Who’s Zoomin’ Who

And Chapter Twelve of Royal Street Reveillon is coming along nicely. The draft isn’t terrific–there are holes in the plot that will need to be plugged, and scenes missing, etc.–but it’s moving along. I am actually thinking this could wind up being twenty-five chapters long, making it one of the longest Scottys ever.

Then again, it’s been a while since there’s been a Scotty, hasn’t it?

Paul’s birthday is this weekend, too–it’s actually tomorrow–so that will probably interfere with my plans to get a lot of work done this weekend, but that’s fine. I would prefer to get back on schedule with both the book and the short story collection–and I have another short story to write, as well, for an anthology I’ve been asked to submit to–and of course, as always on Friday morning, the house is an utter disaster area. How does this happen every week? I try to keep up with it, I really do, and yet here I sit this morning in a disaster area, with files and paper and mail piled up everywhere I can see, the sink full of dirty dishes, and a load of laundry needing to be folded. Heavy heaving sigh.

But today is my short day at work, so i can get some of this done before I head in to the office, and hopefully I’ll be able to get some of the cleaning done tonight after work so I can focus on the writing/editing I need to do this weekend.

One can dream, I suppose.

I read two short stories for the Short Story Project as well.

First up is “Sleeping Dog” by Ross Macdonald, from The Archer Files:

The day after her dog disappeared, Fay Hooper called me early. Her normal voice was like waltzing violins, but this morning the violins were out of tune. She sounded as though she’d been crying.

“Otto’s gone.” Otto was her one-year-old German Shepherd. “He jumped the fence yesterday afternoon and ran away. Or else he was kidnapped–dognapped, I suppose is the right word to use.”

“What makes you think that?”

I am very sad to report that with “Sleeping Dog” I finished The Archer Files; the only things left in the book are short story fragments, which I may read, just for the hell of it and to see how those fragments might have been incorporated into other stories or novels of MacDonald’s; God knows I’ve done this any number of times myself. (The most recent example of this is my story “The Silky Veils of Ardor,” which is the story I recently revised from editorial notes and sent in earlier this week. It started as a story called “Death and the Handmaidens,” which no one would publish. I liked the story structure–in which a woman comes to a gathering of people she usually doesn’t see; in the original story it was a writer’s conference hotel bar. However, I took that character and that setting and turned it into a 25 year high school reunion weekend, rather than a writer’s conference, and even used the hotel bar setting. It worked, I have to say, much better in the newer version. I am, however, going to use the title “Death and the Handmaidens”, and the basic premise behind the original story to revise it yet again. I am far too stubborn to ever let something go, as we all know.) “Sleeping Dog” breaks the cardinal rule of crime fiction: never kill a dog or a cat. But the missing dog is the thread that leads to the solving of an old murder, and the disappearance of the dog also sets into motion events that lead to yet another murder in the present day. Terrific story, dead dog aside, and I am rather sad to say goodbye to The Archer Files.

Next up was “Wall Street Rodeo” by Angela Zeman, from the MWA anthology Manhattan Mayhem, edited by Mary Higgins Clark.

“Mr. Emil Bauer, I’d hope to see here. Especially today.”

I had rubbed against a hunchback this noon. Accidentally, of course. I’d never be so crass as to touch the poor fellow on purpose. Besides, everyone knows the luck comes from an accidental touch. Thus, you understand my excitement. Then I positively tripped over little James here, who dropped his five-dollar bill right in my path! Don’t tell ME that’s not luck! So, I hustled him and his cash right here. To Emil’s spot. “Please meet my friend, newly minted, you might say, heh, in this neightborhood.” I flourished my hand toward the child. “Mr. James Conner.”

Emil glanced fuzzily at the boy. “How old is it?”

This is a fine story, about a long ago crime and a hidden cache of stolen money, and it takes a roundabout way to get to the point, but it’s kind of clever in how it dodges and feints and fools the reader. It’s not one of the stronger stories in Manhattan Mayhem, but in fairness, some of these stories are so fantastic it would be hard to compete with them.

And now back to the spice mines.

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All Through the Night

Well, I finished an incredibly difficult chapter of the Scotty book last night, and can now move on to the rest of the story. I despise transitional chapters, and this one was particularly painfully hard; it’s why I initially set the manuscript aside to begin with all those weeks ago. But now I am full on into the investigation, and things can really start happening now; the red herrings and the incredible confusion. This book is going to probably wind up having a plot as convulated and confusing as Mardi Gras Mambo was, and I do consider that to be, in fact, a very good thing. I am feeling very ambitious as I return to tackling this manuscript, and it’s been quite a while since I have felt that way.

And, now that I reflect on it, to not feel ambitious as one embarks on a search for a possible agent is quite possibly the stupidest mentality one can have for such a thing; if for no other reason that one is already defeated in spirit. It is so easy to give up, it is so incredibly easy to be defeated in spirit as one pursues a career in writing, that one has to grasp onto ambition with both hands and squeeze the very life out of it. I’m not sure when or where or why I allowed my ambition to fall to the wayside, but not only was it gone but I didn’t miss it. Which is a very strange thing to admit to; but ultimately not surprising. Ambition is one of those traits I was raised to believe was unseemly, unpleasant, and unattractive. I still struggle, to this day, with taking pride in achievements; to accepting compliments without prevaricating or being self-deprecatory in response. Sometimes I hear myself responding to a compliment and hear a tiny, desperate voice wailing from deep within the recesses of my own mind, just accept the fucking compliment.

And how many times has this self-doubt, this insecurity, this self-defeating mentality stopped me from reaching for something I wanted? Stopped me from attempting to write something outside of my comfort zone, something I want desperately to try? Far too many times, I have to admit, much as it pains me to do so.

Confidence is such a funny thing, isn’t it? Even the word–which I use to mean belief in yourself–had another meaning; con comes from confidence…con man is a confidence man; likewise,  a con artist is a confidence artist.

So is confidence, self-confidence, the art of deluding yourself, conning yourself into a belief that you have more value than you actually do, perhaps?

Although I must say, wrestling that chapter into submission–no matter how bad the writing may be, no matter how bad the chapter might be–has certainly made me feel a lot more confidence in myself; because of course there was the fear that I’d never be able to get this chapter done, that the book would stall out, that I would fail.

But I did it. I worked through it, and I already know how the next chapter is going to go.

And that’s a good thing.

I also read some short stories. First up is “Serial Benefactor” by Jon L. Breen, from Manhattan Mayhem, a Mystery Writers of America anthology edited by Mary Higgins Clark.

To start with, I’m a centenarian, Sebastian Grady by name, and still fully marbled. My current address is Plantain Point, a retirement home on the California coast with a lot of residents from the entertainment world. To give you an idea, the president of our association is called the Top Banana, though most of the vaudevillians have died off.

As you can imagine, I’ve seen many younger generations come of age, and the current lot don’t seem too anxious to make the transition to adulthood. Don’t ask me if I blame them.

Evan is my favorite great-granddaughter.

This story is very clever, and I enjoyed it very much. It concerns a series of murders back in the post-war era; with all the victims being associated with the theater in some way, and all being pains in the ass to everyone who’s ever had to deal with them. There is a conversation at a cocktail/dinner party, and shortly thereafter people start dying. Clues are planted in the newspaper–lines from songs from musicals–and the killer is never caught. Sebastian poses the story to his great-granddaughter Evan to see if she can figure out the clues and how they relate to the murder victims. Sebastian has his own theory about the murders…and while we never are certain who the killer is, we do get a pretty good idea. And there’s a LOVELY twist at the end.

Next up was  “The Blackbird” by Peter Robinson, from Crime Plus Music, edited by Jim Fusilli:

It ended with a head floating down the river. Or is that where it began? You could never be certain with the Blackbird. I should know. I’ve known him for years, and I was with him until the end. Well, almost.

His real name was Tony Foster, and once, quite early in our relationship, I asked him how he had acquired his nickname. Tony drew on his cigarette in that way of his, cupping it in his palm like a soldier in the trenches, as if he believed it would be bad luck to let anyone see the glow. He turned his blue eyes towards me, a hint of a smile lighting them for a moment, then he looked away and told me it came about when he was a teenager growing up in a rundown council estate in the mid-sixties.

This isn’t necessarily a crime story, although there is a crime in it; the crime is how the story ends, but the story isn’t about the commission of the crime or the solving of the crime, but I suppose it is sort of about how the crime effects the narrator of the story. It’s really a sad, bleak tale that leaves the reader full of melancholy when it’s finished; it’s beautifully written and terribly sad. Well done, Mr. Robinson, well done.

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Raspberry Beret

I am afraid that the last two short stories I am writing, “Once a Tiger” and “Don’t Look Down,” have stalled for the moment. “Once a Tiger” I just need to step away from for a moment; I am definitely having some issues with that story, and it’s just getting harder. I did start it over yesterday, and do think the changes I made to the beginning make the story stronger, but…yeah, not really sure how to not only end it, but how to get it there. So, I am going to let it sit for a while before getting back to it.

Likewise, “Don’t Look Down”, previously known as the Italy story, isn’t so much that I don’t know how to end it; I do. I really need to go back to the beginning of it and start it over; I didn’t know the ending when I started writing and now that I actually do, I need to go back to the start and weave that story into it. But I opened the file yesterday, looked at it for a hot minute, and then went, not feeling this right now, and closed it again. So, rather than writing anything new, I decided to start editing and rewriting other stories. I also did something that a friend of mine does; I read them out loud to make sure the sentences spoke properly. I do not do that nearly enough, and I found a lot of mistakes in the wording, and I also found a lot of mistakes in the stories that needed correcting. One still needs some more work, but the others are close to being ready for submission. Whether there’s an audience for them or not remains to be seen…because, you see, two of the stories have gay characters.

One of the major problems one faces as a gay author is how limiting writing about gay characters, plots, and themes can be. Yes, we need to tell our stories, but when they are short stories–there’s not really a market for them anywhere. And when you send them to mainstream markets…you’re never sure if they are simply going to be rejected because, you know, gay characters, or if the rejection is because the story’s just not up to snuff. I fucking hate that. Part of the bipolarity of being a gay writer is just that; is my work not good, or is it the gay thing?

But as I was editing the stories and reading them out loud last night, I actually started thinking, you know, you’re actually pretty good at this writing thing. Last year was kind of a bad year for me; it started off with my confidence in my abilities as a writer being shaken to their very core–and let’s be honest, that confidence level has never been particularly high. My parents raised me to always be humble, to never accept compliments without being self-deprecating, to never talk about being good at anything: “if you are, let other people point this out.” As such, the promotional part of being a writer, of having a writing career, has always been difficult for me. Teaching classes about writing has always made me feel like an impostor, always waiting for someone in the back of the room to stand up and scream fraud!

But part of the goals for this year are to stop doubting myself, to stop doubting my abilities, and to believe in myself more. I always tell other writers that rejections don’t necessarily mean you suck, all it means is for whatever reason your work wasn’t right for that editor–as a former editor and an anthologist, I am very well aware that can mean any number of different things, none of which are you suck.

I don’t know why, but reading those stories out loud did something for me, made me recognize that I can, in fact, do this.

And I think the smart thing to do from now on is read my work out loud while editing it.

Thank you, Laura Lippman, for that brilliant advice.

As for the Short Story Project, first up today is  “After Georgia O’Keeffe’s Flower,” by Gail Levin, from Alive in Shape and Color,   Lawrence Block’s anthology I am absolutely loving.

I am so excited that Georgia O’Keeffe has finally agreed to meet with me! Getting her to come around wasn’t easy. At first she wouldn’t even reply to my letters. I kept at it. You know, persisted. Finally I reached her secretary on the phone. When I did get word from O’Keeffe, she complained there had been too many interviewers over the years. When I asked, she admitted that most of them were male journalists.

This story kind of threw me for a loop; it’s really not a crime story at all. It’s about a young feminist art historian meeting one of her idols, and finding that the idol isn’t what she imagined her to be. It’s a poignant story, and one I can certainly relate to: is there anything worse than meeting someone whose work you adore and then discovering that person is nothing like you imagined? That somehow disappoints you, and then you can never enjoy or view their work in the same way again? A really good, thought-provoking story.

Next up is “The Day After Victory,” by Brendan DuBois, from Manhattan Mayhem, edited by Mary Higgins Clark.

It was seven a.m. in Times Square, New York, on Wednesday, August 15, when Leon Foss slowly maneuvered the trash cart–with its huge wheels and two brooms–along the sidewalk near the intersection of Seventh Avenue and West Forty-sixth Street, shaking his head at the sheer amount of trash that was facing him, and the other street sweepers from the Department of Sanitation. He had on the usual “white angel” uniform of white slacks, jacket, and cap–which was stiff and felt new–and never had he seen so much trash. It was almost up to his knees.

Brendan DuBois is one of our genre’s top short-story writers, and his novels are pretty damned good as well. This story, set the day after V-J Day in 1945, is incredibly clever. DuBois gets the period right; I actually felt like I was there on the street with his protagonist that day, and the character is so beautifully drawn that everything he does makes complete and utter sense. He tackles something that I’ve not seen much in WW2 fiction, frankly; how were people who got out of serving viewed? Great, great story; and I would love to see it paired with Joe R. Lansdale’s “Charlie the Barber,” which I talked about earlier this week.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Missing You

Sunday morning, and after a glorious night’s sleep I am wide awake this morning and pretty ready to give the day my best shot. The Lost Apartment needs to be cleaned, as always, and I am wanting to do some writing/editing today as well. I am going to go to the gym later today–it is my experience that going earlier wears me out, despite the endorphin high, with the end result I often don’t get any writing done. I want to work on revising and polishing a story to get it out of my hair–early submission, since the deadline is a long way’s off–and the same with another. I also want to get that Chanse story–the first one–revised and sent off somewhere as well; and in addition to all that revising I want to work on the Italy story.

My work, as it were, is cut out for me today, is it not? I’ll also probably finish watching season 2 of Versailles as well this evening.

Yesterday I got my contacts ordered and did some shopping at Target, which was lovely. I also went car shopping with a friend; he needed a ride and I took him out there. I merely sat there and read short stories from Sue Grafton’s Kinsey and Me; I finished all the Kinsey short stories yesterday, and read some others as well. I was, frankly, worn out by the time I got home but managed to finish the laundry somehow, despite being so tired; I also watched several episodes of Versailles before finally retiring for the evening once the laundry was finished. Paul moves into the hotel this Wednesday; tomorrow morning I am touring the FBI offices in New Orleans with the local Sisters in Crime chapter, and then Tuesday is my usual long day. Then of course the festivals kick into gear, and the rest of the week/weekend is utter and complete madness.

There’s also some filing needing to be done, as always. I’ve also renamed both the Italy story and the Chanse story–the Chanse title, “Glory Days”, only worked if it were his high school reunion, which I dropped from the story–and I think the new title of the Italy story is better.

Here are two of the short stories I read yesterday”

First up is “Trapped! A Mystery in One Act” by Ben H. Winters, from Manhattan Mayhem, edited by Mary Higgins Clark.

Setting

Studio L, an unremarkable rehearsal studio in a warren of unremarkable rehearsal studios, collectively known as the Meyers-Pittman Studio Complex, located on the sixteenth floor of a tall nondescript building in Chelsea, a couple blocks south and one long avenue over from Port Authority. The walls are mirrored; the floor is marked with tape; tables and chairs are clustered to represent the location of furniture on the real set.

Downstage right is a props table, laden with all manner of weaponry. The play in rehearsal is the Broadway thriller “Deathtrap” by Ira Levin, and the table displays the full range of weaponry called for in that show, viz., “a collection of guns, handcuffs, maces, broadswords, and battle-axes.”

This is an incredibly interesting twist on the short story; it’s actually a short story written in play form, and it’s also an homage to the classic thrilled play Deathtrap by Ira Levin. The play was an enormous hit on Broadway, and featured the wonderful Marian Seldes in a supporting role; she set a record for most consecutive performances by one actor in this play. Ira Levin is also one of my favorite writers. Deathtrap was made into a film; not as successfully as the play, alas; the film starred Michael Caine, a young post-Superman Christopher Reeve, and Dyan Cannon. What makes this story/play so clever is it’s a play on Deathtrap; which is a play about a play which basically tells the same story of the play–and this is a play about a murder during a production of a play about a play; complete with the requisite twists and so forth. Winters is an Edgar-winning author (for The Last Policeman), and one of my favorite novels of the last few years, Underground Airlines. if you’re not familiar with Winters, you should make yourself so. I loved this; clever clever clever.

It also reminded me of a crime short story I wanted to write about the production of a play. *makes note*

Next up is  “Fat” by Raymond Carver, from the collection Will You Please Be Quiet Please?

I am sitting over coffee and cigarets at my friend Rita’s and I am telling her about it.

Here is what I tell her.

It is late of a slow Wednesday when Herb seats the fat man at my station.

This fat man is the fattest person I have ever seen, though he is neat-appearing and well dressed enough. Everything about him is big. But it is the fingers I remember best. When I stop at the table near his to see the old couple, I first notice the fingers. They look three times the size of a normal person’s fingers–long, thick, creamy fingers.

When I talked about Barry Hannah several weeks ago, I mentioned that the other writer my professor in my second attempt at taking Creative Writing wanted us to read, whose glory we should bask in, was Raymond Carver. The only texts for the course were Airships by Barry Hannah and Will You Please Be Quiet Please? by Carver. We read two stories before starting on our short stories; I was unimpressed with both writers. Several years ago I decided to repurchase the collections and try them again (I’ll talk about Hannah another time) thinking that perhaps now, as a more mature adult and reader, I might appreciate them more. It wasn’t the case with Hannah, and it certainly isn’t the case with Carver, either.

I am not sure what the point of this story is; waitress waits on a large gentleman, everyone else on staff is mean and cruel about him whereas she is fascinated in him in some way; it’s rather oblique in its meaning, and in its ending; when she says she feels like her life has changed in some way, why? Why did this man have such an effect on her? It isn’t clear and maybe that’s the intent; is it the recognition of the casual cruelty of her co-workers and her boyfriend? Why is she so fascinated by this customer and how much he eats?

It’s a very small story, and rather intimate; I like the way Carver does his writing and tells his story, yet I fail to see the genius here in the actual story itself. I learn nothing about the waitress, not do we learn anything, really, about her customer other than he is polite, well put together, and enormous. Is it about the waitress seeing, and disliking, the casual cruelty of her co-workers and her lover, seeing them in a different way in their inability to see her customer as anything other than enormously fat, that his size somehow strips him of his humanity? Is that what Carver’s intent is, to be so vague and uninvolved with the story that it’s left to our interpretation? I honestly don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t care. I don’t care about this waitress. I don’t care about her friends. The authorial distance just doesn’t work for me. I’ll keep reading his stories, though–I read “Neighbors” for the class, and I remember it fondly–although it didn’t drive me to read more of Carver’s work.

I suppose this is why I am not a literary writer, and could never be one; my purpose is writing a story is to not only to tell the story but to make the reader understand the characters, get to know them, and hopefully empathize with them; to make, in the case of anything I write, to make the inexplicable explicable. I don’t get that from either Carver or Hannah, to be honest. Ah, well.

And now, back to spice-mining.

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Never Surrender

’tis Wednesday already; the week is already half over. Next week is the combination Tennessee Williams Festival/Saints and Sinners weekend (AIEEEEE!), which is going to be, literally, insane. But I can hang; it’ll be lovely seeing everyone, but I can’t believe it has come up upon us all again so suddenly. It’s like I wasn’t paying any attention and the next thing you know, BOOM, there it is.

As I continue to work on this plethora of short stories (I started ANOTHER fucking one yesterday), I am, however, pleased to announce that one of the ones I’ve done since the beginning of the year will be appearing in the anthology Murder-a-Go-Go’s. The book’s theme is crime stories inspired by songs of the Go-Go’s, and will be edited by the amazing Holly West, and published by the crew at Down and Out Books. My story was inspired by the song “This Town” and is also, coincidentally enough, titled “This Town.”

Our IDs were fake, but no one seemed to care. Even when a burly bouncer asked to see them, bare meaty arms adorned with tattoos, bored eyes flicking over the laminate before waving us inside. Celia was right about that, like she was right about everything. She could always find someone with coke to share or sell, or who was happy to share their blunt with us. She was a golden girl, the kind I used to think only existed in books or movies, the girl that’s too perfect to exist, the one every other girl wants to be friends with, wants to be. The one all the guys notice first, their eyes wide open and their jaws gone slack.

 She always had the trendiest new make-up, the first to try out a daring new look we were too cowardly to try but quick to copy, always the first, the one everyone else imitated. She seemed to glow from inside, drawing everyone’s eyes to her effortlessly, and she somehow managed to always look perfect, even when she was drunk, even after dancing for hours when our make-up was running down our cheeks and perspiration dampened our armpits. Her skirts were just the tiniest bit shorter than everyone else’s, her tops seemed to fit her in a way they didn’t fit anyone else, her hair thicker and shinier and bouncier. She pulled in guys like night insects to a white light, caught up in her magic, wanting her. They only noticed the rest of us once she’d turned her attention elsewhere. We didn’t mind taking second place to her because it seemed like the natural order of things. She always knew the right thing to say—whether kind or insulting—and we all gravitated to her, wanting to be her friends, to be her. She was our pledge class president, organized, efficient, determined we be the best pledge class our Omega Psi chapter had ever seen. Even the sisters seemed to be a little in awe of her, grateful she’d picked Omega Psi out of all the offers she’d had—every sorority had offered her a bid, I’d overheard one sister telling another at Monday night dinner, her voice awed as she went on to say that had never happened in the history of the Greek system at Tulane.

And she made us all feel special, whispering “Sisters” to us as we hooked our pinkie fingers and whispered the word back to her, committing to a lifelong bond with her.

I am so glad they liked this story, because I loved it. It’s soooo dark. When I was going through Go-Go’s lyrics to choose a song, I was really surprised; I knew all the songs by heart–if I heard one I can sing every word–and danced like crazy to them, always thought they were these upbeat cheerful songs…and then yikes! Reading the lyrics without hearing the music? JFC, are these songs dark. I mean, check out this verse from “This Town”:

Change the lines that were said before 
We’re all dreamers – we’re all whores 
Discarded stars 
Like worn out cars 
Litter the streets of this town 
Litter the streets of this town

I mean, we’re all dreamers – we’re all whores? As soon as I read that line, the story just jumped into my head; a group of girlfriends, on Fat Tuesday,  wandering around in the Quarter getting wasted…and then the first line of the story popped into my head: Our ID’s were fake but no one seemed to care. That was how it started, and the next thing I knew I had over four thousand words and a very rough first draft.

I love when that happens. And the editor liked it! YAY! Huzzah for good news! It gives me hope for these other short stories I’m writing.

And I also have read some more stories for the Short Story Project. First up is “Damage Control” by Thomas H. Cook, from the MWA anthology Manhattan Mayhem.

She’d been found in the dilapidated Bronx apartment where she’d lived for the past seventeen months. It was a basement apartment and had only a couple small windows, but she’d make it darker still by drawing the curtains. It was so dim inside that the first cop to arrive had stumbled about, looking for a light switch. He’d finally found one only to discover that she’d unscrewed all the light bulbs, even the ones in the ceiling and the fluorescent ones on either side of the bathroom mirror. Neighbors later told police that they hadn’t seen a single sliver of light coming from her apartment for well over a month. It was as if the terrible capacity for destruction that I’d glimpsed in her so many years before had at last grown strong enough to consume her entirely.

This is a truly sad story; in which a man is forced to look back on a painful decision made years earlier, when his family took in a foster child to give their only child a sister. The two girls got along well at first, but the foster child became a problem child, possibly even dangerous, and for the sake of their blood daughter they gave the foster child back to the system. Now an adult, she has died, and he is having to reflect, remember, what happened all those years ago, wonder if things could have been different, if maybe he had tried a little harder maybe things wouldn’t have ended so badly for her. There’s a horrible twist at the end as well, which makes the story all the more poignant and sad; about how a life can be so easily wasted and thrown away, based on a perception that ma or may not be correct.

I then moved on to a Shirley Jackson story, from the recent collection Let Me Tell You. The story is titled “Paranoia.”

Mr. Halloran Beresford, pleasantly tired after a good day in the office, still almost clean-shaven after eight hours, his pants still neatly pressed, pleased with himself particularly for remembering, stepped out of the candy shop with a great box under his arm and started briskly for the corner. There were twenty small-size gray suits like Mr. Beresford’s on every New York block, fifty men still clean-shaven and pressed after a day in an air-cooled office, a hundred small men, perhaps, pleased with themselves for remembering their wives’ birthdays. Mr. Beresford was going to take his wife out to dinner, he decided, going to see if he could get last-minute tickets to a show, taking his wife candy. It had been an exceptionally good day, altogether, and Mr. Beresford walked along swiftly, humming musically to himself.

I absolutely, positively love love LOVE Shirley Jackson. The other night, as I was trying to decide which story to read next, I suddenly realized that I have three short story collections by one of my favorite authors and haven’t read any of them. I immediately grabbed Let Me Tell You and sat down with it. “Paranoia” is brilliant, positively brilliant; to tell you why would spoil it, and if its spoiled the effect is ruined, but it is, with every word and sentence, the perfect fictional story representation of defining the word paranoia. It reminded me, as I kept reading, of precisely why I love Jackson so much. God, what a great story!

And now, tis back to the spice mines with me.

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Oh, Sheila

Tuesday!

As February winds to a close, and March lingers there on the horizon, I can’t believe that we are nearly three months into 2018 already. I’ve done quite a bit of writing so far this year; so much so, that in fact, I’ve already written more than I did all of last year. How scary is that? The next few months are going to be a bit on the insane side for me, as I have much to write, the Williams Festival/Saints and Sinners is also coming up quickly, and many many deadlines are looming as well. Which is cool, but stressful. I’m getting a lot done, though, and I am making progress on the goals I set for the  year. I’m not as consistent with the gym and working out as I would like, but I am already on pace to have been to the gym more times this year than last already, and that watershed is coming up soon.

We started watching Altered Carbon on Netflix this week. I’ve seen a lot of people trashing the show on social media; so I didn’t have high hopes going into it, but we’re enjoying it so far. Visually it’s stunning; it sort of reminds me of Blade Runner (which I haven’t seen in over thirty years; should probably rewatch that soon). It’s kind of a cross between sci/fi and a hardboiled detective story; which is part of why I find it intriguing. I also like the lead actor, Joel Kinnaman; I enjoyed him in the American version of The Killing, and you can’t go wrong with James Purefoy. And while there is a lot of nudity, for a change it seems pretty equally distributed between males and females, and they actually show full frontal male, which is extremely unusual. The show has also intrigued me enough to go back and read the books on which the show is based; and I am relatively certain the books are most likely better than the show.

I’m a little behind on the Short Story Project, as I try to wind down the Bouchercon anthology, but I did read “Three Little Words” by Nancy Pickard, from the MWA Anthology Manhattan Mayhem.

Priscilla laughed hysterically when her doctor told her she had only a few weeks to live.

When she saw the shocked dismay on his handsome face, she waved away his worry and kept guffawing like a four-year-old who had just heard the funniest knock-knock joke on earth. And, being a preschool teacher, she knew knock-knock jokes and four-year-olds.

Nancy Pickard is one of my favorite crime writers: her stand-alones, The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning are two of my favorite crime novels of all time (both are sorely in need of a reread). I also loved her Marie Lightfoot series; Marie being a true-crime writer, so her adventures were always interspersed with excerpts from the book she was writing about the case she was looking into in the book; a book within a book, and it was terribly clever. This short story is evidence of why I enjoy Pickard’s work so much. Poor Priscilla is a wealthy young girl who’s estranged from her family; she creates a bucket list when she finds out she had little time left to live: it consists of three little words, tell the truth. And that’s what she does; she goes around telling everyone the truth, whether they want to hear it or not. Then she is murdered, but why? The story is told from the point of view of her doctor, who is also her friend, and as the story moves on, each sentence makes the plot and mystery of who murdered Priscilla and why even more complicated and layered; this story is definitely a classic.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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The ballet last night was exquisite.

I’ve seen ballets–or parts of them–on television or Youtube; and I remember, as a child, being taken to see The Nutcracker (isn’t everyone dragged to that as a child?), which I hated (interestingly enough, many things that most children love are things that I didn’t; The Nutcracker is one; The Wizard of Oz another). But as lovely and awe-inspiring as seeing ballets on Youtube or on television can be, there is nothing like being in an auditorium and watching one being performed live on the stage in front of you. I liken it to the difference between watching figure skating on television and then watching it in person; it’s very different, and you never watch it on television in quite the same way again. Romeo and Juliet is, of course, an ubiquitous story; everyone knows it, to the point that it has become almost trite and hackneyed; it’s been adapted for everything imaginable–opera, ballet, film, and of course West Side Story–but, at its heart, it is still a beautiful and sad story.

The opening sequence of the ballet reminded me so much of the opening of West Side Story that I couldn’t help wonder how much the ballet influenced the musical’s choreography, or vice versa.

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I read Romeo and Juliet when I was a sophomore in high school. I’d taken a class called Dramatic Literature; a class in which we read plays. Romeo and Juliet was paired with West Side Story (it’s also the class where I first read Tennessee Williams; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, to be exact); we even watched the films (the version of Romeo and Juliet was the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli production, with Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey with the gorgeous score by Michel Legrand). Shakespeare’s language was, to me at fourteen, a mysterious puzzle I couldn’t unlock; archaic references I didn’t understand written in verse, yet somehow beautiful in how the words were put together. At the time, I didn’t understand how two families could feud so bitterly and violently in an Italian city during the Renaissance; of course, now that I’ve read so many Italian histories (I am still greatly enjoying The Black Prince of Florence), I am more than a little surprised that the feud between Capulet and Montague was so bloodless (see the Pazzi-Medici feud, circa fifteen century).

Yet, despite the overwhelming familiarity with the story, it was impossible not to be drawn into last night’s version of it; despite there being no dialogue, no words. The entire story was, as is typical with the ballet, acted out without words and through dance. The choreographer’s choices in telling the story were quite interesting; the stage setting was incredibly minimalist, with emotions and passions being evoked through the movement of the two curved walls that served as set pieces; the long rising ramp that served as not a way to exit the stage but as Juliet’s fabled balcony; and the use of costume and lighting.

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The friar was used as a connective device throughout each scene; he was, if anything, the true star of the show, and its emotional heart. The dancer who played the role was magnificent. The ballet was a thing of beauty; I couldn’t stop marveling at how fantastic the dancers were, the exceptional shapes and lines they could form with their bodies, the almost super-human stretches and leaps and twirls and spins, the intimacy of their lifts and how they could mold their bodies around one another’s.

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It was also my first time inside the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts since Katrina; ironically, it was also the first time the Ballet des Monte-Carlo performed there since 2005. Both the outgoing and incoming mayor were there; the Honorary Consul for Monaco, and the ambassador from Monaco were all introduced and thanked from the stage.

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And yet, as a crime writer, and someone with a vested interest in group dynamics and politics, who has viewed documentaries about ballet companies, with a knowledge of human nature and interaction,I couldn’t help wondering, as the company took its well-deserved bows to a long standing ovation last night,  what turmoils and temperaments boiled beneath the surface of the linked hands and bowing bodies; what slights and grudges boiled behind the smiling faces; which members of the company were friends and which were enemies; who were lovers and friends and who were enemies and rivals, who was gay and who was straight.

I definitely want to write a ballet noir.

And here are two short stories, for the continuation of the Short Story Project.

First up is “Split Second” by Daphne du Maurier,  from the New York Review of Books collection of Don’t Look Now and Other Stories:

Mrs. Ellis was methodical and tidy. Unanswered letters, unpaid bills, the litter and rummage of a slovenly writing-desk were things she abhorred. Today, more than usual, she was in what her late husband used to call her “clearing” mood. She had wakened to this mood; it remained with her throughout the morning. Besides, it was the first of the month, and as she ripped off the page of her daily calendar and saw the bright clean 1 staring at her, it seemed to symbolize a new start tom her day.

The hours ahead of her must somehow seem untarnished like the date; she must let nothing slide.

“Split Second” is an exceptional exercise in character. Du Maurier thoroughly examines and exposes Mrs. Ellis’ character from beginning to end, and while she doesn’t go into a great amount of detail, it isn’t hard to figure out exactly whom she is from what we are told as readers. She’s a widow and her entire world revolves around her daughter, who is off at school; she decides, after a thorough cleaning of her home to go for a walk and is almost run down by the laundry truck as she walks back home. But when she gets back to her house, things are different. It is her house, but it’s no longer the house she left behind; other people are living there, her neighbors are gone–the entire world has changed and shifted as she walked home. It’s a horrifying story, even as the reader begins to glean what has actually happened long before Mrs. Ellis does; not that she ever does, even by the end of the story, and that is part of what makes it so sad, so effective, so powerful; no one has ever quite captured that elegant, melancholy sadness the way du Maurier does.

I then moved on to “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” by Lee Child,  from the Mystery Writers of America anthology, Manhattan Mayhem:

Jack Reacher got out of the R train at Twenty-Third Street and found the nearest stairwell blocked off with plastic police tape. It was striped blue and white, tied between one handrail and the other, and it was moving in the subway wind. It said: POLICE DO NOT ENTER. Which, technically, Reacher didn’t want to do anyway. He wanted to exit. Although to exit, he would need to enter the stairwell. Which was a linguistic complexity. In which context, he sympathized with the cops. They didn’t have different kinds of tape for different situations. POLICE DO NOT ENTER IN ORDER TO EXIT was not in their inventory.

Lee Child is one of the most successful writers in our genre today; everything he publishes is a New York Times best seller, and his character, Jack Reacher, is one of those ubiquitous characters that will go down in the history of the genre, like Poirot, James Bond, and Kinsey Millhone. I am years behind on Lee’s novels; but if you’ve not read Lee Child, you simply must read The Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel. It is quite superb. This story isn’t Child at his best, but Reacher the character is at his best at novel-length, with the labyrinthian plots Child somehow concocts and manages to keep track of (one of my favorite fanboy moments was having lunch with him and Alafair Burke at the Green Goddess here in New Orleans several years ago; while I just sat there wide-eyed and listened to the two of them talk about writing and publishing, praying that I didn’t have sauce running down my chin), but this story does evoke the melancholy that Child evokes in his novels; the inevitability of fate and the powerlessness of humans to counteract it once the gears are moving. I do recommend the story; there is some amazing imagery in it as well.

And on that note, I am back to the spice mines. There are bed linens to launder, and short stories to edit, and a chapter to write; it is rainy and gloomy outside my windows this morning but I am well-rested and ready to work.

Or maybe it’s just the caffeine kicking in. Who knows?