Together We’re Better

Yesterday actually turned out to be quite lovely.

I was a little bleary when I got up yesterday morning (my Fitbit advises me I only slept deeply for 3 hours, 48 minutes; the rest was “light sleep” and I woke up three times), but for whatever reason, I decided to start getting to work on things. I started answering emails (I am very careful with email. I refuse to let it control my life, which it easily can; so I answer emails over the weekends and in the mornings, save my responses as drafts, and send them all after lunch. I do not send emails after five pm CST; I do not read them, either. Email at one point took over my life, which made getting anything done impossible and raised my stress levels to unbelievable heights. I realized anyone who absolutely, positively needs to reach me has my cell phone number…and if I don’t trust you with my cell phone number…you don’t really need an answer right away. And guess what? The world didn’t end, I didn’t miss out on anything, and nothing became harder) while reading coverage of the LSU debacle from Saturday night (one thing I did mean to mention and didn’t yesterday; I try not to be overly critical of college athletes because they are basically kids. It’s easy to forget that when you’re watching on television, but when you see them on the sidelines with their helmets off, or while walking down Victory Hill to the stadium in their suits and ties…you see a bunch of teenagers and young men in their early twenties. They are kids—and those baby faces on those big muscular bodies is a very strange juxtaposition sometimes). I decided on the way home from Baton Rouge that while I do, indeed, love football, I really shouldn’t give up my weekends to it all fall. Now that LSU is definitely out of the running for anything, I’ll probably not watch as much football as I would if they were still in contention for anything. I’ll still watch LSU, and occasionally I may spend an afternoon watching a big game—the SEC title game, the play-offs—I am not going to spend every Saturday pretty much glued to the television all day, flipping between games all day. And I also rarely enjoy watching the Saints—I love them, they’re my guys, my team, my heart—but their games are so damned stressful it’s hard to enjoy them, and when the games is over I am always, win or lose, emotionally and physically and mentally exhausted. So, I decided it made more sense to get things done, check in on the score periodically, and not sweat it too much. (Good thing. Like LSU, the Saints led the entire game, folded like a newspaper in the fourth quarter and wound up losing.) I made groceries, filled the car’s gas tank, and before going, I started weeding shit out of my iCloud and saving it all to my back-up hard drive.  I wound up freeing up over four hundred and seven gigabytes in my flash storage, and suddenly my computer was running very quickly again.

And yes, it’s my fault.* I have a gazillion pictures files, going back to digital camera days. I used to back up my hard drive and my flash drives regularly to the cloud—and those folders are enormous. I don’t probably need all of it—I was weeding through bits here and there as I moved the files over to the back-up hard drive (eventually planning on copying them up to Dropbox), and started finding all kinds of interesting things. Story fragments I’d forgotten, book ideas and anthology ideas and essays I’d started; some of these things are in very rough, first draft form—and got left behind as my addled, AHDH-like brain moved on to the next thirty or forty ideas for all of the above. I also was kind of amused to see how I often I plagiarize myself; I had a completely different idea for the book I wanted to call A Streetcar Named Murder fifteen years ago—which I can still use at some point, just have to come up with a new title. I’d forgotten that all the way through the process Need was called A Vampire’s Heart; my editor suggested changing it after I turned the book it. It was a wise choice; my title was very romance sounding and Need was hardly that. It was also interesting seeing, over the years, how many different ideas I’ve had for a gay noir set in the world of ballet (damn you, Megan Abbott!). I discovered that Murder in the Garden District actually began as Murder on the Avenue (a title I can repurpose for an idea I had last week); I found the original files for Hollywood South Hustle, the Scotty book that turned into a Chanse MacLeod, Murder in the Rue Ursulines; I found the files for the Colin book that tells us what he was doing and where he was between Mardi Gras Mambo and Vieux Carré Voodoo; I found the original Paige novel I started writing in 2004, in which an Ann Coulter-like pundit from New Orleans is murdered; I found the first three chapters of the Scotty Katrina book, Hurricane Party High,  in which they don’t evacuate during a fictional hurricane, and the chapters where I rewrote it, had the, evacuate to Frank’s sister’s in rural Alabama (and we meet Frank’s nephew Taylor for the first time—and I also remembered that they belonged to some weird kind of religious cult and that Taylor was going to come to New Orleans in the future to visit during their version of rumspringa, but eventually abandoned the idea completely and never did a Scotty/Katrina book; was reminded that Dark Tide began as Mermaid Inn; that I wrote the first chapter of Timothy during the summer of 2003; and if I even tried to list all the iterations that wound up being #shedeservedit, we would be here all day (Sins of Omission, I think, was my favorite earlier title; again, a completely different book with some slight similarities…I may have to take a longer look at some of those iterations because being reminded of them all, I also remembered that I really liked all the versions).

I also found many, many nonfiction pieces I’ve written over the years—many of which I’d long since forgotten about—so maybe that essay collection won’t take quite as long to pull together as I had originally thought. Huzzah!

And I also discovered something else that I knew but had slipped out of my consciousness: that Bury Me in Shadows was called, for the first and second drafts, Bury Me in Satin—which gives off an entirely different vibe, doesn’t it? I wrote a very early version of it as a short story while in college, called it “Ruins,” but never wrote a second draft because I knew it wasn’t a short story; it needed to be a book, and one day I would write it. I was never completely comfortable with the story, to be honest; I wasn’t sure how I could write a modern novel built around a Civil War legend in rural Alabama. I absolutely didn’t want to write a fucking Lost Cause narrative—which is what this easily could have become, and people might come to it thinking it is, and are going to be very angry when they find out it is not that—but I really wasn’t sure how to tell the story…and in my mind, I thought of it as Ruins—which I freely admit is not a great title, and has been over-used.

As luck would have it, I was watching some awards show—I can’t begin to try to remember what year—and one of the nominated groups performed. I’d never heard of The Band Perry before; and the song they performed, “If I Die Young,” absolutely blew me away. (I just remembered, I kind of used the title as guidance when writing Need—always trying to remember he became undead very young) The first two lines of the chorus are this:

If I die young,

Bury me in satin

And I thought to myself, Bury Me in Satin is a perfect title for the Civil War ghost story! Melancholy and sort of romantic; I’ve always thought of hauntings as more about loss than being terrifying (you do not have to go full out jump scare, use gore or blood or violence to scare the reader, and if you doubt me, read Barbara Michaels’ Ammie Come Home), which is why I’ve always loved the Barbara Michaels novels that were ghost stories. That was the feeling I wanted to convey, that sad creepiness, and longing—I wanted a Gothic feel to the book, and I felt that line captured what I wanted perfectly. But as I wrote it, it didn’t quite feel as right as it did in that moment (I still love the song—and the video is interesting and kind of Gothic, doing a Tennyson Lady of Shalott thing), and then one day it hit me: changed ‘satin’ to ‘shadows’, and there’s your perfect title.

And so it was.

Oh dear, look at the time. Till tomorrow, Constant Reader! I am off to the spice mines! Have a lovely Monday!

*I will add the caveat to this that anything stored in the Cloud should not affect the flash storage in the actual computer and its operating system, and yes, I am prepared and more than willing to die on that hill.

Between Two Islands

One of the best parts of the Reread Project is reminding myself how much I truly love and appreciate certain writers.

Mary Stewart is certainly at the top of that list.

As I’ve mentioned before, I read most of Mary Stewart’s so-called “romantic suspense” novels when I was a teenager or in my early twenties, my favorites being The Ivy Tree and Airs Above the Ground.  Unfortunately, the mists of time and my faulty memory have robbed me of just how good the other books she wrote were; I recently reread The Moon-spinners and loved it more than I remembered loving it the first time; likewise, I started rereading This Rough Magic this week (finishing yesterday) and it, like The Moon-spinners, is fucking brilliant; far better than I remembered it being–and frankly, far better than it had any right being (says the incredibly jealous author).

Like most of Stewart’s novels, the book is set somewhere other than England–this one is Corfu, just off the coasts of Greece and Albania. (The Moon-spinners was set on Crete, and My Brother Michael was also set in Greece.) I’ve always wanted to visit Greece; it’s on my bucket list with Egypt, France, Germany and England. I loved Greek mythology and history when I was a kid, and of course I absolutely loved Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece. Lately I’ve become more and more interested in the history of the Eastern Roman Empire; aka the Byzantine empire, as well. Paul also would love to return to Greece–he spent a summer there as a teenager as an exchange student.

Stewart is often described, and counted amongst, romantic suspense novelists of the mid to late twentieth century, primarily because she was a female writing suspense novels about women in a time period where publishing didn’t know how to market women-driven suspense novels written by women. While there are slight elements of romance included in her novels, it’s often an afterthought, and rarely actually drives the plot–it’s more like a little lagniappe; something extra tossed in to appease editors and readers that she really had no interest in exploring. At first, you think, wow, her characters kind of fall in love awfully quickly with total strangers–and then you realize, oh, of course they did–women weren’t really allowed to be sexual beings in those days so it had to be masked as falling in love plus the “romance” elements were easily explained by the “trench warfare mentality”–in which soldiers become bonded to the guys they are serving with because they are responsible for each other’s lives; it’s not a stretch to see a romantic attachment grow between two people who are in a tough, difficult situation in which they could easily both wind up dead.

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“And if it’s a boy,” said Phyllida cheerfully, “we’ll call him Prospero.”

I laughed. “Poor little chap, why on earth? Oh, of course…Has someone been telling you that Corfu was Shakespeare’s magic island for The Tempest?

“As a matter of face, yes, the other day, but for goodness’ sake don’t ask me about it now. Whatever you may be used to, I draw the line at Shakespeare for breakfast.” My sister yawned, stretched out a foot into the sunshine at the edge of the terrace, and admired the expensive beach sandal on it. “I didn’t mean that, anyway, I only meant that we’ve already got a Miranda here, and a Spiro, which may not be short for Prospero, but sounds very much like it.”

“Oh? It sounds highly romantic. Who are they?”

“A local boy and girl: they’re twins.”

Lucy Waring, a twenty-five year old British aspiring actress, finds herself on the island of Corfu visiting her very pregnant sister who married very well–to a wealthy Italian banker whose family owns an enormous property on Corfu, which includes an enormous castle-style main structure and two guest villas some distance away, all gathered together on the shoreline of a small, private bay. Lucy’s big break has just come and went in a play that closed after only two months, so she has gratefully accepted her sister Phyllida’s invitation to come stay for a while with her on Corfu. There’s a photographer staying in the other villa; the main castle is being rented to a retired British actor, Sir Julian Gale, best known for his performances in Shakespeare (The Tempest in particular) and his son Max, a composer–and trespassers are forbidden and frowned upon. That very first day Lucy decides to go down to the beach and sunbathe, and while she is down there she makes the acquaintance of a friendly dolphin, much to her delight–and the suspense begins when someone starts shooting, with a silenced gun, at the dolphin. She assumes the shots are coming from the castle, so she goes storming up there, and soon becomes entangled in the affairs of Sir Julian and his son Max.

Stewart’s mastery as a story-teller is so complete that she doesn’t waste a word or a scene; her economy of writing is astonishingly complex and clever. For example, that opening sequence, quoted above, seems like simply a lovely back-and-forth introduction to Lucy and her sister while establishing their affectionate closeness; but Stewart uses that dialogue to tell the readers things that are going to be important to the novel: they are on Corfu, references to The Tempest are scattered throughout the book and are incredibly important, not just to the story but for the atmosphere (Stewart was an incredibly literate writer; references to classic literature are scattered throughout her works, be it Shakespeare or Greek mythology or Tennyson, etc.), and even the throwaway line about the twins, Spiro and Miranda, isn’t a throwaway–the two are very important to the story.

And Lucy Waring is no shrinking violet, either–none of Stewart’s heroines are. Lucy courageously thinks nothing of putting herself in danger in order to help catch a monstrous, sociopathic killer:

He must have felt me watching him, for he flicked me a glance, and smiled, and I found myself smiling back quite spontaneously, and quite without guile. In spite of myself, in spire of Max, and Spiro’s story, I could not believe it. The thing was, as I had said to Max, impossible in daylight.

Which was just as well. If I was to spend the next few hours with him, I would have to shut my mind to all that I had learned, to blot out the scene in the cellar, drop Spiro out of existence as if he were indeed dead. And, harder than all, drop Max. There was a curiously strong and secret pleasure, I had found, of speaking of him as “Mr. Gale” in the off-hand tones that Godfrey and Phyllida commonly used, as one might of a stranger to whom one is under an obligation, but whom one hardly considers enough to like or dislike.

There’s also a few amazing chapters in which Lucy, having found the definitive evidence to convict the killer, is trapped with nowhere to go on his sailboat when he returns–she hides, but is spotted, and then reveals herself and in an astonishing display of bravado tries to play the entire thing off, but winds up going overboard herself and trying to make it to shore–only to be helped by the very dolphin she herself had helped rescue earlier in the book.

As I said, nothing happens or is done in a Stewart book that doesn’t have significance or come into play later.

I cannot tell you how much I loved rereading this book, and while I’d love to dive into another Stewart reread, I’m probably going to do another Phyllis Whitney–oh, and I buried the lede! I read the entire thing as an ebook on my iPad–so I have finally broken through that final barrier to reading books electronically, and may never pack a book to take with me when I travel again as long as I live!

Who says you can’t teach an old queen new tricks?