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Before Katrina: The Gumbo World of 'Babylon Rolling'

Novelist Amanda Boyden on New Orleans, hurricanes, fleeing or not, and more.

By Sarah Buchanan 19 Nov 2008 |

Sarah Buchanan is a Vancouver writer. Read her previous articles for The Tyee here.

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Boyden: 'To instill fear is power.'

Amanda Boyden and I are walking to a hotel room to discuss her second novel, Babylon Rolling. Her publicist swipes a key card through three different doors, apologizing at every one. "I'm sorry, this really should be the right room," she says. Amanda and I shrug, continuing our conversation about doughnuts versus pastries. Amanda is more of a fancy pastry kind of woman, while I have just inhaled two sour-cream-glazed Tim Horton's doughnuts from the press room, indicating that I have less-discerning tastes. Perhaps this is why she writes the novels, and I write the articles about the novels.

The swipe card finds a hit. Beep. Having just finished Boyden's novel, I half-expect to find a couple of hotel workers engaged in a lewd extra-marital sex act behind the closed door. Much of the novel, centred around the lives of a diverse cast of characters in pre-Katrina New Orleans, is set in a rock-star hotel in the city's French Quarter, where one of the main players is knee-deep in scandalous activities. She manages the hotel, but lives with her family on Orchid Street, the tie that binds all the characters together.

The uptown neighborhood is the perfect setting to bring together an ambitious roster of voices -- perspectives so vastly different that I initially doubted Boyden's ability to pull it off. Somehow she manages to avoid the pitfalls of appropriating these voices, which range from an aging and uptight southern belle to a 15-year-old black drug dealer named Fearius.

If it sounds like a lot, it is. I will admit to cringing when I read the first sentence of Fearius' cold gangster monologue. What does Amanda Boyden, a white writing professor at the University of New Orleans, know about 15-year-old thugs?

Apparently, a lot. Boyden herself has worked as a trapeze artist, stuntwoman, contortionist, and science lab assistant. After a page or two, I felt embedded inside Fearius' head in a way a college-educated Vancouverite could rarely be. The rest of her characters follow suit, acquiring a depth and wisdom that reveal the beauty of New Orleans before the storm.

Boyden's self-described "gumbo of people" come together after a fateful accident on the street, foreshadowing how Katrina would bring the city together, and simultaneously tear it apart. But for now, in the relative calm before the storm, the characters of Babylon Rolling play out a compelling drama that reads like a Shakespearian tragedy.

Impending chaos, anyone?

The title refers to Babylon, the Mardi Gras parade float, which symbolizes the novel's overall feeling -- that of a moving piece of chaos, slowly gathering energy and power.

This sense of impending doom struck a familiar chord with me. Vancouver, to a lesser degree, has similar tension as we watch the global economy unwind leading into the Winter Olympics. Beneath the optimistic boosterism lurks an inkling of disaster. People ask, "Are you staying for 2010?" as if it's a hurricane. Are we expecting riots? Strikes? Financial collapse?

While New Orleans and Vancouver may be very different cities, it might pay to mark Amanda's words about cities spiraling into crisis: "If you make the realization that you're not going to abandon the city -- that it's imperfect and its characters are horribly flawed -- it makes you dig your heels in."

And what can British Columbians do to help New Orleans, now a smaller city still in shock? "Come visit!" Amanda directs. "We have the best food in the world, and the spring and fall are just lovely." She pauses. "But Mardi Gras is kind of icky."

I caught up with Amanda Boyden at the Vancouver International Writer's Festival, where she shared her thoughts about Babylon Rolling, and the city of New Orleans. Here's what else she had to say...

On choosing New Orleans as home:

"When I sat down to write this novel, I had just been evacuated for Katrina, up to Toronto. I sensed that we would never really have the city back the way it was. In fact, I didn't know if we would have the city back at all. I wanted to capture it as I remembered. We're a city of imperfect people, so all of my characters are terribly flawed, even the supposedly saintly ones. Perhaps that's part of the charm, for those of us who come to New Orleans and choose to live here.

"Many of these characters have chosen New Orleans as home, but most don't have any other options. For example, Fearius is there whether he wants to be or not -- a victim of circumstances. For the long-time residents like the Browns, New Orleans was welcoming to them when they were young and came up from bayou country. They found a freedom there that was much bigger and better than where they came from. There is Philomenia Beauregard de Bruges, who is born into a certain status, and the city is forced on her by her birth. I think she certainly would have taken the opportunity to get out of dodge during Katrina."

On the pervasive sense of doom surrounding Hurricane Ivan... and then Katrina:

"Most people don't realize that Ivan was equally as monstrous, a huge hurricane just B-lining for New Orleans. It was the first storm that Joe and I bothered to evacuate for. The process was so insanely tedious -- I wanted to capture that in the book -- and then of course Ivan veered away at the last minute. Who would do that again for Katrina? You can only cry wolf so many times.

"Katrina was particularly bad because a lot of folks hadn't gotten paid yet, so they couldn't afford to evacuate, even if they wanted to. To get supplies, take time off work, gas up the car... And then where do you stay? Not everybody has family or friends outside the city."

On running like hell from Katrina:

"It happened on my own, in a jeep. I was stuck in gridlock traffic on my way out, and I saw that the oncoming lanes were empty -- I think they had just opened up contraflow. I peeled out and crossed over the grassy median right in front of a camera crew. I just waved and kept going. Other people caught on and followed."

On why Katrina is conspicuously absent from the book:

"I could never compete with the real-life stories of the people who suffered through Katrina, nor would I care to. I wanted to capture the city before it fell. Like, here is what it was, and it will never be like this again. Everybody has seen the horrible footage, heard all those stories. I think it was a fair decision to leave them off the page.

"I had mapped out all the characters before Katrina hit, but didn't start writing until I got to Toronto. I would have written it, Katrina or no Katrina, but the storm definitely changed my treatment of the city in the book enormously, knowing that it may never be there again. It became more of a swan song for the whole city.

"In a strange way, one of the benefits of Katrina was that it forced many of us to get to know our neighbors, just like the events on Orchid Street. These days, people prefer to sit inside with laptops and communicate electronically -- we don't meet our neighbors. Now there is the feeling among neighbors that is something like soldiers, that we came through this together, this horror. I've had so many friends tell me things like, 'I never spoke to the guy across the street before the storm.'"

On packing her book with many, very different protagonists:

"I don't think New Orleans offers up a singular face, which is why we're drawn to it. It's impossible to pick a singular representative of this city.

"It may not seem realistic to have this diversity all in one block, but Joseph [Amanda's husband] and I live on a block like that right now. Actually, the Tokyo Rose [Orchid Street's fictional neighborhood bar] is loosely based on an existing bar right around where I used to live. And Orchid Street actually exists, although not where I put it."

On speaking about race relations to a Vancouver writers' fest crowd:

"I didn't set out to address this topic. But I do acknowledge the sad fact that many people in New Orleans are poor, and a huge proportion of these poor are African-American. They knocked down a lot of housing projects after Katrina, and the rich white folks were not exactly rushing to stop them. I wanted to get this relationship across in the book.

"For example, the character of Fearius is as stuck as anybody ever was. What's he going to do? He can't duck out, he has to keep on with the life his older brother carved out for him. And Philomenia [from a rich white southern family] is as responsible for his plight as any thugs out there. She turns a blind eye to those in need of help. So in the ending, I wanted to flip it. I wanted a high-up white woman to be directly responsible for violence, instead of blaming it on thugs."

On fear born of criminal violence experienced first hand:

"Joseph and I witnessed a murder, a young African-American kid died in Joseph's arms. We watched it happen point blank. At one point the shooter was ready to kill us as well. We opted to call ourselves witnesses, despite the kind woman who took us into her house after the shooting and said, 'No honey, don't you tell anyone anything.' There is such fear there around being a witness.

"There's currently a seven per cent conviction rate -- criminals essentially roam free because no one in their right mind wants to testify. We knew what we were risking as witnesses, and still the shooter was never caught. I remember Joseph looking down at his bloody jeans that day. It was terrible. The kid had been shot in the head in front of us, like, boom [Amanda's eyes narrow and she makes a trigger motion against her skull]. There was a lot of fear. I guess this was the spark for some major scenes in the book."

On punk, power and Fearius:

"To instill fear is power. I have a punk rock background, and I remember being absolutely addicted to the feeling of walking down the street in huge combat boots and seeing the looks on old ladies' faces as I passed. Punk may not inspire that kind of fear anymore, but it's a similar feeling. Fearius puts on a coat of bravado, which is his attempt at dealing with his own fear. He's still a kid, 15 years old, and you know from the start that things will go wrong for him. It's very much about power."

On what's next:

"At the moment, Joseph and I are co-writing the screenplay for his novel Three Day Road. We've been working with Edward James Olmos from Battlestar Galactica.

"The response to the book in New Orleans has been overwhelmingly positive. It'll always be home to me, even if I don't live there forever. I don't know if it's a city to retire to -- Joseph and I have actually been thinking about moving to Vancouver someday."