I don't know what it as about the autumn that always makes it seem like a new beginning. Some people use the New Year to make a fresh start, but for perpetual students, teachers, and professors like me, autumn is the time for new beginnings. I always speak of years in terms of school years, and probably always will.
You wouldn't know it was autumn here in South Texas. Like green, I miss seasons, but there is still a sense of palpable change in the air. Next week, I'll have completely new students, some of whom are attending university for the first time. That's always exciting--to be part of their freshmen experience. In addition to upper-division students, I've had the opportunity to teach freshmen almost every year I've been a college instructor, and their nervous excitement is catching. They come in, eyes wide and almost frightened, none of them knowing what to expect or how to behave. I like to think I have at least a small part in making them feel at home and challenging them to think in new and critical ways about the world around them. Besides being a writer, teaching is the best job, really.
This autumn is also a change for me in terms of my own writing. My new book, Gnarled Hollow, is a ghost story, and a pretty creepy one at that. There is a lesbian romance at the heart of the novel, but the paranormal/mystery genre is new for me as an author. The novel includes elements of everything I love--higher education, lesbian relationships, art, literature--but it's a completely new direction for me in terms of structure and mood. As I was writing it, I felt like I'd finally found my grove. It wrote quickly, faster than anything I've ever done, almost effortlessly. I think I've finally recognized that, while I love traditional romance novels, it was, perhaps, mystery and thrillers that I was meant to write. I felt good, excited, as I was writing it, and I've never been more proud of something I've written.
So this autumn really is a new direction, both for me as a writer and my for students. I can't wait to see what happens next.
In the summers of 1998 and 1999, I worked in a plastics factory as a temporary employee. If you’ve never worked in a factory (or even if you have) you might imagine this to be some of the worst work imaginable. I actually loved it. Despite my age and inexperience, I was paid very decently, and I was allowed to listen to my Walkman. It is the latter that made this job enjoyable. While there were many employees at the factory, and I occasionally worked with other people, most of the time my shift was all by myself. I’ve never been much of a people person, and I still prefer to be alone most of the time, so this was my ideal job. Further, because of the Walkman, I could listen to Audiobooks. I was basically paid to read.
Audiobooks have always been a big part of my life. My dad listens to them a lot for his job, which includes a lot of driving. Also, all of our family trips when I was a kid were car trips, and nothing makes a car trip go by faster than an Audiobook. Many a trip was spent listening to Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Isaac Asimov, and others classic Ghoulies. We always like a good scare in my family.
My grandmother would also send her Audiobooks to my dad after she listened to them, which meant that by the time I got my job in the plastics factory, he had a large collection. While I listened to music on CDs in the late 90s, all of the Audiobooks I initially heard were on tape—hence the Walkman. I would show up for my ten-hour shift with a stack of tapes and extra batteries, relieve the person I was replacing, and start or continue the novel I was listening to. The shift would fly by and I would walk out of work as if I hadn’t even been there, looking forward to my next shift so I could finish the story or start a new one.
My grandmother is a mystery fan, which meant that most of the Audiobooks I listened to those summers were mysteries. Prior to that, I read almost exclusively science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. My family are all big sci-fi nerds, so it isn’t exactly surprising that I would continue the trend, but I do remember after I listened to my first mystery (an Agatha Christie) being pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I would also get science fiction Audiobooks out of the library, but it wasn’t always convenient to pick one up on the way to work, and in between my usual swords and sorcery stories, I listened to my grandmother’s mysteries.
While there were many series and authors I fell in love with over that time, the first one I clearly remember falling—and falling hard—for was Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series. I know I didn’t listen to the first in the series first, but I’m not entirely certain which one it was (The Body Farm, maybe). What I do remember that the protagonist’s niece, Lucy Farinelli, was already out of the closet. I can clearly remember putting some little piece of plastic into some other piece of plastic as I realized what I was hearing. I put down the pieces I was holding and just listened for a moment before rewinding what I’d just heard to listen again and again. I was stunned. I’d never read a novel with a lesbian character before that moment.
Now keep in mind, I was pretty young at the time. More swords and sorcery novels have become a little bit more inclusive now, but there was very little popular gay sci-fi at the time, and that was really all I read. Later I was discover some hidden queer-positive sci-fi gems, but at the time, Lucy was my very first fiction lesbian character of any genre. I remember a flash of excited heat and some emotional tears before I got myself back under control, but the fact was, that from that moment, I was hooked. Outside of the literature I read for work (more on that in a future post), my “fun” books are almost exclusively mysteries. I still read a lot of horror, and I occasionally get into a sci-fi or fantasy series, but mysteries have had my heart for decades now.
As a young, isolated, small-town lesbian, with very little awareness of the rich literary history of lesbian fiction, finding a lesbian character in a work of popular fiction was a godsend. I went out the next day and got all of Cornwell’s Scarpetta novels, sucking them up like a vacuum. Lucy is still one of my earliest literary crushes, and every time a new Scarpetta novel comes out, I’m the first in line, wondering what she’s been up to since the last time we met. Thank goodness Cornwell was brave enough to push the envelope, if, for nothing else, than making a young lesbian in rural Colorado feel like there was someone out there like her. One could only hope to be that important to a reader.