I do not recall which was my first story under the name Todd Gregory, and I am far too lazy to wade through everything to try to find out. I used the name the first time sometime between the release of Bourbon Street Blues and Mardi Gras Mambo, so we’re looking at sometime between 2003 and 2006, and I think it was either “The Sea Where It’s Shallow” or “The Sound of a Soul Crying”; I could also be mistaken in my memory. I’m not really sure of much anymore, and when I try to pin down a specific moment in the timeline of my life I am inevitably proven to be incorrect.
Although maybe my CV may hold the answer–hang on, let me check. Okay, per my CV I started using the name in 2004, and it was actually a story called “Wrought Iron Lace,” which was published in an anthology called A View to a Thrill, with the connecting theme voyeurism (the other two stories, to be fair, came out the same year). Ah, “Wrought Iron Lace,” my gay erotica version of Rear Window, in which a gay man in a wheelchair with two broken legs watches someone move in from his balcony across the courtyard, and his balcony also affords him a view into his new young neighbor’s bedroom, with the inevitable of course happening. (The courtyard set up was one I had wanted to use for quite some time; I loosely touched on it in Murder in the Rue Dauphine but I had wanted to do a kind of Tales of the City kind of thing about gay men living around a courtyard in the Quarter and kind of forming a little family group, a la the Maupin novel as well as Valley of the Dolls and call the novel The World is Full of Ex-Lovers. I returned to the courtyard set-up for another story, written and published as Greg Herren called “Touch Me in the Morning,” where I also used two of the characters I thought up for that novel. Another scene I originally imagined for that novel became the short story “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” which appeared as a Todd Gregory story in the anthology Dirty Diner.)
But one of the things that had interested me, the more time I was out and around gay people, was how many gay men I knew had been in college fraternities–myself included. Almost every gay man I knew who’d been in a fraternity also had lots of prurient tales of illicit sexual experiences with their fraternity brothers–something that never once happened to me (I never once had sex with any of my fraternity brothers; to the best of my knowledge I am the only gay man to pass through the doors of my chapter), and that eventually led to me doing my final erotica anthology under my own name: FRATSEX.
FRATSEX was a good anthology, but I was not prepared for it to become a phenomenon. It earned out, thanks to preorders and subsidiary rights sales, before it was published, something that has never happened to me since; I got a royalty check for the book a month before it was released–and it continued selling for years. I got substantial checks for FRATSEX every six months until Alyson decided it no longer need to honor its contracts and pay its authors and editors the contractually obligated royalties twice a year it had agreed to, before it finally went belly-up after years of bad management and even worse business decisions. (I should point out that usually erotic anthologies had a very short shelf life; they usually never sold out their initial run, never did additional print runs, and certainly were gone within a year of release. FRATSEX was most definitely not that.)
But when Kensington decided to pass on the next Scotty book, they came back to me with another offer for something else: a gay erotic fraternity novel intended to follow the same sales path as FRATSEX. I had no idea what to call the book–but the money was too good to pass up, and so I signed the contract for a book whose working title was Fraternity Row. (I had suggested A Brother’s Touch or My Brother’s Keeper for titles; both of which icked out Marketing.) I think it was my editor who struck gold with Every Frat Boy Wants it.
As I walk into the locker room of my high school to get my backpack, I’m aware of the sound of the shower running. Even before I walk around the corner that will reveal the rows of black lockers and the communal shower area just beyond, I can smell that pungent smell; of sweat, dirty clothes and sour jocks. I would never admit it to anyone, but I love that smell. Especially when it’s warm outside—the smell seems riper, more vital, more alive. For me, it is the smell of athletic boys, the smell of their faded and dirty jockstraps. At night, when I lie in my bed alone jacking off in the dark quiet, I close my eyes and I try to remember it. I imagine myself in that locker room after practice, the room alive with the sound of laughter and snapping towels, of boys running around in their jocks and giving each other bullshit as they brag about what girls they’ve fucked and how big their dicks are. I try to remember, as I lie there in my bed, the exact shape of their hard white asses, whose jock strap is twisted just above the start of the curve, and below the muscled tan of their backs. It’s the locker room where I first saw another boy naked, after all—the only place where it’s acceptable to see other boys in various states of undress. The locker room always haunts my fantasies and my dreams.
And now, as I reach the corner, I hesitate. Who could still be showering at this time? Everyone else has left; baseball practice is long over, and I’d be in my car heading home myself if I hadn’t forgotten my bag and I didn’t have that damned History test tomorrow. Could it be Coach Wilson? I shudder as I have the thought. I certainly hoped it wasn’t him. He was a nice man, but Coach Wilson was about a hundred years old and had a big old belly that made him look like he’d swallowed every single basketball in the equipment room. I take a deep breath and walk around the corner.
Maybe it was—um, no, that was too much to hope for. Just get your bag and go.
The locker room is filled with steam from the hot water in the shower. Wisps dance around the overhead lights, and it was so thick I could barely see the floor and make out the row of black painted metal lockers. Yet, through the steam, I can barely see a tanned form with his back turned to me, his head under the water spigot, hot water pouring down over his muscled back and over the perfectly round, hard whiteness of a mouth-wateringly beautiful ass. I catch my breath as I stare, knowing that I shouldn’t be—the right thing to do is call out a ‘hello’, pretend not to look, get what I need and get the hell out of there. But I am utterly transfixed by the sheer beauty of what I am seeing. I bite down on my lower lip, aware that my dick is getting hard in my pants as I watch. I can’t tear myself away—I don’t want to turn and go or stop staring, the body is too perfect. And with the wetness cascading down over it, the glistening flow of the water emphasizing every defined muscle in the lovely male form that has haunted my dreams and my fantasies ever since I transferred here my junior year and started going to this small rural high school. Go, hurry, before he turns around and catches you watching—what are you going to say? Um, sorry I was staring at your ass?
But still I keep standing there, continuing to run the risk he’ll catch me, every second passing making it more likely. How long can he stand there like that without moving?
We-ell, that certainly starts off with a literal bang, doesn’t it?
I had no idea how to write this book, or what it was even going to be about when I signed the contract (I always say yes to money and try to figure it all out later). I’d had an idea, years before, for a book about a fraternity while I was actually living in one, and came up with three main characters: Eric Matthews, Chris Moore, and Blair Blanchard. The three were all friends, all pledge brothers, and all different. Eric came from an upper middle-class family, Chris was strictly middle-class and had a job, and Blair was the son of two movie stars, an aspiring actor himself, and was always intended to be gay gay gay. I had originally wanted to write a Lords of Discipline sort of novel about a fraternity and a secret society within the fraternity–still might; I think it’s a good idea–and so I thought, well, you belonged to a fraternity, and you created a fictionalized version of it for this book idea, so start there.
I fictionalized both Fresno and Fresno State into Polk and CSU-Polk, and my fictional fraternity’s physical house was based on the actual fraternity house, as well as the way its parking lot adjoined a sorority’s at the end of a cul-de-sac, with the fraternities’ parking lots on one side of the little road and the sorority ones on the other side, just like at Fresno State. My fictional fraternity house had a two story dormitory wing attached to the chapter room and meeting/party space/cafeteria, and so on. I created an entirely new character, closeted eighteen year old Jeff Morgan, who had just moved to Polk right after high school graduation (his family was transferred) and enrolls in summer school. In the opening sequence, Jeff is actually in his Economics class and bored, having a very vivid and erotic daydream about a boy he’d had a crush on in high school. Jeff is so involved and vested in the daydream he doesn’t even notice that the class was dismissed until a handsome classmate snaps him out of the daydream…that classmate is Blair Blanchard, who befriends Jeff and invites him to come hang out at his fraternity. It’s also soon apparent that Blair is not only openly gay but has no issue with it; he doesn’t really talk about it around the house, but everyone knows. Blair is the first openly gay person Jeff has ever known–Jeff is from Kansas and hopelessly naïve–and thinks he’s falling in love with Blair; but he isn’t sure how Blair feels about him.
Every Frat Boy Wants It is really Jeff’s story, and about how Jeff slowly comes into himself as a person; accepting his own sexuality and embracing who he is–while having a strange relationship with Blair that he doesn’t quite understand. It’s his first relationship of any kind, and he doesn’t understand why Blair keeps pushing him away–leads him on, turns him off, and so forth, on and on and on–and is told really in a series of vignettes, essentially sex scenes with both elaborate set-ups and follow-ups that have lasting impacts on him, with the story of his unrequited love for Blair running through them all. He even winds up shooting a porn film while on vacation with Blair in Palm Springs at Blair’s movie star father’s place. Eric and Chris turn out to be pledge brothers of Jeff’s–he eventually has a three way with them; they don’t identify as gay but “play around with each other”–until, of course, the very end when Blair and Jeff finally get past all their misunderstandings and disagreements and jealousies and commit, once and for all to each other.
The book did very well–that scorching hot cover also didn’t hurt–and they asked me for a sequel.
That sequel became Games Frat Boys Play, and was adapted from another novel idea I’d had lying around for quite some time (never throw anything away!).
My favorite memory of this book, though, is that I had to go to a conference in Atlanta for the weekend for a queer specfic event. (I still don’t know why I was invited; at that point I had edited one horror anthology and that was it, really) and the book was due. I was in Atlanta for four days; I did my panels and spent the rest of the time holed up in my room, writing madly in a desperate attempt to get this damned book finished and venturing across the street for Arbys whenever I got hungry. I set a writing record for myself that weekend–21000 words in three days–and the book was finished before I drove back to New Orleans. So whenever I talked about writing over twenty thousand words in a weekend? This is the book I am talking about.
Twenty-eight years ago I came to New Orleans for my birthday weekend, and my life changed completely. Earlier that month I had already taken a cold, hard, long look at my life and I didn’t like what I saw. I had been wrapped in misery for years, wallowing in it, and diving so deep into the misery that I allowed it to erase my dreams and any hopes I had for the future. It was, after all, very easy to blame outside forces for my miserable life, and when you dig deep down into the misery, well, it’s a lot easier to just wrap yourself up in self-pity than take any responsibility for your own happiness; making excuses not to try rather than reasons to better myself. I worked for Continental Airlines at the Tampa airport–most times not a bad job for the most part, but the bad days were horrible–and didn’t make much money. I was broke all the time and yes, I wasted a lot of money treating myself to things–like buying lots and lots of books every payday–in an effort to make me feel better about myself and my miserable life. I was horribly lonely.
A bad experience with someone I was romantically interested in was the impetus for the changes I made to my life, because for whatever reason that night everything just bubbled up to the surface; I hated everything about my life, I hated where I was at, I felt trapped and like nothing good was ever going to happen to me. I stayed up the entire night, feeling sorry for myself and unable to sleep, tossing and turning and occasionally crying. At seven o’clock the next morning (it was a day off) I went into my bathroom and took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror. I never want to feel this way ever again, I thought as I looked at red swollen eyes, the unshaved face. the dark purplish circles under my eyes. I then repeated it out loud. I went back to my desk, sat down and opened my latest journal and wrote the words: I hate my life. I stared at the words for a few moments, and then added, I have no one to blame for this but myself. I am the only person who can change things for me. I want to be a writer. I want to be published, and I don’t want to work for Continental for the rest of my life in this job that makes me miserable. I am lonely and it’s probably too late for me to find a life partner. But I have to stop being afraid of everything, and I can’t go the rest of my life NOT living because I am afraid of dying. Other men are not attracted to me because I am overweight–no one ever looks at me twice when I go to bars. I cannot change my face but I can change my body. I will eat healthy. I will drop some of this extra weight. I will do crunches and push-ups every day from now on, and if by January I have been consistent with the workouts and the diet, I will join a gym. I need to start figuring out who I am and how to get what I want because no one is going to knock on my door and just give it to me. The only person who can change the things in my life is me, and I am going to work on being the best possible me that I can.And that means taking the steps necessary to change who I am and what my life is so I can become a writer.
Three weeks later, my birthday weekend rolled around and I flew to New Orleans with a friend for the weekend. We were staying with his on-again off-again boyfriend–who turned out to be one of the nicest gay men I’ve ever known. I really liked him. thought he was a good person–but once they broke up for good that was the end of that; I guess he associated me with his ex and so couldn’t be bothered anymore (or he did a great job of acting the part of the generous host; I am not sure how the invitation to stay with him came about; all I knew was we were going to New Orleans for my birthday and staying with this guy), which was always a shame. I was always grateful to him–have been for twenty-eight years–because coming to New Orleans that weekend was yet another key piece to the puzzle of Greg’s future, a piece I didn’t even now I needed.
I think at that point I may have lost five pounds or so. My friend was gorgeous; one of those perfect gay men with golden skin and very little–if any–body fat; his boyfriend was his counterpart, only with much bigger muscles, bluish-black hair, and that gorgeous gorgeous olive toned skin darker Italians have. They looked beautiful together, too, and I was in some sense a third wheel that weekend, but it was okay with me. They were totally into each other which left me with time on my own to think and reflect. He picked us up at the airport and took us to his apartment (which was in a complex on Sophie Wright Place that Paul and I eventually moved into when we returned from DC in August 2001), we showered and cleaned up, and headed to the Quarter.
I had been to New Orleans before that particular trip, and while I had always felt drawn in some ways to this city since I was a child, I’d never before felt the sense of belonging I felt that weekend. When we stepped out of the cab that night at the corner of Bourbon and St. Ann, I felt this enormous emotional release, as though tension I didn’t know I. had in my shoulders and brain were suddenly gone and a big burden had been lifted from my shoulders. It was as though my soul was saying at last you’ve come home, and I knew then, before we paid the cover charge to go into the bars there at the corner–Oz and the Pub/Parade–that I was going to someday live in New Orleans…and all of my dreams would come true once I did.
I have never been sure what was different about that trip than previous ones. On my brief, previouos visits to the city before, I’d never gotten a real sense of the city before–we stayed in motels by the airport or on the West Bank–and so it wasn’t really possible to get a sense of New Orleans. Waking up in the spare bedroom in the morning, walking out onto the balcony and looking around at the roofs and unique architecture of the lower Garden District, I felt like I was at home. It was also the first time I’d ever come to New Orleans to hang out with other gay people and in the gay section of the Quarter, and maybe that was the difference? I don’t know for certain, but I do know that was the magical trip when everything coalesced in my head on that trip here. I knew New Orleans was my home, and I needed to live there, and my dreams would finally all come true once I’d moved there.
My friend’s boyfriend was a great host. He made sure to take me to see Anne Rice’s home at First and Chestnut (which was also the home of the Mayfair witches in The Witching Hour, a book I’d loved that had only heightened my sense of need to come to New Orleans), and showed me (us) around the entire weekend; we went to Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District, ate amazing food, and then at night we’d head down to the Quarter to the bars and danced the night away.
That was also the weekend I did Ecstasy for the first time, but that’s a story for a different time.
The entire weekend was a whirl; I have pictures somewhere (or lost many years ago during the course of a move or something) of all the places we went and things we did; the amazing food, dancing all night and going to the Clover Grill in the morning (or La Peniche, over in the Marigny) and then sleeping before going roaming again throughout the city. I fell for New Orleans hard that weekend, and have never really fallen out of love for the city, really, since. We broke up once (that dreadful year Paul and I spent in DC), but we came back and New Orleans forgave us for our desertion and welcomed us back home.
I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard about New Orleans, but I do remember Nancy Drew came to Carnival (called “the Mardi Gras” in the book, eye roll to infinity) in The Haunted Showboat (she also visited briefly during The Ghost of Blackwood Hall), but I don’t really remember much else. I think everyone in the country has a sense of Carnival/Mardi Gras, and always associates that with New Orleans–but New Orleans, obviously, is so much more than that. I was a kid when I watched the James Bond movie Live and Let Die–which whetted my interest in New Orleans and Louisiana–later movies like The Big Easy and Angel Heart and Tightrope expanded that interest, as did Anne Rice’s novels and the Skip Langdon series by Julie Smith. Whenever I had been to New Orleans previously I hadn’t felt anything but a sense that the city was different than everywhere else, and that difference felt alien to me.
But that entire weekend was different. That weekend in the city changed me and changed my life. I’d never felt like I’d belonged anywhere before–I always had felt out of place wherever I lived; part of it was being gay, part of it was being a creative, and the rest had everything to do with being raised by Southern parents with a Southern mentality but not living in the South (not a complaint, I am very grateful to have not been raised down here)–so New Orleans felt special to me; I’d finally found my place or, to quote Pippin, I’d finally found my corner of the sky.
Within a year I’d met the love of my life–who also was in love with New Orleans and wanted to live there–and on August 1, 1996, I drove the U-haul truck with all of our stuff and towing my old car into the city to start the rest of my life. I had already started dipping into the waters of writing–I got a gig with a gay paper in Minneapolis that actually paid me, and had started writing the book that would eventually become Murder in the Rue Dauphine. Within three years of moving to New Orleans I had a book contract and had sold my first ever short stories. Twenty-eight years to the day of that most important visit to New Orleans, and look at me now.
I live in the city I love with the man I love doing the work I love. I’m glad that I didn’t know at the time how important that weekend was going to prove to be; that it was, indeed, really the first day of the rest of my real life, when I finally stopped just enduring my life and actively started living it. It’s not always been easy to live here and love the city; New Orleans can be a hard place a lot of the time. We’ve endured hurricanes and floods, disease and injury, poverty and horror. But even the bad things are made bearable because we live in New Orleans.
I’ve written millions of words about New Orleans. One of the best compliments I can receive is being told that I’ve depicted the city so vividly and lovingly that it’s a character. I do laugh when people call me a “New Orleans expert”–I am anything but an expert; you could fill the Great Library of Alexandria with what I don’t know about New Orleans; every day I discover something new about this wondrous and bizarre place, the only place on earth I’ve ever felt at home. I will never run out of material to write about this magical city, and every day, more ideas and thoughts for stories and characters and essays about New Orleans comes to me.
So, my favorite part of my birthday is the fact that it is also the anniversary of me finding, at long last, where I belong.
And thank you, New Orleans, for always, no matter what, being New Orleans.
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.
I used to think you could never be too far from Texas, in all honesty, despite my deep appreciation and affection not only for Houston (I lived there for a time) but for all my marvelous friends in Texas. Murder by the Book, the only mainstream mystery bookstore that would allow me to have events in their store when I first published, always holds a deep place of affection within my heart and soul; I love that store, and of course, I also love me some Whataburger.
Whataburger alone makes Texas worth visiting, to be honest.
The Chanse MacLeod series was originally going to be set in Houston. I created him, and actually started writing about him, while i lived in Texas from 1989-1991. I remember distinctly that he had an office and a pager, as well as a secretary and an off-hours answering service…clearly, I didn’t understand how private investigators actually worked and was basing everything off movies, books, and television programs. But I do recall the name of the first book was going to be The Body in the Bayou–and Chanse was also straight in his original iteration–and it wasn’t until later (after my birthday visit here in 1994) that I decided to move it to New Orleans, and of course by the time I started rewriting the New Orleans version, I’d discovered gay mysteries and so of course, I changed his sexuality (I’ve never once regretted that either, I might add). I also put The Body in the Bayou aside and started writing a whole new murder mystery for him (Murder in the Rue Dauphine) that eventually became my first published book. Chanse remained from Texas–a small town in east Texas called Cottonwood Wells–and I even wrote a short story where Chanse goes back home to that small town. (I’d always wanted to write a book where he goes back home and has to deal with memories and so forth; I just never got around to it and his original publisher always made the sign of the cross at me whenever I suggested, “hey, should I set the next one in Chanse’s home town, where he has to go to clear up a crime someone from his past is accused of?”) Cottonwood Wells also popped up in earlier drafts of #shedeservedit, as where main character Alex’ family was originally from; that eventually got edited out over the final drafts.
Sunday morning and I slept late, and even after waking, stayed in the bed for a while longer. It felt very comfortable and my body was very relaxed, which was lovely, and I didn’t really want to get out of the bed, to be honest. I made swedish meatballs last night for dinner and left the mess for this morning (I am now cursing lazy Greg last night who made that decision–part of the reason I made this decision was I realized while cooking that the dishwasher had a clean load in it that needed to be put away, and it was a pain in the ass to do while cooking and trying to time everything) and I didn’t really want to come downstairs and face the mess. I did get some cleaning and organizing done yesterday–I did the kitchen floors at long last–and I also worked on the living room some. I wrote about fifteen hundred words yesterday to flex my writing muscles a little bit–I’ll probably go back over them again today as I write more–and I also have to get the proofs for Streetcar significantly finished today. I also want to work on the new Scotty a little bit as well. We’ll see how much I can get done this morning/afternoon before Paul gets up–although he is going to go into the office today; there was a lot of thunderstorms yesterday and street flooding, so he and the IT guy rescheduled for today (can’t say as I blame him, we were in and out of flash flood alerts all day yesterday; the joys of the tropics in the summer) which will free up this afternoon for proofing.
My self-care appointment (okay, it was a back wax; someday I will write an essay about my issues with body hair) went well and after that, I swung by and picked up the mail. On my way back home I stopped at the Fresh Market (I rarely shop there; I always forget it’s there) to get a few things, and while it is more expensive than other places, I like shopping there. The fruit and vegetables always seem much fresher, and rather than buying prepackaged ground sirloin, I instead got it from the butcher counter, remembering suddenly that it’s fresher that way–and those meatballs turned out superlatively. I think in the future I might shop there a little more regularly. They don’t carry everything I would need, of course–that would make life too easy–but for meats and fruit and vegetables…well, it really cannot be beaten. I spent some more time with In the Dark We Forget–which I am also going to do this morning for a bit, it’s really good and I want to find out what happened to Cleo and her parents–for the rest of this morning, and then I need to vacuum the living room at some point (I swept up the floor in there last night as well, and tried to get it to look cleaner and better organized in there as well; it’s amazing what a difference the clean floor makes). So, a busy busy day for one Gregalicious. But that’s fine, I kind of like having things to do…it’s just when I have so much to do the thought of it is soul-crushing and defeating that I don’t like it.
We started watching The Anarchists on HBO MAX last night, and it’s….something, all right. It’s also interesting how these people chose to define “anarchy” as something other than what most people generally accept it as meaning; but they were using the actual definition of anarchy rather than the societal definition. I always laugh at people who think that laws and rules and regulations are things that restrict freedom and are unnecessary in a society; it’s really just another branch of libertarianism or Ayn Rand’s insane “objectivism”–those laws and rules and regulations exist because they were necessary, because human beings tend to always operate by putting their own needs first. Regulations exist because food manufacturers regularly sold bad, or dangerous, food to the general public because there were no regulations and no one keeping them honest; robber barons created monopolies to exploit the public and make themselves rich (Bezos, Musk, etc are simply the modern day version of the robber barons) at the expense of the needy; hence we needed government intervention to prevent abuses. I’ve never understood the mentality of “oh, if we do away with regulations and laws and rules we’ll all live together in peaceful harmony” because there’s always at least ONE asshole in every group.
And on that note, I am going to make another cup of coffee, put the clean dishes away, and go read for a bit. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and we’ll talk again tomorrow, if not later. (I’ve been going down the Stevie Nicks discography for my titles, and some of them–along with some of them from other song lists I was using before–wind up having the same titles as some of my books, and I’ve decided–see yesterday’s post about Sleeping Angel–that when I have a blog list song title that matches the title of one of my books, I am going to post about the book. Right now, I have Timothy in my stored draft blogs folder, and I think there’s another called “Watching Scotty Grow” in which I am trying to write the history of the series, which could be helpful as I am writing Book Nine at the moment, and since I am doing Stevie’s discography, that means Sara will also be coming up at some point.)
I originally started writing Sleeping Angel in 1994.
That seems like such a long time ago, too. I hadn’t met Paul yet, was still working for that wretched airline at the airport, was broke broke broke and often ran out of money long before payday, and any kind of decent life for me seemed impossible. It was the next year I decided to snap out of the constant feeling sorry for myself, and instead of waiting for the world to come knocking on my door to make my dreams come true, that the only person who could make my dreams a reality was me, and that I needed to make the changes necessary to my life if I were going to become a writer for real–like stop dreaming about it and writing now and then, and start taking it seriously and writing all the fucking time, and trying to make it happen–which meant sending things out to try to get them published.
It’s weird how you forget things about books you’ve written until something out of left field reminds you of something. Julie Hennrikus, during our Sisters in Crime podcast interview, asked me about writing young adult fiction, and how I came to do that. The story is very simple, really; after discovering Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine and other young adult authors who wrote young adult novels that were either crime or horror or a cross of the two, I decided to take the book I was writing at the time–Sara–and write it as a young adult novel instead of as one for adults. It really didn’t take a lot, to be honest–I removed the framing device that firmly set the book back in the 1970’s–and turned it into a modern day story about teenagers (which it always was). After I finished Sara, I wrote another called Sorceress–and when I finished it, I began writing Sleeping Angel. I still didn’t have a strong grasp of how writing actually worked (which is kind of embarrassing when I remember how naive and stupid I actually was back then, but what did I know. seriously? Very little.) and so I never rewrote anything; I just printed them (I had bought a very inexpensive word processor that I loved, and wrote on) out and saved the originals. I was about half-way through Sleeping Angel when I discovered there was such a thing as queer crime novels…so I abandoned writing young adult fiction and started thinking more in terms of writing a gay private eye series…which eventually became the Chanse MacLeod series and Murder in the Rue Dauphine.
Flash forward another decade or so, and in the spring of 2005 I attended BEA and the Lambda Awards in New York. I lost twice that year (Best Gay Mystery for Jackson Square Jazz and Best Scifi/Fantasy/Horror for Shadows of the Night) and then on Saturday night I attended a cocktail party for the Publishing Triangle. (It was at this party that I met both Tab Hunter and Joyce Dewitt.) I also met a very nice man who was familiar with my work, and asked me if I had ever considered writing young adult fiction with gay characters and themes? I laughed and replied that I had two completed first drafts and a partial for another in a drawer back home; he then gave me a business card and told me he would love to take a look at them with an eye to publishing. I lost the card years ago, probably in the Katrina aftermath, but he was an editor for Simon and Schuster Teen, which was very exciting. I told him I would revise one and send it to him as soon as I finished Mardi Gras Mambo, which was at that point over a year overdue (I didn’t mention that part). This was exciting for me, as one can imagine; another opportunity gained by simply being in the right place at the right time, which has been the story of my career pretty much every step of its way. Once I finished Mardi Gras Mambo that August, I started revising Sara.
And then came Hurricane Katrina, and everything went insane for a few years, and I abandoned the attempt to rewrite Sara. There was just too much going on, I was displaced and finding it hard to get back into writing, and I just wasn’t in the right place emotionally to revise or rewrite a book. I’ve always regretted that last opportunity.
Flash forward another year or so and I casually mentioned to a friend this missed opportunity. What I didn’t know when I mentioned it (bemoaned it, really; I still regret this lost chance) was that she had been working for another publisher as an acquiring editor for young adult/children’s work. “Would you rewrite one of these for me? I’d love to pitch this to the company.” So….rather than Sara, I went with a rewrite of Sorceress, which had a teenaged girl lead character and I didn’t see any place to add queer content (I’d been adding that to the revision of Sara ) and sent it to her. Alas, before she had the opportunity to pitch it the line she acquired for was closed down and that was the end of that….until a few years later when she decided to start her own small press for juvenile/young adult fiction, and wanted Sorceress. I sent it to her, we signed a contract…and then I realized I needed to let Bold Strokes Books know I was doing this. I emailed them, and they replied, “You know we do young adult?”
I wrote back and mentioned I had two others collecting dust, and so I contracted both Sara and Sleeping Angel with them. I decided to do Sleeping Angel first–which is odd, as I didn’t even have a completed first draft; I don’t remember why I decided to do this, frankly–and so I started writing and revising.
The really funny thing–just looking at the cover for the book–is that the character name “Eric Matthews” was one I came up with when I was in college; I had an idea for a book set in my fraternity, and came up with three names for characters that were pledge brothers and friends: Eric Matthews, Chris Moore, and Blair Blanchard. I used Eric and Chris for Sleeping Angel (completely forgetting that I had already used those names in Every Frat Boy Wants It a few years earlier), so yes, even though the fraternity books I used were by “Todd Gregory”, I accidentally re-used the character names.
The original intent with my young adult fiction was to connect it all together, the way R. L. Stine did with Fear Street, and sort of how all of Stephen King’s work is as well. The three books I started with–Sara, Sorceress, and Sleeping Angel–were connected, and were the springboard from which the others would come–or were supposed to come, from. Sara was set in rural Kansas. The main character of Sorceress moved from rural Kansas to a small town in the mountains in California, Woodbridge, which was also where Sleeping Angel was set. The main character of Sara moved to Kansas from the Chicago suburb where the main character of Lake Thirteen was from, and so on. (Likewise, the main character from Dark Tide was also from the same county in Alabama where Bury Me in Shadows took place, and #shedeservedit was set in the town that was the county seat for that rural Kansas area where Sara was set.) I’d consciously forgotten that, but fortunately my subconscious still holds on to things the forefront of my brain doesn’t.
When I originally envisioned Sleeping Angel back in 1993 (or 1994, I don’t remember which), the concept I wanted to explore was something, a concept, that Dean Koontz had used in his book Hideaway–that someone was in a car accident and died, only to be resuscitated by the EMT’s. But when he came back to life, he brought back something with him from the other side that gave him a psychic connection with a serial killer. It was an interesting idea–I wasn’t using the serial killer thing–but I loved the entire concept of someone being brought back with something extra (which, now that I think about it, is also the entire conceit Stephen King built The Dead Zone around). I decided to keep the car accident to open the book in the new version, but the opening I originally wrote had to be tossed. I also came up with an entirely new concept for the book: what if you were in a bad car accident, but there was a dead body in the car who was NOT killed in the accident but had been shot and was already dead when the car crashed? And if the main character has amnesia….who killed the kid in the back seat?
And away we went.
He was driving too fast, and knew he should ease his foot off the gas pedal, bringing the car down to a safer, more manageable speed.
But he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“Hang in there, buddy,” he muttered grimly under his breath, taking his eyes off the road for just a moment to glance in the rearview mirror into the backseat. What he saw wasn’t encouraging. Sean’s eyes were closed, and he couldn’t tell if Sean was still breathing.
The blood–there was so much of it, and it was everywhere.
He swallowed and took a deep breath, trying to hold down the panic. He had to stay calm. He couldn’t let the fear take over, he just couldn’t. He had to hold himself together. He had to get to town, to get Sean to the hospital before it was too late–if it wasn’t already too late.
Not a bad beginning, right? Pulls you right into the story.
I don’t remember what–if anything–I was expecting when Sleeping Angel was finally released (it actually wound up coming out before Sorceress, ironically); it had not even been six years since the right-wing homophobes had come for me for daring to accept an invitation to speak to high school students in a Gay-Straight Alliance. And now I’d actually dared to write a book about teenagers, for teenagers. The horror! But the book come out and there wasn’t even the slightest whisper of controversy about the “gay pornographer” writing a y/a book. It got really good reviews for the most part, people really seemed to enjoy it, and it eventually won a gold medal for Outstanding Young Adult Mystery/Horror from the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, which I’d never heard of but was kind of a big deal, or so I’m told. The gold medal was nice, too–very pretty (but it’s not the rock from the Shirley Jackson Awards–the smooth polished stone I got for being a finalist may be my favorite thing I ever received as recognition for my writing).
I have been debating about whether I should post or not about the passing of gay literary legend Richard Labonte earlier this week. I didn’t know Richard as well as many other queer writers did; my career began only a few years before he retired from A Different Light and moved north to Bowen Island with his husband Asa (fun fact: Bowen Island is where Harper’s Island, a one-season “we’re trapped here on an island with a mad killer who’s picking us all off one by one and must be one of us!” thriller series that wasn’t very popular but I enjoyed tremendously).
I first met Richard when I worked for Lambda Literary back in the day (yes, the very same Lambda Literary that’s being draggedor defended on Twitter the last few days; those of you who’ve not been around for a long time might not know Paul and I both worked there from August 2000 to November 2001) and A Different Light was the bookseller for a Lambda Literary Awards nominee reading we were holding at the San Francisco Public Library in spring of 2000 (ADL was also the bookseller for the Lambda Literary Conference we were putting on in San Francisco later that same year). Richard was always very kind to me; he published several stories of mine in his Best Gay Erotica series for Cleis Press (and no, I don’t remember the years, the volume numbers, the guest editors, or the stories themselves) and often, when he was putting an anthology of some kind or another together, would often ask me to write something for him. I always tried to (I don’t think I always succeeded in writing something for him), primarily because he was so nice and supportive from my days as editor of Lambda Book Report. Since seeing the news of Richard’s passing, I’ve been remembering things from back then–things I’ve not thought about in years–and while some of the memories aren’t great…the majority of them are. (I really enjoyed the job, despite the challenges I sometimes faced doing it.) That Festival in San Francisco was the last time I saw Richard in person; I think I signed twice more at the store in San Francisco but many years later, long after Richard retired and left the city.
He was a very generous man and was committed to not only the queer community but to the queer publishing community. He was so incredibly kind to me when my first books came out; so supportive, always emailing me to let me know he’d read and enjoyed them, which meant a lot to me back in those days. I was, despite my years as a book reviewer and my time as editor of LBR, still remarkably naive about publishing and the business when Murder in the Rue Dauphine was released; we were also remarkably poor around that time and so making money was really my biggest priority at the time; one of the reasons I always tell new writers to enjoy their first book release and everything to do with getting a book published is because I wasn’t truly able to enjoy mine as completely as I would have liked; and the next thing I knew a year had passed and the second book was out and things were…different. I would periodically email Richard when I was down about something–a horrible review, another writer saying nasty things about me and my work publicly, what should I do in a certain situation–and he was always very generous with his time and kind in his replies to the newbie who didn’t know what he was doing (and let’s face it, I still don’t).
His retirement was a loss to the community; his passing an even greater one. He loved his community, he loved books, he loved writers–and he made such a difference, a positive one, in so many writer’s lives.
But I am glad I got the opportunity to know him. I was always grateful to him; I hope he knew that.
Thursday and working at home today. Data to enter and condoms to pack; but at least I don’t have to go out in public today, which is a blessing both for me and the public when it happens. I decided to stop and make groceries on the way home from work last night, to make this possible, and it’s an absolutely lovely thing to contemplate that I was smart enough to think ahead so I can just work from home and not go anywhere today, other than to the gym later on. My body isn’t happy that I’ve not been to the gym in weeks, and it is most definitely letting me know of its deep disapproval of this conduct. I may not even lift weights–but stretching is definitely on the agenda. I need to really stretch every day, to keep my muscles from tightening and knotting, and all the knots and tightness and tension I am feeling this morning is yet another example of why self-care, particularly in trying times, is so absolutely necessary.
I also really need to get back to writing more regularly. I always feel better when I’m working, writing, than when I am not. You’d think after over twenty years of writing, this would be firmly imprinted on my brain: writing and creating are imprinted into your DNA and when you aren’t doing it, you’re making yourself miserable. I’ve always believed the the so-called trope of “writer’s block” is actually a symptom of depression; there’s something else going on in your brain that is preventing you from creating. (I cannot, as always, speak for writers other than myself; this is my belief and my experience. I’ve also come to recognize that I don’t want to do it mentality when it comes to writing for me is my own personal version of writer’s block–the depression and the imposter syndrome insidiously doing its work on my brain: why do something you love to do when you can not do it and feel bad about yourself and question your ability to do it?) There have been a lot of distractions lately–really, since The Power Went Out–and I need to stop allowing shit to take me out of the mindset that the most important thing to do in my free time from now until January is to write the fucking book.
The book is the most important thing right now.
I did spend some time revising the first chapter last night, despite having the usual “third day in a row up at six” tiredness last night. It felt good, as I knew it would, and spending some doing something I truly love really gave me a rush of sorts; I was able to sleep deeply and well last night, I feel very even and stress-free this morning, and some of the knots in my shoulders, neck and back seem to have relaxed this morning, and I feel rested, more rested than I have felt in quite some time. Untangling the thorny knots of problems in a manuscript–while forcing me to think and use logic and reason while being creative–is perhaps the best cure for anything I have going on at the time. Escaping into writing has always been my solace, going back to the days when I was that lone queer kid in Kansas, and it still works to this day.
It’s actually an interesting challenge for me–writing a book set in New Orleans that doesn’t center a gay man or any gay issues. (There will be queer characters–I can’t write anything without including some; sue me.) The book is also centered in a neighborhood with which I have some familiarity, but I obviously don’t know it as well as the Lower Garden District (where Chanse lives, and where Paul and I have always lived) or the Quarter (where Scotty lives); it’s the same neighborhood where my main character in Never Kiss a Stranger also lives, so I need to get more familiar with how it is NOW…I tend to always think of neighborhoods as they were not as they currently are; which means I need to go walk around and take some pictures and get a sense/feel for who lives there, what it’s like now, etc. This neighborhood used to be considered sketchy when I first started coming here/when we first moved here; the price ranges for rentals and properties now (well, every-fucking-where in New Orleans now) are hard for me to wrap my mind around. (When I was writing my first book, Murder in the Rue Dauphine, I made a reference to “million dollar homes in the Garden District; this was in the late 1990’s. My first reader–beta reader, they’d call it now–highlighted the sentence with the note there are no million dollar homes in New Orleans. The Internet then was not what it is now, of course, so I was surprised to look in the real estate listings in the Times-Picayune to see she was correct. Now, homes in neighborhoods that used to be considered ‘dangerous’ go for over $400k; I just looked at “houses for sale” on Zillow in the neighborhood I am using and was not in the least bit surprised to see that a house like the one my character lives in is listed for 1.15 million…which is actually a plot point I am going to use in the book. And while verifying this just now didn’t surprise me, per se, it did make me shake my head and wonder, who is paying this for a house in New Orleans?)
I don’t see how any working class people can actually afford to live here anymore, really. Sure, there are still neighborhoods that “affordable” when compared to the neighborhoods adjacent to the levees, but the fact that our original apartment, that we paid $495 per month for, now goes for $2100. And that’s something I think I should address in an upcoming book–whether in this new series, or in a Scotty.
I’ve also found myself going down wormholes about Louisiana and New Orleans history a lot lately; I’ve never been conversant in either other than the basics–Bienville arrived and set up camp; why English Turn is called English Turn; Spain takes over from France, and so on. Both city and state have a deep, rich and sometimes horrifying history; it’s little wonder the city is so haunted. So much ugliness, so much violence, so much criminal activity! (Which kind of thematically what I was exploring in Bury Me in Shadows–how the history of violence and ugliness in a particular area can poison it) It’s why I am always amused that the white-supremacists-who-don’t-want-people-to-think-they-are will always cry and whine about crime in New Orleans–when they haven’t lived here in decades and were part of the white flight when the schools were desegregated–they left because of crime, not because they didn’t want their kids to go to school with black kids, oh no! It was the crime! (But if you give them enough rope, they will always bring race into it eventually). New Orleans has always had a dark past, has always had high crime rates, has always had corrupt politicians…but the crime here is why they left…even though the white politicians were also always criminals, and there has always been a lot of violent crime here.
Anyway, I went into a wormhole the other day about the possible murder of Louisiana’s first Black lieutenant governor, Oscar Dunn–who may or may not have been murdered in 1871. What a great historical true crime book that would make, wouldn’t it? Post war, the racial tensions in the city, Reconstruction going on…and on the other hand, it could also make a great historical mystery novel as well! Yet another idea, yet another folder, yet another possibility for the future.
It never ends.
And on that note, tis time for me to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!
Wednesday and sixty has crept yet another day closer. In fact, today is Sixty Eve Eve! All About Sixty Eve Eve?
Honestly, I can barely stand myself sometimes!
Yesterday I started the long process of the revisions/edits/tweaks the Kansas book needs; God, I am so heartily sick of those opening chapters I don’t even know how to begin to describe just HOW sick I am of those chapters. This book has had more drafts than any other one I’ve written since maybe Murder in the Rue Dauphine–which I’ve always thought had an excessive amount of draft versions–but in fairness, I’ve told and retold and made up my mind how to tell this story and then changed my mind yet again and so…draft after draft after draft after draft. So many changes, so many corrections, so many characters had their names changed, and then whole thing is really just a big old mess. The manuscript I sent my editor was probably so bad it counted as creating an abusive workplace environment. But as I started going through it all again last night–I couldn’t help but feel the excitement I did have about this project at one time; and I look forward to its release when I can share everything with you, Constant Reader.
But oy–cleaning up this manuscript mess is going to be a challenge and a half. But I CAN DO IT. I know I can.
I also want to go over “The Sound of Snow Falling” one more time. I think it needs yet another tweak I missed the last time around–I was actually rather pleasantly surprised by how well it played out in the original draft–my original drafts are inevitably messy, sloppy, and too embarrassing for me to let anyone else see. (Another issue with donating my papers somewhere–the last thing I want to do is have people reading my horribly patchy and sketchy initial drafts of anything–although for someone who finds that sort of thing interesting, I suppose the journey from horrifyingly sloppy first draft to final, polished draft might be their cup of tea.
I mean, as an intellectual exercise to see how a book or story might come together, sure. But I would tend to think it would get tedious rather quickly.
Then again, maybe that’s just me.
I was tired yesterday when I got off work; I was definitely out of the habit of waking up early over the last few days–not that I ever really get used to getting up early. I could have this schedule for the rest of my life, five days per week, and I would still grumble and be sleepy and tired and slightly crabby all day every single time I have to get up early. I had planned on going to the gym after work, but I was so tired by the time I was done for the day I didn’t really feel like I had much of a choice; just the thought of the walk in the heavy humidity-it rained off and on all afternoon–also would have curled up my hair if I had any. Instead, when I got home I took a quick shower to wash the day off me and curled up in my easy chair with purr-kitty and The Other Black Girl. (I am going to read Megan Abbott’s latest, The Turnout, next; I’ve been itching to get it started) Yesterday was a definite low-energy day; hopefully I’ll have a bit more energy today to get things done. It also started pouring down rain when I got home, which wasn’t exactly encouraging me to go outside and walk for ten minutes to get there, either. I read about another fifty or sixty pages of the book, enjoying it tremendously still–perhaps I can finish it tonight–and then watched the A&E bio of MTV before going to bed last night. I slept really well again last night–it goes without saying that I really didn’t want to get up this morning, but I am not as sleepy/still tired the way I was yesterday, which is also fine; perhaps I won’t be too tired to get things done today the way I was yesterday. It’s also Pay-the-Bills Day (hurray for pay day?), so I will definitely be having to spend some time doing exactly that this morning.
At least I can pay them; that’s probably the best way to look at the situation.
I still haven’t made that crucial to-do list, either. Maybe today? But at least tomorrow is the work-at-home day this week, and then of course Friday is the big birthday. What am I going to do for turning sixty? Going to drive out to Metairie and get a deep-dish pizza from That’s Amore, for one thing; which is most likely going to be all I do for the day. I’m not a big let’s do something major for my birthday person; haven’t been that in quite some time, and frankly, just being able to laze around the house without guilt–a day off where I don’t feel like I am wasting the day, or like I should be doing something other than being lazy–is actually sufficient. If I don’t have The Other Black Girl finished by then, I will most likely get it finished on Friday, and then will curl up with Megan Abbott. I really need to dig into my reading more–I am getting further and further behind in my reading, as the TBR Pile continues to grow larger at an increasingly terrifying rate–and I am most likely going to go back to placing a moratorium on buying books for a little while again; at least until I make some more progress on the reading.
The dishwasher started leaking last night–it’s always something around the Lost Apartment, seriously–and so I am going to have to start doing the dishes by hand again. At least this time I have the dishwasher to load them into to dry, which is something I didn’t have the last time the dishwasher conked on for a while–so they’ll be, at the very least, out of the way until they dry–but it’s still a pain in the ass. I don’t recall how old this dishwasher is–my sense of time is so fucked up and skewed I don’t remember how old anything is; I still can’t get over how old my old desktop was by the time I finally replaced it–but it should have definitely lasted a while longer, methinks; the failure of appliances to last for decades is something that still catches me off guard and by surprise.
Obviously, in some ways I am still stuck in my childhood, remembering things like how my mother’s first washer and dryer lasted for over twenty years….
And on that note, tis time to head back into the spice mines.
I feel very rested this morning; I’ve been sleeping well (thank you, medication) ever since last week, and am probably jinxing myself this morning for tonight’s sleep, but it is astonishing what not having insomnia feels like, and how literally marvelous that actually is. Yesterday was nice and relaxing; I made condom packs and other day-job related things around here all day, while doing the laundry and cleaning the kitchen (sort of); today I will be making more condom packs as well as doing various other day-job related things while watching some thing on television. I am now caught up on Superman and Lois (seriously, the best Superman adaptation since Christopher Reeve; if you’re a Superman fan, you really need to watch this show) and Real Housewives of Beverly Hills–which isn’t quite as absorbing as it has been before; it’s difficult to watch the Erica Girardi performances as “victim” without wanting to slap the smug smirk off her criminal face–and am not entirely sure what to watch today–I forgot to check with Paul about Loki–but I am sure I can find something.
I also neither read nor wrote yesterday; the desktop computer isn’t working as great as it could/should and I suspect I am going to eventually need to replace this bitch once and for all, which is galling, but it’s also, now that I think about it, fairly old. It was at least two or three at the time of the Great Data Disaster of 2018, and that’s almost three years ago as is. I hate spending the money–would actually prefer not to, in all honesty–but it is something I really need for my work and it is a complete tax write-off. I ordered a wireless mouse to use for the laptop–I lost the old one, and have looked for it everywhere–which should also arrive today, so working in my easy chair should be a lot easier as far as that is concerned going forward as well. I am also looking forward to paying off the car and some of these outstanding bills–which has also helped with my sleep, quite honestly–and so maybe, just maybe, I should get a new computer as a birthday gift to myself. I can’t really decide, to be honest. I mean, I could take this one back in and have them install more memory into it, but I am also not entirely certain that is the wisest course to take. Heavy heaving sigh.
But as my coffee continues to warm and wake up my brain from the deepest recesses of sleep, I see all kinds of things I really need to get done around here–I am going to bag up some more beads to donate, for example–and maybe I can start working on clearing things out of the attic. That’s a great, if problematic, project–I hate that little ladder that folds down and it attached to the trap door to the attic, and when I’m standing on it that creates an issue getting things up and down from there–but I can handle getting over my ladder phobia for a little while, and of course there’s no need for me to be going up and down; it can be done bit by bit.
And let’s be completely honest here–I’m not going to read anything that’s stored in the attic, am I?
So that can all go. And while I have been saving my papers almost from the very first–I don’t know, maybe I should try to see if there’s an archive still interested in them. I don’t think there will be much interest in them, or me, once I’ve left this mortal coil–I can’t imagine MFA or PhD candidates ever needing or wanting access to them, nor can I imagine I would be the subject of future biographies and/or scholarly research. And that isn’t me being self-deprecating, either–I am trying to watch out for that stuff, to be honest–and I have to wonder if I am, in fact, hoarding the paper. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
But it’s a lovely morning, and I need to make a to-do list for the weekend. One thing for sure I need to do is take boxes of condom packs back to the office (thus clearing out the living room) and pick up the mail; I also need to pick up a prescription. This should all be relatively easy to accomplish; the question is how do I want to do this all, and in what order to maximize my efficiency as I am out and about in the world. I feel pretty good, and that bodes well for my visit to the gym after I get my work done. I want to focus mostly on reading and writing this weekend–often a challenge–and trying to get caught up on everything.
Some day, methinks–or me-dreams–I will be finally caught up on everything. Ha ha ha ha, I still can crack myself up when I put my mind to it, can’t I?
I was also thinking, yesterday, as I made my condom packs and listened to the accessory-after-the-fact nonsense on Real Housewives, about my twisted view on gay relationships when it comes to writing about them; one of the things I’ve always been interested in is relationships gone bad, turned sour, and how to adapt common criminality tropes used for heterosexual couples for gay ones. One of the things I found so interesting about PJ Vernon’s Bath Haus was the power imbalance between Nathan and Oliver, and how that dynamic deeply affected not only how they saw each other but how they interacted with each other. The tired cliché love is blind isn’t really quite so tired when your couple is no longer opposite-sex; those dynamics really haven’t been as explored in queer relationships in crime novels so much as its been done to death for straight ones. When I wrote Timothy, I wasn’t playing with the romantic suspense trope (as Rebecca is so frequently and commonly mistaken considered) as I was writing a gay noir with a completely untrustworthy narrator–how innocent is Mrs. deWinter, after all? I have other ideas, of course (as always) for other explorations of noir and gay characters who aren’t on the up-and-up; there used to be a sense that gay characters in gay fiction had to be heroic in some one–no matter how flawed they were in service to the story they might be–because we needed to create them since history and most literature erased our existence. But things have changed, and I don’t feel that tiresome burden anymore–which I didn’t take terribly seriously in the first place if we’re being completely honest; the villain in Murder in the Rue Dauphine was a gay man, after all–but I no longer feel, when I am creating a character or starting to write something that I need my characters to be role models; that is a subconscious thought I am not sorry to have to consider anymore. Certainly my short story characters are not heroic people; they are damaged and flawed and often driven to their breaking point by circumstances beyond their control. My main character in “Festival of the Redeemer” is certainly incredibly flawed and more than a little unreliable; his mental instability and horrific, almost emotionally crippling insecurities are fun to write if emotionally exhausting.
And on that note, I am starting my day. May yours be a fabulous and amazing Friday, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you later.
It seems hard to believe–and writing it out makes it seem even harder to believe–but my first book came out over nineteen years ago. Right? I’ve been a published author of crime fiction now for almost a third of my lifespan–more, if you consider my career beginning when the original contract was signed–and yes, it makes me feel a bit old and weathered, and no, it doesn’t seem like it’s even possible (well, that so much time has passed).
It’s also a little weird to remember that one of the launching pads that got publishing in the first place was book reviewing. I started reviewing books for IMPACT News here in New Orleans around 1998, which led me eventually to national magazines, and an assistant editor position at Lambda Book Report (now LambdaLiterary.org) for a few months before taking over as editor-in-chief for twelve issues. Over the next few years I still did the occasional book review, but was slowly backing away from it. As a novelist myself, reviewing books was basically a mine field for me. If I reviewed a book badly, someone would inevitably pull out the old canard of “he’s just jealous!” (nothing could be further, ever, from the truth; I am not jealous of anyone’s success; if anything, I am jealous of other writers’ abilities and skills and creativity–which would never result in a negative boo review in the first place)
Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ve never been accused of jealousy of other writers’ careers and/or success; it amuses me a bit, because clearly the person lobbing such an accusation doesn’t know me at all–but I also don’t like being perceived that way. So I stopped reviewing books for money and for publication–it wasn’t a big financial loss for me in the first place; few places pay incredibly well for reviews; certainly not the places paying me for them, at any rate–and it eliminated any future accusations of “jealousy.” I also stopped talking about queer writers, and/or blogging about their books, a while back for various reasons. For one, I don’t want to be seen as a reviewer or my blog as a review site; as it is, I got requests from authors and publicists periodically wanting me to read and review their book(s) here; inevitably, I never am able to get to it and I don’t want to read for anything other than pleasure anymore.
When someone sends you a book to review, it turns the reading from pleasure to work and I don’t want that; it’s hard enough to turn off my editorial brain when I read, let alone adding the reviewer’s mindset back into my psyche.
I also realize, now, that all of this dissembling might sound like I am about to write some terrible things about PJ Vernon’s Bath Haus; nothing could be further from the truth.
This is a fucking mistake.
My heart beats against the back of my sternum like it might knock itself still.
I kill the ignition and Nathan’s SUV sinks into silence. My wedding band slides right off, joining spare console change. Nathan and I aren’t married, but he insists we wear rings.
The iPhone buzzing in my pocket is a miniature washing machine. Nathan’s calling. I wait it out, don’t move. A simple phone call I treated like a kidney stone. Excruciating and it needs to pass. He leaves a voicemail.
“Oliver. Dinner’s wrapped up, heading back to the hotel now. Give me a call if you can. Wondering what you’re doing. Did you remember Tilly’s heartworm medication? Don’t forget. It’s important. Call me. Love you.”
Mental note: return Nathan’s call within the hour. Thirty minutes is his typical limit. If he doesn’t hear back within half an hour, we fight. But he’s out of town, and I can stretch it to an hour. He can’t fight me from Manhattan, and it sounds lie he’s been drinking anyway.
First of all, I want to point out that back when I was getting started, the chances of this book being published by a mainstream press like Doubleday, in hardcover, were so infinitesimal I can’t even think about such a manuscript being delivered to a mainstream editor in 2000 without laughing out loud. The book opens in a bath house, for God’s sake; my QUEER publisher made me make a slight change to Murder in the Rue Dauphine, which meant not having the murder victim and his wealthy closeted lover meet in a French Quarter bath house. (I was told they would not be seen as sympathetic by the reader, which also struck me as odd; but it was also my first book and I wasn’t going to argue, assuming my queer publisher knew better than I did) Hell, even the title is Bath Haus–which kind of lays it all out for you, right there. This book also doesn’t shy away from gay sexuality, either–another third rail in thriller/crime fiction. It’s all right there for you, and not done in a prurient way; it is simply presented as another facet of their lives, much as it would be if it were a heterosexual couple.
And I absolutely love this opening–which contrasts the mundanity of the coupled existence vs. the lure of cheating.
I mean, how genius to have his main character, about to enter a bath house to cheat on his partner, get a text reminding him to give the dog her heartworm medicine! Well played, indeed!
PJ has called this book “Gone Girl with Grindr and gays”–which is a great elevator pitch, really–but the only similarities here with Gone Girl is that the book focuses on a dysfunctional relationship that spirals out of control, and that it’s a thriller with the same kinds of surprising twists and turns and surprises that keep you turning the page, very curious to see how this is all going to end–and to find out what is going on as well.
The book focuses on a relationship that really isn’t an equal one: wealthy surgeon Nathan, from a socially prominent family, has rescued a lower class drug addicted younger man from drowning in his own no-where life. But that power differential (rescuer/savior and rescued/victim), when added in with the financial differences, has made Oliver almost as dependent on Nathan as he used to be with drugs; if he loses Nathan, he will have nothing–which he is very aware of, and yet…like all addicts, there is a self-destructive streak in Oliver. He has never gotten over the self-loathing that was only amplified by drug addiction–and so he has begun checking out other guys on a Grindr-like app called MeetLockr (props for the clever app name! PJ needs to trademark that before someone else makes a fortune off it…then again I am assuming it’s NOT a real app, aren’t I?) and finally, with Nathan out of town and the coast, as he sees it, clear–Oliver decides to go to Haus, a bath house, for a night of anonymous sex which should never intrude into the picture perfect life Nathan has provided him. But his encounter turns terrifying, as Kristian, a gorgeous Scandinavian, begins choking him far past the point of pleasure and Oliver panics, fights back, slashes Kristian’s cheek open with his locker key–and then has to lie to Nathan about the bruises on his neck, beginning a downward spiral of lies and deception that begets more lies and deceptions as he frantically tries to hide the truth from Nathan–but few things in this book are what they seem at first glance, and the deeper the reader gets into the book, the more surprises are in store….
Bath Haus is definitely a thriller; a non-stop thrill ride that is difficult to put down, with brief chapters and short staccato sentences that come at the reader like bullets from an AK-47, almost daring you to put the book down–which you won’t be able to.
The book has received a lot of hype–also thrilling for me to see–and I am very happy to say it lives up to said hype.