Making Mischief in New Orleans, Part I

I haven’t been in New Orleans since before Katrina, but I love the city. When I got to LaGuardia, all stressed out after finishing a very long, tedious proofread and having the messenger pick up the package just in the nick of time, I found it soothing to hear Southern accents all around me. Our flight was delayed because a group from Mississippi (about forty people) had been in a bus accident. Nobody was injured, but the group had been delayed and the airline held the flight rather than leaving people displaced until the next day. When they straggled onto the airplane in groups of twos and threes, some personally thanked us for waiting, as if we other passengers had anything to do with it. It was a nice thing to do, though, and it put me in a good mood for an almost three-hour flight in such tiny, cramped seats—and of course, I was behind one of those guys who insisted on reclining all the way back so he could take a nap.

I got off the plane all right in New Orleans and taxied to the bed and breakfast, which me, my friend Sarah, and her daughter Megan are renting for the week. It’s called the Dauphine House and is supposedly haunted. The owner told me that there are five ghosts in her house. One is a couple from the 1860s that she saw on the staircase; she guesses they’re from right before the Civil War based on what they wear. One is a little girl who’s about six to eight years old and likes to play in the closet near our rooms. (I think I can handle that as long as she’s not like the kid from The Changeling.) The owner believes she died during the yellow fever epidemic. There’s also a ghost who’s very concerned with money and paces one of the balconies, and then another man who’s a dapper dresser and runs around in a top hat.

I was starving after two teensy bags of peanuts on the plane so we went to eat at a place that the bed-and-breakfast owner recommended, and on the way there and back, we saw the biggest, most luxurious cockroaches I’ve ever encountered. They put mine to shame in The Collectors. With shadow, they looked as big as three inches long and didn’t move too quickly since they were busy sucking heat out of the sidewalk—that is, until we started photographing them; then they got their hustle on. With the heat and humidity, I was covered with a fine sheen of sweat by the time we came back, but I was too tired to shower. I climbed into bed and slept for the next nine hours with no visitings.

New Orleans cockroach

We had drawn up our itinerary for our time before the World Horror Convention begins and decided to go on the cemetery voodoo tour the first day. After browsing through a few shops, taking breaks from the heat, we met up with our tour guide Gwen, a natural-born Creole, she said and then explained the differences. Gwen said spirits and ghosts are attracted to large bodies of water and that’s part of the reason why New Orleans is such a spiritual place.

She took us to Saint Louis Cemetery, No. 1, where Marie Laveau’s crypt is, the great voodoo priestess. I’ve been interested in her history ever since reading Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. People leave all sorts of tributes, but I was truly puzzled by a set of nail clippers that had been set on the edge of her crypt. I know Marie owned a beauty shop, so maybe it’s referencing that? Or somebody’s looking for extra help while opening a nail salon?

nail clippers for Marie Laveau

We were taken to another crypt that apparently held a hoodoo priest, though nobody can tell his name because the face of the stone is so badly damaged. Gwen told us about the serious black magic that this guy could do, and how cops would enter locked rooms to find bodies with their throats mysteriously cut…by nobody it appeared. I’ve heard NYPD talk about similar things, coming into a room where Santeria had been practiced and just feeling oppressive, bad things. This priest’s grave was decorated by three X’s, calling for magic, and other shrine-related items that had been deposited throughout the day. My favorite—somebody’s hotel room keycard.

tributes left for a hoodoo priest

We were lucky on our tour and ran into one of Gwen’s friends who runs the Golden Feather, a Mardi Gras Indian restaurant gallery. He let us see the Mardi Gras Indian suits on display and told us how each member spends one year making his, with a design that has special significance for him. (The owner told me there are only two shops in New Orleans that carry these supplies, and now I’m wild to find them.) When the suits are completed, the Mardi Gras Indians parade in different festivals as a way to honor the American Indians who protected the enslaved people during the slave revolts.

Mardi Gras Indian suit at the Golden Feather

Our tour group was flagging at the end, and Gwen offered to take us and a few other hardy souls to visit Priestess Miriam at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center. Priestess Miriam was mixing up perfumes when we arrived and took a while to come to the door and let us in. She has two rooms full of shrines and altars that she’s been building since the 1990s. Gwen showed me her Burmese python and told me that Priestess Miriam reads bones, which are supposed to give really accurate, dead-on readings. I was curious about all of the Virgin of Guadalupe images that I saw in her altar room and asked Priestess Miriam about that since I have a shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. She told me that the Virgin is a door, and all doors are feminine because it’s through a woman that anybody gets into or out of this world. I definitely see the getting-into part and have to think more on the getting out, but I’m in love with the idea that all doors are feminine.

Priestess Miriam, Gwen, Megan, and Sarah

After our tour, we had a sit-down and food, and then took the streetcar along the Moon Walk. Sarah told me she had run out of stickers for Horrorfeminista, so I gave her a new load, and she did this decorating while riding the streetcar. Now our paper roaches will be alongside the real ones in New Orleans.

Horrorfeminista!

 

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The Long Hard Road to The Collectors

I wrote my first novel when I was in junior high and directly inspired by the Olympics. My father had a subscription to Sports Illustrated, but I didn’t look at the magazine too much because it was mostly guys on the cover. The only time I noticed a woman on the cover was for the swimsuit issue, which our mostly female family looked at with disdain or amusement, depending on how we felt. I don’t remember seeing a woman athlete on the cover until the 1984 Olympics when Mary Lou Retton swept the gymnastics competition for women. At the time, there was a lot of criticism about her body, with sportscasters calling her Thunder Thighs because of her muscular physique. But it was that physique that gave her performances such power, wowing the judges.

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Inspired, I wrote a novel about a young woman who discovers a talent for gymnastics and eventually propels herself to the Olympics. The story was written entirely in pencil, with my own illustrations, and probably didn’t crack ten thousand words, but it marked the first time I attempted to write a longer work because that particular book didn’t exist in my library.

The next novels I wrote were during college when I was taking classes in the undergraduate Writers’ Workshop. I wanted to write something that was completely different from who I was, and so I came up with the crudest, rudest male that I could, a protagonist who wrestled alligators and crocodiles for a living. I finished this novel, which I called I Never Went to Vietnam, and loved it. I really thought it was something special.

I sent it off to many agents, including one that my friend was interning for, and sat back, waiting for the acceptances that I was sure would flood in. There were some encouraging words that came in, agents that said, “Good writing, but not for me.” And then I heard from the agent my friend knew at Sanford J. Greenburger who said he’d like to read something about what I know, being a young woman in the Midwest. I thought about it for a minute—considered it—but that sounded like the most boring story ever. I started a couple of other novels after I Never Went to Vietnam, but they petered out. They were stories I couldn’t commit to.

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I didn’t really work seriously on my fiction until after I moved to New York. Instead, I focused on moving up the ladder in the publishing industry, starting as a copyeditor and then switching over to editing so I could do more shaping and writing. I also started writing reviews and articles for a few magazines. I had been kicking around the idea of writing a novel that addressed the topic of hoarding, but when I gave my female protagonist strange behaviors that didn’t exist in the real world, my story stalled out. Reading more horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, I came to the realization that the story didn’t have to make logical, realistic sense; it just had to make story sense. And that’s how The Collectors was born.

For about six months, I’d hike up to the Mid-Manhattan Library after work and write on my novel among students and the homeless in the work area on the second floor. I finished the novel, revised it a few times, and read Miss Snark’s blog religiously, where she gave snappy advice about how to land an agent. She would dress down morons and the clueless by calling them nitwits, and every once in a while, she would solicit writers’ hooks in order to give them advice. She called these epic submission periods the Crapometer, and I eagerly entered one. She got a slew of entries, and I checked her blog daily, waiting for her to get to The Collectors, my novel about body horror and hoarding.

She was not kind. She gave a two-sentence reply to my entry—“Is this a joke? I’m going to wash my hands again, and again, and again.” I read that with a plummeting heart, but then I saw all the people who posted about my entry, saying they thought my hook was one of the more creative ones submitted. And people started posting their own experiences about hoarders—many would begin, “I used to know a person like this…” So Miss Snark wasn’t interested in The Collectors, but I believed there was a market for my novel.

I submitted queries to agents and publishing houses that specialized in horror, and right away I started getting hits. First off, I sent my Collectors query to Dorchester Publishing, whose imprint Leisure Books specialized in horror, and they requested the full manuscript. I had been schooled that when a full manuscript was requested, it was a very big thing, meaning you were that much closer to selling a novel and getting a book deal. Ha!

I approached a heavy-duty agent at Writers House who represents some very big names in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, and her assistant requested a full. Did the same with Tor, and they requested a full. I really thought it was just a matter of time, and I would get an offer from someone somewhere. Maybe I’d even get a couple of offers. When I followed up with the agent’s assistant at the Writers House, she said there was no room on the agent’s roster, but she had a lot of love for The Collectors.

I wrote back to Dorchester, and while I waited, I wrote another supernatural novel and sent them pages for it. The executive editor sent back a complimentary letter, talking about how small his list was and how he could only publish so many titles a year. He said he was still considering The Collectors, but that my book about a haunting, The Charm Quilt, would probably have better luck at another publisher. And then Dorchester Publishing went under and that was no longer an option.

I wrote Tor to check in on the status of The Collectors and never heard back.

Here and there, I would submit to agents that seemed to be interested in horror. More often than not, I would get a request for a full and then would come the eventual e-mail: “Good writing, but this is not right for me.”

I know exactly what I want to write and read—a brand of lady horror, where women can be beasts or deal with horrific situations without having fits of vapors. And I’ve come to the point where I’m sick of waiting for that agent and deal, which will still make me poor. I’ve got more than fifteen years in publishing, working for some very big houses. I’ve learned good lessons, and after reading some complete crap books, horror novels where women’s only function is to take off their clothes, I’m ready to go indie with The Collectors.

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My sister Kristi designed the cover art for The Collectors and she’s also come up with a logo for Horrorfeminista. Our sister team is starting with The Collectors and will be following that up with Zombie Apocalypse in Ditmas Park and The Charm Quilt, which I hope will lead to The Foot Book, Heavy Metal Nightmare, and more undiscovered lady horror that I know is out there.

horrorfeminista logo

Hoarders on A&E

We are now TV-less since the switch over to satellite, and I don’t mind so much. If I’m going to watch something, I really have to think about it, decide what the movie is going to be, whether I’ll be absorbed enough in the story line for two or so hours, and so on. No longer do I switch on the set for the tapioca-like comfort of white noise–TV commercials, Judge Judy, and the endless Law & Order episodes.

The last couple of weeks, I have been juggling two assignments–the copyedit of an erotica novel and the proofread of a nonfiction book on Theodore Roosevelt. Neither were particularly difficult assignments, but together I needed to sit and edit for about eight hours a day, while being incredibly focused on fine details during every minute of that time. I had to build in breaks that didn’t involve reading. I used my sister’s faster computer to go to the A&E Web site and find some quick entertainment in a three-inch by three-inch window.

One of the new episodes that had been added was the pilot of Hoarders, a reality show that explores the world of compulsive hoarding, a topic I’ve been fascinated by since I don’t when–probably birth. www.aetv.com/hoarders/

My first novel The Collectors tackles this subject, but back when I was doing research on compulsive hoarding a few years ago, I could find barely anything: Ghosty Men by Franz Lidz, a memoir/biography of the author’s hoarding uncle combined with the story of the Collyer brothers–probably the best-known hoarders of all time; a two-page story on the Collyer brothers in New York: An Illustrated History; and a few homemade Web pages with so many typos and errors that I doubted the stories’ veracity.

How I wish Hoarders had existed then, which goes to the heart of hoarding, the why?, and treats the subjects humanely, not as crazy cat ladies. In the pilot episode, two people are treated–Linda and Steven, both highly intelligent individuals who have become trapped by their stuff. Steven seems to be crippled somewhat by disability, and most of his garbage appears to be recyclables (compulsive hoarders usually have a theme with their stuff). He’s paired with the better of the counselors, I think, and she and Steven come up with a mission statement for his clean-up: to have a home that will also be a spiritual place where Steven can nurture his soul. Steven has been homeless at times and wants to write his life story. Most of his day is spent outside of his apartment, where he has made friends with coffee shop patrons, storekeepers, and library clerks. He loves to read and learn and is shamed when his counselor/organizer finally makes it to his bathroom, discovering "stuff" covered in defecation, which must be disposed of by people wearing sanitation masks and using gloves and shovels.

Linda is divorced, her husband no long able to cope with her hoarding ways, and as part of their divorce settlement, the family house must be cleaned of her stuff and sold. Linda is shown interacting with her children, where she puts blame on them for leaving items at home when they moved and adding to the problem. The daughter recounts the shame she felt growing up and never being able to have anybody over. As Linda starts sorting through her stuff, she has breakdowns when confronting old possessions (an old baby outfit of one of her children), and her emotions, her memories, are attached to the object, making it almost impossible to get rid of anything.

Very rarely is there a success story with compulsive hoarding–and the follow-up text for each of these episodes show this. I would say that maybe two out of every ten participants are able to make any progress in their compulsive hoarding, and these are out of the hoarders that willingly seek out help. After watching each of these episodes, I feel a major depression come over me. Compulsive hoarding springs from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s tragic to see these people with such potential choked by their possessions and only having relationships with things rather than others. I guess the things have never hurt or abandoned them like people have.