If You Leave Me Now

One of my favorite writers when I was a kid was Charlotte Armstrong.

Armstrong was astonishing, really. The first book of hers I read was The Witch’s House. My parents had allowed me to join the Mystery Guild and I, of course, one month failed to do my duty and send the order card back declining that month’s selections. It was probably one of the best mistakes I’d ever made through my instinct for procrastination; I wound up getting a three volume omnibus of Armstrong called The Charlotte Armstrong Reader, and Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie. I shelved the Christie and forgot about it until years later–when I’d started reading Christie–but The Witch’s House sounded interesting to me; it had “witch” in the title and I’ve always been drawn to witches, for some reason, and I was at the age when I was still reading my kids’ mystery series but was slowly beginning to transition to books for adults. I was enthralled by The Witch’s House, and read it very quickly, and followed it up by reading the next, Mischief, which I liked even better. But the local library didn’t have any Armstrong novels in stock–which surprises me even more now than it did then–and so I didn’t continue reading Armstrong until years later. Armstrong is one of my favorite writers, even if the books might seem a bit dated today; whenever I read another one of her novels I greatly enjoy it. Armstrong’s books were–I don’t know how to put this, but I am going to give it a try–were dark without darkness; there was always a sense of optimism in her books no matter how dark they got (there’s one particular scene in The Gift Shop that to this day rattles me when I think about it) and I do think she is overdue for a renaissance. It was the combined work of Jeffrey Marks and Sarah Weinman that reminded me of Armstrong and got me to go back and try to finish reading her canon; they also introduced me to Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar (among others).

The point is, women have always been some of the greatest writers in the crime genre, and societal and cultural sexism have gone a very long way to ensuring that the men who wrote in the same period as these ladies are now lauded as giants of the genre and must-reads, while the women–who won just as many awards and critical laurels and big sales–faded away into obscurity. Mary Higgins Clark was the bridge from these great women of the past to the modern women who write domestic suspense–and really, has there ever been a greater concept for a domestic suspense novel than Where are the Children?–but the second wave of major women crime writers primarily focused on private eye fiction (Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky).

But what the great Sarah Weinman calls “domestic suspense” never faded away; and nowadays we have some truly terrific women writing truly terrific novels in this subgenre–Lori Rader-Day, Catriona McPherson, Carol Goodman, Wendy Corsi Staub, Alafair Burke, and so many others–and it’s really become one of my absolute favorite subgenres, primarily because of the work these women are doing. It’s extraordinary; I cannot urge you enough to check out these women’s books, Constant Reader.

I could go on and on about these women and domestic suspense forever; but I’ll spare you and cut to the chase.

x510

“It was the girl.” The old man leaned forward, bracing against the worn-out armchair as though he were trying to escape its grasp. “April Cooper. She was the real killer.”

Quentin Garrison watched his face. He was very good at describing people, a skill he used all the time in his true crime podcasts. Later, recording the narration segments with his coproducer Summer Hawkins, Quentin would paint the picture for his listeners–the leathery skin, the white eyebrows wispy as cobwebs, the eyes, cerulean in 1976 but now the color of worn denim, and with so much pain bottled up behind them, as though he were constantly hovering on the brink of tears.

The man was named Reg Sharkey, and on June 20, 1976 , he’d watched his four-year-old daughter Kimmy die instantly of a gunshot wound to the chest–the youngest victim of April Cooper and Gabriel Allen LeRoy, aka the Inland Empire Killers. Two weeks later, his wife, Clara, had decided her own grief was too much to bear and committed suicide, after which Reg Sharkey had apparently given up on caring about anything or anyone.

Quentin said, “Wasn’t it LeRoy who pulled the trigger?”

Alison Gaylin has been nominated for the Edgar four times (Best First for Hide Your Eyes, Best PBO for both Into the Dark and If I Die Tonight, Best Novel for What Remains of Me)  and claimed the prize, just this past week, for If I Die Tonight. Her novels encompass a wide variety of subgenres; her first series featured an amateur sleuth; she then wrote two brilliant crime novels built around the entertainment industry; and then did the Brenna Spector trilogy: private eye novels that were, by and large, quite superb. All of her novels were superb, but once the Brenna trilogy was completed she moved on to stand-alones of psychological suspense that also crossover into the domestic suspense category; explorations of families and the dysfunction that leads to damaged people and possibly crimes. What Remains of Me was a throwback to  her earlier stand alone novels about the entertainment industry; only delving more deeply into the friendships and family relationships with the insightful eye of an artist. What Remains of Me juggled two time-lines and two murders; one committed in 1979 and another committed in the present–both linked and connected to the same woman, the same cast of characters, and the big reveal was stunning. If I Die Tonight was all set in the present day, but Gaylin’s family relationships in this novel are just as fractured and dysfunctional on every level; the concept Gaylin explored in this novel was public face private truth–the singular kernel of truth in this book being that things are so rarely what they appear to be in public, whereas the actual truth is far more complicated, far more complex, and far too often not what anyone actually wants to know.

Never Look Back also, like What Remains of Me, juggles two timelines; one in the past, which is expressed and explored through letters a teenaged girl writes to her future child, the other, a present where the aftermath of a brutal killing spree decades earlier by the teenaged girl writing the letters and the “boyfriend” who took her along for the ride; the notorious Inland Empire Killers. In the present day, a happily married gay man whose own childhood and family was actually shattered by the Inland Empire Killers, now works as an adult as a coproducer of true crime podcasts. The book opens with him confronting the father of the youngest victim of the killers–who also happens to be his grandfather, whom he doesn’t know. The interview ends badly, with bitterness and shouting and recriminations; Quentin blames his grandfather for his mother’s tragic, drug addicted, and wasted life, which in turn made his own childhood a mess. Quentin is now happily married…but driven by an obsession to get to the bottom of the killings so many decades ago.

And then comes the tip that April Cooper, the young girl writing the letters and the “Bonnie” to Gabriel LeRoy’s “Clyde”–might not have died in the fire which everyone believed killed them both; that she might actually be still alive and living in the Hudson Valley of New York.

This is a terrific premise, and Gaylin delivers in ways the reader cannot imagine as they ride the rollercoaster of suspense and emotion along with her characters. It’s an enormously satisfying read, with lots of juggled subplots and clues being left in the most casual of ways, so that the careful reader might even be able to figure out the truth long before the characters. Quentin is a terrific character, and so is Robin Diamond, the website  columnist whose mother might–or might not–hold the key to the answers Quentin is so driven to learn. The suspense and the twists are stunning, but the ending is powerful and enormously satisfying…and there’s not a single loose plot thread left behind.

Charlotte Armstrong was dubbed the Queen of Suspense by critics and reviewers during her lifetime; Alison Gaylin is a worthy heir to that title.

The book is available for preorder now; I’d advise you to do yourself a favor and preorder now. You aren’t going to want to miss this one.

Nikita

I read a terrific piece about Mary Higgins Clark the other day; about how her books are really, at the barest bone, about how women cannot even truly trust men. It’s a terrific read, and I do think everyone should read this piece–draw your own conclusions. The brilliant Sarah Weinman then tweeted the piece, positing that she considers Clark the bridge between the domestic suspense thrillers of the past (writers like Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and scores of others) to the modern day women who are killing it in the crime fiction world. On that tweet thread, someone (I think Jeff Abbott?) brought up Phyllis A. Whitney.

Now, Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my favorite writers of all time. I first read her children’s/young adult mysteries (the first being The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye, which I checked out from the library at Eli Whitney Elementary School, after which I started tearing through them. Some were available through the Scholastic Book Club, others I got from the library. I loved them all because they were always set in far off places I wanted to visit–Tiger’s Eye taught me about South Africa and apartheid; The Mystery of the Hidden Hand taught me about Greece and the black market for antiquities, etc.

My mom let me join the Mystery Guild when I was eleven, and I was very thrilled and excited to see as one of the choices, a book by Phyllis A. Whitney, Listen for the Whisperer, and I added it to my choices, filling in the little white box with the correct item number. I was also, at this same time, going through my Hollywood period, reading biographies of movie stars and producers and histories of the film industry. So, you can imagine my thrill to discover that Listen for the Whisperer also was sort of about the film industry; the main character’s biological mother, had been a major Hollywood star, even winning an Oscar, when a scandal destroyed her career; her director was murdered one night on the film set of what would ultimately be her last film, a Gothic black-and-white suspense film called The Whisperer.

It was amazing. A romance and a thriller and a murder mystery, with a lot of Hollywood background to it, it’s remained one of my favorite books of all time, and always makes any list I make of books that were important and/or formative to me.

I soon began tearing through her backlist: Thunder Heights, Seven Tears for Apollo, Blue Fire, Black Amber, Skye Cameron, The Trembling Hills, Silverhill, The Winter People, The Quicksilver Pool, Lost Island, The Moonflower, Sea Jade, Columbella, and Hunter’s Green. Mrs. Whitney continued producing work for almost another twenty years, and I read those books as they were released in paperback, later getting them as they were originally released in hardcover: Snowfire, The Turquoise Mask, The Golden Unicorn, The Glass Flame, Spindrift, Rainbow in the Mist, Woman without a Past, and Vermilion, among many others. Like her teen books, the adult novels also were often set in exotic places which Mrs. Whitney described perfectly, and you learned a little something about the places as you read about them. I also began to realize that when Mrs. Whitney went on one of her research trips, she often wrote two books set there–one for kids, and another for adults.

But the primary difference, I think, between Mary Higgins Clark and Phyllis Whitney is this: if, as the article I read (and linked to) is correct, Ms. Clark’s message is a woman can’t trust any man, then Mrs. Whitney’s was a woman can’t trust anyone, ESPECIALLY not family.

Mrs. Whitney’s books were often, not always, about a young woman trying to either obtain closure (like meeting the birth mother she never knew in Listen for the Whisperer, or confronting her estranged husband who finally wants a divorce after several years of separation in Hunter’s Green, or seeking a relationship with the child she gave up in Lost Island) or trying to get to know a family she’s never met or knew existed (Silverhill, Woman without a Past, Thunder Heights, Sea Jade). 

You couldn’t trust anyone in a Whitney novel; sometimes her killers were actually women.

A common trope in Whitney’s work was also the bad girl, who was often either married to, or engaged to, the love interest for the main character; and frequently, particularly in her earlier works, the bad girl wound up as the murder victim (Columbella, Lost Island). There was almost always a “bad girl” archetype in these books; a beautiful, sexually free woman who refused to be a submissive wife, and was sometimes, quite frankly, a nasty bitch to the main character (The Turquoise Mask, Vermilion) but eventually came over the heroine’s side and thus survived the story.

Here’s a list of all her novels (you can see, she was very prolific and her career lasted over fifty years; often publishing more than one book per year–and remember, she had to use a typewriter):

  • A Place for Ann (1941)
  • A Star for Ginny (1942)
  • A Window for Julie (1943)
  • Red is for Murder (1943), Reissued as The Red Carnelian (1965)
  • The Silver Inkwell (1945)
  • Writing Juvenile Fiction (1947)
  • Willow Hill (1947)
  • Ever After (1948)
  • The Mystery of the Gulls (1949)
  • Linda’s Homecoming (1950)
  • The Island of Dark Woods (1951), Reissued as Mystery of the Strange Traveler (1967)
  • Love Me, Love Me Not (1952)
  • Step to the Music (1953)
  • Mystery of the Black Diamonds (1954)
  • A Long Time Coming (1954)
  • Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955)
  • The Quicksilver Pool (1955)
  • The Fire and the Gold (1956)
  • The Highest Dream (1956)
  • The Trembling Hills (1956)
  • Mystery of the Green Cat (1957)
  • Skye Cameron (1957)
  • Secret of the Samurai Sword (1958)
  • The Moonflower (1958)
  • Creole Holiday (1959)
  • Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960)
  • Thunder Heights (1960)
  • Secret of the Tiger’s Eye (1961)
  • Blue Fire (1961)
  • Mystery of the Golden Horn (1962)
  • Window on the Square (1962)
  • Mystery of the Hidden Hand (1963)
  • Seven Tears for Apollo (1963)
  • Secret of the Emerald Star (1964)
  • Black Amber (1964)
  • Mystery of the Angry Idol (1965)
  • Sea Jade (1965)
  • Columbella (1966)
  • Secret of the Spotted Shell (1967)
  • Silverhill (1967)
  • Hunter’s Green (1968)
  • Secret of Goblin Glen (1969)
  • The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (1969)
  • The Winter People (1969)
  • Secret of the Missing Footprint (1969)
  • Lost Island (1970)
  • The Vanishing Scarecrow (1971)
  • Nobody Likes Trina (1972)
  • Listen for the Whisperer (1972)
  • Mystery of the Scowling Boy (1973)
  • Snowfire (1973)
  • The Turquoise Mask (1974)
  • Secret of Haunted Mesa (1975)
  • Spindrift (1975)
  • The Golden Unicorn (1976)
  • Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (1976)
  • Secret of the Stone Face (1977)
  • The Stone Bull (1977)
  • The Glass Flame (1978)
  • Domino (1979)
  • Poinciana (1980)
  • Vermilion (1981)
  • Guide to Fiction Writing (1982)
  • Emerald (1983)
  • Rainsong (1984)
  • Dream of Orchids (1985)
  • Flaming Tree (1986)
  • Silversword (1987)
  • Feather on the Moon (1988)
  • Rainbow in the Mist (1989)
  • The Singing Stones (1990)
  • Woman Without a Past (1991)
  • The Ebony Swan (1992)
  • Star Flight (1993)
  • Daughter of the Stars (1994)
  • Amethyst Dreams (1997)

She won two Edgars for her mysteries for children, and was eventually named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

I did sometimes get frustrated with her heroines for being more wimpy than they needed to be; usually, though, the course of the novel allowed her heroines to become more confident in themselves as well as to work through whatever neuroses they had at the start of the novel. And like I said, a common theme was damaged families. Her books, along with those of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, were labelled as romantic suspense, but I think female noir is actually a better label for them; and as an adult, I really don’t think Stewart’s books actually are romantic suspense…but that’s a topic for another time.

And now, back to the spice mines.

freddie stroma

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.

13082527_1298944620118917_9066161767416363977_n

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.

IMG_1095

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.

IMG_1092

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.

IMG_1980

 

Part-Time Lover

Friday! I wasn’t feeling well last night, and was worried I was getting sick, to be completely honest. But this morning I feel much better and well-rested (at least for now) and it’s a short day, so there’s that. Huzzah!

Yesterday I managed to get two more chapters sort-of-revised for the WIP; I think I now have enough material for the agent search; I’ll be double checking that today and perhaps getting it together. I also want to work on the new Scotty today; it’s going in a completely different direction than it originally did, and I am really liking it. While I was lying in bed this morning before getting up, I had some really terrific ideas about where to take this–and while it might be a little on the risky side, I am going to do it, I think.

We watched the skating last night, and while it was terribly sad to see Nathan Chen skate so poorly, he’s also very young. He could come back tonight and have the skate of his life, or be so rocked that he skates terribly again tonight. I do think he’s going to win the World title though next month, and this will set him up for the next Olympics as well. He is very young.

Adam Rippon was terrific last night; I am so delighted to see that all the hate being slung at him from the homophobes on the right wing (American patriots my ass; nothing says patriotic American than hoping an American athlete will fail at the Olympics. Trash.) is just bouncing off him and he is having the Olympic experience he’s always dreamed of. I had a geek moment yesterday when I tweeted at him and his mother and she liked my tweet; yes, I may be 56, but I can fanboy with the best of them. I am looking forward to tonight, let me tell you.

I also started reading the stories in the MWA anthology Manhattan Mayhem,edited by the amazing Mary Higgins Clark. The first story is by Clark herself, “The Five-Dollar Dress”:

It was a late August afternoon, and the sun was sending slanting shadows across Union Square in Manhattan. It’s a peculiar kind of day, Jenny thought as she came up from the subway and turned east. This was the last day she needed to go to the apartment of her grandmother, who had died three weeks ago.

She had already cleaned out most of the apartment. The furniture and all of Gran’s household goods, as well as her clothing, would be picked up by five o’clock by the diocese charity.

Her mother and father were both pediatricians in San Francisco and had intensely busy schedules. Having just passed the bar exam after graduating from Stanford Law School, Jenny was free to do the job. Next week, she would be starting as a deputy district attorney in San Francisco.

A very simple set-up–granddaughter cleaning out grandmother’s apartment–leads her to find news stories and information about the brutal murder of her grandmother’s best friend many years earlier…and the story takes some startling twists along the way. I’ve not read any of Ms. Clark’s short stories before, and I’ve not read any of her books since A Stranger Is Watching when I was a teenager; I’m not sure why, to be honest. I loved both it and Where Are The Children? Meeting her at the Edgar banquet the first year I went was one of the biggest thrills of my life, and what a gracious lady she is, too.

The next story was by Julie Hyzy, titled “White Rabbit”:

The young woman sitting on the bench stopped fingering a strand of her white-blonde pixie cut. Startled, she looked up, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Excuse me?”

“I asked you if you were recapturing your childhood.” The man who had spoken reached down to tap a corner of the book lying on her lap. He had a round face and the sort of little-boy haircut most men ditch long before they hit thirty. Wearing black-framed glasses and a bushy brown beard, he carried a soft paunch and a beat-up messenger bag.

“Interesting reading choice,” he said. “Especially considering the view. My name’s Mark, by the way.”

They are sitting near the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, and she is reading Alice in Wonderland. As the two begin talking, the story appears to be going one way, then turns abruptly into another direction, and makes yet another turn. Very gripping, the suspense building as the story goes along, with a most satisfying denouement.

Ah, and now back to the spice mines. Happy Friday everyone.

tumblr_p2iqqx41tz1sh6rbgo1_540