Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Laura Ellen Scott reflects on trying to get New Orleans right for her novel Death Wishing, which we reviewed here.
Handle the Truth: Learning vs Knowing
I don’t think I’ve ever attempted to write about the real world or an important historical moment in any serious way until Death Wishing, which takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans. Driven by a desire to convey my sense of the city at a vulnerable point in time, I tried to cultivate a broad, balanced understanding of the culture, science and politics of Katrina, but the more responsibly I read, the further away I got from writing. Eventually I gave in to a shiny-object approach, and my research became more eccentric and emotional. A picture book of abandoned refrigerators gave me more to work with than The Nation’s collected essays. I found myself going back to The Rude Pundit’s “Fucked New Orleans” series of blog posts to help me think about the kinds of displacements that were possible, both natural and opportunistic. Also, there was an unreliable “stayed-through-the-storm” memoir that turned out to be really useful for recreating the voices of Quarter Rats. Veracity and authenticity are two different things, and what happened wasn’t as important as how people talked about it. However, there is no substitute for fieldwork, whether you know you’re doing it or not. I lived in Louisiana for about three years in the late 80s and since then have returned to New Orleans once or twice a year. That amounts to more than thirty conversations with cab drivers.
While writing Death Wishing I decided to check out the competition. I came across a title with rave reader reviews, so I downloaded a sample, skipped over its introduction, and started reading the first pages which details the graphic murder of a priest/sex-tourist in a hotel room. A really nondescript hotel room. That bugged the heck out of me. Written from the priest’s point of view (gee thanks), it’s mentioned that Father Pervo has never been to NoLa before. It seemed completely unbelievable to me that the sodomy was so fab that he wouldn’t notice how a room in a guest house in the French Quarter differed from, say, one in a Comfort Inn. Pages later the humidity of the day is described as having a “tangible quality.” Huh. At which point I went back to the introduction where the writer acknowledges that while he loves New Orleans he’d only visited a couple of times, and that he relied on popular travel forums to get the details right. The one consistent bit of praise I’ve received, both from tourists and natives, is that DW captures the feeling of New Orleans, an accomplishment I attribute to immersion. So do I have anxiety about my next project? Oh yes. I’m writing about Death Valley.