An exclusive Authorlink interview
The Floating World, C. Morgan Babst, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill – In the chaos of Katrina, the Boisdorè family broke up in more ways than one. Daughter Del was away at school in the north. Parents Joe and Tess fled the hurricane, but Joe returned to search for daughter Cora, who had stayed behind. Grandfather Vincent retreated into the past of his memories. Del returns to the city and in fits and starts, the family tries to patch up the pieces of their broken, muddy, moldy world, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. While they each struggle with their own sense of rudderlessness, a central question is what happened to Cora while the hurricane raged and in the days that followed, and how that tied in to the dead woman on the kitchen floor.
AUTHORLINK: Why did you want to write a story set in New Orleans following Katrina?
BABST: The day before Katrina made landfall, I evacuated New Orleans with my family, reaching a friend’s home in Nashville eighteen hours later. There, I watched the city I’d grown up in–a city my family had lived in for over one hundred and fifty years–bend under hurricane force winds and then break, fill with water like a bowl. It is hard to encapsulate what it was like to see my city in ruins and my neighbors abandoned, left to wait for days in the heat of summer without anyone coming to their aid. Everything that I’d thought was supposed to keep us safe–the levees, the government, the police–failed us catastrophically. It was shocking–and I was numb. Watching the disaster unfold through a television screen made it seem distant, unapproachable for many–even, for some time, for me. I think it can be difficult for an individual human mind to comprehend a cataclysm of such magnitude. It can be like trying to drink from a fire hose. And so, I decided to write a novel that told the story of one family–one ruined house, one life lost–in the flood.
AUTHORLINK: How did your experience of Katrina and its aftermath help you understand your characters and what they went through?
Writing fiction helps me process difficult experiences. I . . . take a complex emotional state and break it into . . . parts, giving my sadness to one character, my anger to another.
BABST: Writing fiction helps me process difficult experiences. I will often take a complex emotional state and break it into its component parts, giving my sadness to one character, my anger to another. In this case, this process got a bit out of hand–I wound up with five point-of-view characters and a first draft of over seven hundred pages. In some ways, I am every character–but I tried to position the Boisdorès, an interracial family who live in an old house on Esplanade Avenue, at the center of New Orleans. I wanted them to be able to reach into all corners of New Orleans–geographically, racially, and historically–so that, through their five sets of eyes, my readers might be able to get a glimpse of what the storm did to the city as a whole.
AUTHORLINK: What was your first idea for the story?
BABST: I like to begin writing with a single image and allow that image, through the point of view from which it is seen or the metaphoric connections it spins, to lead me into the narrative. In this case, the first thing I saw was a forest of fallen old growth pines on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain. An old man was walking through them, hollering for his dog, Sheba, who’d gone missing. His name was Vincent Boisdorè, and, as he began to tell me a little something about his life–about the time that had passed as the fallen trees grew around him, about his family, his frustrations–he and I both realized, at the same time, that the dog Sheba had died over 30 years before. Then we both wondered where his memory had gone, and what in hell had happened to knock down all those pines.
AUTHORLINK: How did you write it? Did you plan it out chronologically, knowing how it would all turn out or did later scenes come to you and you had to figure out how the story got there?
BABST: My process is iterative. I follow a thread of inspiration as far as it will take me, writing on the backs of scrap paper, and then I put that draft away for a bit, to get some distance. When I return to it to type it up, I will often be able to see the first hints of plot, character, or thematic structure that I can then build on with more intention and care. About halfway through the writing process, I will back up, take stock, and write up an outline, more to keep myself on track than to lay those tracks–but I try always to leave some room for the characters to lead me.
AUTHORLINK: Since much of the story is revealed in non-chronological order, how did you decide on the arrangement – when each character would be featured, where they would be in the sequence of events, and the like?
The structure of the narrative mirrors the spiraling circulation of a hurricane.
BABST: The structure of the narrative mirrors the spiraling circulation of a hurricane. While Joe, Tess, Del, and Vincent move (mostly) forward in time, Cora’s narrative moves in a spiral through the narrative–after a nocturnal visitation to the house where Reyna lies dead, she falls back in time to the day before the hurricane makes landfall, before spinning out again towards the future. While the rest of her family, though beset by regret and grief, must move steadily forward, Cora’s consciousness is affected by the centripetal force of trauma–the way we are drawn into the past again and again to revisit the site of our unsettling.
AUTHORLINK: How do you see an interracial, inter-class, family as an important aspect of your story?
The real story of Katrina was a story about race and money . . .
BABST: As disasters often do, Hurricane Katrina exposed deep fractures in our community. Like the flaws in our levee system, structural inequalities wrought by racism and brute capitalism caused a natural disaster to become an anthropogenic catastrophe. While the hurricane broke windows and tore off roofs, the levee failures flooded the city, and poverty and insufficient preparation by all levels of government stranded many people in that flood. The real story of Katrina was a story about race and money; to tell a story about it, I needed characters whose lives and trajectories might reflect the truth of the matter, and so I created the Boisdorès. Descended from slaves who were brought to New Orleans by Bienville to build and maintain the colony, the Boisdorès, in some ways, are New Orleans. Their ancestors built some of the oldest buildings in the city and some of its finest furniture–all things lost or imperiled by the flooding. In this generation, Joe Boisdorè has married Tess Eshleman, a white uptown psychiatrist, descended from American Protestants who moved into New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase. Though they have spent their marriage pretending to ignore their differences, when they leave their daughter, Cora, at home to weather the storm on her own, the effects of their race and class become glaringly apparent.
AUTHORLINK: How long did you work on this book and how did you feel when it was not only published, but also received high accolades?
BABST: This book took me eight years to write, as I struggled with the emotional fallout from the disaster and then with the challenge of turning a 700-page draft into a novel that somebody might want to read. I invested enormous amounts of time, energy, and care in the novel, trying to be sure that it was something that not only spoke to my personal experience of Katrina but respected the experience of the million New Orleanians who suffered in the aftermath of the hurricane. It has been enormously gratifying to find that there are readers out there who have received what I’d hoped to give them–an intimate, complex, and human account of my city’s near ruin.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
BABST: I’m going to try to write something short and intense and… maybe… fun!
About the author: C. Morgan Babst studied writing at NOCCA, Yale and NYU. Her essays and short stories have been published by Oxford American, Guernica, The Harvard Review and others. After 11 years in New York, she returned to live in New Orleans with her husband and child. The Floating World is her first novel.
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