The Big Idea: Suzanne Johnson

Fantasy novels can and do take place in the real world — and when they do, there’s a special responsibility the writer has to reality just as much as to the fantasy she places within it. So former New Orleans resident Suzanne Johnson learned when it came time to write Royal Street, which takes place in the Crescent City, a setting Johnson had reasons for wanting to get right. She’s here to explain the process of keeping it real, for the sake of her fantasy.

SUZANNE JOHNSON:

The big idea behind Royal Street, an urban fantasy set in New Orleans during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina, came about—to use a bad pun—as a “perfect storm” of things happened in my life in late 2008.

It is a deceptively simple “what-if” that turned out to be complex in the writing, both structurally and emotionally: What if, when Hurricane Katrina’s winds and storm surge destroyed New Orleans’ fragile levees, it also destroyed the “metaphysical levees” between modern New Orleans and the world Beyond? How could the fantasy genre be used to explore the aftermath of August 29, 2005, and the way New Orleanians learned to come back from the catastrophic flooding that covered eighty percent of the city?

When Hurricane Katrina blew ashore on that August morning, I had been living in New Orleans more than a decade. The next few years of rebuilding eventually blurred into a confusion of heartbreak, anger, cynicism, fear, despair, frustration, elation, and love. A day without tears was a rarity.

So what happened in 2008, when I began writing Royal Street? First, I’d moved away from New Orleans for family reasons. I was horribly homesick. I also had “Katrina withdrawal,” realizing with naïve surprise that people in other parts of the country had moved on. My every day for the previous several years had been preoccupied with nothing but the aftermath of the flood, and suddenly I went days, weeks, months without hearing the word “Katrina.” I was still wrangling with mild post-traumatic stress (which I knew because my employer in New Orleans had us tested periodically). And, finally, I read a fantasy book that tried to take on Katrina, at least in a tangential way, and got it very, very wrong.

I wanted to get it right. And after spending every day of the previous three years writing about Katrina for my day job, I thought I could get it right.

“Getting it right” meant plundering my own memories—some funny, some very painful; reading every issue of the New Orleans Times-Picayune during the days leading up to and the months following the storm; and talking to friends who’d been trapped in the city during the flooding and knew what conditions were like before I came back from the mandatory evacuation.

Where should my characters live? What would the damage to their homes be like? Would they stay in town or evacuate? How could they get back into town with a mandatory evacuation in effect? When did certain neighborhoods drain of floodwater—what could only be reached by boat? What neighborhoods got electricity back first, and when? When was the water deemed potable? How could my characters get food when stores and restaurants were closed?

Even though I was writing urban fantasy, I wanted my characters grounded in life as it was for most people in New Orleans immediately after Katrina, so my worldbuilding—which involves magic and wizardry—needed to severely limit the degree to which my characters could circumvent the real post-flood conditions. I wanted no easy Harry Potter-esque wand-waving to conjure up magical food and water. My characters needed to live as their (unaware) human counterparts had to live—without electricity, reliable water, working traffic signals, or cleared roadways. They needed to find boats to take them into flooded areas, and they needed to get past National Guard security checkpoints to travel around town. Hurricane Rita blew through the city and shut everything down again three weeks after Katrina, reflooding parts of the city, so my plot had to be timed to grind to a halt while yet another hurricane raged.

Most of all, my main character was a New Orleanian at heart. She needed to not only be dealing with the urban fantasy element of missing mentors and voodoo gods and rampaging undead pirates. She needed to feel the gut-wrenching emotion of coming back into a city she loved and seeing it virtually destroyed, because I knew myself that no amount of media coverage could prepare one for seeing it firsthand. She needed to reflect the heart and whacked-out sense of humor and unabashed love of New Orleans that all of us who lived there experienced during that time.

Finally, I faced the challenge of striking the right tone between telling a good story and being respectful of the real-life tragedy going on in the background. More than a thousand people in the Greater New Orleans area died during Katrina and the post-Katrina flooding—many bodies were never identified, and several hundred people were never found. More than a million people were displaced in the metro area alone; it’s estimated that upwards of three-hundred thousand homes were damaged or destroyed in the metro area. The Katrina flooding exposed difficult issues of politics, poverty, class, and race that had to be acknowledged but not exploited.

I knew from the outset there would be readers for whom this setting will be uncomfortable, that it might provoke some controversy. I had a lot of folks in NOLA read the book as it progressed, and talk to me about whether it hit the right notes. I wanted my love for the “hometown of my heart” to show through. I wanted to do it with respect.

I think I got it right. I hope I got it right. Only time will tell.

—-

Royal Street: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read a sample. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

18 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Suzanne Johnson

  1. Have read Royal Street. Found a new respect for those that were part of that.
    Loved the Urban Fantasy of D.J.. Think you got it right! Waiting for November and River Road.

  2. This book sounds good. I just bought it through Kobo for my Vox. I’ll be reading it as soon as I finish Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. ;)

  3. I looked for this as an eBook and it’s not coming up as available in the UK, although it does seem to be in several other European countries. :(

  4. @MadLogician…It’s coming to the UK very soon! I’ve been working with the folks who’ll be publishing the UK editions and they’re going to stick as close to the US schedule as possible.

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! Hope you enjoy the read and think the Katrina elements work.

  5. I am SO happy to see this. I lived in NOLA for two years while I attended Tulane University and finished my bachelor’s degree. I began in 2008 and graduated in 2010. Not a single day went by that Katrina wasn’t mentioned, and the university’s public service requirement often had students doing things related to the recovery effort–even 3-5 years after the events of the storm. I completely fell in love with the city while I was at my university, and I miss it terribly now that I’ve moved away for graduate school. I will definitely be reading this … just as soon as finals are over for this semester!!

  6. I admit to being immediately skeptical of any book set in post-Katrina New Orleans with a white lady on the cover. Especially when the author refers to “voodoo gods.” :-/ I would like to know more about how the author is “acknowledg[ing] but not exploit[ing]” issues of race and class, but ALSO not disappearing them behind Yet Another White Person’s Narrative.

  7. @Elusis…Royal Street was never intended as a scholarly work examining the issues of race, poverty, politics, and social injustice that arose from the Katrina aftermath. It’s a novel. A fantasy novel. Many of those books have already been written by a number of scholars, and there will be undoubtedly more to come. (You might try Doug Brinkley’s powerful The Great Deluge, for one.)

    However, for me–a white woman–to have written an African-American narrative would have lacked all credibility, because that was not my experience. More than half the citizens of the quad-parish metro NOLA area at the time of Katrina were white, and I assure you our losses were real and they were devastating. Is this “Yet Another White Person’s Narrative?” Yeah, maybe. But Katrina did not discriminate; it has taken people to do that.

  8. @ KM…I was working at Tulane–we probably overlapped a bit before I left NOLA in 2008. One of the things I helped communicate was the university’s then-new focus on community service and rebuilding. I think that time helped all of us bond with the city.

  9. Out of idle curiosity, do you know if artists who do photo-realistic jackets such as this one take a photo a shop it, draw while using a photo as a reference, or just draw without an actual photo of a person?

    I like the concept, BTW. During the evacuation, there were a number of displaced Orleanians who shared Texan homes until they could be repatriated. Huston and Dallas absorbed the brunt of the Texas-bound evacuees, but some made it to Austin. I’ve rarely encountered so many people who have such devotion to their hometown. Orleanians are a lot like Austinites in that regard. And yeah, I met black and white folks who lost their homes – nature’s an equal opportunity juggernaut – but I have no doubt a city with such spirited citizens won’t go down easily (I promise that is not a super-tasteless pun).

  10. @Gulliver. I’m not sure about the covers–artist Cliff Nielsen did the cover for this book and the sequel that comes out in November. I assume he starts with a photograph and works in Adobe Illustrator or another program like that, but I could be totally wrong. Probably varies artist to artist.

    New Orleanians became big fans of Texas in the Katrina aftermath, and I know a lot of folks stayed, especially in Houston. Tulane U ran out of a hotel suite in Houston for over a month. Then Houston evacuated for Rita. It was a mess!

  11. Sounds quite interesting, I think I’ll have to pick it up.

    Also please pass my compliments on to Cliff Nielsen for the cover art. It is one of the first urban-fantasy covers I’ve seen with the heroine wearing reasonable clothes and without a impossibly contortionist pose to show both T&A – and she still looks awesome and sexy.

  12. Gulliver—as an artist whose day job uses Photoshop, I find that I will sometimes take a photo, tweak it until I’ve got it right (which sometimes means messing with tilts, swapping body parts, etc.) and then use that as my template. But not everybody works the same way. An artist who is very comfortable with photography may do more pre-Photoshop while one who is more comfortable with painting may just have someone in the general pose and work from a clean background. Heck, I’ve even seen someone paint a complete picture that could be mistaken for an unretouched photo, pores, stray hairs, and all, just to show that it can be done. It’s a very individual thing.

    P.S. When I say “artist” I mean “mostly for me.” It’s not a living but it is who I am.

  13. @ B. Durbin

    When I say “artist” I mean “mostly for me.” It’s not a living but it is who I am.

    Hey, I’ve written a couple million words of prose purely for my own enjoyment, so I understand completely. Thanks for the insight. I hope someday to learn proficiency in graphic arts so I can draw illustrations for some of my stories to go with the electronic music I’ve created. Unfortunately, visual arts are not my forte.

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