Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Literary Event

Last night, Laura Joh Rowland and I hosted a “Literary Event” at Octavia Bookstore in Uptown New Orleans.

It was a lot of fun, with vast quantities of food and wine, a literary trivia contest, and an informal panel moderated by Elora Fink. We talked about our books and the writing process and (of course) Katrina. The audience was wonderfully enthusiastic, we signed scads of books, and in general had a great time.

All in all, a lovely evening spent with friends, fans, and new acquaintances, all enthusiastically in love with books.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Target Practice

Someone took a shot at me today while I was driving over to run my mother to the pharmacy. I wasn’t hurt and my car only got a little ding—I think the weapon of choice was “just” a pellet gun. But the incident has put me in a foul mood. You see, four cats in my mother’s neighborhood have been shot in the last couple of weeks. That’s the reason I reported the incident to the police (an act of civic responsibility that wiped out what was left of an already pretty wasted day). I wish I could say the police sounded concerned and determined to find the culprit, but, well, this is post-Katrina New Orleans, where not too long ago the police found a woman’s head in a saucepan on a stove. So what’s to get excited about a pellet gun, right?

It’s not the ding in my car that has me riled. It’s the realization that somewhere out there some irresponsible parent’s nasty, twisted kid is killing people’s harmless, beloved pets. What fun. Oh, look; there’s a lady in a VW. Let me take a shot at her, too.

I’ve found myself fantasizing about what I’d like to do to both that kid and his parent. And that's kinda scary, because it makes me realize that maybe I'm a bit nasty and twisted myself.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Dealing with Katrina's Leavings

I’m spending the day bleaching ironstone and china. In other parts of the world, people bleach clothes and gut fish. Here in post-Katrina New Orleans, we gut houses and bleach just about anything we hope we can salvage.

It started on the weekend. Determined to have Thanksgiving dinner in my own house, I realized I needed to first make the dining room habitable. That meant screwing the chair seats back on the restored dining room chairs, getting the tools off the buffet (also restored), washing and ironing and putting away tablecloths, unpacking and washing and putting away plastic bins full of the silver, china, and crystal that was all, thankfully, above Katrina’s waterline.

That’s when I found them: two boxes stacked in the corner and labeled: “Steve’s Ironstone and Grandma’s china teacups, washed post-Katrina but not sterilized.” Oh, dear.

These are the items, too precious to throw away, that I salvaged from the bottom of my Australian kitchen dresser and the bottom of the kitchen cupboards. At the time, I washed them in cold water (we had no hot water heater), wrapped them in paper, and put them away to deal with later. This is later.

Someday, I know, it will all be over. Someday.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Celebration

Every wedding is a celebration of life and love and the triumph of the human spirit, but this is particularly true of the wedding I attended last night.

Alison and Bobby had originally planned to be wed in the fall of 2005, in their hometown of Chalmette, St. Bernard Parish. And then Katrina smashed their world. It destroyed the home they’d bought and were renovating for their life together. It destroyed the school where Alison taught, the office in which Bobby worked as an accountant. It destroyed the homes of Bobby’s family, of Alison’s parents, grandmother, two sisters, and other family members and friends too numerous too mention. It destroyed the church where they had planned to say their vows, the reception hall where they’d thought to dance on their wedding night.

But this Louisiana family is tough, and the bride’s mother, Sue, is a true steel magnolia matriarch. Though scattered across the country, they slowly began to rebuild their lives. Alison and Bobby once again began to plan for their married life together and the wedding that would begin it. None of them now lives in St. Bernard Parish. Last night’s wedding was in a church in Jefferson Parish, although the priest was himself a refugee from St. Bernard. Yet as I looked out over that assembly of friends and family who had lost so much, I saw only smiling faces. When the bride and groom exchanged their vows, both were wiping away tears, but these were tears of joy.

I always choke up at weddings. But this wedding was special. So here’s to you, Alison and Bobby. You give us all hope.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Self-censorship, or Cowardice?

A friend of mine recently blogged about writers exercising self-censorship (see Charles's Razored Zen in the links). Until he provoked me into thinking about it, I hadn’t realized how much I do in fact censor what I write. Perhaps there are some writers who boldly charge ahead with no thought as to how the people they know and love will react to what they’re putting down on paper, but I’m not one of them. The shadows of good friends and close family members hover there, in the background, every time I sit down to write. And no one’s shadow looms larger than my mother’s. What can I say? I’m a dutiful daughter, and I know she takes everything I do as a personal reflection on her. Because I love her, there is a line I won’t cross, for her sake.

But what disturbed me the most was the realization of how much our “free” society also constrains me. As a writer, I am careful not to go too far in criticizing another author, partially because I don’t want to hurt that writer’s feelings, but also because I don’t want to alienate that writer’s fans. I am careful in the political opinions I air, lest I alienate a reader of a different political stripe. And I will always be very careful in what I say about my publishers, because it would seem an obvious truism that only an idiot bites the hand that feeds her. All wise moves, one might say. Yet it’s also cowardly and shallow. I care more about preserving my readership and my publishing contracts than being true to what I think or believe.

A year or so ago, I wrote an article about the romance industry that caused a huge stir. That’s a big no-no, daring to criticize the romance industry or romance novels in any way. A lot of romance writers and readers who read that piece agreed with what I had said and cheered; many others were furious. Was it a mistake? Yes and no. The controversy certainly got my name out there, and under the old adage there’s no such thing as bad publicity, a lot of people learned about my new Sebastian St. Cyr historical mystery series through it. But I can tell you, I’ll think long and hard before I ever do something similar again.

I was watching BOOK NOTES last Sunday, and Richard Dawkins, author of THE GOD DELUSION, was talking about how most atheists in America are in the closet, just as gays were a generation ago. This is something at the core of who they are, their most fundamental belief, and yet while American Christians and Jews feel free to broadcast their faith without thought or hindrance every day, American atheists sit silently in the closet (with most American Moslems, I suspect). More self-censorship, imposed by our free society.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Lessons from Jethro Tull

I was listening to Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” on my way home from the lake the other day. The CD was a Christmas present from my family last year, to replace the record (one of many—don’t get me started) I lost in Katrina. The last bars of the last song on the album (“Wind Up”) faded just as I was barreling across the spillway. Because I was cruising along at 85 (yes, I know the speed limit there is 60, but this is post-K Louisiana and I was in the slow lane), I just left it running, and was surprised to discover that they’d tacked several more songs and an interview with Ian Anderson onto the end of the CD.

My image of Ian Anderson—sixties-era firebreather with long flowing hair and beard—did a ground shift as I listened to this obviously brilliant, enviably articulate man with a precise Oxbridge accent discuss his art. I found some fascinating—and unexpected—similarities between the creative process of writing a novel and the process of creating an album. That such similarities exist might seem obvious to some, but although I love music, its creation—as in, the writing and arranging process—is for me something awe-inspiring and mystical. I might be able to sing a song or strum a guitar (barely), but I could no more write a song than I could flap my wings and fly.

Yet as I listened to Ian Anderson talk about his evolution as a musician, I found myself thinking, Yes, yes; that’s so true! I suppose it’s self-evident that in any creative endeavor, the more we practice our art, the more sophisticated and technically proficient we become, and the more complex the resultant product. And yet we often achieve something in our earlier works—not despite their naivety and simplicity, but BECAUSE of it—that can truly be grand. Something we later, ironically, become incapable of replicating.

Although he didn’t come right out and say it, it was obvious from the interview that the album had not lived up to the image of it that Ian Anderson first conceived. Perhaps some of his albums did live up to his expectations, or even exceeded them; I don’t know. But I know that I am always disappointed in my novels because they are never as good as I believe they should have been—as good as they could have been if I had managed to execute them as I envisioned them. I was left with the impression Anderson was somewhat bemused that Aqualung had become the group’s defining album, because he thought some of the things they’d done later were better. Which just goes to show that someone involved in a creative activity—whether a writer, musician, or artist—can never really judge his own work. In a technical sense, yes; but not in the sense of his works’ ability to move his audience. Not in the sense of his works’ emotional appeal.

After he finished speaking, I let the CD play again, listening to it with a new knowledge of what had gone into its making. I then had one of those timeshifts, in which I remembered with sudden clarity the person I was at the age of 17, when a bunch of us loaded into a friend’s VW van and drove up to Spokane, Washington, for a Jethro Tull concert. We’d arrived in the city early for some unrelated appointment, so with time to kill, we went to sit in the sun in front of the concert site and thus were nearly at the front of the line. There were no preassigned seats, and in the free-for-all after they opened the gates, we ended up in the second row. It was a magical concert—and obviously magical for Jethro Tull, as well, because they said they’d never had such a wonderful audience and came back and did their ENTIRE “Thick as a Brick” album as an encore.

As I turned off the I10 and headed toward home, past the FEMA trailers and hurricane-twisted signs still waiting to be replaced, I found myself smiling at the memory. I certainly never envisioned this life at the age of seventeen, never imagined I’d become a novelist, never imagined I’d still be listening to Jethro Tull all these years later and thinking about the creative process.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Cold Snap

I’m back from the lake. Up until the last day, the weather was glorious. I sat out on the porch and scribbled, went for long walks around the lake, then came back and scribbled some more. Saturday morning, a cold front blew in (literally: it blew a tree down across the road). I made myself a cup of hot chocolate, cleaned up the house, and headed for home. All the way home, I kept having to turn up the heat in the car, the temperature was dropping that fast. And I kept thinking, I should have stayed up at the lake! You see, the air conditioning/heating unit in our downstairs has never been fixed since it stopped working shortly after its post-Katrina installation last summer. Hot weather, I can take. Cold makes me want to just shrivel up and shiver.

I came home to two pleasant surprises: a toasty downstairs (Rod FINALLY came over and fixed it), and the news that we have a THIRD production company interested in ARCHANGEL. This is just beyond bizarre.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Come Autumn

Tomorrow I head up to the lake for a few days of intensive writing on THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. I love being up there. Steve and I went up last Friday night. It was so cold when we got in at about 8 pm that I thought, No more sitting in the porch swing looking at the lake! But once the sun came up the next morning, it warmed up enough that we were able to eat breakfast outside. There are some deciduous trees around the lake that have turned brilliant shades of yellow and red—something we don’t see here in New Orleans—so that was an unexpected, additional treat.

Our lake house is about three miles outside a little community called Clinton, Louisiana. It’s a very old town, with many ante bellum houses and a lovely old columned courthouse with what they call “lawyers’ row” (a block of old nineteenth-century law offices) across the street. The first Saturday of every month they have a Community Market, where they set up produce and craft booths up and down Main Street and around the courthouse green. We spent a lovely morning strolling around town, looking at the booths, then went back to the house and devoted the afternoon to painting (having finished the large pantry, we’ve now moved on to the master bedroom closet and the adjoining bath). We got back to New Orleans late Saturday night, tired yet immensely refreshed. Now, I’m looking forward to spending the rest of the week up there. And I’m not allowed to take any painting clothes with me, so that all I can do is write.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Another Misery Tour

(Someone's livingroom. November 2006.)

Steve’s niece is in town for a conference this week, so yesterday we took her on a Misery Tour.

In some ways, I found the drive encouraging. Each house being restored, each business that has reopened is a reason to cheer. Every time we venture into areas of the city we don’t usually visit, I am heartened by the signs of progress: more stoplights working, more FEMA trailers, the gradual disappearance of muck-encrusted cars and stranded boats on the sides of the streets. There is no denying that much is being done. Yet it is becoming obvious that the end result will inevitably be the much feared “jack-o’-lantern effect”: renovated houses and businesses scattered amongst moldy, abandoned ruins—or, at best, abandoned ruins scattered amongst renovated buildings. Perhaps, in time (say, twenty years), the more prosperous areas of the core city, Gentilly and Lakeview and Broadmore, will be completely back. But that’s not going to happen in Central City, in the Bywater, in the Lower Ninth—charming, historic areas of the city that were economically depressed even before governmental incompetence, corporate greed, and mother nature conspired to wreak havoc on America’s most magical city.

After we drove through Lakeview, Steve got on the interstate and headed east, toward Slidell. I think it is only from this elevated pathway through what begins to seem like endless devastation that one can truly begin to grasp the magnitude of what has happened to this area. As you stare out the car windows at mile after mile of gaping, abandoned houses and vast empty apartment complexes, it becomes harder and harder to remember that you’re in the United States of America. These are the parts of the city—New Orleans East, Chalmette—where the middle class (white, black, Vietnamese) built their homes and raised their children, where they went to school and church and shopped. These are the parts of the city that tourists never saw. It’s true that because they lie east of the Industrial Canal, these districts are more exposed to the effects of our devastated wetlands. But I suspect the fact that these areas aren’t important to the city’s tourist trade has also influenced their treatment by the Powers That Be. It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that running water has been restored to these areas--more than a year after the storm! Vast stretches of the city still lack electricity. As a result, mile after mile of once prosperous neighborhoods of once tidy little brick houses now stand abandoned.

Where are they now, the hundreds of thousands of people who once lived in these houses, who once shopped in these shuttered malls with those lingering, dirty water marks, who once picked up their children from these weed-grown schools? During Katrina, news reporters were told to call the displaced population of New Orleans “evacuees,” rather than “refugees.” The term “refugee” conjured up visions of the squalid camps of Gaza, of the desperate, huddled tent cities of Africa. Refugees were from third world countries; they didn’t speak English and they certainly didn’t have white skin. Americans don’t like to think of their fellow Americans as refugees. So of course the news outlets complied.

Except, “evacuees” go home, don’t they? How long do you have to be “evacuated” before you become a refugee? Perhaps there is something to be said for banding together, for living in camps or tent cities, like the Palestinians, or the displaced victims in Afghanistan. At least that way you remain visible. Because if you’re not visible, you’re forgotten, and in time, politicians can deny your existence. I don’t think we’ll see President Bush pausing for a photo op on the I10 above New Orleans East, with a hundred thousand ruined, abandoned houses as a backdrop.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Fingers Crossed!

Some exciting developments today. We’ve had two expressions of interest from movie companies about THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. Of course, it’s a long ways from an expression of interest to an option, and an even farther stretch from an option to a movie actually being made, but still. What a thrill.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Prince Regent's Deadly Secret

(Above: the Prince Regent, photo from Wiki Commons)

I’m reading PURPLE SECRET: Genes, ‘Madness’ and the Royal Houses of Europe, by John Rohl, Martin Warren, and David Hunt (London: Bantam Press, 1998). The purple secret is, of course, the metabolic disorder porphyria, which entered the royal house of Britain (and therefore the rest of Europe) though Mary Queen of Scots.

The “Mad” King George III has unarguably done more to popularize porphyria than anyone else. Unfortunately, his well-known identification with “madness” has led the disorder to be associated in the popular mind with insanity. In fact, a porphyria attack can cause depression, anxiety, and confusion (because it interferes with the serotonin pathways). But full-blown mental illness caused by porphyria is rare and typically associated with some other, simultaneously occurring condition.

Porphyria is a genetic disorder affecting the enzymes responsible for the synthesis of porphyrins into heme. There are various types of porphyria, depending upon which enzyme in the pathway is affected. Some types of porphyria are associated with abdominal pain (acute porphyria), others can cause the skin to develop a weeping rash when exposed to the sun (cutaneous porphyria). George III undoubtedly suffered from variegate porphyria, which causes both. Symptoms of acute porphyria include attacks of severe abdominal pain and peripheral neuropathy, which basically means it effects the body’s non-conscious functions such as the heart, lungs, etc, causing general muscle weakness, numbness, difficulty breathing, and an increased heart rate. In other words, it’s like being hit with the worse case of flu or food poisoning you can imagine. Porphyria attacks can be triggered by exposure to chemicals (including heavy metals, alcohol, and many pharmaceuticals), female hormones (either during a woman’s regular cycle or pregnancy), fasting or high protein/low carbohydrate intake (i.e., Atkins or South Beach diets), fever and viral infections, or stress. An attack sometimes—but not always—causes the urine to take on a reddish tinge as the body attempts to throw off the accumulating porphyrins (which are toxic in large quantities); hence the “purple” secret.

George III’s five bouts of “madness” are notorious, but less well known are the life-long sufferings of most of his 13 children, including the Prince Regent himself. The authors use the royal family’s personal letters and doctors’ reports to detail the long illnesses of the princes and princesses. It makes for scary reading (the treatments often being scarier than the symptoms they were used to treat). In fact, the illnesses of George III’s children were of such long duration—sometimes lasting years—and so extreme that I personally think something else was going on there in addition to the porphyria.

As for George III, recent chemical analysis of his hair has shown that the poor man was suffering from arsenic poisoning. A 2005 article published in the British medical journal LANCET (written by Martin Warren, one of the authors of this book) reported the presence of arsenic at over 300 times the toxic level in George III’s hair. At the time, arsenic was used in both skin creams and wig powders, but even that couldn’t account for George III’s high levels. It seems that the King’s doctors were treating his porphyria attacks by giving him something called “James’ Powders,” which was made from antimony containing significant traces of arsenic. Like a good king, he took what his doctors ordered, several times a day. Ironically, arsenic is one of the triggers for a porphyria attack. In other words, they were treating his porphyria attacks with a substance that causes porphyria attacks, in addition to being toxic itself. Another common remedy of the time, mercury (“calomel”) also causes porphyria attacks (which is why anyone with porphyria should avoid modern vaccines containing traces of mercury and get rid of their mercury fillings, if possible).

The royal houses of Europe obviously decided long ago to close ranks on the subject of the “family” malady. The authors (a combination of historians and microbiologists) were repeatedly refused access to papers and medical samples. But they have easily traced the symptoms of the disorder down through Queen Victoria, to her children and grandchildren, all the way to Princess Margaret. Only Prince William of Gloucester (a grandson of George V) made no secret of his diagnosis of porphyria, which manifested itself after he took chloroquine to prevent malaria in Africa.

Unfolding like a detective story, the book makes fascinating reading, even if you don’t suffer from porphyria. The royal families’ secrecy on this subject is unfortunate, since they could help to publicize the truth about a disorder that has become associated in the popular mind with madness, werewolves and vampires. The disorder is actually far more common than was previously thought. Unfortunately, most American doctors are woefully unfamiliar with porphyria, and most people don’t know they have it until they take something that almost kills them.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Halloween without the Children

After spending the last couple of days at the endless task of Putting Stuff Away, I’m chaining myself to my desk and getting back to work on THE ARCHANGEL PROJECT. I always find it difficult to get back into a book when I’ve been away from it for a while.

We didn’t have many kids come around last night for Trick or Treat. I guess the scattering of FEMA trailers and PODS put most people off. Which is a shame, because some of the people in the neighborhood obviously get into Halloween in a big way, filling their yards with all kinds of holiday-themed junk. I managed to get my blackbird scarecrow up, and Danielle dragged the witch silhouette out of the hall closet (no small feat, since the closet is stuffed with building materials), but that was about it for us. Of course, there aren’t that many kids whose families have come back to the neighborhood, so that doubtless cut down on the traffic.