"Do we know ourselves better than other people?"
An interview with Elise Blackwell, author of The Lower Quarter
Elise was kind enough to answer some of my questions about The Lower Quarter — about New Orleans, building suspense, multiple points of view, and more. Her answers are below, which we exchanged via email.
Can you tell us a bit about your research process for this novel?
I didn’t yet realize that I was researching this novel, but its central idea and images were born while I was on tour for my second novel, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, which is set against the Great Flood of 1927 and was drafted before but published after Hurricane Katrina. That tour started in Biloxi and Ocean Springs, followed by New Orleans. And after those few days I knew that I would write a novel set in immediate post-Katrina New Orleans, that one of the characters would be an artist from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and that there would be a murder in the Hotel Richelieu in the Lower Quarter—in the room I was given. While working on different novel, one about classical musicians, I started to research art conservation and to observe the post-Katrina timeline, including through several more trips. I already knew New Orleans well (I’m from southern Louisiana), but I didn’t know all the human microclimates in what is in many ways a city of neighborhoods. I also conducted some book and internet research on the occupations and preoccupations of the four main characters.
The stories in the novel are tightly coupled with the setting; the city of New Orleans feels almost like another main character. While crafting the novel, did you always have the city in a prominent role? How did the setting influence the plot (or the characters) and vice versa?
New Orleans is my favorite U.S. city as well as the place where I exhale and feel at home in the world the moment I step out of Louis Armstrong Airport and into the humidity. The Lower Quarter is a novel is very much about the city’s particular response to a complex tragedy—the specific ways that the city is and isn’t resilient, the ways it changed in the years following the storm. Those real events shape the plot in some obvious ways, including police failure to give high priority to a murder investigation. Marion’s choice to live in the Bywater represents a historical moment in the city, the beginning of a migration of young, creative people to one of the few neighborhoods that didn’t flood and the resulting gentrification of that neighborhood. The city also influences the characters, albeit in different ways. Clay’s peculiar degeneracy has a strong New Orleans flavor to me, while Johanna represents a much brighter manifestation of the city’s power to shape a life. New Orleans is the place that allowed her to start over when she needed to, to define her own life. Marion is a more recent arrival and Eli is a visitor, so they offer two versions of the city’s effect on newcomers, which is often unusually strong relative to other U.S. cities.
The novel is told linearly through four points of view. However, because these characters interact with each other in the story, there are scenes that have a limited view of a main character (because it’s told through the lens of another main character). How difficult was it to capture these characters in both capacities?
The point-of-view structure drove me batty during some of the drafting. I had a full sense of each person’s story and wanted to include all of their perspectives, even at the risk of jostling readers to jump from consciousness to consciousness. There were many moments of struggle in deciding which perspective to use for certain scenes involving more than one of the four—including a couple of sex scenes. At other times, though, the choice came naturally. I also wanted to explore the ways that the people are sometimes wrong not only about each other but about themselves. Do we know ourselves better than other people, or do we have more confining blinders when we look into our own hearts and minds?
The Lower Quarter is, in many ways, Joanna’s story — she seems to be the common link between most of the characters. How did the other three voices help you in telling her story? How did it affect (negatively or positively) the suspense surrounding the various mysteries at the heart of the novel?
Johanna is an incredibly private person who lives in her work both mentally and physically. She also has a magnetic beauty that she is not fully aware of, so it felt essential to show her effect on others, to watch other characters try to read and influence her. One thing I did worry about was withholding information from the reader, which of course is the nature of suspense (ask Patricia Highsmith) yet something I believe has to be done according to certain rules and traditions that grow out of respect for the reader. So often the real revelations—even in straight mysteries—are more about the why than the what or the how, and the why is often something a character (like a living person) doesn’t understand herself.
Describe your writing process in three words.
Thinking through words.
If you could meet one of the characters from your novel, who would it be and why?
Oh, that’s a hard question! I want to say Clay because he’s the most mysterious, but he terrifies me. I feel like I’ve met Marion, or young women a lot like her. So I’m going to go with Johanna or Eli… Johanna, because she is the most complex and probably the smartest of the four. I’m also fascinated by the work she does and what it means to her.
Writers can be superstitious about their process — do you have any superstitions around your writing?
I do have a few rituals. Kinds of music I will listen to and kinds I won’t. I write on lined paper with a mechanical pencil, with coffee, to start the day, and compose on the computer most of the rest of the time. But these aren’t superstitions, and if they are disrupted because I’m traveling I can usually still work. So the answer is no, though I would never let anyone read a first draft of anything I write.
Is there a novel or author you love that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves?
David Bajo’s Panopticon is the first one to come to mind, but I’m probably not allowed to say that because we share an actual house as well as a publishing house. Lydia Millet also comes to mind. I continue to think that Michael Ondaatje, Teju Cole, and Howard Norman are underrated. As far a single underrated novel, everyone mentions John William’s Stoner, but I’m a bigger fan of Butcher’s Crossing. I worry that The Moviegoer—a great New Orleans novel—will get lost in time and that too many people think of “Why I Live at the P.O.” when they think of Eudora Welty instead of her much lusher and more complex work.