Should science fiction and fantasy explore real events? Should speculative fiction address tragedies recent enough to still be part of the world’s collective consciousness? Should certain subjects be sacrosanct or relegated only to “serious” (i.e., literary) fiction or to historians?
When I set out to write Royal Street, the first book in my Sentinels of New Orleans series (and my first novel period), I hadn’t given those questions much thought. I just wanted to write a story set in New Orleans immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina’s winds blew in from the north and essentially dumped Lake Pontchartrain into the streets of the Big Easy. I wasn’t trying to explore the strength of the human heart to endure and survive—that came later, as the story developed. In the beginning, I just wanted to tell an emotionally truthful story about a subject I knew. I wanted to write a love letter to the hometown I’d come close to losing. And I wanted to write it in a genre I love, which is urban fantasy.
In retrospect, it was probably a ballsier decision than I realized or should take credit for. But I’d lived through Hurricane Katrina as a New Orleanian. I’d studied it, had written about it every day as part of the ongoing Tulane University rebuilding efforts. I’d lived, loved, and earned my livelihood in New Orleans for more than a decade before the levees broke. Afterward, I ran a daily post-Katrina blog railing at insurance companies and relief efforts and wicked irony and politicians. I loved New Orleans, and I wanted to put that love into words, wrapped inside a story about magic and voodoo and pirates and jazz that couldn’t have taken place anywhere else on earth.
Some people were uncomfortable with my using Katrina as a setting for a fantasy, and I understand their discomfort (although, ironically, none of them were New Orleanians). Hurricane Katrina was painful. The flooding that almost destroyed the city of New Orleans following the levee failures was catastrophic. More than that, it was tragic and, at times, arguably even criminal. It exposed political, racial, cultural and moral weaknesses both endemic to New Orleans and to our nation as a whole. More than a thousand people died in the greater New Orleans area alone; because of the large number of people missing and never found, the actual death toll will never be known. Hundreds of thousands of people had homes destroyed or damaged (including my own, although compared with many friends and coworkers I was blessed).
It’s a strange thing for me to talk about now, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot as this series of novels progresses far beyond that first book’s origins. What was easily the worst experience of my life yielded a new career I could never have anticipated. I can’t be glad Katrina happened, not ever. But I also can’t help but be grateful for some of the things it pushed me to do.
I would argue that paranormal fiction is in a unique position to examine the cultural or emotional aspects of a historical event from a completely different point of view than that taken by a historian or writer of literary fiction. I would argue, in fact, that such examinations are something at which paranormals are particularly suited. By stepping outside the realm of history and science and fact, paranormal fiction can look at painful subjects or ask difficult questions from a distance, while still telling a good story with heart and, yes, even with humor.
Is using an event like Katrina as an inciting event for a paranormal novel exploitative? It has the potential to be, but it doesn’t have to be.
An author of any genre using a sensitive historical event as a setting (and I’d argue in the case of Royal Street that the city of New Orleans is more a character than a background) has to really know her subject and approach it with respect and sensitivity, whether it’s 9/11 or Katrina or a WW2 prison camp.
After that, it will be up to the reader to decide if the author has done a good job in the storytelling. If it has made people think, remember, get lost in an alternative version of a world they know, or even pick up on those themes of how a person reacts when the world she’s constructed her life around disappears—then a book has done its job, regardless of genre. As for Royal Street, some of its biggest fans have come from New Orleans, which I find gratifying. It might be fantasy but, as more than one New Orleanian told me, the book captured the truth of what happened to most of us in August of 2005.
Should topics be off-limits, even if handled with diplomacy? Sound off to win a signed copy of ROYAL STREET or the second book in the series, RIVER ROAD. Currently (through August 9), Royal Street is on sale for all ebook formats, from all vendors, for $2.99. Book three, ELYSIAN FIELDS, will be released on August 13. The winner will be announced here on Thursday, August 1.
[Photos from my personal collection. Top, taken on Bellaire Drive in Lakeview, near my first home in New Orleans; second photo is of my house after the debris was pulled from the yard and street, September 2005, two weeks after the flooding subsided, October 1, 2005.]
Should topics be off-limits, even if handled with diplomacy? No, and you handled the New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina story with great respect. One example, true crime stories really are horrifying, one of the reasons I don’t buy true crime. I always tell people that they are much worse than any fiction I read. But for those that are fans of that genre the right to read them is theirs.
Thank you, Roger! Yes, you’re right about true crime being worse than fiction!
I agree with Roger. No topic should be off limits. I think using New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as your setting allowed people who had never lived through a hurricane to gain some insight into the difficulties of dealing with the aftermath. Some times, a person can learn more from a fictional character than all the live reports on CNN. There is no exploitation of the event in your stories. I’m eagerly awaiting Elysian Fields!
Thanks, Liz! Living it was so different than what was shown on TV (I remember being shocked by the sheer size of the devastation and how far it spread).
I don’t think topics should be left off quite the contrary sometimes a topic because it’s used in fantasy or paranormal manage to point the attention to something real than we didn’t think of before. Yes it must bne approached with respect and knowlegde but that ‘s all
and after reading Royal Street i was really moved by teh description and it helped me to understand the situation better ( the little quote from newspapers were helpful too)
I do think respect is the key. I didn’t get into what happened at the Superdome and the Convention Center (or what didn’t happen) because that was not my Katrina story and I couldn’t have told that story with any authenticity. DJ’s story was (well, minus the pirate and the magic) basically my story.
Ditto! No topic should be off limits. Then… it’s up to the reader to decide if they enjoy reading the book in that setting. I’m reading your Royal Street right now and I’m enjoying the setting… very much. I’ve never been to New Orleans but have always wanted to go. So… now I’m going there in the pages of your book.
Thank you! I’m glad you’re enjoying Royal Street! As an author, I know that the next book in the series, River Road, is better–it has better pacing because I wasn’t tied to hurricane recovery, for one thing. But Royal Street will always be the book of my heart 🙂
I find it troubling when events born of human cruelty are ascribed to demonic influence. If, e.g., I were to write a story about the great arch-demons Hitler and Stalin and how their age-old conflict erupted into the human world, would that be acceptable to people?
Ah, now that’s a different matter, Frank, and I agree with you. I respect an author’s right to do something like that, but it’s not likely to be something I would read. That is one of those examples that I think would not fly with readers. You cannot treat such a painful subject so lightly. For example, I would never have written about Hurricane Katrina as the capricious punishment of an angry fictional Queen of the Weather Fairies or something like that because it disrespects the tragedy and pain caused. So…believe me, in my books, Hurricane Katrina was a hurricane!
Only certain subjects appropriate for “Literature” BS
the joy of paranormal is you can say things you could not say with “straight” fiction.
As to Katrina and New Orleans, your book sounds great and I will order it as soon as I finish this comment.
We visited New Orleans three years ago and on one of the tours were shown the lower 9th. The devastation was – well – like out of a fantasy novel. Now in Calgary we have our own flooding story, sad to say.
After we came home we bought the series “Treme” great acting great story amazing music.
All you wanted to do was write a love letter. What could be better than that?
Thank you, Sue! I agree–paranormal gives us the freedom to explore subjects in a way “straight” fiction wouldn’t tolerate. I think it’s one reason I love paranormal fiction so much!
I definitely don’t think any topic should be off-limits, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to seek out stories that I KNOW I would have a problem with and read them. I support the author’s right to write about whatever they want, just as I have the right to pass problematic writings right on by.
That’s how I feel about it as well, Galena. I’ll forever support the right of an author to write whatever he or she wants, as in the Hitler example above. And if I decide to read it and it bothers me, well, that was my choice.
Hey, I lived through Katrina, and while we didn’t suffer the devastation of some of the other places, it was bad enough. I think that you handled the tragedy very well in your books and I think that it is great that as an author you have the ability to acknowledge what people have went through. to let others know that a tragedy happened and by giving everyone including those that suffered in that tragedy a lot of entertainment. I love the Sentinel Books and I am looking forward to reading more. evamillien at gmail dot com
Thanks, Eva! That’s appreciated. I think the Katrina story was reported as if the flooding only happened in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and it didn’t–80 percent of the city was underwater, some areas for up to two months. So there was a whole side of the story that was never reported, and then the world moved on while we were left with the mess for years. I think that’s one thing I was trying to show.
No, of course topics shouldn’t be censured. That’s one point of writing, exploring an aspect of society. Why penalize fantasy, marginalizing the genre, declaring weighty topics out of bounds because the work isn’t “literary” enough? Bah! This is drawing readers attentions to matters, providing another avenue of discussion, another side to the story.
Exactly! In some ways, genre fiction is the ideal way to explore weighty topics because it’s a “safe” way to examine hard subjects. On the surface, the books (especially the first one) are about what a person does when everything she built her identity around–home, job, friends–get suddenly stripped away from her. She has to learn who she is outside of her normal trappings.
I try to be careful with absolutes – always & never – and consider each story on its own merits. In the case of Royal Street, you truly gave me a sense of what it was like to live through Hurricane Katrina, and I’ve recommended the book to people who don’t necessarily read paranormal fiction because of that. You nailed it, and I’m happily anticipating a signed copy of my very own, carried home by a good friend who saw you at RWA.
Thanks, Liv! Yes! I did sign a copy for you at RWA, so your friend did her job 🙂 [And you are right about absolutes. The quickest way for me to have to do something is to pronounce that I will never do it. Life has a way of walloping you on absolutes!]
I really don’t think any topic should be off limits. Stuff happens and horrifying things take place but it’s also something that people talk about and sometimes a book can take an event and give it a twist that makes it a little less horrifying. Does that make sense? It makes sense in my head lol
my head too. We need fiction to explain and deal with reality….
It makes sense to me! I think writing about a horrifying event, especially with a few years of hindsight, helps put things in perspective, and maybe lets us examine them in a different way.
I believe that you should be able to write about whatever suits you. You weren’t attacking anyone or hurting anyone but it. If someone is still having a hard time with Katrina then maybe they shouldnt read this series but you arent setting out with any ill intent. So no, no topics should be claimed as off-limits.
It was really interesting to me that the people who didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to write about–and there were honestly only a very few–were from places outside the coastal hurricane zones of the Gulf and East coasts of the U.S. And some who had doubts but read the book anyway emailed later to say they thought it had been handled well.
that’s the joy of literature.. that no topic is off limits or offensive. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you! (And I know I’ve said it before but your avatar photo makes me smile whenever I see it!)
I completely agree that no topic should be off limits. We should handle any and every topic with respect without trying to demean or judge anything. Thanks for your post!
Totally agree about the respect. I think that’s key!
I think no topic should be off limits as long as you write with respect and heart.
I totally agree!
don’t make the topic to be off limits. When reading royal street I feel you’re awesome to pick hurricane as the idea of your book and let me think about hurricane which I never really know and still question it why hurricane should be happen :(. How many people can lost everything :(.
Thanks, Eli! I feel fortunately to have been able to write about it. I think asking “why” is common, and there are no satisfactory answers. That’s true of just about any tragedy, I think.
I don’t think any topic should be off limits. To me, that’s the whole point of writing a book – to get your point across. I thought you wrote about the before, during and after of Katrina as someone who lived through it, and it helped me to better understand it.
Thanks, Kirsten! I know quite a few readers complained about the slower pace of the book compared to many urban fantasies, but I was determined to keep the story real, even if it meant sacrificing fast pacing.
I think the fact that you were are part of the disaster gives you a bit of freedom. You went through it and wanted to write about your experiences, even though you explore them in a fictional way. It might be a bit touchier if someone who had been uninvolved in the situation had set out to do the same thing.
That’s a good point, Karin. I think it did give me some freedom that I would have if I’d written about something like 9-11 where I wasn’t intimately involved. Thanks for commenting!
Suzanne, I’m late to this party, but thanks for this post. I think you’re spot-on about paranormal fiction being able to examine real-life events from another perspective. I think the paranormal elements can even be used to amplify aspects of real-life problems. I love the way, in Royal Street, you make Katrina have even more impact by blowing open the gates to the supernatural world.
Thanks for sharing your Katrina pictures. I was thinking about my own family’s experience of the storm recently (also in Lakeview), and it helps to see what others went through.
I think you’re correct that, while using a disaster can be exploitative, it doesn’t automatically have to be.
Like A.J., I’m a little late to this discussion, but couldn’t agree more. I love the freedom to explore we have with writing paranormal.
And the pictures you posted are quite moving.