Gorgeous

So, as Constant Reader is aware, I’ve been working, off and on, since 2015 on something that I referred to for years as “the Kansas book”, whose actual title is #shedeservedit.

It will be released on 1/11/22 officially; if you pre-order it from the Bold Strokes website, it will ship actually on January 1 (well, probably the 2nd since the 1st is a holiday).

Here’s the cover copy:

Liberty Center High School’s football team has a long history of success, and the dying small town has nothing else to cling to. But when Lance, the star quarterback, is found dead, Alex Wheeler becomes the prime suspect in his best friend’s murder. Alex thought he knew Lance’s secrets–but Lance was keeping his sexuality private and someone else found out. How well did Alex really know Lance, and what else did he keep hidden? 

To prove his innocence and figure out what really happened to Lance that last night, Alex starts connecting the dots and finds that everything leads back to the recent suicide of a cheerleader who may have been sexually assaulted at a team party. Did online bullying and photos of her from the party drive her to suicide? Or was she murdered? Alex and his girlfriend India soon find their own lives are in danger as they get closer and closer to the horrifying truth about how far Liberty Center will go to protect their own.

I’ve been writing what I had taken to calling “the Kansas book” since I was in high school, really. While I was in high school I wrote several stories about a group of kids at a fictional high school, completely based on my own, and while it was certainly melodrama…we also didn’t have shows for teens like Beverly Hills 90210 and movies for teens like Sixteen Candles, Fast Times at Ridgement High, or Risky Business yet; all “teen fare” at the time was mostly from Disney, G-rated, and farcical; likewise, television programs targeted toward younger viewers were mostly for really young kids or what we now call “tweens.” And while I had crushes on both Kurt Russell and Jan-Michael Vincent (who didn’t?), those Disney films were little better than The Brady Bunch. I think it was in 1980 when I decided to take those stories and extrapolate them into a longer story, thinking it would be my first novel–and it expanded from the kids to include their older siblings and parents and teachers as well. I moved the story from the rural county to the county seat, and over the course of three years I painstakingly wrote about three thousand notebook pages. It was a sloppy mess, to be honest; I was thinking in terms of writing something along the lines of Peyton Place–the story of a town over the course of five years–but as I wrote I dropped characters and storylines; changed character names when a better name occurred to me; as I said, it was a total mess…and when I completed it, in the days before computers, I realized that I needed to type the entire thing up, and alas, I didn’t know how to touch type and whenever I typed anything I consistently made errors. So, I simply set it aside and went back to writing short stories before starting, in 1991, to try my hand at novels again.

In the years since, I cheerfully pulled elements from that ancient manuscript out to use for other books and other stories–there was a murder mystery at the heart of the book, and I actually used that as the basis for the plot of Murder in the Garden District; apparently I have always had crime in mind when it came to my writing–and I also pulled character names and other stories from it to use elsewhere. I reverted back to the rural county aspect of the original short stories to write Sara; one of the things I had to do recently was go through Sara and anything else I’ve written and published already having to do with Kansas to record the character names to make sure I wasn’t using them again in this book. I also originally began the basics of this book sometime before Katrina–the star quarterback’s dead body being found on the fifty yard line of the football field, and originally the primary POV character was the only detective on the small town’s police force. What I wrote was really good–I believe I got up to about five chapters–and it was also a flashback story with parallel time-lines; one in 1977, when the quarterback was murdered, and the present day, with someone who was in high school at the time becoming convinced that the person convicted of the crime was actually innocent and railroaded as a cover-up. I could never get the whole plot worked out, and it went through several changes and stages as I worked on it, still being called “the Kansas book.”

Two real life crimes–the rapes in Steubenville, Ohio and the other in Marysville, Missouri, in which girls were either drugged or pressured into over drinking and then when too wasted to even speak were sexually assaulted by athletes–inspired me to drag the framework of this story out and use it to tell a similar style story. I was, like anyone with a conscience or a soul, horrified by these rapes, and even more horrified by the aftermath; the way the girls were humiliated and shamed publicly and on social media, and I couldn’t get a hashtag that the kids in one of the towns used while shaming the victim: #shedeservedit.

That, I felt, was my title, and I could build the story from there. I could still have the dead quarterback; I could still have the town reeling from the one-two punch of the rape and the murder, only now I could layer in the victim-blaming and shaming. (I will never forget female newscasters talking about how sad it was that the boys convicted for the Steubenville case’s lives were ruined; I saved my sympathy for the poor girl they victimized; how on earth would she get past this?) I wrote the entire first draft in one month in the summer of 2015, and have tinkered with it, off and on, ever since. It was early last year, I think, pre-pandemic, when. I finally decided that two books I’d been working on between others over the last few years needed to be done and out of my hair; and the best way to force myself to finish them both once and for all was to offer them to my publisher. I did that, was given deadlines, and now, as I am finishing the final version of #shedeservedit, I also have a release date (1/11/22) and a cover to share with you all, so here it is (obviously, see above).

Writing this has been a journey, as writing any book can be; the Imposter Syndrome reared its ugly head numerous times during the writing of this book–should a man be writing a book about this subject? Is telling such a story from the point of view of a young man, friend to both the rape victim and the rapists, the right way to tell it? Am I centering a young man in a story about sexual assault and the toxic rape culture that has grown up around a small town’s athletic success?

I guess time will tell.

Welcome to the Room…Sara

Christmas Eve, a lovely Saturday morning. It’s supposed to reach a high of seventy-seven degrees today; maybe if I get as much work done as I want to I can take the time out to clean the windows, which are, as always, filthy. I didn’t get as much done yesterday as I wanted–I’m not sure why, but every word yesterday was a struggle and a fight, like drawing blood, but I really have to get moving on this today. I think I’ll be able to get pretty far along today, and another productive day tomorrow can get me back on schedule to finish. I really don’t know why this has been such a struggle, frankly. But if I could learn why I struggle so hard to do something I love, I could rule the world.

I finished watching Season 2 of The Man in the High Castle last night (enjoyed it) and the first season of Eyewitness, which I felt was really high quality and good right up until the last two episodes, when it went off the rails and became completely unbelievable (but I applaud it for its clever plot and for making a pair of gay teens the center of the story, and showing them actually being intimate–kissing and so forth; I also think their sexuality was handled sensitively and honestly; which was really nice. Too too bad about the last two episodes, though). I also finished reading Exit Pursued by a Bear last night.

“I swear to God, Leo, if you throw one more sock, I am going to throw you in the lake myself!” I shout, knees sticking to the vinyl as I turn to face the back of the bus. The boys have claimed the back when we boarded, and since it smelled weird (well, more weird) we were happy to let them have it. I hadn’t expected a constant barrage of hosiery, though.

“Like you could, Winters,” he shouts back. The other boys hoot in laughter.

“I may be small,” I reply, “but I’m crafty.”

“Don’t I know it,” Leo leers, and the hooting devolves into outright catcalls.

I fire back with a wadded sock, barely missing Leo but managing to nail Clarence, who looks properly chastened. I glare at the rest and then turn sharply to face the front, but by the time I’m in my seat again, I’m smiling. The other girls lean in towards me, ribboned braids dropping over shoulders like the least-threatening snake pile in the world. Of course, that’s what the snakes probably want you to think.

E. K. Johnston is a phenomenally successful Canadian young adult writer–her The Story of Owen series looks quite clever (and I am adding it to my list)–and Exit Pursued by a Bear is a very good book, and not only a very good read but a thought-provoking one. The story is told from the point of view of cheerleading co-captain Hermione Winters, and she is telling the story of her senior year, beginning with the trip to cheerleading camp with her team. Unfortunately, at a camp dance one night Hermione is roofied, and she is found the next morning half-naked in the lake. The water has pretty much ruined any chance of forensic evidence, and she herself has little or no memory of what happened to her–the last thing she remembers is trying to find the recycling bin to throw away her empty cup as things start to get foggy.

The book is very well-written and compelling; Hermione’s struggle to deal with being ‘the girl who was raped’ and trying to get her life back together is hard to put down; the way people now react to her and how that makes her feel is painful and sad–how do you deal with people when you’ve been through something horrible and they are sympathetic but don’t know what to do, what to say, to you? But Hermione is a strong young woman with a very great support system which enables her to put her life back together, and that’s the primary focus of the book. And that’s an important story to tell.

If I had a quibble with the book, though, it would be that; Hermione has so much love and support as she puts her life back together, and she doesn’t remember anything that happened to her that night–as she says, “it feels like it happened to someone I know instead of to me”–and she avoids social media so she can’t see what people are posting and saying about her, and for the most part, her friends and the other cheerleaders gather around her to create a protective shell…which kind of seemed a bit too good to be true to me, if that makes sense? I just felt that–don’t get me wrong, I liked the book a lot and recommend it–she should have had to face some of what most girls in her position have to in the real world.

Rape culture is a very real thing, no matter how much some people may want to pretend that it isn’t. I, like so many others, was horrified by the two primary cases illustrating this sort of thing–the Steubenville and Marysville cases a few years back–and of course, the ones detailed in Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. I recently watched the heartbreaking documentary Audrie and Daisy (Daisy is the girl from Marysville) on Netflix (I urge everyone to watch it, especially if you have daughters–and watch it with your daughters), so after seeing how these kinds of stories actually play out in the real world made the written-for-young-adult-audience sense of this one seem almost like a cop-out.

But that doesn’t lessen the impact of this book by any means. It’s also heartbreaking, even if to a lesser degree than the true stories, which I suspect motivated Johnston to write the book in the first place.

Although I would love to see what Megan Abbott could do with the same kind of story.

And now, back to the spice mines.