New Orleans: a city loaded with meaning, images, even taste and sound and color.
I’ve been in love with her for as long as I can remember, devouring books set in the city before I ever set foot there myself. So when I sat down to write a new series, I shouldn’t have been surprised when New Orleans popped out as the setting. It had all the key elements: masked balls, intrigue, elegance inseparable from decay, the supernatural, pride, tradition, warring factions… I could go on and on.
But then I began to enumerate the many fine (and not-so) novels already set in the city, both contemporary and classic, and caught myself wondering just what I could possibly add to the canon. Did the world need yet another darkish/pretty/twisted tale set in America’s most haunted, Gothic, vampire-ridden city?
The easy answer is that it depends on the novel, of course. (The even easier answer being, only if it’s a good one.)
But the more I wrote, the more I realized that writing New Orleans wasn’t truly a matter of setting. To me, New Orleans is a character, rather than just having character. So I set out to peel back the city’s darkly romantic veneer to see what manner of creature lay beneath, and whether we might be suited to suffer through a book together.
Once I began to think in terms of place and space, the city spilled its secrets in ways I hadn’t before considered.
Armed with a copy of Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead, I set out to try to see the city in a new light: as a dynamic whole, with its own history, personality, and habits. Borrowing heavily from Russian theorist Mikhail Bahktin, Roach sees New Orleans as a “behavioral vortex… a spatially-induced carnival” where, within its borders, “masquerade is the most powerful form of self-expression” (27-28).
Anyone who’s ever been to Mardi Gras knows this: anything (and anyone) goes; unlike Vegas, what happens during Mardi Gras doesn’t stay there because Mardi Gras itself doesn’t stay. Rather, masquerade behavior is created by the event itself, its participants spurred on by the ever-increasing festival tempo into acts of collective abandon. New Orleans’ most famous ritual is temporary, however, and only goes part of the way towards explaining the city’s enduring appeal. Nose in book, I began to think of the cityscape itself as a kind of carnival, where certain spaces, because of past or current practices, became permanent “behavioral vortexes” where masquerade behavior would always, to some extent, linger. What would happen, I wondered, if I chose just one space and peeled it down to its core? What would it show me about the city’s character?
Because Creole women, desire, possession, and “tainted” blood figures heavily in my book, I chose the St. Louis Hotel, located just off Exchange Alley.
Still in operation today, the hotel was once the site of highly specialized “fancy girl” slave auctions. In the pre-civil war south, these public auctions took on a festival atmosphere to rival any Mardi Gras event. In the rotunda, light-skinned slave women were publicly stripped and sold into erotic bondage for many times the price of a strong field hand. Skilled auctioneers drove the crowd into the kind of frenzy eerily similar to modern Mardi Gras parade officiates offering beads in exchange for bared breasts.
After the civil war, fancy-girl auctions gave way to the infamous, turn-of-the century red light district known as Storyville.
Close to Exchange Alley, Storyville once housed hundreds of city-sanctioned houses of prostitution, dive bars, and gambling joints. Roach points out that “…at its peak, Storyville employed over a thousand people; it promoted tourism and well-controlled shore leaves for the U.S. Navy; it became, like family dinner at Antoine’s, a local tradition…” (Cities 225). Now tourists wander the French Quarter, where sex clubs and jazz bars beckon, once again blending sex and commerce in a sanctioned, festival atmosphere. There are two constants here: masquerade behavior, and place. The “spatially-induced carnival” atmosphere of desire-for-hire (or display) stays within the same geographic region.
Nothing ever vanishes here. It echoes and transforms instead.
As a writer, then, the city can still be an effective anchor in a sea of fiction both epic and not. Writing then becomes an excavation, seeing New Orleans not as myth and romance or even beauty, but as a unique character that speaks through its places.
If New Orleans could speak, what would it say? “It’s hot and sweaty along the canal, bad and beautiful things happened here, and still do, and by the way, would all of you writers please stop dressing me in black and blood-red?” And then we’d head off for a drink someplace air conditioned, where she would tell me all about the St. Louis Hotel, or the race track in Metairie that’s now a cemetery, and isn’t that just hilarious? And I would agree that yes, it is, and promise to dress her in jeans and a t-shirt next time. Which would, of course, lead to equally fascinating converse about the cotton trade along her banks.
And all because I tried the radical method of treating a beautiful city as a person with a story to tell in the only language it speaks: space and place; ritual and vortex.