More years ago than I care to remember, I returned to Palm Springs for the first time in years for a Bold Strokes authors weekend event. It was a lot of fun–I always enjoy visiting Palm Springs–and this time I rented a condo on Flipkey (this was before Air B-n-B became a thing), which was a short walk from Las Casitas, a women’s only resort place that hosting the event. It was a great trip. We made side trips to Joshua Tree National Monument (it was cold), I had my first In-n-Out Burger, and we also took an early morning expedition to Bombay Beach, a failed resort village on the shores of the Salton Sea. People still lived there, but most of the place was derelict and looked bombed-out, post-apocalyptic.
The place fascinated me, and in the years since I’ve occasionally, idly, when in between books and other research…looked it up on line to do vague informational research with an eye to eventually writing about it. It still fascinates me…sometimes stuff will come across a social media feed, or I don’t know, some reading material will be suggested to me by the algorithms. That whole area of California really is interesting to me–more so than Los Angeles or the other more, better known, better documented parts of the state–which is also why I enjoyed reading Ivy Pochoda’s Imperial Valley so much.
So when I heard about this short story collection–and the Salton Sea was mentioned, I thought, hey let me take a look at this.
Three hours out of the hospital, his left foot too swollen for a shoe, Shane’s car breaks down. It’s July, a trillion degrees outside, Interstate 10 a gray ribbon of shit unspooling east out of Palm Springs toward Arizona. Not exactly where he wanted to go, but who the fuck wants to go to Arizona? It’s what was on the other side of Arizona that mattered to Shane, the chance that there might be another life in that direction. He never liked being on the coast. The one time he ever tried to swim in the Pacific–during a vacation with his dad, so, over twenty years ago, half his lifetime now–he was gripped with the ungodly realization that unlike a pool, there were no sides. You were always in the deep end.
It was a feeling that stuck with him, even when he was in one of those towns in the San Fernando Valley that sounded like an escape route from an old Western: North Hills…West Hills…Hidden Hills…
The Honda was the one damn thing Shane thought he could depend on. But as soon as he pulled out of the parking lot at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, the check-engine light flashed on. A hundred thousand miles he’d put on that fucking car and not a single problem and the one time he really needed it, it was telling him to fuck off. He didn’t have the time–or the money–to swing by the mechanic considering he’d left the hospital before the nurse had filled out the paperwork for the cops, which was a problem. Not as big a problem as staying would have been. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would have the cops trawling the city for him, especially since the wound did look self-inflicted, since it was…someone else holding his fucking hand while he shot himself with his own damn gun.
And so begins the first story in the collection, “The Royal Californian,” and what a ride this story is!
This story reminded me of a story I read in college, in a writing class, by Barry Hannah–all nerves scratched raw and in-your-face. The voice is incredible, and the noir sensibility–really, what could be more noir than the desert of southeastern California?–is right there. We don’t really learn a whole lot about Shane, but just enough to understand who he is, why he behaves the way he does, and that weird sense of desperation that drives him. This low-end, low-rent motel he finds himself in, the Royal Californian, kept reminding of the Eagles’ classic hit, “Hotel California”–this was a place you check in, but you never leave. Everyone he encounters at this place–from the two-bit lawyer, the knowing bartender who’s seen too much and doesn’t care, and the mysterious clown at the motel bar–is kind of a lowlife, kind of a desperate character, and out for themselves. No one can be trusted at this hellish motel– least of all Shane. As the story unfolds we learn why he was on the road on his way out of California, and a little of his backstory…and while you kind of want him to get his shit together, everything he does indicates that he is not going to.
And there’s also a truly marvelous twist at the end, that gives this story that extra little sharpness in its edge that makes it truly memorable.
I was highly impressed with this story, and am looking forward to reading more of Tod Goldberg…I just wish I had before!
I’ve spent a lot more time over the last year reminiscing about my past than I probably have in the last three decades of my life. I’ve never been quite sure why that is–probably the rapidly approaching sixtieth birthday–but it’s been interesting; trying to remember things, looking things up on-line to verify memories, listening to music from those various periods, and remembering things of social and historical and cultural importance, which were at the time primarily just background noise.
Some of it is undoubtedly because I had to mine my memories for the two books I wrote over the last year–Bury Me in Shadows (Alabama) and #shedeservedit (Kansas)–and the creation of fictional places based on real places where I lived (often forgetting that since I was fictionalizing them, I could change things and they didn’t have to be exact–which was helpful while realizing my memories were often incorrect!). I’ve mined my memories for work before–mostly short stories, really–but never to the extent that I had to for those two books.
And now that I think about it, that probably has more to do with these frequent trips down Memory Lane than the milestone birthday approaching.
I’ve been meaning to start reading short stories again lately; I’ve really fallen off on the Short Story Project over the last year, but today I decided to read “The Boy Detective and The Summer of ’74”, by Art Taylor, which has been nominated for a ridiculous amount of awards–as Art’s work so frequently is.
And what a jewel of a short story it is.
That summer, the summer of 1974, all the boys in the neighborhood wanted to be Evel Knievel–John especially, who’d gotten a brand new bike with chopper-style handles for his birthday. He and his younger brother Paul and I, like a brother myself, raced constantly around the hot asphalt of the small block where we lived. We built rough ramps out of old bricks and leftover plywood, jumped Tonka toys, a rusty wagon, a battered Big Wheel.
Other times, we tried to be like the Six Million Dollar Man, sprinting from yard to yard, mimicking with our lips that metallic reverb that meant we’d engaged our bionic powers. We liked Kwai Chang Caine from the Kung Fu show too, and Paul sometimes thrashed his arms in karate chops as we wandered into the woods and fields behind our neighborhood–land that my father ownedand that he was waiting to develop, same as he had built each of the nine houses that made up our small corner of that North Carolina town.
Turns out that while we aspired to be Evel Knievel or Kwan Chang Caine or the Six Million Dollar Man, my father had his own ambitions for me–that was another thing about that summer.
But one dream was mine alone. Secretly, I wanted to be Encyclopedia Brown. And the summer of ’74 offered the chance for that dream to come true.
We founds the first bone about midmorning one day in late June….
Art Taylor is an exceptional short story writer. Every time I read one of his short stories, his skill–constructing beautiful sentences, creating amazing images, the structure of the story and the strength of the voice–consistently blows me away. He never tells the same story twice, or falls back into the ease of reusing a voice he has used before, either.
Reading this story took me back to my summers as a child in Alabama. I could hear the cicadas and crickets and tree frogs, feel the heavy wet air, smell the freshly mown grass; I could remember the innocence and how it felt to want to be like the characters in the mystery stories I loved to read–whether it was Encyclopedia Brown or The Three Investigators or Trixie Belden, hoping to stumble over a mystery that I would be able to solve through my sharp observations and my deductive reasoning, stunning the adults by my intelligence, savvy and acumen. He also manages, in this story, to evoke that childlike sense of innocence, of noticing weird things adults do while not completely comprehending what they mean, and while this is obviously told as a flashback story–an adult man remembering something from his childhood, it’s not done in an obvious way; and I also like the choice to not tell it in the young boy’s voice–which is a difficult balancing act and one that is very difficult to do.
I love this story so much, can you tell?
And as always, with great writers, reading this story unlocked the key to a long-dormant story that I’ve never been able to solve the problem with–so I can now dust it off and finally get it finished.
Seriously–do yourself a favor and track down Art Taylor’s short stories. You can thank me later.
Saturday and the start of a three day weekend. Huzzah? HUZZAH!
I slept well last night–despite some odd dreams–and even slept later than usual this morning, which was strange. (Never fear, alarm clock Scooter finally woke me up because it was past his feeding time.) I am still a bit groggy this morning, but I am certain my coffee will wake me up and make me lucid eventually. Yesterday was an exciting day of data entry and condom-packing, after which I went to the gym (HUZZAH), and then came home to read Robyn Gigl’s By Way of Sorrow. I am really enjoying this book, I want to be clear–but Scooter of course climbed into my lap and went to sleep while I was reading, and of course–it being his superpower–I dozed off as well. I do not want to give the impression that I am not enjoying this book, because I really am–but between being tired and all the writing I’ve been doing lately, I just haven’t been able to carve out the time to read like I would like. I do plan on finishing it today, though–as well as writing.
I didn’t write again yesterday, which has all my alarm bells going off (YOU BROKE THE CYCLE NOW YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO WRITE ANYMORE OH MY GOD WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU), but I am also aware it’s kind of like going to the gym; once I sit down and start seriously writing again, I’ll get back into it and enjoy myself and next thing you know I will have written multiple thousands of words and all will be right in the world again. Honestly, I am not sure why I go through this kind of thing all the time–whether it’s writing or going to the gym, anything I actually enjoy doing, really; I always have to make myself do it and then find myself enjoying the hell out of it once I do. I am easing myself into working out again after a lengthy break of just over a week–but I realized, as I lifted yesterday, that I don’t have to be so easy on myself after missing a couple of workouts; my body has adjusted to working out again and thus I am not only going to not be sore, it’s not going to be a strain. Yesterday was a return to three sets of everything and guess what? It was easy. Moving up in weights as I intend to do on Monday (the gym is open normal hours on Monday; it’s a holiday for me, and is only open from 9-12 tomorrow, and I can’t see myself getting my act together and to the gym in that narrow window of time tomorrow morning) is what I probably should have done this week, despite the lay off due to the tooth…and so yes, it’s time to start actually pushing myself. I am going to keep adding weight this month every week, with a goal to changing the work out into separate body parts beginning in August, and possibly adding a day or two of cardio in September. I am excited about this–and it’s only a few months later than when I had planned to do so this year already.
I also need to finish a load of laundry this morning and finish the cleaning of the downstairs that is dramatically overdue. I have the entire weekend to get the cleaning done, but step by step and piece by piece is always a greay way to get things started. I also think it’s time to clean the vacuum cleaner filter–I am trying to take care of this one better so it will last longer and continue working longer. I also want to figure out what to do with these boxes under my desk–I have four boxes of folders under my desk (filled, of course) that i want to move out of here. I probably should put them in the attic, but that would mean taking things out of the attic to make room for them, and that would mean going through boxes of books–again, not a bad thing and something that needs to be done, but just thinking about doing it makes me feel tired.
Sigh. And that right there is the classic example of how things never wind up getting done around here.
After I went to the gym yesterday, I detoured on my way home and walked back on the uptown side of Jackson Avenue, which is the Garden District. (Jackson Avenue is the border between my neighborhood, the Lower Garden District, and the enclaves of the wealthy, the actual Garden District.) I took numerous photographs with my phone as I did, posting some of them to Instagram/Facebook, but there are of course any number of others in my phone that I didn’t actually post. Taking these pictures is of a two-fold purpose; one, to have things to post on my social media, and two, to give me the opportunity to look around at the beauty of my city and drink it in, actually making me notice and pay attention to how beautiful this city, particularly the part of it in which I live, is–and by doing so, reconnect with it and appreciate it again. Despite the heat, I am thinking that I need to be doing this more frequently, and expanding into other neighborhoods as well. Oh, I have to pick up the mail? Let me detour on a street in Uptown and take some pictures. The heat and humidity, of course, are always oppressive, but at the same time I need to be out in it and experience that, if I intend to continue writing about New Orleans, noting the weather and thinking of other, new ways to describe how the weather feels here, its peculiarities and how it feels on the skin, on the body, and so forth.
Or, I will let laziness win as I so frequently do.
And on that note, I am going to read an Art Taylor short story while enjoying my coffee, and then get my day actually started. Happy Saturday, Constant Reader.
Thursday morning and I am slurping coffee and trying to get awake and ready for an exciting day of data entry and condom packing. I’ve not been terribly successful with my goal of cleaning out my inbox; I am going to try to work on that today after I finish working, after I go to the gym, and after I get today’s writing done.
I’ve identified a problem–a pattern, if you will–with my writing. I will get to a point in a short story where I am kind of stuck, and whereas what I do with a novel (write my way out of it) I won’t do that with the story, instead agonizing over it for a bit before consigning it to the oh well I’ll finish this later at some point folder. This is defeating, and why, ultimately, I have so many unfinished stories languishing around in my files. So, I am determined to solider on with the one I am currently working on, “The Sound of Snow Falling”, and try to get it finished. I am also determined to revise chapter one of Chlorine this weekend, and hopefully get into my next novella–either “Never Kiss a Stranger” or “A Holler Full of Kudzu”–and also get the Lost Apartment back under control at some point.
It’s amazing how little time it takes yet how easy it is for this place to look like a disaster area in need of FEMA assistance.
I also want to get back to reading–oh, how the books pile up!–and maybe it’s something I should do before I go to bed every night. I had tried for a brief while–after that less screen time before going to bed will help you sleep better thing circulated a few years ago–to read before bed every night; I have a non-fiction book on my nightstand that is now coated in dust that I would love to get back to reading–but it also wouldn’t hurt to do some fiction reading downstairs before I go up to bed, risking the getting caught up in the book and not wanting to put it down thing, which all too often happens to me with reading fiction. I am still greatly enjoying Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, by the way; Caro is an exceptional biographer. I also love how he weaves historical context into his biographies–I’ve only read the first volume of the Johnson biographies, and his description for how hard life was for poor rural women has never stopping haunting my mind–and always am blown away. I’ve never read the two biggest biographies of this century–Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton or McCullough’s John Adams, which I need to remedy–but then again my non-fiction reading (outside of necessary research for writing) has been woefully overshadowed this century by my fiction reading.
I also received copies of the MWA anthologies Deadly Anniversaries (edited by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini) and When a Stranger Comes to Town (edited by Michael Koryta), which reminded me of how much I’ve been languishing on the Short Story Project–while continuing to buy anthologies or single-author collections, which are also piling up around me. I also have a lot of short stories to read for my Bouchercon panel in August; I am on, of all things, a short story panel; which kind of caught me off-guard because I don’t consider myself a master of the form–or even half-way decent at it. But I have published quite a few of them, and my goal is to publish more (which means writing more of them) and I figure with the terrific panelists, maybe I can pick up a thing or two from some of them.
We started watching another Spanish language show last night, High Seas (Alta Mar in Spanish), which is a murder mystery set on a luxury liner sometime in the 1940’s, traveling from Spain to Rio de Janeiro. It’s gorgeously shot, the period costumes and decor are first rate, as is the acting. We’re on episode 4 now; there have already been two murders and some mysterious shenanigans, including a fire, and yes, we are completely sucked into it. (We’re taking The Underground Railroad slowly, because it’s not really something to be binged, since it raises so many philosophical and societal questions; you kind of need to absorb each episode. It’s really one of the most literate series I’ve ever watched, in part because the visuals are so incredible and poetic; I think it’s one that needs to be rewatched as well because it’s almost too cerebral–yet compelling–to absorb all at once for someone of such diminished intellectual capabilities as me–it’s also making me want to revisit the novel)
And on that note, I am heading into today’s spice mines. Have a lovely Thursday, Constant Reader, and I will check in with you later.
Up early to head to the airport and fly up to visit my parents. I never did get the damned prescription refill situation resolved (who knew that something as simple as a prescription refill–which simply needs to be called in or sent to a pharmacy–is beyond the capabilities of a nurse practitioner? I think it’s time for me to find a new doctor, frankly), so that will have to wait till I get back from the trip–and trust me, I am going to go all Julia Sugarbaker on that bitch’s ass when I get back; I may not even do it over the phone and might just go to the doctor’s office in person…I have not slept now since Saturday. A co-worked suggested a cannabis tincture, so last night on the way home from work I stopped at a CBD store and bought some. It really really relaxed me, but it didn’t turn my brain off, so while I was incredibly relaxed and comfortable in bed all night, I never really slept.
I am actually beginning to think this is some kind of insane endurance contest at this point.
Anyway since I’ll be gone, I may not be posting here as much. I did get all packed last night, checked in for my flight, and all of that day-before-you-leave stuff was handled, and then I went to bed early (for all the good it did) and now am up swilling coffee; I’ve got From Here to Eternity and a short story collection by James Purdy in my carry-on bag, as well as my iPad and the MacBook Air…but again, don’t know how much I’ll be on-line, if at all, while I am there. I’ve not seen my family in well over a year and a half–I didn’t go home to visit during the 2019 football season, so it was definitely before that–but my memory is so shot I can’t remember when exactly I did go up there. I’m hoping to do some writing and reading and relaxing, but even WITH my helpful prescription I have trouble sleeping while I am there, so…I don’t imagine it’s going to get any easier. (I may have to up the CBD dosage; I’ll try that tonight.)
I did order martini glasses yesterday; they should be here by the time I get back on Monday…so next up is learning how to make dirty vodka martinis. Maybe a martini and some CBD before bed will do the trick. Who knows? It’s certainly worth a try, and I was certainly relaxed the other night after I had two, even if I didn’t sleep that night.
I got the final edits on a short story I wrote for an anthology being done by the Chessies chapter of Sisters in Crime (that’s the chapter I elected to join; I have an insane amount of friends in that chapter–writers and editors I admire deeply and am so thrilled to call friends). I don’t remember the name of the anthology at the moment, nor do I remember the theme, but I finally found a home for the story “The Snow Globe”, and I have to say, after the input from the editors, it really is a story I am proud of, and am proud to have in a Sisters chapter anthology. Naturally, I will be posting more about the story when the anthology is closer to being released, which is next spring.
I hope the thrill of selling a short story is something I never lose.
I have been feeling disconnected from writing again lately–and need to get my shit together and start writing again. I have lots of short stories to finish, I need to get back to Chlorine, and I am going to get edits on other manuscripts at some point soon–so I need to get back into my good writing habits. It’s hard, though, to be creative when your brain isn’t centered or rested and you haven’t been sleeping…although I always can find an excuse not to write, can’t I?
The weather looks pretty nasty out there this morning–I hope my flight isn’t delayed. I don’t have much time at my change of planes destination (Dallas Love)…but I also don’t have any texts from Southwest, so I am assuming all systems are still go. I do worry that if I misconnect in Dallas it could turn into an all-day ordeal trying to get up there.
But I will cross that bridge when I come to it.
So, have a great day, and I’ll check in again when I have the chance or time.
Sunday morning and the end of the weekend looms, which means I need to get up at six for the next three mornings. Groan. These last two mornings I’ve been a lag-a-bed; which of course delays Scooter’s morning insulin shot–which means I need to be certain I give it to him at the correct time tonight because I can’t given it to him later tomorrow. It looks lovely outside this morning–which is nice, since I am going to go to the gym in a moment, after finishing this and cleaning the kitchen, so I can come home and work on the book all day. I didn’t get as much done yesterday as perhaps I would have liked–I did manage to get a working timeline for the events of the book in place, something I didn’t do for Bury Me in Shadows (and my editor requested it in the notes she gave me) and as I began doing it, I realized how fucked up the timeline for the book actually was. Over the course of numerous drafts, the time of the book changed–originally, I had the book set over Homecoming weekend (why not give into every cliché of writing about high school, right?) and then, at some point, I casually did some research about the Kansas high school football season and, much to my own horror, discovered that the regular season generally ends around Halloween–I’d forgotten that it has to end earlier so it doesn’t overlap with basketball season (which is the most important sport in Kansas–always has been, always will be) unless your team goes to the actual play-offs. Yesterday I had to verify when the school semester starts, and double-checked the football season again, which was important. I had left it as Homecoming weekend but had to move it earlier into the season…and then realized in a much later draft that the story doesn’t work with that much time passing between the pivotal points of the story and Homecoming….so I realized I had to move it to the first game of the season (which makes the most sense) but I was also still going by my vague memory that my birthday in late August was always right before school starts….assuming the start of the school year hadn’t changed over the last forty years, which it obviously has; school starts in early to mid-August now; the first game of the season is inevitably either the Frida before or after Labor Day, depending on when the holiday falls, and that of course changed everything about the current timeline in the book–which will now have to be changed. There’s another pivotal event of the story that happens over the summer, and I’d planned to use the county fair as the backdrop for it, so I looked up when the Lyon County Fair is…and it’s right before the start of school–late July/early August–which again fucked with my timeline of the story until I realized I don’t have to have the fair take place when the real one I am fictionalizing does; and it’s a perfect timeline now, really; it makes so much sense for the county fair to happen, my main character’s family vacation to follow that, and for him to come back in time for the start of football season but missing the big kick-off event for the community: the bonfire, which is the night the event that serves as a catalyst for the story occurs. It means tweaking the story even more–and I still have things to add to it–and I am probably going to have to rewrite almost everything from Chapter Seventeen on, but that’s okay. I now know how to end the story, which means I have a shit ton of writing and revising to get done in the next ten days or so (since the deadline falls on the Thursday before Easter weekend, with Friday as a paid holiday, I may go ahead and take that final weekend to make sure everything is okay with it before turning it in). I have to get Bury Me in Shadows fixed in April, and I have some short stories I want to work on that month as well for upcoming deadlines. So May will be most likely when I start working on Chlorine–which means June will be when I start writing the first draft of the next Scotty; if I am able to stay on this schedule. Please God, let me stay on schedule.
So anyway, I am very pleased with what I was able to get done yesterday. When I get home from the gym today and get cleaned up, I am going to settle into my easy chair with the laptop and with Fleetwood Mac blaring on the home stereo–I made a wonderful playlist on Spotify Friday, which I will likely expand upon this morning–primarily adding every Fleetwood Mac album in order, from Fleetwood Mac thru Say You Will, with probably some solo work from the band members mixed in as well. Fleetwood Mac has really been helping me get inspired to write this past week or so; I’m glad I’ve rediscovered how much I love their music again (I never forget, I just don’t think about listening to them as much as I used to–an enormous mistake I will never make again); likewise I find listening to Taylor Swift while I am writing enormously inspirational as well; not sure what that’s all about, but whatever it is, I’ll take it. Music has always been an important part of my writing process–I’ve always loved music, and wished I had some musical talent of any kind–but alas, that was not to be. I generally do listen to music–I can remember back when I was writing Murder in the Rue Dauphine I used to put three Madonna CD’s in the stereo and hit shuffle (The Immaculate Collection, Like a Prayer, and Ray of Light) while I was writing and then I would suddenly realize the music had stopped playing and I’d written a shit ton of words.
I never got around to reading The Russia House yesterday; maybe today I’ll be able to get some work done and spend some time with LeCarré. I did take eight boxes of books to the Latter Library to donate to their book sale, picked up my own mail, and then made groceries before coming home to put everything away and work on the book. I was tempted to watch the Snyder version of Justice League, but it’s four hour length is rather daunting; it’s definitely on queue for condom packing this week. We watched the SEC Gymnastics meet last night (LSU finished second, and just .125 out of first) and then the season finale of Servant, which remains as much a mystery as it was when we first started watching, but it’s done so well and it so fucking creepy and bizarre–the acting is also pinpoint sharp, and Lauren Ambrose certainly deserves at least an Emmy nomination for her complicated and crazy Dorothy Turner, for whom motherhood has proven both a tragedy on a Shakespearean level and an all consuming passion that drives her–and those who love her–down an insane path they never should have taken, and of course everything keeps spinning insanely out of control for everyone.
And of course there’s only one more weekend of me being a Festival widow, which I am really looking forward to. I miss Paul, and spending the evenings together watching our television programs and having dinner. Scooter misses having him around, too.
I did read a short story yesterday; from Nikki Dolson’s Love and Other Criminal Behavior, called “Georgie Ann.” It was marvelously delightful, dark and twisted and chilling; just what the doctor ordered:
Georgie Ann is dead. Her husband and all of our crowd around her coffin. They stand with their backs to use and their arms thrown over each other’s shoulders. We, the dutiful spouses, black suited and Prada heeled, sit waiting for our cue to cry.
The casket is open. We’ve all done our viewing and we agree she looks great for a dead woman her age. She is ten years our senior. Was.
One of us says what we’re all thinking, “How much hairspray do you think they used? Her hair never held curls like that.”
A very stark, nasty opening the sets the mood, tone and attitude of the story very much into place: Georgie Ann wasn’t a very nice person, and her “crowd” didn’t like her very much. Our narrator certainly didn’t, and as she remembers Georgie Ann’s sins and conduct to her and all of their friends, the reader also begins to dislike Georgie Ann…and wonder how she wound up dead. This story actually reminds me very strongly of Liane Moriarty’s works, or Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, the little hurts and slights and tiny issues that grow into darker, bad things. “Georgie Ann” could very easily be one of those novels, exploring the complexities and competitions between a group of friends that turns into something darker, possibly criminal. Definitely looking forward to delving into this collection even further.
And on that note, tis time for me to start tidying up so I can head to the gym with a clear (relatively) conscious. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader, and I will catch you the next time.
Several years ago–I have no concept of how long ago; time and its passing literally have no meaning to me anymore–I started what I called “the Short Story Project.” I wanted to become a better short story writer; it’s a form I’ve always struggled with, and it always seemed to my hypercritical self that whenever I was successful in writing a short story, it was more of an accident than anything I had planned when I embarked on writing the story. I’ve also become a little bit easier on myself on that score–sometimes, not every idea will work as a short story, and writing isn’t something that can ever be forced without it showing to the reader–and I did have a wonderful period of productivity with short stories after setting course for the Project–which not only entailed writing them but reading as many of them as I could. After all, what better way to improve my own short story writing skills than by reading good stories? I have, over the years, collected any number of single-author collections as well as anthologies, and yet, with few notable exceptions prior to the start of the Project, had rarely ever cracked their spines. Lately, as I have struggled with time and focus while I’ve been working on this revision of the Kansas book (aka #shedeservedit) I find myself unable to focus much on reading novels; my mind inevitably wanders, or I will set it down and not get back to it for days. So, this morning I decided, before getting in my work on the book for the day, to read some short stories over my coffee this morning, and I wound up reading four of them; all of them marvelous in their own unique, distinctive ways. The stories I read this morning were, in order: “Better Days’ by Art Taylor, from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; “Mischief in Mesopotamia” by Dana Cameron, also from Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; “Hop-frog” by Edgar Allan Poe; and finally, “To Build a Fire” by Jack London.
Maybe I wasn’t the only one on our stretch of the North Carolina coast who picked up the Washington Post on a regular basis, but I doubt anyone else it like I did–scanning the bylines, measuring the thickness of the paper and the heft of it, stifling the envy.
So begins Art Taylor’s “Better Days’, which won the Macavity Award for Best Short Story and was a finalist for both the Agatha and the Anthony Awards. Art is one of crime’s best short story writers (and one of my favorite people), and it’s easy to see why he has won every award under the sun for crime short stories. Art’s stories are always tightly written, with characters so real and honest and human that you can’t help but care about them, as well as having a bit of an edge to them. He manages to capture the resigned despair someone whose career path didn’t quite go the way he wanted perfectly; the former Washington Post journalist downsized and back in coastal North Carolina, working for the local paper while still thinking about his past with an uneasy regret. The story focuses on a love triangle between the main character, the local bar owner he’s been seeing, and a newly arrived tourist on a yacht with money to burn. This story tightly plotted, flows perfectly, and the characters are people I wouldn’t mind spending some more time with. In some ways it kind of reminded me of John D. Macdonald; maybe it’s the sea and boats and so forth that put me in mind of Travis McGee. Highly recommended.
I sat across from a row of decapitated kings, gods, and heroes waiting for them to speak to me. I didn’t know a word of their language, and they’d been dead–their monuments erected, sanctified, and decaying–long before anyone speaking my language was born. Still, I waited, if not as patiently as they did.
That’s the opening paragraph of Dana Cameron’s “Mischief in Mesopotamia,” originally published in the November 2012 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and it went on to win both the Agatha and Anthony awards for Best Short Story the following year. (I initially met Dana the weekend she won the Agatha; she’s been a constant source of joy for me ever since.) The story features her series character Emma Fielding, and reading the story is my first encounter with her–and now I am going to have to go back and read the entire series of novels with Emma (you may also know her from the television films made from some of the books in the series, with Melrose Place alumnus Courtney Thorne-Smith playing Emma). Set on a tour of museums and archaeological sites in southeast Turkey, Emma and her group happen to be on-site when a museum robbery occurs–and Emma solves the crime through her keen observations of her fellow tour group members. The voice is delightful, as is Emma–there’s a hint of my fiction goddess Amelia Peabody about her–and the story is enormously satisfying.
I never knew anyone so keenly alive to a joke as the King was. He seemed to live only for joking. To tell a good story of the joke kin, and to tell it well, was the surest road to his favor. Thus it happened that his seven ministers were all noted for their accomplishments as jokers. They all took after the king, too, in being large, corpulent, oily men, as well as inimitable jokers. Whether people from fat by joking, or whether there is something in fat itself which predisposes to a joke, I have never been quite able to determine; but certain it is that a lean doer us a rare Avis in terris.
Yes, that first paragraph made me squirm a bit as I started reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-frog,” which I suppose can be held up as an example of how things don’t age well (the notion that overweight people are jolly, as evidenced here). The story itself, which is about a court jester who is also a little person (“dwarf”) and crippled at a royal court, mocked and laughed at and the butt of the jokes of the King and his advisors, along with another female who is also there for their entertainment–whom Hop-frog appears to love, eventually reaches his own breaking point when they mock him one time too many and when the female begs them to stop, the King throws wine in her face and humiliates her. There is a costume ball coming up, and Hop-frog chooses this for his revenge, convincing them all to dress up as “ourang-outangs”, which will require covering themselves with tar and pitch and fake fur….and they waltz right into his punishment, as they are set aflame and are burned alive. This is based in actual history–Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror details the “the dance of the burning fools,” where King Charles VI of France and some of his buddies costumed themselves in such a manner with the same outcome–some of them caught fire and were burned to death, although the King was not one of the victims. When I was rereading that book in the early pandemic days, I came across this true story and thought it might make for an interesting short story; doing further research, I discovered that Poe had written a story based on this actual event, and bookmarked it to read later. As with everything classic, my education in Poe is limited; but all the earmarks of a Poe’s story’s justice are here: justice is meted out to the foolish king and his cruel advisers…but it’s not one of his better efforts, which is why, undoubtedly, it’s not as well known.
Day had dawned cold and gray when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail. He climbed the high earth-bank where a little-traveled trail led east through the pine forest. It was a high ban, and he paused to breathe at the top. He excused the act to himself by looking at his watch. It was nine o’clock in the morning. There was no sun or promise of sun, although there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day. However, there seemed to be an indescribable darkness over the face of things. That was because the sun was absent from the sky. This fact did not worry the man. He was not alarmed by the lack of sun. It had been days since he had seen the sun.
I originally read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” in high school. It was assigned for us to read when we were studying short stories and fiction; it was assigned as an example of the theme “man v. nature.” I’ve never forgotten the story–I loathe the cold, as Constant Reader is aware, and London does an amazing job of getting that frigid climate across to the reader. The man is never given a name–his name doesn’t matter–and neither does the wolf-dog by his side have a name; their names don’t matter. This story is about human hubris–he isn’t worried about the cold, despite being warned about it, and he wants to get back to his camp. His job was to go upstream and see if its possible for logs to be floated downstream when the temperature is warmer and the waters of streams and rivers and creeks not frozen solid. His mission accomplished, he is heading back to his actual camp, with some food stored under his shirt next to his body and a pack of matches in case he needs to start a fire. The dread in this story builds slowly and smoothly as he begins to suspect he made an error in not respecting the cold for its ability to kill him; occasionally London goes into the perspective of the animal who is also beginning to sense the man–food and fire provider, nothing more–is out of his depth. Eventually he succumbs to the cold, after a series of misadventures that come about because he isn’t paying enough attention and is careless. Whether that is because the cold has affected his ability to think and reason clearly is never part of the story or his own consideration. Even now, after all these years, the story has the ability to make me wince and shiver and think yikes, there’s no fucking way I’d ever go outside when it was 75 degrees below zero, let alone make a trip of many miles through wilderness on foot.
And on that note, now I am finished with my morning and its back to the spice mines with me,
Huzzah for a paid vacation day! No getting up at six am this freezing morning, thank you very much–although the real horror is going to come tonight when it gets into the twenties–there’s a chance we’ll have snow for Fat Tuesday.
Although it is frightfully cold for a Lundi Gras–forty degrees this morning, and of course our heat isn’t working, and will be getting gradually colder throughout the day until it gets into the twenties later this evening, with a chance of snow on Fat Tuesday for the first time since 1899. Needless to say, I am wearing layers today and have the space heater going–and it will be following me around whenever I move around the house–the easy chair, even up to the bedroom tonight when we go to bed, although the layers of blankets, Paul and Scooter all combined to keep me nice and warm last night. I slept like a dream, too. I stayed in bed a full hour after I woke up this morning, too, luxuriating in the warm comfort of the bed, and I feel no shame in that at all…why shouldn’t I relax and be comfortable, despite all the work that I have to get done?
I managed to finish going through the manuscript last night, changing it all into the present tense. I caught a lot of things that need to be fixed–changes in story and plot and so forth that weren’t eliminated through the various drafts the book has gone through. Today I am going to print it all out and start going through the hard copy, making notes and cuts and noting where new material has to go to fill in the gaps. I have approximately two weeks to get this all finished before it’s due, and I actually think I am going to be able to get it all done in time. I have a new framing device for the story that I have to write, and there’s a final chapter that needs to be written, and of course the cuts….I am always amazed at how often I repeat myself, and how passive the early draft voice I write in inevitably turns out to be. Today I am going to curl up, most likely in bed, with my laptop, my lap desk, and my notebooks, and start marking up the manuscript. Tomorrow, as it is Fat Tuesday, I am most likely going to take the day off and read and/or watch movies–the Short Story Project is definitely in need of some catching up on, and of course I’ve started a new project of rereading various books in the kids’ series I loved as a child (I am currently reading a Dana Girls volume, The Clue in the Cobweb, that I’ve never read before), and I would love to spend some more time with Jess Lourey’s Unspeakable Things–I really hate that my reading attention span comes and goes the way it does.
Needless to say, I am most pleased to have gotten through the manuscript yesterday. I am really looking forward to spending March mostly working on short stories as well as pre-planning both Chlorine and Twelfth Night Knavery–I even know how to open the story–and that will eventually lead into the tenth Scotty, French Quarter Flambeaux, which will lead into the eleventh, Quarter Quarantine Quadrille. I also want to try to get some of these novellas finished between working on books, too. Ash Wednesday I have to go into the office, and then it’s two more work-at-home days before I have yet another weekend…so things are looking up somewhat as far as my writing schedule is going. I certainly am getting a lot more finished this year than I did last year, and here’s hoping that I will stay motivated and continue getting things done.
We started watching the second season of Mr. Mercedes last night, which got off to a slow start but is picking up well now. WHat’s interesting is that the show is not following the Bill Hodges trilogy as written by King; they’ve skipped the second book of the series, Finders Keepers, and gone straight on to the third, End of Watch. From a television story-telling perspective it makes sense; the villain of the first book returns in the third, while the middle book is an entirely different story and case for Bill and the gang at Finders Keepers–the detective agency they open after the first book–and while that one may be my favorite of the series, the show’s been renewed for a third season, and I suspect that they will use the plot of the second book as the framework for the third season. There are some other shows dropping this week we want to watch as well–It’s a Sin on HBO and The Luminaries on either Starz or Showtime, it has Eva Green in it and I try not to ever miss anything with Eva Green.
And now it’s raining. We are either going to get rain tomorrow, or snow, or sleet; none of which are appealing, and quite frankly, I am happy for both krewes (Rex and Zulu) that aren’t going to have to deal with parading in such horrendous weather. (I wonder if Zulu is going to come down the river to the Quarter to meet Rex at five today?) I’m supposed to go to the gym at some point today–but there’s no way I am walking five blocks in cold and rain. Is it wimpy of me to take the car? I always used to drive to the gym until we joined one that’s literally right around the corner; our new gym is a longer walk, of course. I would walk to St. Charles Athletic Club in this weather; but Franco’s on Magazine is a bit too far for this kind of nasty weather.
I also have retrieved my blanket from the easy chair; I am actually feeling quite toasty warm here at my desk this morning–between the space heater, double layers, the blanket and my coffee….I could retrieve my fingerless gloves and then the only remaining part of me feeling the cold–my hands–would be taken care of as well. I hate that Paul is going to go out in this weather to go to his office–I’m actually hoping that once he gets up and sees how nasty it is outside, he’ll just work from home…all he needs is a computer and a phone and he can seriously do his job anywhere, but there is something about going into an office–the discipline or mentality that comes with being in your office…plus the guilt factor. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I know when I am at my office I feel guilty for not doing work-related things…it’s raining even harder now. Just truly nasty weather out there….
And on that note, I am going to head into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader–or as lovely a day as you can given the horrible weather everyone appears to be having.
I am starting to feel good again. I am not sure what that is all about–nor am I certain how long it’s going to last, but no worries, Constant Reader–I am going to ride this wave until it inevitably breaks around me. Thursday, I must confess, wasn’t a good day for one Gregalicious, and I hate those days and the inevitable despair that comes along with those awful days. An emotional and physical and intellectual valley, if you will; which generally manifests itself as the inability to do much or face anything or accomplish anything.
It’s gray again this morning in New Orleans. It rained off and on all day yesterday, never heavy enough to be of any real concern for anything but mostly mist more than anything else; one of those winter days where it’s so humid it eventually turns to water in the air because it isn’t warm. The clouds are very low this morning, brushing against the tree tops in the distance. I spent most of yesterday working–trying to get organized, cleaning up the office space in the kitchen as well as doing some cleaning and so forth–but I also took time out to finish reading the Patti Abbott story I had started at the dealership on Friday morn, which I greatly enjoyed–and while I most definitely would have preferred getting more done than I did, I’ll take what I got done and try to get even more done today. I have to go to the gym today at some point as well. But now that football season is over for Louisianans, my weekends are completely freed up now for rest and work and anything else I might be up for getting accomplished along the way. This is good, because I need to really start getting focused on the Kansas Book, as its deadline looms large in the near future. AUGH.
But as I sip my coffee on this gray foggy New Orleans morn, March 1 seems a long time off and so I can still muse about being able to get it finished without physically working on it just yet. My final revision is taking place in my head, as I revise and rewrite and restructure the story in my head and put in the things that are missing from the story. The theme I am mostly trying to follow for it–that many societal ills truly are based and steeped in misogyny, and how that harms everyone–is, I think, important; and I have a relatively strong grasp of my point of view character; I spent quite a bit of time yesterday putting other pieces into place and figuring out some things, which is never a waste of time. I’ll probably spend some time with the manuscript today, mostly reading it over and trying to get a fixed outline in place. There are things missing from the manuscript, as I mentioned already; there are several characters who primarily are just talked about and never actually appear in the story itself, and that’s kind of a cheat, and unfair to the reader and the characters. Heavy heaving sigh.
We started watching Anna Paquin’s new show on Amazon Prime last night, Flack, in which she plays Robyn, a deeply troubled young woman who works at a PR firm for high-end celebrities, cleaning up the messes they make and controlling the narratives of their lives. It’s quite good–Paquin is always amazing when given great material (Sookie on True Blood could become annoying and irritating, but then when given material worthy of her she was shined)–and we will most likely delve back into it this evening when we are ready to relax and recharge from this day. I’ve got a stack of folders and papers that really need to be put away–more like find a place to put more than anything else–and I’ve got some more organizing to get done. I’d also like to start reading my next book; I’m not sure which I am going to choose, to be completely honest, but I have such a plethora of riches from which to choose that I know I’ll pick something absolutely delightful that I will greatly enjoy. Maybe even a reread? There are any number of books that I would like to reread–and you know, even as I type this I am thinking perhaps a revisit of Faulkner’s Sanctuary might be just the trick. I was a teenager when I originally read it, and so didn’t quite grasp much of the story and what was going on; it would be interesting to take another look at it now and see how I react to it. It’s definitely noir, or borderline noir; and I do remember enjoying it the first time I read it, even if a lot of it went over my head. If not the Faulkner, maybe I should read something that isn’t a crime novel, just to expose myself to other characters and narratives and styles of writing. I don’t read enough outside of my own genre, which isn’t a good thing; I’ve always felt it important to read outside of the genre whenever I can, but there are always so many good mysteries to read and so many wonderful ones that are already published and new ones being published all the time I know that I will never have the time to read everything I want to read, which is kind of sad, really.
I could, of course, reread Sanctuary slowly, and read something else at the same time more quickly. Hard to say, really. I could also dive back into the Short Story Project; I certainly have enough anthologies and single-author collections to get through.
Ah, well, I shall certainly figure it all out at some point.
I’m starting to get used to the loss of the trees, but it isn’t even so much the loss of the green, leafy view or the increased light that bothers me the most about the loss of the crepe myrtles. I’ve realized that, despite the fact that the trees didn’t completely shield the house next door or its carriage house from view, they provided enough of a shield for me to feel like I had privacy while I was sitting at my desk. I could see the upstairs windows next doors, but not clearly; it was more of a vague awareness that they were there. Now I can see into them–not that much, really, because of the angle–which of course means anyone standing in those windows or looking out of them can also look directly down at me at my desk, writing or cleaning or reading or whatever the hell it is I do there when I sit there.
And that I do not like one bit.
So, yes, I’m going to have to invest in blinds, I suppose. I can just use them for the upper half of the windows–the lower half doesn’t really need covering, to shield them from either the sun or the next door upstairs neighbors. Am I happy about it? Not in the least. But it has to be done, or next summer is going to be les miserables in the kitchen. It gets too hot in there as it is, and I’m probably also going to have to invest in more portable air conditioners as well. Heavy heaving sigh.
So, apparently a sexual assault scandal is currently looming over the LSU football program, tracing back to Derrius Guice–who was recently dropped by whatever team had drafted him into the NFL after he was arrested for domestic violence–horrifying stuff, really–which revealed that he’d been accused twice of rape while he was a student at LSU and allegedly the school and athletic department covered it up. This was during the time the wretched Joe Alleva was the athletic director there, and given that he was responsible for the insanity and disaster that the the Duke lacrosse team sexual assault scandal, it doesn’t surprise me in the least. The fact LSU hired him. with that scandal on his resume, remains a mystery to me. I may be a loyal Tiger fan who bleeds purple and gold, but this needs to be thoroughly investigated and there needs to be accountability. This kind of shit doesn’t belong anywhere in college, let alone in college athletics, and the covering up of bad behavior by star athletes by colleges and professional sports needs to stop, period.
Seriously, enough of this boys will be boys bullshit. Boys who get away with shit because they’re boys become men who think they can get away with shit, and this becomes a societal problem.
I am really tired of sex crimes involving college sports, frankly–or any sport, for that matter.
And now I am thinking I should write a book about college sports and a sex crime, because of course I am.
I could, of course, call it Boys Will Be Boys.
Hmmmm some more.
My back is a little sore this week, I’m not sure if it’s from the gym and working out–I noticed it yesterday, when I woke up, and went to the gym anyway, so this morning it’s a little worse–but it’s not an injury injury; this is just intense muscle soreness, so I’ll be using the heating pad this afternoon as I make condom packs. It did feel lovely going to the gym after work yesterday and working out–I’m really getting back into this–and we started watching Murder on Middle Beach last night on HBO; a documentary series this young filmmaker did about his mother’s brutal murder, which was weird; both oddly intimate and deeply personal, and incredibly sad at the same time. I couldn’t imagine dealing with my mom being murdered, and then writing a true crime book about it, but then, who knows? It’s an interesting premise for a true crime documentary, but one that begs the question of objectivity; how can you be objective when you’re so deeply personally involved with almost everyone you’ll be talking to, interviewing, and filming? And–God help me–I did think to myself, well, someone making a documentary series about their mother’s murder is also a great book premise, isn’t it?
I also took the time last night after the gym, as I waited for Paul to come home, to read two more stories from Lawrence Block’s anthology The Darkling Halls of Ivy. The theme of the anthology is, of course, crimes in academia; the first story, by none other than Rambo creator David Morrell–whom I’ve met and is a very nice man–was quite good. The next two stories in the book were by authors I’d not read before, Jane Hamilton and Warren Moore. (Moore has had stories in other Block anthologies I’ve read; I’ve not read any of his novels, is what I meant here.) I’d heard of Ms. Hamilton before; she’s a quite critically acclaimed literary novelists, and best known to me as the author of The Short History of a Prince. Both stories were interesting. Ms. Hamilton’s was built around an advanced creative writing course in a small, failing liberal arts college, while Moore’s was built around the end of an academic conference–with a recently defended, new Ph. D. trying to find a job in academia giving a ride to a long tenured leader in their field, and what the young man thinks about as they talk about careers in academia, with the bitter reality of the younger man’s existence in sharp contrast to the comfortable established existence the older man has achieved. Hamilton’s story, “Writing Maeve Dubinsky,” doesn’t really seem like a crime story–the actual crime is a very small one, not even a misdemeanor, although it deeply affects the lives of the characters of the story (imagine coming to your writing class and discovering that one of your classmates had stolen your journal and written a story about your relationship)–the best part of the story was I remembered in exquisite detail the agony of workshopping one of your stories in a classroom setting–and also put me in mind of thinking about other stories for me to write. The Moore story, “Alt-Ac” (the title refers to Ph.D’s who have to find jobs outside of academia: “alternate to academic”) was also astonishingly dark and bitter about the diploma mill modern colleges have become, saddling students with massive amounts of debt they can never repay while giving them degrees that are essentially useless when it comes to finding work in the real world, particularly since there are so few jobs in academia and there are fewer of those jobs all of the time (seriously, the fact that Katrina came along and finished off any thoughts I had about pursuing further education and possibly teaching on the collegiate level was quite a gift to me, and one I never truly appreciated until lately), but it was also incredibly spot on.
I do find it interesting that in all the talk about student debt and so forth, no one ever talks about revamping or overhauling our higher education system–or improving it; that system is just as rotten and outdated as other societal institutions that need overhauling and repair.
And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader!