I Wish You Would

Hurricane Delta is moving ever closer by the moment to our shores. This is one of the worst parts–the inevitable waiting, the need to be completely flexible, and the need to be ready to pack up and get out of Dodge in a hurry if need be. In that regard we are luckier than most when it comes to natural disasters; we have warning so we can get out while there is still time. Tornadoes and earthquakes don’t give you those options; with tornadoes sometimes it’s merely a matter of minutes (those years in Kansas…); earthquakes give you no warning whatsoever. Hurricanes clearly trigger PTSD in me–and have, ever since Katrina–but I would still rather deal with them than tornadoes or earthquakes (been through those during my years in California).

Ugh, natural disasters. Earth’s way of reminding us how unimportant and insignificant we really are.

There was a thing going around Twitter the other day, reading something along the lines of : Fellow authors, creatives… do you think it’s wise to tweet your policital opinions using your author/creative twitter account, or should you keep politics out of your creative timeline? Do you think it might lose you followers, readers, even work, or hurt your cause?

It did make me think a little bit at first. I generally don’t talk about politics much about my social media, or here on my blog; but it’s not about worrying that I might offend and lose readers, for fuck’s sake. The funniest thing to me about that tweet was precisely how privileged it was, and how the person tweeting it didn’t even have the slightest clue about the place of privilege she was coming from.

Simply stated, any writers that are not cishet white heterosexuals has had their very existence politicized, over and over and over again. Two Supreme Court justices, just this very week, very nastily announced that they don’t think queer people are entitled to equality in the eyes of the law; no surprise it was dumpster fires Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. I would love to have the privilege of not having my existence, and my status as an American citizen, politicized and reviled and attacked by bigots and monsters masking their demonic tactics are “religious liberty”; and a little louder for those of you in the back: if your religion is teaching you to treat any other human being with anything less than empathy, understanding, and compassion, you are doing religion wrong.

Period.

Frankly, I don’t exactly see how I could possibly lose any readers who are homophobes or racists or transphobes or fire-breathing conservatives because they would never buy books by a gay man centering gay men and themes in the first place. These are the ones who don’t buy your books but will waste their lives away going on Amazon and looking for queer writers to one-star, with a sentence about “not wanting a political agenda shoved down (their) throat.”

Books by and about queer people are political by nature of their very existence–and this is something which we, like writers of color and any other underprivileged minority in this country do not get to have a choice. The personal is the political for us; it is very interesting to me to see how much privilege is on display in tweets like the one above; while assuredly the intentions of the tweeter were good and she was genuinely curious what other people thought on the subject–other straight white people, obviously. It is an interesting subject, after all; moral stances don’t pay the bills, obviously, and at what point does your survival outweigh your principles?

Some authors are big enough, and successful enough, to not have to worry about offending or losing readers–which is another kind of privilege; recently seen on display with J. K. Rowling, and previously seen with writers like Orson Scott Card, among others–while those writers who aren’t marginalized for something beyond their control and are barely scraping by, hoping their sales will warrant yet another book contract, trying to figure out how to get the word out about their books and sell more copies while balancing a day job and family and everything else, possibly cannot afford to alienate any portion of their reader base if they want to keep writing. I get that, I really do; part of the reason I am so productive (per other people) is a definite fear that at some point my writing career will end–although I have also come to realize that while my career as Greg Herren might end, I could always create a new name and start over again–but it would be really nice to have the kind of reality that makes asking that question even possible to consider. As a gay male writer who writes about gay men and their experiences navigating this country and this world, obviously my books make a political statement; just my existence makes such a statement.

I refuse to closet myself or my work for the convenience of making homophobes more comfortable.

Suck on that, bitches.

Honestly.

Anyway, a friend reminded me of a short story the other day, and it had been quite the hot minute since I’d read Ray Bradbury’s “The Whole Town’s Sleeping,” and so I thought, why not reread it for the Short Story Project?

So I did.

The courthouse clock chimed seven times. The echoes of the chines faded.

Warm summer twilight here in upper Illinois country in this little town deep and far away from everything, kept to itself by.a river and a forest and a meadow and a lake. The sidewalks still scorched. The stores closing and the streets shadowed. And there were two moons; the clock moon with four faces in four night directions above the solemn black courthouse, and the real moon rising in vanilla whiteness from the dark east.

In the drugstore fans whispered in the high ceilings. In the rococo shade of porches, a few invisible people sat. Cigars glowed pink, on occasion. Screen doors whined their springs and slammed. ON the purple bricks of the summer-night streets, Douglas Spaulding ran; dogs an boys followed after.

“Hi, Miss Lavinia!”

Isn’t that a lovely start? I have to confess, I’ve not read much Bradbury–I’m not even sure how I read this story in the first place, but I remembered it; there must have been a short-story collection I picked up somewhere and read that I don’t recall. I know that I read it sometime after I had read Night Shift by Stephen King; because when I originally read this story it made me think of his story, “Strawberry Spring,” both in its style, voice and content SPOILER: both are serial killer stories, and both are written in that same Norman Rockwell Americana type voice; look at this sweet, picturesque American community, isn’t it lovely and aspirational and oh, by the way, there’s a serial killer on the loose. Before rereading the story, all I could remember was that weird Rockwellian voice, the Americana of the depiction of the town, and the ending. I also remembered the suspense of the scene where Miss Lavinia, after walking her companions home after seeing the Chaplin movie, thinks someone is following her as she hurries home alone. I’d forgotten that she and one of her friends found the body of the latest victim on the way to the movie, and yet continue on; that was extremely weird, and I also remembered the wonderful twist of the final sentence of the story, once she has safely gotten home. The serial killer, The Lonely One, kills a woman every month–and yet, in this pristine little slice of Americana small town life, no one in the town seems to take the killer all that seriously, or worry all that much about becoming his next victim. The voice vs the content is a masterstroke of writing, frankly; and I must admit, I’m not really sure why I haven’t read more Bradbury. I remember reading Something Wicked This Way Comes–I also remember thinking recently that I should reread it–and Dandelion Wine, and there must have been a short story collection I read as well; but I never read any of the science fiction–my education in Heinlein and other science fiction greats is also sorely lacking (although I have read quite a bit of Azimov and of course, Dune). I think I’ve avoided the great science fiction writers of back in the day because the advances in technology in reality have made some of those stories probably obsolete–watching 2001 recently, along with Blade Runner, was interesting in seeing what major corporations of the time they were made are no longer around (Pan Am and Howard Johnson’s, for a few) that people of the time couldn’t possibly imagine wouldn’t be around in the future. Perhaps I’ll move Something Wicked This Way Comes closer to the top of the reread pile. I didn’t enjoy it all that much at the time–I was expecting something a little more Stephen King-ish–and with more of an adult, better read mentality, I might enjoy and appreciate it more. I am certainly intrigued by that voice, which is very similar to the one he used in the short story.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines with me. Have a lovely and safe Thursday, Constant Reader!

Always

Kansas.

We moved to Kansas the summer I turned fifteen. It was a bit of culture shock; we’d been living a middle-to-upper middle class suburb of Chicago for about four years then, after spending eight or nine years in a working-class, very blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, populated primarily with eastern European immigrants, or second, maybe third, generation Americans from central to eastern Europe. All I really knew about Kansas, before moving there, was that it had been a part of the Dust Bowl during the depression; I’d read about “bleeding Kansas” in history books; and of course, tornadoes and The Wizard of Oz (which is a movie I’ve never cared for; I watched it once as a kid and never again). Neither Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys ever had an adventure there; nor had any of the other kids’ series or Scholastic Book Club mysteries I’d read. But it was in Kansas that I actually started writing seriously, and began to think about being a writer when I grew up. (It was also in Kansas that I had the bad creative writing professor, and other bad history professors; I actually cannot think of a single decent teacher I had at the university level in Kansas–but then again, I was incredibly miserable when I lived in Kansas and it’s entirely possible that misery bled over into every other aspect of my life.)

I also don’t want to make it seem as though the five or so years I spent there were completely miserable. I did have fun–I was always desperately trying to have fun to distract me from the terror that arose from my sexuality, which was a secret that must be guarded from everyone at all times; it’s laughable to think about it now, but that terror was very real to me then.

It was in Kansas I started writing about teenagers, and while none of that stuff I’d written was publishable–I still have the handwritten novel I started writing there somewhere; the thought of rereading it turns my stomach as I can only imagine how incredibly bad, trite, and cliched it all was–but those characters have lived on and appeared in my actual published work as an adult; primarily I kept the character names and the basis of who they were, fleshing them out and (hopefully) making them three dimensional. Sara is, to date, the only book I’ve published that is set in Kansas; Laura, the main character in Sorceress, is also from Kansas–but the book is set in California. And of course I’ve been playing with the Kansas book now for something like fifteen years–hopefully, that will be finished and done this year.

I love to read about Kansas, and two of my favorite crime writers–Lori Roy and Sara Paretsky–are also from Kansas; Lori’s first novel, Bent Road (it’s brilliant, as is everything she writes) is set in Kansas; Sara, of course, primarily writes about Chicago but wrote a stand alone several years ago called Bleeding Kansas I’ve always wanted to get around to. Nancy Pickard also wrote two stunningly brilliant novels set in Kansas–The Virgin of Small Plains and The Scent of Rain and Lightning; I cannot recommend them enough. One cannot talk about Kansas books, either, without mentioning Truman Capote’s “true crime novel” In Cold Blood, which I like to reread every now and then.

There’s just something noir about Kansas; I don’t know how to describe it, or why it feels that way to me; but there’s just something about the wide open spaces and the wind, that Peyton Place-like feel to the small cities…Emporia (the county seat; we lived about eight miles out of town in an even smaller town called Americus) even had its own full blown scandal where a minister and the church secretary had an affair and murdered their spouses; it was even made into a two-part mini-series filmed on location in Emporia starring Jobeth Williams as the femme fatale. Those small towns, scattered all over the northern part of Lyon County, once thriving and bustling but now barely hand on when I lived there…the abandoned schools, still standing (they’d all been consolidated into one high school in the 1950’s) in the emptying little towns…our consolidated high school, out in the middle of the country with the football field backing up to a pasture; and the explosive boredom for teenagers. I always turn back to Kansas somehow, whenever I am thinking creatively or wanting to write a new short story–so much material, really. Emporia even had a cult; the old Presbyterian College of Emporia had gone bankrupt sometime in the early 1970’s and The Way International had bought the campus, turning it into The Way College of Emporia and I have to tell you, those kids from The Way College were terrifying–and there were lots of stories and urban legends about what went on there on that campus; how much was true I’ll probably never know, but I do know they used to have armed security guards patrolling the edge of campus, and every teenager knew not to ever get cornered anywhere with no possible escape by two or more of those kids….they always traveled in groups, never less than two and rarely more than six, but always in multiples of two. They always looked very clean cut, but you knew them by the nametags they were required to wear, their empty glassy eyes, and the big smiles on their faces.

There’s also the story of the bloody Benders, serial killers who operated an inn and murdered their guests in the nineteenth century before disappearing; I’m sure every nook and cranny of Kansas has some kind of horrible tale of murder hidden away.

And about three or four miles from our high school–you had to turn right when you reached the state road from Americus to get there; if you turned left towards Council Grove you’d pass this place: an abandoned nuclear missile base, that is still there. We used to go there sometimes for kicks–opening the door and listening to the strange sounds from deep inside and water dripping. I had plenty of nightmares about that missile base.

But the only other gay novelist I know from Kansas is Scott Heim (or at least the only one I know of who sometimes writes about Kansas). I read his debut novel Mysterious Skin sometime in the mid to late 1990’s, and was blown away by it (the film is also quite good). Mysterious Skin is set in Kansas, of course, and while it is a literary novel, and a quite good one, for me there were some elements of noir to the story; I have moved it to the The Reread Project pile and hope to get to it again relatively soon, so i can discuss it with more credibility and authority. I’ve not had the opportunity to read his other two novels, In Awe and We Disappear, but I’m adding them to the “need to get a copy” list.

Over this past weekend I read a short story Scott wrote for Amazon; part of something called The Disorder Collection, along with stories from several other authors. You can buy “Loam” here; it’s well worth the ninety-nine cents.

We agreed to share the driving. The early-morning flights had left us feeling run-down, but my sisters said my eyes looked the least bleary, so I should drive first. The clouds had gone gray; it had started to rain. But we could take our time. The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood.

At the rental counter, a cheery, silver-haired clerk had offered us a white sedan, but Louise had disapproved. “A simple compact is fine,” she said, “and no extra options. Just make sure it’s as black as possible. Is ‘funeral black’ a color?” She’d glanced across the desk to Miriam and me, urging us to smile. No one had smiled since we’d met in the arrival lobby with hesitant hugs.

The clerk didn’t seem to grasp Louise’s reference, but when she collected our licenses, she was attentive enough to catch our dates of birth. She turned and yelled, “Girls, come look–triplets!”

It had been years since we’d been subjected to this kind of foolishness. We watched as her pair of coworkers stood from their desks and approached the counter. I could guess what was coming next: we didn’t look anything alike; we had varying shades of brown and blond hair; even our bodies and the ways we dressed, so different. Louise stopped their small talk before it could start, outstretching her hand to silence the room. “Look, our father just died, okay? Let’s sign what we need to sign and get this over with.”

One of the things I love about Heim’s work–and having only read one novel over twenty years ago and now this short story–is that he often writes about the aftereffects, and the aftermath, of traumas and how the victims deal and cope. This is something that interests me; I often think and wonder about how people who’ve dealt with something–my husband is a serial sex offender; my father murdered my mother, my grandfather was a serial killer–they had no control over cope and go on with their lives; I’m actually writing a story dealing with that sort of thing right now (one of the many stories I have in some sort of progress right now; it’s called “He Didn’t Kill Her”), and also those who were directly victimized–how do they deal? How do they cope? How do they go on with their lives after something so traumatic happens to them?

This is why this century’s reboots and sequels to Halloween interest me, because they show how Laurie Strode, years later, was psychologically damaged and who she became; one of the things I loved about the Scream films is they showed how everything that has happened to her has turned Sydney into a different person from who she imagined she’d be before the murders started.

Heim doesn’t write about the peripherally damaged; he writes about those who actually were damaged first-hand. In “Loam”, his triplets are clearly damaged by something that happened to them when they were children; they are returning to bury their father and clearly have not been back to Kansas in years. It isn’t clear what happened to them–it may have just been bad parenting in the beginning–and it isn’t until they stop at a second-hand store (what we used to call “junk shops” when I was a kid) and find some strange and mysterious pictures of their first grade classmates on a table that the memories of the past–and what they went through–begin to come to the fore.

I do wish Scott Heim would write more. This story, sad and dark and mysterious, is everything I love to read.

This: The afternoon we’d been dreading lay before us in hot, wet highways flanked by sorghum and corn and glistening shocks of wheat. It was late summer, already harvest season, and the fields shuddered in the wind, the grains full and heavy as though fed with blood–I wish I’d written that.

Buy it or borrow it if you have Amazon Prime. It’s very well worth the time.

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