Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around

Thursday and my last day in the office this week. Huzzah! Which means I do not have to get up at six tomorrow morning, which is lovely, and next week my work at home day is Monday, so I don’t have to be back in the office until Tuesday, which is kind of nice. I need to do a couple of errands tomorrow–brake tag and wash the car–but I am also kind of hoping against hope that I can make it to the gym tomorrow in the early evening as well. I hate that the first thing to go out the window whenever I am overwhelmed with work are the two things I enjoy most in life and are, really, things that are just for me: working out and writing.

I entered #shedeservedit for the Thriller Award for Best Children’s/Young Adult this week; I am not sure if there’s any point, really, but you cannot complain about queer books not making award shortlists if you don’t enter your own and encourage every other queer writer to do so as well. I am also entering it for the Edgars. Dream big, Gregalicious.

I have to admit I’ve not really been promoting #shedeservedit the way I should be, and I am not entirely sure why that is. Every step of the way of writing that book I was worried about whether I was the right person to tell that story or not…something I would have never even thought about ten years ago. I still don’t think I would have been the right person to tell the story had the main pov character been a girl; making it a guy, seeing everything that was going on in Liberty Center from a male teenager who is also on the football team, for me, made it more palatable–and it’s not just the story of the toxic masculinity and the rape culture permeating the town of Liberty Center: there’s a whole lot of just plain wrong going on in that town, and my main character, Alex, was affected and damaged by all of it, even as (sometimes) merely a witness to the shenanigans. Everything has a ripple effect, after all. But at the same time, the book has a content warning–which, I am ashamed to admit, never crossed my mind that it would need when I was writing it. How would a young woman who has experienced this, or knows someone who has, react to reading this story? That thought also kind of made me pull back a bit from the promotional stuff. Even with a content warning, is what happens in the book–even though it’s all already happened, and is seen only through flashbacks–going to be too difficult for a young woman (or a young man, for that matter) who has experienced something similar to read? The book has been out in the world now for over five months, it has a four and a half star rating on Amazon (I will not look at Goodreads, and no one can make me go to that barren hellscape for authors)…but at the same time there hasn’t been any pushback thus far on the book–which also doesn’t mean it won’t eventually happen, either.

But this week, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed (I honestly don’t know why I do this. Sometimes I have fun joking around with my friends there, and I’ve seen posts about books that I went on to read and enjoy, but for far too large a percentage of the time I have to step away from it in revulsion when I see how truly terrible so many people are willing to be behind the anonymity of a computer screen, a cartoon avatar, and a fake name…and how many more are unashamed to reveal their monstrous true selves with their actual names and images proudly on display for everyone to see) and I came across a piece from The Cut, which is a part of New York magazine and Vulture and I am not sure what all other websites and so forth are involved in that tangled mess of on-line and print publications. It purported to be about a high school teenager who “made a mistake” and “got canceled by his school.”

Ah, another story about the evils of cancel culture, I thought to myself, should I bother?

Reader, I bothered. And dear God in heaven, I am so sorry I did. If you want to read the nauseating swill for yourself, if it is still up, it can be found here: https://www.thecut.com/article/cancel-culture-high-school-teens.html. If you have high blood pressure, I would advise against it.

What makes the entire thing worse, in my opinion, is of course they assigned this piece to a woman. There’s a reason why men accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault will inevitably hire a female defense attorney–it subliminally communicates to the jury would a woman defend this person if he were a rapist? No woman would take on such a case! But when I was doing my research for #shedeservedit, one of the things I noted was how many women didn’t believe the girls, how many of their peers didn’t believe the girls, and that the nastiest and most vicious critics of the victims were other women/girls. I remember reading about Brock Turner’s mother, weeping and sobbing about how her son’s life was being ruined (implied: by that drunk slut!); the former girlfriend who wrote a character reference letter for him to the judge, and on and on. (I always wonder–as I did with Brock Turner–does he have any sisters or female first cousins? What do they think about this?)

Anyway, the author of this piece–whose sympathies are entirely with this boy whose only regret for sharing nude pictures of his girlfriend with his friends (when he was “drunk,” because I guess that makes it okay) is that he was shunned by his entire high school–misses the lede in this article so many times. She is so desperate to make us all feel bad for this kid for being made to feel the absolute least amount of consequence possible for his actions that she misses that the girls at this school felt so betrayed and dismissed by the system–which is supposed to protect them–that they took action on their own. That is the story here–what the students had to step up to do because THE ADULTS and the SCHOOL SYSTEM failed them.

But no, we get another “oh this poor boy”. (Who went to four proms and is leaving for college in the fall, where none of this will follow him.) By a woman writer who, per Wikipedia, has teenaged daughters of their own. How must THEY feel when reading their mother’s latest work?

Not even ten years ago the victims in Steubenville and Marysville were the ones shunned; not the guys who got them wasted and took advantage of them. (At least the Steubenville victim got some justice, as two of the boys were convicted; the poor girl in Marysville got nothing but slut-shamed and eventually she committed suicide.)

My original inspiration for writing this book honestly came back in the early 1990’s. Remember the Spur Posse at Lakewood High School? (No less an august literary figure than Joan Didion herself wrote about the Spur Posse, in her New Yorker piece “Trouble in Lakewood.”) I thought I had read about the Spur Posse in Rolling Stone–which, let’s face it, I was more likely to read at the time than the New Yorker–and was completely appalled…I sat down and started writing an idea for a book based on it, where the girls of the school, getting nowhere with the police and the school administration and so forth, become ‘avenging angels’ to publicly shame and embarrass the boys…and then they start dying. I wrote a couple of chapters, created some characters, and titled it When Stallions Die (stallions, obviously, a stand-in for Spur Posse); I always meant to swing back around to it at some point because it was an interesting idea (if you agree, you should read Lisa Lutz’ brilliant The Swallows from a few years’ back) and I still might–one never knows. But it was the Spur Posse situation that made me start thinking–long and hard–about sexual assault and sexual misconduct, victim-blaming and slut-shaming, and the weird need that some women have to protect men at any cost: “boys will be boys,” “any red-blooded American boy”…”locker room talk.”

And since I had been wanting to write a Kansas book, and had been playing around with a story for a small city in Kansas, its teens, and its high school football team, #shedeservedit kind of evolved from there.

I don’t know why I am so reluctant and/or nervous to promote the book. It was a deeply personal book for me to write (as was Bury Me in Shadows), and yes, I put a lot of my teenaged self into that book–not the surface Greg everyone saw and knew, but the interior Greg, the one who was so deeply miserable and unhappy and alone on the inside.

Wow, this rambled on for a lot longer than I expected it to! That article clearly pissed me off, did it not?

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines.

Chick-a-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It)

I love football.

I know, it catches people off-guard that a sixty year old gay man is a massive football fan, but I’ve never subscribed to stereotypes. I love football, with an especial love for the college game (I used to only watch the Saints in the NFL, but have started rooting for the Cincinnati Bengals because, well, Joe fucking Burrow); I think everyone knows I am a massive LSU fan. (GEAUX TIGERS!)

There really isn’t anything else in the world like a Saturday night in Death Valley. I will remember the 2019 night game against Florida probably for the rest of my life. God, what a great game, and it was so much fun. I am aware that I am digressing.

Anyway, I grew up in a Southern football family (even if we didn’t live in the South, we were from the South and that’s all that matters), so it was inevitable that I should become both a football fan and a football player. I played all four years in high school, all of my cousins also played, and I have close relatives who played at both the college and professional levels (and I don’t mean some small college in the middle of nowhere; I mean in the SEC–Auburn and Alabama, and there may be even more that I don’t know about). I have relatives who were successful coaches. Every fall Saturday the television was tuned into whatever college game was playing–even if we weren’t fans of either team; it’s hard to imagine now with the 24/7 college football coverage, but when I was growing up ABC had a monopoly on all NCAA football games. They would usually play one game of national significance, and then the second game was regional–important to that region. As we did not live in the South, we rarely got to see SEC games other than Alabama–Alabama was almost inevitably the only Southern team of “national interest” throughout the 1970’s (I really don’t remember the 1960’s much, but we lived in Chicago so I imagine we saw a lot of Big Ten and Notre Dame games; I don’t really remember a lot of my life before the suburbs, really–some things, yes, but most things not so much)

I’ve never really read a lot of fiction about football, though; it inevitably winds up being something cliched and tired. I loved North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent; hated Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins; but do remember enjoying End Zone by Don DeLillo (I was going to reread this recently; but there’s so much to read. I did try to to reread Semi-Tough–but when I opened the book there were racial slurs and other mess on page one, so I threw it in the trash; no thanks). And I’ve also enjoyed other books with football involved, even if it wasn’t necessarily what the book was about. (The Hardy Boys were on the Bayport High football team in The Crisscross Shadow–the only time football is mentioned in the series.) There’s also a tendency, in books about high school and football to make the football players and cheerleaders the villains of the story, which has never really sat right with me. I was never bullied by anyone on the football team, and maybe the cheerleaders weren’t bitches to me because I was on the team and my sister was a cheerleader, but that wasn’t my experience (one thing I truly appreciated about Stephen King’s Christine was the horrible bullies at Libertyville High weren’t the football players but the hard-case kids–which was also my experience; which is probably yet another reason the book is one of my favorites of the King canon, methinks).

But…I can also see why it’s so attractive to make the jocks and cheerleaders the villains of high school dramas. And I sort of did something similar in #shedeservedit, didn’t I? Those boys on the Marysville and Steubenville high school teams certainly fit the bill of villainy.

So, when people started recommending Eli Cranor’s debut Dont Know Tough to me, I wasn’t so sure. I just published a book of my own about high school football and the toxicity it can engender in a small town (#shedeservedit), and revisiting my memories of high school and football was harder than I had thought it would be; I thought I could be dispassionate about it all while writing about it (I often write about things to try to distance myself from them and gain some perspective) but I was wrong. It was hard to write that book, much harder than I thought it would be–and it took years (first draft was written in 2015; published in 2022).

But enough people whose opinions I respect were raving about the book, so I got a copy and once I started reading it, there was no way I could stop.

Still feel the burn on my neck. Told Coach it was a ringworm this morning when he pick me up, but it ain’t. It a cigarette, or at least what a lit cigarette do when it stuck in your neck. Just stared at Him when He did it. No way I’s gonna let Him see me hurt. No way. bit a hole through the side of my cheek, swallowed blood, and just stared at Him. Tasted blood all day.

Tasted it while I saw in Ms. Miller’s class. Woke up in Algebra tasting it. Drank milk from a cardboard box at lunch and still, I tasted it. But now it eighth period football. Coach already got the boys lined up on either side of the fifty, a crease in between, a small space for running and tackling, for pain.

This my favorite drill.

I just been standing back here, watching the other boys go at it. The sound of pads popping like sheet metal flapping in a storm.

“Who want next?” holler Bull. Bull ain’t the head coach. Bull coach the defense. He as mean as they come.

One of my favorite books of all time about small towns is Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show (I also love the film, which is extraordinary and one of, in my opinion, the best films made during the 1970’s). I did try to reread it recently–I was interested in refreshing my memory of its gay subplots and the mental breakdown of poor Joe Bob Blanton, but I’d also forgotten the part about the bored teenaged boys decided to fuck some calves, so when I got to that part I put the book down in distaste. But now that I’ve finished Don’t Know Tough, I kind of want to go back and reread The Last Picture Show again (I can skip that distasteful part…weird that I didn’t remember it).

Don’t Know Tough is yet another incredibly impressive debut, further confirming the truth of what I said at the Lefty Award banquet–the last few years have seen so many amazing and diverse and extraordinary debuts that the future of our genre is in very good hands. I won’t lie–when I started reading the book, I wasn’t sure I could keep reading it; I was worried that the entire book would be written in that grammatically garbled first-person voice but as I kept reading that first chapter I got into the rhythm of the language and started seeing the beauty and fluidity of the style choice–which is no small feat to pull off, and pull off consistently, throughout the entire book…to the point I was also a little disappointed that the entire book wasn’t done in that same style. Billy Lowe is the character whose voice this is; and the story of the novel revolves around him and the horrific Shakespearean tragedy that his life actually is. His mother is an alcoholic, and lives with an abusive piece of shit who obviously directs violence at Billy. He has a younger half-brother who was fathered by this POS; he also has an older brother who lives elsewhere. Billy’s situation has turned him into a wild beast of rage with an exceptional gift for channeling that rage into playing football. He’s not big enough in size to go major college, but his coach feels like there’s a chance he could get a football scholarship to a smaller college, and break the cycle of poverty he is trapped in at the moment. Billy is exceptionally compelling–it’s hard to read his first person point of view and not have your heart break for this kid; and hope that it’s all going to work out for him in the end, despite the disturbing pattern of violence in both his life and behavior.

Denton High has made the Arkansas state play-offs, but without Billy in the backfield their chances of advancing are practically nil. It’s important for Denton to do well in the post season because their coach’s job depends on it. Trent Powers is a born-again Christian, whose last coaching job in California crapped out–winning only three games in his final three seasons before being fired. This job is another chance for him, even though his wife and daughters hate relocating to a small town in Arkansas from California (much is made throughout the book of Coach Powers’ Prius, seen by the locals are weird and strange and almost otherworldly and unmanly). Coach Powers also has a very soft spot for his star player, and not just because he’s a star player–he actually feels compassion for the horror the young player’s life has been up to that point, and he wants to help–even if Billy doesn’t want any help from anyone. Billy’s future, to Billy at any rate, is already set, and he’s not going to end up going anywhere or doing anything or having a good life and decent future. He doesn’t see himself being worthy of anything or of doing better than his assigned lot in life.

The Powers family is a direct contrast to Billy’s; loving and nurturing couple, raising two daughters and trying to do right by them. How far is too far to go when helping someone in Billy’s situation, is the question. Coach’s wife–the daughter of a successful football coach who took Trent in when he was a kid from a similar background as Billy’s…and yes, he slept with his coach’s daughter and got her pregnant. So both Coach and his wife have the fear that the same thing will happen to their daughter and Billy–especially when the daughter starts opening up to Billy.

But one night Billy’s abuser is murdered. No one would blame Billy for killing the abusive bastard–well, the law would. But the story of what happened that night is far more complicated, and far more surprising, than the reader can imagine.

The pacing is also exceptional, and I love the contrasts between the third person point of view we see much of the novel in, with the Billy point of view chapters mixed in. The language choices and imagery are spare and tight yet full and rich and immersive–reminding me not only of Megan Abbott and her brilliant Dare Me, but also with a healthy dash of Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, S. A. Cosby, and Kelly J. Ford (all masters of Southern Gothic) mixed in. The little touches of how claustrophobic small Southern towns can be, the class disparities between the haves and the have nots, and what teenagers in those types of environments was simply masterful.

I was completely blown away by this amazing work, and suspect that you will be as well. Highly recommended. I cannot wait to see what Eli Cranor does next.

Let Me Go The Right Way

A question I’ve been hearing a lot lately, when it comes to my new book. is why do you question whether you are the right person to tell this story?

It may entirely be a side effect of the long psychological disorder (one of many!) I possess that is more commonly known as Imposter Syndrome; but over the last decade or so there have been so many questions about who can tell what story that I don’t really think it’s so surprising that I would be concerned about my right to the tell the story of #shedeservedit that I chose to tell. It’s a book about toxic masculinity in a small town that manifests itself in a rape culture that devalues women, especially the girls, at the local high school; that toxic masculinity culture was created by the town’s worshipful devotion of the high school football team. Fans derives from fanatics, after all, and living in the South (and being Southern) has exposed me to the ‘football fan mob mentality’ that I was trying to recreate in my story. I’ve seen, for example, LSU fans rise up in righteous fury and indignation at the questioning of whether it’s animal cruelty for them to have a live tiger mascot with an amazing habitat on the campus; I’ve seen them rise up in defense of the administration and the players when players have been credibly accused of any number of crimes (not the least of which sexual harassment/assault of female students); and there are any other number of examples here I could cite–and that’s just LSU.

But in a story about toxic masculinity in a small town, I also centered a teenaged boy in the story; we see it all through his eyes, not that of any of the girls. That’s really the primary concern I had about how this book would be received: how could you put a boy at the center of a story about rape culture?

And I guess my response should be why wouldn’t I?

Because, as I read the articles and books that served as background research (there’s a chilling amount of research out there for anyone who is interested), all I could keep thinking was what is wrong with these boys? And from there I began to extrapolate further in my never-ending mental gymnastics. What do the kids who are not football players think about the privilege the players enjoy? High school is, after all, wanting/trying to fit in, not wanting to attract bad attention from people, not standing out from the crowd with an unpopular view or opinion. As I continued to read and research–and in the beginning, you have to remember, I started looking into all of this to begin with not because I wanted to write about it, but because the Steubenville/Marysville cases stoked my curiosity.

It was actually during the reading on Marysville that it hit me right between the eyes: the Marysville victim, Daisy Coleman, had not only been a cheerleader but her older brother was on the football team; the guys that got her drunk and assaulted her were not only guys she knew but felt safe with but were her brother’s teammates and friends.

And that was when I realized, you need to change the Kansas book to be about this, and write about the brother of a past victim when there is a new victim.

And then the other day, in an irony of ironies, I got my copy of Laura Lippman’s new collection, Seasonal Work, in the mail–and there it was, in the table of contents; her own story inspired by the Marysville incident, “Five Fires”; which I read when it was initially published; a story Laura and I had, in one of our infrequent but marvelous alcohol-fueled conversations, talked about (I’d forgotten what an integral part of shaping my own story that conversation with Laura all those years ago played).

“Five Fires” is quite marvelous.

“There was another fire last night.” That’s the first woman. Tennis skirt, Lacoste polo, gold chain with a diamond on it, like a drop of water.

The other woman–I don’t know either of them, you can’t, even in a town as small as ours, know everybody–says: “That makes three this month, doesn’t it?”

“Two. The one at the vacant–you know that place. And now behind Langley’s.”

And the playhouse, I want to say. The first one was that playhouse. But I don’t say it, because, again, I don’t know them. But three is right. There have been three since August 1, and it’s only August 10.

Whereas my story is told from the point of view of a victim’s brother–who is also on the football team–Laura’s story was inspired (if I remember correctly) by a newspaper article on Marysville, when the victim’s house was burned to the ground in a nasty work of arson–as if the family hadn’t been through enough already–and I don’t remember whether it was a photograph or a video she’d seen, of a vigil supporting the accused; there was a young woman in the picture that caught her attention and made her think, now why would that girl not support another young woman in a horrible situation? Why is it so easy for her to not believe the victim? And she thus wrote the story, to try to get into the mindset of a young teenaged girl who found it easy to believe an accused rapist and blame the victim.

It’s really quite an extraordinary story, and rereading it now, after all these years, I am even more impressed with how well done–touching, sad, and poignant–it is. It would be easy to make a villain of this girl, but Lippman approaches her with a strong sense of empathy, and while the character’s views and behavior can be quite repellant, the fact that Lippman gets so deep into her head and point of view makes character all the more compelling, and heartbreakingly sad at the same time–all the while never ever losing sight of who the real victim in the story is. It’s a terrific story, incredibly well done, and I strongly recommend getting this collection of stories; it’s worth it for “Five Fires” alone.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader!

Pretty Baby

Tuesday morning and the year continues to wind down in the inimitable way that every year does, with a whimper rather than a bang, like the last of the helium escaping from the leaky balloon.

My new book will be out in sixteen days; slightly more than two weeks. Those who preordered from my publisher (as well as those who requested ARC’s–advance review copies)will be getting them within a few days, actually, which is panic-inducing as well as more than a little bit terrifying. I am not so certain that I am more nervous about the release of this book than I have been around the release of any others in my past, or if this is the same nervous condition I always experience when a book is about to be released with my name (or whatever name I chose to use at the time I signed the contract) on the spine. I don’t remember; I am not certain if that is symptomatic of me aging or if it’s some kind of protective thing the brain does to spare my psyche; much as how one forgets how painful a teeth cleaning or a blood draw is between the last time it was done and the next time such things are scheduled; if we don’t forget how awful or painful or uncomfortable those experiences actually are, we would most likely never schedule another. (It is most fortunate that it will be years before I need another colonoscopy; that is an experience I would prefer to never live through another time, quite frankly.)

But I am nervous about the book. This one, as I have mentioned tirelessly (tiresomely?) takes on a societal and cultural problem for which I have no solution–well, that’s not entirely true, I always have a solution, but it’s never one people are willing to actually adopt–but it’s also kind of shameful that it has actually taken me so long to address this actual social problem; it’s also kind of shameful for me to admit that it took me so long to realize it was actually a problem. I mean, I knew intellectually it was, but I never realized how extant and/or extreme the problem actually was until the last decade or so. Now I am hyper-aware of sexual assault and it’s plainer, but just as ugly sibling, sexual harassment.

When I became aware that I was different from other boys–from other males–I also became aware of strange disparities that caused some cognitive dissonance in my young, unformed mind; why is sexual expertise, and experience, for men something to be lauded and applauded while the same thing is a source of shame for women?

This never made sense to me; how could men get experience and expertise without women? Why was one thing something to be admired in one gender but must be shamed in the other? In order for men to get the “conquests” and “experience” they needed to be admired and respected (the word that so often pops up in older books is “cocksman,” a word I loathed when I first read it and still do to this day), there had to be women to accommodate those needs and desires…which, I guess, was my first introduction to the “madonna/whore” concept. Societal expectations on women were, frankly, ridiculous; they were supposed to be pure and chaste while at the same time doing nothing to inspire passion or desire in a man; to not attract his attention this way; in other words, if a man became overcome with desire to the point that he stopped listening to a woman telling him to stop…it was her fault, not his; men were clearly slaves to their own passions, while women needed to always keep theirs in check, or else.

Boys, after all, will be boys.

I knew the word rape before I actually knew what it meant–from reading history; barbarian hordes and invading armies inevitably “raped and pillaged.” There was the very famous story, part of the founding myth of Rome involving the “rape of the Sabine women”; I think that was around the time where I began thinking rape meant abduction. The 1970’s, and the burgeoning women’s movement, brought with it a discussion of rape into the public sphere; how it actually affected women and how the judicial system essentially punished women for daring to accuse a man of forcing himself on her; this was the horror known as stranger rape, which belied the sad truth that most sexual assaults inevitably are ones where the assailant and the victim knew each other: aka date rape.

Usually, when the subject was brought up on a daytime soap, it was a date rape situation; star-crossed lovers being kept apart for one reason or another until the man at some point becomes carried away and forces himself on his “true love” against her wishes. This played out on Days of Our Lives–later, and more notoriously, on General Hospital and as late as the 1990’s on One Life to Live (ironically, the story as depicted on One Life to Live was brutal and honest and horrible; the storyline went off the rails later as the lead rapist became redeemed and an anti-hero star of the show).

Rape was often used as a plot device in romance novels (horrifying, isn’t it?); who can ever forget the night Rhett get drunk and in his jealous rage rapes Scarlett in Gone with the Wind–which is also the first time in her life she actually enjoys sexual relations with a man? What precisely is the message being sent here to the readers?

One of the things that struck me the most about the Marysville and Steubenville cases–besides the horrific similarities–was the reaction of the girls in the towns about what happened. Rather than feeling solidarity with the victims–and realizing there but for the grace of God go I–the general reaction was the opposite: the victims deserved what happened to them. There are few crimes where the automatic default is to blame the victim–in fact, outside of sexual assault/harassment I can’t think of any–and the level of blaming and shaming in both of these cases was appalling. Steubenville, the more famous of the two cases, resulted in convictions (and notoriously several reporters editorializing the “waste” of the lives of the convicted rapists; my sympathy is with the victims, frankly); no charges were ever filed in the Marysville case, and the victim, Daisy Coleman, eventually committed suicide (that was still years in the future when I first started writing my book).

I couldn’t get past it. I tried to think about it in terms of my own sister: what if this had happened to MY sister? My niece? My mom?

And the hashtag from Marysville haunted my mind: #shedeservedit.

I knew the hashtag was going to be my title, and that I was going to change the Kansas book one last time; my quarterback was still going to disappear at the beginning, but the story wasn’t going to solely be about that. My fictional town already had a decades-long successful high school football program and was already dying economically; with a growing addiction epidemic and declining population as employment possibilities also dried up. And with all that success, with the town’s identity entirely subsumed by its high school football team (ironically, the Trojans), it stood to reason that the town would rally behind its team and the players–and woe be to anyone who stood against any of the team’s abuses.

But…the question remained: could a man–even a gay one, or especially a gay one–write such a book? Was it my place to do so? Was writing this book an attempt to atone for not being aware of the problem for so fucking long? Could I approach it with the proper amount of sensitivity?

I guess there’s nothing left for me to do than wait and see, I suppose. I have my author copies, ARC’s are going out, and soon those who want to read it will be reading it.

And on that cheery note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a happy Tuesday, Constant Reader.

Silver Bells

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style….in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas….

“Silver Bells” is, hands down, one of my favorite Christmas songs.

I’ve always wanted to write a story built around the song; maybe that’s something I can do for next year–but then again, who knows what will happen between now and then as far as my writing and deadlines are concerned? Heavy heaving sigh.

The other night, when I did my ZOOM thing for the release of #shedeservedit, afterwards I had a horrible rush of doubt and fear about the book itself. Who am I, after all, to write about rape culture and sexual assaults and so forth? Was writing the book an attempt to assuage my own guilt for my own complicity in the systemic toxic masculinity of our society, culture and civilization?

Some of the above? None of the above? All of the above?

I started writing the fiction collectively known and referred to as “the Kansas book” when I was actually in high school in Kansas. I created a fictional version of my high school and the county, including the county seat; it went through many iterations and renamings over the years as I worked on aspects of this enormous book, with interconnected characters and stories and so forth. Some of it was pulled out of this enormous “Bible” (for wont of a better word) to become my novel Sara about ten years or so ago; bits and pieces of it have now been pulled out to use for #shedeservedit, which will be out in January and has been what I have mostly referred to as “the Kansas book” for the last six or so years. The first draft of this iteration was written over a month, in July of 2015; I wrote three thousand words per day (or tried to; I did take some time off here and there) and by the end of the month I had nineteen chapters of about five thousand words in total of what needed to be a total of twenty chapters; I’d done ninety-six thousand words in a month but still didn’t know how to end the book (this is always a problem for me, by the way; and I am always afraid I don’t stick the landing). Over the next four or five years, I revised and rewrote the book, trying to see if I could figure out how to stick the landing as well as figure out what the dismount should be. I knew how I wanted to end it, but wasn’t sure if it would work…but also never wrote it, thinking the endless revisions and rewrites and changes might point the way to the proper dismount.

But this version, that begins with the star quarterback going missing after a game one night, might use the characters I dreamed up in the late 1970’s and have adapted and changed and grown over the years, but the plot-line that runs through this book wasn’t born until about 2004, when I decided to take all the things I’d been loosely working on over the decades since high school and pull it all together into a crime novel: the final and complete edition of the Kansas book. And it has gone through many iterations before I started that massive attempt to write an entire first draft of the new story in one month; back in 2004 I saw it as a book that flashed back between the present and 1977, when the quarterback was to have gone missing. I eventually abandoned that attempt–though I have reserved the right to do another such book, flashing back and forth in time, set in this universe somehow; I’ll figure that out later–and moved on to this final version of the missing quarterback theme/story.

Ironically, even from its earliest iteration, the underlying story here was about privilege; the privilege that comes with being a football player in a small city (am never sure where the cut off between town and city is precisely; I know when I lived in Kansas Emporia was considered a large town–population 27k or so–while the town we lived in was considered small–population 952; and Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City were considered cities) with a highly successful high school football team. With athletic success comes privilege; that was even true back in the 1970’s, and was even more true when it came to college teams. Originally, the quarterback’s body was found, naked, on the fifty yard line with evidence he’d had rectal sex the morning after Homecoming. That changed–the location of the body at any rate–and I also realized the Homecoming murder was also a clichĂ©, so I had to move it up further in the season–which also made more sense with the timing of the event that may have possibly triggered the murder in the first place…this was a huge issue with the original draft I wrote in a month; why would it have taken so long for the murder to happen if the potentially triggering event was in the summer?

These are the trials and tribulations that an author must face when writing a crime novel.

Sometimes fate intervenes, as well. When I was writing Sleeping Angel all those years ago, I kept thinking something was missing from the manuscript; there was a hole where I should have been making a point and wasn’t. I was writing this book around the time when there were a rash of queer kids committing suicide in the news–basically being bullied to death–and this was around the same time that Dan Savage started the “it gets better” campaign. Ah, I thought, there’s what’s missing from the story.

It wasn’t like I didn’t know how it felt to be bullied, after all.

I decided to pull the Kansas book back out, and write that first draft, in the wake of two news stories that happened around the same time: Steubenville, Ohio and Marysville, Missouri. As I watched those cases unfold, I knew that was the answer to the Kansas book; my ‘small city with a great football program’ (and whose name went through many changes over the years–Kahola to Greenfield to Carterville to its final name, Liberty Center) obviously had to have a rape culture problem, derived from the culture of toxic masculinity that was created in order to have a successful football program. This decision was reiterated when I read Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer–which I bought and started reading one day when I was trapped in the Newark airport by a flight cancellation for like eight hours or so. (Also: shout out to friend Gwen Florio, a reporter for the Missoula paper whose coverage of the stories there featured heavily in the book)

So, when I sat down to write that draft in a month (oh to have that kind of focus again), that was in the forefront of my mind: the triggering event that may have potentially have led to the murder was the sexual assault of a cheerleader at a party before school started.

So, yes, I have written a crime novel set in a small town with a rape culture problem. Am I the best person to write such a book? Maybe, maybe not. But that’s why I am so nervous–how are people going to react to this story? From me?

And then I think, oh, it’s not like anyone pays any attention to you or your career anyway.

And now back to the spice mines.

Always

Wednesday, and somehow Pay the Bills Day kind of snuck up on me unawares. That’s probably not a bad thing; it certainly means I am not living paycheck-to-paycheck (at least for the moment), which means a lot less stress (there are few things more stressful than money problems) for the time being.

And yes, I am thoroughly enjoying being free of that stress for the time being. I am sure at some point it will return with a vengeance, hence my embrace of the current status.

I’ve recently been immersed in #shedeservedit this past week or so; the final round of edits came in from my editor, and no sooner had I gone over them, rereading the entire thing yet again, then the page proofs dropped into my inbox. I actually have more time than usual to get these done–which is quite lovely and marvelous–and this of course is only checking for typos and mistakes and missing words, etc. But it’s been weird spending so much time in Kansas again in my head lately.

Immersing myself into that world has also been an interesting experience; particularly when you take into consideration how much different the story is now than where it was at when I first wrote it. It was, sadly, inspired by the viral rape cases in Steubenville, Ohio and Marysville, Missouri; much as I hate to admit this, the sexual assault of teenaged girls by their classmates etc. wasn’t really on my radar until those stories went viral–and of course, the Stanford swimmer rapist. All three cases horrified me to the very core of my being; and given that the only recourse I had to effect change was to write about it, I decided to start writing what I obliquely referred to as “the Kansas book” for a very long time (despite the fact that I had always titled it #shedeservedit).

Ah, Kansas.

We moved to Kansas when I was fourteen (I turned fifteen later that summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school). To say it was a bit of a culture shock is putting it mildly. The entire state of Kansas is less populous than Chicago, and the biggest town (small city) in the county was smaller than the suburb where we had lived. I don’t know how many students my suburban high school had, but the building itself was enormous and we basically had a campus; the town library was on the property and we had a field house by the football field, with locker rooms for the home and away teams. My high school in Kansas had 180 students, and my class, the largest in school history, had 48 kids. The school was simply a lobby, a single hallway for the classrooms, and a gym, which had a stage for plays at one end of the basketball court. Our hall lockers didn’t even have locks–which was unimaginable at my former school. We actually lived in a very small town (population 942) about eight miles north of the county seat; that town was the second largest one in the county. My high school was consolidated; five small towns and all the farms in the community sent their kids there–it was sixteen miles from where we lived.

Kansas, and my high school there, had a profound influence on me in many ways. I had taken a creative writing class at my former school–got an A, and some praise from the teacher, but nothing overwhelming–but it was in Kansas where I really started writing. My English class required us to write papers my junior year; my teacher very generously allowed me to write fiction, and so I did. Everyone in my class loved the stories I wrote, and my teacher, the hallowed Mrs. Anderson, encouraged me to pursue writing as a vocation–which was the first time I ever had any kind of encouragement of any kind from anyone other than my grandmother to do so–and that was when I actually began to believe it was something that could happen for me; that I had the ability to tell stories and write and even possibly, at some point, get paid to do so and maybe even make a living doing it. (It only took more than twenty years after graduation, but I did eventually start getting paid to write; it was even my primary source of income for a very long time.)

The town in the book–Liberty Center (a nod to Philip Roth’s When She Was Good)–is obviously based very slightly on the county seat; mostly the geography more than anything else, as well as it also has a small college, a park on the way out of town just before a waterfall; and another park on the other side of town rumored to be a gay cruising spot. I’ve written about this town, and this county, a lot over the years, but the name of that town has changed numerous times–everything from Greenfield to Kahola to Carterville and finally, Liberty Center. (Sara, the first young adult novel I wrote chronologically, is also set in that same area; however the county seat in that book had a different name; Kahola, I think) I’ve not set foot in Kansas since we left for California in February 1981; so this is all from my memory, with an occasional glance at Google Earth or Google Maps. Obviously, everything there has changed dramatically in the forty years (!) since we got on Amtrak and headed west at two in the morning; I tended to stick to my actual memories than the reality of what has changed.

So, when these notorious sexual assault cases involving kids (sorry, I still, and will always, think of college students as kids too, YMMV) became so viral and so ever-present everywhere, I knew I finally had the story for the book I wanted to write in this fictional town–I’d made any number of false starts over the years; some of which may eventually became the seeds for other books–but I have always, always, wanted to write a book set there, and writing a toxic masculinity/rape culture book set there just seemed like the right way to go. I had everything in place that I wanted or needed to write the book; the only thing I didn’t know how to do was end it. So, as I mentioned the other day, I finished the last book I had under contract sometime in the spring of 2015, and took the month of July to write this first draft–96,000 words, nineteen chapters, and missing the concluding one. I didn’t get the story right in the first draft, but set it aside to do other things for awhile before coming back to it. I worked on it around other projects over the years since, and finally, last year, finally recognized the truth I’d been avoiding–it will never be finished unless you sign a contract for it with a deadline. And so I did, and now it will be released in January of this year.

And yes, the deadline was precisely the panicking terrified motivation I needed to make the changes to the story that made it gel and possible for me to write an ending.

And of course, as always, I have been plagued with doubts every step of the way while writing this: am I the right person to write this book? Is a white male the right person to do a book built around toxic masculinity and rape culture? Am I taking a spot in publishing away from someone who might be better qualified and better experienced to write such a novel?

But writing is about taking risks, and trying to push yourself. One of the reasons I started doing the stand-alone books all those years ago was because I worried about getting stale and bored writing my two series; originally, switching back and forth between them helped keep them fresh and new to me…but around 2009 I was starting to feel like those books were becoming repetitive (how many car accidents has Scotty been in?) and stale; that I didn’t have anything new or interesting to say about them. (I kind of am feeling that way with Scotty right now–Chanse has ended, although I may do some novellas with him; but am hopeful once I get everything done that I am working on currently that I can sit down and gather my thoughts on the next Scotty book into something interesting and cohesive and frankly, worthy of the character) I use the stand-alone books to push myself further as a writer, into exploring other things and voices and tenses, which I hope makes the series books better.

I guess we’ll have to see how that goes, won’t we?

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, everyone, and will check in with you again tomorrow.

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.