It Never Rains in Southern California

Less than a week until Royal Street Reveillon is officially out in the world!

And so far, no current labor pains!

But, in fairness, it took me a good long while to write this book. My memory is so bad, and I’m so constantly and regularly busy, that I don’t even remember when I actually wrote it and turned it in to my publisher. I think it was earlier this year? I don’t remember–and that’s kind of sad. This is but one of the many reasons I don’t think I’ll ever write a memoir; my memory lies to me all the time and I never know what I remember correctly, let alone times and timelines and so forth. For example, when I was writing my essay “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet” for Love, Bourbon Street, I went into it thinking I spent weeks in Kentucky at my parents’ after the evacuation, when it was actually less than three before I returned to Louisiana. That was a shock, believe me…but it’s true: we evacuated on August 28th, and I returned to New Orleans for good in early October after several weeks on the North Shore at my friend Michael’s. Stress and age and everything else combines to make things seem different in memory; and I’ve also noted, many times, how often people look back through a rosy glow of nostalgia. (I’ve always thought people view the past nostalgically because they aren’t happy, for one reason or another, in the present; they think oh, everything was so much simpler and easier back then. It’s usually not that true.)

So, Gregalicious, why did you decide to write a murder mystery built around a reality television show filming in New Orleans?

I didn’t watch An American Family, the first true reality show, back in the 1970’s on PBS, as the Loud family allowed their lives to be filmed for the entertainment of the masses. The show, which was the baseline for everything that came later, was quite controversial–I remember reading in the newspaper that one of the sons came out as gay on camera, which was kind of a big deal in the 1970’s–but in the 1990’s, I was a big fan of MTV’s sociological experiment, The Real World, and it’s sister-show that came later, Road Rules. But as the shows went on, they went from being a sociological experiment (hey, let’s take a group of seven kids from completely different backgrounds, make them live together and work on a project, and see what, if anything, they learn from each other) to being exploitative (hey, if all of them are young and beautiful and damaged, and we encourage them to drink and hook up, drama will ensue!), which was when I lost interest in watching them anymore. I also watched the game show version–The Challenges–primarily because the young men were always hot, often shirtless, and sometimes even less clad than that, plus watching the competitions was interesting. But it, too, eventually paled in interest to me–they were so repetitive, and the producers never intervened when violence broke out, and that was more often than not–and so I stopped watching.

The Real Housewives was different for me. Back in the day, we used to watch Bravo a lot–Inside the Actor’s Studio, Project Runway, reruns of Law and Order and The West Wing–and when they started promoting a new show they were doing called The Real Housewives of Orange County, I sniffed disdainfully at it. At that time, one of the hottest shows on network television was Desperate Housewives, and this seemed to be a rip-off, an attempt to cash in on the success of another network’s show by copying the title and so forth: “oh, if you like that show, here’s the real women of the area who are housewives, and what there lives are like.” The previews I’d see didn’t really encourage me to watch–the women seemed, for the most part, like horrible people, particularly Vicki Gunvalson–but as the show spawned spin-off shows in other cities and regions, I became more than passingly acquainted with them. They usually ran marathons on Sundays, and when it’s not football season Sunday television was pretty much a wasteland. I’d flip on the marathon for background noise while I read a book and Paul napped on the couch–but I also began to absorb the shows through a kind of osmosis. I knew who the women were and what their lives were like–but still didn’t watch regularly until around 2010, or 2011 or so.

And once I started giving Real Housewives of New York and Beverly Hills my full attention–yeah, I was hooked.

Paul would even watch with me from time to time…and we played a game: if they did a New Orleans version, who would they cast? It was fun, because we also were relatively certain none of the women we thought would kill it on such a show would ever remotely consider doing such a show (Southern Charm New Orleans proved us right), and then I began to think…but such a show here would be absolutely the perfect background for a murder mystery, because of the way everyone here is so connected to everyone else and there would be backstory and history galore.

I always saw it as a Scotty book, but when I turned it into the Paige novella, that changed things. I still wanted to do a Scotty book about a reality show, and I started making notes for one called Reality Show Rhumba. And, if you’re wondering, that’s where the character of Frank’s nephew Taylor Wheeler came from; when I added him to the regular cast of characters for the Scotty series, my intent was to have him eventually be case in a Real World-type show here in New Orleans, and anchor a murder mystery. But then…the Paige novella series went nowhere, and I hated losing such a great idea..so as I went into Garden District Gothic I introduced Serena Castlemaine to the boys, thus planting the seeds for Royal Street Reveillon, knowing I could keep some parts of the story but would have to change others–which was cool, because I always felt that the original novella was kind of rushed, and I didn’t have either the time–or the space (since novellas are by nature shorter)–to make the story what I wanted it to be.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Stay in My Corner

We binged the Netflix series Dear White People last night, and got so involved we couldn’t stop watching; it was one of those shows where you say “oh, just one more won’t hurt” and then it’s over and you’re saying it again and then “well, there’s only ONE left” and then it’s over and you just sit back and think, “wow.” Full realized characters, incredible acting, and the writing? Stellar. Again, it was told from almost everyone’s point of view, so you got to know everyone and their backstories, especially with each other. It was funny, provocative, timely, and diverse. Obviously, my favorite character was the young gay writer, coming to terms with his enormous crush on his hot but straight roommate, trying to figure out who he is while navigating the murky waters of a college campus and institutionalized racism–but no one had an issue with his sexuality. His also gay editor at the independent campus paper got off a line that has me still laughing–and it was repeated by another character in the same episode: “Labels are what keep people in Florida from drinking Windex.”

I finished reading a book yesterday, started a couple more and put them in the donation pile after a couple of chapters, and really was at a loss for what to read next; and finally settled on Victor Gischler’s The Pistol Poets. I did a panel with him years and years ago at the Louisiana Book Festival–really liked him, thought he was smart and funny and engaging–and then read his book Gun Monkeys, which I also enjoyed, and always meant to get more of his books. Sometime last year something reminded me of him, and I finally got some more of them. It has a great opening, and I am looking forward to spending some time with it today, as well as some cleaning, writing, and editing.

The other day, I wrote about the character of Jerry Manning, who appears in Garden District Gothic, and how much I liked the character. I also used him as a character in The Orion Mask–which I had somehow forgotten–and in fact, Jerry is the catalyst for that entire book. I had already created the character of Jerry for the Paige book I’d intended to write, and I liked him so much I actually introduced him to readers in The Orion Mask.

The Orion Mask 300 DPI

I had the idea for that book a long time ago; I’d always loved the romantic suspense novels of Phyllis A. Whitney, Victoria Holt, and Mary Stewart (although I would argue that she wasn’t a romantic suspense writer, simply marketed as one), and of course, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is one of my favorite novels of all time. One of the reasons I loved that style of book so much is because they were not only mysteries, but there was a Gothic feel to them, stylistically and mood-wise, and I always wanted to write one. (I had already published what is my personal favorite of all my novels, Timothy, and really wanted to go back to that well again.) I originally came up with the idea for The Orion Mask many years ago; when I came to New Orleans for Mardi Gras the first time in 1995, only in all my notes and so forth it was called The Orpheus Mask;  the driving idea was a murder that happened a long time ago, and rare, valuable Mardi Gras masks had something to do with the crime. After moving to New Orleans and becoming more knowledgeable about the city and its history, I realized the Krewe of Orpheus was actually too new–plus, I couldn’t really use an actual Mardi Gras krewe. I still wanted to do the book, though, just wasn’t sure how to make it all work. I also knew it had to take place outside of New Orleans; for the story to work, the majority of the action needed to occur at a mansion in the countryside.

Fortunately, there are plenty of those. I was already using one for Murder in the Arts District, that was based on a sort of hybrid of Houmas House and Oak Alley, and thought, oh, what the hell, I’ll just use the same place for this book, too. It is fiction, after all. I’d created a fictional parish as well–Redemption Parish–for that first book, and had based a small town near the plantation on Breaux Bridge, just off I-10 between Baton Rouge and Lafayette that I’d visited with some friends from out of town years ago, but the town never really appeared in that story, so I could really use it for this book. But I still didn’t know how to connect the masks in…and then we went to Italy, and while we were there we went to Venice, and you cannot escape the Carnival masks or the Murano glass there. As we walked the cobbled alleys of that remarkably beautiful city (I so want to go back), it hit me in a flash: someone from Venice who worked with the glass came to America, to Louisiana, and the plantation not only was a farm but also produced glass, using the same techniques made famous by the Venetians, and they could have produced masks for the Kings of the major krewes of Mardi Gras made from the glass. I invented my own, now-defunct krewe–the Krewe of Orion–and everything fell into place.

My story, of course, which was about a young man whose mother died when he was very young, and who was raised by his father and stepmother, completely disconnected from his mother’s family and only comes to see them as an adult, which starts the story, didn’t really have the right hook I needed to get started. Why would he suddenly, after all these years, finally get in touch with his mother’s family?

And that’s where Jerry came in. Jerry, looking for another true crime to write another one of his books, has discovered the murder/suicide involving my character’s mother. I named the character Heath Brandon, after a friend of mine, by inverting his first and middle names (I’d actually given a character his actual name before we met; it was very odd because his name was so familiar to me when we met, but we’d never met before, and then one day I realized I had actually written a character with that name, but I digress.). I put Heath into another fictional city I’d created for another book, Bay City (based on Tampa), and had him work at the airport at an airline ticket counter (a job I’ve actually had), working for the fictitious airline I created for Murder in the Rue Dauphine and have always used ever since whenever I need an airline.

I sat up in a strange bed, wide awake, my heart pounding.

 Disoriented, I looked around in the gloom, not sure where I was or what had woken me up from my already restless sleep. I shivered. A storm was raging outside as my mind began the process of clearing out the fog. Wind was whipping around the house, rattling the windows and the French doors.  The rain was coming down in a steady stream. As I sat up further in my bed, lightning lit up the room, and I recoiled in horror. The brief flash of illumination had exposed the shadow of someone against the curtains over the French doors. I bit back a scream as I wondered if there was anything within reach in this strange room that I could use as a weapon. My eyes were still seeing spots as thunder shook the house as I remembered there was a table lamp on the night stand next to the bed. As my vision cleared, I could see through the gloom that the doorknob on the French doors was turning. I reached my hand out to the table and fumbled for the switch on the lamp. I found it and clicked it on, filling the room with bright yellow light.

I thought I heard footsteps running away along the gallery.  I threw the covers aside and climbed out of the massive bed. I dashed over to the fireplace on the other side of the bed, grabbed one of the brass pokers, and carried it over to the French doors. I flipped the lock off, turned the knob , and the wind immediately grabbed them out of my hands. They slammed against the walls and swung back. The wind pushed me back a few steps. Curtains moved away from the walls, and the canopy over the bed rippled as I struggled to latch the doors against the walls. Once this was accomplished, I tried to step out onto the gallery. Lightning flashed again as I stepped out onto the wide gallery. I wrapped my arms around me and wished I’d put on at least a T-shirt. The wind was blowing the rain onto the gallery, and the heavy drops were splashing my legs with water as I looked through the gloom in each direction.

I didn’t see anyone.

My heart still pounding, I closed and locked the doors again before heading back to the bed, still holding the poker in my hand. I put the poker into the bed next to me and slid underneath the covers. Maybe it had been a dream, maybe there really hadn’t been someone out there on the gallery trying to get into my room, and it was just my imagination working overtime. There wasn’t anyone out there, you fool, I scolded myself, you’re just a little off balance—but it’s understandable. It isn’t every day you meet a family you didn’t know you had a month ago. I switched the lamp off and pulled the covers back up to my chin, and lay there, staring at the canopy over my head.

It was hard to believe it had only been a month since I first noticed the bald man sitting in the airport lobby, and my entire life changed.

The bald man was Jerry, of course, and he tracked Heath down as he investigated the long ago murder/suicide, and it was Jerry who set the stage for Heath to come back to the family estate, Chambord, and  find the truth about what had happened all those years ago, about his mother and the Orion mask.

Writing the book was a lot of fun, and I’d love to do another, similar style book at some point.

I had thought about giving Jerry his own series, or his own stand-alone book; and when I started making notes I realized something: he had been a personal trainer/stripper (so had Scotty) and he came from a repressive small town and a white trash family (Chanse), and thus was basically repeating myself, which is one of my biggest fears. So I shelved the idea…but it runs through my mind periodically because the idea is a good one. I may have to write it about a different character, though.

Heavy sigh.

And now, back to the spice mines.

 

Magic Carpet Ride

We had the most marvelous electrical storm last night, which helped me sleep deeply and well. I don’t have to be at work until later–more bar testing tonight–and even as I sit here at my desk, it’s getting dark and gloomy outside, which clearly means another storm is on its way. I also had a weird dream about the Outdoor Kitties last night–I went outside to feed them and Scooter was outside, so I picked him up and brought him in…only another Scooter was inside, along with some gorgeously colored Maine coons and some beautiful kittens. This is when I woke up, confused that Scooter had somehow cloned himself, only to find him sleeping on me. Very weird, right? That’s the first dream I’ve had in years that I could remember when I woke up.

Figures it involves cats.

I still haven’t finished Cleopatra’s Shadows, but since I’m not going in until later today, I might be able to get through it today. It’s irritating, because there isn’t much left, and I really want to get to Universal Harvester. Ah, well. We watched another episode of The Handmaid’s Tale last night, and seriously, with everything else going on in the country today, it’s even more alarming and depressing in its realism. I also want to start watching American Gods; maybe this weekend. I have some appointments on Saturday, and some things to do–I definitely want to start working on the stored books sooner rather than later–and I want to get some work done on the book.

I’ve put the new Scotty aside for now, as I mentioned before. I was talking to a writer friend over lunch the other day–he’s in town for a conference, and very graciously treated me to lunch at Willa Jean in the CBD–and I was able to put my finger on precisely why I wasn’t feeling the new Scotty book. I had a similar problem with Garden District Gothic when I started writing it, and what I really think I need to do before I move forward with the new Scotty is go back and binge-read the first seven (!) books in the series. I kind of think something intrinsic to the series somehow might have gotten lost along the way in the books.

Garden District Gothic wasn’t supposed to be a Scotty book initially; it was intended to be another Paige book. (Just as Murder in the Rue Ursulines was originally intended to be a Scotty, and I turned it into a Chanse.) I won’t get into why the Paige series came to a premature end, but I will say that I love Paige, I loved writing about her, but I will say that I was being pressured to make that series something I wasn’t feeling, and I think it came across in the writing. I had created the character of Jerry Manning for one of the Paige books, with the intent of making him a focal point of the third. But I liked the character so much I also used him in The Orion Mask, and when I decided not to do another Paige, I didn’t want to lose the character in the process. I also liked the idea behind the book, the plot I came up with for it, and so I decided to simply turn it into a Scotty book and rejigger the story somewhat. Jerry was fun–I’ve debated giving him his own solo book, or series; a white trash boy who ran away from his repressive small town in Mississippi where he grew up, and had kind of a hardscrabble life when he got to New Orleans as a sixteen-year-old runaway with not much money. His backstory fascinated me. He worked days as a busboy in a French Quarter restaurant, lived in a crappy, run down roach-infested apartment in the Marigny, and then started dancing at the Brass Rail (my fictional version of the Corner Pocket). But Jerry was ambitious, refused to get caught up in the unfortunate world of the dancers there–although he did things for money he maybe shouldn’t have, while putting aside money with an eye to going to the University of New Orleans and getting a degree in creative writing, which he eventually was able to do. He also became a personal trainer and started working in Uptown, eventually becoming the personal trainer for wealthy women. (Aside: I’ve also always wanted to do a series about a personal trainer. The amazing thing about personal trainers is–at least, in my experience being one and having one–is that they are similar to hairdressers and bartenders, in that there’s a forced intimacy between the trainer and client; I learned a LOT about my clients, things they probably didn’t share with their close friends or in some cases, even their partners. That’s something I’ve always wanted to explore…) Because of this, Jerry was told a lot of insider gossip about New Orleans society, and when a big, shocking murder happened in the Garden District, one that exploded in the national consciousness, Jerry was privy to a lot of insider gossip, which he started recording, and eventually turned into a book he called Garden District Gothic. The book made him rich and gave him a perennial income (sort of like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and as a well-liked gay man who used pseudonyms for the real life people he wrote about, he wasn’t shunned but was actually welcomed into New Orleans society.

I love that character, and I wanted to tell that story.

Of course, I based the murder loosely on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case, and since it was fictionalized, I was able to make up all sorts of things and follow my own (disproved) original theories on the case. The family was the Metoyers, old New Orleans society/money; the mother in this case was a former runner-up to Miss Louisiana who was the second wife and stepmother to the father’s twin sons from his first marriage; and the daughter was Delilah Metoyer, murdered and found in the carriage house on the grounds of the Metoyer mansion in the Garden District. By timing it the way I did, I also made it possible for the Metoyer twins to be classmates of Scotty’s at Jesuit High School, and also to give them a history together–one of the twins bullied Scotty for being gay, until Scotty went out for the wrestling team and kicked his ass one day. I also added a new element: the twins’ mother, after leaving their father, disappeared, and the bully now wants Scotty and the boys to find his mother, and maybe figure out what really happened to Delilah all those years ago. I also re-utilized a character from one of the Paige books, Serena Castlemaine, and had her buy the old Metoyer house, and throw a housewarming party. It’s at this party that Scotty runs into Jerry–they slept together a million years ago–and also meets Paige, who I decided to move into the Scotty series as well, since her series was dead in the water and I’d ended the Chanse series (I didn’t want to lose her character). This book also, because of the introduction of Serena, Jerry and Paige, was going to serve as the launching point for the next Scotty, in which I rebooted the second Paige novel about a Real Housewives of New Orleans type show and turned it into a Scotty, and wrote the story the way saw it.

garden district gothic

Writing the book was really a lot of fun, despite the deadline stress, and I liked what I did with it. I liked being able to open it with the Red Dress Run, I liked bringing back the character of Frank’s nephew, Taylor, and showing how he was adapting to life in the Quarter without any worries about being openly gay after being thrown out by his parents. (I still think about giving Taylor his own book someday.)

I also love this opening:

You know you live in New Orleans when you leave your house on a hot Saturday morning in August for drinks wearing a red dress.

It was well over ninety degrees, and the humidity had tipped the heat index up to about 110, maybe 105 in the shade. The hordes of men and women in red dresses were waving handheld fans furiously as sweat ran down their bodies. Everywhere you looked, there were crowds of people in red, sweating but somehow, despite the ridiculous heat, having a good time. I could feel the heat from the pavement through my red-and-white saddle shoes, and was glad I’d decided against wearing hose. The thick red socks I was wearing were hot enough, thank you, and were soaked through, probably dyeing my ankles, calves and feet pink. But it was for charity, I kept reminding myself as I greeted friends and people-whose-names-I-couldn’t-remember-but-whose-faces-looked-familiar, as we worked our way up and down and around the Quarter.

Finally, I had enough and called it a day.

 “I don’t think I’ve ever been so hot in my life,” my sort-of-nephew, Taylor Wheeler, said, wiping sweat from his forehead as we trudged down Governor Nicholls Street on our way home.

“It is hot,” I replied, trying really hard not to laugh. I’d been forcing down giggles pretty much all day since he came galloping down the back steps the way he always does and I got my first look at his outfit. “The last few summers have been mild—this is what our summers are normally like.” It was true—everyone was complaining about the heat because it had been several years since we’d had a normal summer. It hadn’t even rained much the year before, which was really unusual.

“I don’t even want to think about how much sweat is in my butt crack,” he complained, waving the fan he picked up somewhere furiously, trying to create a breeze.

I gave up fighting it and laughed.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.