being a finalist may be my favorite thing I ever received as recognition for my writing).
It’s always been a strange holiday for me, having grown up as an outsider drenched in Americana and taught American mythology rather than US history. (The more I use the word American to describe things that really only involve the US the less comfortable I am with it, particularly as I grow older. It’s simply a shorthand, obviously, for the much more awkward “US citizens,” but its use erases the fact that Canadians, Mexicans, and those from Central and South America are also Americans, and others them to US citizens. USAmericans also is an awkward construction. And can people of non-indigenous descent have a right to call themselves Americans in the first place? Once you start parsing, it’s a bottomless well.) It isn’t really our nation’s birthday, either–it’s Independence Day; the anniversary of the day the Declaration of Independence was ratified. Our actual national birthday is the date the Constitution was ratified and we actually became the United States from the thirteen colonies–and after the British defeat at Yorktown and the Peace of Paris, we actually were thirteen independent states in a loose alliance with each other for self-protection, and it was entirely possible those states might not have ever unified into a single nation. That was the real miracle of our nation’s founding–that, and the fact that thirteen disunited colonies who agreed on very little somehow took on the largest and most powerful global empire the world have ever seen and managed to defeat them–without checking I cannot be entirely sure, but it might be the only war the British Empire lost before it’s post-World War II collapse.
So, this year’s celebration is a bit muted. We are losing our freedoms and our rights–losing them to a bizarre political coalition that claims they are the real Americans, what they believe is the only way to believe and/or think about politics and the country, who scream and whine and protest about their freedoms and their liberties as cover for the fact they want to steal the freedoms and liberties–and citizenship–of people who do not agree with them. We have a “supreme court” that uses the Constitution, and almost 250 years of precedent and decided law, to wipe their asses with because it doesn’t really fit their vision of a theocratic nation ruled by a minority that forces the majority to put up with their bullshit because they have gerrymandered, legislated, and ruled in such a way as to entrench their power. This has happened before, of course–it always has happened before (which is why our lack of interest and education about our short national history is so deliberately encouraged; so we won’t learn from the mistakes of the past)–and I feel like we are living in a situation very similar to that in which the country was in between 1850 and 1861: an extremely loud and belligerent minority had been controlling and running the country since almost the beginning, in defense of a completely indefensible belief that it was okay for white Americans to either own people with differently hued skin, or to kill them with impunity. The slavery supporters had packed the Supreme Court with their supporters, and the compromises over the admissions of MIssouri and Kansas to the union were fraught because the slave states saw they were in danger of being outnumberedand thus losing their hold on the government.
And now this illegitimate body currently sitting on our highest court–deciding law for a majority even though most of them were appointed by presidents who didn’t win the popular vote–has started legislating from the bench under the guiding conservative principle that “it’s for each state to decide”–abortion rights, same sex marriage, racial equality, etc.
Because that worked so well with slavery?
The entire point of a federal, centralized government is to have the final say on law and rights; the Constitution also makes it very clear that the laws of one state should be honored by the others. But the framers of the Constitution also knew that there would be times when one state’s laws would come into conflict with another’s, and the federal government would have to decide which law was Constitutional–as they both might or might not be; but the idea was the law that restricted or prohibited rights more would be the one thrown out. This balancing act, naturally, was already in trouble because of slavery; a free state could not be forced to recognize the property rights laws of a slave state, and a slave state would never recognize the laws of a free state that outlawed slavery outright. The conflict and battle between states’ rights and the Federal government was baked into the document from the beginning, because the Southern states refused to give up their right to own people in a nation that was predicated on freedom and equality of all men.
The notion that a state like Texas could criminalize abortion (or anything) to the extent they have, and that they expect pro-choice states to not only comply with their laws but turn over documents and accused violators of said law is just the Fugitive Slave Act all over again: conservative states are all about federalism when it comes to enforcing their own laws…but will scream “States’ rights!” to protect their own.
The cognitive dissonance it must require to be a conservative astounds me sometimes.
I’ve spent most of my life with my sex life making me a criminal in almost every state in which I lived. Lawrence v. Texas guaranteed that the government had no right to tell me who I could sleep with and what I could do in my bedroom with that consenting adult. I remember the day that decision came down; it was something I never thought I would see in my own lifetime. One of the things I was trying to recapture (am trying to recapture, really) in “Never Kiss a Stranger” is that sense of criminality; of how it felt to be a sexual outlaw; how every time you went into a gay bar you knew there was a chance the place would be raided by the police–or that every time you left a gay bar you were in danger from the police until you made it safely home. It wasn’t something conscious you’d think about back in those days, but it was always there in the back of your mind. Gay bars inevitably (with the exception of the French Quarter in New Orleans, the Castro on San Francisco, West Hollywood, and the village, among others) were in a sketchy part of town, and often they were own by the Mob for money-laundering purposes. The marriage between the gay bars and the Mob was an uneasy one, of course–a marriage of convenience. The Mob needed to launder their money, bars are an excellent way to do so, and the Mob could also pay off the cops to prevent raids–a corruption-go-round, if you will. (Gay bar raids inevitably wound up being extortion for corrupt cops to get more bribe money from the mob…this weird marriage between criminals–gay men and the Mob–is something I want to explore in fiction more. And the police, for the record, have never been friends or allies to my community; quite the obverse, in fact.)
I should make a note to reread this next year on the 4th of July. Will things be better or worse? My money’s on worse.
And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines.
Thursday and my last day in the office this week. Huzzah! Which means I do not have to get up at six tomorrow morning, which is lovely, and next week my work at home day is Monday, so I don’t have to be back in the office until Tuesday, which is kind of nice. I need to do a couple of errands tomorrow–brake tag and wash the car–but I am also kind of hoping against hope that I can make it to the gym tomorrow in the early evening as well. I hate that the first thing to go out the window whenever I am overwhelmed with work are the two things I enjoy most in life and are, really, things that are just for me: working out and writing.
I entered #shedeservedit for the Thriller Award for Best Children’s/Young Adult this week; I am not sure if there’s any point, really, but you cannot complain about queer books not making award shortlists if you don’t enter your own and encourage every other queer writer to do so as well. I am also entering it for the Edgars. Dream big, Gregalicious.
I have to admit I’ve not really been promoting #shedeservedit the way I should be, and I am not entirely sure why that is. Every step of the way of writing that book I was worried about whether I was the right person to tell that story or not…something I would have never even thought about ten years ago. I still don’t think I would have been the right person to tell the story had the main pov character been a girl; making it a guy, seeing everything that was going on in Liberty Center from a male teenager who is also on the football team, for me, made it more palatable–and it’s not just the story of the toxic masculinity and the rape culture permeating the town of Liberty Center: there’s a whole lot of just plain wrong going on in that town, and my main character, Alex, was affected and damaged by all of it, even as (sometimes) merely a witness to the shenanigans. Everything has a ripple effect, after all. But at the same time, the book has a content warning–which, I am ashamed to admit, never crossed my mind that it would need when I was writing it. How would a young woman who has experienced this, or knows someone who has, react to reading this story? That thought also kind of made me pull back a bit from the promotional stuff. Even with a content warning, is what happens in the book–even though it’s all already happened, and is seen only through flashbacks–going to be too difficult for a young woman (or a young man, for that matter) who has experienced something similar to read? The book has been out in the world now for over five months, it has a four and a half star rating on Amazon (I will not look at Goodreads, and no one can make me go to that barren hellscape for authors)…but at the same time there hasn’t been any pushback thus far on the book–which also doesn’t mean it won’t eventually happen, either.
But this week, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed (I honestly don’t know why I do this. Sometimes I have fun joking around with my friends there, and I’ve seen posts about books that I went on to read and enjoy, but for far too large a percentage of the time I have to step away from it in revulsion when I see how truly terrible so many people are willing to be behind the anonymity of a computer screen, a cartoon avatar, and a fake name…and how many more are unashamed to reveal their monstrous true selves with their actual names and images proudly on display for everyone to see) and I came across a piece from The Cut, which is a part of New York magazine and Vulture and I am not sure what all other websites and so forth are involved in that tangled mess of on-line and print publications. It purported to be about a high school teenager who “made a mistake” and “got canceled by his school.”
Ah, another story about the evils of cancel culture, I thought to myself, should I bother?
What makes the entire thing worse, in my opinion, is of course they assigned this piece to a woman. There’s a reason why men accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault will inevitably hire a female defense attorney–it subliminally communicates to the jury would a woman defend this person if he were a rapist? No woman would take on such a case! But when I was doing my research for #shedeservedit, one of the things I noted was how many women didn’t believe the girls, how many of their peers didn’t believe the girls, and that the nastiest and most vicious critics of the victims were other women/girls. I remember reading about Brock Turner’s mother, weeping and sobbing about how her son’s life was being ruined (implied: by that drunk slut!); the former girlfriend who wrote a character reference letter for him to the judge, and on and on. (I always wonder–as I did with Brock Turner–does he have any sisters or female first cousins? What do they think about this?)
Anyway, the author of this piece–whose sympathies are entirely with this boy whose only regret for sharing nude pictures of his girlfriend with his friends (when he was “drunk,” because I guess that makes it okay) is that he was shunned by his entire high school–misses the lede in this article so many times. She is so desperate to make us all feel bad for this kid for being made to feel the absolute least amount of consequence possible for his actions that she misses that the girls at this school felt so betrayed and dismissed by the system–which is supposed to protect them–that they took action on their own. That is the story here–what the students had to step up to do because THE ADULTS and the SCHOOL SYSTEM failed them.
But no, we get another “oh this poor boy”. (Who went to four proms and is leaving for college in the fall, where none of this will follow him.) By a woman writer who, per Wikipedia, has teenaged daughters of their own. How must THEY feel when reading their mother’s latest work?
Not even ten years ago the victims in Steubenville and Marysville were the ones shunned; not the guys who got them wasted and took advantage of them. (At least the Steubenville victim got some justice, as two of the boys were convicted; the poor girl in Marysville got nothing but slut-shamed and eventually she committed suicide.)
My original inspiration for writing this book honestly came back in the early 1990’s. Remember the Spur Posse at Lakewood High School? (No less an august literary figure than Joan Didion herself wrote about the Spur Posse, in her New Yorker piece “Trouble in Lakewood.”) I thought I had read about the Spur Posse in Rolling Stone–which, let’s face it, I was more likely to read at the time than the New Yorker–and was completely appalled…I sat down and started writing an idea for a book based on it, where the girls of the school, getting nowhere with the police and the school administration and so forth, become ‘avenging angels’ to publicly shame and embarrass the boys…and then they start dying. I wrote a couple of chapters, created some characters, and titled it When Stallions Die (stallions, obviously, a stand-in for Spur Posse); I always meant to swing back around to it at some point because it was an interesting idea (if you agree, you should read Lisa Lutz’ brilliant The Swallows from a few years’ back) and I still might–one never knows. But it was the Spur Posse situation that made me start thinking–long and hard–about sexual assault and sexual misconduct, victim-blaming and slut-shaming, and the weird need that some women have to protect men at any cost: “boys will be boys,” “any red-blooded American boy”…”locker room talk.”
And since I had been wanting to write a Kansas book, and had been playing around with a story for a small city in Kansas, its teens, and its high school football team, #shedeservedit kind of evolved from there.
I don’t know why I am so reluctant and/or nervous to promote the book. It was a deeply personal book for me to write (as was Bury Me in Shadows), and yes, I put a lot of my teenaged self into that book–not the surface Greg everyone saw and knew, but the interior Greg, the one who was so deeply miserable and unhappy and alone on the inside.
Wow, this rambled on for a lot longer than I expected it to! That article clearly pissed me off, did it not?
And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines.