My October Symphony

At this point in the summer, the cool warmth of October seems a distant futuristic dream. It’s always that way in August, and I no longer have Southern Decadence to look forward to; and haven’t in years. There’s no Decadence this year, of course, thanks to the pandemic, but I have also not participated in the madness of wild partying over the course of that weekend in over a decade. My participation has been primarily limited to passing out condoms on Friday night before escaping to the deep cool of my air conditioned home for the rest of the long weekend.

But my, did I used to have a great time during Southern Decadence! (See: Bourbon Street Blues.)

We started watching Babylon Berlin last night, at long last, and are already quite mesmerized. It’s a fascinating period–pre-Nazi/post first war Berlin was quite decadent, if you believe freedom from repression of all kinds is decadent. I’ve read very little about this period, although I have read Isherwood and of course I’ve seen Cabaret about a million times, but other than as a prologue to the rise of Hitler and Nazism in histories of the second World War, I’ve not really read a lot about that period of Germany’s past; certainly not anything that goes to any great depth. I also have a copy of the book somewhere; I’ve always meant to get to it as well as other books set in Europe during the same period. I don’t read nearly as much historical fiction anymore as I used to, or as much as I would like; I’m not really sure why that is. I love to read, I love to write, and I love history, so one would think art forms that combine those things would be something I would be all over, and yet–I’ve written precisely two short stories set in the past, and not even that distant. “The Weight of a Feather” is set in the 1950’s during the gay purge of the government, and of course, “The Affair of the Purloined Rentboy” (which might be my favorite title of anything I’ve ever written), is set in 1915 or thereabouts; a nebulous period of time during which the Great War was raging in Europe but the United States had yet to get involved. I have some things in progress that are historicals, or period pieces, or whatever may have you; the one I am really itching to sink my teeth into is a story set in Black Death era Rome, “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap.” But I really need to be focusing as much creative energy on Bury Me in Shadows as I can right now, and so everything else isn’t going to get any real attention for the next few weeks or so. My plan is to, of course, do my day job to the best of my abilities, try to keep treading water as far as emails and everything else is concerned, and focus as much as possible on the manuscript. It’s in decent shape but very rough; the skeleton is there, but there are bones that need to be removed and replaced, others that simply need to be reset, and I also somehow have to manage a soul-transplant; replacing the one I originally created for the book with a completely new one–and these are all tricky things to manage that will require focus and energy.

And of course, one of the best things for stoking my creativity is to read really good writing, and I have Blacktop Wasteland to not only read and savor, but take inspiration from as well.

Then again, you never know.

We also finished I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was really quite lovely; I’m not certain that I want to read the book now, but I might. I’m not a huge reader of true crime–which doesn’t, when you think about it, make a lot of sense–and there’s so much else for me to read that I am behind on–oy, the ever-growing TBR pile in my house is as out of control as kudzu in rural Alabama–but I know I really need to start reading more of it. I think one of the main reasons I avoid it is fear that I’ll want to adapt it into fiction–just as Ethan Brown’s Murder in the Bayou sort of inspired what might eventually become another Chanse novel–and I’m not really all that interested in serial killers or rapists, if I’m going to be completely honest. I’ve toyed with the idea for a serial killer novel for quite some time now–and it has occurred to me that setting it in the past, when people weren’t quite as aware of them as we are now and before the creation of profilers (although I wanted to include a profiler who was wrong about everything in this one) might be a better way to go with it–but I’m not really sure I am the right person to write such a book.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines.

The Former Enfant Terrible

I don’t know that I would consider myself a former enfant terrible; I’m not entirely sure I am not currently one, given the actual definition of the term. In French it means unruly child, and I don’t know that I was one of those or not, but the current Webster definition (that of a person whose unconventional or controversial behavior or ideas shock, embarrass, or annoy others)–that I can actually see. I’m certainly annoying; I can be embarrassing; and I am pretty sure I’ve said or done things other people might consider, or see, as shocking. I mean, just being gay shocks some people.

If I could choose which of those three verbs I would pick, if I could only be one: most definitely, without question, annoying.

I am sure there are many who would agree that I have already succeeded on that score. (shrugs) It happens.

Well, we’ve made it to Wednesday somehow, and that’s an accomplishment of which we can be terribly proud. Making it through any day these days is an accomplishment, really; I know that everyone else is as sick of the phrase the new normal as I am (it certainly begs the question of what is normal); and I’m not certain this is a ‘new normal’ anyway; the real new normal is what comes after all of this, and that’s the part I’m kind of worried about, to be honest. What will the new world, arising from the ashes of the COVID-19 pandemic like the phoenix of lore, look like? We had already established that there is a certain percentage of the population who aren’t civic-minded, don’t care about anyone outside of their immediate circle of selfishness, and believe that if they’re unhappy no one else should be; appallingly awful as they are, at least they’re setting example for everyone else of who not to be–although others–a much smaller amount, to be sure–see their wretched behavior and jump on the bandwagon of selfishness and hatred. We’ve always had those people in this country; they were Tories during the revolution; pro-slavery; America First while the Nazis ravaged Europe and began slaughtering undesirables; and so forth.

We started watching David Simon’s new HBO mini-series, The Plot Against America, based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth. I’m not going to argue the merits of Philip Roth as a writer; he won every conceivable writing award during his lengthy career, and whenever I’ve dabbled into his canon, I’ve not really come away terribly impressed. At the direction of my friend Laura, I read When She Was Good, and I had read another one of his earlier novels already, Letting Go; I wasn’t really impressed terribly by either–I’ve never really understood, or gotten, novels about the sexual messes straight people get themselves into because of their warped sense of everything about themselves, let alone the American puritan ethic about sex and sexuality; I tried reading The Plot Against America because it was a topic that interested me: what if Nazi sympathizer and anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh had been elected president in 1940, rather than Roosevelt winning his unprecedented third term? I gave up about a chapter into it–as I often say about literary novels (looking at you, Jonathan Franzen), why would I read a novel about characters the author clearly doesn’t like? I”m not interested in people debating me about the genius of Philip Roth; I don’t get it, and that’s fine. I’ll give him another try–probably after I finish watching this show, I’ll probably give The Plot Against America another try, It came out around the same time I read Sinclair Lewis’ disturbing, if flawed, It Can’t Happen Here, which was chilling in its depiction of how easily Fascism could rise, and become perfectly acceptable, in this country (I sometimes wonder what Lewis, a brilliant social critic and writer, would think of these modern times in which we find ourselves), which is something I’ve chewed over a few times myself, and have considered writing about at some point. I saw the possibilities of where we are right now back in the 1980’s, during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, as people died and no one cared because it was “the right people” who were doing the dying. That was what first inspired my alternate American history novel idea–one that still is bubbling in the back of my mind, the rise of the American dystopia, and the concurrent horrors that would come in its wake.

I do think that the times in which we currently live will be referred to by future historians as “the Oligarchy” or “the Oligarch Age,” as opposed to the truly falsely named “Gilded Age,” when workers were as disposable as animals and the capitalistic monsters rose to wealth and power in ways unforeseeable to the original founders.

I’m still reading Mysterious Skin (or rather, rereading it) and I’m very interested to find that I don’t remember as much of it as I had originally thought. It brings back to me a lot of memories of Kansas, and while I was never a child there, I can imagine what it would have been like. There’s a dark sensibility to this story, and the writing, that I’m really enjoying; I’ve always believed Scott Heim could write amazing noir stories, and kind of wish he would. I just haven’t been able to focus as clearly on reading as I would like lately; primarily because I’ve been writing again, and apparently, I can either focus on writing or focus on reading, but not both at the same time. It’s a very vivid depiction of being an outsider as a child–for both of its main male characters–and that is certainly something I can relate to, even now; although I never truly felt like an outsider until we moved to suburbia. After that, I spent the next twenty-three years feeling like I didn’t belong, in either my world or any world, for that matter. Heim really gets that across, and far better than I did in Sara.

The weather outside is frightful. Last night as we watched another episode of The Plot Against America, a massive thunderstorm rolled in, and it continued to rain throughout the night–and even this morning, this storm system (or another one, who knows? Not a meteorologist) is still raging outside my windows. Right now the rain has stopped, but when I first woke up it was coming down pretty intensely. It appears that is our forecast for the rest of the day as well, so it’s good, gloomy day for working from home. Ah, there was another blast of lightning, and thunder immediately behind. Yikes! Glad I am not going out there into that mess, quite frankly.

And of all things–because of course I don’t have enough works in progress–I started writing some new short stories last night–“In the Shadow of a Tomb,” “Procession of the Penitent,” “Dimestore Cowboy,” “The Plague Doctor” and “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap”–mostly openings and an idea of the story, and who knows whether anything will ever come out of any of them, really, but it’s nice to be productive again, even if it’s scattered and all over the place. But I am going to try to spend this weekend sending stories out for submission again; it’s a really nice feeling to have stories out in the world, even if they don’t get taken.

And on that note, back to work. Have a lovely Wednesday, Constant Reader!

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Confidential

Here we are, Sunday, and I don’t feel nearly as tired as I did yesterday. Friday and Saturday were days of exhaustion, really; nothing quite makes me feel so old as having to spend most of Saturday on my fainting couch (easy chair) because I have so little energy I can’t really get much of anything done. Oh, I got the laundry finished, and I did a load of dishes, but other than that….yeah, most of the time was spent in the easy chair. We watched Parasite last night on Hulu (it’s streaming free there) and was quite impressed and moved by it; it definitely was not like anything I’ve ever seen before, and that’s saying something, given how most films are merely rehashes of other films, as evidenced by Extraction, the Netflix original film we watched directly after, starring Chris Hemsworth as a mercenary hired to kidnap back an Indian drug lord’s son from the enemy Indian drug lord who’d kidnapped him. That was essentially the plot, and the movie was mostly explosions, guns being fired, and physical fighting scenes (at one point, it occurred to me that I could open a Scotty book with Scotty, Frank and Taylor watching a similar type film, and Taylor idly saying, “This is what Colin does, isn’t it?”–which opens up a huge can of worms.); entertaining mildly, but not a satisfying film-watching experience. It was apparently based on a graphic novel…but let’s just say it was no Watchmen, and leave it at that.

I didn’t write much of anything yesterday because I was so tired, and I tried to read, but my brain couldn’t handle continuing to read a novel, and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin deserves better focus from its readers, so I moved on to some short stories. I read W. Somerset Maugham’s “The Letter” (more on that in its own entry) and started reading his “Rain” before my mind derailed again and I had to set the iPad down. I also reread some of my own short stories, that are in some sort of progress–remember how I said the other day that I had nineteen in some stage of completion? There’s actually more than that, if I am being completely honest with myself (which I also knew) and some of the ones I didn’t count–“The Trouble with Autofill,” “Night Follows Night,” “The Enchantress,” “Moves in the Field”, “A Holler Full of Kudzu,” “Once a Tiger,” “Please Die Soon”, “Burning Crosses”–are actually closer to completion than I originally thought; some of them are actually better than I remembered; and letting them sit for so long…rereading them now I was able to see for myself what else the stories needed; the necessary tweaks to get them done and ready to go.

Sometimes you need distance.

Today I have to revise the Sherlock story again, as well as the one I am submitting to a blind-read anthology. They’ve both sat, like the others, for quite some time (at least a week) since I last looked them over, and so I am hopeful that, just as yesterday, rereading the two stories today will help me see what they are missing, so I can get them in order to send them out. April is nearly over, and I need to get these finished, as well as get back to work on the Secret Project; the sooner that is finished the better, quite frankly, and I need to get these things finished and out of my hair; or at least not have them hanging over my head anymore.

Surprisingly, I’m feeling better these days about myself as a writer. I’m not sure what that’s all about, to be honest, but it’s kind of nice. The problem is finding the time and energy to devote and commit to it. Working a basic 9-5 schedule these days is highly unusual and taking more than a little while for me to get used to, if I am being completely honest, and I think the early rising every morning is what is making me so worn out by the end of the week–and sometimes it feels like i need an extra day to recover sometimes. But it is what it is, you know, and the sooner I get adapted to this new reality the better off I’ll be. It isn’t easy, after a lifetime of mostly never working 9-5, to get used to working 9-5. (Cue Dolly Parton’s classic, should have won an Oscar, song.)

I’m behind on everything, I might as well add, not just my writing and not just my reading. My email inbox is overflowing with matters needing my attention; I simply haven’t had the energy or strength over the last two days to even face them, and that must needs be remedied today (I always answer emails as drafts over the weekend, preparatory to send them all on Monday mornings; my first rule of emails is never answer on the weekends because emails beget emails). I knocked off the box of index cards I use as an address book (it’s very twentieth century, and I really need to move everything from it to the spreadsheet address book I created years ago) and those need to be sorted and put away somewhere safe that I won’t knock them over again. I need to do the floors, both kitchen and living room. The sink is again full of dishes. I need to clean stuff out of the refrigerator that is no longer edible–the noodles from over a week ago; the Swedish meatballs from last weekend–and I also need to figure out how to stretch my upcoming paycheck to last another two weeks.

And I have to write today. I want to spend some time with my new story “The Flagellants,” and at least get the ideas about the opening in there and written down. I want to write some more on “Festival of the Redeemer” and “Never Kiss a Stranger.” I want to read some more, since I clearly can focus this morning; I think after I finish writing this and my entry about Maugham’s “The Letter” I may go ahead and do some stretching and then get cleaned up; that always seems to help with motivation and energy. I think this week I have to do some ZOOM things for promotion; I’ll need to check the calendar so I don’t miss out–which has tragically happened before, and will undoubtedly happen again. I suppose there are worse things….it’s really a wonder I have any career at all, quite frankly.

And yet, here I am, some thirty or so novels and some fifty or so short stories into it. Plugging along like some blunderer who doesn’t know what he’s doing so he happily keeps going, writing books and selling stories and getting more publication credits as he goes with little or no direction. I used to  have a plan; I used to make plans–and then everything got so completely derailed during the Time of Troubles that I no longer look ahead, think ahead, plan ahead–what’s that saying? Man plans and the gods laugh?

The Laughter of the Gods would make a great title for my memoirs, should I ever write them. It’s actually a pretty great title, and I should make use of it. *makes note*

I also, of all things, have an idea for a period mystery short story, set in the Roman Jubilee of 1350–that Barbara Tuchman providing me with more ideas all the time. I’d had an idea about writing a crime series set in the fourteenth century and in Italy, following the last years of life of English soldier for hire Sir John Hawkwood, who retired to Italy and died in Florence–but I don’t think he was there in 1350, when someone attempted to murder the Papal Legate and he got an arrow through his cap–this made me think of a story called “The Arrow in the Cardinal’s Cap”, in which the Papal Legate hires Hawkwood to find out who committed this borderline sacrilegious assault on, basically, the Papacy. There is but scant mention in Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror of the incident, and so more research would clearly be needed–I’m not even sure Hawkwood was in Italy at the time, but of course I could fictionalize the character as well, if need be–but I like the idea of writing a period story. I’ve only done a few of those, and while they may be historicals now, they were set during a period I was actually alive and lived through; “The Weight of a Feather” is probably the first and only story I’ve published set during a time I hadn’t been born yet.

So…maybe a trial balloon with a historical story? Why not? I do love history.

And on that note, I’d better head back into the spice mines.


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