lightning in the blood

I wrote this novel in 1993, sort of by accident. I was working on my doctoral dissertation (an exploratory sociological study of private investigators) and one of my advisers suggested I should consider including a chapter comparing the work of real life private investigators and fictional ones. I wasn’t a fan of mystery of detective fiction and didn’t see any value in such a chapter, but you don’t argue much with your dissertation advisers.

So off I went to the Literature Department, where I tracked down a professor who taught a course in mystery and detective fiction. We set up an independent study program, she gave me a reading list, and I spent a semester reading detective novels. They all seemed a bit silly to me; the characters might be interesting, but most of the cases and the investigative approaches were pretty loopy. With each book I picked up, I found myself thinking “Hell, I could write something like this.”

So I did. I think it took me a couple of months, while still working on my graduate studies. I sent off the manuscript and St. Martin’s Press bought it. I still had to write a paper for my independent study, but when I showed the book contract to the professor, she just laughed and gave me an A. It’s hard to argue against a good grade and an advance. I began to grow fond of the detective genre.

My editor at St. Martin’s asked for another novel with the same characters. So I started working on a second novel. But the format (alternating First Person narratives) felt forced and awkward a second time. I decided the characters would work better in short fiction. I wrote some short stories and published them mostly in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (some of which can be found in Dog on Fire). I suggested a short story collection to SMP, and my editor seemed receptive to the idea. But then she decided to go to law school and her replacement wanted to develop her own stable of writers. The project became ‘orphaned,’ as they say in the publishing biz.

And that was that. The first run of Lightning in the Blood sold well and I earned a bit more than the advance. But I had no desire to write a second novel with the same characters.

After I published Dog on Fire I decided to revamp LitB and release it as an e-book. At first, it was something of a painful experience. It was like the literary version of looking at your high school yearbook photo.

But since I hadn’t read the book since it was published (nearly two decades ago) I found I was able to read it as a reader. Normally I dislike reading anything I’ve written; I tend to see only the flaws. But I found myself actually enjoying parts of the book.

In the end, I decided to update LitB a bit. I removed references to outdated technology (it was written in an era when there were relatively few cell phones, most of which were about the size of extra large bean burrito, and were carried either by doctors or assholes who wanted people to know they could afford cell phones) and examples of 1990s slang. Other than that, it’s the same book.

And hey, considering I wrote it in my spare time, it ain’t bad. It should be available for the Nook and the Kindle by the end of the week, and for other formats at some point in the near future.

(Also…the new cover art features a photo by our own Lynn Longos.)

the world is an unlikely place

A drought led me to a railroad bridge, which led me to a brick, which led me to an 18th century French fur trader, which led me to the establishment of a major city, which led me back to the railroad bridge. The world is an unlikely place

We’ve had a bit of a drought in the central plains of the United States. River levels have dropped dramatically. This is troubling and problematic in any number of very obvious ways. It does, however, create an opportunity for curious people to explore areas that are usually under several feet of water.

Once you start exploring anything, you never know what you’ll find.

A couple weeks ago my brother Roger Lee and I found ourselves wandering along the river bed near a defunct railroad bridge on the Des Moines River. I explored along the riverbank, where erosion had exposed all manner of odd stuff—included many dozens of old bricks. A lot of those bricks displayed the names of the brick-makers. Among them were several bricks from the Leclede Brick Company of St. Louis, Missouri.

I was curious enough to Google the company. And again, once you start exploring, you never know what you’ll find.

Among the things I found was this: Pierre Laclède was born in 1729 in Bedous, France—a small village in the Pyranees (even today the village’s population is less than a thousand). Laclède must have been an adventurous youth. For reasons we don’t know, he made his way to New Orleans, arriving in 1755. He was 26 years old. Laclède became a fur trader, traveling up the Mississippi River and exploring its tributaries in search of native tribes with whom he could exchange goods for the pelts of beaver, ermine, mink and skunk.

By all accounts, he was a poor businessman, but a very good trader. In 1763, Laclède’s trading company was commissioned to establish a trading post far upriver, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. He led a party of thirty men up the Mississippi until he found a gently sloping site with nearby limestone outcroppings. He hoped the limestone would eventually provide the material for stone buildings. Laclède ambitiously laid out a map consisting of three streets and named the trading post after King Louis IX, the only French king ever to be canonized. Saint Louis.

Laclède’s company established a monopoly on furs trapped by the Osage tribe, who inhabited that part of the Missouri River. The fur trade, of course, eventually died. Happily for Laclède’s ancestors (the children he begat with another man’s wife), around the same time the fur trade ended a new brick manufacturing process was being perfected. That process required a certain type of clay (called ‘fireclay’). The best type of fireclay was found near limestone deposits. The presence of limestone, of course, was one of the factors that determined the location of Laclède’s trading post. Laclède’s children owned much of the property where the best fireclay was to be found.

By the end of the 19th century, the Laclède family abandoned the grave over the first ‘e’ in their name and founded the Laclede Fire Brick Company, which covered more than 120 acres on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri, and made untold millions of bricks, some of which can be found on the dry riverbed beneath a defunct railroad bridge on the Des Moines River.

The world is an unlikely place, and once you start exploring it you never know what you’re going to find.

sorry, i lost track of time

I’ve always been bad about time. Not in an hour-by-hour sort of way; I usually have a moderately good grasp on the actual time of day (although I don’t own a watch). And not in a day-to-day sort of way; I usually know what day of the week it is. I’m sometimes a bit sketchy when it comes to the month, but that’s rarely a problem.

No, what I’m bad about is the passage of time. I have a massively flawed sense of how much time has elapsed between one event and another.

For example, I was recently asked when I moved away from Manhattan. My immediate perception was that it was probably three or four years ago. When I actually thought about it, I realized I moved away in 2001—a short time before the attacks of 9/11. That’s ten years ago. Ten years.

That’s a pretty harmless example. My temporal impairment becomes a problem when I agree to do something with a soft deadline. If, for example, I tell a friend “I’ll call you next week; we’ll have lunch” my sense of ‘next week’ could last a month. That’s a problem. It can make people think I don’t care about them.

I’ve recognized this as a problem for some time (don’t ask me how long, because I don’t really know—temporal impairment, remember?). But until recently, I never gave any thought to the origin of the problem—to why I have this problem. I probably wouldn’t have given the matter any thought at all, except that now the problem affects my daughter. When I tell her I’m going to call her, I damned well better call her. After having a conversation with her, I think I may have figured out why I have this problem.

I don’t get bored.

I think that’s the source of my temporal impairment. I can’t recall the last time I was bored. I must have been a child. I have a hazy recollection of telling my momma I was bored and having her respond something like this: “Then you’re not using your imagination. Go outside and find something interesting to do. No bored children in this house.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been…busy isn’t the right word. Engaged is more accurate. I’m actively engaged in something all the time, from the moment I wake up until the moment I fall asleep. It might be reading, it might be thinking, it might observing, it might be chores—but even if it looks like I’m just walking or sitting in a chair, I’m doing something. All the fucking time.

And that makes time pass really quickly. I get caught up in what I’m doing. I forget to eat sometimes. Sometimes I eat and a little later I can’t recall if I’ve eaten or not, so I eat again because I know I sometimes forget to eat. I make a decision to finish what I’m working on at that particular moment and take a walk afterward, then when I’m finished I realize it’s 8:45 at night. I’m aware of time passing, but not of how much time is passing.

The failure to be bored sounds like a good thing. Overall, I think it probably is. But it’s a pretty lousy excuse when you have to apologize for failing to call somebody you promised to call ‘later in the week.’ It’s a pretty lousy excuse when you’ve told somebody you’d get together with them during the summer, then realize Thanksgiving is only a week away.

In a very real sense, the excuse “Sorry, I lost track of time” is just another way of saying “Sorry, I was more interested in what I was doing than in you.” And that’s a pretty shitty thing to say to another person.

speaking in stones

I am drawn to piles of stone.

Much of the appeal is that a pile of stones, no matter how disorganized or haphazard it appears to be, is clearly a product of human intervention. Outside an avalanche, a pile of stones doesn’t happen by accident. Somebody put them there. The exact placement of the stones may have been a matter of chance or convenience, but nonetheless they were put there—and put there deliberately.

People have been piling stone on stone for millenia. Literally. There are cairns and megalithic structures dating back to 9000 BC. Piling stones has always been a means of communication. At first, a pile of stones was a simple way to mark a trail—a device for telling others which way to go. Humans being human, the simple eventually became elaborate. Trail markers became boundary markers—a device for telling others where not to go. As the messages communicated by the piles of stones became more elaborate and sophisticated, so did the piles themselves. People began to pile stone for artistic and spiritual reasons.

And we got Newgrange in County Meath, And we got the pyramids at Giza. And we got the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. What is a tomb or a temple, after all, but a sophisticated pile of stones?

Obviously, the piles of stone I photograph haven’t any intentional meaning. They weren’t put there for any religious, artistic or social reason. They were just dumped there. Raw material at a construction site.

But the actual reason the stones are piled in any particulat place is, for me, entirely irrelevant. In my mind, I always choose to attach some sort of social significance to the stones.

Not seriously, of course, but inventing some meaning for the pile changes the way I see the stones. By giving the pile some arbitrary purpose, the stones cease to be mute construction material waiting to be used. Like those earliest piles of stone, they become articulate; they convey a message.

And they become beautiful.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I became so engaged by that chunk of curbing.


Passion makes up for a lot. Passion is beautiful and dangerous; sometimes it’s scary as hell. Passion doesn’t discriminate between good ideas and bad ideas, between the sublime and the profoundly stupid. The same thing that makes Patti Smith an amazing artist who can transcend her own pretensions makes Michele Bachmann frightening and creepy. Yeats, I think, was only half right:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

You can switch those around, and it’s still true.

The best are full of passionate intensity, while the worst
Lack all conviction

As crazy as it sounds, I respect Michele Bachmann’s passion. As far as I can tell (or as far as I care to look into it) I disagree with very nearly every political, economic, and social position she advocates—but I don’t doubt her sincerity and I respect her willingness to voice every crazy bat-shit idea she has.

But here’s the thing: you have to accept the existence of Michele Bachmann in order to truly embrace Patti Smith. Or Billy B. Yeats, for that matter. Because let’s face it, Yeats and Patti Smith share that willingness to voice crazy bat-shit ideas. If you want a world with Yeats in it, if you want a world with Patti Smith, then you have to accept a world with Michele Bachmann. That’s how passion works.

I’m willing to tolerate the Bachmanns so long as I can live in a world where Patti Smith can do this:

Passion is over the top. Always over the top. That’s why it’s dangerous, why it’s beautiful. That’s why people listen to Michele Bachmann talk stupid shit about The Lion King as gay propaganda, and why people listen to Patti Smith sing her fucking heart out about stupid shit like a man on the run, heading down to Mexico to shoot his unfaithful wife. Passion, dude, don’t try to make sense of it.

the socialist whore of my heart

Elizabeth Warren. I’ve been smitten with her since some point in 2009, when I heard her give a radio interview about the importance of creating a Financial Product Safety Commission. I have to confess, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about any Financial Product Safety Commission, but I was immensely impressed with her passion for protecting the financial interests of ordinary people. There’s something powerfully attractive about the intellectual ferocity of her advocacy.

Since then, I’ve sort of followed her career. I was disappointed when President Obama failed to appoint her to head the Financial Product Safety Commission, but I was delighted when she decided to run for Senate (oh, to live in Massachusetts).

A couple days ago, she was speaking to voters at a VFW hall in Brockton. A man in the audience—apparently a supporter of the Tea Party movement—interrupted her with a question about the Occupy Wall Street folks. Warren gave a brief answer, saying in effect she supported the protests against Wall Street. At that point the man said, “If you’re the intellectual creator of that so-called party, you’re a socialist whore.”

There are so many things sad and pathetic and profoundly wrong taking place in this scene. An unemployed person is standing up for the institutions that have damaged him financially. He’s insulting a person who has spent much of her adult life advocating for people just like him. He’s not actually disagreeing with her; he’s not addressing her position at all. He’s just casting sexualized insults at her. He’s not saying “I think you’re mistaken,” or “Your reasoning is flawed” or even “You don’t understand the situation.” He’s calling her a whore.

You have to feel sort of sorry for the guy. He’s been warped by political and economic forces he doesn’t understand. But mostly you have to admire Elizabeth Warren, who had the decency to give the man a chance to speak his mind, then after being insulted, turned with unflappable practicality to the audience and said “We have work to do.”

There’s a 17th century Irish love poem that goes like this:

Of all the Girls that are so smart
There’s none like pretty SALLY,
She is the Darling of my Heart,
And she lives in our Alley.

Elizabeth Warren is the socialist whore of my heart. And she’s trying to get us out of the alley.

iron photographer

One of the things I love most about Utata—the peculiar collective of photographers I’m involved with—is a project we call Iron Photographer. We’ve been doing IP projects since April of 2006. Every two weeks Jamelah Earle and I come up with three elements—two compositional elements and an artistic element—which our members try to put together in an artful way.

The IP process begins when Jamelah and I chat about the elements over Instant Messaging. We purposely refuse to come up with a list of possible elements in advance; we want the elements to grow organically out of the conversation. Sometimes one (or both) of us isn’t in the mood to be creative, and the process is messy and awkward and a jangle of nerves, annoying as a paper cut. Other times the process is like the very best jazz, improvisational and intelligent and funny and entirely unpredictable. Sometimes it starts off one way and ends another, or goes through two or three iterations of each. But somehow, we always manage to come up with something.

The elements can be…let’s call them idiosyncratic. Something with stripes, a food item, shot slightly out of focus (IP 47). Something white, a chair, shot in a gothic style (IP 102). A plastic bag, something red, shot in square format (IP 118).

What’s amazing to me is how often the members of Utata can take the most impossible and bizarre elements and find incredibly creative and artful ways to put them together. They do it so beautifully and with such consistency that they’ve forced me to become a better photographer in an attempt to keep up with them.

There’s nothing quite like a community of smart, funny, creative people to keep the creative juices percolating (if juices percolate—which under most circumstances, they don’t but in Utata percolating juices wouldn’t raise an eyebrow).