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.]