The story behind my urban fantasy debut, Royal Street, began on a blistering Sunday afternoon, August 28, 2005. I’d stopped at a highway rest area in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to walk my dogs after seven hours of driving, with seven more to go.
We were New Orleans, my friend and my dogs and I, on the run from Hurricane Katrina, which was due to make landfall in less than twelve hours.
At that rest area, we joined other storm refugees around a black sedan with its radio turned loud to catch the news from the National Hurricane Center. Katrina had just been declared a category five storm, the largest ever on record. New Orleans could expect massive structural failure, we were told. There would be significant loss of life. Our hometown would be uninhabitable for weeks, possibly months.
I was petrified. I didn’t know where most of my friends and coworkers had gone. I didn’t know how many had decided to stay in the city. I didn’t know when I’d be able to go home, or if I’d have a home to go back to, or a job. I only knew my life was about to change.
What I could never have imagined was that my blackest moments in the weeks and months to come would lead me, three years later, to begin writing my first novel. I couldn’t have imagined that the way I’d finally exorcise my Katrina ghosts was by writing what would become Royal Street.
On the surface, Royal Street is an urban fantasy about magic and mayhem, voodoo gods and pirates, the historical undead (famous humans given immortality by the magic of human memory) and paranormal intrigue. It asks: what if, in addition to the physical levee failures after the storm, there also were metaphysical levee failures between our world and the world beyond? What creatures might flood into New Orleans across the newly fallen borders?
The book is set in immediate post-Katrina New Orleans, but it isn’t maudlin. Instead, it features a lot of the gallows humor for which New Orleans is known. This is the city, after all, whose people (myself included) dealt with more than 650,000 ruined refrigerators after the flood by hauling them onto the curbs and painting snarky political commentary on the sides. We had no trash pickup, so why not tell the president, governor, and mayor exactly what we thought of their disaster response?
But Royal Street is also the story of a young woman, DJ, learning to find her way in a post-Katrina landscape for which her life has not prepared her. It’s about who she leans on, and what she learns about herself, when everything she knows is suddenly stripped away.
Did I use my own experiences to color DJ’s? Absolutely; I was determined that the book remain true to the aftermath of the storm. I left New Orleans on August 28 and wasn’t allowed back into the city until October 15. During that time, I didn’t know if my home survived (it was damaged but repairable). I had some friends trapped by floodwaters and others who succumbed to the stress of rebuilding. Some moved away. Some died. Like DJ, I returned to a city and a life for which nothing had prepared me.
But the people of New Orleans and South Louisiana are a tough lot, whether shrimpers or chefs, writers or wizards. They laugh at what they can, they cry at what they must, and then they keep going.
Royal Street is funny and sad. It’s a fantasy world, but it also shows the reality of what post-Katrina life was like for many of us.
In the end, Royal Street is a love letter to my hometown, filled with the music and magic and history of a beautiful city that refused to die.
ROYAL STREET is published in paperback on 27/9/2012
RIVER ROAD, the next book in the series, will be available from 22/11/2012