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Desert Companion

The book of life

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H.G. MCKinnis at the swap meet where her novel was born
Photography by Andrew James

H.G. MCKinnis at the swap meet where her novel was born

From its swap-meet beginning and its too-real emotions to its funky title, H.G. McKinnis’ debut novel is rooted in the real Las Vegas 

“I read this online review where this woman said that Broadacres is just like being in Mexico. Like that’s a bad thing.”

Instead of sleeping in this weekend, author H.G. (Holly) McKinnis, 57, and her father, Bill McKinnis, 84, a former geologist for the Nevada Test Site, are looking for antiques at Broadacres Marketplace on an already sweltering Saturday morning in June. Even though it’s 7:30 a.m., the temperature is climbing into the 90s.

Holly appears unaffected by the heat, dressed casually in a flowing gray top and denim shorts, her grayish-brown eyes hidden behind a pair of cherry-shaded sunglasses. Holly and her father admire a statue of a head, which looks out of place in a tent that has $1 necklaces sprawled out on the table, CDs stacked in the back, and baseball caps hung on the wall.

“This is the kind of booth Helen would have set up,” Holly says over the Spanish music blasting in the background, referring to the main character in her debut novel, A Justified Bitch, available August 8 from local publisher Imbrifex. It’s a hilarious Las Vegas murder mystery in which the only witness to a prostitute’s murder is a hoarder named Helen, who still talks to her dead husband, Bobby, and runs a booth at the swap meet. Helen’s sister Pat flies in from Phoenix with her two teenage boys (one is actually Helen’s son, whom Pat took in after Bobby’s death) to get Helen to cooperate with the police and get her life back on track. But the more Pat tries to get things under control, the more chaotic the novel gets.

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Broadacres inspired her story.

“I saw this woman,” Holly says, pointing out the tentless lot where four white lines form a square on the gravel. “She was dried out from the sun. You could tell she had been really hot when she was younger, but she was sitting there, smoking. She’s all brown and crispy-looking, and really feisty. There’s that scene where I have that guy riding through the flea market, and she went fully off on him because he wanted her to move her stuff into the lines. And she didn’t want to because she felt that everyone was going into the lines, and her lines were better than their lines. It was just crazy, in a really bombastic, wild way, and I really loved it.”

Holly began A Justified Bitch in 2004 while working as a costume designer at Folies Bergère. In 2009, she started sending out query letters to agents, but stopped when her husband died of brain cancer in December 2010, when suddenly her art became her life — and Holly found herself relating to Helen’s struggles with grief.

“I wrote this before my husband died,” Holly says, “and it’s a horrible, more accurate depiction than I thought. I had done research because you want to get it accurate. And then I found out that you really do all of this crazy crap. I did save all of his stuff. I didn’t want to give away his clothes, because I didn’t know what he would wear when he came home.”

Holly met her husband, Jay MacLarty, also a writer, in 2006, at a meeting of the Las Vegas Writers Group. Her mom was a writer who didn’t like to drive at night, so Holly drove her mom to the group meetings. It inspired Holly to be a writer, too. She told Jay, who was a leader of the group, that she wanted to write short stories. “Nobody’s writing short stories anymore,” he replied. “You can’t get them published.”

“So I thought, ‘He hates me.’ But it turned out he really did like it,” she says, referring to her writing. “Either that, or he faked it real good.”

Holly and Jay were married on August 10, 2010. Holly knew Jay had brain cancer when she married him, but went through with it anyway. He had let go of his insurance because he lived a healthy lifestyle, and it never occurred to him that he would get sick. All of their money went to his hospital bills, leaving Holly broke, which, among other things, made her a big advocate for Obamacare.

A Justified Bitch deals with hoarding, grief, guilt, dysfunctional families, and mental illnesses. Holly got her inspiration for the fictional mental institution Mind Care from the way the care facilities in Las Vegas treated her husband.

“They would lockdown their patients — they had no rights,” she says, “even though my husband has never committed a crime. My husband was totally normal except that he had brain cancer. They wouldn’t let him out. And I felt that they’re infringing on people’s rights. I know that they’re trying to save people and keep people safe, but there is a point at which people should have the right to endanger themselves if they want to. What is life if you can’t take a chance? Why should you have to live it all safe and be happy? Are you happy? Is it better to be sane and unhappy in a controlled environment, or crazy and happy in an uncontrolled environment?”

However inevitable, Jay’s death left Holly lost.

“Even though I didn’t use to believe in writer’s block,” she says, “I developed this dandy case of not being able to remember from the beginning of a sentence to the end of a sentence. My mind was that fried. I couldn’t focus on anything.”

It brings to mind a passage from early in her book:

 

“Better roll down your windows,” Stone suggested. “God knows what she’s got living in her hair.”

The detective gave the man a frown, then glanced over his shoulder. “How you doin’ back there? Remember anything you might want to tell me?”

“I’m not stupid,” Helen answered. “I remember things, but sometimes I don’t remember what I remember.”

 

“My poor coworkers had to pick me up so many times,” she says. “They told me, ‘You have to come to work tonight.’ I was just lucky I have a lot of friends who were willing to go the extra mile for me, and kick me in the butt and get me out the door. I felt ripped off because I didn’t expect to outlive him, because he promised me he was in super-great condition, and I was the lousy one not able to keep up with him. It’s like, go to the contract here. You stated I was not going to outlive you.”

But eventually Holly had to let go. Her friend Jill Kelly helped Holly accept her husband’s death when she told her, “You know, Holly, when he comes back, he’s going to want all new stuff, so you might as well put that stuff away.”

After her agent in New York failed to sell the book, Holly had all but given up on getting it published. She was still attending Las Vegas Writers Group in 2016 when Imbrifex announced it was taking submissions. She submitted.

“Whenever I receive a manuscript for consideration, I start reading,” Imbrifex’s Mark Sedenquist wrote in an email. “In all too many cases, I don’t read very far before I know my answer will be no. With A Justified Bitch — even though I was at first put off by the title — I kept reading. Page after page, chapter after chapter. And it wasn’t the gruesome murder mentioned on the first page that grabbed me. It was the sweet story of a family coming together, all set in the Las Vegas that usually doesn’t make it into novels.”

 

*****

Holly moved to Las Vegas when she was 2, and has spent most of her life here. She graduated from UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts. She knows the town, and it shows. In her novel, she reveals a dark side of Las Vegas.

“Thank God for Las Vegas, where everyone is kind of crazy, so it’s very easy to write it,” Holly says.

The neighborhood she lived in back in the ’80s was a major influence in creating A Justified Bitch. “Most pieces of fiction are obviously fiction. This one was not. It was realistic,” Bill McKinnis says. In a neighborhood near Nellis and Charleston, she lived next door to a prostitute who owned a wolf (just like one of her characters) and was a closet hoarder.

“She was a secretive hoarder,” Holly says. “She would never let me into her house. She had this gorgeous front yard she would work on all of the time. She never let anyone in her house. She kept cats and dogs that I didn’t know about. She had done that thing people do when you lose someone close to you — her mom died, and then her dad died — and people spiral down into this, ‘I lost so much, I can’t give up anything else.’”

Holly says her hoarder neighbor didn’t really influence her novel (“I know a lot of hoarders”), but her neighbor bears a few uncanny resemblances to Helen. Helen never invites anyone into her house and has 24 cats.

When Holly first wrote A Justified Bitch, she didn’t intend to solve the mystery of the prostitute’s death.

“I didn’t care who did it when I originally wrote it because in Las Vegas, people get murdered all the freaking time. Las Vegas is the capital of people killing you for no particular reason,” Holly says. “I just thought it was a good way to get people to pay attention to this woman who disassociated herself from her family. What always works is you get it on the news and people go, ‘Oh, my God, you have been living so horrible, let’s fix you,’” Holly says.

It was intended to be a family reunion novel, but she was persuaded to solve Bebe’s death and make it a murder mystery.

“It was Jay’s idea,” she says. “He said, ‘It’s hard enough to get published, and getting published without a niche for the bookseller to park a novel? Probably not going to happen,’” Holly says. “Almost didn’t happen anyway. The whole critique group jumped on board and helped me wrangle it into a mystery. I notice on my reviews from NetGallery that I may not have been entirely successful. Sometimes the story just goes the way it wants.”

 

*****

At Broadacres, Holly rests her hands on a silver mannequin, tilting her head to admire it. Maybe the bust is a B-cup, and the body is the size of a skinny 10-year-old with curves. “Talk about unrealistic expectations,” Bill McKinnis says. “No one looks like that.”

“The women I used to work with did,” Holly says. “Imagine going to work with that every day.” If anyone can make you feel insecure about your body, it’s showgirls.

Holly worked in the entertainment industry for more than 20 years, and she gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what that’s like in A Justified Bitch. She has worked in the design department for some of the top shows in Las Vegas, such as Jubilee! and Crazy Girls. The longest show that Holly ever worked for was at Bally’s.

“I worked there for about 10 years and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s a whole decade of my life.’ So I ran away and worked at the union for a while, and then I ended up at Crazy Girls. Then Crazy Girls closed, so I went back to Bally’s, because I thought, ‘Jubilee is the show that never dies,’ and I closed that one, too.”

After Jubilee! closed in 2014 for a makeover (its last curtain call would be on February 11, 2016, making showgirls shows extinct in Las Vegas), Holly got a job at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

“Mostly I will pick up lighting and hang them from the big poles, and then we also pick up big sound (equipment) and hang them under. Basically we’re like semi-intelligent donkeys.” A different job wouldn’t be a bad idea. “Because I get hurt a lot.”

It does give Holly more time to write. While she has no plans for a sequel, she is working on a new novel and has a few completed novels, also based in Las Vegas, collecting dust on her shelves.

“Everyone in show business, we all have stories,” says local photographer Ginger Bruner, who has been friends with Holly since Ginger was 16. “We all talk about writing a book about it. I’m glad that Holly actually did.”

The biggest mystery of A Justified Bitch appears to be why it’s called A Justified Bitch.

“Everybody thinks it has to do with the wolf, or Helen, or homeless people,” Holly says. “No, it’s the complaints that we all have in our life.” When she whined as a kid, her uncles told her, “Quit yer bitchin’.” But occasionally they would find her complaint acceptable — a justified bitch. Obviously Sedenquist, her publisher, came around. “By the time I finished reading the manuscript,” he writes, “I knew it was a great choice. Makes me smile whenever I think about it.”

“I didn’t know they were going to keep the title,” Holly says, “or I would have thought a lot longer and a lot harder.” 

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