Poison Girls: facts spun into page-turning fiction


Cheryl L. Reed’s Poison Girls is a gripping tale that often reads like creative nonfiction. And for good reason. Reed drew the story from her own experiences covering a group of young girls using crack cocaine in Dayton in the 1990’s.

Poison Girls is set in the Chicago South Side in 2008 where teenage girls are dying from fentanyl-laced heroin which is called “poison”.  An ambitious crime reporter named Natalie is determined to get to the bottom of the deaths. She navigates the world where affluent teens and hardened drug-dealers coexist, and gets too close to a teenage girl who awakens Natalie’s maternal instincts.

The story is woven together with intricate threads of politics, racism, religion, and classism, all set against the backdrop of the shrinking newspaper industry. Natalie risks her career, freedom, and even her life to get to the bottom of the epidemic. And the longer it takes, the higher the body count.

Poison Girls is a captivating thriller, and a great reminder that journalists are often on the front lines of society’s problems when most of us stay away and still feel justified in forming judgments.

TJ & Dave: A Bromance for the Ages

Even if you’ve never heard of the improv duo TJ and Dave, you know TJ and Dave.  TJ Jagodowski is the fair-haired guy in the Sonic commercials.  TJ’s had several movie roles, including a small role in Stranger Than Fiction.  Dave Pasquesi is that guy who looks a lot like Adrien Brody.  He’s also had a lot of movie roles, as well as roles on Strangers With Candy and VeepTrust Us, This Is All Made Up (2009) explores the pair’s unconventional partnership and methods.

Honestly, the beginning kind of drags if you’re not familiar with their improvisation show.  The focus in the first twenty or so minutes is on their pre-show rituals, such as walking the streets separately (TJ would prefer that they were together, but Dave insists they have different people-watching experiences) to look for material and inspiration.  For the first half hour, I was convinced that Dave is in love with TJ.  He looks at him frequently all wide-eyed like he really wants to make out.   I realized by the end of the show that it’s probably more of a platonic crush, a professional admiration that crosses over to personal mega-fondness.

Tj loves dave

The doc moves on to a performance at the Barrow Street Theater in New York.  These guys are amazing.  My slight boredom subsided as soon as the improv started.  It’s just the two “Second City” veterans with no props except for three wooden chairs.  This particular performance centers on corporate softball team angst.  Magic emerges from the mundane.  There are seven characters and two different settings, and they jump from character to character seamlessly.  Sometimes they even switch roles with each other.   TJ and Dave both have a fantastic ability to move from tangent to tangent without forgetting the original plot or the traits of each character.

After the show, the two discuss their characters and plot, analyzing the transitions and audience response.  After watching the improv, I found this part of the documentary extremely engaging.  Although the show is only an hour long, their characters, as TJ puts it, go on.  They feel that the show is already in progress, they just pick it up somewhere and then leave it again.   Their artistry isn’t truly understood until the end of the doc, until we see how much the process and the story mean to the duo.

They’ve been working together for about sixteen years, and their bromance has blossomed into a moving work of art.  Their willingness to surrender to the subliminal power that directs their art yields unbelievably successful results.  Each show is a unique viewing experience.  TJ and Dave are as excited as the audience is to see what happens. They are merely players, showing a story in progress.

Ingrid Goes West: worth the emotional hangover

I happened upon Ingrid Goes West while I was on Hulu searching for a new episode of The Path. I clicked play when I saw that it stars Aubrey Plaza and O’Shea Jackson Jr., two actors I will watch in anything.

Aubrey Plaza plays Ingrid Thorburn, an unhinged young woman who doesn’t know how to be the least bit chill when it comes to friendship. After behaving like a lunatic at a wedding reception, she is institutionalized and medicated before being released back into the world.

Ingrid becomes obsessed with a beautiful and glamorous Instagram star named Taylor Sloane, played perfectly by Elizabeth Olsen. Ingrid moves to California to befriend her, and alters her style to mimic the young woman.

O’Shea Jackson Jr. plays Dan Pinto, Ingrid’s new landlord and potential love interest. He’s an aspiring screenwriter who is way too into Batman. He’s incredibly kind to Ingrid, as well as handsome and charming. He provides balance and relief when Ingrid’s instability is almost too hard to watch.

This movie puts a lot of focus on how much of our lives we live on social media for all to see, and the falsehoods we promote about ourselves. And also the danger we put ourselves in by exposing the details of our daily lives.

The esthetics of the film made me believe initially that it would be more a comedy, wherein our heroine recognizes the error of her ways, gets back on her meds, and lives happily ever after with the landlord who is out of her league considering her erratic behavior. This story isn’t so fun and breezy, and the path to Ingrid’s self-discovery is painful and sad. Ingrid’s mental illness is neither glamorized nor minimalized.

The supporting cast is incredible. Billy Magnussen (Nathan in the FX series Get Shorty) as Nicky Sloane, Taylor’s drug-addicted narcissistic brother, steals every scene he’s in. Wyatt Russell is Ezra, Taylor’s tortured artist husband whose complicated feelings for his wife are made easy to understand through his words and expressions.

Watch this movie. Just keep your Prozac handy.

Kiss My Grits, 2017

We can admit that 2017 was a shit show, right? We were all so eager for 2016 to get packing that we didn’t even consider that 2017 might be even worse. And it was much worse.

But I’ve decided to search for silver linings.  For one thing, my book On the Bricks came out in the beginning of the year. Here are some of the other best things about 2017:

Most stalk-worthy baby: Mindy Kaling gave birth to Katherine Swati on December 15. In true boss form, she refuses to tell us who the father is. This leaves us all free to believe that the father is BJ Novak. And if it’s not him, I don’t want to know.


Best movie ruined by a sexual predator: For at least a month I was obsessed with Baby Driver.  The last time I fell this hard in love with a soundtrack was when Natural Born Killers came out. And the car chases had the fourteen-year-old boy in me boning out BIG TIME! But then the Kevin Spacey scandal broke and I haven’t been able to watch Baby Driver ever since. It’s a good thing I saw it five times before we heard the news.


Best TV show I started watching in 2017 even though it came out in 2016: The Good Place- holy shirtballs, you guys. I watched it because my cousin Chris told me to and for some reason I treat him like my life coach. What could have been cheesy is clever and full of existential questions, made easy to digest with a huge dose of quirky humor.


Girliest habit that I picked up at the beginning of the year and dropped before December: Fingernail shellac- it looks great but you have to sit there for an hour once very couple of weeks to keep them from looking  gross. And since I’m not great at keeping things up, mine ended up looking great for two weeks and then trashtastic for about three.


Something I had at the beginning of 2017 but don’t have at the end: my uterus.


This year’s Kanye: Tyrese Gibson totally out-Kanyed Kanye this year. He repeatedly posted videos of himself on social media crying about his divorce and custody battle as well as complaining about Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  In his douchiest move, he hired an airplane to fly a banner over his ten-year-old daughter’s school. The banner read “NO MATTER WHAT, DADDY LOVES YOU SHAYLA”. The subtext being that if she wasn’t embarrassed enough already by his social media rants, she would certainly be mortified by the banner at school.

Tyrese Gibson

Show that ended with us saying “WTF?”: Girls. Hannah somehow had a black baby. I guess since they never actually mentioned the baby daddy’s race (South Asian), we weren’t supposed to notice that he wasn’t African-American. And then she and Marnie went somewhere (I think it was upstate New York but I’ve already kind of forgotten) to live together and raise the baby even though Marnie was always terrible.


Best reboot:  Will & Grace– the first episode was a little awkward, but by the third episode they were back in their rhythm like they’d never been gone. And let’s be honest. We need Karen Walker in our lives now more than ever.


My favorite food of the year: this freaking taco cake made by Liz at the Dexter Bakery.


Most potentially exciting thing about 2018: Amanda Bynes is planning a comeback and if that doesn’t happen I’m done with EVERYTHING.




Waking up from writing

This summer I was tasked with rewriting one of my old manuscripts. For those of you who have read my drafts along the way, it was yet another rewrite of Kricket. I have no idea what draft number I’m on with this thing. I wrote the first draft in 2010, and it’s been a pain in my ass ever since.

My publisher and I decided it was time to revisit this story, which I shelved in 2015 after splitting with my agent. My wonderful editor sent me the suggested changes at the beginning of this summer. One of the suggestions was to rewrite it in first person. I agreed with her assessment and got started.

As I rewrote it, I found plot problems and fixes everywhere. I ended up scrapping about 75% of the original book. Meanwhile, my kids were home all day and we had company in and out all the time. It was nearly impossible to get it together.

And then I was given a deadline. Obviously I needed that to happen so I would get my work done. But I still struggled with time management because it was SUMMER. I plugged along as best I could, but I couldn’t really hit it until school started back on September 5 (which was only a half day because of course it was). Meanwhile, my deadline was September 12. I wrote when I could, but progress was slow.

My editor took pity on me and granted my request to move the deadline to September 19.

I spent every day from September 6 to September 19 doing nothing but writing except when I slept. Before this writing frenzy, my personal word count record for one day’s work was 2,000. Now that record is 6,000. I learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of. I went days without showering, I didn’t cook, I didn’t grocery shop, I didn’t clean (but I don’t do a lot of that anyway). I did enough laundry to keep us in clean underwear, but I cut it close more than once. I didn’t have time to obsess over daily news. It was glorious.

The manuscript is out of my hands once again. I don’t know if the overhaul puts the manuscript where it should be. I only spent two days on plot editing, so it could go either way.

I emerged from the writing frenzy on Monday night to an unexpected sadness. I had to get back to my responsibilities again. I had to grocery shop, answer emails, and get back in the gym. I started reading the news again.

It’s easier for me to live my life in fiction, constantly thinking about my story instead of reality. I have to walk out into the sun sometimes to exercise, to see friends, to help my kids with homework. But I think it’s time for me to spend more time in my world of make-believe.



Guest post by Amanda Mills: Screw you, comfort zone

Most of my life I have struggled with depression. This sentence is very uncomfortable to me for 2 reasons: 1. “Struggled with” sounds so dramatic and trite, but there have been times when it really was a struggle; and 2. I have never really opened up about it like this. Sure, I may have mentioned to my close friends that I was feeling depressed, but only the very closest to me know how deep it truly runs. Now I’ve decided it’s time to start talking about this. Stop brushing it under the rug, or hiding it by saying “feeling blah” or “in a funk”. No. I am depressed – I am not SAD, I am DEPRESSED. And I have dealt and do deal with many different kinds of symptoms – from excessive crying to feeling nothing; from excessive sleeping to staying up all night; from excessive eating to… well… more excessive eating. I have had suicidal thoughts, I have wanted to simply not exist, I have felt everyone was laughing at me, and I have felt like the ugliest, dumbest, most awkward person on earth. Take any random combination of any of these symptoms, throw in some momentary feelings of bliss and exuberance, and that pretty much sums up what I experience on a regular basis.
Depression doesn’t take just one form. In the same person it can take MANY forms, the symptoms can vary drastically in severity, and you don’t necessarily always experience symptoms. So you can see how hard it is to understand depression. There are times when I feel truly happy. It can last for a few minutes, hours, or even a day. I don’t know where it comes from, but it both gives me hope and crushes me when it leaves. When it’s gone all I can think about is how I used to feel happy and now I don’t anymore, so I must be broken. And the only way to “fix” myself is to pretend to be happy, to try to get it back and to avoid talking to others about how awful you feel. “Fake it till ya make it.” Anyone living with depression has surely heard that, and many have adopted it as a way to fit themselves into “normal” society. It is how I hold conversations with acquaintances and strangers. It is how I work in an office full of people. It is how I go to parties and events.
Right now I am just trying to recognize and understand what is happening in my brain. 20 years ago I suffered a major nervous breakdown and I have dealt with functioning depression since then, but last year some of the more severe symptoms started returning. So for the first time in 20 years I am once again on psychotropics, much to my disdain but very much necessary. Through all this I am trying to be aware, to make sure I don’t lose sight of myself – the true me and not the depressed me. Because I am still me and I am still here. Even though some days I don’t even feel human, I keep faith that I am still in there somewhere, and all of this is just bad chemicals in my brain. And some day I will wake up and not feel this way. I live for those days.
Some days I wish I could care less, feel less. Today I wish I could care more – to feel something. I pretend to be happy about things like camping, boating, soaping, because I know I enjoy those things, and I want desperately to feel excited about doing them. But honestly I would rather stay in bed and sleep. A lot of times our loved ones can take that feeling personally – like they aren’t enough to keep us in the game. I can see how that would seem to be offensive. But it isn’t about them. I am the only one that can keep me in this game. And I have to do that. So I wake up, convince myself that getting out of bed is the right thing to do, put forth an effort in my appearance – hair, makeup, clothes – so no one will know what is really going on inside. So I don’t hurt my family’s feelings. So my friends don’t ask me what’s wrong. Because I only have ome answer to that question – me.
If you’re reading this and experience the same thing, I am writing this so you know you are not alone. Thanks to others’ stories I know I’m not the only one who goes through this, and it is through their strength and bravery that I have decided to start sharing. Functioning depression is a real thing, it’s a serious thing, and it isn’t something we need to keep stepping around. Because the less we address it, the less we discuss it, the more alone we all feel. And when our family feels like we’ve turned our backs on them, and our friends feel like we’re shutting them out, we need each other. We need to know there are others out there in these dark holes, trying to figure out what acting “normal” entails, wondering if we will ever truly feel like we have a place in this world.
I’m pretty sure I have a place in this world, even if I can’t see it. I exist, so I take up a place, and it is my place. I am trying to do the best I can with what I’ve been given. Some days that’s not good enough for others, most days it’s not good enough for me. But my story isn’t over yet. As long as I get out of bed each day I will continue to consider that one of my greatest accomplishments.
(P.S. – I have been sitting here for several minutes with my mouse pointer over the “Publish” button, my heart racing. The thought of putting all this out there for everyone to read is tightening my chest and closing up my throat. I have read, re-read, and re-re-read these paragraphs. Good Southern Girls don’t air their dirty laundry. A Lady doesn’t discuss such personal matters on social media. But this has been on my mind for a while, and something in my soul is saying it is necessary. It is time to talk. It is time to stop being silent.)

Lightwood: greed in gritty Florida

I have been a fan of Steph Post since I read her debut A Tree Born Crooked a couple of years ago. With her sophomore novel Lightwood, Post reminds us that she is an amazing talent who has claimed her position in the southern noir genre.

Judah Cannon is released from prison, and there’s no one there to pick him up. He’s disappointed but not surprised. His life has never been fairy tale.

He walks to the bar he frequented as a younger man, where he runs into his best friend/unrequited love interest Ramey.  Seeing Ramey gives Judah a rare glimpse of optimism. Maybe he can have a normal life.

But Judah’s father Sherwood won’t allow it. He needs Judah for the family business. The same business that landed Judah in prison.

Judah doesn’t see denying Sherwood’s request as an option. So he goes along with the “simple” heist. But before he can settle in with Ramey and the newly acquired cash, Judah and the Cannons find themselves involved with a ruthless biker gang and a lunatic Pentecostal preacher named Sister Tulah. When Judah’s little brother Benji becomes the innocent victim of the Cannon’s greed, Judah makes it his mission to get revenge on everyone involved.

The setting is so strong you almost feel sweaty reading about the oppressive Florida heat.  All of the characters, even the ones who are only bit players, are fully formed and genuine.  Though Judah and Ramey are the obvious protagonists, it’s impossible not to become invested in each character’s fate.

Post’s stories are rich with family legacy and personal struggle. A Tree Born Crooked was Post’s introduction, and Lightwood is evidence that Post is headed for a long, successful career.

Laura Albert: Liar, Genius, or Both?

The documentary opens with a dewy-eyed Winona Ryder on the microphone at some event, gushing about her love for JT LeRoy. But who is JT LeRoy?

I remember hearing about literary darling JT LeRoy some time in 2001 from one of my friends who is more aware of artistic trends than I’ve ever been. The buzz was interesting even in Arkansas. LeRoy’s novel Sarah, meant to be an autobiographical account of his truck-stop prostitute mother, was published 1999. JT claimed to be a former prostitute himself, pimped out by his mother to men who preferred “boy-girls”. He was HIV positive and a former heroin addict. With his emergence onto the literary and Hollywood scenes, it had the makings of a fairytale. And that’s exactly what it turned out to be.

The character of JT LeRoy came from the mind of Laura Albert. She was depressed and called a suicide hotline. “Terminator” spoke to Dr. Owens, and Laura presents it like she was a conduit to this troubled young man who needed his story heard. According to Albert, she started calling suicide hotlines and pretending to be a boy when she was a young teen living in an abusive environment. She felt she got more support when she presented the trauma as if she were a boy.

Dr. Owens suggested that Terminator start keeping a journal to deal with his feelings. Along with Dr. Owens’ help, Laura learned that Terminator’s real name was Jeremy.

Meanwhile, he/she managed to reach out to Dennis Cooper and land his agent Ira Silverstein. Silverstein felt that he had found a fresh, new voice.

LeRoy initially refused to do readings, claiming that he was too shy. So other people would join in to read for him. But eventually that wasn’t enough. So Laura Albert enlisted her boyfriend’s sister, Savannah Knoop to play JT. Savannah had an androgynous look, and Laura added giant sunglasses and a blonde wig to complete the costume. Laura added the characteristic of trans to JT’s story. The high voice and hairless face were attributed to hormone therapy.

Laura always felt like an outcast, and now she was suddenly a star. Only no one knew it. And she was still struggling with her weight and self-esteem, along with childhood trauma. To insert herself into the JT LeRoy narrative, she started speaking with a British accent and presented herself as JT’s assistant and best friend, Speedie. Geoff, Laura’s partner and Savannah’s brother, was a part of JT’s entourage as well. He went by the name Astor.

JT LeRoy’s rise was fast and furious. He became a star- a society darling, fashion icon, literary star. And that’s when Albert’s make-believe character really became self-aware. Or she put it, “her Barbies came to life.” Which was a strange way to put it since she mutilated her Barbies as a child. Savannah got to hang out with actors, rock stars, authors, directors. Gus Van Sant hoped to adapt one of JT’s books.


A raccoon penis bone-a reference to truck stop prostitutes-became the symbol of JT’s cult. There is a photo of U2’s The Edge wearing one on a necklace. LeRoy’s champions included Bono, Billy Corgan, Courtney Love, Michael Pitt, and Eddie Veder.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (LeRoy’s second release) was made into a movie that got into Cannes. Savannah (as JT) is invited to sit on a panel, while Laura and Geoff had cameos in the film but they were cut.

Rumors flew that Dennis Cooper or Gus Van Sant wrote the books, but eventually people started to realize that it was probably Speedie pulling the strings. A high school friend of Geoff’s was eventually the whistle-blower.

New York Magazine’s Stephen Beachy broke the story in 2005. Celebrities came to JT’s defense. More stories followed, but Albert dug her heels in, other than admitting the truth to Billy Corgan and David Milch.

But once a photograph of Savannah surfaced, denial was no longer an option. Savannah and Laura were determined to stay quiet, to not give the media what they wanted. But Geoff spilled everything.

Laura Albert insists that JT LeRoy was never a hoax. JT LeRoy was very much real to her without being a physical presence. And that’s perhaps where the lines got blurred. She didn’t write the stories of JT LeRoy knowing that she would have to produce a real person. But when the time came, she did so instead of admitting the truth.

Each book was categorized as fiction, but was understood to be based on JT LeRoy’s life. So yes, she was deceitful. But she also gave the people what they wanted. Though it’s obvious that JT LeRoy’s backstory helped Laura Albert get the work published, she insists that wasn’t her intention.

In Author: The JT LeRoy Story we get Albert’s story firsthand. From her troubled youth all the way to the make-believe that got away from her. It’s interesting to watch, though somewhat voyeuristic considering that much of the material focuses on recorded phone conversations in which celebrities didn’t know they were being recorded.


The question remains: was JT LeRoy an elaborate hoax or a work of fiction that came to life?  Given Albert’s history with telling the truth, this documentary does not give a satisfactory answer.





Anxiety is clogging my brain

I’ve been blocked lately. Historically I don’t stay blocked long, but this time is different. I wish there was some kind of Miralax for the writer’s soul.

It started in October. I had overdosed on news and my creativity started to suffer. I eventually turned a corner in November and started up again. But lost it all in January. Sometimes the words come to me, but not consistently enough to finish anything as quickly as I’d like.

Fortunately the work I have created doesn’t go away. It waits for me while I stare at the blank page or binge watch TV in the name of dissecting story arcs. Honestly though, I don’t know where most of my time goes. It’s slipping away without leaving clues that it was ever here.

I’m currently in a workshop led by the amazing Ariel Gore. Ideas seem to be loosening up again. And May is usually a creative month for me. Hopefully it’s time to turn things around. But first I really do have to turn off the news. I have to let go of the threat of nuclear war, the dissolving relationships with our allies, the civil rights issues, and the threats to the first amendment. But if I do that, I’m not being a responsible citizen. So maybe I just need to compartmentalize. I need to shove all of my worries in a drawer in my brain until writing time is over every day.

Writing is extremely therapeutic for me. So not writing only makes the stress worse. If I’m not thinking about story ideas, I’m mentally listing the items we need for our make-believe basement bunker.

So I’m going to just keep trying. Every single day. My voice isn’t gone, it just needs some help getting out.

Gearing up for a Panda party!

On the Bricks was released by Pandamoon Publishing out of Austin. One of the things that makes Pandamoon different from larger publishers is that we are a close-knit group. This includes the authors, editors, publishers, artists, and PR staff. Thanks to the internet we interact daily. And now, several of us are taking it to real life.

This weekend we are meeting at C2E2 in Chicago. C2E2 is a fan convention for comic books, graphic novels, video games, pop culture, etc. On the Bricks is not typical con fare. But I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hang out with my fellow Pandamoon authors. If I sell a few books, that will be a bonus.

We’re also having a pitch party, so if you’re in the Chicago area and would like to pitch your book in person, stop by on Friday or Saturday. Or just stop by to meet some awesome authors and buy a few books. I’ll be at booth 142 with David Valdes Greenwood, Christine Gabriel, Elgon Williams, Alisse Lee Goldenberg, Meg Bonney, and Dana Faletti. See you in Chicago!