I Hope You Dance

New Orleans is almost completely shut down.

Yesterday I ventured forth to the office, to do my data entry and to clean my desk area. We had several meetings via the Internet, and several trainings–including one in which we were taught how to do work from home–and I wound up bringing my work home with me. We also had a department meeting on-line, to explain things we could be doing while self-quarantined and to make up hours lost by the shutting down of our testing programs. After my enormous freak-out on Monday (yes, it wasn’t a pretty thing when I got home from the office Monday afternoon), I feel a bit better about my job. It’s so weird, because I am used to being out there on the front lines doing testing and getting people treated…and to be instead isolated at home is a strange thing. What was even weirder was driving home. Under normal circumstances I would never leave the office at six; if I did, I wouldn’t take the highway home because I have to take the big off ramp from I-10 West to I-90 to the Westbank, and the bridge traffic usually has the highway backed up to Claiborne, where I get on the highway. Yesterday I didn’t even have to brake, that’s how light the traffic was–at six pm on a Tuesday. There were cars on the highway; I could see cars on the streets below (the highway is elevated as it passes through downtown)–and there were some peoples strolling on St. Charles…but other than that, nothing.

We finished watching Toy Boy last night, which was terrific and a lot of fun, and ending its first season with a terrific cliff-hanger to set up the second season. It’s great for bingeing, y’all; good trashy escapist fun to make you forget that we are trying to survive and live through a terrifying pandemic and the even more terrifying economic fall out from said pandemic. I also have to remember that I cannot stay inside the entire time; I need to get out of the Lost Apartment and take walks, enjoy the sunshine and the weather, and to take my phone or camera with me. No matter how introverted you are, you need to get out of the house sometimes–unless, of course, your introversion has turned into agoraphobia, which naturally means going outside would be the absolute worst thing for you to try to do.

I still have three stories to try to get written by the end of the month, and I am definitely going to give it the old college try. My mind has clearly been somewhere else over the last week or so–it’s hard to believe it’s only fucking Wednesday; this past weekend seems like it was years ago, last week a different life entirely and Mardi Gras? A different reality completely.

I haven’t even been able to focus enough to try to read–which is weird, as reading is always where I go for escape.

But the nice thing about working from home is that I can clean while taking a break from my data entry; I can also have trainings or webinars on my computer to listen to while I clean and organize the kitchen–and I can even broadcast said trainings and webinars to my television while cleaning the living room. This is a strange new work reality–it’s been years since I worked at home primarily–and one I am going to have to adapt to. I saw someone posting on social media yesterday a poll over whether people thought once this has passed, if things will go back the way they were or will be different. It’s a silly question, because this is a big cultural and societal change; it can never be the way it was before again–just like New Orleans isn’t the same city it was before Katrina, and it will never be that city ever again. Things never go back the way they were; just like the United States will never be the same country it was before 9/11 again.

We don’t know what our new reality is going to look like once we get past this crisis, so trying to speculate is kind of an exercise in pointlessness.

But one of the things, the mantras, that helped me get through the aftermath of Katrina was to focus on the things I could control. One of those things was my body; post-Katrina was probably the most dedicated periods I’ve ever had to my health and fitness and my physical appearance. Since the gyms are closed that’s not really a possibility this time around; although I can still stretch every day and go for nice walks, it’s not the same thing as hitting the weights three times a week. I also focused on my writing and editing; I didn’t write as much as I did before the interregnum–there were times I thought I’d never write again–but that didn’t stop me from my editorial duties, and I did eventually start writing again; this was the period that produced Murder in the Rue Chartres and “Annunciation Shotgun” and Love Bourbon Street. I also think writing–particularly since I’d be writing about a non-virus non-pandemic world–will provide a nice escape for me.

I also signed the contract with Mystery Tribune yesterday for my story “The Carriage House”–remember how last week actually started out with good news in my world? That also seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it? I’m always happy to sell a short story, and it’s always lovely to sell one to a mainstream market with a gay main character. (You can talk about how publishing needs to diversify all you want, but it’s still not easy to sell a story with a gay main character to a mainstream market.) It’s a terrific story, or at least I (and the people at Mystery Tribune) think it is, and it’s a concept that’s been lying around in my head ever since we first moved out of the carriage house and into the main house the first time, in June 2005, and came back to me when we moved back into the main house in December 2006. Many years ago–probably when I was far too young–I read a book by (I think) Gerold Frank, a true crime account of The Boston Strangler. There was a bit in the book about a woman who ran a boarding house, and began to suspect one of her tenants might be the Strangler; he was always agitated and acting strange the day of the murders, etc.; lots of circumstantial evidence but nothing ever definite. She remembered one day him staring at an advertisement in a magazine featuring an African-American woman for about ten minutes or so, rather obsessively; and she thought to herself, the next victim will be a black woman and sure enough, it was. You know, that sort of thing; the sort of thing that would be the basis for a Hitchcock movie (I’ve never seen The Lodger, which is a Hitchcock film–possibly based on a novel–about a woman who begins to believe one of her tenants is Jack the Ripper. I’ve always wanted to see it.) and it’s always been something that’s fascinated me. I used to joke that I never wanted to be one of those people interviewed on the news with a caption under my name (NEIGHBOR OF ACCUSED SUSPECTED NOTHING), but the concept of living in close quarters with a serial killer, or a thrill killer, or a killer of some sort–and beginning to suspect that you do, has always been an interesting thought and something I’ve always wanted to write about. “The Carriage House” is a culmination of all those thoughts and inspirations, and I am delighted you will finally get a chance to read it.

It’s also one of those stories that I originally thought would be a short novel, but it works much better as a short story.

More on that to come, of course, and now, back to the spice mines.

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Sweet Dreams (of You)

It saddened me to see Left Coast had cancelled; even if I am not at a conference or some gathering of writers I can always look at the pictures of my friends and smile a little wistfully, wish I was there, and then get on with it. As one does,

This has been a rough week, Constant Reader, and I cannot lie. I’ve been all over the map emotionally, eventually I got to the usual tipping point of numbness. Yesterday I got some amazing book mail; copies of some of the Edgar finalists, which is way fun. Of course, I already have an enormous TBR pile; this only expands it and makes it bigger–way bigger, but it’s lovely, always lovely, to get books. If worst comes to worst and we would up quarantined or trapped inside for a few weeks or so, I have plenty of books. And as long as we have power, there’s so much television to catch up. Books are, of course, my  happy place; I’ve always found solace and escape in reading. I think that might be why I hoard books the way I do; it’s comforting to know that I’ll never run out of things to read.

I’ve gotten no writing done, or very little; I’ve also not read a word of anything. I am debating whether it’s okay to go to the gym if I take rubber gloves with me; if I am not touching any surface with bar hands, right, and definitely cannot touch my face except with a hand towel (brought from home) and I should be okay, I think, I hate getting out of the habit of going, and I also worry that at some point I’ll be forbidden from going to the gym, so there’s that as well. At some point today I have to make a run to the grocery store–although at this point I feel certain everything is picked over and the shelves are bare. I stopped at Rouse’s on my home last night in the CBD, and while it wasn’t completely insane, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I managed to get what I was after–two loaves of bread–and Paul and I just decided to escape the world and watch The Outsider last night, which was quite entertaining. We still have two episodes to go before we’re finished, but they seem to be dragging the story out with some seriously bad filler scenes that neither advance the plot or really teach us anything new about the characters–and these filler scenes are very amateurishly done, poorly written, and essentially pointless as anything other than padding to get the show out to ten episodes. We’ll finish that today, and then go on to Dare Me, which we’ve been saving to binge. We’d watched the first two episodes before Paul started having to work late all the time and so fell behind; but I am excited to get to see it in its entirety. It already looked like it was going to be one of the best shows to ever air on television; the source material is certainly one of my favorite books of all time.

One can never go wrong reading Megan Abbott.

The Lost Apartment is a mess, frankly, and I will probably spend some time cleaning it today; it’s well overdue and I’ve not had the energy to keep up with it this week. I imagine, looking back at the week in retrospect, that I probably had some depression–I’m never really aware of it until it has passed–which explains a lot. It’ll probably come and go–there’s probably also some PTSD mixed into it, both from the days when HIV/AIDS was decimating the gay community and, let’s be honest, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I was thinking, as I was reading articles this past week with headlines like Life is going to change forever and so forth, that I am kind of tired of life-changing events.

I also can’t help but wondering how this will change writing, and the publishing industry, and if there will be a new genre of fiction rising out of all of this. I want to think this won’t be as bad as it seems like it’s going to be–but you know, any death will cause grief and suffering, let alone on a great scale. Katrina fiction never really became a thing, although there were several novels (including my award-winning Murder in the Rue Chartres–see what I did there?) about the aftermath, and I think Katrina stories still continue to be published to this day, but to be honest I avoid them for the most part. I suppose its more like 9/11, in that the impact is actually more national than local, but even 9/11–while certainly a national trauma–was also primarily a local one. This is everywhere, and will impact everyone, and not just as witnesses, like 9/11 or Katrina. Will this be addressed in the future? Will there be a rash of books released beginning in 2021 the center this happening? How do you write a series and pretend like this didn’t happened? New Orleans series writers couldn’t ignore Katrina, pretend like it didn’t happen; we had to address it and as such anchored our series and our series characters in time. My two short stories “Survivor’s Guilt” and “Annunciation Shotgun” also dealt with the storm and the aftermath, and I’ve kind of let go of writing about it.

So, I think after running the errands today I am going to try to get some writing done. I have three stories I’d like to get finished by the end of the month, which is their deadlines, and one has to be entirely constructed from scratch–which is of course the most interesting and challenging one for me to write so I keep pushing it to the back of the queue.

And maybe it’s time to get back to work. Have a lovely, germ-free day.

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Songbird

So, daylight savings time means I didn’t sleep as late as I have the last few mornings–simply because the clocks were turned back an hour. I woke up yet again at ten this morning–I went to bed around ten last night–and slept like a stone yet another night. Sleep really is the best thing, isn’t it? These last few nights of good sleep have been absolutely heavenly, and I feel a million times better than I did before this staycation started. I also can’t help but feel that missing Bouchercon–much as I hated to do so–was probably the smartest thing I could have done; thank you, doctor, for forbidding my travel.

And a belated congratulations to all the Anthony Award winners! I didn’t win for Best Short Story, but couldn’t be happier that Shawn Cosby did! He’s a great guy, a terrific writer, and also supports other writers. His debut novel, My Darkest Prayer, was fantastic; he recently signed a two book contract with Flatiron Books and I can’t wait to see what he does next, quite frankly. The other nominees–Art Taylor, Barb Goffman, and Holly West–are also terrific writers and awesome people who support other writers as well. Being nominated for an Anthony for a short story was one of the biggest thrills of my career so far.

It’s also weird that it’s a Sunday morning and  there’s no Saints game today.  It’s weird that both the Saints AND LSU have bye weeks the same weekend; but next weekend is going to be tough–LSU at Alabama for all the marbles; the Saints playing the hated Atlanta Falcons.

I imagine by the end of that weekend I am going to be quite worn out from emotion and adrenaline.

Angela Crider Neary, who moderated the Anthony Short Story nominees panel yesterday, very graciously sent me the questions she intended to ask me on the panel, so I thought I’d go ahead and answer them today–even though I’ve already lost. 😉

You’ve written in an impressive array of genres – over 50 short stories, two different private eye novel series, young adult novels (some with supernatural elements), and even some erotica as well as some horror and suspense.  Do you like one of these genres or formats (short or long) better than others, and tell us what you enjoy or find rewarding about writing each of them.  Are there any other genres you have written or would like to write?

I’ve also written some romance! I like all the genres I write in pretty equally; I just wish I was better at writing horror than I am. I’ve always had a strong passion for history, so I think historicals is something I’d like to try at some point–it surprises me that I haven’t already. I find writing short to be a lot more difficult than writing long; I always think of ideas in terms of books rather than short stories, and sometimes have to modify the idea down, as I can certainly never write all my ideas as novels unless I have an exceptionally long life. I’ve been experimenting with writing novellas lately–I’m in the process of writing two right now. Of course, there’s little to no market for novellas. I guess I’ll wind up self-publishing them or something.

I love the title of your current Anthony-nominated story, “Cold Beer No Flies.”  Is there a story behind this particular title, and how important do you think titles are for stories or novels?

Thank you, I’m rather partial to that title myself! When I was a teenager in Kansas, there was a bar in the county seat that was very similar to the bar in my story. It was simply called My Place and they had a reader board out on the side of the road and one day it said COLD BEER NO FLIES. That tickled me for some reason, and I never forgot it. About ten years later I wrote the first draft of the story with that title. It sat in my files for a very long time, and about ten years ago I revised it for the first time, shifted the setting from Kansas to the Florida panhandle, and changed the main character from a young woman to a young man. When Florida Happens came about, I revised it one last time and submitted it to the blind read process, and was delighted to have the judges score it highly enough for inclusion. (My story in the Blood on the Bayou anthology also went through the blind read, and was picked.)

You have two PI novel series set in New Orleans.  How would you describe these two series, how they differ from each other, and how you’re able to slip into the separate moods and characters of each of them?

The Chanse series is more hard-boiled than the Scotty series, which is more light and fun. Chanse is a completely different kind of  gay man than Scotty; he was raised working class, his family lived in a trailer park and were evangelical Christians in a small working class town in east Texas. He used football and a scholarship to LSU to get out, and finally came out officially after graduating from college. He’s more scarred emotionally, more bitter and cynical, and has a very low opinion of humanity. Scotty is the polar opposite of Chanse: from a wealthy society family on both sides, he grew up in New Orleans with extremely liberal, progressive parents who never had any issue with his sexuality, and was kind of a fuck-up in some ways, though–flunked out of college, worked as a stripper and a personal trainer, etc. But he has a very positive outlook on life, and has no baggage about his sexuality whatsoever; in fact, he revels in being gay. I’d never read a character like that before, and I felt like there needed to be one. Scotty is much more fun to write than Chanse–I kind of just make up the story as I go, because that’s kind of how Scotty lives his life, up for anything and everything–whereas Chanse is more rigid, more unhappy, and more of a tight-ass, so I have to plan his stories out from the very beginning.

You’re the co-founder of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, which takes place in New Orleans every spring.  Tell us about it.

Well, way back in 2002 my partner, myself, and Jean Redmann went out for dinner and drinks one night, and over the course of conversation the subject of writer’s conferences came up–and how queer writers were often not included, and if they were, were put on what we call a “zoo panel”–a panel where all the non-straight writers are gathered together which, no matter the good intentions, always felt like we were zoo animals people came to see and point at, and those panels inevitably devolved into “let’s teach the nice straight people about homophobia.” We thought it would be lovely to have an event of our own–open and welcoming all who wanted to participate–where being queer wasn’t the topic of discussion. We also thought it would be good to stress the importance of queer literature and its importance in its response to the AIDS epidemic, and try to honor the many writers we lost to the plague years. We figured we might be able to pull it off maybe once or twice before interest died down…and here we are, seventeen/eighteen years later, still going strong. I have less to do with the organizing now than I did in the beginning–most of it is my partner and his team–but I still get credit for it.

Your Lambda Literary Award winning Murder in the Rue Chartres was described by the New Orleans Times-Picayune as “the most honest depiction of life in post-Katrina New Orleans published thus far.”  There was such overwhelming personal and community devastation after the hurricane and flooding.  Why did you choose to write about the hurricane and what was that like for you?

It’s so weird to me that it’s been over fourteen years now. But even now, it’s impossible to describe, or talk about, everything that happened because of Katrina. 90% of the city was rendered uninhabitable, and for awhile we weren’t even sure if the city was going to come back–or if we would ever be able to come home. We were lucky, we were able to evacuate when so many couldn’t–and that guilt lasted a really long time. It took me a long time to forgive myself for leaving New Orleans to die. It’s very difficult to describe how New Orleanians feel about New Orleans, that deep love that runs through, and colors, everything. The entire time I was gone I felt unmoored, unanchored, unsure about the future. I also knew I was going to have to write about Katrina, and I didn’t really want to. I was one of the first to come back–I returned to New Orleans on October 11th, about six weeks or so after it happened. I had been blogging at that time for not quite a year–but I was blogging extensively throughout that time, describing what I was feeling and what I was seeing. (I only wish technology had advanced to the point where phones had cameras–I didn’t have a digital camera at the time and so was unable to document everything with pictures; all I have is memories and the blog.) Katrina was such an enormous event, that the entire world was aware of–I didn’t see how I could possibly continue to write fiction about New Orleans without acknowledging Katrina, but at the same time I didn’t want to write about it, either. The Scotty series–I’d finished and turned in the third book in that series, Mardi Gras Mambo, about three weeks before the storm and I’d intended to start writing the fourth almost immediately, after taking about a month off to rest and regroup. Ironically, the idea was called Hurricane Party Hustle and I wanted to write a book set in the city during an evacuation with another near-miss hurricane–which I’d already experienced three or four times at that point. Needless to say that idea was scrapped. I also didn’t see how I could write a light, funny book about New Orleans when we were still in the midst of everything.* I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write a Chanse book. My editor at Alyson Books, Joseph Pittman, kept after me, telling me I was the perfect person to write such a book, and so on and so on, and I finally agreed to write it–but only on the condition that Chanse, like me, had evacuated and returned on the same day I did. I didn’t think survival stories from Katrina were mine to tell.** Writing the book itself was incredibly difficult, and I found myself drinking a lot whenever I finished for the day. But in the end, it was incredibly cathartic to write the book and I am very grateful, to this day, that Joe wore me down and convinced me to write it.
*Of course, now, all these years later, I can actually see how a funny book could be written about New Orleans in the aftermath–particularly in the way New Orleanians who were here reacted. The ruined refrigerators, for example, that everyone dragged out to the curb for disposal and sealed with duct tape–people decorated their refrigerators or wrote slogans on them; some of them were enormously funny. New Orleans has always had a sort of gallows sense of humor about itself; we always laugh, no matter what, and I do regret that I wasn’t in a place where I could examine that.
**I did eventually write a survival story, “Survivor’s Guilt” (my story in Blood on the Bayou, it was nominated for a Macavity Award a few years ago), and while I still didn’t think I had the right to tell a survival story–I kept questioning myself the entire time I was writing it–I based a lot of it on survival stories I’d been told, and given the response to the story, I think I got it right. I have another idea for a noir story set in the aftermath as well–it came to me on a panel at Raleigh Bouchercon several years ago Katrina Niidas Holm was moderating, and she keeps pushing me to write it–and I think I’ll someday get to it.
I also think sometimes I might go ahead sometime and write Hurricane Party Hustle–probably enough time has passed to write a story about an evacuation and near-miss , and sometimes I think I might go back and write a Scotty book set during that time as well…maybe.
And on that note, back to the spice mines. Thanks to everyone who voted for my story for the Anthonys so it made the short-list; that meant a lot, and I appreciate it.
And here’s hoping I won’t miss Sacramento next year.

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Long Train Runnin’

Ah, it’s the weekend. I went to bed relatively early last night, after watching the final episode of The Last Czars (which, of course, included the horrific massacre scene in the basement in Ekaterinburg; which is probably why everyone sees the monstrous, people-abusing, careless Romanovs as tragic figures–the way they died, as opposed to the way they lived; it’s impossible to hear the children screaming and the sound of the guns without feeling badly for them) and before that, I watched Spider-Man Into the Spider-verse, which was, without question, the absolute best superhero movie, bar none, that I’ve ever seen. Well-written, well-voiced, and extraordinarily animated, it was quite an achievement in film making, and definitely a high spot when it comes to superhero films The entire time I was watching I kept thinking imagine how incredible this must have looked on the big screen. It took me a moment to get used to the style of animation, but it was absolutely amazing, and should be used as a blueprint for origin stories for superheroes. I do hope they do another; I really loved the character of Miles Morales and his family.

This morning I woke up well rested with a shit ton of work to get done today. Yesterday I was lazy; I got home from work around one and just cleaned the house. I never manage to seem to finish getting my office in order, because there simply isn’t enough space for me to put things, and I am always afraid to put thing into my inbox because they tend to get buried once they are there. I try to put things into it in ways that they can still be seen; but I don’t always have the best luck with that, and out of sight, out of mind if I don’t have it on the to-write list (speaking of which, I don’t see it anywhere, damn it to hell), which is also ridiculous when you consider how much I have to get written, or hoped to have written, by the end of this month.

One thing at a time, cross them off the list, and be done with it.

I’m also looking forward to spending some time with Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay over the course of the weekend; after which I am going to read S. A Cosby’s My Darkest Prayer. I’d also like to get started reading the other Anthony nominees for Best Short Story (Cosby is one of my fellow nominees, along with Holly West, Barb Goffman, and Art Taylor–three of my favorite colleagues)–I still can’t believe I’m an Anthony finalist. I am very proud of my story, and its genesis; I originally wrote the first draft when I was in my early twenties or late teens, while I was still living in Kansas–close to forty years ago, and here it is, nominated for an Anthony Award.

How fucking cool is that? I had no idea when I wrote that story in long hand on notebook paper that forty years into the future it would be nominated for an award I’d not yet heard of, to be presented at a fan conference I knew nothing about, and that my life would be something I didn’t even dare dream of at that age.

I was thinking about my self-appreciation project last night, the one in which I work on stopping belittling my achievements, learn how to accept compliments, and take some pride in myself and my writing and everything I’ve done thus far in my life. Because I should be proud of myself. I’ve managed to sustain an almost twenty year career in a niche sub-genre of a genre, and not only that, I’ve accomplished quite a bit not even counting the writing itself. I was also thinking last night back to the days when I was editor of Lambda Book Report, which kind of set the stage for my publishing career. I reinvented myself, you know; I went from being a highly knowledgeable industry insider, basically running a magazine that was sort of a cross between a queer Publisher’s Weekly and a queer The Writer; for nearly two years I read a lot of queer fiction, and if I didn’t actually read a queer book, I knew a lot about it. I had already sold Murder in the Rue Dauphine to Alyson Books when I took the assistant editor job at Lambda Book Report, and that was actually the first job I ever had where I kind of flourished. It was the first job that allowed me to be creative in what I did, and where all the lessons I’d learned at various dead-end jobs along the way could be applied in a very positive way. I’d also learned how to treat writers, from being treated myself in very shitty ways by magazines and editors and papers I’d written for by this point–something I continue to do today as an editor (one of my proudest moments of my career thus far was being told by one of the contributors to Florida Happens–Hilary Davidson, a very talented writer whose works you should check out–that working with me was one of the best editorial experiences she’d had in her career thus far). Lambda Book Report seems like it was a million years ago; I actually officially resigned from the job in November 2001, three months before Rue Dauphine was published finally. I resigned because of the conflict of interest involved in running a review magazine while publishing my own novels; there was a strong sense, at least for me, that I couldn’t allow my own books to be reviewed in my own magazine, and as it was the only real game in town nationally (the odds of being reviewed in any of the national gay magazines–Out, The Advocate, Genre–were slim to none; on the rare occasions when those magazines chose to review books, it was either a straight celebrity ally’s (so they could do a feature and put straight celebrity ally’s picture on the cover)or if it was an actual queer book by a queer writer, it was never a genre work. They sniffed disdainfully at queer genre writers; kind of how Lambda Book Report did before I came along, and, all due respect, kind of how the Lambda Literary Foundation (which was always the parent apparatus of the magazine, and now runs a review website) still does. I’ve rarely been reviewed there–either in the magazine I left behind, when it was still being done as a print magazine–or on their website.

But I did a great job running that magazine, if I do say so myself, and I am very proud of everything i accomplished while working there. I met a lot of people, a lot of writers, and made some lifelong friends out of the experience.

I have also been nominated for the Lambda Literary Award, in various categories and under various names, quite frequently. I don’t know how many times I’ve been nominated, to be honest; it’s something like thirteen or fourteen times. I think the only people nominated more times than me are Ellen Hart, Michael Thomas Ford, and Lawrence Schimel. I won twice, once for Anthology for Love Bourbon Street, and once for Men’s Mystery for Murder in the Rue Chartres. The statues are somewhere around here; my Moonbeam Award medals hang from a nail right next to my desk, and my Anthony Award for Blood on the Bayou sits on one of the shelves in the bookcase where I keep copies of my books, but I’m not quite sure where my Lambda Awards are. My Shirley Jackson Award nominee’s rock is in my desk drawer, and even though it just represents a nomination (I didn’t win the award), it’s my favorite out of all the awards I’ve won. I don’t get nominated for Lambda Literary Awards anymore–I think the last time I was nominated was for Night Shadows, which should tell you how long it’s been–and I don’t really care about that anymore, to be honest. After thirteen or fourteen times…yeah, it’s just not quite the thrill it was back when I was nominated the first time. Getting nominated for things like the Shirley Jackson, or the Anthonys, or the Macavitys–those are thrilling because they come from out of nowhere, and are completely unexpected.

And let’s face it, being nominated for Best Short Story awards, for the kid who was told by his first writing instructor that he would never be published, would never have a career as a writer, and had no writing ability whatsoever–opinions all formed by reading a short story written by a kid who’d just turned eighteen–are very thrilling and satisfying. My lack of confidence in my short story writing abilities is pretty extreme, and so whenever one gets published or one gets nominated for an award or I get some great feedback from readers for one, it’s quite reassuring and quite lovely.

All right then–Steph Cha’s novel is calling my name, and I want to get some things written as well before I run my errands later this morning.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Baby Face

Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and I am feeling well rested and lively and energetic and all of that. I always forget how important it is for me to take these mini-breaks, to keep my sanity and recharge my batteries. I woke up just before eight this morning–I stayed up later than I’d planned, but the latest version of Halloween was available to stream on HBO and we didn’t discover it until after nine last night, so my plans of going to bed regularly between ten-thirty and eleven were all for naught. There’s condensation on my windows this morning, which means it’s humid as fuck outside; I’d planned on lugging the ladder outside and cleaning the windows this morning–which I still may do, mind you, I haven’t ruled it out–in addition to some other cleaning.

Yesterday was quite lovely, and I realized, yet again, how my ideal life would be that of a stay-at-home writer; it’s lovely to get up, check emails, bounce around social media a bit, then clean and organize around writing. I finished the laundry room yesterday, with the baseboards and everything in there, and progressed into the kitchen/office area. I did the lower windows on the inside, moved the file cabinet to clean behind it, and reorganized things around my desk. There’s still some debris piled up on the counter that needs to be sorted and filed away properly; that’s a chore for this morning with my coffee, methinks, along with the dirty dishes in the sink. I’m also taking the pictures down and wiping the dust off them; New Orleans is the dustiest place I’ve ever lived, and it’s a constant battle. I was going to be a feather-duster yesterday but they didn’t have any at Rouse’s, which was, as you can imagine, a horrible disappointment to me. I also couldn’t believe I didn’t have one to begin with; I searched high and low for it yesterday morning, certain there was one somewhere….and then I remembered…you have a cat. Skittle destroyed your feather duster years ago, and you saw no point in buying another as long as you still have a cat.

Fortunately, Scooter is not nearly as vicious a hunter/destroyer of worlds the way Satan’s Kitty was, so I think I might be able to get away with having one again.

It’s the little things, you know, that truly make me happy.

I also worked yesterday, shocking as it may seem; little as I wanted to, of course, I still managed to sit down and work. I read the rest of “The Snow Globe” all the way through, and realized I needed to add another scene to it–it ends too abruptly for the new end I have in mind, and so I have to reread the entire thing from beginning to end. I always aim for my short stories to come in around five thousand words as an ideal length (which I also realize is quite silly; it comes from editing anthologies and thinking “twenty stories of five thousand words each is a hundred thousand words and voila, anthology is finished!) and it’s subconscious. The story is now at about just over 4800 words, and there’s no way to add this sequence in only 200 or so words and so I pulled back from the story. This morning, in the cold harsh bright light of a new day, I realized so fucking what if it winds up over five thousand? You can actually make it SIX thousand if you fucking want to. So, I’ll probably be revisiting that as well.

I took a look at Chapter Eleven of the WIP as well; realizing that starting it one week and finishing it the next without rereading what was already done resulted in some repetition of things; yesterday I chose not to deal with it, and instead did some background work. I pulled up the outline, that only went through Chapter Five, and added the next six chapters to the outline, intending to outline the next five as well so as to have something to fall back on without having to create it out of thin air. But I sincerely (not lazily) couldn’t figure out what to do in the next five chapters and so I put it aside as well and worked on something else–something else that I’ve been asked to do and has been hovering in the back of my subconscious creative brain while I struggle to finish this first draft. I am not ready to talk about it completely and openly just yet–still far too nascent for any public commentary/discussion–but I started doing the background work necessary, and realized what I’d been thinking of doing was probably the wrong place to start, and I actually thought of the proper place to start, so I was busily making notes and writing things down and actually creating, which is always kind of fun. I’m probably–we’ll see–going to try to get Chapter Eleven straightened out today, and will work on this new thing for a bit, and I’d also like to work on another story I’ve got hanging around unfinished. If I can get all this writing–and cleaning–done today, tomorrow I may reward myself just a little bit by allowing myself some down time to read–in fact, this morning, I am going to read for a little while before tackling the dishes; I find reading is also a lovely way to wake up the mind, and I really do want to get deeper into Rachel Howzell Hall’s They All Fall Down, which is quite superbly written.

We did watch the newest Halloween last night, and it was quite enjoyable. I love the concept that Carpenter basically threw away everything already filmed as canonical sequels to the original, and simply pretended none of those films had ever happened; instead making a straight-up sequel/reboot of the series; I’m not really sure what you would call this film in terms of the rest of the Michael Myers canon. But it was clear Halloween H20 or whatever it was called never happened; in this world Laurie had a daughter, not a son, and we find Laurie Strode in straight-up Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 mode; someone who has spent her entire life preparing herself for when he comes back to  kill her–and there’s no doubt in her mind that he’s going to, eventually. The trauma of the murders when she was a teenager has damaged her, certainly, and has definitely affected the relationship with her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, and she lives in a secure fortress (think Sydney in Scream 3), which also makes sense. I couldn’t help but think as I watched how much better this all would work as a novel; as we could actually get inside the heads of certain point-of-view characters, and how Laurie’s residual trauma has affected/damaged them–wouldn’t that novel, from the point of view of all three women, each a different generation with a different outlook and experience with the trauma, be absolutely fascinating?

I’ve become a lot more interested, I think, as a reader and as a writer, in the aftermath of trauma–how precisely does one deal with that kind of trauma, and what does it do to you as a person, how does it affect the rest of your life and your relationships, etc.  As a writer, I’m becoming less interested in the solving of a crime rather than the actual aftershocks created by the crime; as well as the motivations behind the crime–what drives the criminal to commit the crime in the first place? I think the reason Murder in the Rue Chartres is often considered my best work is because it deals with trauma; the trauma of a  damaged and destroyed city after a major natural disaster, as well as the trauma of getting past the murder of someone you loved.

So, that’s the plan for today, at any rate. Tomorrow I hope to spend the day doing a deep clean of the living room and the staircase, done around the writing and reading I need to get done, and then hopefully we’ll start getting caught up on Killing Eve.

And now back to the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

08

Daydream Believer

Thursday morning, Constant Reader–we’ve almost made it through the week, and the Carnival parades start tomorrow night! Woo-hoo! I am more excited about this than I probably should be, but I am also going to be on vacation for the entire second week of parades, which means this is the first year I am not going to have to deal with getting to and from work around the parades, and being bone-tired exhausted from all the walking I’ll have to do to get to and from work.

Huzzah!

I did manage to get that chapter finished yesterday, and will try to get another one done today–at least one. Today is, of course, a half-day; I am going to probably stop at Rouse’s on my way home from work to get some things, and will have to make groceries tomorrow in the afternoon as well. Today’s grocery run will be minor; mostly to get a few odds and ends, while tonight I will make a thorough list to get us through until next Wednesday, which will be the next time I’ll get to stop at the grocery store. Then again, we do have a tendency to eat a lot of corn dogs and funnel cakes during the parades…yay for healthy eating!

Last night when we got home from work, we talked about panels and scheduling for Saints and Sinners–Paul’s been working very hard lately, and continuing to work when we get home, so we haven’t really had much chance to hang out and reconnect for the last month or so; so last night was rather lovely.

Yesterday was a tragic day for us New Orleanians; a beautiful historic old home on St, Charles Avenue, commonly known as the “Rex House”–a former King of Rex lived there, and it had become tradition for the Rex parade to stop in front of it so the current King could toast the family there–caught fire and burned. It was a five alarm fire; it took six hours to get under control, and you could literally smell smoke all day all over Uptown; we could still smell it when we got home last night. (Several years ago an abandoned historic church a few blocks away from us also caught fire and the blaze lasted for hours; interestingly enough, where that church once was is now condos.) This made me think about fires in New Orleans. I’ve written two books built around famous fires in New Orleans–Jackson Square Jazz and Murder in the Rue Chartres–and this reminded me that in the first years we lived here, there had been an arsonist in our neighborhood. I don’t remember if the arsonist was ever caught, but the fires stopped. Fires are taking very seriously here, and arson is one of the worst crimes one could commit here; with our old wooden homes and buildings, it’s not difficult for fires to spread and become horrifying conflagrations. Our fire department doesn’t get nearly enough love or appreciation here–they do get quite a bit, but it’s never enough, frankly. It wouldn’t be too difficult for the entire city to go up in flames…Christopher Rice wrote about that in his debut novel, A Density of Souls, where a bomb went off in a gay bar in the Quarter and the explosion spread the fire. I remember reading the first sentence of the chapter after the bomb went off: The French Quarter was burning. 

Just typing those words gave me the shivers.

And now, I am going to finish cleaning the dishes and get ready for my short day at work. Have a lovely day Constant Reader!

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Look Out Here Comes Tomorrow

Sunday morning and I have a rather full plate today. I need to finish cleaning the downstairs, and I have to get back to work on the revisions. This should all be easy enough to do–my office is in the kitchen, which is also the last part of the downstairs that needs cleaning, so I can go back and forth between the two. Also, while I am waiting for the kitchen floor to dry, I can repair to my easy chair and get back to reading Tomato Red, which is fantastic. I am behind on the revisions; I had hoped to be working on the last, final polish over this weekend; instead I find myself finishing the fourth draft; four chapters to go until it is all done and ready to move on to a final polish. I am hoping that I can get that done today, take tomorrow off, and then focus on the final polish on Tuesday before returning to work on Wednesday.

It’s a good plan, anyway.

I’m still recovering from the enormous shock of the Macavity nomination for “Survivor’s Guilt.” As Constant Reader knows, I don’t have a lot of self-confidence with short stories; I struggle with writing them and I often wonder if even the ones that get published are any good. I remember one anthology I was in, early in my career, in which the editor wrote a lengthy afterward to the book, discussing every story in the anthology in great detail–except mine. He discussed the fifteen or so other stories at great length, marveling about their themes, characters, and the language–pointedly not saying a word about mine. I had been extremely proud of being accepted into that anthology; and once I read that afterward–I never even bother putting the contributor copies in the bookcase reserved for my own work. It was such a stunning slap-in-the-face, and I–always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt even while I am being slapped across the face–could not, and still cannot, come up with any logical or kind explanation why an editor would do such a thing.

How do you discuss all the stories in the collection and leave out ONE?

I’ve never been able to decide if it being deliberate is worse than it being a careless mistake; both, in my mind, are equally bad.

I’ve never spoken to that editor again, either–didn’t respond to emails, didn’t help promote the book, etc. Maybe a bit childish, but that was so rude and so nasty, and I was so early in my career…I considered, and still do, that insult along the same lines of the creative writing teacher who told a nineteen-year-old me that I would never be published. I sometimes wonder if that is where my insecurity about writing short stories comes from; as though in my subconscious my slight success with writing novels didn’t really disprove that teacher’s smug, smiling and ever-so-condescending comments to me; since he was basing his opinion on a short story I’d written for his class, I had to get some kind of success with short stories in order to finally put that damage to my psyche to rest.

“Survivor’s Guilt” was a story I never thought I would write, nor should, to be honest. It’s a Katrina story; and the kind of Katrina story I certainly didn’t think I should ever write, or try to write. I’ve not done a lot of Katrina writing, which may surprise some people. My story in New Orleans Noir, “Annunciation Shotgun,” is a post-Katrina story that doesn’t really address the disaster at all; Murder in the Rue Chartres is the only novel I wrote that dealt directly with the aftermath. My essay “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” is the only one I’ve published about my own personal experience, and what I observed before, during, and after. After Rue Chartres, I pretty much put the disaster in the rear-view mirror and only mentioned it, in my New Orleans novels, slightly in passing from there on out. Scotty never really dealt with Katrina and its aftermath much; just some passing references and so forth, finally having Scotty deal, slightly, with his past issues and his own PTSD a bit, in Garden District Gothic  a little.

“Survivor’s Guilt” was originally inspired by a story I was told sometime in the months after Katrina, after I’d returned, and was at a cocktail party at a friend’s home. In those months after Katrina, we all had a bit of ‘disaster-fatigue’; one of the hardest parts about coming back as early as I did was that as others returned, you had to relive your own experience in conversation while listening to other people’s stories. This went on for over a year before finally, it was happening less and less.  It’s very hard to recover from PTSD when you are constantly being forced to relive the events that led to your psychological scarring in the first place. I kind of refer to the years 2005-2009 as My Crazy Years–emotionally raw and on-edge, never knowing what would trigger a manic episode or a breakdown of sorts.

But I digress. We all saw the images of people trapped on their roofs, begging for help, begging for rescue; those images are seared into the collective American consciousness. But the pictures, those images, didn’t tell the whole story; yes, they were horrifying and heart-breaking, but we couldn’t really get a true sense of the suffering being endured; the unbelievable heat, the humidity from the presence of all that water, the smell, the sense of hopelessness and despair. But it also occurred to me, even then, in my horror–not even sure I would be able to return to New Orleans, not sure if I would ever be able to write again; that such a disaster was also the perfect cover for people to get away with murder, or to cover up one. I sketched out an idea for a short story in a hotel room sometime in early 2006, about just such a thing. I thought of it as a horror story, more so than a crime story, frankly; because I couldn’t imagine having to endure something like what those who didn’t evacuate did without losing my mind. I saw the story as being told by a narrator rendered unreliable by what he was enduring; what was real, what was a figment of his breaking mind? But I put the story aside, because I didn’t think I could write it (certainly not at that time) nor did I think it was my story to tell; I evacuated and watched it all happen from a distant remove.

When I was asked to contribute to New Orleans Noir, I immediately thought of that story and was going to write it; but the authors were all assigned to a neighborhood, and my assignment was my own neighborhood, the lower Garden District, which didn’t flood. So, instead I conceived of “Annunciation Shotgun,” which is still one of my favorite stories of my own, and once again, put the rooftop story aside. A few years later, there was a horror anthology submissions call, and I decided that the rooftop story was a good fit for it. I sat down and wrote it, calling it “Blues in the Night,” which was always what I thought was the right title for it. I wrote it, submitted it, and didn’t get into the anthology. I took that as a sign that I’d originally been right; it wasn’t my story to tell, and it went back into the drawer.

When I got the opportunity to edit the Bouchercon New Orleans anthology, Blood on the Bayou, I wondered about whether or not I should write a story for it myself; there seems to be a school of thought out there that a writer/editor, when doing an anthology, shouldn’t include one of his/her own stories and take a slot from someone else. I have gone back and forth on this myself; and usually my policy is to simply write a story for it, and if someone drops out or I don’t get enough stories turned in, then I put my own story in the book. (The fact that almost all of my anthologies include one of my own stories stands as proof that someone always drops out at the last minute.) But I decided, as I rewrote “Blues in the Night” and changed the title to “Survivor’s Guilt,” that I was going to go through the same process as everyone else who submitted a story: a blind read by a small, select group of readers who would rank the stories. I was enormously pleased that the readers chose my story, and so felt a bit vindicated there. When the book came out, some of its reviews singled out my story as good, which was also lovely.

The story’s opening was cribbed from a draft of another short story called “Sands of Fortune” that I never did anything with; it’s still in a folder and I may do something with it, but that opening sentence: The sun, oh God, the sun, just really seemed to fit in “Survivor’s Guilt.”

Of course, my story was disqualified from various crime story awards for any number of reasons (I didn’t get paid since it was for charity! I edited the anthology so it was really self-published! etc. etc. etc.), and so the Macavity nomination was something I wasn’t even thinking about as even a remote possibility. When I got up Friday morning and the first thing I saw on-line was being tagged on a post of the award nominations, I just assumed Blood on the Bayou had been nominated in the anthology category; as it had been already nominated for an Anthony Award as well. It was quite a shock to scroll through the list and see that there actually wasn’t an anthology category; I was terribly confused, so I started going through the categories one by one and there I was, in the Short Story category, of all places.

I still can’t believe it, frankly; I am not the best judge of my own work, and maybe am far more critical of my own work than I should be–but there were so many damned great stories in Blood on the Bayou that I thought if any stories from it were short-listed for awards, mine was at best a long-shot. (Awards, though,  are also always a long-shot for everyone; they aren’t something you can count on or look forward to; all you can do is hope. So much crime fiction is published every year, and so much of it is fantastic, so you can just do your best work and then it’s out of your hands.)

You can only imagine what a thrill it is to be nominated against such amazing writers as Lawrence Block, Joyce Carol Oates, Art Taylor, Paul D. Marks, and Craig Faustus Buck. (Not a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, either–so I can just enjoy the thrill of being nominated and not get uptight about winning.) The class of 2017 Macavity nominees, all over, includes some incredible writers; people whose work I love and enjoy and respect. I am still processing that, to be honest–that, and having to show up for two award ceremonies at Bouchercon in Toronto this October.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Oh! One of the things I did yesterday while cleaning the living room was put all my author sets on the same book shelf. Don’t they look nice there, all together? The blue ones to the left of the Steinbeck set, which you can’t read the spines on, are the Daphne du Maurier set: Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, and Jamaica Inn.

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And yes, that is one of our collection of Muses shoes on the shelf above.