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 Flygirl; Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet; Sparrow; 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.