My new book, Floodgates (Poisoned Pen Press, July 2009), is set in New Orleans, and The Big Easy is as big a part of the plot as any of the human characters. When a writer's dealing with something as sprawling and messy and charismatic and lovable and raunchy and ethereal as New Orleans, sometimes that writer's gotta get out of the way and let the city speak.
My editor, Barbara, who is also charismatic, lovable, and ethereal but to whom those less desirable adjectives do not apply, did not want me to do this book. She said that New Orleans had already been done. She suggested that I consider Baton Rouge or, if I wanted to do something with Katrina, that I might think of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Baton Rouge makes me think of a government city ringed by oil refineries. because that's what it is. (It's a wonderful place filled with lovely people, and my sister lived there for years, but it's not where I wanted to set this book. Maybe another book, but not this one.)
I grew up 60 miles from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I may write a book set there someday, too, but not this one. I decided to try again to explain my thinking to Barbara.
I told her that New Orleans is not like the other places punished by Katrina, nor by any other hurricane. Elsewhere, the storm blew in and swept everything away. In New Orleans, the flooding has left a situation that is very interesting to an archaeologist like my character Faye Longchamp. You can't dig in most part of New Orleans, ever again, without going through a layer of history laid down in 2005. It's not old, but it's still history, just like the layer of scorched stones archaeologists encounter when they excavate at Troy.
Barbara liked that notion, so I kept trying. I told her that I was the person to write one more New Orleans story because, yes, New Orleans has been "done," but I don't think it has been done by a trained engineer who just might have something to say about the levee failures.
She let me do the book.
Then I became properly terrified, as I always do when I start a book. The first time I wrote a book set in a real place, Effigies, I sent the first few chapters to a former resident of the setting, Neshoba County, Mississippi. Her response, "This is real nice, Sugar, but Neshoba County's dry."
I said, "Now, I know in my heart of hearts that they drink at the Neshoba County Fair."
She said, "Just because you can't buy it don't mean that you can't drink it."
I fixed the offending passage, then I made several trips to Neshoba County to acquire myself some verisimilitude.
I've spent quite a bit of time in New Orleans over the years, so I was able to limit myself to one research trip, but it was a heckuva research trip...a week in the French Quarter, including copious culinary research. Many oysters died on my behalf that week. My, how I suffer for my art.
I also took the Katrina bus tour, walked the Quarter for hours, toured the War of 1812 battlefield at Chalmette, and got two gypsies to tell my fortune. (I wonder what the IRS is going to think of those last two deductions.)
I did my typical wide-ranging reading for this book, including the 600-page (!) independent study on the levee failures, a minute-by-minute account of the events of the week of Katrina, and a detailed guide to voodoo. Such is the magic of the city that the climax of the book morphed under my hands as I wrote it to include the lyrics to both Basin Street Blues and to a song praising an avenging voodoo goddess.
I had buckets of fun doing this book, but then, I always do.
Mary Anna is the author of the award-winning Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries: ARTIFACTS, RELICS, EFFIGIES, FINDINGS, and FLOODGATES. She's hard at work on the sixth in the series, STRANGERS. She's a chemical engineer by training and license, with a degree in engineering physics thrown in for spice, but she loves reading about history and writing about an archaeologist. Truth be told, she's a little jealous of Faye and her archaeological adventures. Mary Anna enjoys reading, writing, gardening, spending time with her family, cooking, and playing her 7-and-a-half-foot-long monster of a grand piano. Her cat helps her write, so she should probably put his name on her books.
Her mysteries have won the Benjamin Franklin Award, the Patrick D. Smith Florida Literature Award, and a Florida Book Awards Bronze Medal. They've been nominated twice for the SIBA Book Award, and EFFIGIES was a finalist for ForeWord Magazine's Book-of-the-Year. The latest installment, FLOODGATES, received a starred review from Booklist, which called it "fascinating."