In Last Call on Decatur Street (Park Row, Aug.), a New Orleans burlesque dancer longs for her estranged best friend on the Mardi Gras holiday Twelfth Night.
Your book is driven by succinct but cutting sentences. What informs your style?
James Baldwin said that your highest goal as a writer should be to write a sentence as clean as a bone. I tend to want to go lush and keep adding things. My whole life has been a lesson in paring down that impulse as much as possible.
Your protagonist Rosemary, who is white, has some blind spots regarding race. How did you manage to convey this?
I love the feeling of things unsaid. When you write about blind spots, you have to leave a lot of these gaps but make them clear enough. That kind of sparseness allows room for interpretation so readers can see all the things the narrator isn’t aware of. When you’re writing about race, people want clarity. They want to look at it and say, “Oh, this person is bad. This person is racist. This person is good.” When the reader can occupy this ambiguous middle ground, where they’re sympathizing with Rosemary but also seeing how she fails to acknowledge things, I think that’s the most interesting space.
This book takes place on Twelfth Night. Could you talk about the holiday’s significance?
It’s the feast of the epiphany, a good time to go on a journey of learning. It’s also the start of Mardi Gras season. Mardi Gras exemplifies a lot of the issues in this book, in showing the town’s tendency to sublimate its problems through a joyful experience. It acts like a pressure valve. You’re part of this great civic moment and connection, whereas in reality the town is riven with racial divides. Also, very few tourists know about Twelfth Night. It’s like Mardi Gras for locals.
You’re from New Orleans. What were you trying to capture about your hometown?
I grew up in this distinct subculture from 20 years ago that was very burlesque and vintage. Everyone was trying to act like they were in a Tom Waits song. It was a defining moment in New Orleans that hasn’t been described, but it makes for such a good story. It was very vivid and tactile and seductive. I wanted to write a fun, glamorous, seedy, almost noir story, and use burlesque as a vessel to look at some deeper questions. How is Rosemary informed by the world she grew up in? Does she reckon with it, move past it, or just become aware of it? Having your eyes open is sometimes the best thing you can do.