I have decided, at long last, to throw away my ratty old LSU sweatshirt.
This sweatshirt, for the record, predates Paul, that’s how old it is. It’s either thirty or twenty-nine; I cannot really remember one way or the other. It was, however, my very first LSU sweatshirt–the first of many–and I bought it at the bookstore on the LSU campus. I don’t remember which drive from Houston to Tampa it was when I stopped on campus and bought it–it was either a time when I was driving my new car from Houston back to Tampa, or when I was riding with a friend who was driving from Phoenix to Tampa–I flew into Houston, he met me at the airport and we drove on to Tampa from there, but for a very long time it was my only LSU sweatshirt, and I’ve always had a deep fondness for it. It’s been worn and washed so many times that it’s incredibly thin and threadbare; the neckline is fraying and so are the sleeves at the wrist. It’s stained and ratty and messy, so much so that I won’t even wear it to run errands. I only wear it around the house and usually only when all the other sweatshirts are dirty (I live in sweats when I am at home), and the other day as I was putting it on I realized not only how old it was but how bad of shape it was in. Why are you holding on to this sweatshirt? I asked myself, and then Saturday morning as I was folding it out of the dryer I thought throw it away, why are you keeping this? Sentiment? You pride yourself on your lack of that emotion, so I decided to take a photo of it, write a farewell blog entry to it, and put it in the trash–which I should have done years ago, really.
I don’t even remember why I decided to stop on campus and buy it, to be honest. I have no memory of that at all. Even now, when we are on campus for games and go by the store, it doesn’t look familiar at all from back then. Maybe they’ve built or redesigned the campus store, I don’t know; it’s certainly possible. But I don’t remember it being right by the stadium, either; it’s possible there are two stores on campus. I couldn’t say for sure.
Despite growing up as an Auburn and Alabama fan (in that order; the rule was you always rooted for Alabama unless they were playing Auburn), I’ve always kind of been partial to LSU, even though I had no connection to either the school or the state until much later in life. I’ve tried to remember why I always liked LSU, even as a kid–I think it was two things: purple has always been a favorite color of mine, especially when paired with gold, and the live tiger on campus (which I am now on the fence about–I see the arguments both for and against keeping a live tiger on campus as a mascot, but I love that tiger). My cousin actually was on the Auburn team that lost the Earthquake Game back in 1988–my family is still bitter about that 7-6 last minute loss–and when we moved to Louisiana, I got Paul into college football and he became an LSU fan because we lived here. I still rooted for Auburn and Alabama and LSU, in that order. I was still rooting for Auburn and Alabama when they played LSU, though; even in 2003 when LSU won its first national championship since 1958. It was 2005 when everything shifted for me on the college football landscape; that horrible 2005 season after Katrina, when LSU’s football team was about the only positive thing Louisiana had going for it that season, that was when I went full-on bleed purple-and-gold LSU fan, and have never looked back since. Paul of course had already gone full tilt LSU fan, and his enthusiasm was catching. I used to only care about college football; now I pay attention to almost every sport, from basketball to gymnastics to baseball to track so I can root for the Tigers.
Even before LSU moved to the front of the list, I was writing about LSU. Chanse played scholarship football for LSU, and would have possibly played pro had he not suffered a career-ending knee injury in the Sugar Bowl his last season of eligibility. Chanse was a tight end; and I had always intended for Chanse to go back to LSU and solve a murder on the campus, at his fraternity house. That story, “Once a Tiger,” is about four thousand words in; I’ve debated turning it into both a novel or a novella rather than a short story. Scotty is an LSU fan–I wrote about Mike the Tiger in Baton Rouge Bingo–and of course, in A Streetcar Named Murder Valerie’s twin sons are in their first semester up there.
Paul and I went to our first LSU game in Tiger Stadium in November of 2010. It was the Mississippi game, the Magnolia Bowl; there’s not much love lost between LSU and Mississippi–their fans still can’t get over Billy Cannon’s Run back in 1959. LSU has ruined many a season for the Rebels, and vice versa, but I do think they hate us more than we hate them. The game was amazing, and we had a great time. We went to several games in 2011, and it wasn’t until the COVID year of 2020 that we went the entire season without going to a game; the only game we went to in 2021 was the first time the Tigers ever lost when we were at the game (Auburn, ironically; it was also Auburn’s first win in Baton Rouge this century). We didn’t go to any games this year, either; not sure if we will be going to any more in the future, either; but one never knows, and I would like to go to at least one more Saturday night game in Death Valley. We’ve been to some great games over the years, and I am very happy to say that we got to see that great 2019 team play twice–and we were at the Florida game, which was amazing and exciting and I couldn’t talk for at least three days afterwards.
And of course, this season was all over the place, but the team did something never done before in LSU football history: won at both Florida and Auburn…so obviously, the team has never won in Gainesville and Auburn and beat Alabama in Baton Rouge. Not even Joe Burrow could do that; in his first year as a Tiger he was 1-2 in those three games. So, if nothing else, Jayden Daniels has won a place in LSU history for that, and Brian Kelly did something in his first year in Baton Rouge that no LSU coach had ever done before–including Nick Saban (even the year Saban led LSU to a national title, that team lost to Florida in Tiger Stadium).
And so it’s goodbye to my old sweatshirt at long last. I don’t know why I didn’t throw it away sooner–it’s been ratty and stained and threadbare for years–unless it was an unconscious kind of sentimentality. I haven’t preserved much of my pre-Paul life–I’ve always viewed those years as a prologue to the rest of my life–but this was one of the few things left from that time.
But its time has passed, so farewell to you, old LSU sweatshirt. You served me well…and now I get to buy a new one to replace it. YES!
It never ceases to amaze me the way this series has been embraced by readers, or that twenty years after turning in the first one here I am writing the ninth (or it is the eighth?) volume. It just goes to show that trying to come up with a plan for your writing career (at least in my case) is a fool’s game. Revisiting my work the way I have been recently–in part because I am writing another book in this seemingly endless series–has also reminded me of plans that have gone awry over the years; things I was trying to do with my writing and the series and the stand-alones that somehow got lost in the shuffle of trying to make a living while trying to be a writer at the same time as well as balance volunteer work, editing, and my relationship and my responsibilities around the house; and sometimes wondering if maybe I shouldn’t revisit and/or revive those plans. I’d like to get a lot of projects I’ve been thinking about for years or have in some sort of progress finished at long last before I come up with anything new–the problem, of course, being that there’s always something new poking its way out from the deep dark corners and recesses of my creative mind.
I famously said on a panel at Saints and Sinners, when asked about the potentiality of another book in the Scotty series, that if I could “think of a way to include Mike the Tiger from LSU along with Huey Long and his deduct box, I would” and of course, a few days later it struck me across the face like a bitch slap from Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce, and so I started making notes as the story started forming in my head.
I’d been wanting to write about Huey Long ever since I’d read the T. Harry Williams oral biography, Huey Long, which won every award on the planet back in the early 1950’s when it was originally published. I’d been trying to sort out fact from fiction when it came to Long for quite some time by the time someone recommended the Williams volume to me; I was very interested to find out what the actual truth about Long was, separated out from all the noise. I knew about the Kingfish from my US History text book, which devoted an entire paragraph to the “most dangerous politician in American history, the demagogue from Louisiana” without getting into much depth about his rise, what he did, and why he was so reviled.
The GPS in our brand new Explorer announced that it was about ninety miles to Baton Rouge from New Orleans when Frank punched in the coordinates into it before pulling away from the curb at the airport.
I stifled a laugh. It might only be ninety miles, but to a New Orleanian it’s like being sucked into a wormhole and winding up in another dimension.
Of course, New Orleanians are horrible snobs about the city’s suburbs, always making snarky jokes about needing shots and a passport to head over to the West Bank or out to Metairie, so it should be no surprise that we also look down our noses at the rest of Louisiana. We act like there’s no intelligent life outside of Orleans Parish; nowhere decent to eat, no art or culture to speak of, and certainly no one we’d want to associate with could possibly live out there. It’s not true, of course—but we like to pretend it is.
As my Louisiana History teacher at Jesuit High School once sniffed contemptuously, “President Jefferson offered Napoleon $10 million dollars for New Orleans, and for an extra five million he threw in the rest of the continent west of the Mississippi.”
Needless to say, this snobbish disdain for the rest of Louisiana was hardly endearing—which quite frequently means New Orleans gets screwed over by the state legislature.
So, when Frank first mentioned this trip to Baton Rouge, I reacted the way any true New Orleanian would. I scrunched up my face like I’d smelled something really awful and said, “Ew. Do we have to?”
He rolled his eyes. “Yes, we do, and we need to buy a new car.”
This was even more horrifying to me than going to Baton Rouge, to be honest. I hate to drive—I always have. I don’t even like riding in cars. Given the way people drive in New Orleans, it’s understandable. Most drivers in New Orleans don’t use their signals, ignore street signs and traffic laws if inconvenient, and no one here knows how to make a left turn properly at an intersection. It always amazes me that there aren’t more traffic fatalities.
As I had mentioned in my entry on Who Dat Whodunnit, I had always liked LSU; how can you not love a team that actually has a LIVE TIGER mascot? But of course I was always Auburn first then Alabama; LSU was my third favorite SEC team, and after we moved here it kept creeping closer and closer until I only rooted against LSU when they were playing Auburn, which then became I’m happy whoever wins but after Katrina? I went all in on LSU. Paul and I went to our first game in 2010, the Mississippi game, and it was incredibly exciting and I became an even bigger fan; there literally is nothing like a Saturday night in Death Valley, and remember–I’d gone to plenty of college games in my life before that experience, and I thought the Auburn-Florida game in 1993 was the biggest and most exciting game day experience I’d ever had…
…and then I went to an LSU rivalry game at night in Tiger Stadium, and no, there’s absolutely nothing like that experience, anywhere, any time. And I love Mike the Tiger. (every time I go to a game I stop by the habitat to see if he’s out in the yard so I can say hello; he’s such a beautiful animal.) Constant Reader is undoubtedly very tired of listen to me about my LSU fandom and how much I love going to games in Tiger Stadium, but there probably wouldn’t be LSU football as we know it if not for Huey Long. Huey Long turned LSU from a small-enrollment C level state university into what is today, or at least got it started. He’s the reason the stadium is shaped the way it is (he wanted to expand the stadium but there was no money in the budget for it–but there was money to build a new dorm…so he built the dormitory into the stadium. The stadium only stopped being a functioning dorm in the 1980’s or 90’s I believe, and I think there’s a plan to refurbish and reopen the dorm…so yes, Tiger Stadium is the only football stadium in the world that can also serve as a dorm…and the football stadium was used as a staging center for the evacuation of New Orleans after the Katrina flood), and he encouraged the students to raise the money to get a live tiger mascot.
When I was puzzling over how to work all of these elements into a modern-day crime novel, there was a bomb threat on the LSU campus which resulted in an evacuation of the campus. The administration made sure Mike the Tiger was secured and evacuated safely before the general evacuation call, and of course, the students who think football is over-emphasized and prioritized over the university’s primary role as an institute of higher learning (they aren’t wrong, for the record) were furious and outraged that the tiger was giving a priority over the students. I don’t blame them in the least for those horrible optics, but I also understood where Admin was coming from; it was all a part of their safety strategy, and I am sorry, when you have a live tiger habitat on your campus, you kind of have to take that into consideration. Would you want to try to evacuate a tiger during the chaos of a general campus evacuation? How many things could go wrong in that situation? (And the question of whether there should be a live tiger habitat on a college campus is certainly one that should be discussed–traditions aren’t always a good thing–but not in the midst of a chaotic situation and a threat to campus safety. And as I understand it, his team of vets and veterinary students moved very quickly and it resulted in perhaps a fifteen minute delay in the general evacuation call? And leaving him on an abandoned campus was just not an option. So I decided to start my book with Scotty and Frank heading to Baton Rouge, getting caught in the evacuation panic traffic, while Mom is currently being arrested for slapping the state Attorney General. Mike gets kidnapped during the evacuation by a rabid animal rights’ movement, and the leader of the group turns out to not only be from New Orleans but also connected to Huey Long–her grandfather worked for him, and was killed in a car accident shortly after Huey was assassinated.
And at the root of everything is the deduct box. the big strongbox of cash Huey always kept on hand to pay for “unexpected expenses” no one wanted a record of–and I even brought back a villain from the past. I also introduced a new character to the family dynamic: Taylor Rutledge, Frank’s nephew from Corinth County, Alabama (see? all of my books are connected), disowned by his religious rural Southern parents after he came out to them and comes to New Orleans to live with them (I had an eye to spinning Taylor off into his own y/a crime series, but it hasn’t happened yet).
And this book has, perhaps, one of my favorite scenes ever in a Scotty book–when he realizes the bad guys have set he and Taylor adrift at sea…and Mike the Tiger is also on the boat with them (hat tip to Life of Pi).
And having now introduced a new character to the family dynamic, I could hardly call it quits on the series after that–so I knew there was going to be yet another.
Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?
I am a very proud member of Who Dat Nation, and have been since we moved here in 1996. I never really paid a lot of attention to the NFL before moving to New Orleans; I vaguely was aware of who was good and who wasn’t–and I knew very certainly that the Saints had routinely been one of the worst football teams, consistently, in the league since they were formed in 1966. You couldn’t not be aware of how hopelessly bad the Saints were, year in and year out. I always root for underdogs–a particularly American trait, I might add, which is another good essay topic (how we always root for underdogs, especially in our entertainment–film, television, books–but in the real world we either look the other way or actually pile-on. We all feel bad for poor bullied Carrie White in Stephen King’s Carrie and hate the cruel kids…but how many of us ever stood up for some kid being bullied in school? My experience as the bullied is NONE.)–and so I always wanted to see the Saints somehow turn their program around. Paul and I always watched the games–or had them on–when they aired; there were many times the games were blacked out locally because they didn’t sell out the Superdome.
Three things were inevitable in New Orleans: hot summers, termites in the spring, and the Saints would suck in the fall. When we first moved to Louisiana LSU was also in a downturn slump; some seasons they’d win, some they’d lose, but they were rarely, if ever, in contention for the conference title. I had a Saints ball cap and a Saints T-shirt, of course, but I was an idle fan of theirs for a very long time.
As with so many other things, my attitude towards the Saints was completely changed by Hurricane Katrina.
It was the best of times.
It was the craziest of times.
Well, what it really had to be was the end times, which was the only logical explanation for what was going on in the city of New Orleans.
Pigs grew wings and nested in the branches of the beautiful love oaks everywhere in the city. Some thought the pilot light in hell had gone out, so that icicles hung from the noses of shivering demons in the realm of the dark lord. Others started watching the horizon for the arrival of the Four Horsemen, for surely the Apocalypse must be coming. Surely the earth was tilting on its axis. Maybe aliens would land in Audubon Park, or the Mississippi River would start flowing backward.
Anything and everything was possible, because the Saints were winning.
People who don’t live in the South don’t really understand how important football is down here. Football is more than a religion in the Deep South. I’m not sure what it is–my mom claims it’s because the South lost the Civil War–but it’s true. On Saturdays, when the colleges play their games, the entire region comes to a complete halt. People live and die by their teams–whether it’s LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia or Tennessee–and how they face on Saturday. I myself grew up cheering for the LSU Tigers–even though attending Vanderbilt was a family tradition on my mother’s side. Whenever Papa Fontenot gives me crap for dropping (well, flunking is probably a more accurate word) out after my sophomore year, I give him a withering look and reply, “Maybe I’d have done better at LSU.
That always shuts him up.
I don’t think even the Saints organization knew how much the team actually meant to New Orleans until they tried to move the team after Katrina.
Everyone knows the Superdome was damaged by Katrina and the aftermath. I’ll never forget driving back into the city in either late September or early October and seeing it as I came around that curve in I-10 just past Metairie Road and the cemeteries; I wrote in Murder in the Rue Chartres that it resembled a half-peeled hard-boiled egg. One of the saddest things for me about seeing the wreckage of the Lost Apartment was finding my beloved Saints ball-cap lying on the rug in the living room and consumed by black mold. It seemed so symbolic of everything that had happened to us and our city.
Obviously, the Saints had nowhere to play home games and arrangements had to be made. Some games were played at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, others in San Antonio–and San Antonio made it very clear they would be more than happy to give them a permanent home.
It felt like the Saints organization was not only stabbing New Orleans in the back, but the entire state. I know I took it very personally; the city had supported and loved that team through decades of mediocrity if not outright suckage, and now when the city is at its lowest point, they’re going to move to San Antonio? But the NFL wasn’t having it–Tom Benson always made it seem like it was his decision, but the NFL was committed to New Orleans and wouldn’t let the Saints leave. The Dome was renovated and fixed in record time; the season tickets for 2006 sold out for the first time in years, and the new Saints–with our new coach and quarterback–debuted on Monday night football against the hated Atlanta Falcons. I wasn’t even aware of it, I was paying so little attention to everything going on around the country and world, to be honest. I ran my errands that day and noticed Saints flags were everywhere and people were wearing Saints jerseys and there was this strange sense of excitement in the air. Paul and I were living in the carriage house and we only had this tiny little black-and-white television, but we watched that night. And when Steve Gleason blocked that punt and the Saints recovered in the end zone–we both cried as we jumped up and down and screamed. (Everyone remembers the punt, but the entire game was amazing from beginning to end.) People call the blocked punt “the moment Louisiana healed,” and maybe they were right about that…but all I knew was for the first time in over a year we had something to be excited about, cheer about, and be proud of–and the Saints made it all the way to the NFC title game, so close to making it to the promised land of the Super Bowl.
I’ve been a rabid Who Dat ever since (2005 I also switched my first college allegiance from Auburn to LSU, but that’s a story for another time.).
And that magical season when the Saints not only went to, but won the Super Bowl? I had to write about it. I had never lived in a city that won a championship before, and let me tell you–it was insane in New Orleans that season, insane–as were the play-offs and the Super Bowl. I cried when Tracy Porter picked off Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter and ran it back for a touchdown to ice the game, and I cried again when the clock ticked to zero and the impossible had finally happened: the Saints had won the Super Bowl. It was so noisy that night; cars were honking their horns all night long, the streetcars rang their bells non-stop, and people were just chanting and cheering all over the city. We could hear the crowd at the bar on the corner, we could hear our neighbors, it was just insane and celebratory. Paul and I to this day have regretted not getting dressed and heading down to the Quarter to see it all; when will that ever happen again? The Saint may win a Super Bowl again, but it will never be the first time ever again.
I remember later that spring a friend asked if I thought the Saints would be good again the next year, and I just smiled. “I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is we finally won the Super Bowl and I can die happy, and I think a lot of us feel that way.”
The Saints are New Orleans, and New Orleans is the Saints. (I also am a little disappointed in myself for forgetting that A Streetcar Named Murder is actually set during football season; I didn’t mention it once and that’s a significant flaw in the book, honestly.)
So I decided to write another Scotty book, set it in that period between the Saints winning the NFC Championship and the Super Bowl so I could document that time, and I also decided to bring the other side of his family–the Bradleys–into the mix and give him a cousin who actually was on the Saints team and kind of a dick.
It was around this time, when I was planning or writing the book, that same-sex marriage was in the news a lot. Several suits were winding their way through the courts, and public opinion–thoroughly anti-queer in 2004 when it was on the ballot on a lot of states–was starting to swing back the other way. There was an incident at a beauty pageant when Miss California (her name escapes me now) was asked by Perez Hilton (who shouldn’t be judging anything, frankly) about same-sex marriage. She had to say she was against it, and even apologized, saying “I’m sorry, it’s how I was raised!” as the crowd began booing and jeering. She didn’t win, and I actually felt like it was kind of a shitty question to ask, but on the other hand, California had passed Prop 8 in 2008 (which was kind of the catalyst for the public opinion change, I believe). I also have always believed the old “it’s how I was raised” is a copout for bad or unpopular opinions–most white people are raised racist, after all–and questioning and reevaluating values and beliefs you were raised with is part of the maturation process of becoming your own person. But I was willing to cut her a break–she was young, it was a “gotcha’ kind of question, and kind of unfair–until she doubled down and decided to became the Patron Saint of Homophobia, following in the pumps of another runner-up pageant queen who became the face of hate and bigotry, wrapping it all up in religion and “concern for children”: yep, the hateful old bitch Anita Bryant herself, may she burn in hell for all eternity. She didn’t last long–its hard to paint yourself as a martyr for family values when you’ve been caught sexting (and recording yourself masturbating to send your man–and that was the end of that. I decided to make the reigning Miss Louisiana a homophobe who got that question at Nationals and is now dating Scotty’s cousin the Saints player–and he brings her to Christmas, with the end result that she gets slugged by Scotty’s mother and their family storms out.
And the night the Saints win the NFC championship, she’s murdered.
It was fun because I got to involve a megachurch in Jefferson Parish (there actually is one), and a sordid history of her own that the beauty queen was keeping secret for her own reasons–(coughs LESBIAN coughs) and even got to bring some more past characters back into the mix, like Emily who worked at the Devil’s Weed, and I had a lot of fun with this look into the other side of Scotty’s family (the one I am working on now also deals with another branch of relatives).
And I got to write about the Saints winning the Super Bowl, which was even more awesome. This was the book where I really thought I was done with Scotty. The year after it came out, at the next Saints and Sinners, was when I was asked if I would do another Scotty book; this was when I made my famous reply, “if I can figure out a way to include Mike the LSU Tiger, Huey Long, and his deduct box into a book, I will write another Scotty book.”
Of course, later that night it hit me like a 2 by 4 across the forehead, and I made some notes that eventually became Baton Rouge Bingo.
As I get ready to write another Scotty book, I am busy making his acquaintance all over again. It might seem strange, but yes, although I’ve written eight books about my ex-go-go boy/personal trainer/private eye, it remains true in this as in all other aspects of my life that my memory is not what it once was; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a Scotty book since the first three without having to go back and revisit the series again. I have made continuity errors over the years (Scotty’s mother’s name changed over the course of the series, from Cecile to Marguerite and back to Cecile again), and I may forget things about his past and things I’ve written in previous books, but the one thing I never ever forget is his voice.
No matter what else is going on in my life, Scotty’s voice is very easy for me to slip back into, like a house shoe, and it somehow always feels like coming home to me in some ways. This is odd–because I would have always thought Chanse was the series character I was more connected to rather than Chanse, but that’s not the case at all. Scotty just won’t go away; but I ended the Chanse series and only every once in a while do I regret it (although I am beginning to suspect that I am going to probably end up writing another Chanse novel at some point in my life; I have two ideas that he’d be perfect for, but it also might be better and more challenging for me to simply come up with a whole new character for those stories rather than resurrecting Chanse); Scotty just won’t ever go away.
The idea for the Scotty series famously came to me during Southern Decadence, 1998.
(Well, I don’t know about famously, but I know I’ve told this story before many, many times. Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t want to see how I remember the birth of the character and the series now)
It was a Sunday afternoon, and Paul and I had somehow managed to get prime balcony standing spots–at the Bourbon Pub/Parade, right at the corner of St. Ann and Bourbon where the railing curves at the corner to head alongside the upper floor down the St. Ann side; so we could look down directly into the roiling mass of sweaty, almost completely naked bodies of hundreds of gay men from all over the country. That was my favorite spot for Decadence sight-seeing (Halloween, too, for that matter), and as I looked down into the crowd, I saw a guy in booty shorts and a very very loose fitting tank top, carrying a bag and trying to get through. I recognized him as one of the out-of-town dancers working at the Pub/Parade that weekend (I may have tipped him the night before) and as I watched in sympathy as he tried to get through that tightly-packed crowd of gays in various stages of being wasted, I closed my eyes and an image of him–or someone like him–fighting his way through the Decadence crowd while being chased by bad guys with shaved heads popped into my head just as Paul said, next to me, “You should really write a story set during Decadence” and then it popped into my head: someone escaping the bad guys has slipped a computer disc into one of the dancers’ boots on Friday night as he danced on the downstairs bar, and the bad guys want the disc back.
I didn’t have any way to write it down, obviously–I was wearing booty shorts, socks, and half-boots that came to my ankles, with nothing underneath the shorts and I had my tank top tucked through a belt loop like a tail in the back–yet even the title popped into my head: Bourbon Street Blues. The idea clearly stuck, because when I got home the next morning at about six or seven, dehydrated, drenched in sweat and having lost the tank top at some point during the night, I remembered it and wrote it down.
At some point over the next two years, I wrote a short story called “Bourbon Street Blues” about my stripper–only instead of being from out of town, I made him a local, filling in for someone booked from out of town for the weekend who had to cancel–and wrote about seven thousand words. It felt very rushed to me–the story–and I kept thinking it’s too long for a short story, it would have to be a novel but I also wasn’t sure there was enough story there for a novel. But I liked the idea, no one (at least, to the best of my knowledge) had written anything like it, and I thought, someday I’ll get a chance to write this story and develop this character.
Flash forward to 2001. This was during the time Paul and I had moved to DC to work for the Lambda Literary Foundation, we were miserable there and wanted to move back to New Orleans but didn’t have the money to do so, and the release of Murder in the Rue Dauphine was still at least a year away. I was talking to an editor on the phone about one of his new gay releases, and out of the blue I just pitched Bourbon Street Blues to him. He loved the idea, and asked me to write a proposal and email it to him. I had never written a proposal before, but I thought what the hell, how hard can it be? and so I wrote a two page proposal for the book. Two months later they made me a two-book offer–and the money was good enough to pay for Paul and I to move back to New Orleans as well as to live on for a while. I had only seen the book as a one-off, but they wanted a series. I needed and wanted the money, so I thought I can figure this out later and signed it.
Three months later, we moved back to New Orleans and I started writing the book.
The one thing I wanted to do with Scotty was make him unabashedly, unashamedly, gay. I didn’t want him to have any hang-ups, a sad backstory, or parental issues. I wanted him to be a free spirit who embraces life with both hands, lived in the Quarter, and loved having sex, loved being found desirable, and never really said anything or thought anything mean about anyone else. I made him a personal trainer, and his poverty–he agrees to do the dancing gig for Decadence because he’s behind on his rent and other bills; he teaches aerobics and was a personal trainer–comes from his grandparents freezing his trust funds when he dropped out of college to go to work for a booking agency for male dancers. He has since stopped doing that, but fills in when needed (and when he needs the money) at the Pub/Parade. I also based the shitty politician running for governor–and trying to mount a Christofascist takeover of the state, beginning with an attack on Southern Decadence–on an actual politician who ran for the US Senate shortly after we moved here; we saw him being interviewed on the news and couldn’t believe it wasn’t a joke, some kind of performance art–but forget it Greg, it’s Louisiana.
I also want to let you know that while I was working on this manuscript my first book, Murder in the Rue Dauphine, was released–and I got a “damned with faint praise” review from the Bay Area Reporter, which complained that “it would have been nice to see inside the heads of the other characters”, which took me aback as the book was a first person narrative, which made that impossible. What the reviewer I think was trying to say was that she wished the book had been told in the third person; that to her that would have made the book more interesting to her. But in my baby-author naïveté, all I could think was how can you see inside the heads of other characters in a third person narrative unless the main character was psychic?And the proverbial lightbulb came on over my head. Make Scotty a psychic. This was also an integral key to the puzzle of who Scotty was; the reviewer also yawned over my “gay stereotypes” in Rue Dauphine, so I decided to make Scotty the embodiment of all the worst stereotypes of muscular gay men who worked out and had a lot of sex. Just writing that down now, I realize how incredibly insane it was for me to use my new series book and character to respond to criticism o my debut novel; and when the book came out I braced myself for the inevitable backlash to come.
No one was more surprised than I was at how readers embraced him. The book got great reviews, even from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal (Kirkus, of course, has always pretended I don’t exist). Bourbon Street Blues was even nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Mystery of 2003 (I lost, I think to John Morgan Wilson?) shortly after the sequel, Jackson Square Jazz, was released.
Jackson Square Jazz’s story was actually a recycled idea I had for a spin-off book for Chanse’s best friend Paige. The original concept was that someone would steal the Louisiana Purchase from the Cabildo–and somehow Paige stumbled onto the theft, and knew that the one on display currently there was a copy. (I was calling it, originally enough, Louisiana Purchase.) I decided to make that the basis of the second Scotty book. (This was inspired by a documentary I’d seen about the Cabildo fire of 1989–that may be the wrong date–and how the fire department tried saving everything in the museum before fighting the fire. I remembered how in the documentary they literally were placing historical objects and paintings against the fence at Jackson Square and thinking, anyone could have walked off with something during the fire…and my imagination immediately was off to the races.) Unfortunately, when I met with the museum director–whose actual first day on the job was the day of the fire–I found out that 1) the copy of the Louisiana Purchase at the Cabildo was actually only a replica and the original was stored in the weather-protected underground archive at the Library of Congress and 2) it was more than one page long–I’d imagined it was one large document like the Declaration of Independence; it is not. However–he also suggested I make the MacGuffin the Napoleon death mask–one of the three originals made when Napoleon died–and gave me some great backstory on it as well that I don’t remember if I used in the book or not; but it was a lot of fun talking to him (his name escapes me at the moment, alas) and was a great example of why it is important to actually do research and talk to people.
I also wanted to include figure skating–the working title for the book was Death Spiral, which the publisher made me change, asking for something alliterative, like Bourbon Street Blues–and so I decided to open the book with Scotty having a horrific hangover and then realizing someone was in the bed with him (it’s to this day one of my favorite book openings; what slutty gay man hasn’t been there?)…and then I remembered I’d introduced two love interests for Scotty in book one, and here he was in bed with someone else entirely. (The young man he woke up with was a figure skater in town to compete at Skate America, being held in the Smoothie King Arena.) I loved both of his love interests, and knew I was going to have to bring both of them back somehow, and then I was going to have to figure out which one he’d end up with. (Spoiler: I couldn’t decide, so he wound up with both of them.) I also threw in a ghost, a billionaire artifact collector, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. I turned in the book, along with a proposal for Book Three, in which I finally decided I was going to resolve the threeway relationship personal story, and that would be the end of the Scotty trilogy.
Man plans and God laughs. (Jackson Square Jazz was also nominated for a Lambda; I think this was the time I lost to Anthony Bidulka.)
Mardi Gras Mambo turned out to be an entire other kettle of fish.
I’m not entirely sure I remember exactly what the original plot of Mardi Gras Mambo was going to be, but I know it had to do with the Krewe of Iris (Scotty’s sister Rain belongs) and the book opened at the Iris parade on the Saturday morning before Fat Tuesday. It was due in June of 2004, and of course, I wasn’t nearly finished by the time Memorial Day rolled around, and was planning on asking for another month on the manuscript on the Tuesday after. Of course, that was the Memorial Day weekend when Paul was attacked and everything went to hell in my personal life. My publisher was incredibly kind; they took the book off schedule, told me to take care of Paul, and get the book done whenever I got the book done.
I started writing it again in January of 2005, shortly after I began keeping a blog in order to get me writing again. That was when the Christian/Virginia nonsense happened, and everything got derailed again. When I started writing the book again, I threw out everything except that first chapter at the Iris parade–which did wind up in the final book–and I do not recall what the second plot I chose to write was at this time, other than I knew I was bringing in a Russian character, inspired by someone I’d seen around in the bars for years and had always been just awestruck by his body–and yes, that Russian turned out to eventually be Wacky Russian, my personal trainer. I actually kept this as an inspiration–Eclipse used to be the nightlife insert for IMPACT News, a queer newspaper that died out in the early aughts:
Finally, it was April 2005, and I started writing Mardi Gras Mambo again. I had the plot all figured out–it was completely insane–but I also realized I couldn’t end the personal story with Scotty the way I had hoped and wrap it all up with Book Three. There had to be a Book 4, and so when I finished the book at last and turned it in, I included a proposal for a fourth Scotty, Hurricane Party Hustle–which was going to be set during an evacuation for a hurricane that missed New Orleans…I always thought it would be interesting to write a mystery story set during such an evacuation.
Of course, I turned the book into Kensington on August 14th, 2005. Fourteen days later, Paul, Skittle and I fled from New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina.
I wouldn’t come back for good until October 11. Paul didn’t come home until after Thanksgiving.
Of course, I wrote to my editor a day or so after the levee failure to say, well, I don’t think I can write that book I proposed now.
I didn’t see, for a very long time afterwards, how I could write another Scotty book–light, funny, zany–in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Then one day I was walking to work from where I’d parked my car and some people on bicycles came riding toward me. They smiled and waved and I smiled and waved back…and realized oh my God, that was Brad and Anjelina. Their house wasn’t far from my office–in fact, it was quite literally around the block from where Scotty lived–and I thought, you know, Brad kind of looks the way I describe Scotty–wouldn’t it be funny if someone tried to kill Scotty because he looked like a movie star who lived in his neighborhood? The more I thought about it, the funnier it became, and I started writing the proposal for Hollywood South Hustle when I got home from work that night. I was so certain they would take it that I started developing the characters and writing out a detailed synopsis…and they turned it down.
I wasn’t expecting that, but it was a marketing decision. Even if they signed the book immediately, it would still be another year before it would come out, and they felt by then Scotty’s audience was long gone, if it wasn’t already. It was disappointing, but right around the same time Alyson came back to me for a fourth Chanse book but they needed it right away–like within ten weeks–so I turned the Scotty story into Murder in the Rue Ursulines. I finished the book, turned it in, and figured the Scotty series was dead, alas.
Shortly thereafter, during the Gay Easter Parade an idea for a different Scotty book occurred to me . The parade was over and I was walking back to my car to drive home when I walked underneath a balcony…just as they started watering their plants. I got soaked–you can’t get mad, it happens in the Quarter periodically and it’s just one of those New Orleans things–and I thought, you really need to write about this. As I walked to the car, dripping, I pictured Scotty hurrying to catch a ride on his parents’ business’ float for the Easter Parade–and of course, he’d wear a white bikini, rabbit ears, and have a rabbit tail–when the exact same thing happened to him, only his bikini would become see-through when wet. By the time I’d driven home, I’d figured that the person on the balcony would be an old friend of his parents’, he’d invited Scotty in to dry off, and when Scotty was on his way home from the parade, the cops would be there because the friend had been murdered. Using The Moonstone as my inspiration, I came up with another MacGuffin story, a way for Colin to come back and explain everything that happened during Mardi Gras Mambo, and I had the perfect ending to Scotty’s story. I just didn’t have a publisher.
But Bold Strokes Books, a primarily lesbian publisher, had started doing books by and about gay men. I’d taken an erotica anthology to them when it was orphaned by the death of its original publisher, and so I wrote and asked if they wanted a Scotty story. They did, and thus Scotty came back to life one more time…and I figured that was the end of it. I wrapped up the personal story about the three-way relationship in a way that was organic and made sense; and I also added a new wrinkle to Scotty’s personal life: Frank’s late-in-life decision to become a professional wrestler. (One of the things we locals learned from Hurricane Katrina was to not put off following or chasing dreams or goals; my attitude thus became go for it and I started chasing down dreams I’d pushed to the side for years.) Mardi Gras Mambo and Vieux Carré Voodoo were both nominated for Lambdas, but at this point I can’t remember who I lost to in both of those cases–for the record, Lambda has never rewarded a Scotty book with an award–probably because they are inevitably funny and over-the-top, which never wins awards because funny is seen as “not serious,” despite the fact that humor/comedy is much harder than drama/tragedy.
I didn’t think I was going to write another Scotty book then, either. But then something miraculous happened: the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, and I wanted to write about what it was like to live here during that incredible time. It didn’t seem like the right story for another Chanse book, so I thought, well, I can pull Scotty back out and write it from his point of view.
And of course, Who Dat Whodunnit was just sitting there for the title. How could I not write that book?
I had already established over the course of the series that the two sides of his family–the Diderots (maternal) and the Bradleys (paternal) didn’t really get along. The Diderots go back to Iberville and the 1718 settling of New Orleans; the Bradleys were Americans who came after 1803, and thus are not only parvenus to the aristocratic Diderots, but also l’Américains. Perish the thought! We’d also established that the Diderots were not nearly as conservative as their State Street living in-laws, but we’d never actually seen much of the Bradley side of the family, so I thought why not do the Bradleys and let us get to know the other side of Scotty’s family? It was around the same time I started reading about a megachurch out in Kenner (or Metairie? I don’t recall) that was rising to prominence in local politics and was, as you can imagine, homophobic. The same-sex marriage wars were also being fought at this time; and during one of those pageants (Miss America? Miss USA?) the reigning Miss California was asked about same-sex marriage during the question portion by judge Perez Hilton (why was he judging a beauty pageant for women is a mystery for the ages) and she responded that her faith had taught her that marriage was between a man and a woman (the audience started jeering) and she apologized by saying “I’m sorry, but that’s how I was raised!” She wound up as First Runner-Up, and some felt, rightly or wrongly, that her “politically incorrect” answer cost her the title. In some ways, I felt bad for her (although it’s not my fault it’s how I was raised I have always thought was an incredibly stupid thing to say; you have free will, and you should be capable of making up your own mind rather than simply parroting things without question you were raised to believe. So if your parents were racist white supremacists…) but then of course, the Right tried to turn her into a martyr and heroine, and she dove right into that headfirst, erasing any sympathy I might have felt for her (I still think the question was inappropriate for a pageant, as would be anything polarizing–and yes, well aware that same-sex marriage shouldn’t be polarizing, but here we are), and of course, Miss Upright Moral Christian had a bit of a shady past that eventually came out and that was that. I decided to base the murder victim in the book on this girl, and tried to explore the influence of this megachurch on her. I also gave Scotty a first cousin who was the darling of the Bradley grandparents because he was a jock and was on the Saints team as a player–but also a homophobic asshole. The Bradleys were like something out of Tennessee Williams–I think I even named Scotty’s uncle (the football player’s dad) Uncle Skipper as an homage to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
There’s a lot of story there left in the Bradley side of the family, now that I think about it–and I’ll be digging into that in the new one, rest assured!
Funny story: After I wrote Who Dat Whodunnit, I decided I was not going to write another Scotty book. This had been Book 5 of what started as a stand-alone and then became a trilogy and yet somehow, I’d kept going on top of that. I kind of felt played out a bit with Scotty, and the longer the series went on, the more problems I was having with things like character ages–Scotty was getting older, which meant his parents were getting older, which meant his grandparents were getting older, too. I didn’t want to deal with the deaths of his grandparents (or Aunt Sylvia, who was his grandmother’s age and had married Uncle Misha), and so I had two options: pretend they weren’t getting older and not talk about their ages, or let the series go. I was still writing Chanse at the time, and I kind of figured that would be the series that went on longer. But I was on a panel at Saints and Sinners and someone from the audience asked me if there would be another Scotty.
GREG: Probably not, but if I can figure out a way to include Mike the Tiger (the live tiger mascot at LSU), Huey Long, and a treasure hunt for Huey’s deduct box, I will.
(I had read T. Harry Williams’ award winning biography Huey Long and had become fascinated completely with him. All I had known about Long going into reading that biography was that he’d been a demagogue (thanks, US History textbook from high school) and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men had been loosely based on his life and career. Mention Long’s name to anyone and they immediately reply with “oh, he was so corrupt”–which amused me, since every Louisiana politician is corrupt to a degree–and I knew Roosevelt and others had worried about him as a populist politician who reminded them of Hitler (and the way he crushed his opposition in Louisiana and essentially became the state’s dictator, who could blame them?), but what was the real story? And Huey Long made me start to have what was at first a grudging admiration for him which grew into a kind of fandom the more I learned. (There are some similarities–more than one would think–between Long and LBJ in the Caro biographies, as well as with Robert Moses, another Caro biography; which would make for a very interesting comparison/contract essay at some point.) But the more I read about Long, the more I wanted to write about him. He fascinated me, and the fact that his trove of cash–the deduct box–was never recovered after his murder was even more fascinating to me.)
And don’t you know, later that night, it came to me. A few months earlier there had been a bomb threat at the LSU campus, and there had been some controversy about how the administration had handled the situation–they’d evacuated Mike the Tiger off the campus before the mass evacuation call for the students. It made sense to me (but I didn’t blame the students for being upset because it absolutely looked like the administration cared more about the tiger’s safety than the students’)–in the chaos of evacuating the campus, getting the tiger out safely would have been a nightmare, and God forbid something happen and Mike got loose. Then it hit me: what if some animal rights’ activists had staged the bomb threat in order to steal the tiger in order to set him free somewhere? (Mike is a frequent target of PETA, who often calls for him to be released into the wild–not in the US, of course–, or sent to a big cat sanctuary.) So, I had the tiger kidnapped, and since Huey Long was responsible for LSU being what it is today, it only made sense for the treasure hunt to have to do with his missing “deduct box”–Huey always used cash, after his assassination the deduct box containing thousands and thousands of dollars in cash disappeared–and there we had it: a plot involving Mike the Tiger, Huey Long, and the deduct box.
This was also the book where I decided to extend Scotty’s family a bit further by adding a new, younger gay character to the mix: Taylor, Frank’s nephew, disowned by Frank’s sister and her homophobic husband after he comes out to them after a semester in Paris, and so he comes to live with Scotty and the boys in the house on Decatur Street. I wanted to bring in someone younger, and gay, with literally hardly any gay experience in the world to reflect the change between generations of gay men and how they view being gay and the rest of the world.
I also figured this would be the last one, but like I said, Scotty just won’t go away.
SIDENOTE: I had to write to the administrators of the Huey Long website for permission to use some quotes from the site in the book. Needless to say, they were very wary of me when they responded, so I emailed them the chapter where I would use the quotes–Scotty was doing some research on Long, and came across the website. Like me, Scotty had always been told Long was corrupt and a demagogue…but demagogues also don’t get things done, which Long did. Some of Long’s programs–like the Homestead Exemption–still exist as public policy in Louisiana. They wrote me back, granting permission…and that was when I found out the person I was talking to was Long’s great-granddaughter, who was rightfully suspicious of anyone writing about her great-grandfather. I sent her a copy of the book when it was finished, and she sent me a lovely thank you card, which is probably one of my favorite writing souvenirs.
The genesis of Garden District Gothic was weird, but yet serves as yet another example of my adage never throw anything you’ve written away.
I had always wanted to spin Chanse’s best friend, journalist Paige Tourneur, off into her own series. I had always intended to do so; from the first time I thought her up for Murder in the Rue Dauphine I thought, “she’s fun and witty and interesting and that weird name–there’s so much more story there than we can get to as a supporting player in a series about someone else.” I have so much written down about Paige and her origin story; how she came up with that name and why; how she wound up at LSU; and so on and so forth. A friend started an ebook publishing company, and wanted me to write Paige novellas for her; I did two–Fashion Victim and Dead Housewives of New Orleans–but the sales, frankly, weren’t there and I didn’t have the necessary time to put in marketing them to help drive the sales, so even though I’d started a third, The Mad Catter, we agreed to kill the series and pull the first two from availability; ultimately, I was working too hard for too little pay-off. I was disappointed, obviously; Paige was kind of a passion project for me–I’d made any number of false starts writing a series book for her, and it was sad to see that there wasn’t an audience for her after all. But I had about four chapters of The Mad Catter in place, and I didn’t want to waste the time spent on them…so I decided to turn them into a Scotty book, which became Garden District Gothic.
I also brought in a new character–a true crime writer with a shady past of his own–who actually wrote a book, a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, about the case. The name of his book? Garden District Gothic. I brought him in, thinking I would spin him off into his own book/series–I thought it might be fun to write about a writer…(I thought about using him as the main character in another book based on an actual unsolved string of murders in a rural Louisiana parish, but very quickly realized he was simply an amalgamation of Scotty and Chanse, so that book–The Bodies in the Bayou–went onto the backburner. I think I may have created the character before, in the Chanse series, but I could be remembering that wrong. I also used this book to sort of set up the next; I will explain that further when I am talking about Royal Street Reveillon. I also crossed the character of Paige Tourneur over from the Chanse series into the Scotty series (I loved the character, hated to sideline her after I ended the Chanse series and the novella series didn’t pan out); not that she will be a big part of the Scotty series, but hey, every so often I need a journalist, and why not use a character I am very fond of already and wasn’t ready to stop writing about?
The book was loosely based, obviously, on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case–a decades old notorious murder of a child in the Garden District that was never solved. I wanted to examine and explore issues of class in New Orleans, but I am not entirely sure I pulled off what I intended with the book.
Then again, I think that with every book, don’t I?
And we now come to the (so far) most recent book of the Scotty series, Royal Street Reveillon.
Originally I’d envisioned the Scotty trilogy (when it morphed from a stand-alone) as encompassing the three big gay holidays in New Orleans: Southern Decadence, Halloween, and Mardi Gras. Jackson Square Jazz wound up taking place just before Halloween, alas; Scotty talks about their costumes in the epilogue, but I hit the other two holidays out of the park. When I added a fourth book, I tied it to the Gay Easter Parade–Scotty is on his way to ride on the Devil’s Weed’s float when the book opened–and then of course the next book was sort of Christmas/sort of Mardi Gras/sort of the Super Bowl. Baton Rouge Bingo was the first book that wasn’t tied to a holiday of some sort; neither was Garden District Gothic. But for the next Scotty book, I wanted to do a Christmas book. I’ve never really written much about Christmas, and I do love the season, especially in New Orleans. I wasn’t sure what kind of plot I was going to use, but I knew it was going to be set during Christmas season and I knew I wanted to use reveillon, the Christmas season meal you use to break your fast for Mass, in the title. I had introduced one of the characters from Dead Housewives of New Orleans in Garden District Gothic, so it only made sense to me (or so it seemed at the time) for me to take the framework of Dead Housewives–the entire Real Housewives spoof I wanted to write–and build this new story around it. I changed a lot–made the overarching story much more complicated, and especially complicating the “whodunnit” aspects of the three murders that all occurred within twenty-four hours of the premiere party for Grande Dames of New Orleans.
I also did a couple of horrible things to Scotty and his loved ones over the course of this book…which will have to be dealt with in the new one, alas. I hate when I do this to myself! But with Royal Street Reveillon and its darker themes, I wanted to show how much Scotty has grown and changed over the course of the series; he’s evolved as a person, partly because of the changes to his life and partly because of what he experiences through the murders he finds himself involved in. Do I wish, as I start writing Mississippi River Mischief, that maybe I hadn’t given so many growth opportunities over the years to Scotty and his gang of family and friends? Absolutely. But that’s part of the challenge of writing a series, and what makes it so much fun.
*Funny story about the original cover of Bourbon Street Blues. Back in the day, publishers used to meet with reps from Barnes & Noble and Borders to show them covers and get their input; covers were changed based on those meetings. The Bourbon Street Blues cover was so in-your-face it took me aback when I first saw it; and they had toned the original image down dramatically, mainly smoothing down the bulge so it wasn’t so in-your-face. The Barnes & Noble buyer told them, “he needs a bigger bulge” so they made it bigger–but were still cautious; the image’s original bulge was still bigger. I do think that story is hilarious.