When I lived in New Orleans I rode a motorcycle for about five years. It was a dark red Honda Shadow, VT600C, paid for with money I made as a bartender. I must have paced New Orleans and its surrounding areas several hundred times on that thing. My friend Sara taught me how to ride, and once I started it was hard to ever get off.

I remember very well getting out of the UNO newspaper’s office, where I was editor, at two in the morning on layout night, and driving across town through the empty night on my way home. I would come down Elysian Fields, with its pocked, rough roads, skirt the French Quarter where the music still played and you could smell the beer and the river and the cooking food, drive through the Central Business District and all the lights, through the Lower Garden District and smell the baking bread, and then up Prytania Street, where night blooming jasmine flooded the air with its scent. It was a direct engagement with the city at night, something that’s impossible to replicate in the shell of a car. Even in the heat of August, the wind cooled you as you rode.

I remember riding south into bayou country, the small ribbon of road carving a modest path through green crops of soybean or sugarcane,  huge and venerable oaks, the roadside seasoned with old, stormbeaten homes. I remember smelling the Gulf’s salty air and feeling the sting of blown sand on my face. Riding in the rain, the fear galvanizing, every nerve extended, every dip and chunk in the road a possible end, each finished trip a celebration of will, ability, and luck.

I sold it when I got divorced and moved to Asheville with Mia. I couldn’t justify the risk involved while I was a single parent. Sometimes it was hard to justify even when I wasn’t single. But I think about it a lot. Especially lately, as I close in on seven years here, and I find myself still working a job I thought would only be transitional, still single, still trapped in amber. And also as there are signs of forward progress at last, as my first book moves closer to reality and the first novel is underway, with a strong momentum. It’s a road novel, in some ways, and so naturally my mind returns to my favored experience of the road.

I won’t be getting one again any time soon. At least not while Mia still lives at home. But someday I will. I’ve always wanted to take a month-long motorcycle trip through Alaska. By myself, or in the company of someone else … it doesn’t matter. I can feel that day coming closer.

The evolution of a title

At Readercon this past weekend, I had breakfast with Kelly Link and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press and we talked about the collection. First, we settled on a target date for the book’s debut: Readercon of 2013. That’s a year to play with, but — since they will be putting out several other books before then — the ball is already rolling. I’m told we have to get the cover art locked down in a month’s time, so we’ll be poring over possibilities in the coming weeks. This part, I must admit, is a lot of fun.

When choosing cover art, it’s necessary to consider the title. And the title to this collection has just changed for the third and, one hopes, final time.

When I sent Small Beer the manuscript, it was called Monsters of Heaven: stories. (I’ve never liked “… and Other Stories” as a part of a title; I prefer a book to have a single title, with the word “stories” close by, to avoid confusion (and sometimes I wish we could even get rid of that).) I told them I was also considering You Go Where It Takes You as the collection’s title, and that met with a much more enthusiastic response. I poled my friends, and opinions were pretty split between the two. Since I liked them both, I decided to go with the latter.

At Readercon, I was told that when they asked people they knew, reactions were decidedly in favor of Monsters of Heaven. More memorable, they were told. More likely to get picked up. “So we’re going with your original title,” they said.

Just one problem: the novel I’m working on now is called Map of the Lower Heavens. Though there’s no guarantee that will be the title when it’s finally on the stands, I have no reason now to think that it won’t be, and I don’t want each of my first two books to have the word “Heaven” in the title. So I suggested the third title, again drawn from a short story in the collection, which I thought could work for the book as a whole. This one, mercifully, everyone liked right away. (By this time the writer Jedediah Berry had joined us, and offered his approval as well.)

The book is now called North American Lake Monsters: stories. I like it because it sounds like a field guide, or a bestiary, and because lake monsters are necessarily hidden beneath a placid surface, which is a theme that links many of the stories.

This suggests an entirely different sort of cover art than either of the previous titles, and so I’m spending the evening looking for something strange and beautiful.

I love working with a press that cares so much about what the writer wants for the book. I can’t wait to see what we make.

New Work

First, there will be a minor delay in the next installment of “The Cannibal Priests of New England,” as Jeremy Duncan attends to personal matters. I do not anticipate the delay being longer than a week. The next installment — “The Darling of the Abattoir” — is one of the longer ones, in which we first encounter Alice and pick up a few hints about the Farms. Jeremy’s done an amazing job so far, and if he needs a little more time for this one I’m more than happy to give it to him. He makes me look good.

In the meantime, I’ll take the opportunity to offer some updates about other work.

“Wild Acre” is finally out, in Gary McMahon’s anthology Visions Fading Fast. This is a story I’m pretty proud of. It is, in a sense, a werewolf story, which I know some people find a little passe. I like to think this one is a bit different, though. It doesn’t go in a direction I’ve seen these things go. But I love werewolves. I’ve always found them pretty terrifying, and I was eager to take a crack at them. Here’s a money shot:

“Finally he reaches the top of the hill and looks inside.

Dennis is on his back, his body frosted by moonlight. He’s lifting his head, staring down at himself. Organs are strewn to one side of his body like beached, black jellyfish, dark blood pumping slowly from the gape in his belly and spreading around him in a gory nimbus. His head drops back and he lifts it again. Renaldo is on his back too, arms flailing, trying to hold off the thing bestride him: huge, black-furred, dog-begotten, its man-like fingers wrapped around Renaldo’s face and pushing his head into the floor so hard that the wood cracks beneath it. It lifts its shaggy head, bloody ropes of drool swinging from its snout and arcing into the moonsilvered night. It peels its lips from its teeth. Renaldo’s screams are muffled beneath its hand.”

I’m working on a longer story called “The Atlas of Hell,” sort of a fusion (I like to think) of Richard Stark and Satanism. It’s much more in the tradition of the Cannibal Priests, though: there’s no goal here but to have fun. It’s fast-paced, over the top, and, I hope, a good time. It features Jack Oleander, a walk-on character I used years ago in a small piece called “The Malady of Ghostly Cities,” written for Jeff VanderMeer’s first Lambshead anthology. I’ve considered revisiting that character many times since; it’s a pleasure to do so now, and to really give him room to move around. I’ll be reading from this one at Readercon next week.

Finally, I’m working on the novel, currently called Map of the Lower Heavens. It’s a bewildering experience, writing in this form. I’m excited, scared — all the usual things when writing a novel, I suppose. I’m going to resist the impulse to post an excerpt just yet, but I probably will eventually.

And, coming next year: You Go Where It Takes You: stories, from Small Beer Press.

In real life, Mia just turned twelve, and she’s back in Alabama for three weeks to visit her mom. Once again I find myself feeling unanchored and listless without her here. But there’s suddenly a lot more free time; let’s see if I can’t derive some measure of good from it.