Interview with Paula Morris

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By: jessicamarder, Assistant Editor

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Book Divas inteviews Paula Morris in this interview. Paula is an amazing women - read below!

After living all over the world, how did you end up living in New Orleans? How long have you been there? What about the city inspired you to write this particular novel?

I moved to New Orleans five years ago, just in time to evacuate for Hurricane Ivan—and a year before the big Katrina evacuation. Good timing! My husband and I had been living in New York City, Wellington (in my native New Zealand), and then Iowa City, where I was in graduate school. New Orleans was a very different place from all of the above: in many ways, it’s not really an American city. It seduced us with its beauty, I guess. And I’d been very interested in the unique culture and history of New Orleans for years, since I was a student in England writing my doctoral thesis. My first adult novel, Queen of Beauty, was partly set in New Orleans, and it’s a place to which I keep returning—in my life, and in my fiction.

With Ruined, I was interested in exploring another facet of the city’s rich past and storytelling persona: its ghosts. New Orleans is a city that’s defined and therefore haunted by its past. Also, I love carnival season, and wanted to write about a Mardi Gras parade. There are some aspects of the nighttime parades—the masked men on horseback, the torchbearers, the surging of the crowd—that can seem almost sinister. During Mardi Gras a couple of years ago, I started thinking about a mystery story where a parade meant danger, not just celebration.

How did you end up being a writer after ten years in the record industry? Were you writing the whole time you were working, or was this something that developed later?

There was very little time for writing when I was working (first in London, then in New York). I started going to night classes at the West Side Y to get my creative writing muscles back into shape, and soon realized that I had distracted myself, very successfully, from my actual vocation. I get very antsy when I’m too busy to write, or read, or think about my work. So a big change was necessary, to make a different sort of life possible.

This is your first novel for young adults.  How did you end up crossing over into writing for this age group?

I’ve been reading a lot of YA fiction over the past few years, and I’ve been involved in a “back-room” sort of way, helping other people with their novels. It was time to venture out on my own! My second adult novel, Hibiscus Coast, had a mystery plot, of sorts—some people called it a literary thriller. I really wanted to try my hand at a mystery for YA readers. My niece in New Zealand, who was fifteen at the time and an avid reader, read the outline as I worked on it, giving me lots of useful feedback. That’s why the heroine of Ruined is called Rebecca: that’s my niece’s name. And, as a little in-joke, the character of Marilyn the cat is based on my niece’s cat of the same name. Marilyn is the only character in the book, in fact, with a real-life model! I thought my editor at Scholastic might balk at such a ridiculous name for a cat, but luckily she didn’t protest.

Did you bring some the experiences you had as a newcomer to New Orleans to this book? Did you experience any sort of culture shock or find the social rules of New Orleans society difficult to understand when you moved there?

Moving to any new place has its challenges: I’ve lived in eight different cities, and moving gets harder each time. (Not simply because we have too many books.) It’s always difficult to settle in, make new friends, and understand what’s going on in the local newspaper. And then, the longer you spend in a place, the more you become aware of all there is to navigate – beyond the physical city—if you want to understand its psyche. New Orleans is a place where traditions, history, family, and community allegiances are very important. It’s a storytelling city, too, built on myths and secrets. Even though it welcomes millions of tourists every year, it’s not really a place that likes to show its hand.

I’ll always be an outsider here, though I’ve been an outsider in plenty of other places as well. That’s not a bad thing for a writer, as long as you’re curious and observant, willing to listen to people, and to make the imaginative leap.

In an interview with Earth Goat, you are quoted as saying: “New Orleans is almost 300 years old, and has survived numerous floods, fires, and pestilences. It’s a shape-shifter, accustomed to re-forming and re-inventing itself ...”. In Ruined did you try to highlight this resilience by drawing comparisons between New Orleans after the yellow fever epidemic of 1853 and New Orleans post-Katrina?

You’re right: New Orleans has been down-but-not-out on many occasions. It’s a tenacious survivor. I couldn’t stand it, post-Katrina, when some people suggested it was a lost cause. True, it still needs plenty of fixing. Perhaps Ruined will lure some readers into action.

You are very involved in the writing community in New Orleans. Can you talk about that scene a bit and some of the writers you find to be particularly notable?
There’s a very lively writing scene here—from open-mike poetry readings and spoken word gigs, to large annual gatherings like the Words & Music and Tennessee Williams Festivals, to the monthly 1718 reading series—an initiative of Loyola, Tulane, and UNO students—to the big literary events we host here on the Tulane campus, featuring visitors like Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Billy Collins, Joan Didion, and Junot Diaz.

There are so many local writers to recommend, like nonfiction writers Ken Foster and Tom Sancton, novelist Chris Wiltz, playwright John Biguenet. One of my colleagues here at Tulane, Rich Campanella, writes amazing physical and social geographies of New Orleans. And, of course, I must include a shout-out to my two talented creative writing colleagues here, the poet Peter Cooley and nonfiction writer Tom Beller.

Many of your books deal with history and family. Do you do a lot of research for your work, do you pull from your life experiences, or do you do some combination of both? Also, do you have any notable family legends or mysteries of your own?

Fiction is invention-meets-experience, I think, and fiction writers are often not very picky about where that experience comes from. We’ll happily borrow—or steal—other people’s stories, words, or faces. We will also (conveniently) forget the original source. Often something – an overheard line, an image, a detail from somewhere you’ve visited—will lurk in a dark corner of your mind for years before seeping into a book or a story.

I enjoy research, maybe a little too much. At the moment I’m working on a novel set in 1863, and I’ve been researching it for three years.  At some point the madness must stop.

I’ve dredged quite a lot from my life, but the part of writing I enjoy most is making things up. I was a devoted doll-player in my childhood, and I loved escaping into that imagined world where anything was possible. When I’m writing now, I feel the same way.

As an English and Creative Writing professor at Tulane, do you have any advice for our aspiring authors?
Start, and keep going. Try, fail, and try again. Read a lot, and revise your work. And remember the advice of the excellent novelist Elizabeth McCracken: good is the enemy of best. Push yourself.

What’s next after Ruined? What are you working on now?
As well as the adult novel I mentioned above, which is called Rangatira and inspired by the life of one of my ancestors, a Maori chief named Paratene Te Manu. I’m also planning another YA novel. I’d like to write a “haunted city” series, of sorts, exploring different places around the world. And I’m always writing short stories—my first collection, Forbidden Cities, was published last year.

Finally, do you believe in ghosts?  Ever seen spot any in the Crescent City?
I’ve never seen a ghost, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Maybe a ghost has seen me…

Thank you for this interview!