Always

Wednesday, and somehow Pay the Bills Day kind of snuck up on me unawares. That’s probably not a bad thing; it certainly means I am not living paycheck-to-paycheck (at least for the moment), which means a lot less stress (there are few things more stressful than money problems) for the time being.

And yes, I am thoroughly enjoying being free of that stress for the time being. I am sure at some point it will return with a vengeance, hence my embrace of the current status.

I’ve recently been immersed in #shedeservedit this past week or so; the final round of edits came in from my editor, and no sooner had I gone over them, rereading the entire thing yet again, then the page proofs dropped into my inbox. I actually have more time than usual to get these done–which is quite lovely and marvelous–and this of course is only checking for typos and mistakes and missing words, etc. But it’s been weird spending so much time in Kansas again in my head lately.

Immersing myself into that world has also been an interesting experience; particularly when you take into consideration how much different the story is now than where it was at when I first wrote it. It was, sadly, inspired by the viral rape cases in Steubenville, Ohio and Marysville, Missouri; much as I hate to admit this, the sexual assault of teenaged girls by their classmates etc. wasn’t really on my radar until those stories went viral–and of course, the Stanford swimmer rapist. All three cases horrified me to the very core of my being; and given that the only recourse I had to effect change was to write about it, I decided to start writing what I obliquely referred to as “the Kansas book” for a very long time (despite the fact that I had always titled it #shedeservedit).

Ah, Kansas.

We moved to Kansas when I was fourteen (I turned fifteen later that summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school). To say it was a bit of a culture shock is putting it mildly. The entire state of Kansas is less populous than Chicago, and the biggest town (small city) in the county was smaller than the suburb where we had lived. I don’t know how many students my suburban high school had, but the building itself was enormous and we basically had a campus; the town library was on the property and we had a field house by the football field, with locker rooms for the home and away teams. My high school in Kansas had 180 students, and my class, the largest in school history, had 48 kids. The school was simply a lobby, a single hallway for the classrooms, and a gym, which had a stage for plays at one end of the basketball court. Our hall lockers didn’t even have locks–which was unimaginable at my former school. We actually lived in a very small town (population 942) about eight miles north of the county seat; that town was the second largest one in the county. My high school was consolidated; five small towns and all the farms in the community sent their kids there–it was sixteen miles from where we lived.

Kansas, and my high school there, had a profound influence on me in many ways. I had taken a creative writing class at my former school–got an A, and some praise from the teacher, but nothing overwhelming–but it was in Kansas where I really started writing. My English class required us to write papers my junior year; my teacher very generously allowed me to write fiction, and so I did. Everyone in my class loved the stories I wrote, and my teacher, the hallowed Mrs. Anderson, encouraged me to pursue writing as a vocation–which was the first time I ever had any kind of encouragement of any kind from anyone other than my grandmother to do so–and that was when I actually began to believe it was something that could happen for me; that I had the ability to tell stories and write and even possibly, at some point, get paid to do so and maybe even make a living doing it. (It only took more than twenty years after graduation, but I did eventually start getting paid to write; it was even my primary source of income for a very long time.)

The town in the book–Liberty Center (a nod to Philip Roth’s When She Was Good)–is obviously based very slightly on the county seat; mostly the geography more than anything else, as well as it also has a small college, a park on the way out of town just before a waterfall; and another park on the other side of town rumored to be a gay cruising spot. I’ve written about this town, and this county, a lot over the years, but the name of that town has changed numerous times–everything from Greenfield to Kahola to Carterville and finally, Liberty Center. (Sara, the first young adult novel I wrote chronologically, is also set in that same area; however the county seat in that book had a different name; Kahola, I think) I’ve not set foot in Kansas since we left for California in February 1981; so this is all from my memory, with an occasional glance at Google Earth or Google Maps. Obviously, everything there has changed dramatically in the forty years (!) since we got on Amtrak and headed west at two in the morning; I tended to stick to my actual memories than the reality of what has changed.

So, when these notorious sexual assault cases involving kids (sorry, I still, and will always, think of college students as kids too, YMMV) became so viral and so ever-present everywhere, I knew I finally had the story for the book I wanted to write in this fictional town–I’d made any number of false starts over the years; some of which may eventually became the seeds for other books–but I have always, always, wanted to write a book set there, and writing a toxic masculinity/rape culture book set there just seemed like the right way to go. I had everything in place that I wanted or needed to write the book; the only thing I didn’t know how to do was end it. So, as I mentioned the other day, I finished the last book I had under contract sometime in the spring of 2015, and took the month of July to write this first draft–96,000 words, nineteen chapters, and missing the concluding one. I didn’t get the story right in the first draft, but set it aside to do other things for awhile before coming back to it. I worked on it around other projects over the years since, and finally, last year, finally recognized the truth I’d been avoiding–it will never be finished unless you sign a contract for it with a deadline. And so I did, and now it will be released in January of this year.

And yes, the deadline was precisely the panicking terrified motivation I needed to make the changes to the story that made it gel and possible for me to write an ending.

And of course, as always, I have been plagued with doubts every step of the way while writing this: am I the right person to write this book? Is a white male the right person to do a book built around toxic masculinity and rape culture? Am I taking a spot in publishing away from someone who might be better qualified and better experienced to write such a novel?

But writing is about taking risks, and trying to push yourself. One of the reasons I started doing the stand-alone books all those years ago was because I worried about getting stale and bored writing my two series; originally, switching back and forth between them helped keep them fresh and new to me…but around 2009 I was starting to feel like those books were becoming repetitive (how many car accidents has Scotty been in?) and stale; that I didn’t have anything new or interesting to say about them. (I kind of am feeling that way with Scotty right now–Chanse has ended, although I may do some novellas with him; but am hopeful once I get everything done that I am working on currently that I can sit down and gather my thoughts on the next Scotty book into something interesting and cohesive and frankly, worthy of the character) I use the stand-alone books to push myself further as a writer, into exploring other things and voices and tenses, which I hope makes the series books better.

I guess we’ll have to see how that goes, won’t we?

And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Wednesday, everyone, and will check in with you again tomorrow.

Only a Moment Ago

And just like that, it’s Friday again.

Of course, the emergence of a potentially major storm heading for the Gulf and our coastline–and how quickly it has happened–has certainly sucked a lot of the energy out of the room. The fact it will come ashore on the 16th anniversary of Katrina (Sunday) hasn’t triggered a lot of PTSD for me, strangely; although I was remembering it all last night as I sat in my easy chair watching Margaret Orr on local television (and checking her Twitter feed). The weather outside my condensation-covered windows this morning doesn’t look that great, to be honest–we’ve had rain all day yesterday off and on–but I don’t know if we are going to need to leave yet or not. It’s not looking good for us right now; at the very least we’re going to probably be without power for a few days (yay). But at least if we do end up leaving (probably tomorrow morning, if we go) at least I have a relatively new car, and I believe I already have a tank of gas. I have some errands to run today–I am getting my teeth cleaned later this morning, and I need to get the mail. I had planned on doing some grocery shopping today but am not sure if it’s wise to get anything perishable, so am probably just going to let that sit until afterwards.

I’m also having dinner with a friend tonight–scheduled to come in for Bouchercon, she decided to keep her trip since her daughter goes to school here anyway–which should be a good time; social contact outside of my office has remained low, so it will be sort of nice to get out of the house and spend the evening with someone whose company I enjoy…especially with a hurricane looming. If it stays on center track, it’ll pass us to the west–putting New Orleans on the bad side of the storm. I’m kind of surprised I am not having flashbacks triggered by any or all of this, to be honest. I only remember the anniversary now when I am reminded–I’d not even given it a thought until the other day when this system developed below Cuba–although I am also now remembering there have been issues with I storms in the past–Ike and Isaac, for example; one of them sat on the city for like three days and we were without power for nearly a week. The other was our last evacuation and it, too, was around this same time. Late August, after my birthday and before Labor Day–never a good combination for an I-named storm in the Gulf, apparently.

I rewatched an old Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie last night while I was waiting for Paul to come home (working late because of grant deadlines and potential hurricane; potential loss of power means everyone has to get things done earlier than they’d thought). I had wanted to rewatch Pillow Talk, which was the best of the their three films together, but couldn’t find it streaming anywhere, so settled for the follow-up, Lover Come Back, which, while not as good as the first, was still quite entertaining–if problematic. The message of the Day/Hudson movies–at least the first three; they played a married couple in their third pairing–was always that Day was an uptight and repressed career woman with no interest in men or marriage–who really just needed a good fuck. The irony that the good fuck she needed was being delivered on-screen by a gay man escaped audiences of the time, who made the films huge hits and made Doris Day the biggest money-making star in the country. It’s great, though, that she was shown as a highly successful, talented, and driven career woman; unfortunate that the screenwriters seemed to think that went along with an empty life without love or a man. Given how beautiful and sexy Day was, it’s kind of hard to believe that she wouldn’t have men hanging off her–but she’s kind of portrayed as an ice princess, who needs a man to thaw her out. The games Hudson plays with Day–mimicked in both films–where he pretends to be a shy, inexperienced (read: almost gay) man whose sweetness she falls for doesn’t really play today for a sex comedy; such a movie would never be made today.

I did manage to get some things done yesterday. I worked on the manuscript, and have maybe a third of it left to go. I’ve already edited out almost ten thousand words, making it leaner and cleaner, but it’s still such a horrible mess I cannot believe I turned it in to my long-suffering editor. But it’s getting better, and the primary issue is that there were so many different versions over the years of working on it that I missed things when merging all the versions together to get a final one–the great irony being the problem with the manuscript not ever being what I thought it was, so all those different drafts were relatively pointless; it’s terrible when you are writing a book and you aren’t really completely sure what it’s about consciously. I’ve always said this book was about rape culture, but it’s actually not–although that’s a part of it; what it’s actually about is toxic masculinity from the point of view of someone trapped inside of it who desperately wants out and doesn’t know how to get out. I didn’t completely understand that–and something else–until this final editing run; glad I figured this out before it went to press, right?

So I am going to try to get some things done around here this morning before leaving for the dentist, then I am coming home to work on the manuscript. I’d like to get this pass finished today–not an easy task, since its taking me hours to get through small sections, longer than I’d thought it would, honestly–so it can sit for a day or two; if we lose power and I have to stop working on it, I am hoping I’ll be able to at least get it sent off somehow–if I need t make my phone a hotspot and send it from my laptop or something, I should be able to get it done and in on time. I was going to try to make it to the gym today, but think I’ll just push that off until tomorrow and focus on getting the manuscript finished today. Once I finish and post this, I am going to clean out my inbox (or try to) before having to get ready for the teeth cleaning expedition (not looking forward to this either, I might add). I had wanted to spend some time getting organized–but the need to get this manuscript out of the way in case of power loss, at least getting this pass finished, at any rate, has overcome any desire to work on the other things that need to be worked on around here; I can go to the gym tomorrow and clean/organize then (if we aren’t in the car, that is).

And on that note, tis time to head back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader.

Gorgeous

So, as Constant Reader is aware, I’ve been working, off and on, since 2015 on something that I referred to for years as “the Kansas book”, whose actual title is #shedeservedit.

It will be released on 1/11/22 officially; if you pre-order it from the Bold Strokes website, it will ship actually on January 1 (well, probably the 2nd since the 1st is a holiday).

Here’s the cover copy:

Liberty Center High School’s football team has a long history of success, and the dying small town has nothing else to cling to. But when Lance, the star quarterback, is found dead, Alex Wheeler becomes the prime suspect in his best friend’s murder. Alex thought he knew Lance’s secrets–but Lance was keeping his sexuality private and someone else found out. How well did Alex really know Lance, and what else did he keep hidden? 

To prove his innocence and figure out what really happened to Lance that last night, Alex starts connecting the dots and finds that everything leads back to the recent suicide of a cheerleader who may have been sexually assaulted at a team party. Did online bullying and photos of her from the party drive her to suicide? Or was she murdered? Alex and his girlfriend India soon find their own lives are in danger as they get closer and closer to the horrifying truth about how far Liberty Center will go to protect their own.

I’ve been writing what I had taken to calling “the Kansas book” since I was in high school, really. While I was in high school I wrote several stories about a group of kids at a fictional high school, completely based on my own, and while it was certainly melodrama…we also didn’t have shows for teens like Beverly Hills 90210 and movies for teens like Sixteen Candles, Fast Times at Ridgement High, or Risky Business yet; all “teen fare” at the time was mostly from Disney, G-rated, and farcical; likewise, television programs targeted toward younger viewers were mostly for really young kids or what we now call “tweens.” And while I had crushes on both Kurt Russell and Jan-Michael Vincent (who didn’t?), those Disney films were little better than The Brady Bunch. I think it was in 1980 when I decided to take those stories and extrapolate them into a longer story, thinking it would be my first novel–and it expanded from the kids to include their older siblings and parents and teachers as well. I moved the story from the rural county to the county seat, and over the course of three years I painstakingly wrote about three thousand notebook pages. It was a sloppy mess, to be honest; I was thinking in terms of writing something along the lines of Peyton Place–the story of a town over the course of five years–but as I wrote I dropped characters and storylines; changed character names when a better name occurred to me; as I said, it was a total mess…and when I completed it, in the days before computers, I realized that I needed to type the entire thing up, and alas, I didn’t know how to touch type and whenever I typed anything I consistently made errors. So, I simply set it aside and went back to writing short stories before starting, in 1991, to try my hand at novels again.

In the years since, I cheerfully pulled elements from that ancient manuscript out to use for other books and other stories–there was a murder mystery at the heart of the book, and I actually used that as the basis for the plot of Murder in the Garden District; apparently I have always had crime in mind when it came to my writing–and I also pulled character names and other stories from it to use elsewhere. I reverted back to the rural county aspect of the original short stories to write Sara; one of the things I had to do recently was go through Sara and anything else I’ve written and published already having to do with Kansas to record the character names to make sure I wasn’t using them again in this book. I also originally began the basics of this book sometime before Katrina–the star quarterback’s dead body being found on the fifty yard line of the football field, and originally the primary POV character was the only detective on the small town’s police force. What I wrote was really good–I believe I got up to about five chapters–and it was also a flashback story with parallel time-lines; one in 1977, when the quarterback was murdered, and the present day, with someone who was in high school at the time becoming convinced that the person convicted of the crime was actually innocent and railroaded as a cover-up. I could never get the whole plot worked out, and it went through several changes and stages as I worked on it, still being called “the Kansas book.”

Two real life crimes–the rapes in Steubenville, Ohio and the other in Marysville, Missouri, in which girls were either drugged or pressured into over drinking and then when too wasted to even speak were sexually assaulted by athletes–inspired me to drag the framework of this story out and use it to tell a similar style story. I was, like anyone with a conscience or a soul, horrified by these rapes, and even more horrified by the aftermath; the way the girls were humiliated and shamed publicly and on social media, and I couldn’t get a hashtag that the kids in one of the towns used while shaming the victim: #shedeservedit.

That, I felt, was my title, and I could build the story from there. I could still have the dead quarterback; I could still have the town reeling from the one-two punch of the rape and the murder, only now I could layer in the victim-blaming and shaming. (I will never forget female newscasters talking about how sad it was that the boys convicted for the Steubenville case’s lives were ruined; I saved my sympathy for the poor girl they victimized; how on earth would she get past this?) I wrote the entire first draft in one month in the summer of 2015, and have tinkered with it, off and on, ever since. It was early last year, I think, pre-pandemic, when. I finally decided that two books I’d been working on between others over the last few years needed to be done and out of my hair; and the best way to force myself to finish them both once and for all was to offer them to my publisher. I did that, was given deadlines, and now, as I am finishing the final version of #shedeservedit, I also have a release date (1/11/22) and a cover to share with you all, so here it is (obviously, see above).

Writing this has been a journey, as writing any book can be; the Imposter Syndrome reared its ugly head numerous times during the writing of this book–should a man be writing a book about this subject? Is telling such a story from the point of view of a young man, friend to both the rape victim and the rapists, the right way to tell it? Am I centering a young man in a story about sexual assault and the toxic rape culture that has grown up around a small town’s athletic success?

I guess time will tell.

Tear Time

Friday and a rather chilly, grayish day has come to usher in the weekend. I was exhausted last night when I got home from work–which has been happening more and more lately–and slept really well. Paul didn’t get home until late, so we weren’t able to watch anything last night–but we made our plans for the weekend; since we really don’t care about the Super Bowl we’re going to try to get caught up on the shows we watch this weekend. I also want to get deeper into the Dorothy Hughes novel I am reading, Dread Journey. It’s relatively short, so I should be able to get through it relatively quickly, if I can devote the time to it.

This week wore me out somehow–I can’t remember the last time I was so worn down by a week in which it wasn’t parade season or I wasn’t on a trip somewhere. Not sure what that’s about, but it’s also part and parcel of the reboot I need to do on my life and my weekly routine. Most of all I need to start taking better care of myself, for one thing–particularly when it comes to health-related issues; there’s doctor’s appointments and blood work I need to have done that I somehow never seem to get around to, and that’s a big no-no. Last year was supposed to be the year that got taken care of–and it actually didn’t turn out that way.

But…at least now when I am home and too exhausted after work to write or read or focus on a TV show, I have lots of LSU game highlights from this past season to stream on Youtube.

I’m not, I think, going to try to overdo things this weekend; or make a to-do list that I will never finish, you know? I do need to update the to-do list I have running–I think I accomplished almost everything I needed to on the list yesterday, and there are some emails I need to send this morning before I head into the office later this morning–and I have several blog posts I’ve started writing and need to finish–my rereads of Victoria Holt’s Kirkland Revels and Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley have reviews I’ve started and not finished, for example. And as I begin to move on to the next book in the TBR pile, I should get those out of the way because I will also have to write a review of Dread Journey.

And I have some short stories I should finish, and others I should revisit.

The publishing world has really been a dumpster fire for quite some now–first the RWA mess, and now the whole American Dirt dust-up. Both dust-ups ultimately boil down to the same thing: what responsibility do writers have when they write outside their own experience? Particularly when it comes to the marginalized? I have always held that a writer can write about anything they wish; anything that intrigues them enough for them to sit down and spend the time constructing a novel is something they should write about. I chose to write a novel about rape culture in a small town, but I chose not to write it from the point of view of the victim, but rather that of someone else in the town, another player on the football team who wasn’t involved in the incident–but is close friends with the boys who did. I’ve been struggling with this manuscript for several years now; partly from a sense that maybe I wasn’t the right person to tell this story; was centering a teenaged boy rather than a teenaged girl in this story the right choice; was i doing a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird thing, trying to do a #notallmen type thing that would ultimately be offensive?

I like to think the fact that I actually do worry about these things is a good sign.

Anyway, I’ve always said that writers can write anything they are interested in, but have a responsibility to get things right. I’ve written from the point of view of women before; I’ve written from the point of view of a teenaged girl before. Do I, as a gay man, have a right to write about straight women/girls? Of course I do, and no one has ever told me that I don’t. But I also owe it to women–and all the women I’ve known–to create multi-faceted, complex, complicated women characters that are believable and whose experiences are also believable. Likewise, a cisgender straight person writing about gay men have a responsibility to gay men to get it right and create real characters rather than fantasy, and a white person writing about an oppressed racial minority particularly has a responsibility to that minority to do the work and get it right. As writers, we don’t always get it right, and we owe it to that minority to listen when they say we got it wrong.

We need to do better.

And comparing minorities of any kind–religious, racial, gender, sexuality, ethnic–to vampires and werewolves and zombies to justify writing outside your own experience? Shows that you don’t have the empathy to write about any minority. You can’t compare actual human beings to mythological creatures as a justification for writing about them because we actually exist. 

And if you can’t understand how horrible and odious making those comparisons are…well, I’m not going to read your work because I can be relatively certain it won’t be any good.

And on that note, those emails aren’t going to answer themselves.

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The Twelfth of Never

God, what a year for crime fiction, and what a year for crime fiction by women. The women are killing it this year–but then, they pretty much kill it every year, and have killed it every year since Agatha Christie’s first novel was released. I’ve read so many amazing crime novels by women this year that I can’t even begin to remember them all; I know there’s been terrific novels by Alafair Burke, Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Lori Roy, Jamie Mason, Steph Cha, Angie Kim and so many, many others that I couldn’t being to name them all or possibly be expected to remember them all, either. (This is in no small part, of course, due to the fact that my memory works about as well as my desktop computer since the Mojave update.) There are so many others as well that I’ve not gotten to read yet–I am way behind on my reading of Catriona McPherson, for example, and Lori Rader-Day–and I’ve also been trying read more diverse books this year as well.

And just this past week, I finished reading Lisa Lutz’ amazing The Swallows.

the swallows

Some teachers have a calling. I’m not one of them.

I don’t hate teaching. I don’t love it either. That’s also my general stance on adolescents. I understand that one day they will rule the world and we’ll all have to live with the consequences. But there’s only so much I’m willing to do to mitigate that outcome. You’ll never catch me leaping atop my desk, quoting Browning, Shakespeare or Jay-Z. I don’t offer my students sage advice or hard-won wisdom. I don’t dive into the weeds of their personal lives, parsing the muck of their hormone-addled brains. And I sure as hell never learned as much from them as they learned from me.

It’s just a job, like any other. It has a litany of downsides, starting with money and ending with money, and a host of other drawbacks in between. There are a few perks. I like having summers off; I like winter and spring breaks; I like not having a boss breathing over my shoulder; I like books and talking about books and occasionally meeting a student who makes me see the world sideways. But I don’t get attached. I don’t get involved. That was the plan, at least.

The Swallows is set at a second-tier elite boarding school in New England called Stonebridge. Alexandra “Alex” Witt has been hired to teach Lit there after leaving her previous teaching job under a cloud of some sort. The daughter of a failed literary writer who has taken to writing crime novels under a pseudonym and an Eastern European fencing Olympic medalist, Alex is a bit of a mess but also has a strong character and equally strong sense of self. The job at Stonebridge is given to her by a friend of her father’s, who is the headmaster, and when she arrives she refuses to live in the dorms and takes up residence in a crappy cabin near campus without power or phone or much along the lines of creature comforts. Alex is the primary point of view character–there are others, including another teacher/writer named Finn Ford (who is writing a book based on the school and what goes on there); a nerd boy who is on the edges of the popular kids, “The Ten”; Gemma, an orphan whose actions primarily drive the story (she is also one of The Ten), and several others. There’s also a dark secret at Stonebridge–a secret website that only a select few have access to, where the boys try to get the girls to give them blowjobs after which the boys score them…with an eye to winning what they call the Dulcinea Prize, awarded to the best blowjob performer at Stonebridge. Gemma has found out about this, and wants to do something about it–and her desire to get back at the boys who–in the most eye-opening and honest statement I’ve ever read, “see the girls as things rather than humans.” The horror of that realization drives the story, which grows darker and more complex and awful with every page.

The book is also darkly witty–there were a few times when its macabre humor made me laugh out loud–and the characters are absolutely, positively real; Lutz has created complicated people who do things that might not make sense on the surface, but that conduct and behavior only adds to their layers and complexity. It’s hard not to root for both Alex and Gemma to bring the rotten boys down, exposing their crimes to the world and the sunlight so they will shrivel up and die. The twists and turns of the story are all earned, all realistic, and all startling. The book is masterfully written, and never has a second-rate boarding school been brought to life in such a vivid fashion.

It reminded me, in some ways, of both Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Bret Easton Ellis’ The Rules of Attraction, in the best possible way. I enjoyed both of those books, but not in the same way that I enjoyed this one; I think because Lutz’ story is more cohesive and her characters are somewhat likable and believable despite their flaws.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading more of Lisa Lutz’ canon.

Break Up to Make Up

Friday morning of a Labor Day weekend, and I slept well last night. Yesterday was plenty bad; I felt sick most of the day. I did manage to eat some things, periodically; a grilled cheese here, a banana there, a protein shake…and my stomach began to settle and my blood sugar also stabilized. I was also really dehydrated, so I drank a lot of water and Gatorade. I still feel a little dehydrated this morning, but I am not exhausted, and feel pretty decent otherwise. I do feel a bit hungry–I’ve had some toast already, and will probably have a banana or something else snacky in a moment. I have to remember to hydrate, I need to remember to eat, and I have to try to keep my blood sugar stable.

The hardest thing, for me, about getting older is the changes to my body that require me to change my habits. My eating habits have always been bad, and I’ve never in my life drank enough water on a daily basis the way one should. I eat terrible food–and I also sometimes forget to eat. I rarely am hungry–and if I don’t eat when I get hungry it will pass and I will forget to eat, which didn’t used to be an issue but now? It really is. Part of yesterday’s problem began on Tuesday, when I had a small lunch and nothing else to eat the rest of that day. I slept poorly Tuesday night, and then on Wednesday again, didn’t eat until dinner–which didn’t help with low energy and feeling tired; my blood sugar dropped to dangerous levels and then that night I didn’t sleep either, so yesterday I woke up with blood sugar so low I had no energy and everything ached; I hadn’t slept so was completely exhausted; and I was dehydrated on top of everything else…a perfect storm of conditions I need to be wary of in the future.

And of course, I was reading Rob Hart’s The Warehouse, which opens with one of the characters talking about pancreatic cancer, which he has, and thinking, oh, maybe that’s what’s wrong with me.

Not. Helpful.

We also watched two more episodes of Thirteen Reasons Why last night; there are only two more left to go, and it does feel like they are stretching the story in order to stick to the “each season must be thirteen episodes” mandated by the first season. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still enjoying the story and how it’s playing out lazily, but in order to play things out the way they need them to, sometimes plot twists or character behavior feels contrived; the only reason the twist or the behavior makes sense is because it’s necessary for the plot. They are dealing with heavy issues for teenagers–rape (both girls and one boy), drug addiction, suicide, murder, voyeurism–and perhaps most interesting of all: the dangers of being a self-loathing closet case. In this last case, I am kind of torn. On the one hand, I like they are showing how horrific it can be to realize you’re gay when you have an alcoholic and abusive father and are part of the jock culture; Monty’s self-loathing is the key to his villainous behavior (and make no mistake, Monty is definitely the villain of season three), but it’s also not explored. Monty is just an asshole, and it never gets any deeper than that; maybe one of these last two episodes is devoted to him and we’ll see some understanding and be able to develop some sympathy for him. On the other hand, I am not sure I like having the closeted gay kid as the clear villain of the season. As I mentioned before, the openly gay character was clearly written out of this season, and the lesbian/bisexual Asian girl who was a main character in season one basically only makes cameo appearances this season…so the only representation of a queer character is this one, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Also, this rehabilitation of the rapist story arc this season also makes me uncomfortable; but on the other hand, Bryce was such a cartoonish villain in the first two seasons that he seemed unrealistic; as I said the other day, Hitler loved his dogs. And whenever I write about character development, or teach a workshop on character development, one of the things I always emphasize is that villains are also three-dimensional characters; very few people are all good or all bad, but most everyone is a combination of the two. Seeing another side to Bryce is an interesting twist to the story, but I’m also not sure how much this “nice side of Bryce” is actually earned. On the one hand I applaud them for showing that rehabilitation is a possibility for even the worst of the worst, but there’s also a sense of “both sides”-ism to this.

But…it’s making me think, and isn’t that what these kinds of entertainments are supposed to do?

So, I am going to spend my day answering emails—I also have errands to run–and later on I’m going to try to get Chapter Twenty-four finished, before I take a streetcar named St. Charles to the Quarter so I can work condom patrol tonight for Southern Decadence. We definitely are getting the tickets for the LSU game, which is very cool (GEAUX TIGERS!), and so I also need to do some cleaning around the Lost Apartment so we can go to Baton Rouge tomorrow absolutely guilt-free.

Have a lovely day, Constant Reader.

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Funny Face

Monday, Monday. Can’t trust that day, you know?

Saturday night I watched a documentary about college football on ESPN, Football is US: The College Game. It was interesting–I didn’t know who Walter Camp was, but I’d heard the name before. I also knew who Amos Alonzo Stagg was–there’s a high school in Chicago named for him, and I also knew that the University of Chicago was an early power in college football, until they disbanded their team and stopped playing. It lightly touched on how college football parity helped desegregate the Southern universities–their football teams were mediocre, once other schools started recruiting, and playing, black players–but there was one line, when talking about the civil rights struggles in the 1960’s, and how Southern people, especially those in Alabama, focused on football as a source of pride for their state, that was particularly true and honest, and I wished they would have followed up on it some more: they didn’t like the way their state was being portrayed on the news, and felt like these representations of Southern states as hotbeds of racism was unfair.

Yes, indeed. It was incredibly unfair how the national news depicted Southern racism as how it actually existed in the real world. This resentment of how they are viewed by outsiders is keenly felt down here, and that sense of resentment is very key to understanding their behavior.

I reread the final few chapters of Bury Me in Shadows yesterday, and then planned out the final three, so I have a good shot at making my deadline of finishing the first draft by September 1. I also revised both “Moist Money” and “This Thing of Darkness” yesterday, so it was a fairly productive day for me on the writing front. Both stories need to be gone over again before sending them out into the world–both are rather dark stories; I sometimes shock myself with how dark I can go if I set my mind to it. (Fully cognizant of the notion that other people’s opinion of what dark is can vary wildly.)

We are still watching the third season of Thirteen Reasons Why, and I have to say, the show is both ridiculous and over the top–last night I said to Paul, “you know, this high school is completely fucked up–I can’t imagine anyone I went to high school with being murdered, let alone that almost everyone I was friends with would have a motive for killing another classmate”–but the show’s true appeal lies in the cast, how good they are in their roles, and the chemistry they have with each other. And let’s be honest–it hasn’t come remotely  close to Riverdale when it comes to plots going over the top. While watching last night, it occurred to me that the show is really kind of an Edge of Night type serial, only set in high school; every season’s plot has had something to do with death and crime. There has been at least one suicide, one suicide attempt, an almost-school shooting, several rapes–one particularly brutal one involving a young man and a broom handle–and so I can see why teenagers who’ve been through a trauma of some sort would find the show hard to watch.

I also watched Roll Red Roll, a horrifying documentary of the Steubenville rape case–which also is an exploration of rape culture in small towns–and that case was what initially inspired my own in-progress manuscript about the same thing; rape culture in a small town. Watching the documentary, and remembering how awful the story was as it unfolded–several other cases broke around the same time; there was another in Marysville, Missouri, and another in southern California, which were the subjects of another documentary–also made me see, again, what are the many problems and holes in the plot of the book I wrote on the subject, and what needs to be fixed about it.

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

Happy Monday, everyone.

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Dueling Banjos

Writing about the rural Deep South is difficult.

I’m from the deep south, yes, but I didn’t grow up there. I spent a lot of time there, my parents were Southern, and so a lot of my values and mind-view for a number of years were patterned in the Southern mindset. I draw from my memories of summers in the rural backwoods of the mid-central-western part of the state, about seventy miles from the Mississippi state line or so, but there are also so many attitudes and mentalities and stereotypes and tropes about the rural Deep South that it is easy to become lazy and fall into those. I am trying very hard not to do that, but as I said, it’s hard. Stereotypes and tropes exist for a reason, after all–they weren’t created from nothing; there’s always a core kernel of truth in them, whatever they’ve become once the seeds were planted–but the key is to burrow into them to dig out the core kernel of truth to build upon, so you’re telling the truth. But I worry, as I continue to excavate into this book, that I am relying on negative tropes and stereotypes.

I think I was thirteen when Deliverance was released; we saw it at the drive-in, which was something my parents loved to do with us when we were kids. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on in the movie–it was the kind of macho bullshit I loathed as a child, a loathing that has only somewhat lessened as an adult, so I stopped paying attention to it and I think I may have even dozed off. But I did see the scene early in the movie which has forever cemented into people’s minds a link between the backwoods South and redneck morons–“Dueling Banjos.” The open notes of the song are all that is needed to reference a joke about passing from civilization into the land of the uneducated, probably inbred, backwoods hillbillies; it has come to symbolize moonshine-makin’, overalls-wearin’, cousin-marryin’, dangerous rural Southern people. I’ve made the joke myself from time to time–driving through the Southern countryside at night, “You can almost hear the banjo notes, can’t you?”

Deliverance and “Dueling Banjos” are such a part of our zeitgeist and popular culture that the book and film have become kind of shorthand Southern references–even for people who don’t know the origins of the references. I’ve never read the book, but I bought a copy a few years ago because I heard one of the references in something–a talk show, a book, a film, a television show; I don’t remember which–but I thought it was time for me to read the book and possibly watch the film in its entirety; that there was a possibly an essay in both about masculinity, rape culture, and the American male. (For those of you who don’t know, many male-on-male rape jokes were born directly of Deliverance.) I never did get around to reading the book or watching the movie; to be honest, I’d completely forgotten about them and the essay idea until recently. I also never got around to reading the book because I’d heard bad things about James Dickey, who wrote the novel. Dickey was primarily a poet, and considered one of the better American ones of the second half of the twentieth century by the Academy, and Deliverance was his only novel. I knew people who knew Dickey, and the reports back on him were terribly unpleasant, if not surprisingly so. (American letters has produced some horrific examples of toxic masculinity with its iconic, deified authors.)

Southern people are masters at grievance; they’ve been aggrieved for quite some time now–probably as far back as when the rumblings in the northern states began against slavery.  Everything is always someone else’s fault; even that language from the 1960’s came back to haunt Alabama during the special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate: “outside agitators.” That was always a favorite fallback of Southern white supremacy; people of color in the South were perfectly happy with the way things were set up, with not voting or having opportunities, and being segregated away from white people, until “outside agitators” stirred them up against their kind, genial white overlords. Outside agitation goes all the way back to slavery; Southern politicians and leaders railed against “Yankee agitation on the slavery issue.” It’s all there, in black and white, in the history books–if you know what to look for.

The politics of race in the South have always been problematic, but nothing is more irritating to me than white apologia fiction set in the South; in which the white people aren’t racists; those nasty lower class white trash people are the real racists, not the educated whites. I’ve seen this in any number of books and it never ceases to irritate me when I come across it; this historical revision that relieves the guilt of Southern white people is kind of like, as my friend Victoria says, how after the Second World War  no Germans had really been Nazis and everyone in France was a resistance fighter.

Bitch, please.

I guess all those southern white civil rights activists were working undercover, because they sure weren’t public in their opposition. (And yes, I know–not all Southern white people; but I sure don’t see any white faces in any of the footage from the civil rights marches and school integrations that weren’t in military uniform…or certainly not as many as novels and fictions would have us believe.) To Kill a Mockingbird is problematic to me in that I don’t believe for a minute that the sheriff and the cops in Maycomb, Alabama, were worried about the rednecks from the county lynching Tom Robinson and gathering up some of the good white people from town to defend the jail; history shows that the police were often Klansmen, or at least more sympathetic to the cause of white supremacy than they were to civil rights. That scene, while powerful, doesn’t ring true to me–it again divides Southern whites into the educated professionals and the uneducated racist rednecks, and I am not certain of the accuracy. The publication of Go Set a Watchman upset a lot of fans of the original work with its depiction of Atticus as a segregationist; they felt betrayed that the heroic white champion of racial tolerance and justice from Mockingbird was turned into a segregationist…but it was honest and real and rang true to me.

And seriously, I highly recommend anyone interested in looking at how Southern white people viewed civil rights during the 1960’s dig up The Klansman by William Bradford Huie.

This is, of course, part of the problem I am having with writing this first draft of a book set in the rural South that deals, in part, with issues of race in the modern rural South. I don’t want to be heavy-handed, nor do I want this to be another oh look another white person discovers how terrible racism is book, nor do I want it to be another “white savior” book; there are plenty of those already. But I also want to be honest; and how does one do that? There are always going to be those who criticize such a book for failing, or trying too hard, or some such. Southern racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny do exist, and having an openly gay teenager with roots in Alabama spend the summer there helping take care of his dying grandmother, while dealing with some other issues that arise during his visit, seems like a good lens to view all of these things through.

Or at least, seems to be one, at any rate.

I think this is one of the reasons I am having so much trouble writing this book and getting this draft done; I am so worried about being offensive or crossing some line as well as wanting to do it well and do it right that I am overthinking everything, and it’s like I have this incredible overwhelming sense of confidence about my abilities as a writer. But I am going to press on, all the while worrying…but I must needs remember: I can always fix everything in future drafts.

Part of my goals for the weekend are to finish writing a promised essay, to get three chapters of the book written, and to finish reading Steph Cha’s amazing Your House Will Pay. I also need to reread everything I’ve written for Bury Me in Shadows, and make notes as I go.

Heavy thoughts for a Friday morning, Constant Reader.

And now back to the spice mines.

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She’s Playing Hard to Get

GEAUX TIGERS!

LSU plays at Florida today at two-thirty central time. Paul is going to be out all day; he has to go work at the office and is attending an event tonight. I have to do some errands around noon–post office, bank, mail–and of course I want to get some writing done today. I didn’t write at all yesterday; I came home from work and started cleaning, then relaxed and watched some television until Paul came home. I’m trying to get as much of this book done as I possibly can today, around the LSU game.

I’m trying not to get worked up about football as much as I used to; it is, after all, just a game and the players are just young men, barely adults. This has worked for me since the Auburn game; during the first quarter I was very anxious, and found myself getting highly irritated in the second quarter. When LSU fell behind 14-10 just before half-time, I thought, let it go. Stop yelling at the television. They can’t hear you for one, and it doesn’t make you feel any better, and the players are just kids. This isn’t life or death. It makes ZERO difference in your life for the better or worse if LSU wins or loses. 

 It worked and I calmed down considerably, and was able to watch and enjoy the rest of the game. Of course, it didn’t hurt that LSU won the game, coming from behind to score nine points in the last five minutes or so of the game. I suppose the real test of this attempt to watch games calmly will be a game LSU loses.

It’s a lot of energy to expend on something over which I have no control. So now I try to watch the games with detachment rather than overhyped emotion. It also makes no difference also in that I am never going to stop rooting for LSU.

Maybe someday I’ll get more zen about the Saints’ games.

I woke up just before eight this morning, but stayed in bed for another forty-five minutes before finally getting up. I feel rested. My sleep has been better for the last week or so–the overnight rains have helped in that regard tremendously–plus getting up at seven three days a week now instead of just one has helped shift my sleep patterns to something more manageable. For years I woke up at seven every morning like clockwork; that changed when I started working late nights and my sleep has never been the same since that time. Now that I am back into a regular sleep pattern, I get up early every morning and get to do what I used to do in the mornings, before I faced the world; answer emails, write blog post, read my social media feeds, even do some writing, on the mornings when I don’t have to be at work by nine. On weekend mornings, like this one, I can relax with my coffee and get some things done around here. I like this new schedule I’ve been on for the last few weeks; I get to start cleaning the house and doing the laundry early Friday evenings, and then I can relax with television or a book (honestly, cracking open the wine usually results in me watching television instead of reading; and I still haven’t finished Circe; again this is a not a testament to the quality of the book. Thus far it is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.)

And so now, it’s back to the spice mines. I’ve got laundry going already, and the kitchen is fortunately already clean. I need to work on the living room some today as well; I can do that during the LSU game without disturbing Paul since he’ll be at the office. I’m going to spend the rest of this morning working on Scotty and maybe starting to pull apart the WIP. Ironically, I’d begun to think that a y/a novel about rape culture wasn’t timely anymore; these last few weeks have proven to me that it’s just as timely as ever. I have to put aside all of my doubts about being a gay man writing a novel about rape culture and just write the damned thing. As I said earlier this week, it needs to be pulled apart and it’s own stand on its own book, which means starting from scratch (which I had already kind of done) and then start piecing it back together again. The shell I’ve already written can certainly be recycled into another book, if need be, and I even already know what that book is going to be. So, this is a win-win, really.

Have a  great day, Constant Reader, and hang in there.

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Let’s Go Crazy

Roxane Gay tweeted yesterday where are the lists of the bad literary men?

I kind of laughed to myself when I saw that. Not, of course, that the tweet was funny; it was anything but. The reason I laughed is because I wrote a short story a few years ago that was precisely about that; a bad literary man, the women whose lives and careers he impacted, and their revenge on him. The story was called “Death and the Handmaidens,” and it was, of course, a crime story. And it should come as no surprise to anyone that the story was rejected by every single place I submitted it.

Now, of course,  it’s entirely possible that the story itself was bad; badly written, badly constructed, unoriginal, didn’t deliver on its premise, etc etc etc. That is, as a matter of fact, not at all beyond the realm of possibility.  I have always acknowledged my difficulties with writing short stories, and this one is no different. I struggled with the story, with my main character and getting inside her head, with whether she seemed absolutely realistic or not, whether the tone was right, whether the voice worked…and also with whether I was too close to the story to see its flaws and what was wrong with it. So, after several rejections and several rewrites, I consigned it to the File Drawer of Obscurity thinking maybe someday I would try to work on it again, or see if it worked better as a novel, all the things I think when I put something away because it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Lately, tho, will all of the harassment/assault victims coming forward….I am wondering if maybe I shouldn’t revisit this story again? I don’t know that anyone might want it still, but at the same time it can’t hurt to revisit it, reread it, maybe figure out where I want it to go. I’d been thinking I should move it out of the literary world…we shall see. *adds to to-do list*

And my awesome friend Lyndsay Faye, whom I admire more than I can ever express, posted this experience yesterday:

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We’re kind of seeing a societal shift, I think, and one that has been a long time coming. There are still, of course, going to be rapes and sexual assaults and sexual harassment, but I also don’t think it’s going to be looked at and treated the same way it has been in the past. Lisa Levy also wrote this interesting piece that I read this morning, and of course, as I have mentioned before, I’ve been reading a lot about toxic masculinity and rape culture for the WIP (which needs another revision). It’s been an eye-opening experience, because even as I have read about it and have listened to women for many years, I had no idea how deep and pervasive all of this was–and I thought I had a handle on it, you know?

Yikes.

And now, back to the spice mines. Here’s a Tuesday Calvin Klein underwear ad for you, Constant Reader.

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And yes, I am aware of the irony of posting about objectification while posting pictures of scantily clad hot men.