One of the Crowd

And it’s now the fifth of July, and so far–at least for me–the second half of this annus horribilis is off to an okay start. Yesterday was oddly not humid or hot; there wasn’t much direct sunlight and even by noon I hadn’t been forced to turn on the portable Arctic Air coolers that have so far made life in the kitchen/office bearable; I remain, as ever, buried and behind in all of my work, which is to be expected, of course–par for it, actually. I am always behind and scrambling to catch up, and since my personality is this peculiar combination of Type A mixed in with almost chronic laziness, this will most likely always be my state of being.

The sun is out, however, this morning, and while it remains cool here in the Lost Apartment, there’s no telling how hot it perhaps might get in here later this afternoon. I accomplished very little yesterday, truth be told; I started working on “You Won’t See Me” and didn’t get very far, because it was wandering off into a different direction than where it was originally intended to go–it wasn’t until I quit writing in disgust and adjourned to my easy chair that I realized (or remembered)where I’d wanted to go with the story in the first place, so I made some notes and went back to reading Cottonmouths. Later we streamed a lot more of The Club, which has a rather lengthy first season–it’s been a while since I’ve seen a season of anything recent that runs for over twenty episodes–and an awful lot has happened. We’re finally into the mid-teens, and halfway finished with the show, which we are still enjoying. And Cottonmouths remains quite delightful.

I refuse to allow myself to give into despair this fair morning over what I wasn’t able to get accomplished over the last two days. This morning I feel, for want of better terms, not only vivacious but alive and rested. The clouds of exhaustion that have made my thinking not as clear have lifted, or so it seems at this very moment, and we shall see how this day turns out, won’t we? I hope to get quite a bit accomplished today–we have the clinic open the next two days–and I have been sleeping well lately. I’m actually feeling close to normal for the first time in months, and while mentioning it also has me concerned that I might be jinxing it in some way, it’s actually been quite lovely.

It is very difficult to not fall into the ease of despair with the news every day–hell, every day for the last few years, quite frankly. The pandemic is raging out of control and might not get better for a while; Florida, for example, has reported more new cases over the last eight days than Louisiana has had since it first arrived here (um, where are all those people claiming it was irresponsible for us to have Carnival NOW? Cavorting on the beaches in Florida?), and as the crisis seems to continue to deepen rather than get better, the return to normality everyone seems to want gets pushed further and further back because of selfishness, frankly. As I joked to Paul yesterday about not getting much writing done yesterday, “What’s the point of writing anything new when who knows if there will even be a publishing industry next year?”

I’ve not, to be honest, thought much about my writing career this year, or at least since March. It was lovely being nominated for a Lambda Award–it’s been years since the last time–but I also knew once I saw Michael Nava’s name on the short-list I didn’t have a prayer of winning. But the nominations are always nice. I have thought about writing more Scotty books–I did leave their personal story on a cliffhanger in Royal Street Reveillon, after all–but there are two manuscripts in the hopper I need to finish first, and I want to work on Chlorine next. I need to get this Secret Project finished and out of my hair in order to get back to the two manuscripts–I’ve solved the issues with Bury Me in Shadows over the course of the pandemic–and I’ve also solved the plot issues with the Kansas book while I’ve essentially been too distracted and too exhausted and too ill to actually do any actual writing. My goal for this week–and yes, the week, not today–is to get that proposal finished; get a couple more of these stories under control and/or closer to finished; and if I have a highly productive week, to take next weekend off again to rest and recharge while trying to make some progress in the TBR pile. I want to reread another Perry Mason novel–I have The Case of the Calendar Girl in a hardcover I found in a used bookstore sometime during my travels over the past few years, and watching the new HBO Perry Mason has made me want to reconnect with the original character again–and I also want to get back into reading through both the John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald and Margaret Millar canons; which will help me get into a place where I will be able to get Chlorine written sooner rather than later. I also have some Dorothy B. Hughes novels on hand I’ve not read as well…and of course, there’s the Diversity Project to get back to at some point, in addition to the Short Story Project. I have Sara Paretsky’s short story collection on its way, as well as the latest Lawrence Block anthology, which I think is called In the Darkling Halls of Ivy (I could be wrong but it’s something like that), and of course, I still have his previous anthology on my side table, untouched.

So much to read, so much to watch, so little free time in which to do it all–and that includes, I might add, so little time to write everything I want to write before I die.

And on that note, I am going to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader–I certainly hope that I do.

Sail Away

So I went ahead and sent out three stories on submission yesterday; “This Thing of Darkness,” “Night Follows Night”, and the Sherlock story. Will any of them actually be accepted? Who knows, but that’s all part and parcel of the joy of being a writer who likes to write short stories despite being rarely asked to write them. I have like 86 short stories in some form of progress now, but it felt really good to write finis on these and sent them out. If they are rejected, oh well; I’ll just save them for my next short story collection.

See how that works? Staying positive is always a plus, you know?

And last night before I went to bed I checked the Pandora’s Box known more commonly as my email inbox to discover a delightful email from the editor of the Sherlock anthology that she loves the new edition of the story and is sending me a contract! How absolutely delightful. I am glad “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” will see print, and as always, it’s lovely to get that kind of affirmation. It’s also a period piece, which was just as daunting as writing a Holmes story set in New Orleans–the only rule for the anthology was that it couldn’t be set in London, and Holmes and Watson couldn’t be English. So I made Holmes a Louisianan–and we never are quite sure where Watson is from. But it was great fun, challenging, and very, as I said, daunting. While I’ve read the Holmes stories–and the Nicholas Meyer novels, and other stories written by modern day Sherlockians (notably, Lyndsay Faye and Laurie King), I don’t think of myself as an avid Sherlockian. Even now, I cannot think of the plot of either A Scandal in Bohemia or The Red-headed League.

So, I wasn’t a hundred percent certain I could write such a story that would be worthy of publication, but it was a challenge–and I do enjoy challenges. I like pushing myself as a writer, trying something different, seeing if I can continue to grow as a writer. (But just between you and me, the only reason I even thought I could possibly do this was because it was specified not to be canon–no London, not the late nineteenth century, no need for continuity. No, this was a way I could write a Sherlock story and make it entirely my own as well. And of course, setting it in 1916 was also a bit of a challenge for me as well; I’ve never done much period/historical writing, and since I knew, once the title came to me, that Storyville had to be involved (how else could one write “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” and not involve Storyville?), which presented a host of other issues. Fortunately, I’ve been reading lots of New Orleans history lately, and one of the books was about Storyville: Gary Krist’s Empire of Sin (highly recommended, by the way), and in a short story I wouldn’t have to have the ongoing detail a novel would require, so I thought, fuck it, let’s give it a shot.

I was also able to use one of the locations I often use in Scotty books, the Hotel Aquitaine, which made it even more fun for me.

So, apparently, the thinking positive thing might actually work. How lovely!

Also, yesterday I (the ever-present resident Luddite) managed to figure out how to go back and read the chat from the Queer Noir at the Bar reading on Friday night–I kept accidentally closing it, and when I was reading I never looked at it–and wow. Everyone was so gracious and kind about my reading! I’m glad, though, that I wasn’t reading the chat while I was reading because it would have freaked me out. Thank you all for being so kind.

I also started reading Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths, and as I read, I began to remember why I hesitated to read it. Being from the South, and from a particularly poor part of the South, I sometimes have trouble reading about that world; because of the memories it brings back, and while Ford’s prose is magnificently beautiful, she also brought me right into a world I know so well–a world I’ve been trying to shake off my entire life. There’s probably something to be said, or perhaps written, about my struggle with where I am from; the deep pride instilled in me my entire childhood about being Southern and the defensiveness that automatically arises whenever someone else is critical of (what I still think of) as home; and how that pride also runs concurrent with a river of shame–two rivers, running parallel, a kind of Tigris and Euphrates within my soul, my psyche, my being. I’ve started and never finished any number of stories and novels set in Alabama; my files run over with them. Bury Me in Shadows is the first manuscript set in Alabama I’ve ever finished a full draft of (there are a couple of short stories I’ve finished; Dark Tide is also set in Alabama but down in a little town on Mobile Bay–which isn’t quite the same thing), and I have yet to complete it enough to turn it into my publisher. Reading Kelly’s book takes me to the same places Daniel Woodrell’s work takes me, or Ace Atkins’ The Ranger series…that inner conflict, that inability to decide, that pride of place and where I come from coupled with shame. I could see it all so clearly in my head as I read that first chapter…she may have been writing about rural Arkansas but it could have been rural Alabama. It’s real, it’s vivid, and it’s beautiful.

The rural south is savage in its beauty.

My whole life has really been about dualities; being Southern but not growing up there; closeted self v. authentic self; being a writer but also always having some other job for whatever reason. My identity has always been sort of splintered; it’s probably why I am so constantly down on myself because I never really feel whole, or like I fit in somewhere–because I’ve been outside my entire life.

And, I have found few things trigger me to dark emotion–anger or depression–than being reminded that I am an outsider.

We started watching Perry Mason, and we’re enjoying it–but it’s really not Perry Mason. It’s something entirely else, with the characters given the same names as the ones Erle Stanley Gardner used. The cast is fantastic, and it’s a terrific noir series (if a bit reminiscent of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels–which we stopped watching, for reasons that are not pertinent here), so we will keep watching–but, it’s not really the same show or characters.

And it makes me want to reread one of the originals again.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me.

The Man Who Has Everything

Tuesday morning and it looks like the rain has finally passed us; we actually got more rain all day yesterday than we did from Cristobal on Sunday. I know other places got slammed much harder than we did, but at least it was relatively minor and damage from the storm wasn’t nearly as bad as it was from previous storms.

The Anthony Award nominations were released yesterday, and sure, I was a little disappointed for a brief moment that I wasn’t among their number; but the nominations are chock full of diversity; lots of women, lots of people of color, and a wide variety of nominations. This is one year that is going to be incredibly difficult for me to pick winners because there are so many good books and stories nominated that I’ve actually read and loved. I’m still surprised that I’ve actually won an Anthony and been nominated another time, to be completely honest.

Awards are lovely, and everyone wants to win one–even if they don’t want to admit it; I do admit it. I like being nominated and I like winning even more. I tend to lose more than I win, which is actually kind of nice–I always figure I’m going to lose again, so it’s always a pleasant surprise on those rare occasions when I actually do win.

We’re still watching 13 Reasons Why, but I’m not really sure why. As we get deeper into the season it’s getting more and more off the rails–what the fuck with that camping trip episode, seriously–and while the story kind of makes sense, so much of it doesn’t. If they had simply chosen to explore the mental trauma the kids experience from everything they’ve been through–including violent sexual assaults and murder, which would definitely create mental issues, breakdowns, and behavioral problems–I think I would be enjoying this more; the concept of another kid who knows the truth trying to get them all to confess by playing torturous games with them is basically ripping off Pretty Little Liars and really speaks to a lack of creativity and originality; I could be wrong, and we’re vested enough in the show to keep watching, since we know it’s the final season.

I’m kind of looking forward to the new Perry Mason, too.

Oh, I’m so tired, too, this morning. I’ve not really had a good restful night’s sleep in a while now, and exhaustion is wearing me down. My kitchen is a mess yet again, and I still haven’t done the floors; but I just don’t have the energy to get any of this stuff taken care of–let alone the writing I need to get done.

Heavy sigh.

And now back to the spice mines.

Footsteps

I wound up deciding to take yesterday off from the world–computer, social media, you name it–because for whatever reason my desktop was acting wonky yesterday morning and eventually I grew so irritated I decided to run my errands. When I got home from that further irritation–nothing like people not only not wearing masks in public but not maintaining social distance as well–and I just wanted to scream at everyone: “do you want us to be on lockdown through September? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

But then I remember–this is New Orleans and nobody follows rules here; or at least, they ignore them when they’re inconvenient. It’s sadly part of the charm here, and now that it’s something important…I see how dangerous that can be. But it was nevertheless more fuel for my irritation, and by the time I got home my computer was still wonky so I decided to say fuck it and take the day away from the computer and social media. It was kind of nice–I fell into a Youtube hole of history videos (I am really glad to be studying history again; as I’ve said before, I kind of wish I’d majored in History in college–but would have never been able to narrow down a field of majority interest). I spent most of the afternoon moving and rearranging books and filing and cleaning while this Youtube videos played on continually; I learned some more about the Byzantine empire, the plague, and the Hapsburgs–who are so fascinating to me. Let other wars, you, happy Austria, marry.  Someday I’d still like to do a book about the powerful women of the sixteenth century; and many of those important women were Hapsburgs.

One of the things I’ve found interesting is how writers are engaging with their lockdown situation and their social media. Lists are popping up everywhere; and as I daydreamed yesterday while doing my chores and so forth, I started thinking about my own lists–rather than ten albums or books or movies that shaped me, I wanted to come up with more specifics: My Ten Favorite Agatha Christie novels, my favorite romantic suspense novels, my favorite crime novels by women, and so on. The reboot of Perry Mason, coming this summer from HBO (it looks worth a look, frankly; although I imagine there are any number of Mason purists who will naturally hate it; there always are), might be worth taking a look at some Perry Mason novels–I feel the books don’t get nearly as much attention as the TV series based on them; and the books don’t get talked about nearly enough, either. Talk about puzzles–Erle Stanley Gardner was a master of crime plotting, and red herrings, and confusing the reader; I don’t think I ever correctly solved a Perry Mason case until Perry revealed their identity, dramatically, in the court room (which is, of course, where that trope originated); and I do have a couple of them lying around on the shelves in the laundry room–The Case of the Calendar Girl and The Case of the Crying Swallow–so perhaps, as part of the Reread Project, I should revisit them both.

I also spent some time thinking about The Plot Against America–which is directly related to our finishing Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood last night on Netflix. Both are alternate histories, but one of the things about Hollywood is that it was an alternate history that was actually appealing; usually, alternate histories inevitably paint an uglier reality than the one that actually happened (although it’s hard to imagine a more dystopian alternate history for the present day than the actuality); Hollywood didn’t do that. Instead, it showed how horribly racist, homophobic, and misogynist the country was, and how Hollywood reflected that…and then gave us a lovely alternate history where a Hollywood studio saw its duty to change those things and open up society in the late 1940’s. It’s quite marvelous, actually; I kept waiting for reality to break over them, but it never did. It’s very well done, and it’s shot in the style of Hollywood films of the time, right up to the obligatory happy Hollywood ending. And of course, the boys were beautiful. The Plot Against America, on the other hand, was completely horrifying because it was so easy to imagine that we as a country could have gone that way. I don’t know how the novel ends–I never finished it; I have said before that I am not a fan of Roth and I never got past the first chapter of this one–but I thought the way the show ended was perfect, even if it was terrifying at the same time; it was more of an indictment of the United States (as I said to Paul, “this show is terrifying because it could so easily have gone this way here”) and humanity than anything else.  Hollywood also could be seen as an indictment of the way things used to be–its message seemed to be this could have all changed so much earlier if anyone in Hollywood had the courage to make these changes–and that is just as damning as The Plot Against America.

Today I am going to write and edit and revise and get things done. I think I am always teetering on the edge on Saturdays anyway; still leftover tired and so forth from the week, and then having to deal with the general public on top of that is always draining and rough on my moods. Computer issues on top only heightens the aggravation, and being already on the razor’s edge doesn’t make it any easier. I kind of have a mess here in the kitchen that needs to be handled–I deliberately avoided my desk yesterday, so there’s sorting and filing that needs to be done around here as well–but this morning, after I finish this, I am going to abjure to my easy chair and read for a bit. I want to get further into Mysterious Skin, and then I am most likely going to move on to another Mary Stewart reread, either Thunder on the Right (which I don’t remember at all) or Madam Will You Talk?, which I have some memory of; and there are also short stories I’d like to sink my teeth into. I haven’t touched the most recent Lawrence Block anthology, which looks terrific and has some amazing contributors. I want to get my story “Night Follows Night” revised today and possibly submitted somewhere; I’d also love to get some revisions done on “This Thing of Darkness” and “Never Kiss a Stranger.”

And of course, the Secret Project. I really need to get back to work on the Secret Project.

So, yes, I have my work cut out for me today. I also should spend some time drafting the replies to the massive amounts of emails I’ve accumulated over the last day or so. And then I feel like I can face Monday with a clear conscience.

Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader. I plan to.

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When I Call Your Name

One of the great pleasures I have in life is reading; I’ve always loved to read, always been able to escape whatever ailed me at the time–loneliness, depression, heartbreak, self-loathing–by escaping into the pages of a book; imagining myself to be a part of the story, getting lost in the words and the sentences and paragraphs of an engaging author; finding sanctuary from a far too frequently cold and cruel world. I’ve always found my solace in books–whether it was Hercule Poirot using his little gray cells to outwit a killer or Perry Mason casting a spell in a courtroom or a Gothic heroine fearing she was married to someone who wanted to kill her in a palatial mansion or castle somewhere–books were my safe place. It’s why I’ve always treasured them, why I hoard them, why I am reluctant to part with them once I’ve experienced the world contained between its covers.

I’ve heard great things about Carol Goodman and her novels over the years; I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person at the HarperCollins party at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg when I was a little the worse for wine but she was gracious and friendly and kind to me. She had recently won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for The Widow’s House, and more recently a friend (whose taste is impeccable and I trust implicitly) told me that Goodman was a modern-day Daphne du Maurier.

And for me, there is no higher praise.

So last weekend, when another friend had sent me the ARC for Goodman’s latest, The Sea of Lost Girls, I decided it would be the first of hers that I would read. Last Saturday as I sat in my easy chair, shifting around the stack of books on the end table I picked it up, thinking first ugh another “girl” title and flipped it open to the first page, just to get a taste.

The next thing I knew I was one hundred pages in and reluctantly had to put it aside to do something else. I carried it with me all week, waiting for an opportunity to delve into it again, but such a moment never happened…until this morning, as I tore through the book with my morning coffee.

And may I just say, wow?

Scan

The phone wakes me as if it were sounding an alarm inside my chest. What now, it rings, what now what now what now.

I know it’s Rudy. The phone is set to ring for only two people–Harmon and Rudy (at least I made the short list, Harmon had once joked)–and Harmon is next to me in bed. Besides, what has Harmon ever brought me but comfort and safety? But Rudy…

The phone has stopped ringing by the time I grab it but there is a text on the screen.

Mom?

I’m here, I text back. My thumb hovers over the keypad. If he were here maybe I could slip in baby, like I used to call him when he woke up from nightmares, but you can’t text that to your seventeen-year-old son. What’s up? I thumb instead. Casual. As if it isn’t–I check the number on the top of the screen–2:50 in the freaking morning.

I defy anyone to stop reading after those opening paragraphs.

The Sea of Lost Girls isn’t another one of those “girl” books that have become so prevalent since Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl became a viral sensation; the only commonality is the use of the word “girl” in the title, but Goodman’s tale is as dark and rich and layered and complex as Flynn’s. It’s also incredibly literate, but one supposes that is to be expected, given the setting is an elite boarding school on the Maine coast near Portland (the Maine coast has always held a fascination for me, thanks to Dark Shadows). The main character, a teacher married to another teacher, is a big fan of The Scarlet Letter; her troubled teenaged son is currently playing the lead in a school production of The Crucible. Both of those works have a lot of bearing and similarities to the plot of this incredible novel, but saying any more than that would be a spoiler.

The book’s set-up is that Tess’ troubled son has finally found a girlfriend–an intelligent student who is directing The Crucible–and on this night in question Tess goes to pick up her son at their “safe place”, which has to do with a rock causeway leading out to Maiden Island; legend holds that the stones are Indian maidens who drowned and were turned into rocks. Her son is soaking wet and his sweatshirt has blood on the sleeve; a nervous Tess takes him home, launders the shirt and gives her son her husband’s sweatshirt–exactly the same, drying on a radiator–to wear instead. That simple act has enormous ramifications, particularly when Rudy’s girlfriend Lila’s body is found near the rocks on the causeway.

Does Tess cover for her son? She does…but her husband, because he wore the sweatshirt jogging, now becomes a prime suspect. Husband or son?

If that was the lynchpin of the story it would be another adequate, enjoyable thriller; but there is so much more to the story of what happened to Lila–as well as the secrets Tess has kept hidden about her own past. The school used to be a Home for Wayward Girls, and the school’s own dark history, which Tess is also a part of,  has an important part to play in this riveting story of a wife and mother torn between the husband and son she loves, both suspects in a murder–which maybe her own secrets have something to do with as well.

This exploration of motherhood rates up there, in my opinion, with Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good and Hush Hush and James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce as a classic.

And, as always when I read something extraordinary, it inspired me and gave me ideas for my own work.

It also made me want to reread both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter.

It is being released this month. Get it now. You won’t be sorry.