Something’s Wrong

At some point over the past decade, a movement started on-line to promote the voices of minority writers writing about their experience in fiction, called “#ownvoices”. The focus of the tag was primarily for non-white writers, whose work has been so long marginalized and kept out of the mainstream of publishing; forcing those writers to either not see print or go with either a small press or self-publishing. It brought up some interesting conversations about who gets to tell what story, the importance of representation in fiction, and the need for greater diversity in the popular culture.

Recently, the “who gets to tell what story” debate took on an entirely new meaning and went in an entirely different direction with the publication of a piece in the New York Times that became known as, for simplicity’s sake, “Bad Art Friend.” Who owns a story, and who gets to tell that story? Both women on either side of the conversation appeared, to me, to be kind of assholes; but when it comes down to brass tacks, I strongly believe that if you feel your own story—the story of your own life—belongs to you and only you, then you need to write it; not tell the story to other writers (or other people in general, really) and expect them not to use it. Writers are thieves, every single one of us; anything we ever are told, read, see, and hear goes into the computer of our mind and at some point, might come back out in a fictional form. The fact that the “kidney story” was used as a jumping off point for a short story by a writer fascinated by the story of the woman who donated said kidney—and her need for attention predicated on the ownership of that story—shouldn’t surprise any writer; as I read the piece in the Times myself I kept thinking, I don’t know that I could have resisted writing about this woman either—it’s such a fascinating place to start an examination of both altruism and narcissism, how could anyone resist? I also started, in fairness, to think of the story in terms of crime fiction—how would I build a crime story out of this?

I do know, however, how shitty it feels to have my story taken and told in a way I didn’t much care for; yet that doesn’t mean I couldn’t tell my story how I wanted to, if and when I choose to. Everyone’s take on this has been interesting to watch on social media–you can certainly tell how personal experience effects other writers’ opinions on things–but I think the bottom line of it all is, don’t be a shitty person. Everyone involved in that whole mess was kind of a shitty person, at least in how it was reported–and again, those people involved in the group chat/email or text chain or whatever the hell it was and were actually named in the Times piece? Their story is now being told by someone else. Karma? Serendipity? The arc of justice? Who knows? Who gets to decide?

So, who does get to tell whose story?

Most of my work is fiction, and the majority of it is also set in New Orleans. New Orleans is one of the few cities in the United States with a majority minority population (at least it used to be; I’m not as certain post-Katrina of that fact as I was pre-Katrina) and it would be impossible to write about New Orleans without including non-white characters; that would be science fiction. It might be possible to live in New Orleans and never, ever come across a non-white person; I don’t see how, frankly, but, on the other hand, I’ve read any number of lily-white books set here. The casts of my two series contain one person who is non-white; police detective Venus Casanova, a character I love deeply and have always wanted to write more about. I had two ideas for Venus novels over the years—Stations of the Cross is one, and more recently, Another Random Shooting—but I always held back from writing either of them because I am not a Black woman. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a Black woman in New Orleans or in the South, let alone the struggles faced with being a Black woman working for the New Orleans Police Department—the racism, the micro-aggressions, the misogyny—and while I still believe both books would be good ones, I still am not entirely comfortable writing from that point of view—nor am I comfortable taking a publishing slot (if it came to that) from an actual Black woman crime writer, of which there aren’t enough as it is.

Bury Me in Shadows didn’t present the same kind of issue that I have with writing from Venus’ perspective (I also started writing a short story once with her as the main character; I revised it to be from the point of view of her white gay partner on the force, Blaine Tujague), the issue here was that I was going to be looking at and examining the racist history of the South and issues of race themselves…from the point of view of a twenty year old white gay kid. Just what the world needs, right, another white take on racial injustice in the southern United States? The possibilities for offending people were endless; do I have blind spots in my white privilege when it comes to racial injustice? Would those blind spots come across in the book? (I don’t care if I offend Confederate apologists, none of whom would be reading anything I write to begin with for fears of gay contagion.)

One thing my main character Jake’s mother always emphasizes to him is “the heritage is hate, Jake—never forget that.”

Jake has no pride in the fact his ancestors enslaved people, or in the family history of what was once a plantation that has now dwindled to a small amount of acreage that is mostly wooded; his mother refused to raise him that way, and I wanted to show how possible and effective—and important– breaking the generational link passing white supremacy along for centuries can be. Like most white people, Jake really hasn’t thought much about the history or his own privilege—there’s a part in the book where he thinks about how many students of color there were in his elite, private Catholic school—and being there, on the ground soaked in blood and perspiration and oppression, he has no choice but to face up to it, think about it, and be appalled by it all. I didn’t want to write something that could be called, or considered, an oh look another white guy explains racism or even worse, oh look another white person discovers racism is actually a thing and is horrified book; but the land is definitely haunted by its past.

Another theme I worked on within the book is the history of this county is written in blood. That’s a recurrent theme within any of my Alabama fictions; I tend to always write about my fictional Corinth County, and its history is actually very heinous. There’s a short story I’ve been working on for years called “Burning Crosses,” about a lynching that happened there many years ago; during the horrors of the Jim Crow era—in which a young white girl, a student at the University of Alabama, comes to Corinth to research the lynching for the Justice Project—a fictional group at the University that researches all racially motivated killings in the South since Appomattox, to name the victims and so the memories never fade with time. Again, not sure if I am the right person to tell this story, and the possibilities for giving offense with it are endless; so, I continue to work on it, tweaking here and there, and maybe someday I will try to get it published. But Corinth County’s bloody history is very real in my mind, and there are countless book and story ideas (and in-progress stories) I have for continuing to write about it.

Whether I will or I won’t remains to be seen, of course, but there are files and files and files…

Because of course there are.

 

Tied Together with a Smile

Monday morning and facing down the three clinic days, which makes me tired to even just think about, honestly. I love working with my clients, though; that’s always a plus, and while my program coordinator is out quarantining (her roommate tested positive for COVID-19 last week), I think I can handle my job without her being there. (This is why I was so concerned about the stomach issues on Saturday; the last thing in the world I need right now it to have to go out on quarantine myself.)

There actually wasn’t a Saints game yesterday; I didn’t realize it was a bye week for the Saints–it was just weird that neither LSU nor the Saints had a game on the same weekend (I looked up the time for the game earlier in the week and didn’t realize it brought up next week’s game instead), and it’s been quite a while since that happened. In fact, I cannot remember the last time bye weeks fell on the same weekend–although to be fair, LSU wasn’t supposed to have a bye.

But still.

We watched the season finale of The Vow last night, and it seemed to wrap up pretty quickly; Paul was very quick to assert, “there’s going to be a second season, clearly” and after looking around on-line this morning a bit, I see that the show has been renewed for a second season. We enjoyed watching the show, despite its deeply uneven story-telling and a sense that it was longer than it needed to be; I also didn’t think compressing everything–from the arrests, etc. to the present day–into the final fifteen minutes of the finale was the best methodology; it really felt rushed, particularly since some previous episodes were obviously dragged out; it could have been six episodes, I think.

We also watched the first episode of the Jude Law mini-series The Third Day, and decided not to continue. It was very well done–some of the images were exceptional–but it was all just very murky and strange and really, you should watch one part of a three-part show and have literally no idea what’s going on, or have no sense of the characters, or why you should give a shit about their story. We won’t be watching more, I think, which is a shame; the previews looked wonderfully creepy and spooky; and while the first episode contributed greatly to the mood of creepy dread, that was about all we came away from it with, other than little to no desire to watch any more of it.

I started going through old journals yesterday–I found the one in which I started keeping the journal again (2017! It’s been three years!)–mainly because I am trying to get back into Bury Me in Shadows again; it’s been weeks since I worked on it, and I was thinking I needed to go through my notes and so forth to make sure everything is going into the story that needs to be in the story. The old journals are fascinating; there’s also the plans and notes for Royal Street Reveillon in them, as well as the birth of short stories that have since been written and even, in some cases, published; there are other story ideas and titles that never were followed up on–some of them are quite good, upon a review with fresh eyes–as well as sketches and ideas for stories that were written but wound up not really working after several drafts were completed (“The Problem with Autofill” is one of those; it’s a great concept but it doesn’t work because the central conceit winds up triggering how can you be so stupid as a reader reaction, which kills the story, frankly). It’s also interesting to see that this particular novel began being titled Bury Me in Satin, which I discarded early on, changing “satin” for “shadows”, which works ever so much better.

I also managed to do some filing and organizing, and I do feel much better about everything I now need to get done–and feel confident I can do it all.

I also read some short stories yesterday.

“Love & Other Crimes” is the title story from Sara Paretsky’s short story collection, and yes, it’s a V. I. Warshawski story. One of the problems I’ve always had with writing crime fiction short stories is the compression of the investigation aspect. I am used to spreading the story out from anywhere from sixty five thousands words to just over a hundred thousand; Royal Street Reveillon was slightly more than a hundred thousand, and is probably my longest novel. I wrote my first ever Chanse short story, “My Brother’s Keeper”, for my own collection Survivor’s Guilt and Other Stories, and I’ve started yet another, “Once a Tiger,” that has stalled, along with a couple of other investigation short stories that have never reached a complete first draft–some Venus stories (“A Little More Jazz for the Axeman,” “Falling Bullets,” and “Stations of the Cross”), and there’s a Jerry Channing story (he has appeared in the Scotty books; he’s a true crime writer) whose title I cannot recall at this moment. I struggle with these stories, obviously; reading Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer short stories (The Archer Files) helped somewhat, as did reading Sue Grafton’s Kinsey short stories (Kinsey and Me); and it’s really no surprise that Paretsky–MWA Grand Master and crime fiction legend–can also pull off the private eye short story. A kid from the old neighborhood is being framed for murder; his sister rather snottily hired Vic to prove his innocence. She manages to do so–ironically, he was really implicated in another crime, just not the murder–and the success of the story makes me think that I should change the way I write these kinds of stories. I am not much of an outliner anymore–somewhere around Murder in the Rue St. Ann I realized that I never really stuck to the outline so wasn’t really sure I should keep doing them; instead, I either come up with a very loose synopsis–or just know where I am going to end it and start writing in that general direction and see where it goes. But…maybe I should outline the short stories that are investigations rather than just starting to write and seeing where they go; I always stop writing when I get stuck, and who knows if or when I will ever get back to it? But I am also digressing from the point of what a great story Paretsky opens her collection with! I don’t think all of the stories are necessarily Warshawski stories–the next, “Miss Bianca,” doesn’t appear to be–but I am really looking forward to seeing what other magic she hath wrought with her writing.

After reading the Paretsky story, I moved on to the Lawrence Block anthology The Darkling Halls of Ivy–whose theme is crime stories set in academia. The very first story is David Morrell’s “Requiem for a Homecoming,’ and it’s an interesting take on a crime story. A successful screenwriter returns to his alma mater for Homecoming as a special guest, and the story opens with him having a drink in a campus-area pub with an old friend from his college days…and then bringing up a twenty-year old murder that occurred when they were both undergrads. They talk a bit about the murder, and some things that never came out in the investigation all those years ago–including the pov character having gone out on a date with her once, but didn’t come forward because he supplemented his income by dealing drugs–the drug dealer would be an obvious suspect and this could have jeopardized his scholarship to USC for grad work in screenwriting–but there’s also a lot more to this fiendishly clever story. But Lawrence Block’s anthologies never disappoint; my bucket list includes getting to write a story for one of these.

And on that note, it’s off to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely Monday, Constant Reader.

The End of the World

FRIDAY!

And while I am always happy to see the work week come to an end, I am more than a little daunted by what is facing me this weekend: a lot of fucking work. I have some writing to do for a website; the Secret Project; another project; and I want to finish writing the first draft of “Falling Bullets” and “Condos for Sale and Rent.” That’s a lot of fucking writing, Constant Reader, and that doesn’t take into consideration how much filing and organizing and cleaning I also have to do. Heavy heaving sigh. I also need to run errands, and am debating whether to wait until Saturday to do them, or do it tonight on the way home from work. That would probably be easiest, and let’s be honest: if I go straight home from work tonight, am I going to actually do any work? I tend not to; and there are always 2019 LSU football games to play in the background while I either clean or read. No matter how much I think all day about how much work I’m going to get done after I get home from work, every Friday I wind up doing not a damned thing because I’m so glad it’s Friday and I don’t have to work the next morning.

Yeah, I should probably go to the grocery store when I get off work and be done with it. They are open till eight and I get off work at five, so I might as well just get it over with.

And that, Constant Reader, is how the decisions get made around here.

I was tired most of yesterday; I never went into a deep sleep on Wednesday night and so didn’t feel rested. I’m trying to wean myself off the prescription medication that helps me sleep at night–I’m truly terrified of becoming addicted or dependent on anything; I can’t afford to go to rehab–and so periodically I like to stop taking it and try to sleep without it. I was actually functional yesterday, if tired, and so that has to count as a win, right? I always tend to the extremes–I’m rarely in the middle, which would be lovely; rather, I am always swinging from one extreme to the other without a stop–so there’s that, I suppose. I did get some work done on “Falling Bullets” yesterday; it’s weird, though. I’ve several ideas for stories centering Venus Casanova–the police homicide detective who is in both the Chanse and Scotty series–and as she is a woman of color, it’s a bit outside my comfort zone. I do love the character; always have, ever since I first thought her up way back in 1997, when I started writing Murder in the Rue Dauphine, and have even considered giving her a book all to herself (the idea is still simmering in my brain, Stations of the Cross; but if I ever do write it, that one probably won’t be a Venus story), and I have a really great idea for a case for her to solve without Chanse or Scotty around (her partner, Blaine, is gay, and that way I can still shoehorn in a gay character), but she also appeared in my first story to ever sell to Ellery Queen, “Acts of Contrition,” and I have two other short story ideas for Venus–this one, and “A Little More Jazz for the Axeman.” I wonder if I should be writing stories about a black female cop–after all, I am neither black nor female, and I do worry that I won’t get things about her right; not to mention the fact that if I sell the story, I might be taking a slot away from an author of color, male or female.

It’s not enough to just say I want to write about a black woman and I’m a writer and no one can tell me what I can or can’t write about. It’s not enough to say “well, sure, I’m not black or a woman, but I’ve written about vampires and ghosts and supernatural creatures, so why can’t I write a black female character?” (That defense against “own voices” is the one that pushes my blood pressure into the danger zone; there’s nothing like denying someone’s humanity to excuse writing about that person–and make no mistake, comparing writing any marginalized character to writing about creatures that don’t exist? You’re a bigot, period–making that statement disqualifies you automatically from any defense)

It’s something to think about, anyway. The other funny thing is how, this morning, reviewing what I wrote last night–I originally wrote about five hundred words, and wrote another fifteen hundred last night–doesn’t match the original paragraphs because I didn’t reread what I’d already written, just dove right in, and I’ll have to go back and fix that before I move forward with the story any further.

And last night, thanks to the magic of the Interwebs, I did a live reading for Tubby and Coo’s Bookshop; the first time I’ve done such a thing, and it was, indeed, a thing. It was remarkably easy and I went through no anxiety at any point in the proceedings, which was absolutely lovely–readings and panels and so forth always make me incredibly anxious and stressed; and that’s not gotten any easier since I first started doing them. But this was absolutely lovely; stress free other than the occasional stumble over words as I read them, and I honestly think, going forward from the pandemic, that this methodology of meeting readers is going to continue and tours are slowly but surely going to go away, unless you’re an enormous name.

And I slept well last night. I did wake up a few times during the night, but was always able to go back to sleep and I feel definitely rested this morning.

Huzzah!

And now, back to the spice mines. Happy Friday!

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