Elise Blackwell is the author of five novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, An Unfinished Score, and The Lower Quarter. Her work has been translated into several languages, and her books have been named to numerous “best of the year” lists, adapted for the stage, and served as the inspiration for a Decemberists&rsuqo; song. Originally from southern Louisiana, she currently teaches at the University of South Carolina, where she is also host and organizer of The Open Book.
ASHLEY STROSNIDER. Your work often investigates the ways people respond to loss and tragedy—from the deprivations of WWII in Hunger to a lover’s death in An Unfinished Score to another devastating hurricane in The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish. The characters here in The Lower Quarter are all wrapped up in the bigger loss brought on by Hurricane Katrina—a loss at once quite literal and personal as well as cultural—but they’re plagued by their own personal tragedies, too. Did one of these characters emerge first? Where did this book begin for you?
ELISE BLACKWELL. In spring of 2005 I was the job market. Because of its location, the job I most wanted was at Tulane. If I’d landed the job, I would have moved to New Orleans a month or so before Katrina. The job was offered to someone else, and from my new home in South Carolina, I followed the news and worried about friends and family and a place I love. (New Orleans is my favorite American city, and I’m from about an hour away.) At this time, my second novel, set during the Great Flood of 1927, was being considered for publication. After Katrina hit and every radio and television station in the country was busy playing Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” I started hearing back that the book was not publishable in part because readers would soon have Katrina fatigue. “No one’s going to want to read about water in New Orleans next year,” one editor said. Eventually I recast the novel to take Katrina into some account, but without writing directly about it. It was while I was on tour for that book, in 2007, that The Lower Quarter started to coalesce, though it would be some time before I got to the material. It started with a walk on the beach in Biloxi and a car tour of the Mississippi coast with a bookstore owner from Ocean Springs. What I saw there led to the character of Marion, so in a way she was first, though the dead man and Johanna were the first characters I conceived of, which happened a week deeper into the tour, when I stayed in the lower French Quarter hotel where some of the novel’s scenes are set. Throughout the trip, I felt overwhelmed by both the magnitude of loss and sheer number of its manifestations—and the way that the collective loss played out in so many different individual ways. The recovery was not nearly as far along as I expected it to be, either, and I began to think more about the nature of recovery, which led me to Johanna’s profession in art restoration.
STROSNIDER. With so many main perspectives here, a regular rotation through the four main characters from chapter to chapter could certainly pose a threat in terms of structure and momentum. What were some of challenges you faced while balancing them? How did you keep characters rooted in their own distinct narratives while allowing, enabling them to find each other?
BLACKWELL. If I’d written a traditional noir, it would have been Eli’s story since he’s the detective and the one in the thrall of a woman he finds mysterious as well as beautiful. While I wanted to use several of the tropes of noir, I also wanted to tell a more complex story about people wearing different forms of damage—and also people with different relationships to the city of New Orleans. One of the biggest challenges is that each of the four central characters is a natural loner, so I needed to force them to interact with each other without relying on coincidence. It was also a challenge to give them roughly equal weight with using a prescriptive formula. The point-of-view sections more or less rotate, but I didn’t want a strict 1-2-3-4 pattern that would feel arbitrary. Another challenge was to try not to exasperate readers with cliff hangs at the end of sections but also not to have them lose interest in a character’s trajectory. And though at times it was obvious which scenes to tell from which character’s perspective, there were a few times when that was a difficult choice.
STROSNIDER. It’s difficult to pinpoint whose story this is—to your credit, my impression regularly changed depending on which character’s chapter I was reading. What does this level playing field do for (or perhaps to) the reader, the narrative?
BLACKWELL. As I mentioned, in a classic noir this would be Eli’s story, but for me the book really started with Johanna’s story followed by Marion’s. A distinct characteristic of the recovery from tragedy that is the novel’s historical and social setting is its variety. There are as many Katrina fates as residents of New Orleans and coastal Mississippi. There is no one story. So one hope I have with the novel’s structure is to have readers experience that without directly thinking about it. The book is also very much about intersecting lives, and everyone we cross paths with of course carries a full backstory and is hero of her own life. It’s an idea that sounds trite in its obviousness, but it has profound implications for how we live, how we should live.
STROSNIDER. The characters here all have their own unique sordid pasts and their own obscure obsessive tastes—for stolen fine art, for online BDSM hook-ups, for, shall we say, rare leathers. In a publishing culture that might fairly be called obsessive about the likability and relatability of characters, how did you conceive of ways to bring the reader closer to these characters, allow for connection—or do you even worry about audience?
BLACKWELL. If you want to read about people you’d invite to dinner at your mother’s house, I’m not the person you should read. The people I want in my life and in my books overlap only slightly, and one of fiction’s key attractions for me as a reader and as a writer is the opportunity to explore people who are not like me. What’s far more important to me than writing characters who a wide swathe of readers will like and relate to is to write characters that will interest many but not all readers—and interest me across the many months I’m living with them. But, yes, it’s also true that I want readers to care about them in some way, and I try to make that happen. Johanna is stand-offish, but her situation is, I think, incredibly sympathetic and she has admirable traits such as integrity and dedication to her work. Clay, of course, is the most challenging character in this regard. He’s rich, selfish, and vindictive, and his sexual preferences hover near sadism. Yet he also has moral lines that he is willing to go to uncomfortable extremes to enforce, and he’s capable of occasional kindness and, ultimately, enormous personal sacrifice. Do I like him? Barely, but he interests me deeply. Will readers root for him in a simple way? No, but perhaps they can understand why he is the way he is—perhaps even feel sorry for him—and align with his desire to protect Johanna from harm. I think, too, that he changes across the book, and that even his relationship with Marion softens him some.
STROSNIDER. I’d argue that it’s the novel’s strong sense of place, its setting, that really grounds it and serves to unify the disparate narratives. Each of main characters has a totally different relationship to New Orleans—a first time visitor, a longtime refugee for whom it’s become home, a working-class local from a nearby town, and the moneyed son of New Orleans royalty. What were some of the challenges—or freedoms—of examining the city from so many different perspectives?
BLACKWELL. Just a few days ago, someone at a dinner I had to attend told me what New Orleans is like based on a single trip up and down Bourbon Street. I had to bite my tongue, because of course the stereotypes of New Orleans comprise an incomplete, often even false picture of the city. I’m interested in the ways in which New Orleans both is and is not a southern city, the ways in which it’s like the rest of the country as well as the ways in which it is unique, and both the historical and very recent ways in which it is a global city whose history has been (and continues to be) defined by many forms and waves of migration. While The Lower Quarter is set largely in well-known, even well-worn parts of the city, I wanted to see those places through different sets of eyes. Length of time in the city was one character mechanism to do that. I know there are people who have radically different responses to New Orleans, and I’m not ignorant of the city’s very real problems, but it’s a place I love—my favorite city in the United States and possibly of all the city I’ve been to in the world so far. Every time I step out of Louis Armstrong into the humidity, I feel like myself.
STROSNIDER. There’s a deep sense of unease in the book, an almost haunting feeling. Many reviewers have called it noir, but I think there’s something elegiac here, too, and I wonder what it might have in common with Southern Gothic traditions. You’re from Louisiana and teach in South Carolina now, but there were plenty of other places in between—California, Princeton, to name a couple. To what extent, if any, do you think of yourself as a Southern writer, or trace any influence in your work?
BLACKWELL. That’s actually a really difficult question for me to answer even for myself. My southern literary roots are deep and hairy. Half my family is from Louisiana and half from Mississippi, and there are great storytellers and writers on both sides. Faulkner once set his dogs on my grandfather. I’ve talked to Eudora Welty in the Jitney Jungle grocery store. I’ve waited outside a bar on Christmas Eve while my dad did shots with Barry Hannah. And I grew up reading those writers as well as Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Gaines. But I was also absent from the South for pieces of my childhood (particularly if you exclude Florida from the region, which many people do), and when I left Louisiana at the end of my undergraduate years and headed off to California, I actually worked to eliminate or at least tone down my accent. One result of a graduate school professor telling me to stop writing “neo-Faulknerian crap” was that I wrote the most non-Faulknerian imaginable novel about one of the coldest places in the world. I lived outside the South for a long time before moving to South Carolina for a job, though I finally started writing about the region again while living in Boise, Idaho, of all places. It was when that book, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, was published, and due largely to the reception the book received and the reception I received while on tour for it, that I embraced the label for the first time. So then naturally I wrote a novel set in Princeton and Philadelphia! I mostly agree with Percival Everett’s recent assertion (in an interview in Virginia Quarterly Review) that the term “Southern writer” is a vacuous marker when it implies that such a writer’s concerns are necessarily different from the concerns of people generally—and especially when it’s used to marginalize the region’s literature against some sort of enforced mainstream. But of course there are motifs and informing mythologies that are more frequently felt in literature written in the South compared to, say, the West or the urban North. The novel I’m starting now is set in a contemporary California spa, but I’m also taking notes on the one that I hope will follow, and that one is set in nineteenth-century New Orleans. So I guess I land here: I’m a writer from the South, who lives in the South, and who sometimes writes books set in the South.
STROSNIDER. The novel works hard to twist the elegy, to wring something new out of it. It has readers hoping alongside characters for the justice of death, the pleasures of pain, the elegance of retribution, and through this does a lot of sleek work in undermining sentimentality or heavy nostalgia—an obvious danger in working with cultural loss, grief, concepts of home. Still, with the place itself such a prominent character, the book does feel like it’s as much about the loss of this bygone version of New Orleans as it is about the ways these characters navigate that loss. To get a little personal, how has the changing of the city affected the stories you have to tell about it?
BLACKWELL. First, thank you. If I’ve managed to do what you say, then I’ve succeeded. I think I’m going to talk around your question a little in part because I have been so upset by some of the coverage of the run-up to the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Many journalists have elided the mass death and displacement from their accounts or at least spoken of “silver linings,” and some editorials in newspapers outside the region has gone as far to suggest that Katrina was a good thing for New Orleans. These pieces are offensive. As I sounded off on Twitter one night, I would like to see us admire the collective resilience of New Orleans without celebrating its necessity and certainly without staking the ridiculous and offensive claim that an improved restaurant scene or the gentrification (or at least hipsterization) of the Bywater was worth the loss of nearly two thousand human lives. The tragedy was not a metaphor; the tragedy was a tragedy, both for the city and for many, many individuals. Those individual tragedies are also, in many cases, ongoing. It’s also true that the history of New Orleans since Katrina is both actual and deeply interesting—and that, like all change, has certainly come with both upsides and downsides. Some of it has come from the outside, and some has arisen from within the city and reflects its nature. The way it unfolded was not really imaginable when The Lower Quarter is set, but I was writing with the benefit of at least a few years’ distance and I wanted to plant in the novel some of the seeds of the changes that would follow 2005. One afternoon in 2011 or so found me on Chartres Street, sitting in Sylvain, which is a post-Katrina establishment. It’s in a historical building, but its menu is barely recognizable as New Orleanian. The day I was there, the bartender was playing with his fresh herbs and exotic bitters and came up with the “Magnolia Shorty”—a fancy cocktail he’d named after bounce musician Magnolia Shorty. So there I was watching a mix of local hipsters, local professionals, and tourists—nearly all white—drinking a pricey cocktail named after a hip hop star killed a few miles away in a gang murder. I’m not saying the drink shouldn’t have been named after her (though I wouldn’t have called it that and did not drink one), and I’m not saying that the influx of creative talent and money that made that scene possible wasn’t in many ways good for New Orleans, but there’s a lot of cultural loss there, too.
STROSNIDER. Five novels in right around twelve years, right? That’s enough to keep anybody busy. And yet, like the best of literary citizens, you’re teaching, you organize and host a community reading series, the Open Book, in Columbia SC. You’ve directed the MFA program, sat a stint on the AWP board. How does this community work and the teaching inform or affect your own writing?
BLACKWELL. Because I find both teaching and participating in the literary community rewarding, I would like to say that that the writing and that surrounding literary work nourish and inform each other. Certainly I am regularly inspired by my students and by the visiting writers I host—very much so. Aside from that inspiration, though, the activities compete with more than complement each other simply because time is limited. I admire the best literary citizens, and I don’t want to be a slacker, but the older I get the more concerned I am about my writing time. Magazines love to tell women that they “can have it all, just not all at once,” and that may be a way for writers to think about literary citizenship—alternating periods of high activity with more seclusion. For instance, I write many blurbs and tenure-review letters, but I now put an annual cap on them and make myself enforces stretches of “I’m sorry, but I can’t.” Out of respect for my students, I also have a strict rule about giving manuscript feedback only to current students. It’s also important to acknowledge that citizenship carries some dangers. It can make writers more obsessed with the business side of writing than is good for their work (or their mental health), and the literary “news cycle” can feel breakneck in a way that discourages deep, slow reading and long, intensive revision. Many writers want to be part of the community and conversation so badly that they speed read in an effort to keep up with everyone’s best-of-the-year list and submit work before it’s ready. I recognize that I’m susceptible to this. I don’t want to be a cabin-dwelling recluse—not for more than a few months at a time—but I want to protect my work across time. All that said, though, I do think writers have a responsibility to strengthen reading culture, and I find it particularly rewarding to work with younger writers.
STROSNIDER. One of the joys, for me, in reading your work is sinking into the depth of knowledge unique to each book—botany, classical music, art restoration, etc. The books are so well-researched. Which comes first: a seed of a story that necessitates the research, or the knowledge that sparks the narrative?
BLACKWELL. That means a lot to me because one of the reasons I read, including and especially fiction, is to learn. I want readers to leave my books with some knowledge about a particular world. Learning new stuff is also one of the pleasures of writing, and my desire for that pleasure is one reason why I tend to change subjects and settings rather drastically from book to book. I’m working on a small essay right now about research, and in it I discuss the two kinds of research I do for each book. The first is the exploratory gathering of material—the slow aggregation of stuff that accretes to become a book—and the second is the more pointed collection of information to write sections of the book after I have a sense of the project as a whole. With the first, I’m usually following the scent of a story, which sometimes arises from a preexisting interest or bank of knowledge. Hunger grew out of my participation in the Seed Savers movement and my own efforts to grow out rare seeds. An Unfinished Score emerged from a long interest in music—an interested always frustrated by my utter lack of musical talent. But with each of those books it was necessary to do some specific additional research during writing and revision. The art restoration in The Lower Quarter reflects my interest in art, particularly painting, and my fascination with stories of artists who had lost work in Katrina as well as war and other disasters. Once a modern writer’s work is out in the world, it can’t be lost in the same way, but a painting is a single original. I also knew a little about restoration from a relative who is a restorer, but I had a lot of reading to do to expand my knowledge and find the right details for the book—again one of the pleasures of writing. I’ve never understood how writers can hire others to do their research.
STROSNIDER. I mentioned loss and tragedy earlier, but your work often interrogates art, too, in its various forms. Music, the literary life, painting. The Lower Quarter looks at the ways art can persist, both literally and physically as well as in ways a bit more transcendental, ways a work can continue to mean or come to mean. The book blurs lines and raises questions about what can be seen as art—from tattoos to restoration to the performance of roles. Do you find anything essential that consistently translates across art forms that helps you find answers to these questions: what counts and what lasts?
BLACKWELL. I’ve always been interested by the ways that things do or do not endure, including the seeds in my first novel, Hunger, and I’m also interested in the ways that art forms are and are not alike. Lately I’ve been contemplating temporary versus more permanent art, an interest that grew out of a conversation with a friend who sometimes works really hard on drawings that will be painted over at the end of an exhibit—an idea I’m playing with in the book I’m starting now, which is very much about our contemporary relationship with different kinds of time. There are Buddhist monks who spend enormous amounts of time and efforts on sand paintings they expect to blow away. I wish I shared their views about the value of creation over its products, but I’m not there yet. So the short answer is no, but I do believe that art as a human endeavor—our desire to make it ourselves and to experience the sublime in art made by others—may be what counts. That impulse endures across enormous cultural and technological change and makes us a species worth saving.