Friday, July 06, 2007

Revisiting Hell


The galleys for WHY MERMAIDS SING are due back in New York on Tuesday. Because of the long time lag in publishing, that means I’ve been spending the last few days rereading the book I wrote right after Katrina—the book I thought would never get finished. I had sent the proposal for MERMAIDS off to my agent right before the storm hit. And then I didn’t write another word for more then six months.

At first my days were spent driving back and forth from Baton Rouge, mucking out the house, dragging what couldn’t be salvaged out to the curb, tearing out walls. Even after we moved down to my mother’s house in Metairie, we still had to drive up to Baton Rouge once a week for groceries. While we waited for our stripped studs to dry out, I set about the painful task of attempting to restore my antique furniture. And then it was time to start putting up walls, finish Sheetrock, and do all the million and one other things needed to put a house back together. I spent my days in paint-splattered clothes, joking that with the cost of labor in New Orleans I could make more money installing Sheetrock than I could writing. Actually, it wasn’t a joke. After all, the only reason I’d acquired the skill was because good Sheetrockers were impossible to find in New Orleans. They still are. But I digress.

Sometime around February or March I realized I had to quit working on the house and start working on my book. My deadline was looming. Only, how could I? We were rebuilding the house ourselves simply because we couldn’t find anyone to hire. Even putting in 12-14 hour days, Steve could only do so much on the weekends; I was the one working on it seven days a week. I was desperate to rebuild my nest, rebuild some kind of normal life for my traumatized chicks. I kept saying, how can I just quit and sit down and start writing? How can I write when I live, breathe, sleep, dream Katrina?

In the end, of course, I realized I had no choice. At first I set up my computer in my mother’s backroom. Then Steve and our friend Jon got the paneling up in my office and I started writing in here. The floor was just a concrete slab, there were no baseboards or crown moldings or doorframes or window frame (actually, there’s STILL no window frame!). There was no kitchen in the house, although one of the bathrooms upstairs still functioned. The neighborhood was filled with the sound of air compressors and hammering and sawing. I kept saying, I can’t write like this! I’d write half the day, then give in to the compulsion and go off to do Sheetrock or sand trim, seal tile or paint ceilings. In the end, the only thing that saved me was the miracle that is the lake house.

Yet somehow, the book not only worked, but worked amazingly well. The only problem is that as I go through the galleys, I find that I can only read about thirty pages at a time and then I need to put it aside and do something else for a while. I find myself remembering the time I was assaulted by a raving lunatic at one of the city’s few functioning gas stations (people were seriously losing it in those days). I remember sitting next to my dying aunt and listening to the hospital rep apologize for the fact they were using orange FEMA blankets, but their laundry service had flooded. I remember the miles of flooded cars choking the streets of New Orleans, the boat abandoned just two blocks from my mother’s house (where the water stopped). I remember the huge flies that seemed to mutate after Katrina, and the smell. Who could ever forget that smell? And then I go pick up the galleys again.

And I wonder, is it there? Did the heartache and the trauma and the craziness of it all somehow bleed into these words about an English Viscount chasing a tormented killer through the streets of 1811 London?

I don’t know.

5 comments:

Steve Malley said...

It's in there. It's in there, and it'll be in your current project too.

That kind of experience is branded in your tissues. It'll inform everything you write, same as your footloose travels and your years in Australia.

It all goes in the pot, and it all comes out on the page...

Shauna Roberts said...

Beautiful cover.

I could certainly relate to your post. All sorts of things still trigger Katrina memories for me.

As for whether Katrina is in your book, like Steve, I'm sure it's there. My mother died seven years ago, and every fiction piece I've written since then has in some way been about loss. The book I've been working on in fits and spurts since Katrina also involves refugees.

Another interesting question is whether Virgin's readers will see Katrina's stamp. I suspect at least those in Southern Louisiana will know it.

Charles Gramlich said...

It'll be very interesting reading the book. Although I imagine, as Steve and Shauna say, elements of your Katrina experiences threaded their way into the book, I bet that a naive reader won't pick up anything jarring. And yes, a great great cover.

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Kate S said...

Wow, Candice. That just brought tears to my eyes.

And what a great cover.