How do you get New Orleans down on paper? One might as well ask, with the nuns at Nomberg Abbey
, how do you find a cloud and pin it down? In real life, it takes twin catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the federal levies to get the entire city moving in one direction. As an artist's object, the Big Easy defies description.
Most of the time, that is. Author Amanda Boyden is the exception: her novel Babylon Rolling
just about nails New Orleans. A tale of five different families told by five distinct narrators, Babylon
is a year in the life of a single city block, filled with hurricane scares, motorcycle accidents, adultery, dementia and forgiveness—in short, all the elements that give New Orleans its crispy beignet taste. (Click here
to read the full review).
This week, Tome Raider caught up with Boyden by phone to find out about emergency evacuations, getting stuck in the mud, and how (not) to write bad sex.
Tome Raider: Talk about the time frame. When did you start writing this novel: before or after Katrina?
Amanda Boyden: I had some characters bumping around in my head before Katrina. I had my little moleskin notebook full of character sketches, and I think I had even drawn a map of the street at one point. But I had not actually started writing the novel at all until my husband and I evacuated to Toronto. At the time, I thought it was possible that there wouldn't be much of anything to come back to. I didn't even know if there would be any readers for this. The purpose was to preserve it as much for me as for anyone else.
The prologue is narrated in the first-person plural tense. Who does the “we” refer to?
I really enjoyed that communal voice—I think it was communicating the gumble that makes up New Orleans. I don't think that the narrative belongs to any one single character. I think the city requires a number of narratives to give the reader a full view of it.
Let's talk about Philomenia.
That's just it. How much of what Philomenia does is motivated by illness, and how much of it is motivated by maliciousness?
Clearly, none of these characters are perfect. Most aren't even all that likable. With Philomenia, I wanted to take a character that, on the surface, is really despicable—a woman who is treating her husband dying of cancer like a pariah. I hope that the reader's first reaction to her is one of disgust. But I was also interested in flipping that on its head, so that by the time the narrative wraps up, I hope that there is some semblance of sympathy or a bit of understanding for Philomenia. She's a product of her environment. There are old, Southern wealthy ladies just like her all over the Garden District, all over New Orleans. She's pretty representative of that type.
I was very interested by Philomenia's vision from her youth—the one where she's riding on a bicycle, imagining being a world traveler, and then she accidentally drives right into that shovel on the back of a truck. What does that symbolize?
There's an expression in New Orleans, it's called “getting stuck in the mud.” I think symbolically, Philomenia dug herself into the city, or she was dug in there. Symbolically, she was maimed by a shovel, she was stuck, and she stayed. She made the wrong decisions, she married the wrong person, and there goes her life.
I found the violence at the end of the novel to be very jarring—it seemed to come out of nowhere. All of a sudden, this old woman whacks her husband in the head with a pot and then starts firing a pistol. Do you feel you laid the foundation for that violence? Do you feel that you earned it?
I do believe I laid the foundation. Did I want readers to see it coming? No. I wanted it to be a surprise. But if I did my job at all, I think a reader will look back and go, whoah, yeah, she was on a severe descent. I think her husband is a horrible person. Think about it. Somebody who's been shown her own death sentence on a piece of paper, who's been called “Philly Cheese Steak,” who's been told to go fuck somebody else…sure, I think that's within her character.
The Fearius sections were amazing. What kind of research did you do to write that dialect so seamlessly?
I've long been an observer. And I'm sure you hear writers say that all the time, so blah blah blah, huh? Very boring. But I'm also a real listener. I had horrible vision as a child; I'm actually legally blind without my contact lenses in. So I would actually listen to how somebody walks and be able to recognize them down the hall in school. I was vain enough not to want to wear my big coke-bottle glasses. Living in New Orleans for fifteen years, teaching at a state university, living on very diverse streets for so long…I think I just listen closely. Other than that...I read a wonderful series of non-fiction essays and interviews called The Neighborhood Story Project
. Also, a friend passed me Death Around the Corner
. I used both of those to double-check myself.
When Ariel and Javier finally have sex for the first time, why do you cut out? Up until the moment of sex, you're giving a detailed description of everything they're doing, all the parts of their bodies. But when it comes time to actually do the deed, you take care of that in just one sentence. Why no play-by-play?
Because it was bad! [laughs] What's the fun in the description of bad sex? That was my intention. Ariel had built up the notion of what it would be like in her head for so long! It's gonna be this, it's gonna be that, I imagine it this way, and then…bleah.
Let's zoom out a little. What do you think is art's role in the face of a major catastrophe like Katrina?
Well, for instance, a work of fiction like yours. In what way do you see your novel being in dialogue with New Orleans, both before and after Katrina.
I really didn't know if I wasn't writing a swan song. I truly didn't know if anybody would ever come back. It was my hymn, my thanks, my prayer…whatever it was. I don't know I can call my own novel art. But do I think art lifts people up? Do I think we need it? Do I think Reagan did a horrible thing by taking away all the money years ago? Yeah! Yeah. I think art can bolster a people; I think it's a way to process.
You currently teach writing. What advice that you also give to your students do you find you're always applying to your own writing?
That's pretty simple. Don't forget heart. Writers can have the most amazing talent; their craft can be honed to the nth degree; but if they don't have a way to connect to the reader on an emotional level, they've failed. It took me a long time to learn that.