Take This Job and Shove It

My very first job was at a McDonalds.

I was sixteen, a senior in high school, and I actually wanted to work; make my own money to buy things for myself. I was a very good employee; I wasn’t to begin with, but an honest conversation with an encouraging manager turned me into one. I knew how to do everything by the time I quit; I could open or close; work the grill, a cash register, or the drive through; I could clean grills and take apart the ice cream and shake machines and put them back together again; I knew how to slake french fries and how to package hamburgers; how to dress them and toast the buns; how to clean the floors and drain the grease vats; to tube tartar and special sauce. I knew how to make pancakes and scrambled eggs; Egg McMuffins and sausage patties. My uniform was brown polyester and a paper hat. I could take your order, tray it, ring you up and give you your correct change within ninety seconds. Thank you and come again with a smile to every person I worked with; you were given orders with a please and you acknowledged with a thank you. We weren’t allowed to stand around–if I heard if there’s time to lean then there’s time to clean once, I heard it so many times it felt like I heard it in my sleep. I was paid $2.25 an hour; minimum wage increased after a year and I also got a nickel raise per hour, bringing me up to a whopping $2.60 per hour.

I’ve had a lot of jobs over the course of my life, and no matter how crappy a job it was, I always tried to make the best out of it and do the best I could at it. I usually would get bored once I’d mastered an aspect of my job; I needed to learn new tasks and do different things in order for me to not eventually quit–or get so bored on the job I’d make a heinous and stupid mistake that got me fired. I always took getting fired as a sign that yeah, I should have moved on already, thanks for the kick in the pants. All I ever really wanted to do was write–and for so much of my life I was convinced that it was just a pipe dream that would never ever come true, for so many varied and different and just plain sad reasons, with the end result that I was always trying to find a career, something that could hold my interest, and to no avail, with the end result that I was completely miserable.

Every once in a while, whenever I get frustrated or angry with the publishing business–whether it’s a late payment, or another rejection, or another publisher that isn’t paying their authors, or systemic oppression of some kind or another–and I start to think fuck this business, it’s brutal and it sucks and why on earth do I keep doing this to myself…I do something to remind me how grateful I am for this career, this crazy, infuriating, never really quite what I want it to be career: I like to  think about the path that it took to get here, some of the jobs I’ve had;  all the missed opportunities and how easy it was to get discouraged and for self-doubt to insinuate itself into my consciousness and get me to give up again for a period of time…

But I always somehow came back to the wanting to write.

This was a good year for me, although I don’t seem to remember ever thinking that over the course of the year as it passed. I published the eighth Scotty Bradley novel this past October, Royal Street Reveillon, and I am, for once, actually rather pleased with a book that I’ve published (which is a step in the right direction, right?). I also published a collection of short crime fiction stories; some originals, others previously published: Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories. Two of the stories were nominated for awards; the eponymous title story was a Macavity finalist and “Cold Beer No Flies” (originally published in Florida Happens, the St. Petersburg Bouchercon anthology) was an Anthony Award finalist. Pretty cool, right? There was also that Anthony nomination, and I couldn’t have been more pleased to have lost to Shawn Cosby. My story “This Town” was included in Holly West’s Murder-a-Go-Go’s anthology, a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, a cause near-and-dear to me. The story is one of my personal favorites of my own, and got some really nice feedback from people. I also got my story “Moist Money” in the Dark Yonder anthology, which is also a fundraiser for a food bank.

I managed to write several drafts of a new novel manuscript, but it remains incomplete at this time; I also have two other novels in some sort of progress just sitting around waiting for me to get them done. I do not see this as a failure (I used to do just that; something unfinished? You failed) but as symptomatic of me taking my time and trying to do better work. I felt like I was getting stale, and so I decided to take some time away from writing as well as try to rejigger the way I work on fiction. And if it means that it takes longer to write a book I’m completely satisfied with, so be it.

I also came up with a great idea for a new noir novel, set in the ambiguous early 1950’s–Chlorine–and even took a few hours to bang out a first chapter. Likewise, I also came up with ideas for another Scotty book and another Chanse book, as well as a stand alone crime novel built around Venus Casanova, at least in conception; I may not be able to  use the “world of New Orleans” I’ve built in my two series and several short stories, which are all kind of interconnected. I wrote several short stories this year, but still have any number of unfinished ones and others than need additional drafts. I started planning out another short story collection, and an essay collection.

So, in retrospect, it was kind of a good year for me as a writer. I also made several recommendation lists, for people to check out my work–both as a gay writer and as a New Orleans writer. I still have some things on my bucket list to check off, like getting a story into Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and an MWA anthology, doing a Noir at the Bar, among many other things.

So, while I may have spent most of the year feeling miserable about my writing career, a look back shows just how negative I actually was being–which is something I really need to work on. I’m trying to not be so self-deprecating as I have been my entire life, belittling my own accomplishments, because it’s kind of self-defeating. Sure I could have probably written more, and done more, and gotten further along in my career–but everything happens the way it does for a reason, and I have to believe always works out in the best way possible for me–I have to believe that because it has proven true, over and over and over again.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines. LSU plays Oklahoma this afternoon in the play-offs, and while obviously I want LSU to keep winning and keep this magical season going….the disappointment won’t be too great if they do lose; because we do have this magical season to look back on.

Have a lovely last Saturday of 2020, Constant Reader.

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Songbird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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