Take Me Home

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

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

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

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

Here’s hoping.

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

the favorite sister

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, back to the spice mines.

Tonight She Comes

Reality television.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Private Dancer

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

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

Oh, the pearl-clutching.

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

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

I am frequently my own worst enemy.

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

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

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

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Time Has Come Today

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

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

luckiest girl alive

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

I inspected the knife in my hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottle of Wine

Oxford, Mississippi is a beautiful little town. I arrived here yesterday afternoon–the drive didn’t leave me nearly as exhausted as the one to Montgomery did, even though it was longer; I suspect it was because I worked late the night before doing bar testing so was already tired. I checked into the Inn at Ole Miss, and then went foraging for dinner as well as exploring.  I had a lovely dinner at City Grocery; shrimp and grits, similar to the dish I make but slightly better–but I also was able to spot the spice differences, as well as the obvious addition of sautéed mushrooms, so the next time I make it I am going to make those alterations and see if it turns out the same way. I washed it down with a lovely glass of a Napa Chardonnay, and then wandered back down to the Inn, taking lots of pictures and getting all kinds of inspirations and ideas for a campus crime novel.I am not sure what the situation here is as far as campus crime, but I am making notes and a file, and perhaps some other time I can come up for a few extra days, talk to some more people, do some research and figure out how to get the story whipped into shape.

I also finished reading Jessica Knoll’s sublime Luckiest Girl Alive, which was absolutely amazing, and I intend to discuss that wonderful novel in more depth once I am home and at a computer rather than writing this on an app on the iPad (don’t get me wrong, this is very cool, and this is the first trip I’ve taken where I’ve not brought the laptop–and I will most likely never bring it again, as the iPad basically can replace it completely, and it weighs significantly less. I also started reading Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman, which I am enjoying and focuses on two women who have always fascinated me: Cleopatra’s sisters, Berenice and Arsinoe, and whom I myself have always wanted to write about.

My panel is this afternoon at four; they are picking me up at 3:30 in front of the Inn and I am really not certain what the discussion is going to be about. It’s a month-long event called the Radical South, a counter-event to Confederate History Month (in a moment of irony, I am here at a counter-event to Confederate History MOnth while the Confederate monuments in New Orleans are being taken down; which is also a subject for another time as I have very strong feelings about that myself) and after that I am being taken out to dinner. Tomorrow I intend to rise early, avail myself of the complimentary breakfast here at the Inn (it was sublime this morning), and then check-out and head home, as I have to work tomorrow night. But that also gets me a short day on Thursday, which is also lovely.

The weather is also sublime; rather cool for late April, but not humid, which is always a plus.

And now, I am going back to the spice mines.IMG_1725

 

I Say a Little Prayer

Today I venture north to Oxford, Mississippi, home to one of my literary heroes, William Faulkner, and also home to Ole Miss, aka the University of Mississippi. This isn’t going to be a quick ‘in-and-out’ like Montgomery; I am spending two nights there (the event is tomorrow night) and will drive back down to New Orleans on Wednesday. I have to work later that evening, which is daunting and will make for a long, exhausting day, but I feel like I will sleep rather well that Wednesday night, if for no other reason than pure exhaustion. I am feeling rested this morning, but not quite awake; I am going to continue with coffee-swilling before I shave and shower and depart. I am already packed; all I have left to do is put the current book I’m reading (Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll) and my iPad into my bag. I believe the event is tomorrow evening, so I will have all day to explore Oxford. I will be taking the camera with me, and I plan on making a pilgrimage, at the very least, to Faulkner’s home. (In an aside, sometimes when I mention that Faulkner is one of my literary heroes I get mocked, or get called pretentious; but I truly enjoy reading Faulkner. He isn’t easy to read, or follow, but the language! The way he builds the story! I still think The Sound and the Fury is the greatest American novel, no matter what–but I have been thinking lately I should, as an adult and more mature reader, give both Hemingway and Fitzgerald another try.)

I did finish reading Thirteen Reasons Why yesterday afternoon, and no, it didn’t end in the same was as the television series, and yes, it’s ending was just as dissatisfying to me, although it made sense. The book makes no judgments of the characters, including Clay, although the relationship between Clay and Hannah wasn’t as developed or as evolved in the show; I didn’t get a sense of why Clay would care as much as he did from the novel. But it was a fun read, and let’s face it–as I said on the panel Saturday, what could be more noir than high school? All of my young adult fiction, frankly, is based on that principle.

We also finished Feud last night, along with the rest of the country, and Jessica Lange was absolutely heartbreaking. Sarandon really was great as Bette Davis, but for some reason, I just think Lange was better as Crawford. The whole cast was terrific, really, and it was horrible what happened to both women as they aged, how the industry turned their back on them, what it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood–and how that hasn’t, really, changed. Ryan Murphy is an interesting writer/producer. American Horror Story seems to go off the rails every season; I never got past the second episode of Scream Queens; and I never watched Nip/Tuck–but really enjoyed Popular. But with American Crime Story and Feud he’s done an extraordinary job; but then again, in both instances he didn’t have to really come up with a plot or an ending to the story he was telling: both were based in reality. I also am terrified of his Hurricane Katrina season of American Crime Story. It could be terrible, absolutely terrible; all I can do is hope that filming in New Orleans–as he did with American Horror Story–made him fall in love with the city the way Jessica Lange did (she now lives here).

Obviously, I’ve not written a word since I left for Montgomery on Friday (other than here), and hope I’ll have both the time and the energy while in Oxford.

And now, back to the spice mines.6f72d89ae05ea0959513f24176fd12e5