Dreams

One of the challenges of being a writer is keeping your work fresh and new and interesting; it becomes easy -for want of a better phrase–to just phone it in and repeat yourself. This is particularly true for crime writers/writers of series; how do you continue writing about the same base foundation of characters without recycling plots or falling into formulaic structure?

One of the primary reasons I stopped writing my Chanse MacLeod series was precisely because of this; as I was writing the last book (thus far) in the series, Murder in the Arts District, I found myself thinking things like okay now it’s chapter five, I need some action here or I need to have a twist in the story before I get to chapter ten…and so on. I didn’t even think about it as I was writing the story–but when I was doing the revisions and edits, I remembered having those thoughts (I generally don’t have them while writing Scotty, but that’s a story for another time…and of course, as a reader pointed out, how many car accidents has Scotty been in, anyway?), and when I turned the book in, I went back and speed-read the entire series over again, and after about the fourth book, the writing pattern became rather obvious to me; and if it was apparent to me, I would imagine it was also fairly obvious to the readers. So, I decided to either end or take a lengthy break from the series unless another great idea for him jumped out at me; I have had several ideas since then, but the longer I go without writing about Chanse the less likely it becomes that I will write about him again. (Caveat: I have written a Chanse short story and have a novella in progress with him as the main character; I guess it is more accurate to say that I am not done with the character completely, yet I cannot see myself writing another novel with him as the point of view character–and will have to go another step forward with that as well to say at least not one set in New Orleans, as I am toying with an idea for a Chanse case in Louisiana but not New Orleans. Yes, that’s me–definitely not definite.)

I have nothing but the utmost admiration for series writers who manage to keep their series going for decades and dozens of books without writing the same book and structure over and over and over again; Ross Macdonald, Ellery Queen, Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, and Sara Parestky are just a few of them I can name, and their achievements have made them legends in the field. But other legends who wrote series took a different approach to their careers. Agatha Christie wrote several series–Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence–but also wrote a lot of stand-alones over the course of the years. (Seriously, when it comes to crime fiction, Christie did everything first) Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben started out writing series and moved on to stand-alones; as have numerous other authors.

And then there’s Laura Lippman.

Gerry Andersen‘s new apartment is a topsy-turvy affair–living area on the second floor, bedrooms below. The brochure–it is the kind of apartment that had its own brochure when it went on the market in 2018–boasted of 360-degree views, but that was pure hype. PH 2502 is the middle unit between two other duplex penthouses, one owned by a sheikh, the other by an Olympic swimmer. The three two-story apartments share a common area, a most uncommon common area to be sure, a hallway with a distressed concrete floor, available only to those who have the key that allows one to press PH on the elevator. But not even the sheik and the swimmer have 360-degree views. Nothing means anything anymore, Gerry has decided. No one uses words correctly and if you call them on it, they claim that words are fungible, that it’s oppressive and prissy not to let words mean whatever the speaker wishes them to mean.

Take the name of this building, the Vue at Locust Point. What is a vue? And isn’t the view what one sees from the building, not the building itself? The Vue is the view for people on the other side of the harbor, where, Gerry is told, there is a $12 million apartment on top of the residences connected to the Four Seasons Hotel. A $12 million apartment in Baltimore.

Nothing makes sense anymore.

The apartment cost $1.75 million, which Is about what Gerry cleared when he sold his place in New York City, a two-bedroom he bought in the fall of 2001. How real estate agents had shaken their sleek blond heads over his old-fashioned kitchen, his bidet-less bathrooms, as if his decision not to update them was indicative of a great moral failing. Yet his apartment sold for almost $3 million last fall and, as he understood the current was laws, he needed to put the capital gains, less $250,000, in a new residence. Money goes a long way in Baltimore, and it was a struggle to find a place that could eat up all that capital without being nightmarishly large. So here he is at the Vue, where money seems to be equated with cold, hard things–marble in the kitchen, distressed concrete floors, enormous light fixtures.

I’ve been a fan of Lippman’s since I read her debut, Baltimore Blues, mumbledy-mumble years ago. I absolutely loved it; I loved the character of Tess Monaghan, former reporter turned private eye, and the cast of regular characters who she interacted with on a regular basis throughout her amazing series run. Tess remains one of my all -time favorite series characters; the books were always compelling, interesting, and very hard to put down. Lippman is also that writer who can write short stories that are just as powerful as her novels, and over the last few years she has taken up writing personal essays that are also rather exceptional (her collection, My Life as a Villainess, was a bestseller during the pandemic). Her writing is always whip-smart and intelligent; following her on social media one can see how widely and perceptively she reads. About seven years into her career she took the risk to move from her series to stand-alones; a calculated risk, to be sure–but she then spent the next few years alternating between the series and stand-alones (alas, it’s been a while since the last Tess book, Hush Hush, although she has occasionally made guest appearances in her stand-alones when a character needs assistance from a private eye). Her books have explored themes of motherhood, what it means to be a good girl, and have also paid homage to time-honored sub-genres (Sunburn is one of the best noir novels of this century) and classic novels by either flipping the script (for example. Wilde Lake owes an enormous debt to To Kill a Mockingbird, imagining, really, where the characters and story would be decades later). She has also played with form, tense, and character–Lady in the Lake is almost Faulknerian in its use of point-of-view; I lost track of how many different point of view characters were in this book, and every last one of them rang completely true–and she has become, over the years, a true artist.

In my often-benighted first writing class in college (whose scars I still carry to this day),my incredibly pompous professor once berated one of the students for writing a story about a writer. “It’s the laziest form of writing, and character,” he proclaimed from his lectern at the front of the classroom, “and it tells you more about who the writer is more than the character ever will. If you ever start reading anything where the main character is a writer, you should run from it as fast as you can.”

I guess he wasn’t a fan of Philip Roth. (To be completely fair, neither am I. I’ve tried, but have never really got the magic there, but have always accepted that as my failing as a discerning reader rather than his.)

Stephen King often writes about writers; ‘Salem’s Lot has Ben Mears; The Shining has Jack Torrance (and the most deadly and horrifying case of writer’s block in literary history), It has Bill Denbrough, and on and on–but of course the most famous, and best, example would be Paul Sheldon in Misery. While I always have enjoyed King’s writing, and have gleaned things from his writer characters, Sheldon and Misery, for me, has always been the best. Sheldon was perhaps one of the most realistic and compelling writer characters I’ve ever read about–the man with aspirations to becoming a critically acclaimed literary writer, who yet makes a living by writing a bestselling romance series about a character named Misery Chastain whom he has come to hate and despise even as she makes him enough money to live well and focus on simply being a writer (the dream of all of us, really). He has killed her off finally in his most recent book, ending the series at last and finally taking the leap to write what he thinks will be the game changer for his career–until he has a horrific car accident and is rescued by Misery’s biggest fan.

The parallels between Misery and Dream Girl are there, of course, and easy to spot; Lippman’s character Gerry Andersen is an enormously successful literary writer (a la Updike or Roth) who is also kind of a dick in how he has treated the many women who have come through his life, and of course, his ego justifies all of his bad behavior until he, too, has an accident in his home that winds up with him trapped in a hospital bed in his secluded apartment (despite it being in Baltimore; the appeal of the place is its privacy and seclusion). But while Sheldon is being victimized by his sociopathic fan/caregiver in Misery, what is happening to Gerry is very different; he has his original fall that causes his injury because he receives a weird letter from someone claiming to be the real person whom he based the title character in his biggest success, Dream Girl, on, and she wants financial compensation. In his shock and surprise–people have always wondered, and have always asked him, if she was a real person and he has always said no–he falls down his stairs and busts up his leg. Once he is housebound, he has a night nurse AND his personal assistant there–rarely being ever alone in the apartment–but he starts getting strange phone calls from the woman claiming to be the real ‘dream girl’–but there’s never any record of the calls on his called ID, and the original letter disappeared as well. Is his medication playing tricks on his mind, or is there something more sinister at work in his cold, sterile, remote apartment?

As with so many other things, that writing professor was wrong about writing about writers. I’ve stayed away from it myself for most of my career–as I said, the scars are still very much there–but I have started dabbling into it a bit (my Amazon single, “Quiet Desperation,” is one attempt, and I may go even further; I’ve created a character who’s appeared as a minor character in some of my Scotty books who is a writer). The mystery here is quite compelling, and more than enough to keep me turning the pages to see what happens next. But I was also enjoying the insights into another writer’s life, albeit he was a fictional character; I find it incredibly easy to identify with characters who are writers because despite the fact that all writers have different methods and different careers and different mental processes, there are always those little nuggets of oh yes I know that feeling or I thought I was the only person who experienced this or ah yes this is exactly what it’s like.

Dream Girl is an excellent edition to the Lippman canon.

Clair

Well, I managed to get the round table thing finished yesterday afternoon, despite the best efforts of my computer to ensure I got nothing done yesterday.  I really don’t think I was the right fit for this conversation as I am neither a science fiction writer nor a buff; I am, at best, a casual fan of scifi more than anything else, and the questions were really in-depth and more than a little bit over my head. But I gave it my best shot, such as it was, and managed to get it done. I may have come across as a bit pessimistic about the future, but that’s kind of how I’m feeling these days–which makes me also very grateful to be my age and not younger.

I also wrote the first draft of “Moist Money,” which pleased me enormously (not the draft, just that I got it done). I went a few words over the three thousand word limit–but it’s also just a first draft, and it’ll tighten up some in the second draft. It’s a very dark, nasty, noir story that’s more than a little misogynistic (to be fair, my main character hates straight men as much as he hates straight women), but overall I am very pleased with it. It’s going to need some more work, obviously, but again, I am very pleased with getting it done. It seems like it’s been forever since I got a draft of anything finished, you know? And it’s been a while since I worked on Bury Me in Shadows (which I am planning on working on some today), so it’s not like I’ve been a writing machine lately, either.

I also started reading Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake, which already is fucking fantastic. She keeps raising the bar for all the rest of us, which is both intoxicating and intimidating. I read the first few chapters, then set it aside for a while. The writing and story-telling is so terrific it needs to be savored, rather than rushed through. One of the many things I admire about Lippman is she never writes the same book twice; each of her stand-alone novels is markedly different from the others. Sunburn was her exploration of noir; Wilde Lake was an homage to To Kill a Mockingbird with a modern twist to it; After I’m Gone was a complicated study of the women left behind when a slightly crooked man disappears; and so on. Her Tess Monaghan series (which I love love love) was also never formulaic, never predictable, and always a terrific, satisfying read. She even took chances with that series that most series writers won’t; Tess got pregnant in The Girl in the Green Raincoat, in order for Lippman to write her take on Rear Window; the most recent Tess novel, Hush Hush, was an exploration of motherhood and bad mothers. (I intend to read some more of Lady in the Lake this morning, after I finish this and write a little bit; I intend to spend the afternoon writing, and maybe even go to the gym at some point, as an early birthday present to myself.)

I had some serious computer issues yesterday, with the programs periodically “not responding” and the occasional screen freeze, which required force-restarting the computer or unplugging it. Eventually, the computer problems seemed to work themselves out somewhat; the computer still isn’t as fast as it used to be, and the programs do lock up from time to time, which is incredibly frustrating, as you can imagine. I guess I’m simply going to have to bite the bullet and get some on-line assistance from Apple techs, which I don’t think I should have to pay for, since the computer worked perfectly fine before the Mojave update.

Ah, well, such is life. I also need to get some Apple techs to deal with the Air on-line, but I did buy the Apple Care for it so it shouldn’t cost anything out of pocket.

Fuckers.

We also tore through the first three episodes of season two of Mindhunter last night on Netflix; it’s been so long (and my memory is basically worthless these days) I’d kind of forgotten what was going on with the show–but it didn’t take long to get back into the swing of the story and the plot. The show is simply exquisite; I think this season is even better than the first, frankly. Jonathon Groff, Anna Torv, and Holt McCallany are perfect in their roles, and they’ve recreated the time period perfectly. I can’t recommend Mindhunter enough; I can’t wait for Paul to get home tonight so we can dive back into it. I’ve said it before, and I will continue saying it; this is perhaps the platinum age of television; there are so many amazing shows it’s impossible to keep up with them all, and the Emmys are far more competitive, and interesting, than the Oscars.

There’s also a third season of Dear White People up on Netflix, as well.

It’s gloomy outside the windows this morning; I suspect this is going to be another rainy August day here in New Orleans, on my last day of being fifty-seven (although technically, it’s the last day of my fifty-eighth year) and I continue my steady crawl to sixty. Tomorrow of course is also the last day of this long weekend, and I do feel like it was necessary and needed. I feel a lot more relaxed and lot less stressed than I did Thursday when I came home from work–and this ‘mental health mini-vacation’ has certainly done the trick.

And on that note, I am heading back into the mines for spice. Have a lovely Monday, everyone.

18-copy-1024x683

Heaven

So, I survived my voyage out to Metairie. I like the new eye doctor–Dr. Moses at Target–and I am trying out progressive contact lenses. I never really got the sense from my previous eye doctor of how they worked–basically, it sounded like witchcraft–but Dr, Moses very patiently explained how they work in a way which was incredibly easy for me to understand–and it wasn’t that hard. Basically, the pupil expands to see far away and contracts to see up close; so the progressive contact lenses are for distance viewing with a small spot in the center for reading; the pupil will contract and see through that small spot for reading, etc. Was that really that hard to explain? But they are…odd. I have a tester pair, for me to try out and get used to; and they are definitely going to take some getting used to. I can see fine for working on the computer and pretty much everything else, but reading things on say, the television–I can read it but it’s blurry. I’m assuming this is part of the adjustment process; or if it’s not, I need to have the prescription altered. I also tried reading with them in–a couple of books–and I couldn’t. I doubt that is part of the adjustment process. Heavy sigh. But I’ll have to go back in  have my eyes looked at again, I suppose, if these issues aren’t part of the “getting used to them” process.

I was very tired yesterday; I didn’t sleep as well as I should have on Friday night, so I really knocked myself out last night and feel very rested this morning, which is great. I think part of the sleep issue I’ve been having has to do with both not working out in a couple of weeks in addition to drinking more caffeine–I’d cut back dramatically on both coffee and Coke–and so today I am off to the gym and I am going to try to not drink as much caffeine. I need to drink more water anyway.

I didn’t get as much writing done yesterday as I had wanted to; I hadn’t originally planned to even try–errands and so forth generally don’t put me in a very good hey let me write place; and I was right. Plus the contacts made it seem weird, if that makes any sense? I’m sure it doesn’t. So I tried to get chores done–I laundered the bed linens, cleaned the kitchen, etc. I also got caught up on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Riverdale; when Paul finally got home last night we got caught up on How to Get Away With Murder. I also did some serious thinking about the things I am working on–a recently rejected short story, for example, that I’ve been having trouble figuring out how to fix for years and it finally hit me last night; the Scotty book and where it’s going; the WIP and where it’s going; a couple of other short stories I am working on (Christ, I am working on a lot of shit, aren’t I).

So, this morning, after sleeping in for a bit, I am going to get some filing done, do some writing in my journal (to work around some thought about what I am writing now) and then I am going to go to the gym, come home and get cleaned up, and then I am going to write/edit for a few hours before it’s time for the ice dancing tonight on the Olympics (I already miss Adam Rippon).

And of course, I read some more stories for the Short Story Project.

First up was “Black-eyed Susan” by Laura Lippman, from Hardly Knew Her:

The Melville family had Preakness coming and going, as Dontay’s Granny M liked to say. From their rowhouse south of Pimlico, the loose assemblage of three generations–sometimes as many as twenty people in the three-bedroom house, never fewer than eight–squeezed every coin they could from the third Saturday in May, and they were always looking for new ways. Revenue streams, as Dontay had learned to call them in Pimlico Middle’s stock-picking club. Last year, for example, the Melvilles tried a barbecue stand, selling racegoers hamburgers and hot dogs, but the city health people had shut them down before noon. So they were going to try bottle water this year, maybe some sodas, although sly-like, because they could bust you for not paying sales tax, too. They had considered salted nuts, but that was more of a Camden Yards thing. People going to the track didn’t seem to want nuts as much, not even pistachios. Candy melted no matter how cool the day, and it was hard to be competitive on chips unless you went off-brand, and Baltimore was an Utz city.

Parking was the big moneymaker, anyway.

Every fall, Paul and I try to attend as many LSU games as we can at Tiger Stadium. It’s so much, frankly, to be in the stadium and being in a crowd of like-minded LSU fans, yelling and screaming and jumping up and down. The first two years we went to games we parked in an African-American church’s parking lot–they were so nice, and would give us cans of soda as well as letting us park there–because it was very easy to get out of there with post-game traffic. The church sold its property, alas–no idea why, but then we needed another place to park. About a block or two closer to the stadium we found a place–Miss Fay’s. Miss Fay is an older woman of color who owns a vacant corner lot next to her house and can fit about twenty cars in there for twenty dollars each; not a bad haul for a Saturday. She’s very friendly and nice, as are the rest of her family, and so we’ve been parking there for about seven years now–and they also keep watch over the cars. The walk is a little less than a mile to the stadium from there, and even on the hottest days (that Auburn game in 2015, Jesus!) it kind of gets you in the mood for the game to walk there, and after the game–we always stay to the end–the walk back allows the traffic to thin out a bit so it’s not so bad. I’ve always wondered about Miss Fay and her family; as well as the other families renting out parking spaces in the yards we walk past on our way to the stadium.

That’s what this Lippman story is about; it’s from the point of view of a teenager whose family rents out spots in their yard for parking during the Preakness, and the myriad other ways they try to think of to make bank from the race-goers. The young man works as basically what we called at the airport a skycap; helping people lug their full coolers and so forth to the track. On this particular day he helps a really pretty woman who looks like a black-eyed Susan; and the next day he also works to  help clean up the mess at the track. Her coolers are still there, and therein lies a tale. This story is filled with social commentary and it’s done in an incredibly easy way; it’s about the reality of being lower income and scrambling to find ways to make money; and of course, it takes a turn that has nothing to do with the young man who was only peripherally involved. I was worried he might get pulled into the investigation, but I was very pleased with how Lippman handled the story, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

I also read Lippman’s “Ropa Vieja”, from the same collection.

The best Cuban restaurant in Baltimore is in Greektown. It has not occurred to the city’s natives to ponder this, and if an out-of-towner dares to inquire, a shrug is the politest possible reply he or she can expect.

On the fourth day of August, one such native, Tess Monaghan, was a block away from this particular restaurant when she felt that first bead of sweat, the one she thought of as the scout, snaking a path between her breasts and past her sternum. Soon, others would follow, until her T-shirt was speckled with perspiration and the hair at her nape started to frizz. She wasn’t looking forward to this interview, but she was hoping it would last long enough for her Toyota’s air conditioner to get its charge back.

Lippman created the character of Tess Monaghan, an accidental private eye who works the mean streets of Baltimore, in her first novel, Baltimore Blues, and continued writing about her for years before branching out into her brilliant stand alones. The Tess novels are amongst my favorites in private eye fiction, and Lippman began winning awards and making short lists left and right from the very beginning. “Ropa Vieja” is a Tess story; and a good one. It’s been several years since the last Tess novel, Hush Hush, and despite that I slipped easily right back into the rhythm of her voice and her world without issue; it was remarkably easy, like putting on a comfortable old baseball glove or a pair of slippers. This is an interestingly twisted little tale, about a pitcher for the Orioles who got sick on the mound in a late season game; and it had to do with the traditional pre-meal dish of ropa vieja he’d eaten from the afore-mentioned restaurant. The owner hires Tess to somehow prove that it wasn’t the restaurant’s fault–and boy, does this story take some serious turns on its way to its ultimate denouement.

As I’ve mentioned before, Lippman is an extraordinary writer–she’s one of my favorites–and her effortlessly brilliant short stories always are surprising, clever, and smart. I am starting to get a better idea of just how one writes a private eye short story from reading hers; there may actually be a Chanse MacLeod short story brewing in my head–or at least, one featuring his partner that has to do with the recent shutdowns/raids of strip clubs in the Quarter. It would certainly be an interesting experiment to try.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Have a great Sunday, Constant Reader!

tumblr_ololkyEQSm1u3ef6to1_500