Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

So the contest to review some of my short fiction came to a close this past Friday at midnight, and the winner of the random drawing is Erica Higgins, who left a very kind review of my horror story, Hidden House.

Erica will receive a $25 Amazon gift card, and I’ll make fun of her on Facebook and/or Twitter.

I appreciate everyone who reviewed a story. Whether you left a five-star, four-star, or one-star review, ALL of your feedback was immensely gratifying for me, just because writers don’t craft stories in an echo chamber. Or at least we hope not. Having those stories read by other people is the aim of publishing.

Thus far, a little more than 3,200 people have read my stories on Smashwords, and the stories are generally getting good reviews there. That’s not best-seller range, but I know a lot of writers who, well, they wouldn’t kill for that kind of audience, but they might maim someone.

Now, I’ve got a mean little story about a carload of killers to work on. See you later.

My Jesus Moment (a manifesto)

Some long-time friends wonder what’s going on with me. Here in my middle age, I’ve become something of the token liberal in their circles. One person literally asked me, “What happened to you?” And another proclaimed that one day I would have a “Jesus moment.” I didn’t know exactly how to reply to either of those thoughts. I care about both of those people, though, and my conservative friends deserve the truth about what really happened to me.

I got tired. And old. I got tired of people thinking Jesus would act like a Reagan Republican. I got tired of seeing people of color, women, LGQTIB, and poor people alike become more and more marginalized by people who ought to know better.  I got tired of seeing “Christian” politicians twist the gospel in order to win an office or stay in it. I got old enough to tell the truth as I see it about greed and sin, whether in the pulpit or policy. I have little use for American church-as-politics or church-as-business. I don’t think (and I’m backed up by Scripture here.) that Jesus cared one damn bit about man’s political machinations.

I think he cared how we treat one another. I think he wanted us to care for the poor, and the sick, and the elderly, and the needy. It makes me tired (and angry) when I see people like Joel Osteen claim that God’s blessing is about money or physical wealth. That’s a lie, designed to line his pockets. But we don’t talk about that. We let him smile at us with his artificially bright teeth while his manicured hands pick our pockets. And we let our politicians treat us the same way. As long as they smile and tell us what we want to hear, we never know when they’re fleecing us.

I think Jesus told us how to live, but we are either too weak to live that way or too damned selfish. And we’ve tied our supposed faith to our politics, and that’s NOT what we’re called to do as Christians. American christians—maybe not all of us, but a whole lot—would make fine Pharisees. Christ told his disciples MULTIPLE TIMES that his kingdom wasn’t of this world. We—meaning mainstream/conservative Christians—don’t listen to that. We think we have a right to bend government of all people to government that suits US. That everyone should live by the faith and principles we share. And that’s wrong.

So maybe I’ve already had what a friend calls my “Jesus moment.” And that moment tells me that we live in a broken country, deeply in need of change. Police are killing black men—and women—with impunity. The middle class is disappearing faster than we can talk about it. People are graduating high school without knowing how to read or write, much less do ‘rithmatic. We advocate for “pro life” and then allow children and parents to live in extreme poverty, because apparently what happens after birth is not our business. We deny the racism that still exists on a primitive level in this country. We’re okay with fomenting hate and calling it heritage. We’re okay defining people by their race or their color or thier social status. Mainstream Democrats AND Republicans put us in this place.

We walk past hurt and needy people. Instead of helping them, we say “Oh, if only they would help themselves.” or “If only they would …” We want to offer hope and help on our terms, and I think we are expressly, grossly, horribly wrong when we think/say that.

That’s my faith. Those are my politics. THAT is my Jesus moment.

Contest: Win a $25 gift card from Amazon! (WIN FREE MONEY!)

Everybody likes free money, right?

I mean, literally free. There is nothing you have to buy here in order to win a $25 gift card from Amazon.

Here’s how the contest works:

1) Go to my Smashwords profile and download a story. Each of the individual stories there is FREE, so there is no purchase necessary. There should be options to read on Kindle, iBook, Nook, Kobo, or your computer screen, so you can pretty much have your pick.

2) Leave a review of the story on Smashwords. Heck, I’ll even take a review on Goodreads. Let me be completely clear here: While I absolutely LOVE 4- and 5-star reviews, I want you to be completely honest in your reviews. I don’t want anyone thinking that I’m paying for positive reviews. A 1-star review gets you the same entry as a 5-star review. However, the more stories you review, the more entries you’ll have. (Having said that, I do think you’ll like at least some of the stories.)

3) Email me a link to your review at bwmathews (at) Each entry will be assigned a number, and those numbers will then be entered into a random drawing. If your number is drawn, you win!

4) However, because of the laws in my state, I will have to ask you a question: As of July 31, 2015, how many short stories do I have listed on Smashwords? (NOTE: THIS NUMBER WILL NOT CHANGE WHILE THE CONTEST IS ONGOING.)

The contest runs from Friday, July 31, 2015 to Friday, August 14, 2015.

Seems like a pretty simple contest to me: Read a story, leave a review, email me proof of your review, and answer one very simple question. What could be easier?

Thanks for playing along, and good luck to all of the contestants!

‘Christian’ Response to Same-Sex Marriage

This is not supposed to be a “social justice” blog. This is supposed to be where I hang out and write occasionally funny and/or scathing book reviews. It’s where I’m supposed to come to whine about not writing. It’s where I’m supposed to let you know about new projects of mine that you can take a look at.

But last week’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage has changed that.

OK, that’s not exactly true: my friends’ reaction to that ruling has changed that.

You would think the world is on fire. (It’s not. I checked.) The level of hate and anger and proof-texting quotes from the Bible (as well as assorted stupidity in general) is off the charts. The fact is that the world is changing. And many people out there hate change of nearly any kind. I don’t know if I’d necessarily even call these people homophobes. What they often are, instead, are privileged white people who are appalled that someone else is being awarded the same rights they have enjoyed for years.

This has led to some insanity. Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has issued a 25-day stay against any same-sex marriage licenses in the state of Alabama. This was countermanded almost immediately by a federal judge telling Alabama to get its shit in gear and join the rest of the fucking civilized world. I mean, the judge issued a ruling that marriage licenses were to be issued statewide.

Finally, some sense.

Sadly, it took a federal court to enforce it, just as it did during the Civil Rights era and integration. We in the South—especially in Alabama—rarely do something because it’s the right thing to do. We do the right thing only when all other options have been exhausted.

Pike County (AL) Probate Judge Wes Allen has said his religious beliefs prevent him from issuing same-sex marriage licenses, so he won’t issue ANY. To anyone.

If Allen cannot fulfill one of the key duties of his office due to his religious beliefs (not to mention his political grandstanding), then he should do the moral thing—the Christian thing, even—and resign from office. If he doesn’t, he should be removed for dereliction of duty.

Like this lady: Linda Barnette, a county clerk in Mississippi. I can respect Ms. Barnette, even though I disagree with her viewpoint, I applaud her ability to understand that if her faith kept her from doing her job, she would have to leave. (I do not applaud the article’s assertion that Christians will “lose their jobs” due to same-sex marriage. Barnette didn’t lose her damned job. She quit.)

And now we get down to the heart of the matter, where the will gets weak and my thoughts seem to scatter.

So many people don’t seem to understand that “Christian” law is not US law, and they end up sounding like morons. (Hey, no offense. I’m sure I’ve sounded like a moron at times, too.) A judge’s (or clerk’s) job is not to enforce his or her religious beliefs on anyone else. But many of my Christian friends on Facebook are applauding the various stands undertaken by believers who have been put in some kind of position of power. They are being held up as being faithful to “God’s Law” instead of man’s.

What if the roles were reversed, and we were placed under Islamic-centered Sharia Law? I’d bet you my conservative-leaning Christian friends wouldn’t like that one bit. As a matter of fact, I’m fairly sure there would be armed resistance. (And rightly so. That Constitution thing.) But we’d be under someone’s version of “God’s Law.” Right? Yeah, there’s a reason that the tenet of the separation of Church and State has been honored for so long. YOU DO NOT HAVE THE RIGHT TO IMPOSE YOUR RELIGIOUS VIEWS ON OTHER PEOPLE. And that’s certainly true whether you’re an elected official, someone’s co-worker, boss, customer, business-owner, or just a schmuck on the street.

And then there is the contingent on Facebook who believe pastors will be forced to perform same-sex marriages. This is patently untrue, and in his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy reaffirmed that pastors have full control of the decision of whom they will—and won’t—marry. Period. End of story.



Another friend asked “You sure talk a lot about gay marriage. Do you wanna get one or something?” Hurr hurr durrrrrr.

All right, fine. I can expect that sort of thing from some people. But he also expressed sadness that I was no longer willing to defend Christian principles, and wondered if I’d wandered from my faith. The question is offensive in many parts, but the biggest, in my opinion, is the implied position that my faith must match his, or else it’s no good anymore. Quite frankly, my faith HAS changed.

I still consider myself a Christian. I believe in compassion. I believe in Love. I believe in reaching out to hurting people. I believe in clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.I believe in sheltering the homeless. I believe in caring for the widow and the orphan. I believe that we see through a glass, darkly, and each of us has to live by the light that’s in us. I believe that we all need Christ.

I don’t believe God gives a good tinker’s damn about politics. I don’t believe He cares who wins or loses a political battle. We do, because we’re human, and this world is all we see.

My faith isn’t anywhere close to perfect. I screw up all the time. But I like to think that as I’ve lived my life and learned and matured, that I am able to be more honest to my faith than I have ever been. That’s where my faith is. Make of it what you will.

A popular thing for some of my friends, lately, is to post all of the Bible verses damning (or possibly damning) homosexuality. They rail against Obama and the gub’mint, and the hell they think is being wreaked on the American church. So, just for fun, let’s see what the Bible says about that, shall we?

Romans 13:1-2
1. Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.

Hey, if they’re gonna proof-text, I might as well get into the game, too.

Here’s the thing about many conservative Christians: It is as important to them that they be right/correct in their doctrine as it is to love someone in the name of Jesus.

This leads to all sorts of stuff, like “I love them, but they are sinners! Unrepentant sinners!”

Jesus didn’t call you to say that. You know what he called you to say and do?

“I love them.”

But me no buts, nimrod.

I’ve kind of crapped all over a segment of my friends here, but I do want to say that at the end of the day, they have legitimate concerns. They want to know—seem to need to know—what the future will bring.

“What kind of world,” they ask, “are we leaving our children?”

I hope we’re leaving them a more inclusive kind of world, where people can be who and what they are, and not have to hide it.

The real answer is that every time we recognize and grant people equal rights under the law, we are leaving our children a better world.

Better than the one we grew up in, for sure.

Burning the Flag

This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. It may cost me readers, and it may cost me friends.

I don’t care anymore.

A racist shithead with a gun walked into a church and ended the lives of nine innocent people. I have thought of little else since then. That singular act of racial terrorism has stuck in my brain like a fish hook, resisting all attempts to dislodge it.

I am a Southerner. I grew up poor—but not as poor as my parents. Their parents, in turn, grew up poor, too. I can remember my Dad telling me about times when all he had to eat was cold biscuit and Karo syrup. He left home young, finding his way into the Army and striving for a better life.

But it seems to me, in memory, that the wolves were almost always at the door. We were cash-poor, and the credit that was extended to my folks only served to bury us even farther. Cash-poor, but redneck-proud. That was us. We were the only white folks in an all-black neighborhood. My best friend growing up was black. So was my greatest enemy. I learned firsthand that black people aren’t all bad. Or all good. They’re people. Just like us, our surrounding neighborhood was poor. We lived on a dirt road. Our cars ran (most of the time), but they were often held together with baling wire and prayer. I learned a term for bald tires that were always in danger of blowing out: baloney skins.

We lived in a trailer when I was young. I don’t know that my Granny (on my Dad’s side) ever lived in anything but a trailer, except for the few years when she lived with us.

We never went on the dole. It was probably close sometimes, but my Dad always worked. My mom stayed home and looked after me. We didn’t ask for help.

One of my most heartbreaking memories is from Christmas when I was in junior high school. We were broke. Downright stony, my friends. I got the only present my parents could afford. And I was ungrateful, so disappointed and sad that I would have to hear about all of the awesome gifts my friends received. I couldn’t even see the sacrifice my folks made to at least get me something.

Things got better. My mom got a civil service job. I got to go on trips with a church group. Beaches. Skiing. But of course somehow I’d landed at the rich folks’ church, and I was anything but. So I tried my very hardest to hide how poor I was. I tried to hide who I was. It didn’t work. I was still just the little redneck kid with maybe a little bit of talent, and a lot of pretensions. I graduated high school, and found my way into college, even though I was an uninspired student.

So, things got better for me. And even if they hadn’t, I still had my pride. That legendary, Southern pride. It’s the kind of pride where you wouldn’t say shit even if you had a mouthful. It’s that pride that lets us Smart-ass Southern White Boys tell jokes like this:

Following a resounding defeat at the hands of the Union Army, a collection of Confederate troops falls back to their camp. Men are wounded. There is blood everywhere, startling against the gray of their patchwork uniforms.

“Sir,” one wounded soldier gasps to his superior officer, “I thought you said we could beat them Yankees with cornstalks.”

The officer nods. “That’s right. But the sons of bitches wouldn’t fight that way!”

We have an overweening pride here in the South. Hubris, they call it. I guess it’s good that we have that pride, because we don’t have much else. We lag behind in education. We lag behind in industry. We’re tops in obesity, though. And football.

Oh, I guess we have the flag, too. You know which one. That one. The Stars and Bars.

Somewhere in the 1980s—after the Dukes of Hazzard went off the air—it became politically incorrect to fly what is commonly known as the Confederate flag. You’d see it out in the country sometimes, draped across the window in some white trash trailer. And it flies over the South Carolina capitol, of course. It’s a reminder, they tell me, of Southern heritage and culture.

For a long time, I agreed. I would feel that swell of pride in my chest. Men of the South long ago rose up and fought for something they believed in. They lived and died, sought honor and glory on the field of battle, with the sound of cannon and the pounding of cavalry hooves ringing in their ears. They rebelled against an overbearing federal government, and right or wrong, they were my people. They stood by their principles. Even in loss, in death, these noble men stood for what they believed. That flag represented some great lost cause. Men dedicated their lives to that lost cause, found it noble to chase after that dream under the banner of the stars and bars.

And it’s horseshit. Let me reiterate:

Horse. Shit.

I wish that flag didn’t represent slavery and violence and oppression and hate. But it does. You have to look no farther than the shooting of nine innocent black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., to see that. There are photos of Dylann Roof flying the stars and bars, and photos of him burning the American flag. You want to tell me that his words to one of the victims, “…you rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” weren’t fostered and inspired under that goddamned flag? Do you really?

Fuck you. If that is what you really think, I am being absolutely serious here: Go fuck yourself. Find some basis in reality, and then get back to me.

Here is the hardest part: I identify with Dylann Roof. I’m a white Southern male, and I think I know a lot of what he felt. Hell, what he probably still feels. You see the rising tide of voices that are NOT white, nor Southern, nor male, and maybe you feel a little swept away in all of that. That you are losing your place in the world. You have no money, no sense of empowerment, but one whale of a sense of entitlement. This is not the way it’s supposed to be, you think. And you blame those people for your lack of money or education or success or whatever fucking else your idiot brain can come up with. I have felt that way before. I felt that way most strongly before I escaped the gravitational pull of the South just long enough to get some perspective—to understand that the way we poor white folks live and think in the South isn’t the ONLY way to live or think. My advice to anyone growing up in the South: get out, if you can. Get out and get an education. Get out and get your beliefs challenged. Get out and get some goddamned life experience.

And then, please, come BACK. Because the South needs people who have lived elsewhere and done other things. We need that like an ailing patient needs a blood transfusion.

Life experience changed my viewpoint. Becoming a father for the first time changed my viewpoint. Having another little one changed it even further. I still am what I am. I have made mistakes. I have said (and done) racist things. I have been guilty of having racist thoughts more times than I’d like to admit. I’ve used the N-word. I’m not proud of it, but growing up in a household where the word was almost as common as table salt, you really can’t expect any different, can you?

But I can change. I want a world where my kids never hear the N-word, and have no idea what the hell it means. I want a world where my children play with children of different races, faiths, and sexual orientations. I want a world where my kids are safe to be who they are—and where YOUR kids are safe to be who they are, too.

We can’t do that when part of this country still willingly and proudly flies under a rebel flag. It’s not heritage. It’s hate. (It hurts me to say that. You have no idea how much it hurts. But we have to face reality. And this reality is sad and ugly.)

Take the stars and bars down.

Take it down.

Douse it with gasoline and light a match.

Burn that goddamned flag and let the ghosts of the old, imaginary South be free. Let those shades fly—whether that’s to Heaven or Hell.

Let’s live free, if we can.

Going Smartphone-Free

My wife and I made a decision last month to give up our smartphones, and it’s turning out to be one of the best things we’ve ever done.

We bought “old-fashioned” flip phones and changed our Verizon plan to simple “talk and text” plans. My wife sold her iPhone 5s, and I gave up my Android-based phone, too. We ended up cutting roughly $100 a month from our phone bill. And let’s be honest: Who couldn’t use an extra hundred bucks a month?

However, the financial side isn’t the biggest perk. We have small children, but as the days went by we found ourselves drawn more and more to the tiny screens in our hands. It’s so easy to get distracted with all of the information out there and not pay attention to the important things in life.

We were (are?) news junkies. I’ve been hardwired that way, it appears. I’d scroll CNN or Reddit or any number of other sites to get the latest news. Or the latest sports. Or the weather. Or political commentary. Or email. Or Facebook. Or Twitter. Or the Wikipedia wormhole. Or, hey, funny cat pictures! It’s all right there, at your fingertips.

And that’s not necessarily a good thing, at least for me.

I like to think I’m a fairly bright guy, and a pretty good problem-solver. But with that kind of unlimited information on hand, I often get bogged down in processing it all. I zone out.

This past weekend, we traveled to southern Indiana to go to a wedding. The trip was fun. We had to map out our route beforehand, and we made a couple of scenic stops that I don’t think we’d have made had we been using something like Google Maps. But we also saw more of the country, and had more conversations with one another and with the older child. (Since he’s the only one who can talk at the moment.) On our way back, we ran into a huge traffic jam on I-65 South, so we got off the Interstate. We took a hilariously bad wrong turn onto the Western Kentucky Parkway (where there was no exit for literally 10 miles), but ended up finding a restaurant neither of us had ever tried, and we mapped out an alternate route around the traffic congestion while we ate.

Some people would probably consider that a nuisance. And maybe it was. But it’s also a memory, and I don’t think we can have enough of those.

Being without a smartphone allows me to be more engaged in the world around me, I think. I talk to my wife and my kids more. I’m THERE—not lost in a screen. My conversation level has, I think, gone up. I no longer say “Hm?” or “I”m sorry, I wasn’t listening,” every time my wife asks me a question.

I’m not saying that smartphones are evil, or a temptation from de Debbil. I’m not even saying that I’ll never have one again. (Because, hey, I know me.) But for right now, going smartphone-free has been a really great decision for my family, and for me.

Short Story: The Girl on the Blue Line

Author’s note: I wrote this a long time ago, for a small literary magazine called Buzzwords, which is no longer in print (I think). They had a hole in an issue, and asked if I could write something to spec. It had to be no more than 1,750 words. I think it came in at 1,749. I wrote it in about an hour, and it was in print less than two weeks later, with virtually no changes. Either I was good, or they were desperate. Or maybe a little from Column A, a little from Column B. I’ve changed a little bit of it, but not much. Enjoy.

The Girl on the Blue Line

By Bobby Mathews

We were both waiting for the blue-line Metro at King’s Street Station, shivering on the elevated platform in the cold light of a January morning in Washington. The collar of her ratty burnt-orange overcoat was tattered, and her black shoes were run down at heel and toe. Still, her hair was flipped out playfully, and her eyes were a mischievous green. I boarded before her, but she sat down facing me across the narrow aisle.

We looked at one another, but neither of us spoke. She pulled a paperback copy of The Great Gatsby out of a leather knapsack that looked more expensive than all of her clothes. A bent and wrinkled paper coin tube marked her place. She opened the book and began to read. The reading gave me a chance to look her over. Clean, with high cheekbones that showed even in the rattling light of a Metro car. She was in her early twenties, most likely a student at one of the colleges around the capitol. She wore funky socks, black with bright green four-leaf clovers that matched nothing else she wore. As she read, she bit nervously at the tip of her overcoat collar.

I had to raise my voice for her to hear above the rattle and clank of the metro car.

“‘And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’”

She put the book down, face-open, on her lap, and looked at me.

“That’s cheating,” she said. “I never read the last line of a book before I get there.”

“Then how do you know it’s the last line?”

“I’ve read it before.” She closed the book and tucked it back into her backpack. Her nails were professionally shaped and glossy with polish. “Second time through. First time was in high school, and I didn’t understand any of it.”

I nodded.

“What about now?”

“It’s better now. I’m older, and I guess I know what the writer was talking about now.”

The train shuddered to a stop, and we were quiet while other passengers got on and off. Once everyone had settled into their seats, the train was off again, speeding underground now, heading toward the Pentagon.

“Something about lost dreams, wasn’t it?” I said, once we were underway again.

“Something like that. You’ve read the whole thing, right? It’s not just a pickup line?”

“If it is, it never works.” We both laughed at that.

“Gatsby’s the kind of book a girl is supposed to like, I think. You know, Gatsby loves the girl, Daisy. And she loves him, too, although she realizes that he no longer fits into her life. But him, oh boy. Hopeless romantic. He waits for her, and once he’s found her, he thinks he’s found the dream he’s been holding onto for five years.”

“But he hasn’t.”

She looked at me strangely, as if really seeing me for the first time: a strange goateed man in jeans and a navy pea jacket and watch cap. Was there anything particularly untrustworthy about me? For that matter, was there anything particularly trustworthy?

“You really have read it, haven’t you?”

“Sure,” I said. I quoted again. “‘Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or on the wet marshes.’ Reading that probably saved my life a couple of times.”

“Really,” she said. It wasn’t a question, but permission for me to continue. Maybe even a permission to come closer. I rose from my seat across the aisle. There was a moment, when I stood in the middle of the train and saw myself as she must have – looming over her, coming inexorably forward, that she might have screamed. Instead she moved her knapsack to the floor between her feet, and I took its place in the seat.

“This is,” she said, and I saw her try to catch at her breath. “This is unreal. I don’t know a thing about you.”

“I’m Donovan Turley,” I said, taking off my watch cap. Her eyes widened when she saw the uncertain metro light gleam against my shaved head. “I was a Marine. I’m visiting D.C. I read a lot, and I like to talk. Am I making you uncomfortable?”

“No,” she said, but her eyes said something different.

“It’s all right,” I said, gathering myself for the one-step walk of shame back across the aisle. “I can go back to my seat. I didn’t mean to overstep my bounds.”

She put a hand on my knee.

“It’s all right,” she said, and this time when she looked at me I could tell she meant it. Embarrassed, she took her hand off my knee.

She told me her name, and from there, other things came out. She was in a relationship with another student, but that hadn’t worked out. She was a junior majoring in literature, and she hoped to teach college herself one day. She took the metro to class every morning, but today she’d just felt like going in early for some reason.

“I’m glad you did,” I said.

“This is my stop,” she said when the conductor called out George Washington University over the loudspeaker. She bent over to get her bag, but I put my hand on her arm. My fingertips tingled where I touched her.

“Why don’t we go get some coffee?” I asked. “There’s a nice shop in Foggy Bottom. Next stop.”

She hesitated.

“It’s public,” I said. “Lots of people. Just coffee and conversation, I swear.”

The train was slowing to its stop, and she had to make up her mind quickly. Her hands loosened on the straps to the backpack, and she settled back into her seat, a smile breaking over her face like a sunrise breaking over the horizon.

“You know what? I’d love some coffee.” But when the train doors slid closed with a pneumatic rush, she looked at them almost longingly.

We never stopped at Foggy Bottom. The stops sped past while we were deep in conversation, our eyes locked on each other like old lovers who have spent a lifetime apart. The train sped on, and we finally wound up in L’Enfant Plaza and had coffee in the warmth of a small chain shop. I heard more about her unhappy love affair, and about the classes she was taking. Once she warmed up, she was a good talker. I listened for a long time to the unconscious melody of her voice and watched people go by in the blistering cold weather outside the shop.

“You don’t say much, do you?” She finally said.

“Not when I don’t feel the need.” I drank some more coffee, felt the jolt of it as the caffeine hit my system.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m perfectly comfortable. You’re intelligent and funny, and I like to listen to you.”

She smiled and put her hand a little closer to mine on the small glass-topped table. I touched her fingers lightly. She snaked her fingers through mine, and we held hands that way for a little while. Her eyes shone in the dim sunlight that filtered its way through the polarized glass windows of the coffee shop.

Afterward, we went back to the subway station, and I put her on the blue line again, this time headed in the opposite direction, back toward the university. We stood close together outside the turnstiles that led into the metro.

“This was amazing,” she said. “I feel like I could talk to you all day. This was—well—I never expected this. I needed it.”

“Maybe we should do it again,” I said. She gave me her phone number, and I gave her my e-mail address, since I didn’t know what the number to my hotel.

“Would you meet me tonight?” she asked. “I take the metro home, too. You could … you could come in. We could make dinner.”

“I’d like that,” I said, and pulled her to me. Her mouth opened against mine. She tasted faintly of Columbian coffee and raspberry lipstick. Her mouth moved tenderly against mine, like a small, eager butterfly. I kissed her back in the same way. It started off gently, but ended with her body pressing hard against me. I could feel the heat of her through her clothing and mine. I wanted her like a drowning man wants air.

When we finally pulled apart, it was hard to breathe. Her lipstick was smeared, and I was wearing some of it.

“I take the five-thirty blue line,” she said. “Be here. Please. You’ll be here, won’t you?”

“I will,” I said. Then, again, as if to reassure myself I’d spoken. “I will.”

At five-fifteen that afternoon I stepped off the metro tired from a day of touring the museums and memorials and monuments. I had three more days in Washington, but what I was looking forward to most was kissing her again. I hadn’t expected things to work out that way. I was just lonely, ready for a little companionship, and things had worked out better than I’d hoped.

I looked for her on the platform, waiting to see her flipped-out hair and bright green eyes. But she never came. She didn’t make it to the five-thirty blue line, but I wasn’t in a panic. Anyone can be late. I waited for nearly an hour, cheeks freezing and cracking red. And then I waited some more. Finally, I took the blue line back to King’s Station, and walked the six blocks back to my hotel. When I made it, shivering all the while, into my room, I tried the number that she had given me.

It connected me to a recording that gave the time, date, and temperature. I couldn’t tell if my cheeks were burning from the cold, or from embarrassment.

I sat down on the full-sized bed in a cookie-cutter hotel room, one of thousands across the country, and finally realized that, whatever her real name was, she had understood Gatsby pretty damned well.

But she’d understood Daisy even better.


What the Hell is Wrong With You People?

This post is for the writers or others who think that in order to succeed, they must first tear someone else’s success down: What in the hell is wrong with you people? And yes, before anyone else says it:

But I’m being serious here, dammit. Here’s what someone posted to YA author Ellen Oh’s Tumblr account: No on (sic) wants to read your shitty books. I hope you get fucked over by white men as bad as you are fucking them over you slanty eyed whore. (Oh has this account set where anonymous people can leave comments/questions in order to interact with fans. This was, naturally, an anonymous comment.)

I don’t know Ellen Oh at all. Don’t follow her on Twitter, haven’t read any of her books (sorry, Ellen). But you don’t have to know the author to be outraged over something like this. That comment is hateful, racist, and everything that’s wrong with free discourse on the Internet. If you don’t agree, you might want to go ahead and see yourself out the fucking door right now.

Posts like that, though, are part of a larger pattern I’ve begun to observe. I follow and interact with a couple of editors from BookRiot on a pretty regular basis, and looking back through their Twitter feeds, it is AMAZING the amount of racism and sexism they have to put up with on a daily basis. I couldn’t do it. Thankfully, they’re tougher than I am, because they have some really cool insights into 1) the world of publishing; 2) the reasons the publishing industry needs to represent diverse voices. Note that these women aren’t even novelists. They report and opine about the book industry. That’s all.

And yet they’ve been threatened, been told to shut up, been informed that their views aren’t welcome.

Fuck that.

A lot of what I see–especially on Twitter–is white guys telling other races, genders, and sexual orientations to shut up, telling them that they have no right to their voice, saying that their experiences don’t matter, that their writing–their work–should take a seat in the back of the bus.

Fuck that, too.

And when these other voices refuse to be stilled or silenced, suddenly the white guys are offended. That’s when they back away and say “It was just a joke,” or “Oh no, you must have misunderstood me,” or “What do you mean you don’t feel safe because of what I said? What does that have to do with anything?”

Fuck that bullshit, too.

If you are a writer, another writer’s success or failure doesn’t define you. You are not threatened because a person of different race/gender/orientation is writing and publishing in the 21st century. You are not diminished because a writer of another race or gender got published and you didn’t. They didn’t take your spot at the table. You are not entitled to a spot at the table, motherfucker.

You want a spot at the table? Write your own novel. Submit it. Get it published. Or, if you want to be a critic, find something worthwhile to say, build a platform, and say it. Say it publicly. Attach your fucking name to it. I wrote opinion columns for a lot of years, and I put my name (and my photo) with every one of them. You know why? Because I was accountable for what I said. I was (and sometimes still am) a professional fucking writer, and I am responsible for the words which appear under my byline.

I get that white guys (why is it always white guys?) are feeling squeezed out lately. It seems harder and harder to get published. But EVERYONE thinks it’s harder and harder to get published. Those female writers who get signed? They’re good. They’re not part of some dastardly plot to squeeze out white voices. In fact, it’s probably still much harder for minorities to get published.

“There can be a zillion white authors who write [whatever kind of book] but if one marginalized author exists who does it, that’s enough,” YA author Malinda Lo writes on her Twitter account. “It goes like this: Publisher: We already have [name of black author]. We don’t need another one. Other black author … [emphasis mine.] There are also unacknowledged but real quotas, like a publisher will only publish X number of diverse books/authors. (Usually 1 or 2.)”

Again, I get it. White guys are having a harder time getting published. But diversity in publishing isn’t pushing you out. There is still room for you at the table, but you have to earn it. Everyone does. And that may be the key difference: Now unknown white guys may have to struggle a little more than in years past. Things were easier for white writers when the door was very nearly closed to women or people of color. I’ve had those thoughts myself: If only I’d been born in a different time, writing for the pulps or the Gold Medal paperbacks, I might have already published a novel (or series of them) … or I might not have. Who knows?

But all of this new diversity isn’t a danger to me, either as an author, or a reader, or a human being. I’m still a good writer. I still enjoy reading good authors. If you feel that diversity is a danger to you, you might want to look around you, at the people of color, the LGBTQ folks, the differently abled, those scary women … The world is a diverse place. All of those people have a voice. Trying to silence that wave of voices is like trying to hold the ocean back with a fishing net.

It’s an exercise in futility. And it’s wrong.

A Few Words About Talent

I hate it when Chuck Wendig says smart things that I ought to be thinking about. Most recently, he’s written a blog post called The Toxicity of Talent, which makes the argument that talent isn’t even a real thing. Or, if it is, that it matters damn little for most creative people.

And the more I think about it, the more I think he’s right. Talent matters damned little, if at all.

Oh sure, for some people—Mozart, Hemingway, Michelangelo—talent is there. It’s off the charts. But they backed that talent up by working their asses off, too. Yes, they viewed the world in a special, artistic way. They had a natural inclination toward whatever art they gravitated toward. But take Michelangelo for example. He didn’t just carve David the first time he held a hammer and chisel in his hands. He didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel in a day (took him four years!), and he certainly didn’t tackle it the first time he picked up a paintbrush.

I believe in talent.

I believe I’m talented.

I also believe that it doesn’t matter. Or rather, I believe that it hasn’t mattered yet because I haven’t put my ass in the chair and written enough. I. Have. Not. Written. Enough. I haven’t finished the shit that I need to finish in order to be a successful novelist. That’s the bottom line, frankly. It’s one I hate to admit. I’m supposed to be talented, dammit! This shit is supposed to be easier for me. Because talent makes me special! Right?

Right …

Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?

When I was younger, everyone who saw my writing told me how talented I was. I had a reputation, even as a teenager, as a pretty good wordsmith. When you get chosen for “young author’s conferences” and competition English teams, it’s easy to believe you have talent—and that it matters. When you get out in the real world and your professional writing appears on page 1A of newspapers with circulations between 10,000 and 75,000, it’s easy to believe you’re talented—that the world is at your feet as a writer, and that you’re just waiting for your big break.

So you write a shitty novel. And another one. And another. None of them sell. Only one attracts interest from an agent. Maybe you were about to “break through” as you think of it. But you haven’t had to go through the hard times a less “talented” writer has experienced. You get discouraged. You quit writing fiction for years. You think about it. You talk about it. You dream about it.

But thinking about it and talking about it and dreaming about it are not the same things as DOING IT. But it’s easier. It’s safer. Because you don’t have to look at yourself and realize that talent alone is not enough.

I’ve seen writers with less talent than me—writers I’m friends with—get agents and book deals and hit multiple “best of” lists. Those writers weren’t born with some of the natural wordsmithy that I seem to possess, but they have surpassed everything I’ve ever done, because they faced the reality of writing:

The talent that lies in your soul and your head and your heart does not matter if you don’t sit your ass down and WRITE. Talent does not matter unless you finish your shit. Talent erodes like cheap gold filigree if you don’t use it.

I haven’t been using mine. I have to own up to that. But I can change it.

So can you. Sit your ass down in that chair and write, goddamn it. Write.

The Professional

Someone called Jonathan Franzen America’s greatest living novelist the other day, and my immediate thought was that he wouldn’t even make my top 25.

Actually, that’s not true. My immediate thought was that Stephen King spells his name funny nowadays.

OK, that’s not true either. My REAL real reaction was that I didn’t know Cormac McCarthy had died.

Fine, you caught me. In reality, it didn’t faze me much. There are writers who get critical acclaim—writers very few “real” people read. By real people, I mean folks who might work at a real job—as opposed to people who spend the majority of their days navel-gazing and pondering whether Hamlet was really referencing cunnilingus when he asked Ophelia if she thought he meant “country matters.” (For the record, he was totes referencing cunnilingus. Also, cunnilingus is fairly fun to type. Well, not just type.)

But for me, the real writers are the guys who are doing the work, and sometimes in near obscurity. No one really remembers Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho and about a dozen other horror or suspense-type novels. He also penned one of the best short-story collections I’ve ever read: Out of the Mouths of Graves. Bloch’s short stories were often very short, and they punched the reader hard right from the get-go. There’s a story in the aforementioned collection that will leave goosebumps crawling on your flesh for a couple of weeks. And then you’ll forget it, until one night when you’ll have to get up in the middle of the night to take a little bathroom break. And then that story will come slithering back in all its glory to paint your skin in gooseflesh again.

Writers like Bloch, many of them beginning their work in the middle of the last century, hold a special place in my heart. I often think I was born in the wrong time period. I would be perfectly happy stopping by the newsstand and spending a nickel (or maybe as much as a quarter) on All-Story, or a copy of Manhunt, or Weird Tales. It was a simpler time, when a guy with talent and a drive to make it as a writer could live in a Greenwich Village apartment for the princely sum of about $65 a month.

But to talk about that author, we’ve got to move on from where Robert Bloch plied his trade, all the way to a completely different block. Lawrence Block, actually. (Yes, that was a horrendous joke. Yes, I’m leaving it in here. I found it funny.)

Lawrence Block writes like Rolex makes watches. I mean, that’s it. That’s the whole thing. Every piece fits. Every word is chosen well. If anything, reading a Lawrence Block novel (or short story, which I’ll get to in a minute), is kind of like watching a master mason build something. A brick here, a brick there, everything fitted together perfectly, and suddenly, there’s the novel. Part of it is experience, at this point. Block has been writing longer than I’ve been alive. He knows what a story is supposed to be. He knows how to make those words deliver. He’s done at least four successful series characters: Matthew Scudder, whom you may have seen impersonating Liam Neeson in the film adaptation of A Walk Among the Tombstones; Evan Tanner, a a spy (for lack of a better term) who can’t sleep as a result of a war injury; gentleman thief Bernie Rhodenbarr; and the stamp-collecting hitman, Keller.

Do you know how hard it is to write ONE successful series? Four … that’s so awesome, it’s ridiculous.

But here’s the thing I really love about Block: he’s the ultimate professional, in a business crawling with amateurs. (Hell, I’m one of those amateurs.) Block’s purpose seems to be to write entertaining, smart, and sometimes funny fiction—and get paid for it. That last part is important, if you want to be a professional writer. Getting paid is the point. Or at least one of the most salient points.

In the nearly 50 years since Block began his career, I wonder how many novels he’s written “on spec,” as we amateurs do it. Very few, I would imagine. And in those years, he’s written a lot of damned fine fiction.

(And so, Bobby finally gets to the point.)

I’m trying to catch up on Block’s backlist. I was browsing the other day when I came across a short story collection of his called One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, showcasing Block’s early short fiction work. The stories were the kind banged out over the course of a single night, and sold to publications that paid, at most, a nickel a word. But here’s the thing: those stories, written as if the typewriter were on fire, did sell. That’s the point. I bought the collection yesterday morning, and I’m about halfway through with it already. Let me tell you: Lawrence Block had the stuff, right from the very beginning. Reading this collection is like getting a crash course in story. There are neat tricks and turns in this book. Many of them I see coming. Some of them, I don’t. And when those hit me, I’m always pleasantly surprised, and a little chilled, too.

Lawrence Block isn’t ever going to be a National Book Award winner. He’s never going to win the Pulitzer or Nobel. (Their loss, more than his, quite frankly.) I wouldn’t say he’s “America’s greatest living novelist” (but he’d be in my top 25, easy). But what he does—and what other writers like him do—is point the way for those of us who want to be professionals at the craft of fiction. Any writer who understands that craft is as important as inspiration, who knows that you can’t write the goddamn book without sitting your ass down and WRITING THE GODDAMN BOOK, can learn something from Larry Block.

He’s a pro’s pro. A prose pro, even. (And yes, I hate myself a little for that joke.) Lawrence Block is what I aspire to be—a true professional.