May 2014

Tom Andes


An Interview with Moira Crone

Every year on June First, hurricane season begins in the Atlantic Ocean, and millions of people along the Gulf Coast and in South Louisiana hold their collective breath as they face the very real possibility their way of life, if not their lives, might be extinguished. I live in New Orleans and still, nine years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, many communities are recovering, and large parts of the city look like a wasteland. Many of the poorest, most vulnerable people in the city -- many of them African-American -- have been unable to return because they lack the resources to rebuild their homes. For all the plethora of Katrina literature that has emerged since the storm, precious little imaginative writing has managed to deal with the scope of the tragedy, much less the systemic inequities and the economic injustice the storm laid bare. How much more remarkable Moira Crone's achievement in the dystopian science fiction novel The Not Yet seems, then, considering Crone began writing the novel, which is set in a futuristic, half-submerged New Orleans, and which posits a United States rent by caste distinctions, years before Katrina.

I'm a New Orleans resident, and so I obviously find myself sympathetic to Crone's concerns. Moreover, as a reader whose taste has never been satisfied by the merely literary, I'm struck by her decision to write science fiction after building a career as a literary writer. Since 1900, a piece of land roughly the size of Delaware has disappeared from South Louisiana, destroying entire communities and making New Orleans more vulnerable to hurricanes -- a process that has only been hastened by the predations of the oil and gas industries. While the rest of the country has manifested an interest in post-Katrina New Orleans that sometimes seems genuine, sometimes paternalistic, people along the Gulf Coast contend with the reality of living in an environment that is literally and figuratively fluid, and one that is quite possibly doomed. Perhaps only science fiction can contend with that experience. Yet for all its regional particularity, Crone's novel also speaks to a United States increasingly concerned with deepening class divisions, as well as with the catastrophic potential global climate change and sea level rise have for communities far beyond the Gulf Coast region.

In person, Crone proves loquacious, entirely forthcoming about the process that led to her switching genres and writing this book. Over the course of several conversations, we discussed the book's politics, as well as the ways it seems to have been predictive of the political situation not just in Louisiana, but in the United States. Living in an environment not unlike the one the novel depicts, I feel compelled by the protagonist Malcolm's dilemma. Having grown up elsewhere, though, I understand how outsiders view Louisiana: as exotic but fundamentally backward, and also, perhaps, expendable. My conversation with Crone touched especially on Louisiana's relationship with the rest of the United States, as well as the extent to which Malcolm's situation and the problems Katrina made apparent – and with which Crone's novel reckons -- affect not just the Gulf Coast, but the rest of the world.

Your new novel is a work of science fiction, and it had its own remarkable genesis. I was wondering if you could talk about how The Not Yet came to be and what caused you to switch genres.

I had a dream in the late 1990s. A couple was sitting at a table at Le Bon Temps Roulé, a bar on Magazine Street in New Orleans. A young man was talking to a woman, and a voice came to me and said, "She's 200 years old." I thought, What is this world? I wrote into it. I didn't know where it was going. The thing I liked about it was that the world you're writing about becomes a character, and it increases the interest in the story because the reader's not only finding out about what's happening, but she's also finding out about a newly conceived set of relationships and historical conditions. Writing speculative fiction is like having one of those crayons that has three or four different points, all in one barrel. Readers are interested in the language, as they would be normally; they're interested in the characters. But they're also interested in the environment and the social and emotional attitudes people have, which are new. People wrote me letters after I published part of it in the New Orleans Review. That was unusual, to get fan letters about a story in a literary journal. The editor asked me to serialize the book. I felt insecure because I didn't know where I was going; I hadn't thought of a plot because I'd spent so much time trying to build the world, so I stopped. I went back to my normal realistic writing, and I did another book of stories, What Gets Into Us, that would eventually come out in 2006. Then I thought I would see if I could finish this other book. I came up with a plot, and I applied for and got an ATLAS grant, for Louisiana artists. The grant period began the week of Katrina, September 1, 2005, so that year, I didn't have to teach. They were very kind to take a chance on this unusual speculative novel, unlike what I had done before.

How much of the novel had you written by that point?

I had submitted eighty pages for the grant. But I had written half of it, if not more. At that time, the novel began, "In my twenty-second year, I was called home to the ruins of New Orleans." The whole description of Malcolm's trip, the watery vision of Tchoupitoulas Canal, all the imagination of the city underwater and how you would navigate it in a boat, where the landmarks would be, all that had been written before Katrina. It was very freaky. We were taking our daughter to college in the Northeast, and we ended up renting a hotel room in New York the day the storm happened. The next day, when the flood came, we went to a Kinko's because we didn't have our computers. We looked online, and we saw the Tulane campus was underwater. That's a block from our house. We were really panicky because all our papers were in the house, and I didn't have the manuscript. I called Valerie Martin, who had recommended the book for the grant, and asked her if she had the first eighty pages because I didn't think I had the book anymore, and now I was supposed to write it.  That call alerted Valerie that we were stranded, and a lot of help came our way through her. When we got home weeks later, our papers were okay.

You hadn't lost the manuscript that was in the house, then?

No, it had not been destroyed. But that was a long story, getting back in to the city. A lot of the writers I knew in New Orleans were camping out in James Lee Burke's house in New Iberia. My older daughter came down from Brooklyn; my husband was there. I showed the descriptions in the manuscript at breakfast one morning, and they were like, "Holy moly." We had conversations about how you could live in New Orleans if the water never went away. We talked about Venice -- people have this part of the year where they say, "Oh, the streets are going to flood," so they wear high water boots; it's called the high water, the acqua alta. I guess it was bravado; it was being imaginative to stay afloat. The storm was heartbreaking. It was hard to take it in, the trauma was so vast, so it was a solace to be with friends, and later, to read and write this story.

As the title of one of your other books, Dream State, suggests, Louisiana sometimes seems like an alternative universe. What remained constant about the setting when you switched genres? What changed?

In both Dream State and The Not Yet, people in Louisiana have a different idea about how we are beings in time and how you deal with the inevitability of suffering. It's like there's paradise, and then there are these crushing things, terrifying and violent, right next door. That awareness is always present. I didn't figure out the end of The Not Yet until I went to Houmas House, which is a plantation in cane country, for a reception. On the way home, I was driving through the cane fields along River Road, all that crazy tall grass waving one way in the wind, and I realized how in Louisiana, everything leans into the moment because there's this threat on all sides that people are aware of. It's different from the Yankee or Puritan worldview you find in other parts of the US, where light and dark are more discreet. I'd felt that I had to re-envision The Not Yet post-Katrina because I didn't want it to be read as a political book, not exclusively. Now that New Orleans and Louisiana were such loaded topics, I had to ask myself, why was it set here? I finally resolved that issue for myself in the ending. It's his embrace of the moment. As the hurricane's coming Malcolm realizes how he's going to live in time -- but I don't want to give away the ending.

You say you didn't want the book to be read as political, yet undeniably, we compare the world it presents to ours, and we find many parallels. Though the novel might seem more political after the storm, to what extent do the scenarios in the book have their sources not just in Hurricane Katrina but in events that took place in Louisiana during the decades leading up to the storm?

In Katrina, some people lived, and some people died because of the elevation of their homes. That kind of stark, unforgiving reality definitely appears in the book. Some plot lines about the way people's lives were threatened by flooding developed in the drafts after Katrina, too. But the storm threw into sharp relief the extent to which South Louisiana had been abandoned by the country, as well as the extent to which the poor in South Louisiana had been abandoned by both the local and the national community, and it made abundantly clear how our landscape has been exploited by so many corporate and public entities. The Gulf Coast gave and gave and gave until it broke. Some people saw it that way before Katrina. After the storm, it was magnified, writ large, this view. Then we had the BP spill, which reflects those same realities.

Did the issue of environmental degradation and the potential for that kind of catastrophe inform the book, initially?

I started off with the idea about a group that is so wealthy, the people in it can live forever, and everybody else is on her own. I thought about the past in Louisiana where you had an extremely wealthy group who exploited others as part of the plantation economy, a huge gap between the rich and poor that goes back to the eighteenth century. A lot of times when you do world-building in sci-fi, you use history as a model. I was thinking about Dickensian situations, slavery situations, since it seemed as if, as a nation, we were sliding back into that. The environmental degradation seemed like part of the same general disinterest in the welfare of all; it seemed like the geographical parallel to that other exploitation, the exploitation of human bodies, involved in slavery.

Did you think of the book as potentially being predictive, then, even before the storm?

I thought it might be a cautionary tale about what can happen when we forget we're all in this thing together. Louisiana is the canary in the coalmine -- a threatened, fragile environment. Some people don't think it qualifies as land, just like the way they've treated Louisiana historically, as if it doesn't qualify as an American state. The French thought going to Louisiana was like going to hell; there's a French opera that ends with people being sent to Louisiana as if they were damned. Remember the Midwestern congressman who said New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt because people "down there" were so careless as to put a city at or below sea level? I think that reflects the same kind of thinking. I mean, all river-mouth ports are at or below sea level. A lot of people feel New Orleans is one of the most pleasurable places in the world to live, and it is in many respects, but there is the other side, both to its history and to the way people have viewed it.

In the mid- to late-nineties, the Times-Picayune ran a story about how the city had evolved into being bowl-shaped, and people were becoming aware for the first time how potentially catastrophic a hurricane could be. Did that form part of the awareness behind the initial pieces you wrote for the book?

Yes, it did. I saw a TV show about what would happen if the canals and levees failed in New Orleans. They were talking about creating a floodwall around the historic areas, a huge ring levee, just to keep that stuff dry, and how you could do that around the Garden District and the French Quarter, the places visitors generally find appealing. Those things have come into being in the novel. I wasn't really aware -- I don't think many people in New Orleans were -- of the relative elevations of different parts of the city and why the architecture changes when you go to certain neighborhoods, and the buildings are raised. I didn't know where the drainage systems were; I didn't know what the London Canal was. I'd been to the Lower Ninth Ward only a few times. I went there once because that's where the recycling was when I moved here. It was crowded, densely populated, and I remember thinking, "There are all these people here; I had no idea." So many of them are gone; they couldn't come back after the storm.

In talking about the issue of class in the book, I'm struck by the extent to which Malcolm's dilemma seems typical of the middle class, that is, he's within striking distance of great wealth and the gifts that brings, but he's always coming up short. Do you feel more aware of those class issues now, having finished the book, than you did when you started it?

When I was first writing the novel in the nineties, I'd read an article that said the two places in the country that had the biggest gap between rich and poor were Louisiana and New York City. The idea that the wealthiest, most advanced part of our nation, New York City, was coming to the same place as a society that emerged from slavery and plantation culture -- that was remarkable. We shall probably look back and say that Katrina was a turning point in the country's history. When television viewers saw people at the Convention Center, it was the first time in a long time we as Americans had to look at ourselves and say, "We do have poverty here, and it's profound." Now everybody is talking about the income gap. Part of the story in the book is that there is a diminishing reward for education, a diminishing reward for hard work, and a diminishing realm of opportunity for young people. Malcolm is the only one of the youths Lazarus fosters who has even a slim chance of "making it." There had been a time when you could go into a lot of fields and know that you would have a good living -- now, not so much. Lazarus is old fashioned. He's horrified by how much possibility has been lost. People in their twenties don't have as much possibility as the last generation did, and that reality is very much reflected in the book.

Though the gap between rich and poor seems to resonate with a national audience, do you think readers on the Gulf Coast understand the world the novel presents differently than readers who live elsewhere do?

Yes. Nine years later, the entire city of New Orleans is still traumatized, and people here view everything through the lens of what they went through. If they read a book that makes Louisianans look bad, or like they've failed in any way, they get really upset, like they did about that book Five Days at Memorial, for instance. People who went through scary times in the storm have told me they can't read my book because the landscape is too upsetting. On the other hand, the Coastal Sustainability Studio, an architecture research group, is reading my book. Student designers are using the book to "model" a new world, so certainly, they are reading the book in a very Gulf Coast-specific way.

What do you feel the book has to offer in that context? What is the connection between the kind of world-building you do when you write science fiction and literal world-building?

World-building in sci-fi has certain features. When I spoke to the student architects last month, they asked how I built my imaginary world. There were three phases, for me: first, premises; second, analogy and parallel; and third, emergent properties, or unique consequences. I started with the question, How would you live in New Orleans if it was ninety percent underwater, and no one had done anything about the coastal degradation for 100 years? I went to Prague, and I saw how they had changed the level of the streets; they've built up three or four stories over the centuries because the river keeps flooding. I went to Venice, and I compared New Orleans's geography and building styles to those they use in Venice. That's the middle phase of things, using what we know and making analogies -- scaling up or scaling down. The last phase, the unintended consequences, is where it gets really interesting. These are the circumstances that are usually part of the plot, part of what has developed in this world as you have elaborated it. Usually a good story starts with these strange circumstances, and over time the reader finds out how things evolved to this point. The real challenge now is that we don't always know what unintended consequences will result from our technology, and we're constantly running behind the ball while these unintended problems -- or sometimes, positive, unexpected, features -- manifest themselves.

Do you see the potential for a book like this to stimulate efforts to replenish the Louisiana coastline?

I don't know. The closest it's come, so far, is my involvement with the Coastal Sustainability Studio, which is working on designing a new shore base for oil and gas infrastructure. Chevron has an enormous installation in Venice, Louisiana, at the end of the Louisiana boot, basically. My input may have some influence on those designs. That is a very practical way of talking about replenishing the coast. In other respects, people are still reading the book, so who knows? Very few books have any political effect, though some, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, have an enormous effect.

Do you think science fiction lends itself to political writing in ways other genres, like literary fiction, don't?

When you want to write a novel of ideas in this country, sci-fi is pretty much the way to go. Our best science fiction or speculative works, like The Handmaid's Tale, Kindred, or Left Hand of Darkness, have had a lot to say. Possibly in the future, people will say, "Wow, sci-fi was where the ideas were really being discussed." Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451 -- these are great political books. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick is a work of genius; it's a very political book. I can't say what we call literary fiction has this quality, except maybe the work of somebody like George Saunders, who is writing speculative fiction, anyway. His work can be scathing social satire. Most realistic fiction is not.

Do you feel we as a society -- the nation as a whole or South Louisiana in particular -- are moving closer to the kind of world you present in the book, or are we moving farther away from it? 

We're at a very critical time. As far as our disappearing wetlands go, there is now a plan called Coastal 2050, which aims to build landmass by creating diversions from the river, getting rid of a lot of levees, and closing the canals the oil and gas industry have used to carve up the wetlands. There are a lot of ways that plan can be paid for, but according to some, the money's not there; it's a pipe dream. As far as the gap between the rich and the poor and between the healthy and the unhealthy, some people seem to be trying to make moves in that direction, but this state, for instance, is not allowing the Medicaid expansion, so a lot of people are going to be hurting. In the whole country, too many people are in prison; too many people are disengaged from the economy. I feel like there's a backlash from the Left, a certain amount of momentum to make things better, or at least more like what people used to think was normal -- a more equitable distribution of wealth and more opportunity in the society. But in most of the history of the world, a very few have controlled all the wealth, and the rest have been peons. The twentieth century seems to have been an exception to the rule. Sometimes it's hard not to wonder if the twenty-first may not be.