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.
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.