Tag Archives: New Orleans

Interview with Michael Farris Smith, Author of Rivers

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).

It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky, when the birds flew and the clouds were white and sunshine glistened across the drenched land.

michael farris smith 1

Thank you, Michael, for letting me ask you these questions.  Rivers left me chilled, gasping, and shaken to the core.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Not really. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I was kind of a drifter. Change of scenery was something I really desired and needed so I didn’t stay in one place very long. But this restlessness took me to Europe for a few years and that’s when I began to read and that led me to the desire to write. I will say, though, that when it hit me at age 29, that’s all I wanted to do. Still is.

 

How would you describe Rivers?

Wow. That’s a tough one for the second question. I think RIVERS is about redemption, survival both emotionally and physically. I think RIVERS is about the odyssey of not only Cohen but of all the characters. There is so much to overcome. I wanted it to be more complex than simply good versus evil, and I hope it comes across that way.

What made you decide on the title?  Did you ever have any others in mind?

RIVERS wasn’t the original title. The original title had been used recently to my chagrin, but my agent and I were knocking around other ideas and when RIVERS was suggested, I thought it was perfect. It works on several different levels in the story. It’s strong, straightforward, Southern. Exactly what I wanted.

Michael, what was the impetus behind this novel?  How did you come up with the story?rivers1.jpg

There was no one thing, but several things came into play when I had the idea for RIVERS. Mississippi was still feeling, and is still feeling, the pangs of Katrina and something in me wanted to write a post-Katrina novel. But it wasn’t working and I was frustrated. At the same time I was also very much wanting to break from writing stories to writing novels and I wanted an idea that would, at the very least, picque interest. So I decided to quit banging my head against the wall with a Katrina story, and take the notion of hurricane destruction and the place and people that take the punishment and ramp it way, way up. What if a stream of hurricanes went on and on? What would it look like? What would we do? And then I started to work.

I want to talk more about Cohen.  He’s such an interesting man.  He’s a pragmatist, yet he stays in his home with the world practically coming apart around him.  He’s got a dog, a horse, and a whole lot of memories.  He’s haunted by the past.  Cohen’s a realist yet he also seems to be an idealist.  How did you come up with this character?  How easy or how difficult was it to make him so multi-layered and complex?  Is there any of you in Cohen?

I had an image of a man waking up in the middle of the night, on family land, on the Gulf Coast, after a big storm, and then he goes out to look around. And that’s really all I had. I just started to follow him, to see what he saw, to feel what he felt about what he was seeing. The layers eventually came, but I didn’t have a real game plan for Cohen other than I wanted to lay as much trouble on him as I possibly could and see how he would react. Turns out, he took a lot, and kept fighting.

I think there’s some of me in Cohen, like I guess there is in most all of my characters, but I don’t think there is much overlap. And least not consciously. He’s kind of a South Mississippi guy who grew up playing ball and riding around with a cooler of beer with his buddies and working with his hands, and that’s a pretty decent description of me.

Are there any plans on making a movie of this book?  I would love to see Matthew McConaughey as Cohen.

That’s a good suggestion. I’ll see if we can get him a copy.

Mariposa is another intriguing character and she also lets you talk about New Orleans and what happened there.  She’s also haunted.  How did you come up with the character of Mariposa?

Mariposa was so much fun to create because, like you said, she gave me the chance to use New Orleans and all the ghost stories and dark alleys of the French Quarter. I wanted some of the characters to be displaced, to have ended up in this situation by straight-up bad luck, and that’s how she came to be. I didn’t know when she was introduced limping along the side of the road that she would grow into the character that she grew into, but I’m glad she did.

How did Hurricane Katrina affect you and your friends and family?  Do you think Rivers would have ever been possible without Katrina?

I’m certain that there would have never been RIVERS without Katrina. It’s the first hurricane in my lifetime to have struck Mississippi and it had such an impact on so many people. I felt that impact and those emotions drove me through the writing of RIVERS.

rivers 1In Rivers, Cohen recalls a vacation he and his wife took to Venice.  It’s so interesting that they vacationed in the “floating city” given that New Orleans features so prominently in your story.  The low elevation of New Orleans means it’s like a bowl and this means it’s vulnerable to flooding.  Is there a reason why you had Cohen and Elisa tour Venice?

It started as a way to give some more information about Cohen and Elisa and their life before, so I sent them to Venice on a vacation for the sheer irony of the water. It was only about 4 pages, but my agent really liked it and suggested I write their entire trip. So I created about 20 pages of what their Venice experience was like and then sliced it up and put it here and there throughout RIVERS. It helped that I’ve been to Venice a few times and that is a place, much like New Orleans, with its own strange feeling. It’s so old, so beautiful and ancient one minute, then you turn a street and it’s decrepit and smelly. But it also has a haunting feel, and it seemed to be a good parallel to what was to come for Cohen and Elisa.

What kind of research did you do for Rivers?

None. I looked at a map once or twice to make sure I had the distance between places correct, but that’s it. I didn’t want to look at any footage of natural disasters or study hurricane patterns because I had a pretty strong vision of the place I was trying to create and I didn’t want it tainted.

Although this is speculative fiction, it is so powerful given our extreme weather this century.  If something similar happened in the United States, irrevocably altering the landscape of the Gulf South and the way we live, do you think things would progress as they do in Rivers?  Or would they be worse?

That’s a really good question and I’ve had this come up with other readers. About all I can say is I hope this isn’t a Gulf Coast that we ever see because there are many people in this world anxious to try and take advantage of calamity.

A great deal of loss permeates Rivers yet there is also a great deal of hope.  Was that an aim of yours when you set out to write the

michael farris smith 2story?

I think almost every story has to be about hope in some way. The novels and stories that I love center around hope and survival, whether it be emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological, whatever. The late, great Barry Hannah said all stories have to be about life and death and hope is in the middle of life and death.

I love Barry Hannah, another fellow Mississippian.  Did you have an ending in mind when you began writing Rivers or did the conclusion come to you over time?

I never have an ending in mind until I get there. I think planning too far ahead robs my characters of free will and that’s the last thing I want to do.

Which writers have influenced you the most? Who are some of your favorite authors?  What are some of your favorite books?

So many favorites: Larry Brown, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote. Some of my favorite books are The Stranger, Joe, The Crossing, Death in Venice, Old Man and the Sea, Ballad of the Sad Café, Good Morning Midnight, Feast of Snakes, The Iliad, [and] No Country for Old Men.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

I like to be outside, chasing around my daughters, cooking out in the backyard, playing guitar, tailgating.

Our home state has produced truly magnificent writers—William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Ford, and Jesmyn Ward—just to name a few.  How does it feel to join their illustrious ranks?

It feels pretty good. There are so many great writers from this state, writers that you read and admire and aspire to be like, and then when you finally find your name mentioned alongside them, it’s surreal and satisfying and humbling.

What do you hope readers take with them after reading Rivers?

I hope that readers travel the same journey as Cohen and the others. I hope they are emotionally spent, that they feel the struggle, that they hope, that it’s an adventure.

What’s next for you, Michael?  Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on something but as always, you just wait and see how it goes. I’m excited about working again. There’s been a lot lately to keep me away from the healthy exercise of writing fiction and I’m ready to be back to it more consistently.

Thanks so much, Michael, for a wonderful interview.  Good luck with the book!

Thanks to you and so glad for your enthusiasm for RIVERS.

Author Website

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Meet Michael!

Friday, October 4 – Book Mart & Café, Starkville, MS: Signing from 3:00-5:00 pm

Saturday, October 5 – Barnes & Noble, Tupelo, MS: 2:00 pm

Tuesday, October 8 – Lemuria Books, Part II, Jackson, MS: Signing at 5:00. Click here to reserve a First Edition signed copy.

Wednesday, October 9 – University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, MS

October 11-12 – Southern Festival of Books, Nashville

Wednesday, October 16 – “Tea with Authors” at Mississippi Library Association Conference, Biloxi, MS

October 18-19 – Auburn Writers Conference, Auburn University

Tuesday, October 22 – Mississippi State University, Starkville, MS

October 24-26 – Welty Writers Symposium, MUW, Columbus

October 29 – Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL

Friday, November 1 – Turnrow Books, Greenwood, MS

Thursday, November 7 – Texas A&M-Commerce, Dallas, TX

Wednesday, November 13 – James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA

Friday, November 22 – Lunch with “The Literary Club” in Columbus, MS

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Filed under author interviews, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, Lemuria Books, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Southern writers

Interview with Sherri L. Smith, Author of Orleans

Sherri L. Smith

Sherri L. Smith

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Sherri, for letting me ask you these questions.  Orleans blew me away!

 

Sherri L. Smith: Thanks, Jaime!  Coming from an avid reader, that means a lot!

 

JB: You have worked in film, animation, comic books, and construction.  What made you want to write novels?

 

SLS: Long before I did any of the above, I was a writer.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and started writing poetry and short stories in elementary school.  As a kid, I was always awed by novels—it was incredible to me that the author could hold an entire universe in his or her head.  Ever since then, I wanted to learn how to do it, too.

 

JB: You previously wrote FlygirlHot, Sour, Salty, SweetSparrow; and Lucy the Giant.  Orleans is so different from your other novels.  What made you want to explore dystopian and speculative fiction?

 

SLS: Again, blame my childhood.  I was a big fan of fantasy and science fiction growing up—give me Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Terry Brooks, Michael Moorcock or Frank Herbert, etc. and I was happy.  In fact, it was rather a shock to discover my first novel (Lucy the Giant) was contemporary.  I had to give myself a good hard look in the mirror and ask what the heck I thought I was doing.  But I loved the story and it worked.  From then on I decided I would just write what I loved, regardless of genre, and that’s what I’ve done.

 

JB: How did you come up with the idea behind Orleans?

 

SLS: I got the idea for Orleans from my family’s experience with Katrina.  At the time, the idea was born out of two things: an article I read about street gangs protecting their neighborhoods when the cops had all fled, and race issues that seemed to be part of the whole Katrina catastrophe.   It made me wonder: what if race wasn’t an issue?  What differences would separate people then?  What if it wasn’t something you could see?  I decided blood was an interesting answer.  And then, one day on the drive home, Fen popped into my head and started talking to me.  The street gangs became blood tribes, and it wasn’t long before Orleans was born.

 

JB: What kind of research did you do for Orleans?

 

SLS: I bought maps of the city, talked to doctors and scientists, read a lot of environmental studies and articles about hurricanes.  I researched blood types and the history of New Orleans, religious groups, and field medicine.  I watched movies about post-disaster worlds, read books, and studied knife fights in movies and books.  It really ran the gamut!

 

 

JB: One of the astounding things about Orleans is how you build a singular world, unlike anything anybody’s written before, and you do it all in one novel where Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie need three books to fully achieve that effect.  How did you invent this wildly imaginative world?

 

SLS: That’s a huge compliment, so thank you from the bottom of my writerly heart.  I imagine that Collins, Roth and Condie knew the width and breadth of their worlds before they finished the first book, though.  The great thing about world building is, once it’s built, you can keep going back!

 

As for how I approached it, brick by brick is the short answer.  The long answer is—have you ever read Dune by Frank Herbert?  There are appendices at the end of the novel that detail the ecology of the planet.  I remember reading that as a kid and thinking, “Wow, he really made the world!”  It seemed insane, but it worked.  I had a teacher once tell me you had to create the entire room, even if you only wrote about one corner of it.  I think that’s true for all writing, but especially for speculative fiction.  With that in mind, when I started writing I actually made a notebook with tabs for religion, weather, food, tribes, disease, etc.  It was my own Dune appendix.  However, unlike Frank Herbert, I got bored with cataloging and decided to get on with the writing.  So, I didn’t refer to the notebook as much as I thought I would, but any time I lost track of things, it was my touchstone and a good place to daydream new ideas.

 

The ideas themselves came from—extrapolation.  I thought of New Orleans as I knew it and imagined what would change.  There are incredible time lapse maps of the flooding in the city during Katrina, and forecast maps for the Gulf shoreline in years to come.  Those all went into the kitty.  I sat down with a couple of doctors, and grilled my biology teacher friend and her scientist sister for details when creating Delta Fever and the DF Virus.  I saw a hut on stilts outside of Seattle, and the Church of the Rising Son was born.

 

JB: In Orleans, “tribe is life.”  Classifying someone by race no longer exists in Orleans.  It’s now all about blood type, all because of a horrible disease.  How did you come up with Delta Fever?

 

SLS: I knew I wanted a disease that would force separation by blood type.  I called a doctor friend of mine and she introduced me to a pediatric oncologist, Dr. Noah Federman, who walked me through the possibilities.  I basically told him what I needed the Fever to do, and he told me what diseases existed that were similar and how they would manifest.  I then talked to a friend who teaches biology and her sister, who is a research scientist.  They taught me how to destroy viruses and how I might try to create a cure.  Any science that works is owed to the three of them.  The rest is my crazy imagination.

 

JB: Do you have a favorite character in Orleans?  If so, please share.

 

SLS: Fen.  Hands down.  I just think she’s so cool.

 

JB: Perfect lead-in for this question: your main female character is named Fen de la Guerre.  “Guerre” is similar to “guerilla” fighter.  What made you choose this name?  And what came first—the character or her name?

 

SLS: The character came first.  Her voice popped into my head.  The name followed shortly thereafter.  I wanted something that conjured the swamps and bayous in the Delta.  A fen is a type of wetland.  It also reminded me of Fern, the little girl in Charlotte’s Web, which was my favorite book growing up.   “De la Guerre” is French for “of war.”  Orleans is constantly at war, so that made sense.  Lastly, “Fen” also sounds like the French “fin” or “end.”  I liked the idea that she would be a game changer for Orleans.

 

 

JB: It was so refreshing how you do not have the two protagonists falling in love, like so many other YA novels do.  What stopped you from doing that in Orleans?

 

SLS: To quote Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, “No time for love, Dr. Jones!”  Orleans is an incredibly dangerous place and Fen is working on a timeline.  The idea of stopping in the middle of it to make googly eyes at someone was out of the question, especially for someone as no nonsense as Fen.  Thanks to Delta Fever, romance is also a liability in Orleans.  There is no room for a Romeo and Juliet situation—you fall in love with the wrong tribe, one of you dies.  You get pregnant, your blood volume goes up and your value as a blood slave does, too.  Not to mention it slows you down in a fight.  Fen actually loves quite fiercely in this novel.  It’s just not about romance.

 

 

JB: One scene in Orleans, for me, is one I’ll always think of when I see the book or hear about it.  It’s the scene where Fen and Daniel are in what remains of the Garden District and see a curious ritual from a window of a house in which they are resting.  It happens on November 1, All Saints’ Day and also the traditional end of hurricane season.  Can you tell us about this scene?  And what inspired it?

 

SLS: Ah.  This is the scene of the All Saint’s Krewe.  Mardi Gras, which takes place in the early part of the year, is famous for its parades led by organizations called “krewes.”  The first krewes were young men in 19th century New Orleans who rode around on horses while wearing masks and holding torches, or flambeaux, in the air.  I know this sounds disturbingly like a lynch mob, but it was meant to be a celebration.  Or, more likely, it was a group of wild partiers, the 19th century equivalent of a frat party, and they hid their faces so their families wouldn’t know about their hooliganism.  At any rate, the tradition stuck and transformed into the Mardi Gras mask and the krewe parade.

 

I liked the idea that this tradition would continue to evolve in Orleans, or rather devolve to its original state.  The opening image of the novel is a man playing a saxophone on the levee as a storm threatens the city.  That image came from news footage I saw at the time.  I decided the krewes would carry on that laissez faire attitude that New Orleans is so famous for by celebrating the end of hurricane season.  The parade is as an act of defiance against nature, where people of all tribes come together anonymously.

 

In the scene, Fen wakes Daniel to see the krewe ride in a hurricane-shaped spiral reciting the names of the storms that destroyed New Orleans, and then shouting—Nous sommes ici!  We are here!  We are still here!

More about that scene from my book review:

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.

 

JB: Did you ever think of turning Orleans into a trilogy?

 

SLS: Yes, certainly.  Once you’ve built the world, why not go back?  Although I think there’s a lot more to see in this universe than just the city of Orleans…

 

JB: Interesting!  Why do you think YA dystopian/apocalyptic fiction is so popular?

 

SLS: I think it has something to do with war.  We’ve been at war for over a decade and that takes its toll on a society.  From terrorist acts to man-made and natural disasters, it’s got people wondering how they will survive.  Speculative fiction has always been good at mulling over those questions and answers.  It can be a comfort to read a book and say, “Ah, there is life after this disaster.  This is how you do it.”

 

JB: In your book, the United States as we know it today no longer exists.  Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas have been quarantined and are no longer part of the Union.  The great city of New Orleans is surrounded by a wall.  Do you think a catastrophe of this magnitude could happen in our country?

 

SLS: In fact, the Wall runs from Florida to Texas, amputating a vital part of the country.  It seems crazy but, truly, in the first week after Katrina, it didn’t sound so farfetched.  There was talk of abandoning the city, moving inland.  In fact, I remember reading a report.  I think it was in the New Orleans Times-Picayune back in the late 1980s or early 1990s that postulated the need to abandon the city in the face of a major hurricane.  The report proposed building a wall around the French Quarter to protect it for posterity.  Apparently, the rest of the city was considered a reasonable loss.  I remember reading that in my grandparent’s kitchen and thinking, “But… that’s us!”

 

JB: I know that Hurricane Katrina affected your mother and you.  How did that experience provide the impetus to write Orleans?

 

SLS: My mom grew up in New Orleans and weathered the storm there.  It was a couple of days before we realized she was trapped down there and things were falling apart fast.  I hadn’t thought of it until recently, but, in a lot of ways, Fen’s journey to get Baby Girl out of Orleans mirrors my attempts to get my mom out of New Orleans.  It’s important to me to keep New Orleans in people’s thoughts through my writing.  We tend to think “the storm is over, everything is fine.”  But, as anyone who has ever had to rebuild after a disaster knows, it’s far from over and the effects last for years.  Orleans is about that aftermath.

 

 

JB: With each hurricane or even strong tropical storm that hits the New Orleans area, flooding seems worse.  With the marshes disappearing, how likely do you think it is that the city could be underwater in 40, 50, or 100 years?

 

SLS: I don’t even want to speculate about that.  Anything can happen, as Katrina proved.  As much as the fading wetlands were an issue with storm surge, it was manmade channels and levees that led to the bulk of the damage in the city.  Not to diminish the threat, but they’ve been talking about Venice, Italy, sinking for decades and it’s still standing.  A little low in the water, maybe, but it’s there.  Hopefully the storms we’ve had recently will be a wake-up call and steps will be taken to protect our land.

 

JB: As a writer, who has influenced you the most?

 

SLS: Too many people to mention.  I’ll say my mother because she always encouraged me to keep with it.  She never doubted I could publish if I tried.

 

JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?

 

SLS: I think I already mentioned Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White.  I love Trumpet of the Swan and Stuart Little, too, a though that last one was a bit weird because his parents were human and it kind of threw me. I’m a fan of Susan Cooper.  I love her Dark Is Rising series.  I’ve already mentioned Dune.  I’ve come to appreciate Ernest Hemingway.  I admire Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ability to make her stories sound like truth.  David Eddings, Laurie R. King, Lloyd Alexander, Kage Baker, Olivia Butler—I’m looking at my bookcase, but it’s only one of 11 in the house!

 

JB: You really are an avid reader!  What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

 

SLS: I like to read.  Is that obvious?  I also like travel, bake, eat, sleep, watch movies.  I like to dance and make stuff with my hands.  I watch a lot of cooking shows and make up songs that I sing to my cat, because she’s the only one who tolerates it on a regular basis.

 

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Orleans?

 

SLS: That’s a good question.  I hope they recognize how precious the world we live in really is, and do what they can to protect it.  Whether that means putting together a “go bag” disaster kit, volunteering in an area that needs help, or taking steps to protect the environment, I’m happy.  Heck, if it means everyone goes to New Orleans and supports the city with their visit, that would be grand too.  Even if they just think about it and talk about the book with other people, it would mean I reached them somehow.  And that’s all any writer can ever hope.

 

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

 

SLS: I am currently working on my first fantasy!  It’s an historical fantasy based on the Nutcracker.  I’m also genre-dabbling in mystery and noir.  I want to try everything, so that’s what I’m going to do!

 

JB: Thanks, Sherri, for a wonderful interview!  Good luck with the book.

 

SLS: Thank you, Jaime.  It was a lot of fun.

orleans1.jpg

 

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Book Review: Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

Orleans by Sherri L. Smith (Putnam Juvenile; 336 pages; $17.99).

            Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo, Olga, Laura, Paloma, and Jesus are the names of a series of hurricanes that hit the New Orleans area from 2005 to 2019, killing thousands and thousands of people, flooding the city, and eventually giving rise to the Delta Fever.  No, this is not a prediction orleans1.jpgof the future but the terrifying plot of Sherri L. Smith’s young adult dystopian novel OrleansOrleans is speculative fiction that disturbs, fascinates, and leaves us with much to ponder.

Smith sets her story in 2056 Orleans, no longer New Orleans, but a virtually unrecognizable world characterized by devastation, lawlessness, disease, death, and obstructed by a high wall.  The remnants of the Big Easy are cut off from the rest of the United States, and they are not alone.

In 2020, FEMA quarantined any state affected by the Delta Fever.  In 2025, the United States formally withdrew its governance from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, permanently altering the nation’s landscape and sending the economy into a tailspin.  The United States is now called the Outer States.

You guessed it, Toto.  We aren’t in the New Orleans as we know it.  Nor are in the America as we know it today.

Smith stakes out new territory in this story.  Not only is Orleans an original tale it’s also a courageous one.  And, for Smith, it is personal: Her mother was among those affected by Katrina.  Chilling and wholly plausible, Smith immerses readers deep inside Orleans, and her characters matter deeply to us.

Using a dual narrative format, Smith narrates her tale from the perspective of her two protagonists: Fen de la Guerre and Daniel Weaver.

Fen, a teenage girl with a mysterious past, finds her world irrevocably altered when her mentor, Lydia, dies while giving birth.  Before Lydia dies, she entrusts her child to Fen’s care.

In Orleans, race no longer matters.  “Tribe is life,” and one’s blood type determines his or her tribe.  Fen is an O-Positive, or “OP.”  The baby is an O-Neg, which is problematic.

Delta Fever affects people in different ways according to blood type.  Those with AB blood type suffer the worst from the virus.  “O types don’t be needing transfusions like ABs do.  The Fever be in us, but it ain’t eating O blood up from the inside like it do other types.”

ABs hunt down people with O blood type, especially O negative.  A transfusion using O blood, the universal donor, allows a person with AB to temporarily replenish his supply of red blood cells.

The ABs’ need for blood is eerily similar to that of vampires.  Fen struggles to get the baby to a safe place, far away from Orleans, before the ABs hunt down them both.  As her name suggests, Fen de la Guerre is a fighter.

Daniel is a researcher and scientist from the Outer States whose brother, Charlie, contracted Delta Fever and died “before his eleventh birthday.”  His brother’s death compelled Daniel to work to find a potential cure for the fever.

He bioengineers “a new virus with one purpose—to attack Delta Fever in the bloodstream.”  Daniel creates an “even deadlier strain of the disease.”  Daniel’s virus is a weapon, “a time bomb” that only kills those with the Delta Fever, which includes “every inhabitant of the Delta Coast.”

Through Daniel, Smith shows us what life is like in the former United States, and the picture he paints is far from pretty.  The problems of the Outer States, though, pale in comparison to what happens in Orleans.  The Big Easy has some big problems, as you have probably already ascertained.

When Fen and Daniel meet, the real fun begins.  Fen and Daniel strike a bargain and navigate the bayous and menacing thoroughfares of Orleans together.  Smith takes readers on a wild ride as we accompany Fen and Daniel throughout the dangerous world of Orleans.

There is such authenticity within the pages of Orleans.  Fen speaks in dialect, using “be” in place of “am” and “are.”  For example, “We be near the Market,” Smith writes, “where the old levee used to be, across from St. Louis Cathedral.”  This may be jarring for some, at least initially, but one quickly becomes accustomed to Fen’s distinctive voice.  Many people in New Orleans and in the bayous (and elsewhere in the US) use this kind of discourse today.

If you’ve ever traveled to New Orleans, there are certain landmarks that are permanently fixed in your memory: the Superdome, the French Market, the Ursuline convent, and St. Louis Cathedral, just to name a few.  These all figure prominently in the story.  As does some old Mardi Gras and Catholic traditions.  The most fascinating of which is a ritual Orleanians adhere to on November 1, All Saints’ Day, and the last day of hurricane season, when all tribes come together on horseback wearing old Mardi Gras apparel to disguise their identities.

The participants “wheel around in a circle at the widest point of the road and thrust they torches toward the center of the ring, moving to a trot as the ring shift shape and turn into a spiral ‘stead of a sphere.”  They “be like a hurricane, swirling and swirling, the smallest rider in the center at the eye.”  Then, the chanting begins, over and over, louder and louder: “Katrina, Isaiah, Lorenzo.  Olga, Laura, Paloma…Jesus, Jesus, Hay-SEUS!”

As the riders go off in every direction, they move faster and faster.  As they disperse, one rider plays an old tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”  The ceremony’s observers continue to celebrate November 1, because they still live in Orleans, and the ritual is to honor and remember what Orleans used to be.  This is just one of the many ways in which Smith makes Orleans intriguing and new.  No matter how many young adult books you have read, Orleans is nothing like them.

In Orleans, Smith creates a world like no other—bold, harrowing, and impossible to forget.   This young adult story is a nail-biter that will keep you up well past your bedtime, but the pay-off is well worth the loss of sleep.

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Filed under book review, books, dystopian literature, fiction, young adult

Spotlight on Orleans by Sherri L. Smith

I love good dystopian YA literature.  Today is the publication day for Sherri L. Smith’s new young adult novel, Orleans.  I am on chapter five and am deeply immersed in Smith’s harrowing and utterly fascinating world.

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I was hooked from the beginning, when a series of devastating hurricanes wreaks havoc on the Big Easy.

“After the storm deaths came other casualties: deaths by debris, cuts, tetanus, or loss of blood; suicide; heart attacks caused by stress of loss, or stress of rebuilding, or just as often from the lack of medicines used to treat common ailments.  The list of no-longer-treatable diseases grew: diabetes, asthma, cancer.  Domestic violence rose, along with murder.

Then came the Fever.

And the Quarantine.”

About the book

The following summary is from Goodreads:

After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.

Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.

Sherri L. Smith delivers an expertly crafted story about a fierce heroine whose powerful voice and firm determination will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.

About the author

The following information comes from Smith’s website:

Sherri L. Smith’s life can best be summed up geographically. Born in Chicago, IL, she spent her childhood in Staten Island, NY, Washington D.C., and Upstate New York. Her parents divorced when she was twelve. A year later, she moved back to Chicago with her mother and big brother. After high school, it was off to New York City for college, San Francisco for graduate school, and then Los Angeles, to make movies.

Sherri has worked in film, animation, comic books and construction. Film highlights include Tim Burton’s MARS ATTACKS!, where she worked in stop-motion animation -a truly cool art form. Sherri also worked for three years at Disney TV Animation, helping to create stories for animated home video projects.

After leaving Disney, Sherri found an unlikely home with a construction company, working in a triple-wide trailer on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport. From there she spent nine hilarious years working at Bongo Comics, the company that brings you THE SIMPSONS in print. Currently, Sherri happily spends her days writing novels and visiting her readers in schools and libraries across the country.

She lives in Los Angeles with the love of her life, and is currently working on her next book.

Smith

 

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Book Review: The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski (Harper Paperbacks; 400 pages; $14.99).

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            Reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, one assumes the novel’s author, Rita Leganski, was born and raised in the South.  Imagine the surprise upon learning Leganski is from Wisconsin.  On frigid and interminable winter nights when she was growing up, Leganski curled up with her favorite authors—tellers of tales from much warmer climes, such as Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams.  Many novelists write what they know, but Leganski composes the stuff of her dreams.  And thank goodness for that.

Wildly inventive, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow blends historical fiction with fantasy and lyricism to produce an unforgettable and uniquely Southern story.  Like her  beloved Southern dramatists, Leganski sets her story in 1920s-1950s New Orleans,  bringing the city to life while simultaneously lending the yarn a deeply atmospheric quality.  Leganski also has the seemingly effortless skill of narrating her tale from many different perspectives, just as her favored literary figures did.

Most pivotal in Leganski’s story is the central raconteur and titular character, Bonaventure Arrow.  Bonaventure is mute.  Leganski writes, “Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead.  But the child was only listening, placing sound inside quiet and gaining his bearings….”  He “stayed like that, all wide-eyed and hopeful, and continued to keep his silence. “ Bonaventure’s muteness only belies the intensity and commotion inside him.  Throughout Leganski’s fictional work, Bonaventure never says a word; yet, Bonaventure speaks loudly and clearly.  His deafness is “not a handicap at all but a gift—an extraordinary, inexplicable, immeasurable gift that” allows Bonaventure to hear “what no one else” can.

He is a unique little boy who has a very special way of communing with nature.  Through Bonaventure’s acute audible senses, Leganski is able to imbue supernatural elements into her story.  One of the ways in which she accomplishes this is through magical realism.  Bonaventure can hear “as no other human”being can.  By the time he is five, Bonaventure can hear “flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops.”

If those characteristics alone do not make you want to know Bonaventure Arrow, then maybe this will.  Bonaventure also has a kindred spirit, Trinidad Prefontaine, a widowed servant from Pascagoula, Mississippi.  Trinidad plays an important role in the boy’s life and works to ease his burden.  Leganski uses her to help guide Bonaventure on a quest that involves his father’s untimely death.

Because Bonaventure is so extraordinary, he knows things others do not.  He also sees things others do not, like the ghost of his deceased father, William Arrow.  A mysterious man called “The Wanderer” murdered William before Bonaventure was even born.  William’s death almost destroyed Dancy, Bonaventure’s mother, who carries around an enormous amount of guilt years after her husband’s death.  For Bonaventure, his mother’s feelings of culpability are palpable; he can hear her remorse.

In Bonaventure’s world, colors and flowers are not the only inanimate objects with voices.  Long-buried articles from the past call out to the boy, and they demand justice.  Bonaventure is the only one who can right earlier wrongs, for he was “chosen to bring peace.”  “There was guilt to be dealt with,” Leganski explains in her story, “and poor broken hearts, and atonement gone terribly wrong.  And too there were family secrets to be heard; some of them old and all of them harmful.”  Leganski illustrates the power of personification as a box, pieces of glass, clothing, and a note call out to Bonaventure in anguished voices, lending a great deal of mystery to the work.

Setting is also powerful in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow.  Leganski places her story in New Orleans and in the fictional town of Bayou Cymbaline.  These locales come to vivid life and actually become characters in Leganski’s tale.  The result is a picturesque backdrop, evocative, flavorful, distinctively Southern, and wholly New Orleans.

Leganski’s lucid prose, her crystal clarity, and her magical realism catapult The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow into a category alongside Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  Mixing historical fiction with fantasy, superstition, magic, and poetic sentiment, Leganski creates an emotional and memorable story.  A gifted storyteller, Leganski has many more stories yet to tell.  She’s off to a boisterous beginning, as there is nothing reserved about Bonaventure Arrow.  This novel is richer than New Orleans chicory coffee and sweeter than a plate of beignets.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the March Book Club Selection for She Reads.  For reviews, discussions, and giveaways, be sure to visit their website.

I am also giving away a brand new copy of the book.  Complete the brief form below.  I will choose a winner using random.org.  Giveaway ends Friday at 3 pm ET.  Good luck!

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Filed under book giveaway, book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, She Reads, Southern fiction

Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

Rita Leganski

Rita Leganski

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Rita, for letting me interview you.  I have to tell you how much I loved your magical story.  Through his silence, Bonaventure Arrow spoke to me, and I heard him loudly and clearly.  I’m very pleased that She Reads chose it as the March Book Club Selection.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Rita Leganski: I’ve always enjoyed writing, whether it was a school assignment or just as a pastime. At times in my life when I’ve felt unsettled, story writing helped me through. When I decided to return to school as an adult, I deliberately chose to study writing.

JB: Reading this very Southern story, I was surprised to learn you grew up in Wisconsin.  You began reading Southern writers at a very young age.  How old were you?  Who were your favorite authors?

RL: I suppose I was in middle school when I was transported to 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Huckleberry Finn did his part as well in luring my imagination southward.  As my tastes and abilities grew more sophisticated, I added Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner to my list of favorites.

JB: How have these beloved Southern authors influenced your writing?

RL: I think their greatest influence on me has been their artistry with voice and tone, as well as feeling at liberty to bring in supernatural influences and just downright crazy folks. Those writers taught me to let the setting actually be one of the characters.

JB: Prior to beginning this story, had you ever visited New Orleans or Louisiana?

RL: I had never been anywhere in Louisiana before going there to do research for Bonaventure Arrow. One doesn’t merely go to New Orleans; one experiences it. Everybody should try it at least once. If for no other reason, go for the beignets – fried doughnuts covered in confectioner’s sugar!

JB: One of my favorite things about New Orleans!  The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow began as a short story when you were in graduate school.  When did you begin working on the story? And how did you come up with Bonaventure Arrow?

RL: I began the short story in May of 2009 and completed it in June. It was my very last assignment before graduating with a Master’s in Writing. The professor had pleaded with us to give him something different, so I decided to try my hand at magical realism. I can’t honestly tell you how I came up with Bonaventure Arrow; he was just always there.  In the original thirteen-page short story, he is nine years old (not seven) and William has been killed in Korea. As I recall, the only characters in it were Bonaventure, Dancy, Grandma Roman, and Trinidad Prefontaine. That story did make its way into the novel, but well into it. It comprises the scene in the kitchen with the Blue Bottle fly and the scene in which Grandma Roman takes Bonaventure to Bixie’s.

JB: Bayou Cymbaline, though fictional, feels so real.  How did you come up with this “magical, haunted, and lovely place steeped in faith and superstition—the ideal home for a gifted little boy who could hear fantastic sounds”?

RL: I needed to locate the story in a unique place, one that was near enough to New Orleans to be under its influence, but not overshadowed by it. I have referred to my fictional town as a metaphorical house of God because it was home to so many different types. I named it Bayou Cymbaline because of associations and semantic characteristics of those nouns.  Bayou sets it geographically and Cymbaline was borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Cymbeline (I changed just one letter to make it my own). Like that Shakespearean play, THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW deals with innocence and jealousy.

JB: Your use of magical realism is close to the divine.  I’d put your name right beside Isabel Allende and Yann Martel.  How did characters like Bonaventure and Trinidad and others and even your setting allow you to use this literary tool to your advantage?

RL: Wow! What a compliment! Thank you very much!  Magical realism sets writers free. It invites the fantastic, the unbelievable; the downright bizarre to come into reality and both change it and leave it alone. After all, it’s reality that acts as a measuring stick for the magic. Bonaventure and Trinidad move through the same reality as everyone around them, yet they are set apart by their otherworldly gifts. New Orleans is kind of the same way; it’s a place of commerce and residences, but there’s also this ever-present vibe that’s not quite namable. Joy dances with sorrow in New Orleans. This duality of natures worked to my advantage because it gave me leeway to let the supernatural in.

JB: Who is your favorite character in the story?

RL: Coleman Tate. He was an interesting character to write.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this book?

RL: The toughest thing was to keep the flow going while trying to tell backstory. Preserving some sense of chronology was difficult; it seemed I had to constantly move whole sections to do it. Probably my most interesting difficulty was to bring in an element of suspense AFTER the novel had been completed. Believe it or not, The Wanderer was not part of the original version.

JB: How fascinating!  I can’t even think of the story without him.  What kind of research did you do?  Find anything you’d like to use in a future story?

RL: Even though THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW is a work of fiction I wanted to get it right, especially when it came to Catholicism and New Orleans. To that end, I adhered to only credible sources. I spoke to historians, archivists, and folks in New Orleans during the time I spent there doing research. I also consulted various digital collections and online libraries as well as consulting with people in Catholic ministries.

I save all my research. No doubt, I’ll reach into it for some future story.

JB: So many early readers love Bonaventure.  Has the advance praise surprised you at all or did you always expect Bonaventure to pull at the heartstrings of readers?

RL: I can honestly say it has surprised me. It’s such a different sort of story that I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I only knew how much I loved Bonaventure.

JB: Ever thought of moving to the South, but especially to New Orleans?

RL: Not really, my family is in the north. But I’ll definitely return to the South for vacations.

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

RL: I love to read, knit, and crochet. I also love to renovate – give me a paint brush and some wood flooring and I’ll be happy for a long, long time. I’m an exercise freak, too. My husband and I enjoy travelling, hiking, and snowshoeing. He loves to cook, but I need a map to find the kitchen.

JB: If a reader asked you to give her a list of five Southern writers that you consider required reading, who would be on your list and why?

RL: Carson McCullers – She’s best known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but The Member of the Wedding is actually my favorite McCullers work. I also love her very long short story The Ballad of the Sad Café. Her characters are works of art. She finds the extraordinary under layers of human weakness.

Harper Lee – There are no words to adequately praise To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch may very well be the best reminiscent narrator ever.

Flannery O’Connor – Though she wrote a few novels, O’Conner is best known as a master of the short story. She had a gift for exploiting the peculiar and bringing about endings that manage to be both fascinating and macabre as they blindside you. If I had to pick a favorite work of hers it would be a tie between “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River”.

Tennessee Williams – He had a gift for bringing charm to the gritty. His titles are some of the best: “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are a couple that pull you right in.

William Faulkner – If you want to learn how to write quirky characters, read Faulkner.

JB: An amazing list!  Which book or books are you currently reading?

RL: I just finished THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce. I loved it.

I’m currently reading THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

JB: Those are actually two of my favorite novels.  Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities are you visiting?

RL: Yes, I will tour. It’s in the planning stages at HarperCollins.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow?

RL: That when it comes to forgiveness, accepting it is just as important as offering it. Also, I would hope that readers would become in tune with the miraculous that is all around us all the time.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

RL: I’ve actually begun three different projects. I’m hoping that sooner or later one of them overpowers the other two.

JB: Thank you, Rita, for a wonderful interview!  May you venture forth into bestseller land.

RL: Thanks for inviting me!

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silence.jpg The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the She Reads March Book Club Selection.  For reviews, a chance to win a copy of the book, and discussion, visit She Reads.  I am also giving away a brand new copy of the story.  Please fill out the brief form below.  I will choose a winner using random.org on Friday at 3 pm ET.  Good luck!

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Spotlight on The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

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I totally fell in love with The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski.  Leganski grew up in Wisconsin, but, you’d swear she was Southern.  Bonaventure Arrow cannot speak, yet he speaks loudly and clearly within Leganski’s pages.

This is a haunting, atmospheric story, uniquely Southern, replete with lyricism and magical realism.

A lyrical debut novel set in historic New Orleans that follows a mute boy whose gift of magical hearing reveals family secrets and forgotten voodoo lore, and exposes a murder that threatens the souls of those who love him.

Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead.  But he was only listening, placing sound inside quiet and gaining his bearings.  By the time he is five, he can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature trumpets that rage inside raindrops.  He also hears the voice of his dead father, William Arrow, mysteriously murdered before Bonaventure was born by a man known only as the Wanderer.

One day, Bonaventure’s world is shaken by anguished voices he’s never heard before–voices that trace back to a note written by his mother, Dancy, to a particular relic owned by his Grand-mere Letice: objects kept by each as a constant reminder of the guilt she believes she deserves.  When Bonaventure removes the note and the relic from where they’ve been hidden, he opens two doors to the past and finds the key to a web of secrets that both holds his family together and threatens to tear them apart.  With the help of his kindred spirit, Trinidad Prefontaine, Bonaventure sets out to calm these secrets and to release his family from a painful legacy.

Rita-Leganski

Rita Leganski holds an MA in writing and publishing and a BA in literary studies and creative writing from DePaul University.  She teaches a writing workshop at DePaul’s School for New Learning and was a recipient of the Arthur Weinberg Memorial Prize for a work of historical fiction.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow will be released February 26.  Look for my interview with Leganski on March 4 (and a possible giveaway) and a book review on March 5.  She Reads has chosen this book for its March Book Club Selection.

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