This Town

As I have mentioned before, I kind of invited myself to contribute to this anthology. It’s probably the single most brazen thing I’ve ever done as a writer. I’m not sure how it happened, exactly; I just saw it on Twitter or something and shamelessly contacted Holly West, who–rather than saying who the fuck are you? HELL FUCKING NO, was quite gracious and said, “By all means! I have a spot for you!”

The songs I got to choose from were three of my favorites, but I eventually decided on “This Town,” after reviewing the lyrics:

We all know the chosen toys 
Of catty girls and pretty boys 
Make up that face 
Jump in the race 
Life’s a kick in this town 
Life’s a kick in this town
This town is our town 
It is so glamorous 
Bet you’d live here if you could 
And be one of us
Change the lines that were said before 
We’re all dreamers – we’re all whores 
Discarded stars 
Like worn out cars 
Litter the streets of this town 
Litter the streets of this town
This town is our town 
It is so glamorous 
Bet you’d live here if you could 
And be one of us

 

 “We’re all dreamers–we’re all whores”–that was the line that sold me; this was the song I was going to use.

But despite the fact that was the line that convinced me, these lines:

Bet you’d live here if you could 
And be one of us

were the ones that actually inspired my story.

cover-west-murder-go-gos-frontOur IDs were fake, but no one seemed to care. Even when a burly bouncer asked to see them, his bare meaty arms adorned with tattoos, his bored eyes just flicked over the lami- nate before waving us inside. Celia was right about that, like she was right about every- thing. She could always find someone with coke to share or sell, or who was happy to share their blunt with us. She was a golden girl, the kind I used to think only existed in books or movies, the girl that’s too perfect to exist, the one every other girl wants to be friends with, wants to be. The one all the guys notice first, their eyes wide open and their jaws gone slack.

She always had the trendiest new make-up, the first to try out a daring new look we were too cowardly to try but quick to copy, always the first, the one everyone else imitat- ed. She seemed to glow from inside, drawing everyone’s eyes to her effortlessly, and she somehow managed to always look perfect, even when she was drunk, even after dancing for hours when our make-up ran down our cheeks and perspiration dampened our arm- pits. Her skirts were just the tiniest bit shorter than everyone else’s, her tops seemed to fit her in a way they didn’t fit anyone else, her hair thicker and shinier and bouncier. She pulled in guys like night insects to a white light, caught up in her magic. They only no- ticed the rest of us once she’d turned her attention elsewhere. We didn’t mind taking sec- ond place because it seemed like the natural order of things. She always knew the right thing to say—whether kind or insulting—and we all gravitated to her. She was our pledge class president, organized, efficient, determined we be the best pledge class our Omega Psi chapter had ever seen. Even the sisters seemed to be a little in awe of her, grateful she’d picked Omega Psi out of all the offers she’d had—every sorority had offered her a bid, I’d overheard one sister telling another at Monday night dinner, her voice awed as she went on to say that had never happened in the history of the Greek system at Tulane.

And she made us all feel special, whispering “Sisters” to us as we hooked our pinkie fingers and whispered the word back to her, committing to a lifelong bond with her.

She was Celia, and we were better for knowing her, special for being her sisters, like she’d selected us to be pledges and not the actives.

She somehow even knew the best places to catch the parades at our first Mardi Gras and wasn’t from New Orleans.

Haven’t we all known a girl like Celia, the one who somehow always knows what the next thing is, who always wears new styles and fashions before anyone else, who always seems to know where the best parties are, where to find the cute guys, the one everyone is drawn to, who draws the eye, who is the center of attention?

I was in a fraternity in college, and another trope that pops up regularly in my fiction is college Greeks–fraternities and sororities. Chanse was an alum of an LSU fraternity (I have an in-progress short story where Chanse deals with the current day members of his old fraternity after a suspicious death on Big Brother Night, “Once a Tiger”), and of course there are the Todd Gregory fraternity novels. Sororities fascinated me back then, and they still do today; they were a lot stricter than their male counterparts back when I was in college, and still seemed stuck, rules and tradition-wise, in the 1950’s.

Anyway, one day during Carnival last year I was standing under the balcony in front of the praline shop during a Saturday afternoon parade–Iris, I think it was–when a gaggle of sorority girls passed by in front of me. The clear leader of the pack was a beautiful young woman the others were clearly trying to please and impress; the alpha to their betas. They all paused right next to me so the leader could light a cigarette. As she put her cigarette in her purse three men of varying ages immediately stepped up to light her cigarette for her–one was in his fifties, one was slightly older than the girls, and another who might have been in his thirties–and I remembered another golden girl from a sorority back when I was in college…and I wondered what it would be like to be, not the alpha girl, but one of the betas, caught up in her thrall, and what you might be willing to do  for your alpha. Is it peer pressure, is it desire to please, what precisely is it that keeps you in thrall and makes you do things against your nature?

And that night, I started writing “This Town.”

The great irony, of course, was that after I’d written the story and Holly graciously agreed to use it in her anthology, I was reading William J. Mann’s Edgar-winning Tinseltown and realized that “this town” has a specific connotation, one that makes the song itself make even greater sense: “this town” is how people in Los Angeles refer to show business, i.e. “you’ll never eat lunch in this town again.” I’d even know that, from years of reading biographies and memoirs and histories of Hollywood and the studio system, but…my mind and my memory is a sieve these days.

But I’m very proud of my story, and I hope that you will like it, too, when you get a chance to read it.

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.

Lay Your Hands on Me

I managed to get all the errands done yesterday, and didn’t feel exhausted until I was in the process of putting away all the groceries and things. I went to both the grocery store and Costco yesterday; I was rather impressed that I wasn’t worn out much sooner. I did get the bedding laundered as well. But I didn’t get any writing done; I am going to need to do that today.

There are a lot of things I am going to need to do today. Sigh.

I’ve been invited to contribute to an anthology; and I am not certain I have anything ready to send along. I do have this one incredibly disturbing story that I would like to make even more disturbing–that’s just how I roll–and I need to get back to work on the Scotty draft. I’d like to revise Chapter 11 a bit today, get it cleaned up more so it isn’t nearly as sloppy as it currently is, and I want to get these other two stories cleaned up as well. I need to spend some more time with “Don’t Look Down” than I have been; I need to get inside the characters more, understand who they are better, and then I think the story will wind up being a lot more strong. The same goes with the Chanse story; the story is really about his relationship with his brother and that’s not strong enough in the story as it sounds right now. That is also, I think, the problem with the Scotty book. I need to spend some time today with it as well, figuring out motivations and so forth.

Ah, being a writer. Always such a challenge.

We finished watching Collateral last night, and I was rather pleased with it; it was written by David Hare, the playwright, and you could tell it was written by someone good. Carey Mulligan was terrific, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys complex, multi-layered crime dramas. I think tonight we may watch Justice League, to just to see if it really is as terrible as everyone seemed to think; I didn’t hate either Man of Steel or Batman vs. Superman, so I am not going into it as a hater.

I’m also still reading Tinseltown, which I am greatly enjoying. I don’t know a lot about the early days of Hollywood; the early 1920’s and late 19-teens, other than what I know from reading biographies of David O. Selznick, whose father was a producer and tried to build up a studio at the same time Adolph Zukor was building Paramount, and before the big merger that created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). So all this is new information to me, and William J. Mann is a terrific historian and researcher. (I am more familiar with later periods of Hollywood, but hardly an expert.) I’ve always wanted to write about Hollywood’s past; I have an idea for a noir novel to be set in the late 1940’s, but my lack of familiarity with the nuts and bolts of Hollywood in that period makes it difficult–or rather, makes my already vast insecurity about writing about another period even stronger. Although I’ve already written one short story about that time–an ambiguous setting of the early 1950’s–I don’t know. Maybe I should try it as a short story first, see if I can get the sense of the period?

I don’t know.

I’m also saddened to say that I’ve now finished reading both of Lawrence Block’s art-inspired anthologies, In Sunlight or in Shadow and Alive in Shape and Color, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that he is putting together another, which is great. So, for today’s edition of the Short Story Project, I am sad to say this is the last story from a Block anthology: “A Woman in the Sun,” by Justin Scott, from In Sunlight or In Shadow.

Could she change his mind? Four steps to the open window, lean out and call, “Don’t.”

Or walk to the window and call, “Go ahead, do it.Good luck.”

Or stand here and do nothing.

He had left her his last cigarette. She had talked him into leaving the gun and he had kept his word. It was still on the night table, wrapped in one of her stockings. She had the time of the cigarette to make up her mind. More time, if she didn’t smoke it. Let it smoulder.

This is an interesting story; in that it leaves more questions unanswered than it actually answers. We never know the characters’ names, nor do we really know what has brough them to this point. All we do learn, as the story progresses, is that both are at the end of their ropes and done, basically; they are both ready to die. The only question is whether she will stop him or will she join him, and this rather uninvolved, distant approach makes the story even more poignant and sad; there’s a very strong sense of melancholy that runs throughout this story, and the reader soon realizes you don’t have to know the whys and hows and whats of their pasts–all you need to know and feel is their now.

Powerful.

I then started reading through Jim Fusilli’s Crime Plus Music, and the next story up was”Me Untamed” by David Liss.

She covered the black eye with makeup, but I could still see it was there, something alien and unaccountable. Like a vandal’s scrawl across a museum painting, the dull outline of her bruise was an outrage. Carla smiled and greeted everyone good morning, defying us to say a word, to let our eyes linger too long. It was, I supposed, how she protected herself.

Jim Baron, the senior partner in the practice, met my gaze and flicked his head toward Carla as she walked past with a stack of case folders under her arm. Carla was getting ready, as we did every Tuesday and Thursday, for surgeries–no office visits on those days, just procedures. The practice felt a bit like a gastrointestinal assembly line, and sometimes I hated how we moved patients in and out, hardly taking the time to look at them, but Jim cracked the whip. It was volume, volume, volume as far as he was concerned. We were there to heal, not to socialize, and the more healing, the better.

The point of view is that of a divorced, shy, quiet Milquetoasty doctor,  who is kind of in love with Carla, or maybe he is not. She’s married to a thug of a guy, a man’s man, who works out and so forth, the kind of man a Milquetoast would hate. And he decides to do something about Carla’s abuse…decides to make himself into the kind of man he’s always wanted to be, the kind of man that he thinks Carla would like and love. This is a terrific story, with a terrific twist at the end that lifts it up even higher in terms of craft. Well done, sir!

And now, back to the spice mines.

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Freedom

Thursday. I don’t have to go in until later today, which is nice; it gives me the morning to slowly wake up and get going. I didn’t sleep well last night for some reason so I am going to be really tired this evening; which is fine, I suppose. Maybe I’ll sleep well tonight, who knows? Paul came home just as I was getting ready to go to bed, which was nice. Normality, such as it is, has returned to the Lost Apartment. I started reading William J. Mann’s Tinseltown: Murder, Morphine, and Madness at the Dawn of Hollywood. It won the Edgar several years ago for Best Fact Crime, and I’ve been wanting to read it for years. I’ve know Bill for years–I was also there at the Edgars the night he won–and have always enjoyed his work.

I started writing that short story “Burning Crosses” yesterday, and am trying really hard to not allow fear to stop me from working on it. I think it could be a really good story, but…it’s also potentially a dangerous one to try to tell. but I can’t let fear of reaction stop me from working on something. That’s just not a good thing, you know?

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“Everyone in Venice is acting,” Count Girolamo Marcello told me. “Everyone plays a role, and the role changes. The key to understanding Venetians is rhythim–the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the waves…”

I had been walking along Calle della Mandola when I ran into Count Marcello. He was a member of an old Venetian family and was considered an authority on the history, the social structure, and especially the subtleties of Venice. As we were both heading in the same direction, I joined him.

“The rhythm in Venice is like breathing,” he said. “High water, high pressure: tense. Low water, low pressure: relaxed. Venetians are not at all attuned to the rhythm of the wheel. That is for other places, places with motor vehicles. Ours is the rhythm of the Adriatic. The rhythm of the sea. In Venice the rhythm flows along with the tide, and the tide changes every six hours.”

Count Marcello inhaled deeply. “How do you see a bridge?”

“Pardon me?” I asked. “A bridge?”

“Do you see a bridge as an obstacle–as just another set of steps tp climb to get from one side of a canal to the other? We Venetians do not see bridges as obstacles. To us bridges are transitions. We go over them very slowly. They are part of the rhythm. They are the links between two parts of a theater, like changes in scenery, or like the progression from Act One of a play to Act Two. Our role changes as we go over a bridge. We cross from one reality…to another reality. From one street….to another street. From one setting…to another setting.”

I love Venice. We spent a mere twenty-four hours there on our trip to Italy several years ago, taking the train from the magnificent station in Florence through the Italian countryside north and then across the lagoon to the Venetian station. I walked ahead of Paul through that Italian station, unable to wait to catch my first glimpse of the city from the top of the stairs rising from the piazza and vaporetto station on the Grand Canal.

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I was enchanted from that first glimpse.

I’d always wanted to visit Venice–ever since reading Daphne du Maurier’s brilliant story “Don’t Look Now” and seeing the film version, which is incredible–and also Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven. Seeing Venice, even if was only for twenty-four hours, was wonderful. We were also incredibly lucky because Venice wasn’t crowded; apparently that’s become a huge problem (goo.gl/ePMQjT). It was even a problem when Berendt was writing The City of Falling Angels.

The title comes from a sign Berendt saw one day while strolling around Venice, near an old church that was crumbling and in need of restoration: BEWARE OF FALLING ANGELS. Apparently, the statues of angels on the sides of the church and along the rooftop had become loose with the rotting of the masonry, and one had fallen, almost hitting a pedestrian. The book reminded me so much of Venice, and why the city had enchanted me during my all-too-brief visit. I want to write about Venice; I’ve been toying with a story for years, and as I am just now starting to write my Panzano story, maybe I will soon write the Venice story.

Anyway, Berendt is best-known, of course, for his book about Savannah: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which I read decades ago when it was new. I enjoyed it; it was an examination of the quirks and curiosities of the city, built around the lens of a murder committed by a member of Savannah society. The City of Falling Angels is the same type of book, only viewed around the lens, not of a murder, but the burning of the Fenice Opera House. It did turn out to be a crime; two men were convicted of arson, but Berendt uses the fire, the investigations, and the subsequent trial, to view Venice; and along the way he takes a look at the quirks, eccentricities, and curiosities of a place that, like Savannah, is quaint and historic and beautiful–yet also very small. A lot of the things he talks about in the book–the concerns of locals that Venice is no longer for the Venetians, that the city is losing its neighborhoods to tourism; that poorer and middle class Venetians are being pushed out in the name of tourism–are concerns that we locals now have about New Orleans, so that made the book even more interesting to me. When we were there, we stayed overnight at a wonderful little family run hotel just off the Rialto Bridge and on one of the side canals; the Hotel San Salvador. We, too, had a lengthy conversation with two of the young women working there–members of the ownership family–who told us the same thing: Venice is no longer for the Venetians. Their family can no longer afford to live in the city, despite owning a hotel there; they live on the mainland and commute into the city. Most of the city’s apartments are being bought up by foreigners who then rent them out to visitors, so it is also affecting business for establishments like the Hotel San Salvador. I loved the hotel, it was charming and quaint and cozy; I loved the second floor lounge overlooking the canal below, and the family who owned and operated it were so nice, friendly, and charming. If and when we return, we will undoubtedly stay there again.

I’ve met John Berendt exactly once; he was very nice, and I liked him. I like his books, too. My character, Jerry Channing, who appears in both The Orion Mask and Garden District Gothic, and whom I’ve considered spinning off into his own series, is based on him only in that he writes the same kinds of books and articles Berendt does; kind of a cross between Berendt and Dominick Dunne. (I still might spin Jerry off; a lot of my short stories, which have first-person narrators who are never identified, are told in what I imagine Jerry’s voice to be) In fact, Jerry’s biggest success is a book called Garden District Gothic (very meta of me), which is about the quirks and curiosities and eccentricities of New Orleans, viewed through the lens of a society murder in the Garden District. The Scotty novel that bears the same title is an investigation into that case twenty-five years later, in fact (again, very meta of me).

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Anyway,  I highly recommend The City of Falling Angels. I think I enjoyed it a lot more because I’d been to Venice, but it definitely made me want to go back. It’s very well-written, and a lot of fun to read.

And now back to the spice mines.