Bad to the Bone

The push for more diversity–amongst writers and subject matter–in publishing this last decade has not only been welcome, but is also long overdue. It hasn’t been smooth sailing by any means–there are those writers who feel threatened somehow by the push for diversity in publishing, and then try to push back, Publishing isn’t a zero sum game by any means; I seriously doubt the market for cisgender white narratives will ever go away. For many years, the heavy lifting for narratives outside that default has primarily been borne by small press, who did an excellent job despite the many obstacles presented by the realities of the book market. The larger, traditional New York publishers tend to suck all the oxygen out of the room, leaving precious little behind for the small presses–who nevertheless persisted.

And while I have never defaulted to the cisgender white male narrative with my reading, my default still remained lily-white for the most part. Sure, I was primarily reading books by and about women, but at the same time they were always white women. It was quite sobering to realize, upon a closer examination, how segregated my reading was. I have always believed there is no better educational tool than reading, even if you only read fiction. Fiction can be an excellent way of learning about attitudes and life, in general, for people that are different from you; and it was shocking how much I patted myself on the back for my “diverse” habits that was solely about reading primarily female authors. So I made a conscious choice for 2019 to focus my reading more on books by authors of color or queer authors; and it’s been an incredibly joyous and intellectually stimulating enterprise.

There was no reason for me not to have read Walter Mosley before other than subconscious racism, frankly. And I’ve read some truly extraordinary works by writers of color this year, including but not limited to Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek, Rachel Howzell Hall’s They All Fall Down, S. A. Cosby’s My Darket Prayer, Kellye Garrett, and so on.

I also hope that this year-long focus has integrated my TBR list, and it will now come more naturally for me to read writers of color or queer ones, without having to make it into a project.

I read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad several years ago, and while I am not big on magical realism by any means, I absolutely loved the book. It was incredibly powerful, highly imaginative, and beautifully written. He went on to win not only the Pulitzer but the National Book Award; I went to see him interviewed at a special event/signing and was again, terribly impressed with him. I started reading his zombie novel, Zone One, but got distracted by something else I was required to read–I think I had to moderate a panel or something, so I had to read the work of the panelists–and somehow never got back to it. I shall, obviously, correct that oversight. I also have a copy of John Henry Days, which I shall get to eventually.

I was also really excited to get a copy of his new novel, The Nickel Boys.

the nickel boys

Even in death the boys were trouble.

The secret graveyard lay on the north side of the Nickel campus, in a patchy area of wild grass between the old work barn and the school dump. The field had been a grazing pasture when the school operated a dairy, selling milk to local customers–one of the state of Florida’s schemes to relieve the taxpayer burden of the boys’ upkeep. The developers of the office park had earmarked the field for a lunch plaza, with four water features and a concrete bandstand for the occasional event. The discovery of the bodies was an expensive complication for the real estate company awaiting the all clear from the environmental study, and for the state’s attorney, which had recently closed an investigation into the abuse stories. Now they had to start a new inquiry, establish the identities of the deceased and the manner of death, and there was no telling when the whole damned place could be razed, cleared and neatly erased from history, which everyone agreed was long overdue.

All the boys knew about that rotten spot. It took a student from the University of South Florida to bring it to the rest of the world, decades after the first boy was tied up in a potato sack and dumped there. When asked how she spitted the graves, Jody said, “The dirt looked wrong.” The sunken earth, the scrabbly weeds. Jody and the rest of the archaeological students from the university had been excavating the school’s official cemetery for months. The state couldn’t dispose of the property until the remains were properly resettled, and the archaeology students needed field credits. With stakes and wire they divided the area into search grids, dugs with hand shovels and heavy equipment. After sifting the soil, bones and belt buckles and soda bottles lay scattered on their trays in an inscrutable exhibit.

The Nickel Boys is built around a true story; the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida; the discovery of the secret graveyard by archaeology students and the long history of abuse in the school came to light through some amazing investigative journalism done by the Tampa Bay Times. I read the reporting when first published; I took extensive notes and thought there’s a really good novel in here, filed it away for future reference, and then didn’t think about it again until last year, when I read Lori Roy’s brilliant The Disappearing, which was also inspired by the reporting on the Dozier School; Roy went in a different direction with her story, though, and it was easily one of my favorite novels of last year (if you haven’t read Lori Roy yet, get thee forth to the bookstore or library and get started immediately). When I first read about Whitehead’s new novel, I immediately recognized its inspiration, and having greatly enjoyed his previous book, I made a note to get this one when it was released.

It is quite exceptional, from beginning to end.

It is the story of one of the Nickel boys, Elwood Curtis, beginning with how he came to wind up there–a gross, horrifying injustice that can’t be corrected or fixed, given our broken justice system–and so a promising, bright young boy of color, with plans for college and a future, basically is thrown away by society and wasted (which begs the question: how many more times does this happen, every fucking day?), and then his survival at this brutal, horrific school; how the whites and blacks are segregated, even there, and the aftermath; what happens after he and a friend make a break for it and try to escape so they won’t be killed there.

The best literature is that which shakes your worldview, makes you think, makes you reassess everything that you thought you knew; makes you reevaluate things you believed. This novel is stark and brutal and heartbreakingly real; you root for Elwood to survive, to get past this–gradually you begin to feel that way for all the boys, and your heart breaks for all the potential that was lost in places like Nickel; the endless potential we as a society still throw away daily, because of racism and classism and bigotry.

This is a very powerful novel–one I’ll be thinking about for a long time. Highly recommended.

Don’t Get Me Wrong

Monday morning and I’m not fully awake yet this morning, which isn’t really a surprise; I had a feeling when I went to bed last night I’d not want to get up this morning. I was correct; I was awake when my alarm went off but the bed felt so lovely I simply wanted to stay there other than get up and get the day started. I have to work both of my long days this week, which is going to be a bit rough. But next week is Thanksgiving week already, and I have that entire week off, which is going to be absolutely lovely.

I got some very good background writing stuff done yesterday–the old “let me sit and think about this some more” mentality, and I think it worked; I am, at the very least, very pleased with the changes I came up with for the manuscript, and realized I need to go back to the beginning to input those changes rather than moving forward with it. While I’d much prefer to simply keep going forward, I need to go back and put those changes in, because they shift the tone a lot and plus, it’s excellent character backstory for my main character, who I’m starting to feel like I know a lot better. I know what I was trying to do with him–mostly make him somewhat unreliable–and in order to do that, I was keeping my distance from him; making the story told in a distant first person point of view. But I felt like this made my character distant and cold and unrelatable; there’s a way of doing this–which hit me smack dab between the eyes yesterday–where I can make him relatable and likable, even if he isn’t being completely honest with the reader.

And that, I think, makes the story work even better.

The Saints won yesterday at Tampa, putting the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth from last week’s inexplicable loss to the Falcons away. It was a good weekend for Louisiana football, what with LSU winning (if sloppily) Saturday and the Saints on Sunday. It’s looking like both teams will be in the play-offs, with a good shot at possibly running the table. It’s certainly going to be a memorable season for both, which is lovely for us fans. I did some more cleaning yesterday around the game, and finished reading The Ferguson Affair, about which I’ll probably be writing a more detailed blog entry about–knowing full well I still owe one for Richard Stark’s The Hunter.

When I mentioned I was reading The Ferguson Affair, a friend on Twitter tweeted at me, “the lovely thing about reading MacDonald is it doesn’t matter which one–as they are all the same” and I soon realized that while I was initially resistant to the statement, she was actually kind of right; and the tropes were all there in this book, which wasn’t a Lew Archer–but it might as well have been. The primary trope of MacDonald’s work–the wealthy, beautiful woman haunted by demons from her past and that of her family–was certainly front and center in this one; the main character was a lawyer in a small California coastal town called Buenavista whose wife is about to give birth any day now. I was, however, particularly interested in the book (as I read it) for two particular reasons–there was a tie to Hollywood in the story, and there was some interesting dynamics of race and class at play in Buenavista; which is why I want to give the book its own blog entry. But now that I have finished reading it, I can now move on to Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys, which I am really looking forward to. Whitehead has become one of my favorite writers–and that, of course, is entirely predicated on my reading Underground Railroad, which I absolutely loved. The Nickel Boys mines the same territory as Lori Roy’s superb The Disappearing–the boarding school for troubled boys in Florida, which is an idea I’m also terribly interested in (John Hart also wrote about the ‘reform school’ in Iron House), but with all of those heavyweight talents already covering the same material I don’t see much point in my doing so as well.

I also watched a Netflix series called Greatest Events of World War II in Colour, in which they’ve taken the actual black-and-white war footage from the second world war and colorized it. World War II fascinates and repels me at the same time for any number of reasons, but I never tire of watching or reading about it. I’ve been trying to find the old The World at War series that aired on PBS when I was a child, but can’t seem to find it anywhere. As I watched the first six episodes of ten (the war begins, the rescue at Dunkirk, the battle for Stalingrad, Pearl Harbor, Midway, and Normandy) I kept thinking about Herman Wouk’s epic novels about the war, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, wishing I had the time to give them a reread. I also remembered the absolutely brilliant Foyle’s War series, which I loved and should probably rewatch, and also was reminded of yet another book idea–one which would require several trips to Hawaii for research. I’ve not read a lot of World War II fiction–From Here to Eternity, The Naked and the Dead, etc.–but have always meant to get around to it. I suppose one of these days I actually will. I particularly want to read the unabridged version of From Here to Eternity, which apparently includes depictions and scenes of the underground military gay scene in Hawaii on the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack. Reading I the Jury by Mickey Spillane and, to a lesser degree, The Hunter by Richard Stark, has also reminded me of the period…and I do think that essay about toxic masculinity and PTSD and how that played out in the Spillane novel could still work.

If I only had the time to write the damned thing.

We also started watching Netflix’ Unbelievable last night, and what that poor young girl went through with the cops–and everyone basically in her life after she was raped–was horrifying, and I also got the sense that the way they depicted how someone is treated after they are raped–the necessary medical exams and tests, the constant having to repeat the story of your trauma, over and over again, to unsympathetic people who clearly don’t know if they believe you or not–was absolutely horrifying. I always knew rape was underreported and part of that was due to the dehumanizing experience of reporting…I had no idea, naturally, as a man just how horrible and horrific it is.

As we watched, Paul said, “It really is a wonder any woman reports, you know?”

And this also gave me thoughts about the Kansas book.

I also started a new journal this weekend. Huzzah!

And now back to the spice mines.

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Break Out

I am trying not to get too stressed out about the LSU-Alabama game today; it is what it is, after all, and my getting worked up or stressed out about it isn’t going to change anything about the game. I am constantly amazed at how worked up I can get over football games; it really accomplishes nothing and whether LSU wins or loses has no real impact on my day-to-day life; I try, from time to time, to understand why I get so emotionally invested in being a football fan; there’s perhaps a decent essay in there somewhere for my collection of essays that I hope to pull together someday. I know that the essay about my fandom of LSU–and Southeastern Conference football in general–will be called “It’s Saturday Night in Death Valley,” and I’ve already sketched out some ideas for it. The phenomenon of games in the stadium–that wild crowd psychology thing–is also fascinating to me; I still get chills when I fondly remember how amazingly fun the LSU-Florida game was a few weeks ago in Tiger Stadium.

I still get chills thinking about it.

But to be the best, you have to beat Alabama–which is the truth of college football since around 2008. You have to, even if you don’t like them, admire what Alabama has done under the guidance of Nick Saban in the last past twelve seasons. Their worst season was a three-loss season in 2010; I don’t think they’ve lost more than one game in a season since then; but I could be wrong. Only LSU and Ole Miss have beaten Alabama in consecutive years under Nick Saban; and after those two back-to-back wins, LSU has lost to Alabama eight straight times. Obviously, I am rooting for LSU to win, and will be disappointed should they lose; but there have been seasons before (last year, 2015, 2012) when it looked like we had a shot at taking them down only to lose.

I am being interviewed for a radio show later this morning; I am dropping Paul off for an appointment afterward and then going to pick up the mail. In the meantime I am going to try to get the kitchen cleaned up and maybe do some writing; at least get the files open. I love to write, but it’s also amazing to me how when I get out of the habit of doing it every day how easy it is to keep not writing, even though I enjoy writing and always feel an enormous sense of accomplishment and pride when I’ve finished writing for the day. I also want to finish reading The Ferguson Affair this weekend, which shouldn’t be too terribly difficult; Ross Macdonald is always a quick, easy read, and I am curious to see how this case–which is not an Archer–turns out. One of the reasons I enjoy reading Ross Macdonald is because he is such a terrific writer, one, and two, because the cases are always so intriguing and I am never really sure where they are going. They are also impressive time capsules for the period. After I finish the Macdonald, I think I’m going to give Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys  a whirl; it seems to be based on the same case/incident that Lory Roy’s brilliant The Disappearing was built around, and it’s also a case that has interested me enough to consider writing about it.

We’re almost finished with season two of Netflix’ It’s the End of the Fucking World, which is quite as interesting, strange, and thought-provoking as the first season. I had wondered how they were going to do a second season but I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined the insanity that this second season would fully embrace. I have to  hand it to the show. Very creative.

I can hardly wait for the next episode of Watchmen, either.

All right, I suppose I’d best get back to work this morning. I have limited time–since I have the interview this morning and then errands to run from there before the game–so I had best make use of the time wisely, rather than just sitting here and scrolling through social media.

Have a lovely Saturday, Constant Reader, and GEAUX TIGERS.

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Sweet Freedom

Ah, Monday, which this week is my short day. I didn’t (of course) get as much done this weekend as I would have liked; but the truth of the matter is I really need a day to run errands and do chores–which exhausts me–and then another day to just chill out and relax to get ready for the next week. But I am not beating myself up over not getting things done as planned any more; a to-do list is merely a list of things that have to be done at some point, without deadlines and/or pressure. (Well, actual deadlines do have to be followed, but you know what I mean.) I did spend the weekend getting caught up on things I watch (Animal Kingdom) and some movies I’ve always meant to watch (The Faculty, which was amazingly and gloriously ridiculous) and an absolutely brilliant documentary about Psycho (78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene) and how it changed everything and influenced everything that came after it. It also called to mind how Anthony Perkins deserved the Best Actor Oscar that year and wasn’t even nominated–one of the biggest crimes in Oscar history.

I also did some reading; I read some short stories, which was fun, and I also read more of  Lou Berney’s November Road, which I am trying to read slowly, so as to savor every word and every moment. It really is brilliant; I have to say this is a top notch year in the world of crime fiction, with terrific novels being released left and right–this year has also seen Laura Lippman’s Sunburn and Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, with Lori Roy’s exceptional The Disappearing and Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand being released this week, and so many amazing others I haven’t gotten to yet. My reading isn’t as public or as frequent this year as I would like, simply because I am judging an award yet again so am trying to focus on reading for that–hence the Short Story Project–and I worry that the great books are going to continue to stack up in my TBR pile, and thus defeat me in the process of ever catching up.

I really need to stop agreeing to judge prizes.

One of the stories I read yesterday was “Almost Missed It By A Hair” by Lisa Respers France, from Baltimore Noir, edited by Laura Lippman:

Had it not been his body in the huge box of fake hair, I like to think that Miles Henry would have been amused.

At least, the man I once knew would have seen the humor in it: a male stylist who made his fame as one of the top hair weavers in Baltimore discovered in a burial mound of fake hair at the Hair Dynasty, the East Coast;s biggest hair-styling convention of the year. It had all the elements that guaranteed a front page in the Sunpapers, maybe even a blurb in the “Truly Odd News” sections of the nationals. Television reports swarmed the scene, desperate for a sound bite from anyone even remotely connected to Miles. Yes, it all would have been sweet nirvana to Miles, publicity hound that he was. If he had lived to see it.

I knew him pretty well. I knew him when he was Henry Miles, the only half-black half-Asian guy in Howard Park, our West Baltimore neighborhood. His exotic looks ensured that he never wanted for female attention, although they also made him a target for the wannabe thugs who didn’t much cotton to a biracial pretty boy spouting hiphop lyrics. He was a few years older than I was, so our paths crossed only rarely. Besides, he was the neighborhood hottie and I was a shy chubby teenager with acne. The different in our social statures, as well as the difference in our ages, limited us to the socially acceptable dance of unequals. Meaning, I stared at him and he didn’t know I was alive. It was only when we were grown and found ourselves cosmetology competitors that we began to talk to each other.

This is a great story, and yet again further proof of how important the voices of diverse writers are. A murder that takes place at a convention for African-American hair and nail technicians? And frankly, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a short story as much as I enjoyed this one. I know nothing –or at least, very little– about African-American hair, although I know it’s a very fraught issue. But from the wonderful opening of the discovery of a dead man’s body in a box of fake hair all the way through the finish, the authorial voice is strong, and what makes it even stronger is how she deftly explains, in a non-info-dumpish way, about weaves and wigs and styles and hair sculpting and everything that goes into what women of color deal with when it comes to hair.

Brilliant, and brava.

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Addicted to Love

I solved an enormous problem with the WIP yesterday. As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, I diagnosed precisely what was wrong with it and why it wasn’t working on Sunday night; making the executive decision to start spending more time with the characters yesterday morning–I had a terrible sinus headache, went to the office, and wound up coming back home–and after I took a second Claritin (don’t tell anyone) and some antibiotics, I started brainstorming with the characters in my journal and suddenly everything made sense to me. I knew not only what was wrong with it, but also realized my own stubborn clinging to the original idea and form and style and voice that I’d envisioned was, yet again with yet another manuscript, the primary problem. Once I took what was, sadly, cliched about the manuscript out of it, changed some things, and came up with another concept for how to explore the chilling theme I’d originally wanted to explore–again, the only person tying me to that original concept was ME–then I was able to open up my mind to the possibilities. Why did it have to be late in the season? Why not the beginning of the season? Something happens during the summer that drives the narrative of the story, but by pushing it back to Halloween, I’d weakened the story. If the summer incident happens after school starts but before football season starts, and then the night of the first football game, having the second tragedy start makes the stakes higher and puts my main character into more of a difficult place. Plus, it gives me the chance to cut even more out and add even more in.

GOD I AM SO THRILLED CONSTANT READER YOU HAVE NO IDEA.

Now, if I were only to have such a breakthrough on the Scotty book, my month would be made.

Anything can happen, right, peeps?

But this is, quite frankly, an excellent example of two things: one, how reading a great writer can help you with your own work (in this case, Lori Roy’s The Disappearing) and how going back to your old habits–despite the risk of appearing like a Luddite–can bring back creativity. I know it’s lame, and old-school, and all that, but in the early days of my writing career I did everything by hand. Even with the advent of computers, when I started writing on screen rather than in a notebook, I always brainstormed on paper, and that always worked for me. Keeping a journal–and finding a new brand of pen I absolutely love–has made such an enormous difference, Constant Reader. I was sitting at my desk yesterday afternoon, the antibiotics racing through my body to clear up the sinus infection, making color-coded index cards about the characters and the plots, and it all just felt so good and organic; like I was really onto something with the manuscript.

I also realized (thank you, Lori Roy) precisely how the story needed to be told; the voice and point of view and tense was all wrong. So, sure enough, as I revised the first chapter to change the voice and so forth, it started working beautifully.

So, so happy.

And now,  back to the spice mines.

d j cotrona

 

Burning Heart

Sunday morning, and yet another good night’s sleep. It truly is amazing what a difference that can make in one’s life; I miss the days when I could simply tumble into bed and close my eyes and, as Paul once put it, “sleep through a nuclear holocaust.” Yesterday was a good day; I got groceries and did some cleaning. I read both “This Town” and “Don’t Look Down” aloud, did the necessary clean-ups on them, and this morning I am going to read “Fireflies” aloud and see if it, indeed, does hold together. I wrote the first draft of “Fireflies” something like thirty years ago (!) and it’s still in the file folder, handwritten (because until computers, I almost always hand-wrote everything); I am still not entirely certain the story works; but we will find out today when I read it out loud.

I was very pleased with the two stories I read aloud yesterday, and if I do say so myself, I feel “This Town” is one of the better stories I’ve written. I’m going to read “Fireflies” aloud this morning, and then I’m going to work on “This Thing of Darkness” for a little bit, see how that goes, and then maybe dive into one of the two novels I am working on (focusing on, really; there’s a third I started writing a couple of weeks ago, which I am itching to get back to, but that’s just crazy talk). I also started reading Alex Segura’s Blackout yesterday, not getting very far, alas; but I am looking forward to getting further into it. I also started reading Martin Edwards’ Edgar Award winning The Golden Age of Murder, which is my new ‘read a chapter or two before bed’ book. We also started watching Harlan Coben’s new Netflix series, Safe, and are really enjoying it thus far.

My kitchen is also a disaster area; I made ravioli last night and yes, well, a mess is a bit of an understatement.

I also stopped at Office Depot yesterday to purchase pens. I’ve discovered a new brand of pen that I absolutely love: Tul, with a dash over the u. They sent us a couple of them at the office a month or so ago, and I absconded with them, as is my wont, and then bought a couple more. Yesterday I bought several more packs of them. I’ve always been a bit of a pen nerd, and I also noticed last night, as I made notes in my journal, that my blank book is almost full; time to get a new one soon. Yay! I really am glad I’ve gone back to keeping a journal to write notes and ideas down into; I’ve worked out issues with several of my short stories this year in it, as well as the books.

I also managed to finish Lori Roy’s upcoming new release, The Disappearing, last night.

the disappearing

Lane Wallace is alone inside Rowland’s Tavern when the front door flies open. A man stumbles inside, bringing with him a spray of rain that throws a shine on the hickory-brown floors. He scans the dark rooms, stomps his feet, and draws both hands over his wet, round face. If the man says anything, Lane doesn’t hear him for the rain pounding the tin roof and the palm fronds slapping the front windows. It’s supposed to rain through the night, and all around Waddell, people will be keeping a close eye on the river.

Lane smiles because maybe the man is a friend of a friend and not a stranger. She’s expecting a big crowd tonight, and one of her regulars might have invited him. But he doesn’t smile back. Slipping her phone from her back pocket. she lays it on the bar top where the man will be sure to see it. It’s a subtle warning, but if the man is looking for trouble, it’ll make him reconsider.

He’s a little on the heavy side; doughy, a person might say. From behind the bar, Lane asks the main if a beer’ll do him, and as he slides into a booth near the front door, he nods. Hr regulars, men who’ve known her all her life, or rather who have known her father, won’t show up for another hour or so but Rowland Jansen will be back any time now. He ran out to move his car and Lane’s to the higher and drier ground of the parking lot out front, so she won’t be alone with the man for long.

This is Lori Roy’s fourth novel, and it’s quite an achievement. His first three novels–Bent Road, Until She Comes Home, and Let Me Die in His Footsteps–were all shortlisted for Edgar Awards; she won Best First for Bent Road and Best Novel for Let Me Die in His Footsteps, raising her up into the exalted, rarified air of the Multiple Edgar Winner Circle. I’ve only read Bent Road–I do own the others, will every intent to read them at some point; too many books, not enough time–and it blew me away with its stunning depiction of rural Kansas, its juggling of two separate time-lines, and its thematic exploration of how the pains and evils of the past can influence the present.

That same theme runs through this stunning new novel, The Disappearing, as well, and is explored even more deeply and explicitly than in the first. Waddell is a small town in north Florida, amorphously near Tallahassee; Roy’s captured the feel of rural small town Florida deftly (there is, as not many know, a huge and significant difference between the coastal cities of Florida and the insular, small towns of the state’s interior). She plays with the memories of Ted Bundy’s journey through the area; a young woman, a student at Florida State doing some internship work at a local, fading plantation is missing, which has stirred up all those fearful memories of Bundy’s spree. The plantation also shares a boundary with a closed reform school for boys, whose own violent and possibly deadly past has also come back to haunt Waddell.

But it’s also an exploration of family, and how the damage from a past history of deep violence and emotional abuse, locked away and ignored, can reverberate through the years and have deep, horrific implications on the present. Susannah Bauer’s disappearance triggers a chain reaction of emotion and violence and horror, spread over the course of a few days after the night of the heavy rain, that will continue to cycle through the future unless honestly and painfully dealt with in this present.

There are four point of view characters in The Disappearing: three women from generations of the same family–Erma, the matriarch of the Fielding family, with her guilts and secrets festering inside her for decades; Lane, her daughter, whose own emotional damage and baggage perpetuates the cycle; and Lane’s younger daughter, Talley, whose wanderings due to her own loneliness and unhappiness makes her the holder of most of the secrets and truths of the present. The fourth point of view character is Daryl, a mentally disabled young man who is the groundskeeper at the church, and his story is told in the recent past rather than the present, as Lori Roy deftly spins all the secrets and lies and horrors of the town of Waddell into an astonishingly well-blended tale of flawed people and the damage they can leave in their wake.

Even more impressive than the characters and the story itself is the mood and the voice; the way she maintains this almost dreamy tone, creating the perfect mood for the story is masterful. The voices of her characters are compelling and real; only Daryl tells his story in the first person; the others are a very tight third person present tense. The shifts in voice, the tone, the tense and the word choices and the imagery, kept reminding me of Faulkner’s brilliant The Sound and the Fury, and in a very good way.

The Disappearing is an extraordinary achievement, and is destined to make awards short-lists and all the Top Ten lists for 2018.

Party All The Time

Saturday morning. I need to read aloud some stories this morning–“Don’t Look Down,” “This Town,” and “Fireflies”–and I’d like to get some work done on either Scotty or the WIP this weekend. I need to clean this weekend; I got started lasted night, washing the bed linens and blankets, a pre-vacuuming downstairs, organizing books, putting away a load of dishes; I also spent a lot of time in my easy chair reading Lori Roy’s stunning new novel, The Disappearing, which is giving me all kinds of thoughts and things to think about. It’s really extraordinary; you should, by all means, preorder it.

I am also working on a much longer blog piece; about being a gay writer, “own voices,” “we need diverse books”, and various other hashtags and ‘movements’ that have occured over the years on social media. There was an instance lately where an encounter with an albeit well-meaning straight lady kind of took me aback; I wasn’t really sure how to react to what she said. Albeit was well-intended, it was still kind of a backhanded slap in the face.

I find myself thinking weirdly deep thoughts about being a gay writer these days; because no matter what I write and no matter what I do, no matter how hard I might try to run away from it, gay is so inextricably a part of me that I cannot wall it off; no matter what I think or do or write or say, that different point of view is always going to be there; it cannot be turned off. There was, back in the day, a lot of talk about a gay sensibility that queer writers brought to their work; I don’t know if that conversation is still being had. But then, this is all fodder for that other blog entry I want to write; I shouldn’t get that in-depth with it here.

I did finish reading William J. Mann’s Edgar Award-winning Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine and Madness at the Dawn of; Hollywood, last night. Bill is one of my oldest friends in publishing of any kind; we’ve known each other well over twenty years, I would say. I interviewed him years ago for his first publication, the novel The Men from The Boys, and again later with the release of his first Hollywood history/biography, Wisecracker,  a biography of William Haines, the first openly gay movie star; who chose to give up his career when Louis B. Mayer told him he needed to give up his partner and marry a woman. He then went on to have a long career as an interior decorator; he was a close friend of Joan Crawford’s, who said of his long-time partnership, “it’s the only happy marriage in Hollywood.” Tinseltown tells the story of the murder of the director William Desmond Taylor in 1920, and how the big-wigs in Hollywood not only tried to cover up important details of the murder for their own reasons, but how the murder affected the lives of three Hollywood women: major star Mabel Normand (immortalized by Stevie Nicks in song on one of her most recent albums); up-and-coming star Mary Miles Minter; and fringe actress wannabe Patricia Palmer. It’s a well-crafted, well-researched reconstruction of what happened nearly a hundred years ago: it’s also an interesting overview of how Hollywood became what it was; how the Hays Production Code was born as well as the big studio systems; and how hoydenish religious groups have always made a lot of noise and tried to force their point of view down the throats of the rest of the country. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and highly recommend it.

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I’ve always wanted to write a book or two set in old Hollywood; maybe not in the days of the silents, but perhaps one in the 1930’s and another in the 1950’s. The one about the 1950’s has more of a shape in my head; even a title (Chlorine), but there’s so much else I need to write.

But first I need to get my act together today and do all the things I need to get done today; I also need to probably come up with a schedule and list of goals. There are so many books I want to write, so many short stories I want to write, so many short stories I need to revise. There’s only so much time in every day.

And now, back to the spice mines.

PS So far, cutting the cable chord is going swimmingly. I couldn’t be more pleased.

How Will I Know

Well, somehow I managed to make it to Friday. This wasn’t a great week; sleep issues, mostly, but last night I finally slept well despite some truly strange dreams…which are fading away from me now. That’s fine, but they were seriously weird; I did wake up a few times during the night thinking okay, that was just weird. But as usual, now that I am awake and drinking my coffee, I don’t really remember any of them. I would have loved to stay in bed longer, but I have a meeting this morning at the office. It’s my short day, which is also incredibly lovely, and I am hoping to  have a nice relaxing weekend of catching up on things, including rest.

I managed to get “Fireflies” revised and ready for a read-aloud this weekend; that’s several stories I get to read aloud this weekend, including “Don’t Look Down” and “This Town”. Three stories to read aloud, even if “This Town” is just to check for extraneous words and trim it down a bit, if possible. I also started writing “This Thing of Darkness” yesterday, and it’s coming along swimmingly. I got about 1400 words or so done. I need to get back to the Scotty book this weekend as well; I am going to reread the entire thing before I get back to it, though. I also have to go to the post office as well as do that grocery store thing.

And of course, the apartment is a disaster area.

Heavy heaving sigh.

But I’m pretty jazzed about getting through this day and getting home to start the cleaning, and get to reading Lori Roy’s The Disappearing. She really is quite an extraordinary writer. If you aren’t reading her, you need to be. Seriously.

I am also going to discuss a short story today, which means we are back to the Short Story Project, and might even be able to get another one knocked out tomorrow.

Today’s is “e-Golem” by S. J. Rozan, from the September/October 2017 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine:

Bookstore dust was not the same as other dust. Loew had noticed this before, sweeping out the cluttered aisles of his used-book shop. It settled more gently, but at the same time seemed more weighty, each mote carrying both wisdom and whimsy, erudition and imagination. He shook his head. Loew, he told himself, this is why you’re doomed. WHy you’re barely eking out a living, selling forgotten things no one wants in a store you soon won’t be able to afford.

For most of his life, first working after school in his father’s shop in what was then the Jewish, later the Chinese, and lately the gentry’s Lower East Side, and on through the almost imperceptible transition when the shop became his, Loew had found pleasant this sense of gentle churning. Books no longer needed in one place lodged in the shop until they found a home in another, and customers came periodically to discover what treasures had rolled to the surface. This churning and discovering still went on, he understood, but less tenderly and on the Internet that soul-destroying virtual world where all was about price and little about love. People who bought rare books online did so speculatively, hoping their value would increase. How different from Loew’s customers, who held a book, fingered its pages, inspected its cover, to decide whether this book, this copy, was meant to be theirs. A customer who turned a book down was never a disappointment to Loew. It meant the two didn’t belong together. The customer would find his book, and the book would find its owner. Until it did it had a home here on Loew’s shelves.

S. J. Rozan is one of my favorite crime writers, bar none. This story, which is both clever and slightly sly at the same time, is an example of her work at its best. Loew discovers an old book of mysticism in his store, and half-heartedly tries to create a golem to go after his biggest enemy–Amazon. What happens next is why Rozan is one of the greats of our time in crime fiction; clever twists and turns that one never sees coming. But what really struck me the most about this story is how good she is at voice. Never once does she hit a false note in this story; every word is perfect and fits with the character’s voice. Were I ever to teach a class in crime writing, I’d use this story as an example of how to do voice perfectly.

And now back to the spice mines.

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That’s What Friends Are For

So, yeah, yesterday. I get nearly as much done yesterday as I’d intended, despite my plans in the morning. I wound up getting sidetracked (the whole #cockygate thing was fascinating), I also started reading Lori Roy’s The Disappearing (not far into it, but already it’s fantastic–quelle surprise), and I also had dinner with a friend from high school whom I’d not seen in (gulp) forty years.

I don’t really mind, though. Beating myself up over not getting as much done as I wanted is kind of a waste of time. It’s not like it’s an outcome I can change, after all.

And why worry about things you can’t change?

It was fun seeing someone from high school again; a lot more fun than I thought it would be. The other day  I talked about how my life, or my memoir, would be divided up into decades, because it seemed like, in looking back, every new decade of my life almost coincided with a calendar decade and always signified change of some sort. I left Kansas in early 1981 for California, and I never returned. I’ve written about Kansas–not as much as I’ve written about New Orleans, of course; I’ve never written about anywhere as much as I’ve written about Kansas–and sometimes I think I should go back; but when I write about Kansas I make up the towns and the counties and the rural areas I write about, so I can write from my memory so if my memory turns out to be faulty, well, I made up the town. My fictional places are based on real places, but they are fictional.

The WIP, which I can never seem to find the time to get back to, is actually set in fictional Kansas. It’s been kicking around in my head for at least fifteen years, and the story has changed repeatedly over the years. I think I’ve got the right story now, and I really need to finish the Scotty so I can get back to it and finish the final, first person revision, which I think is the right way to go with this.

Anyway.

I don’t dwell on the past very often; but one of the nice things about seeing someone from high school is it kind of forces me to look back over the years. I mean, sometimes I do think about things, but it’s not something I spend a lot of time dwelling on; the past can’t be changed. But you can look back with a different perspective; with the wisdom that comes with the passing of time–or at least, a different perspective. I was desperately unhappy when I was younger; I also now know that my difficulty in focusing and inability to not have my mind wander would now warrant ADD medication. I spent a very long time of my life being unhappy; feeling like the life I wanted to live was something I would never be able to live. And yet I can honestly say I wouldn’t change any of the experiences I had, no matter how unhappy they may have made me at the time–because all of that made me the person that I am now, and I’m kind of happy with who I am now, and the life I have now. Sure, it would be terrific to have more success and more money; but I also think that would always be the case no matter how much success and how much money I might have.

It’s a weird world, it’s a weird life.

I’ve always been weird.  I never fit in anywhere. I didn’t fit in at either high school, I didn’t fit in at college or in my fraternity. I used to think my not fitting in was because of the gay thing; but then, like I said, I never really fit in with other gay men, either. I’m not sure what that’s about; maybe there’s some kind of social anxiety issue I have that hasn’t ever been diagnosed. But I am always uncomfortable at parties or in large gatherings, particularly when I walk into one alone and there’s no one there that I know; I’ve always envied gregarious, outgoing people who can walk up to total strangers and start a conversation. I am horrible at small talk; and live in deathly fear of saying something completely inappropriate to someone I’ve just met and giving offense; God knows someone I’ve only just met has certainly said offensive things to me before.

Ah, life.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

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Sentimental Street

It’s Saturday morning! Lots to do today; Chapter Fifteen, read “My Brother’s Keeper” aloud, work on “Don’t Look Down,” revise “Burning Crosses,”–the list goes on and on. It’s supposed to rain today as well; not sure if that’s going to actually be a thing today, but it does look sort of gloomy-esque outside my windows this morning.

And the Apartment is, of course, a complete and total mess.

I was thinking last night, as I started reading Megan Abbott’s extraordinary Give Me Your Hand, about my own writing (reading amazing writers always makes me contemplative) and putting into some perspective. Megan is one of our best writers, and the crime genre is very lucky to have her writing within our boundaries. Reading her work is always very humbling for me, whether it’s a novel or one of her jewels of a short story (hello, publishers! A Megan Abbott short story collection is way overdue! Get! On! It!), as I find myself wondering how does she think of putting these words together? Her sentences are never overly complicated and yet she manages to put them together in such a way as to create a very vivid and complex image, not to mention how she uses her sentence structure to create these characters that are so nuanced and real and complicated…she really is a master of the written word. I will dive back into her novel today, when I am finished with all of the things I must, I have to, do today; it’s always lovely when there’s a wonderful reward waiting for you at the end of tedious writing and editing and cleaning. (I also have ARC’s of Lori Roy’s The Disappearing and Alex Segura’s Blackout; I cannot wait to dive into those as well.)

And while I should be thinking, of course, about where the Scotty novel needs to go in Chapter Fifteen and going forward from there, I was thinking last night about short stories. I always abhorred writing short stories before, thought them incredibly difficult to write, and a discipline of writing that I was not particularly good at (I am also horrible at writing horror fiction, for example). I always believed that whenever I was actually successful at writing a short story, it was purely by accident; not anything conscious that I managed because I wasn’t good at the form. But in writing these reams of short stories this year, I am finding that not to be true; I am having to revise my thinking about so many things I once believed true about me as a writer. Yes, a short story might fail; everyone makes false starts. The Archer Files, with its final section of short story fragments that Ross Macdonald had started yet never finished, taught me that. My own files are filled with fragments of short stories that I began yet never finished; first drafts of stories I never finished because I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t convinced, that I knew how to fix and repair, how to edit and revise to make right. But that doesn’t mean I am a failure at writing short stories. It simply means those stories are ready to be finished; that Ifor whatever reason, am simply not ready to finish them. And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course.

This is, and has always been, just another way my lack of self-confidence in my ability to write manifests itself.

I started writing another story last night, currently untitled; I’m not sure what its title will be but I do have a vague idea of what it’s about. There’s a great little place to eat in my neighborhood, in the same block as my gym, called simply Tacos and Beer; I am meeting someone in town for an early dinner there on Sunday. That, of course, got me thinking about that great simple name for the place, and what a wonderful opening that would make for a story; someone going there to meet someone for dinner and choosing that place because it’s simple, straightforward name pleases them so much. The story is still amorphous, of course. But perhaps I’ll be able to work on it today. I’m also thinking I might even get to work on Muscles  a little bit today.

Who knows? The day is fraught with possibilities still. I may wind up being lazy and not doing a fucking thing.

Here’s the raw opening of “Burning Crosses”:

“Population four thousand four hundred and thirty two,” Leon said as they passed the Welcome to Corinth sign. There were a couple of bullet holes in it, as there had been in every official green sign they’d passed since crossing into Corinth County. “I guess it’s not hard to imagine lynching here.”

“I can come back with someone else,” Chelsea Thorne replied. Her head ached. She needed coffee. Her Starbucks to go cup was long empty. “Can you check on your phone and see if there’s a Starbucks in town?”

Leon laughed. “I don’t have to look to know the answer is no,” he shook his head. “There’s not even five thousand people in this town, girl. There ain’t no Starbucks. I’ll bet there’s a McDonalds, though.”

“It’ll have to do.” The throbbing behind her temple was getting worse. It didn’t help they’d gotten lost trying to find this little town, the county seat of a county she’d never heard of, let alone knew where to find. It wasn’t even near a highway. They’d had to take a state highway out of Tuscaloosa and drive about an hour or so, depending on the roads and depending on traffic. It took longer to get out of Tuscaloosa than they’d planned, thanks to some road work and then another delay because of Alabama Power cutting down some tree limbs, but they’d finally gotten out of town when she was halfway through her latte. Leon had dozed off, snoring slightly with his head against the window as they got out of town on the state road, passing through fields of cotton and corn and orange-red dirt. The state road was stained orange on the edges, the white lines looking like her fingertips after eating a bag of Cheese Puffs. It was supposed to be an easy drive; she didn’t need to make any turns, just keep following the state road that would take them straight to Corinth. But a bridge over a stream was being worked on and there was a detour, taking them down an unpaved road with cotton fields on either side, barely room for her Cooper Mini, and God help them if they met a truck or something coming the other way. Ten minutes down that dirt road and her latte was gone, finished, nothing left. Then she’d turned the wrong way when she’d reached the other state road—but it wasn’t her fault. She’d thought the sign was wrong—how could a right turn take her back to Tuscaloosa? But then she’d figured there must have been more twists and turns on the back road than she’d thought, and turned left. She’d gone almost seven miles before she say the TUSCALOOSA 7 miles sign, and had to make a U-turn in someone’s driveway.

She knew it was wrong, she knew it was stereotyping, but she hated driving on country roads in rural parts of the South.

You can see how rough the story is in its initial stage; it definitely needs work. There are also things missing from it in this draft; things I need to add in to make it stronger, to add nuance, to make the sense of dread and discomfort the characters feel more clear; I want the reader to feel that same sense of unease.

And I do think writing all these short stories this year has been enormously helpful to me, not only as a short story writer but as a writer in general; short stories give you the opportunity to stretch and try things you can’t try in a novel; different themes and voices and styles.

And now back to the spice mines.

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