At some point, with all the book -bans and censorship that’s going on, I am going to have to recap and go over my own experience with being banned; but that will require logic, rational thought and revisiting my blog entries from that period to refresh my memory. Yesterday I got political on here for the first time in a long time, and you know–it kind of felt good to get that out of my system and into the public sphere. I do feel very complicit for not speaking out sooner, but…I’ve always worried, more so after turning fifty, that my opinions might cause trouble for others I am associated with; I work at a non-profit for one, and of course, I had a very long volunteer service ‘career’ with Mystery Writers of America. It was probably at least nine years of service all told; and I didn’t want anyone claiming I was speaking for MWA (particularly when I was serving as Executive Vice President) when I was expressing myself personally; nor did I want anything I might say or do to reflect poorly on the organization–or have my words used against it in any way. As EVP, I was one of only two people authorized to speak for the organization publicly; and that last year after pandemic restrictions were lifted I traveled a lot, representing the organization at several conferences and events. And even though I personally knew where the lines were drawn and what was and wasn’t separate, I couldn’t count on other people to keep or recognize those same distinctions…and I was far too busy with everything to willingly risk more things to have to deal with by opening my mouth on here. That’s part of the reason I dialed that all back–along with the “preaching to the choir” element–but yesterday morning I realized you don’t have to be careful about what you say publicly anymore and it was incredibly liberating. So yes, I will sometimes be taking on things that I feel strongly about and not keeping my mouth shut the way I have for so long. (In my narcissistic hubris, I also sort of blame myself for the state of the world right now because I kept my mouth shut for so long.) Besides, if you read this blog or my books (hopefully both), it should be readily apparent that politically I am basically a Jacobin–albeit one who understands how our government runs and functions and how it is supposed to work…which some people serving in Washington don’t seem to know, which is odd. Surely the ones in my age group had to take Government or Civics in high school? I don’t see how they could have passed it, but here we are.
So be prepared, Constant Reader. There’s a lengthy tome coming on the Virginia Incident.
But I finished editing the manuscript I was working on (not one of my own) last evening and sent it back to the author, and I can breathe. I have a ZOOM call scheduled with my editor, so we can talk out all the issues and scheduling for Mississippi River Mischief, which I am actually itching to get back to work on. I think I’ll take today and tomorrow as free days from writing, and then I will jump back into the book on Sunday. I want to do it the way I always do my editing and revisions; by chapter as opposed to entire manuscript, which is what I had been doing and I think this change of work habits, on top of the depression and everything else, made it impossible for me to get the book finished. I don’t think I’ll get it done by the end of May, but surely I can get it finished by mid-June, and then can move back to Chlorine–which will also require me going over and revising the opening chapters again so I can get the voice down again. I am also going to go back to my chapter-per-week project I was working on before my life blew up late last year, and I feel marvelous about everything. I feel very excited about this, and about getting back to writing again. This hasn’t been the best year for me thus far, really, and I also need to stop thinking oh I need to understand why I feel like this or trying to deconstruct everything in some kind of pseudo-psychological processing. My mother died after a slow, lengthy decline, at an extremely difficult time for me professionally. I need to stop feeling guilty about grieving, or being unable to do anything because of depression. Of course I am experiencing some depression; I’d have to be inhuman not to feel anything. And like with all previous traumas, I am learning to navigate grief as I go–although maybe I should read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking–and like all previous traumas, it creates a bipolar existence where one day you are fine and the next you’re back in the pit of despair. Sometimes the day will start out great and will flip as it goes on. I have nothing wise or profound to say about loss or grief; although there is something to be said about the numb emotional deadening the HIV/AIDS crisis brought in its wake. I would never want to be that zombie-like ever again, drifting through the days waiting to hear someone else is in the hospital, someone else has died, and there’s another funeral in a few days–but I also have to start recognizing, at this great advanced age, that I’ve never processed or dealt with that time either. (It’s a Sin was a strong reminder of that very thing. I was also thinking Longtime Companion deserves a revisit; it’s always been hard to watch for me, but the beach scene at the end always makes me sob. I’ve also been thinking about the literature of the plague; has anyone ever compiled a list of the classic HIV/AIDS writings? There’s a thesis for a grad student.)
Last night I slept like a log; the sleep of the righteous for finally finishing that editing job. I feel great this morning–rested and relaxed. I do have some work at home duties to accomplish today, and the kitchen is a complete disaster area. I have decided that I am going to finish reading Lori Roy’s Let Me Die in His Footsteps (which is fucking brilliant in every way), as well as reread the openings of the Scotty books this weekend, to see if I can get his voice back into my brain–I feel like that’s the big problem in Mississippi River Mischief–I haven’t nailed the voice and tone in any of the drafts yet, so I need to re-familiarize myself with Scotty’s voice and his wicked, wicked ways. I am actually excited about getting reacquainted with him. This is our ninth outing together, and I always wonder with each one if this is the last or not. I think there’s at least two more Scottys within the reaches of my brain–Hurricane Party Hustle and Quarter Quarantine Quadrille for sure–but you never know what is going to happen next and what may come along your road to write from out of nowhere. I’d like to get both Chlorine and Muscles finished this year, as well as the novellas, and maybe a short story collection by the end of the year. I have also been thinking that one thing that is missing from the annals of New Orleans (or Louisiana, for that matter) crime fiction is the environmental novel. John D. MacDonald deplored what politicians and greedy developers were doing to the tropical paradise of Florida, and slipped that social commentary into almost every Travis McGee novel and many of his stand alones (Barrier Island comes to mind). Louisiana has been in an environmental crisis for decades, and yet no one ever writes about the eroding coastline, the greed of the oil companies and the politicians they buy and pay for every year; Cancer Alley along the river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans being a hotbed of toxic waste; and of there was the Bayou Corne sinkhole a few years ago. I don’t know that I have the knowledge or the time to do the necessary research to write such things, but it’s something someone needs to write. And you know what I always say–if you think someone should write it, that someone should be you.
For me, though, the problem with research is how do you stop from going down wormholes and wasting days? Where do you draw the line, and when do you know you’ve done enough? As Constant Reader knows, I can never get enough of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of European history; I can spend days in wormholes of research about politics and wars and the powerful; it was an interesting time–when white Europeans began their colonization of the world, when Christianity had it’s huge splintering that led to war after war after war, the Hapsburgs continuing to expand their empire by marrying it, and on and on and on. Remarkable female leaders proliferated in the sixteenth century more than perhaps any other century before or since; which makes the sixteenth a bit more interesting than the seventeenth. The seventeenth interests me because it was the century when the world empires continued to grow and oppress natives around the globe, but it was also the time of the rise of the modern state, when the political games became more about state power rather than faith or old inheritance claims–when politics became more about the country than the King’s whims. I also go down New Orleans and Louisiana history wormholes a lot, too. I will never have the time to write everything I want to write, or research history enough to write about it. I really, for example, want to write about the German Coast rebellion of the enslaved; I want to write about Freniere, Louisiana being wiped off the map; and I want to write more historical stories set in New Orleans.
And I want to write a romance. I had that on my list of projects for this year, but then everything blew up in my face and my control over the year slipped right out of my fingers. But even though it’s mid to late May, it’s not too late to salvage the rest of the year from the wreckage of the first five months.
And on that note, I’m heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely Friday, Constant Reader, and I will check in which you again later or tomorrow.
Monday morning and I got home from Malice Domestic yesterday afternoon after a rather odd but interesting time at the airport–more on that later. I was very tired–exhausted would not be hyperbole–but also very glad I was home. I had a lovely, wonderful, splendid time; the only regrets I have are that there were times when I was tired and had to go rest in my room for a while and take a break rather than spend that time catching up with old friends while getting to know the new ones. I had trouble sleeping the entire trip, which was unfortunate; even going two days without having any Coke didn’t do the trick (and once it didn’t work, why continue depriving myself?). But what a marvelous, friendly event Malice Domestic turned out to be this year! I also got to thank some people in person for their kindnesses over the last year which was also lovely. I read Ellen Byron’s marvelous Wined and Died in New Orleans on the trip up, so didn’t mind the flight delay or the rush hour traffic my cab from the airport was unfortunately timed to cross paths with. But because of the delay I went for a long time without eating–nothing from my yogurt before I left for the airport until about eight o’clock that evening–so my blood sugar dropped and I never really caught up on it over the course of the weekend. That and the no sleep resulted in a very tired Gregalicious who arrived at the Lost Apartment much later than scheduled–which was yet another life lesson.
On my way to the airport in a Lyft (wonderful, friendly driver named Tyrone who got a 25% tip), just as he dropped me off Southwest texted me of a half hour delay on my flight. No worries–I got to the airport about two hours before the flight, so…an extra half hour, no big deal. Of course, it’s Washington National…small, cramped, overcrowded, and not many options for food once you’re past security. And then it seem like every half hour there was another text with another hour delay. Tired and uncomfortable, I started getting annoyed. But as the delays continued to pile up–along with gate changes, which meant moving and trying to find another place to sit–I moved from irritation to acceptance to amusement, along with a lot of empathy for the airline employees. While they never said what the problem was, I’d assumed it was weather–but now this morning, I am beginning to think it was a mechanical issue. The last text I got extending the delay to make it another two and a half hours after the airport was followed shortly thereafter by another text changing the gate and now moving the flight up from its previous 3:45 departure (originally scheduled for 12:45) to 2:00 pm, which clearly meant they’d exchanged an aircraft and crew for the original one I was supposed to be on. So, that was cool, and the flight was two-thirds empty, so I got an entire row to myself just as I did on the way up to DC. I also hadn’t eaten, and there was nowhere to eat during the delay other than a pizza place (and I wasn’t in the mood for pizza) so was starving by the time I retrieved my bag and car and headed for home. I stopped and got Paul and I dinner–I knew there wouldn’t be anything in the Lost Apartment to eat–and then came home, exhausted and happy to be back home. I love conferences; I love seeing my people and my friends and making new ones and discovering new books and writers to enjoy. My Agatha nominees panel was marvelous, and excellently moderated by Alan Orloff. I was fun being on a panel with Elizabeth Bunce again (and her Myrtle series is marvelous; check it out) and Frances Schoonmaker was an absolute delight. We also somehow all three wound up wearing red and black to the banquet, which was a delightful surprise. I got to sit next to Valona Jones (aka Maggie Toussaint) at the table–she’s lovely– as was everyone else at my table. Didn’t win–so, as per my post the other day, it now seems real to me, and I got my nominees’ certificate which I am going to proudly hang somewhere in the my office space. But there’s also no disgrace in losing to Nancy Springer and Enola Holmes, either. I got to talk about my book, which was nice-–when you’re as prolific as I am, sometimes conferences fall in such a way that I’ve had two out since the last conference, so sometimes I don’t get to talk about a book that I’ve written anywhere publicly other than here and social media. I also loved the questions Alan asked us on the panel; I’m thinking I may answer them at length on here because they were that great kind of question that you could literally spend an hour talking about instead of just the limited time we had for the panel. (I was also thinking I should maybe talk more about the book again? I don’t know. It was lovely. I had a lot of people tell me they’d read it and even more telling me it was a great title…so maybe I should talk about it some more? I don’t know.) I got to sit next to Mariah Fredericks at the signing, so I got to meet and talk to her a bit and she’s delightful (her latest, The Lindbergh Nanny, sounds amazing). I am glad I got to spend some time with friends, too–there was lots of laughter, which was wonderful–and I never got over-served, which was also a first for me at a mystery conference! Maybe that was why I couldn’t sleep? Nah, definitely not that. I also got to talk about being banned for the first time in years; for one thing, it’s hard to believe it happened eighteen years ago and now everyone is dealing with the shit I dealt with back then, too….so it occurs to me that in light of the return of the banning, I should probably write about it again from the perspective of how things are now. I also was thinking I should write about how much I love Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels after going to the appreciation panel; she helped found Malice, which always puts Malice into a special place in my heart already because I loved her work.
Anyway, I got home while it was still light out, unloaded my suitcase into the washing machine and got that started; put my dress clothes in a pile to take to the dry cleaner’s; and then spent the evening relaxing with Paul and Scooter while we watched Ghosted (the new Chris Evans/Ana de Armas action/adventure rom-com which was actually kind of cute and fun–the two stars are likable and charming and have good chemistry) and then more episodes of The Watchful Eye, which is quite strange and oddly entertaining. We’ll probably finish off the series tonight. I do have a lot to do today–I took the day off, and am very glad I did, as I was exhausted and OMG, I slept so good; there’s nothing like your own bed, seriously–and then we’ll need to find something new, although I think there are some shows we watch dropping new seasons this month. I have to get the mail, pick up a prescription, gas up the car, have a doctor’s appointment, need to get groceries, and have a ZOOM meeting tonight. I also have to dig back into the book; I am so horribly behind on this revision it’s not even funny. ANd it’s May already. Jesus. I also started reading Lori Roy’s marvelous Edgar winning Let Me Die in His Footsteps from 2015; Constant Reader, it is quite wonderful and I honestly can’t wait to finish reading it. Lori Roy is one of my favorite current authors, and doesn’t get nearly the attention she should. (She’s also one of those rare authors who hit the ultimate dual–Edgars for Best First Novel and later for Best Novel.) The kitchen is a mess, as always, but I’m glad I spent some time before the trip trying to get that shit caught up because it isn’t nearly as bad as it could be (and was).
And now I have a day to get caught up on life after being in my author bubble for a few days to ease my reentry into my regular life. I won’t get to be AUTHOR again until Bouchercon in San Diego. But that’s okay, you know. I like the balance of the two different parts of my life, and there’s nothing like working in an STI clinic to keep you not only humble but grounded in the real world.
And on that note, I am heading into the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and thanks again to everyone at Malice Domestic for a simply marvelous weekend.
My flight was a bit delayed yesterday–weather between New Orleans and Fort Lauderdale–and then got stuck in a lengthy cab ride in horrific DC traffic (which is why I never drove that miserable year we lived here), but over all it was pleasant. The flight wasn’t full, I had a row to myself, and the screaming infants on the other side of the aisle weren’t too obnoxious, and I got to read Ellen Byron’s Wined and Died in New Orleans, which I’ve been calling the wrong name for quite some time now, which is more than a little embarrassing (it’s because I’ve always wanted to write something called To Live and Die in La.–which is a play on the title of a crime film from the 1980’s I remember nothing of other than the title song was recorded by Wang Chung and I kind of liked it; and I think–could be wrong–Willem Dafoe was in the cast (I don’t care enough to look it up; you can access the Google just as easily as I can). Other than that, I don’t really remember a whole lot of it.
But I did make it to the hotel, got my registration packet, and then started running into friends–first up were Barb Goffman and Dina Willner; always a treat when the first people you run into are lovely people you enjoy–and then that first night became a bit of a blur; I wound up having dinner with Julie Hennrikus and Sherry Harris, then ran into Ellen Byron (see above) and then I wound up sitting in the bar with her, Vicky Delaney, Leslie Karst, and a couple of other lovely people whose names I do not recall. Then, very tired, I repaired back up to my room and actually slept decently (for a hotel; it would have been a ‘meh’ sleep night if I were at home). The bed is actually very comfortable, the room itself is nicely sized, but cannot comment on the shower yet, as I’ve not had one but no worries–it’ll be happening very soon.
It just feels very good to be around book people again. I kind of need that, you know? Writing is such a weird profession, in that you spend most of the your time isolated from your colleagues (co-workers, really) and even if you like near other writers…everyone is busy. We all have jobs on top of our writing, we all have families and homes to keep up and errands to do and the everyday minutiae that has to be done every day…and then you have to carve out time from all of that to do your own writing. I try to be very jealous of my writing time and always try to protect it, which was always an issue before. And yes, there are many times when I’ll find something else–anything else–to do other than write, I really don’t understand it, but almost everything I love to do is something I have to make myself do. I have to make myself go to the gym. I have to force myself to write…although that usually happens when the other option is so odious that writing is preferable. But once I get started–when I finally get started–I love it. Just like the gym. I always feel so good afterwards (that endorphin rush is so marvelous)…which reminds me, I want to start taking walks every day when I get home from work, even if it’s just around the block or down to the park and back, I should spend more time outside, really.
I should do a lot more things.
But I already feel invigorated and inspired, which is really the primary benefit (for me) of coming to these things. Even yesterday on the flight I was putting Ellen’s book aside from time to time so I could scribble an idea into my journal. That’s very cool. I think this morning I’ll probably take a shower and then spend some time editing the new Scotty because I may not get another chance to work at all and I am running (as always) out of time,
So on that note, Constant Reader, I will bid you adieu. My panel tomorrow morning is early, and I have to leave for the airport relatively early on Sunday morning, too, so…this may be the last you hear from me until Monday. Can you go two days without me, Constant Reader? Chin up! You can do it. And besides, you know me. I’ll probably post something anyway.
As I get ready to write another Scotty book, I am busy making his acquaintance all over again. It might seem strange, but yes, although I’ve written eight books about my ex-go-go boy/personal trainer/private eye, it remains true in this as in all other aspects of my life that my memory is not what it once was; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a Scotty book since the first three without having to go back and revisit the series again. I have made continuity errors over the years (Scotty’s mother’s name changed over the course of the series, from Cecile to Marguerite and back to Cecile again), and I may forget things about his past and things I’ve written in previous books, but the one thing I never ever forget is his voice.
No matter what else is going on in my life, Scotty’s voice is very easy for me to slip back into, like a house shoe, and it somehow always feels like coming home to me in some ways. This is odd–because I would have always thought Chanse was the series character I was more connected to rather than Chanse, but that’s not the case at all. Scotty just won’t go away; but I ended the Chanse series and only every once in a while do I regret it (although I am beginning to suspect that I am going to probably end up writing another Chanse novel at some point in my life; I have two ideas that he’d be perfect for, but it also might be better and more challenging for me to simply come up with a whole new character for those stories rather than resurrecting Chanse); Scotty just won’t ever go away.
The idea for the Scotty series famously came to me during Southern Decadence, 1998.
(Well, I don’t know about famously, but I know I’ve told this story before many, many times. Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t want to see how I remember the birth of the character and the series now)
It was a Sunday afternoon, and Paul and I had somehow managed to get prime balcony standing spots–at the Bourbon Pub/Parade, right at the corner of St. Ann and Bourbon where the railing curves at the corner to head alongside the upper floor down the St. Ann side; so we could look down directly into the roiling mass of sweaty, almost completely naked bodies of hundreds of gay men from all over the country. That was my favorite spot for Decadence sight-seeing (Halloween, too, for that matter), and as I looked down into the crowd, I saw a guy in booty shorts and a very very loose fitting tank top, carrying a bag and trying to get through. I recognized him as one of the out-of-town dancers working at the Pub/Parade that weekend (I may have tipped him the night before) and as I watched in sympathy as he tried to get through that tightly-packed crowd of gays in various stages of being wasted, I closed my eyes and an image of him–or someone like him–fighting his way through the Decadence crowd while being chased by bad guys with shaved heads popped into my head just as Paul said, next to me, “You should really write a story set during Decadence” and then it popped into my head: someone escaping the bad guys has slipped a computer disc into one of the dancers’ boots on Friday night as he danced on the downstairs bar, and the bad guys want the disc back.
I didn’t have any way to write it down, obviously–I was wearing booty shorts, socks, and half-boots that came to my ankles, with nothing underneath the shorts and I had my tank top tucked through a belt loop like a tail in the back–yet even the title popped into my head: Bourbon Street Blues. The idea clearly stuck, because when I got home the next morning at about six or seven, dehydrated, drenched in sweat and having lost the tank top at some point during the night, I remembered it and wrote it down.
At some point over the next two years, I wrote a short story called “Bourbon Street Blues” about my stripper–only instead of being from out of town, I made him a local, filling in for someone booked from out of town for the weekend who had to cancel–and wrote about seven thousand words. It felt very rushed to me–the story–and I kept thinking it’s too long for a short story, it would have to be a novel but I also wasn’t sure there was enough story there for a novel. But I liked the idea, no one (at least, to the best of my knowledge) had written anything like it, and I thought, someday I’ll get a chance to write this story and develop this character.
Flash forward to 2001. This was during the time Paul and I had moved to DC to work for the Lambda Literary Foundation, we were miserable there and wanted to move back to New Orleans but didn’t have the money to do so, and the release of Murder in the Rue Dauphine was still at least a year away. I was talking to an editor on the phone about one of his new gay releases, and out of the blue I just pitched Bourbon Street Blues to him. He loved the idea, and asked me to write a proposal and email it to him. I had never written a proposal before, but I thought what the hell, how hard can it be? and so I wrote a two page proposal for the book. Two months later they made me a two-book offer–and the money was good enough to pay for Paul and I to move back to New Orleans as well as to live on for a while. I had only seen the book as a one-off, but they wanted a series. I needed and wanted the money, so I thought I can figure this out later and signed it.
Three months later, we moved back to New Orleans and I started writing the book.
The one thing I wanted to do with Scotty was make him unabashedly, unashamedly, gay. I didn’t want him to have any hang-ups, a sad backstory, or parental issues. I wanted him to be a free spirit who embraces life with both hands, lived in the Quarter, and loved having sex, loved being found desirable, and never really said anything or thought anything mean about anyone else. I made him a personal trainer, and his poverty–he agrees to do the dancing gig for Decadence because he’s behind on his rent and other bills; he teaches aerobics and was a personal trainer–comes from his grandparents freezing his trust funds when he dropped out of college to go to work for a booking agency for male dancers. He has since stopped doing that, but fills in when needed (and when he needs the money) at the Pub/Parade. I also based the shitty politician running for governor–and trying to mount a Christofascist takeover of the state, beginning with an attack on Southern Decadence–on an actual politician who ran for the US Senate shortly after we moved here; we saw him being interviewed on the news and couldn’t believe it wasn’t a joke, some kind of performance art–but forget it Greg, it’s Louisiana.
I also want to let you know that while I was working on this manuscript my first book, Murder in the Rue Dauphine, was released–and I got a “damned with faint praise” review from the Bay Area Reporter, which complained that “it would have been nice to see inside the heads of the other characters”, which took me aback as the book was a first person narrative, which made that impossible. What the reviewer I think was trying to say was that she wished the book had been told in the third person; that to her that would have made the book more interesting to her. But in my baby-author naïveté, all I could think was how can you see inside the heads of other characters in a third person narrative unless the main character was psychic?And the proverbial lightbulb came on over my head. Make Scotty a psychic. This was also an integral key to the puzzle of who Scotty was; the reviewer also yawned over my “gay stereotypes” in Rue Dauphine, so I decided to make Scotty the embodiment of all the worst stereotypes of muscular gay men who worked out and had a lot of sex. Just writing that down now, I realize how incredibly insane it was for me to use my new series book and character to respond to criticism o my debut novel; and when the book came out I braced myself for the inevitable backlash to come.
No one was more surprised than I was at how readers embraced him. The book got great reviews, even from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal (Kirkus, of course, has always pretended I don’t exist). Bourbon Street Blues was even nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Mystery of 2003 (I lost, I think to John Morgan Wilson?) shortly after the sequel, Jackson Square Jazz, was released.
Jackson Square Jazz’s story was actually a recycled idea I had for a spin-off book for Chanse’s best friend Paige. The original concept was that someone would steal the Louisiana Purchase from the Cabildo–and somehow Paige stumbled onto the theft, and knew that the one on display currently there was a copy. (I was calling it, originally enough, Louisiana Purchase.) I decided to make that the basis of the second Scotty book. (This was inspired by a documentary I’d seen about the Cabildo fire of 1989–that may be the wrong date–and how the fire department tried saving everything in the museum before fighting the fire. I remembered how in the documentary they literally were placing historical objects and paintings against the fence at Jackson Square and thinking, anyone could have walked off with something during the fire…and my imagination immediately was off to the races.) Unfortunately, when I met with the museum director–whose actual first day on the job was the day of the fire–I found out that 1) the copy of the Louisiana Purchase at the Cabildo was actually only a replica and the original was stored in the weather-protected underground archive at the Library of Congress and 2) it was more than one page long–I’d imagined it was one large document like the Declaration of Independence; it is not. However–he also suggested I make the MacGuffin the Napoleon death mask–one of the three originals made when Napoleon died–and gave me some great backstory on it as well that I don’t remember if I used in the book or not; but it was a lot of fun talking to him (his name escapes me at the moment, alas) and was a great example of why it is important to actually do research and talk to people.
I also wanted to include figure skating–the working title for the book was Death Spiral, which the publisher made me change, asking for something alliterative, like Bourbon Street Blues–and so I decided to open the book with Scotty having a horrific hangover and then realizing someone was in the bed with him (it’s to this day one of my favorite book openings; what slutty gay man hasn’t been there?)…and then I remembered I’d introduced two love interests for Scotty in book one, and here he was in bed with someone else entirely. (The young man he woke up with was a figure skater in town to compete at Skate America, being held in the Smoothie King Arena.) I loved both of his love interests, and knew I was going to have to bring both of them back somehow, and then I was going to have to figure out which one he’d end up with. (Spoiler: I couldn’t decide, so he wound up with both of them.) I also threw in a ghost, a billionaire artifact collector, and pretty much everything but the kitchen sink. I turned in the book, along with a proposal for Book Three, in which I finally decided I was going to resolve the threeway relationship personal story, and that would be the end of the Scotty trilogy.
Man plans and God laughs. (Jackson Square Jazz was also nominated for a Lambda; I think this was the time I lost to Anthony Bidulka.)
Mardi Gras Mambo turned out to be an entire other kettle of fish.
I’m not entirely sure I remember exactly what the original plot of Mardi Gras Mambo was going to be, but I know it had to do with the Krewe of Iris (Scotty’s sister Rain belongs) and the book opened at the Iris parade on the Saturday morning before Fat Tuesday. It was due in June of 2004, and of course, I wasn’t nearly finished by the time Memorial Day rolled around, and was planning on asking for another month on the manuscript on the Tuesday after. Of course, that was the Memorial Day weekend when Paul was attacked and everything went to hell in my personal life. My publisher was incredibly kind; they took the book off schedule, told me to take care of Paul, and get the book done whenever I got the book done.
I started writing it again in January of 2005, shortly after I began keeping a blog in order to get me writing again. That was when the Christian/Virginia nonsense happened, and everything got derailed again. When I started writing the book again, I threw out everything except that first chapter at the Iris parade–which did wind up in the final book–and I do not recall what the second plot I chose to write was at this time, other than I knew I was bringing in a Russian character, inspired by someone I’d seen around in the bars for years and had always been just awestruck by his body–and yes, that Russian turned out to eventually be Wacky Russian, my personal trainer. I actually kept this as an inspiration–Eclipse used to be the nightlife insert for IMPACT News, a queer newspaper that died out in the early aughts:
Finally, it was April 2005, and I started writing Mardi Gras Mambo again. I had the plot all figured out–it was completely insane–but I also realized I couldn’t end the personal story with Scotty the way I had hoped and wrap it all up with Book Three. There had to be a Book 4, and so when I finished the book at last and turned it in, I included a proposal for a fourth Scotty, Hurricane Party Hustle–which was going to be set during an evacuation for a hurricane that missed New Orleans…I always thought it would be interesting to write a mystery story set during such an evacuation.
Of course, I turned the book into Kensington on August 14th, 2005. Fourteen days later, Paul, Skittle and I fled from New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina.
I wouldn’t come back for good until October 11. Paul didn’t come home until after Thanksgiving.
Of course, I wrote to my editor a day or so after the levee failure to say, well, I don’t think I can write that book I proposed now.
I didn’t see, for a very long time afterwards, how I could write another Scotty book–light, funny, zany–in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Then one day I was walking to work from where I’d parked my car and some people on bicycles came riding toward me. They smiled and waved and I smiled and waved back…and realized oh my God, that was Brad and Anjelina. Their house wasn’t far from my office–in fact, it was quite literally around the block from where Scotty lived–and I thought, you know, Brad kind of looks the way I describe Scotty–wouldn’t it be funny if someone tried to kill Scotty because he looked like a movie star who lived in his neighborhood? The more I thought about it, the funnier it became, and I started writing the proposal for Hollywood South Hustle when I got home from work that night. I was so certain they would take it that I started developing the characters and writing out a detailed synopsis…and they turned it down.
I wasn’t expecting that, but it was a marketing decision. Even if they signed the book immediately, it would still be another year before it would come out, and they felt by then Scotty’s audience was long gone, if it wasn’t already. It was disappointing, but right around the same time Alyson came back to me for a fourth Chanse book but they needed it right away–like within ten weeks–so I turned the Scotty story into Murder in the Rue Ursulines. I finished the book, turned it in, and figured the Scotty series was dead, alas.
Shortly thereafter, during the Gay Easter Parade an idea for a different Scotty book occurred to me . The parade was over and I was walking back to my car to drive home when I walked underneath a balcony…just as they started watering their plants. I got soaked–you can’t get mad, it happens in the Quarter periodically and it’s just one of those New Orleans things–and I thought, you really need to write about this. As I walked to the car, dripping, I pictured Scotty hurrying to catch a ride on his parents’ business’ float for the Easter Parade–and of course, he’d wear a white bikini, rabbit ears, and have a rabbit tail–when the exact same thing happened to him, only his bikini would become see-through when wet. By the time I’d driven home, I’d figured that the person on the balcony would be an old friend of his parents’, he’d invited Scotty in to dry off, and when Scotty was on his way home from the parade, the cops would be there because the friend had been murdered. Using The Moonstone as my inspiration, I came up with another MacGuffin story, a way for Colin to come back and explain everything that happened during Mardi Gras Mambo, and I had the perfect ending to Scotty’s story. I just didn’t have a publisher.
But Bold Strokes Books, a primarily lesbian publisher, had started doing books by and about gay men. I’d taken an erotica anthology to them when it was orphaned by the death of its original publisher, and so I wrote and asked if they wanted a Scotty story. They did, and thus Scotty came back to life one more time…and I figured that was the end of it. I wrapped up the personal story about the three-way relationship in a way that was organic and made sense; and I also added a new wrinkle to Scotty’s personal life: Frank’s late-in-life decision to become a professional wrestler. (One of the things we locals learned from Hurricane Katrina was to not put off following or chasing dreams or goals; my attitude thus became go for it and I started chasing down dreams I’d pushed to the side for years.) Mardi Gras Mambo and Vieux Carré Voodoo were both nominated for Lambdas, but at this point I can’t remember who I lost to in both of those cases–for the record, Lambda has never rewarded a Scotty book with an award–probably because they are inevitably funny and over-the-top, which never wins awards because funny is seen as “not serious,” despite the fact that humor/comedy is much harder than drama/tragedy.
I didn’t think I was going to write another Scotty book then, either. But then something miraculous happened: the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl, and I wanted to write about what it was like to live here during that incredible time. It didn’t seem like the right story for another Chanse book, so I thought, well, I can pull Scotty back out and write it from his point of view.
And of course, Who Dat Whodunnit was just sitting there for the title. How could I not write that book?
I had already established over the course of the series that the two sides of his family–the Diderots (maternal) and the Bradleys (paternal) didn’t really get along. The Diderots go back to Iberville and the 1718 settling of New Orleans; the Bradleys were Americans who came after 1803, and thus are not only parvenus to the aristocratic Diderots, but also l’Américains. Perish the thought! We’d also established that the Diderots were not nearly as conservative as their State Street living in-laws, but we’d never actually seen much of the Bradley side of the family, so I thought why not do the Bradleys and let us get to know the other side of Scotty’s family? It was around the same time I started reading about a megachurch out in Kenner (or Metairie? I don’t recall) that was rising to prominence in local politics and was, as you can imagine, homophobic. The same-sex marriage wars were also being fought at this time; and during one of those pageants (Miss America? Miss USA?) the reigning Miss California was asked about same-sex marriage during the question portion by judge Perez Hilton (why was he judging a beauty pageant for women is a mystery for the ages) and she responded that her faith had taught her that marriage was between a man and a woman (the audience started jeering) and she apologized by saying “I’m sorry, but that’s how I was raised!” She wound up as First Runner-Up, and some felt, rightly or wrongly, that her “politically incorrect” answer cost her the title. In some ways, I felt bad for her (although it’s not my fault it’s how I was raised I have always thought was an incredibly stupid thing to say; you have free will, and you should be capable of making up your own mind rather than simply parroting things without question you were raised to believe. So if your parents were racist white supremacists…) but then of course, the Right tried to turn her into a martyr and heroine, and she dove right into that headfirst, erasing any sympathy I might have felt for her (I still think the question was inappropriate for a pageant, as would be anything polarizing–and yes, well aware that same-sex marriage shouldn’t be polarizing, but here we are), and of course, Miss Upright Moral Christian had a bit of a shady past that eventually came out and that was that. I decided to base the murder victim in the book on this girl, and tried to explore the influence of this megachurch on her. I also gave Scotty a first cousin who was the darling of the Bradley grandparents because he was a jock and was on the Saints team as a player–but also a homophobic asshole. The Bradleys were like something out of Tennessee Williams–I think I even named Scotty’s uncle (the football player’s dad) Uncle Skipper as an homage to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
There’s a lot of story there left in the Bradley side of the family, now that I think about it–and I’ll be digging into that in the new one, rest assured!
Funny story: After I wrote Who Dat Whodunnit, I decided I was not going to write another Scotty book. This had been Book 5 of what started as a stand-alone and then became a trilogy and yet somehow, I’d kept going on top of that. I kind of felt played out a bit with Scotty, and the longer the series went on, the more problems I was having with things like character ages–Scotty was getting older, which meant his parents were getting older, which meant his grandparents were getting older, too. I didn’t want to deal with the deaths of his grandparents (or Aunt Sylvia, who was his grandmother’s age and had married Uncle Misha), and so I had two options: pretend they weren’t getting older and not talk about their ages, or let the series go. I was still writing Chanse at the time, and I kind of figured that would be the series that went on longer. But I was on a panel at Saints and Sinners and someone from the audience asked me if there would be another Scotty.
GREG: Probably not, but if I can figure out a way to include Mike the Tiger (the live tiger mascot at LSU), Huey Long, and a treasure hunt for Huey’s deduct box, I will.
(I had read T. Harry Williams’ award winning biography Huey Long and had become fascinated completely with him. All I had known about Long going into reading that biography was that he’d been a demagogue (thanks, US History textbook from high school) and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men had been loosely based on his life and career. Mention Long’s name to anyone and they immediately reply with “oh, he was so corrupt”–which amused me, since every Louisiana politician is corrupt to a degree–and I knew Roosevelt and others had worried about him as a populist politician who reminded them of Hitler (and the way he crushed his opposition in Louisiana and essentially became the state’s dictator, who could blame them?), but what was the real story? And Huey Long made me start to have what was at first a grudging admiration for him which grew into a kind of fandom the more I learned. (There are some similarities–more than one would think–between Long and LBJ in the Caro biographies, as well as with Robert Moses, another Caro biography; which would make for a very interesting comparison/contract essay at some point.) But the more I read about Long, the more I wanted to write about him. He fascinated me, and the fact that his trove of cash–the deduct box–was never recovered after his murder was even more fascinating to me.)
And don’t you know, later that night, it came to me. A few months earlier there had been a bomb threat at the LSU campus, and there had been some controversy about how the administration had handled the situation–they’d evacuated Mike the Tiger off the campus before the mass evacuation call for the students. It made sense to me (but I didn’t blame the students for being upset because it absolutely looked like the administration cared more about the tiger’s safety than the students’)–in the chaos of evacuating the campus, getting the tiger out safely would have been a nightmare, and God forbid something happen and Mike got loose. Then it hit me: what if some animal rights’ activists had staged the bomb threat in order to steal the tiger in order to set him free somewhere? (Mike is a frequent target of PETA, who often calls for him to be released into the wild–not in the US, of course–, or sent to a big cat sanctuary.) So, I had the tiger kidnapped, and since Huey Long was responsible for LSU being what it is today, it only made sense for the treasure hunt to have to do with his missing “deduct box”–Huey always used cash, after his assassination the deduct box containing thousands and thousands of dollars in cash disappeared–and there we had it: a plot involving Mike the Tiger, Huey Long, and the deduct box.
This was also the book where I decided to extend Scotty’s family a bit further by adding a new, younger gay character to the mix: Taylor, Frank’s nephew, disowned by Frank’s sister and her homophobic husband after he comes out to them after a semester in Paris, and so he comes to live with Scotty and the boys in the house on Decatur Street. I wanted to bring in someone younger, and gay, with literally hardly any gay experience in the world to reflect the change between generations of gay men and how they view being gay and the rest of the world.
I also figured this would be the last one, but like I said, Scotty just won’t go away.
SIDENOTE: I had to write to the administrators of the Huey Long website for permission to use some quotes from the site in the book. Needless to say, they were very wary of me when they responded, so I emailed them the chapter where I would use the quotes–Scotty was doing some research on Long, and came across the website. Like me, Scotty had always been told Long was corrupt and a demagogue…but demagogues also don’t get things done, which Long did. Some of Long’s programs–like the Homestead Exemption–still exist as public policy in Louisiana. They wrote me back, granting permission…and that was when I found out the person I was talking to was Long’s great-granddaughter, who was rightfully suspicious of anyone writing about her great-grandfather. I sent her a copy of the book when it was finished, and she sent me a lovely thank you card, which is probably one of my favorite writing souvenirs.
The genesis of Garden District Gothic was weird, but yet serves as yet another example of my adage never throw anything you’ve written away.
I had always wanted to spin Chanse’s best friend, journalist Paige Tourneur, off into her own series. I had always intended to do so; from the first time I thought her up for Murder in the Rue Dauphine I thought, “she’s fun and witty and interesting and that weird name–there’s so much more story there than we can get to as a supporting player in a series about someone else.” I have so much written down about Paige and her origin story; how she came up with that name and why; how she wound up at LSU; and so on and so forth. A friend started an ebook publishing company, and wanted me to write Paige novellas for her; I did two–Fashion Victim and Dead Housewives of New Orleans–but the sales, frankly, weren’t there and I didn’t have the necessary time to put in marketing them to help drive the sales, so even though I’d started a third, The Mad Catter, we agreed to kill the series and pull the first two from availability; ultimately, I was working too hard for too little pay-off. I was disappointed, obviously; Paige was kind of a passion project for me–I’d made any number of false starts writing a series book for her, and it was sad to see that there wasn’t an audience for her after all. But I had about four chapters of The Mad Catter in place, and I didn’t want to waste the time spent on them…so I decided to turn them into a Scotty book, which became Garden District Gothic.
I also brought in a new character–a true crime writer with a shady past of his own–who actually wrote a book, a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, about the case. The name of his book? Garden District Gothic. I brought him in, thinking I would spin him off into his own book/series–I thought it might be fun to write about a writer…(I thought about using him as the main character in another book based on an actual unsolved string of murders in a rural Louisiana parish, but very quickly realized he was simply an amalgamation of Scotty and Chanse, so that book–The Bodies in the Bayou–went onto the backburner. I think I may have created the character before, in the Chanse series, but I could be remembering that wrong. I also used this book to sort of set up the next; I will explain that further when I am talking about Royal Street Reveillon. I also crossed the character of Paige Tourneur over from the Chanse series into the Scotty series (I loved the character, hated to sideline her after I ended the Chanse series and the novella series didn’t pan out); not that she will be a big part of the Scotty series, but hey, every so often I need a journalist, and why not use a character I am very fond of already and wasn’t ready to stop writing about?
The book was loosely based, obviously, on the Jon-Benet Ramsey case–a decades old notorious murder of a child in the Garden District that was never solved. I wanted to examine and explore issues of class in New Orleans, but I am not entirely sure I pulled off what I intended with the book.
Then again, I think that with every book, don’t I?
And we now come to the (so far) most recent book of the Scotty series, Royal Street Reveillon.
Originally I’d envisioned the Scotty trilogy (when it morphed from a stand-alone) as encompassing the three big gay holidays in New Orleans: Southern Decadence, Halloween, and Mardi Gras. Jackson Square Jazz wound up taking place just before Halloween, alas; Scotty talks about their costumes in the epilogue, but I hit the other two holidays out of the park. When I added a fourth book, I tied it to the Gay Easter Parade–Scotty is on his way to ride on the Devil’s Weed’s float when the book opened–and then of course the next book was sort of Christmas/sort of Mardi Gras/sort of the Super Bowl. Baton Rouge Bingo was the first book that wasn’t tied to a holiday of some sort; neither was Garden District Gothic. But for the next Scotty book, I wanted to do a Christmas book. I’ve never really written much about Christmas, and I do love the season, especially in New Orleans. I wasn’t sure what kind of plot I was going to use, but I knew it was going to be set during Christmas season and I knew I wanted to use reveillon, the Christmas season meal you use to break your fast for Mass, in the title. I had introduced one of the characters from Dead Housewives of New Orleans in Garden District Gothic, so it only made sense to me (or so it seemed at the time) for me to take the framework of Dead Housewives–the entire Real Housewives spoof I wanted to write–and build this new story around it. I changed a lot–made the overarching story much more complicated, and especially complicating the “whodunnit” aspects of the three murders that all occurred within twenty-four hours of the premiere party for Grande Dames of New Orleans.
I also did a couple of horrible things to Scotty and his loved ones over the course of this book…which will have to be dealt with in the new one, alas. I hate when I do this to myself! But with Royal Street Reveillon and its darker themes, I wanted to show how much Scotty has grown and changed over the course of the series; he’s evolved as a person, partly because of the changes to his life and partly because of what he experiences through the murders he finds himself involved in. Do I wish, as I start writing Mississippi River Mischief, that maybe I hadn’t given so many growth opportunities over the years to Scotty and his gang of family and friends? Absolutely. But that’s part of the challenge of writing a series, and what makes it so much fun.
*Funny story about the original cover of Bourbon Street Blues. Back in the day, publishers used to meet with reps from Barnes & Noble and Borders to show them covers and get their input; covers were changed based on those meetings. The Bourbon Street Blues cover was so in-your-face it took me aback when I first saw it; and they had toned the original image down dramatically, mainly smoothing down the bulge so it wasn’t so in-your-face. The Barnes & Noble buyer told them, “he needs a bigger bulge” so they made it bigger–but were still cautious; the image’s original bulge was still bigger. I do think that story is hilarious.
I absolutely loved the tag line for the marvelous television adaptation of Megan Abbott’s equally brilliant novel Dare Me: “There’s something dangerous about the boredom of teenaged girls.” It’s also incredibly accurate; our teen years often impact and influence who we become and can color the rest of our lives. I loved Dare Me; it was lyrically, hauntingly written, and the story it told, while actually pretty simple, showed how the intricacies of relationships between young girls and authority figures who aren’t much older than they are, can become so complicated and complex; layers of love intermingling with hate and jealousy, the power dynamic shifting and changing as the characters themselves shift, change, and grow from their experiences.
I write, sometimes, books where the main characters are young–teenagers, either in high school or college or having just completed college–and those books are often labeled and marketed as “young adult” fiction, even though I generally just consider them novels about young people. I mean, technically novels about young people are young adult novels, and yet while I am resigned to this marketing label I am never certain if my books truly qualify or not. Perhaps that’s some kind of internalized arrogance and a sense of subconscious superiority to what I consider something lesser; it’s definitely something I should unpack at some point. But I think it is also an interesting starting point for one of my endless essay ideas, and perhaps someday–when I am less scattered, less all-over-the-place mentally and creatively–I’ll be able to sit down and write all those essays I want to write.
Which brings me to John Copenhaver’s second novel, The Savage Kind, which I just finished reading yesterday.
If I tell you the truth about Judy and Philippa, I’m going to lie. Not because I want to, but because to tell the story right, I have to. As girls, they were avid documentarians, each armed with journals and buckets ofpens, convinced that future generations would pour over their words. Everything they did was a performance. Everything they wrote assumed an audience. After all, autobiographers are self-serving, aggrandizing. Memoirists embellish. It’s unavoidable. To write down your memories is an act of invention, to arrange them in the best, most compelling order, a bold gesture. Some of the diary entries that follow are verbatim, lifted directly from the source, but others are enhanced and reshaped. I reserve my right to shade in the empty spaces, to color between the lines, to lie.
You may balk, dear reader, but I don’t care. I need to get this right.
I could take different approaches. I could contrast the teenage girls: the black hat and the white, the harpy and the angel, the cunning vamp and the doe-eyed boob. Or I could draw them together, a single unit: Lucy and Ethel, Antony and Cleopatra, Gertrude and Alice, Holmes and Watson, or even, I dare say, Leopold and Loeb. But neither of those angles would work. The complicated facts are inescapable. These girls are both separate and together, but many times, they followed their own paths and even crossed one another. Things are never that simple, never that black and white, that good or evil, or that true or false. I’m not writing this to assign blame, or to ask forgiveness, or to tie it up in a bow for posterity. It’s not that kind of book.After all, an act of violence committed by one may have originated in the heart of the other. That’s to say, this is a story about sisters, and like many of those dusty and gruesome stories from ancient literature, here sisterhood is sealed in blood.
I should know. I was one of them.
Great opening, right?
John’s debut Dodging and Burning won the Macavity Award*, and was quite the impressive debut. II was completely blown away by the book myself–it showed a maturity and sophistication in theme, writing, and characters that one rarely sees in a debut novel. One of the things I thought was very interesting about the book was that while it did focus on a gay story, the main voices in the book were young straight women; I thought that was a risky thing to try to pull off, but he did a really excellent job.
As good as Dodging and Burning was, I wasn’t prepared for how good The Savage Kind would be.
The heart of the book is the friendship/relationship between two damaged young women in the post-war afterglow of the late 1940’s in Washington DC. (Both of John’s novels are set in the post-war period, when the world was trying to go ‘back to normal’ after the massive paradigm alteration of a global war that left most of Europe and significant parts of Asia in ruins; tens of millions dead, billions in property damage, and the world needed to rebuild from the rubble–and normal was also being redefined; the paradigm shift caused by the war made going back to “the way things used to be” practically impossible–which makes it a very interesting time to write about.) Philippa’s mother died giving birth to her and she has a slightly adversarial relationship with her stepmother, Bonnie. Judy was raised in an orphanage and adopted by a wealthy couple who had lost a daughter in a particularly brutal way–Judy was adopted to replaced their raped and murdered daughter, but her adoptive parents are still too scarred and damaged from the lost of their own child to raise and love another, and this history also colors Judy’s personality and who she is. The two girls find each other and become very close friends; so close that their love for each other might go even deeper than the Platonic ideal of friendship–their teenaged hormones raging out of control, are romantic/sexual feelings also developing between the two of them?
They are also playing girl detectives, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery that they don’t know has anything to do with them beyond the idle curiosity (and their dangerous boredom) but as they look further into the mystery revolving around a classmate, a favorite teacher, and that classmate’s family–as well as their own–they become more and more deeply enmeshed in danger and cling even tighter to each other.
As if that juggling act isn’t tough enough, Copenhaver makes all of these characters realized, fully developed and realistic in their emotions, their feelings, and their reactions. He also tells the story in alternating points of view between the two girls while they are experiencing the events, as well as a narrator voice from the future, telling the story in retrospect as well as talking directly to the reader. This is hard to pull off, particularly the omniscient future narrator–the last time I saw this used so effectvely and memorably was in Thomas Tryon’s The Other (at least, this is the book that popped into my head as I was reading, and it’s a favorite of mine).
The Savage Kind was nominated for a Lefty Award, and it very deservedly won the Lambda for Best Mystery recently. I highly recommend it!
*I may be wrong here, but I think he might be the first openly gay author of a book with gay characters and themes to win the Macavity Award; I know I was nominated once for a short story–but my characters and themes weren’t queer.
Gore Vidal was one of three rather important gay male writers who emerged from the wreckage of World War II (the others being Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote), and I have always enjoyed reading his work–even if it’s not page turning material; I like the way he writes and I like the way he tells his stories.
He wrote six or seven major works of fiction based in American history that tell, in their own way, a more clear-eyed vision of what American history was and how the nation developed; called the Narratives of Empire, they certainly weren’t published in order but rather, I gather, in the order that struck his fancy; he was also busy writing other things and feuding with other writers–notably Capote, Norman Mailer, and William F. Buckley–and he obviously had a flair for the outrageous and controversial; The City and the Pillar, a very frank and daring and sympathetic look at the experiences of one young man navigating the world as a gay man, made him so controversial he was unpublishable for a number of years; he spent the time writing mysteries under the name Edgar Box and writing screenplays. Myra Breckinridge, which undoubtedly does not hold up to modern scrutiny and eyes; the book was clearly intended as satire, examining societal gender constructs and views on sexuality as well as the role of women. I read it for the first time maybe ten years ago, and it struck me as quaint; an artifact of a time certainly less enlightened, but trying to head for the light. (It may be worth a reread.) He also wrote Julian the Apostate, which I greatly enjoyed and read one year beside the pool during Saints & Sinners, back when it was in May and we used to always spend the weekend at the Olivier House on Toulouse Street.
But the Narratives of Empire began with, I think, Washington DC, followed by 1876 and later Burr; he also wrote about the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and the growth of the American empire in Empire, which I have also read and greatly enjoyed. I’ve not read all the titles yet; but reading Lincoln next after Empire made the most sense to me as some of the real-life characters depicted in that book are also in Lincoln, and it’s been a very long time since I read anything about Lincoln.
Elihu B. Washburne opened his gold watch. The spidery hands shows five minutes to six.
“Wait here,” he said to the driver, who said, “How do I know you’re coming back, sir?”
At the best of times Congressman Washburne’s temper was a most unstable affair, and his sudden outbursts of rage–he could roar like a preacher anticipating hell–were much admired in his adopted state of Illinois, where constituents proudly claimed that he was the only militant teetotaller who behaved exactly like a normal person at five minutes to six, say, in the early morning of an icy winter day–of the twenty-third of February, 1861, to be exact.
“Why, you black—!” As the cry in Washburne’s throat began to go to its terrible maximum, caution, the politican’s ever-present angel, cut short the statesman’s breath. A puff of unresonated cold steam filled the space between the congressman and the Negro driver on his high seat.
Heart beating rapidly with unslaked fury, Washburne gave the driver some coins. “You are to stay here until I return, you hear me?”
Growing up with Southern parents and the so-called “Southern heritage”, Lincoln’s place in history was, to say the least, still resented. The lionization of Lincoln after his death was, in some part, made possible by his murder; there’s not telling what the judgment of history would be on him had he lived to serve out his second term. Would we revile Lincoln for the reconstruction policies he would have followed? How different would the face of our present day nation be had he lived? An enormous mythology has sprung up around Lincoln since his death; “Honest Abe the rail-splitter” is a tale told to school children to this day, or how a young girl told him to grow a beard, and so on and so forth. The Civil War has been analyzed and written about endlessly; no one person could ever hope to read and digest all the documentation that exists of the conflict, let alone all the books published centering the war. I was always interested in Lincoln–even as a child I couldn’t wrap my mind around the mentality that people claiming to be “patriotic Americans” reviled Lincoln and glorified the Confederacy; I still am unable to consider such without triggering a massive amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain–and read lots of children’s books about him, but by the time I was an adult I was no longer interested in reading further biographies of the man. I am relatively uninterested in the possibility that he may have had relationships with men; without definitive proof that will always be a theory, and let’s face it, there is more evidence (although nothing conclusive) about his predecessor James Buchanan’s sexuality than there ever will be about Lincoln’s–hence my story “The Dreadful Scott Decision” I wrote for The Faking of the President.
Lincoln’s task was to preserve the Union in the face of its collapse, and that is what he strove to do. Was secession constitutional? Lincoln didn’t think so; the Constitution did not provide for the dissolution of the Union but at the same time it stated that any rights or restrictions not granted to the federal government in the document thereby fell to the individual states. So, does that mean the states held the right to leave the union? Andrew Jackson certainly didn’t think so, since he threatened to send federal troops into South Carolina during the nullification crisis. Part of the reason I actually wanted to read this book at this time was because of the stark reminder that Lincoln’s presidency, and the Civil War, serve as proof that mollifying white supremacy and continually compromising with an angry volatile minority, never ends well. (We are seeing it again now with the old Confederate states allied with their rural midwestern states…and of course as always, the ones threatening insurrection or secession claim to be “true patriots.”
Lincoln serves to humanize the man, and is also equally frank about Lincoln’s own white supremacist beliefs. Is Vidal’s assertion that Lincoln wanted to take the freed slaves and colonize them into Central America or somewhere back in Africa while reimbursing the slave owners for the loss of “property” accurate? It’s not the first time I’ve heard this (never heard it in school, though) and it seems likely to me. I also liked how Vidal got the panic of what it was like to live in Washington during there war so spot on; we never think about that, or how Maryland was a slave state surrounding the district, or that slavery existed and was legal in the district itself; slaves built the White House and the Capital. We never see into Lincoln’s head or from his point of view in this book–a masterful trick of Vidal’s, who thus leaves Lincoln a mystery to the reader.
It’s a compelling narrative, and it also shows us the point of view throughout of one of the conspirators who were hanged for plotting to kill him–David Suratt–and this jumping around from points of view–either of those who admired Lincoln, hated him, or thought him incompetent–gives a more three-dimensional view of the man we have deified for the last 156 years. He was definitely smart, a master politician, and, as Vidal says in the closing paragraphs of the book–if Washington was the father of our country, Lincoln was the father of our modern country.