Sunday, September 6, 2009

Q&A with author Paula Morris

Today I have a Q&A post with Paula Morris, author of Ruined: A Ghost Story. It was sent to me by the publisher, and it's somewhat of a precursor to an upcoming contest I'll be holding for Ruined. So enjoy the interview, and watch for the contest! (If you comment on the interview before the contest is posted, you'll earn an extra entry into the contest!)

What inspired you to write Ruined?
I’ve been living in New Orleans for five years. Lots of people come to visit, so I get to play tour guide on a regular basis. I’ve also taught some classes on the history of Mardi Gras, and on the city’s literary past. New Orleans is such a unique city, with such a rich and complex history. The more I found out about it, the more I wanted to write about it myself.

After Hurricane Katrina, when the city felt turned upside down, I went to see a tarot card reader in a French Quarter voodoo shop. He told me that the storm and the flood had fractured time, and displaced hundreds of ghosts. He said he kept seeing ghosts everywhere. I hadn’t really thought about the ghosts of the city, but after that conversation, pieces of the story started taking shape in my mind.

You capture New Orleans beautifully in the book. What are your favorite spots in New Orleans? Is there particular local lore or history that appeals to you?
I drive through the Garden District — and past Lafayette Cemetery — a lot, especially when I’m taking visitors on a literary tour. It has tremendous physical beauty and character. But there are interesting stories on every corner in New Orleans. I also like taking people through Tremé, around the Bywater, and into Holy Cross in the Lower Ninth Ward. There are two stunning “Steamboat houses” right by the Mississippi river levee there.

What kind of research did you have to do for Ruined? How did you manage to describe the Mardi Gras floats so accurately? Have you ever been on such a float yourself?
I did a ton of research for the novel — reading books, talking to people, taking a cemetery tour — though obviously a lot is made up. For example, the Mardi Gras krewe called Septimus is imaginary, and any local can tell you that no krewe would be permitted to end their parades back in the Garden District!

Carnival season is a great time of year in New Orleans, and I’ve been to dozens and dozens of parades, watching various krewes ride. I know a number of people who belong to different krewes, both in the city and the suburbs, and they’ve told me lots of stories. I’ve never been on a float — just on the receiving end of beads.

Ruined is coming out around the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Can you talk a little bit about the effects the Hurricane had on the city, and how they influenced Ruined?
The storm, and the flood that followed, had a profound and ongoing impact on the city. Our population is much smaller than it used to be. Many neighborhoods were washed away, and have yet to recover. Some of the older parts of the city, like the French Quarter and the Garden District, lie on high ground, close to the river levee, so they had no flood damage. Tourists visiting the city and just spending their time in those neighborhoods would have no idea of the extent of the devastation — eighty percent of the city was underwater. I was conscious, writing Ruined, that it was set largely in an unflooded neighborhood. But the psychic scars of the flood — and the city’s evacuation, ruin, and slow recovery — exist everywhere, as Rebecca, the protagonist, finds out.

You’ve also written books for adults. Can you tell us how your experience writing for teens differs from writing for adults?
I got some very good advice from my teenage niece when I was working on the book. She told me it needed a lot of mystery and a little romance. I hope I managed both.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get your start as an author?
When I was a child, I wrote stories all the time, but as an adult real life took over — in the form of work, and travel, and building a new life in various places. (I’ve lived in eight different cities, in three different countries.) Writing is a vocation, I think, but you don’t always discover it right away. When I was living in New York, about ten years ago, I started going to creative writing night-classes at the West Side YMCA, and began writing stories again. My first adult novel, Queen of Beauty, was written while I was pursuing a creative writing degree in Wellington, New Zealand; I wrote a lot of my second novel, Hibiscus Coast, while studying at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I have to say, I think keeping going is harder than starting, in some ways.

What are some of your favorite books/favorite authors?
So many! For short stories: William Trevor, Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg. For novels: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ian McEwan, Lloyd Jones (a New Zealand writer). Favorite authors from childhood: Eleanor Estes, Edward Eager, and Helen Clare. I’m also an expert — read: bore — on the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, and the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’ve been to all the Little House sites — in seven different states!

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