Mardi Gras Mambo

Or, my own personal Vietnam.

I’ve told this story any number of times; how the writing of the book was derailed by two awful things that happened in my life, and how I finally got back to writing again in the spring of 2005, managing to finish this and turn it into literally two or three weeks before Hurricane Katrina came barreling ashore and changed everything in my life, and the long recovery time from that paradigm shift, trying to adjust to the new reality I was facing every day. It felt weird going over the copy edits, weirder still doing the page proofs (I actually had the incredibly sharp-eyed Becky Cochrane and Timothy J. Lambert do it for me while I was visiting the Compound, thanks again, guys!), and even stranger having to tour and promote a book about New Orleans set before Katrina while still dealing with the recovery.

I’ve told those stories before, and that isn’t really what these entries are about; these entries are about the books themselves and how I came up with the stories and so forth, and the writing of the books. The primary problem, of course, is that I wrote this book between and around tragedies; the two year period I call the Time of Troubles that began on Memorial Day weekend in 2004 and ran through about 2008, really; because that’s about how long it took after all those issues for me to feel like my feet were beneath me again and I once again had a grasp on my life. I don’t remember what the original story was about, other than it centered on the Krewe of Iris, Scotty’s Diderot grandmother’s best friend who’d married a much younger muscle-stud Russian, and that’s really about it. The Russian would have something to do with a Colin case–and it would turn out actually be the case that brought him undercover to New Orleans in the first place during Southern Decadence; in Jackson Square Jazz we find out what Colin’s real job is, and that he was in town originally about the Napoleon death mask–but he was also in town to keep an eye on the young muscle-stud Russian who’d married Scotty’s grandmother’s best friend. It wasn’t really working, and I didn’t much care for the story, to be honest; I’d already asked for an extension before Memorial Day weekend in 2004 when all the shit started happening; after Paul was attacked they took it off the schedule and told me not to worry about it. (I appreciated the courtesy greatly at the time, but at the same time had this sinking feeling in the back of my head uh oh, they may not want another one after this–which turned out to be correct. But I dismissed the fear as part of my on-going struggle with Imposter Syndrome. It took me about six months, more or less, to get back to writing. I started my blog right after Christmas that year, and there I was writing every day again, and by January of 2005 I was ready to get going on this book again. I remember rereading everything I’d already done, not liking it, and deciding to scrap it and start over with the same essential premise: rich older society woman in New Orleans has married a much younger Russian boy-toy; Colin is investigating the boy-toy; and it’s Carnival season. Shortly after getting about halfway into a new first draft, the Virginia thing happened and I was derailed again. After that was over and I went back to the book…once again I didn’t like what was happening in the story and I threw it all out and started over again.

But this time, I hit my stride and four months later I turned the book in at long last, along with a proposal for a fourth, Hurricane Party Hustle, which was going to be set during an evacuation and would wrap up the loose ends left at the end of Mardi Gras Mambo.

And of course, three weeks later Katrina changed everything, and Hurricane Party Hustle went into the drawer.

Last night I dreamed it was Mardi Gras again. It seemed to me I was standing inside an iron gate, watching one of the night parades go by. The sidewalks in front of the gate were crowded with people, all shouting, with their grasping eager hands up in the air. Out beyond the edge of the curb, I could see people sitting in lawn chairs. Still others were up on ladders, with coolers and plastic bags of booty piled around them on the ground. Fathers and mothers were holding up babies, while black kids with the crotches of their pants down around their knees walked behind the crowd, weighted down by the ropes of beads around their necks. Beads were flying through the air, some getting caught and tangled in the branches of the towering gnarled oaks lining the avenue.  The heavy upper branches of those oaks also blocked out the glow of the ancient street lamps so the night seemed even darker than it should. I could hear a marching band, playing a recent hip-hop hit, and the strange clicking sound of the baton girls’ tap shoes on the pavement. The air was heavy with the heavy fragrance of hot grease, corn dogs and the strange melted yellowish-orangey substance the vendors put on nachos that purports to be cheese—but no one is really sure what it is. A group of flambeaux carriers were passing by, dancing that odd little circular dance they do, their propane tanks popping and hissing, throwing long and twisted shadows that also danced inside the iron fence I was behind. Right behind them a huge float pulled by a tractor was coming and the crowd’s shouts became louder, more desperate, more pleading. On the float’s front was a huge white clown face, its bright red lips parted in what passed for a smile but seemed to me to be a frightening leer. The masks on the float riders glowed supernaturally at the hordes begging them for generosity in the strange light cast by the moon when it cleared the thick clouds in the cold night sky.   I stood inside the black iron fence, my arms wrapped around me against the cold as an increased sense of menace and dread built inside me. Something bad was going to happen—

Oh, get real, Scotty!

If I do have bad dreams, I don’t remember them when I wake up. I’ve certainly never been troubled in my sleep, even though crazy things always seem to happen to me. I’m just one of those people, I guess. For whatever reason, the Goddess has decided to throw some wild stuff at me—she always has, even when I was a kid—and what can you do? I just don’t think I am one of those people who were destined to have a nice, normal, quiet life. Maybe it’s because I was named Milton Bradley at birth. Yes, that’s right. Milton Bradley. My older brother started calling me by my middle name, Scotty, before I started school and thank the Goddess, it stuck. Can you imagine how cruel the kids would have been to someone named Milton, let alone Milton Bradley? And then of course there’s the gay thing. I was lucky—my parents are pretty liberal and were delighted to have a gay son—like it somehow proved how truly cool they really are or something. They are pretty cool, actually.

By now, I’d taken to starting all of my New Orleans novels with a Tennessee Williams quote; for this one I chose a line from Vieux Carré: “You’ve got a lot to learn about life in the Quarter.”

I had opened Bourbon Street Blues with a parody of “The name’s Bond, James Bond” and I’d done something similar with Jackson Square Jazz–“Danger is my middle name”, riffing on Trouble is My Business. I decided to open this book with a parody of the opening line of Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed I went to Mardi Gras again.” But that entire opening paragraph of du Maurier’s is so fucking brilliant, I couldn’t help myself and made my entire first paragraph a parody of that opening. I then decided that from then forward, every Scotty book would have a Williams quote and each prologue–where Scotty introduces himself and his cast of characters and gives backstory so I don’t have to do it in the text of the story itself–would parody the opening paragraph of a famous novel, rather than just the first line (I am actually struggling to find the proper opening to parody to start the prologue for this one. I’ve used Rebecca, Peyton Place, The Haunting of Hill House, and Lolita, among others so far already; I’ve tried with this one to use An American Tragedy, Atlas Shrugged and The Great Gatsby thus far, with no luck. I’ve tried Valley of the Dolls several times for other books in the series already, but I can’t ever get it to work for me).

I do remember that the one thing that didn’t come across in those earlier drafts that I had abandoned was the sense of insanity that Carnival always brings with it; that feeling of “controlled anarchy” we experience those two weeks of parades, of knowing you have to schedule your entire life around a parade schedule–true even for those who do not live inside the box, as we say here; the box being the Uptown parade route–I always have to schedule my job, my trips to run errands uptown, everything, predicated around having to get home at least two hours before the parades start, and am incredibly lucky if I can get a parking spot within three blocks of the Lost Apartment. The thing I kept forgetting in those earlier versions was the books are meant to be fun. Granted, I was hardly in a mental space to write something fun…and of course the decision to really take it completely over the top the way I did was something I still think about to this day and wonder, where on earth did you get the idea for identical triplets?

Which, while crazy, made more sense than the cloning story I tried to write the second time.

Maybe those bad things happened for a reason? Because I couldn’t be more pleased with how the story and the book turned out. I also ran out of room to finish the personal story…but I also was operating on the assumption I’d get a contract for a fourth book. If not for Katrina, Kensington might have made another offer and Hurricane Party Hustle might have been the fourth Scotty than something just sitting in the files.

The book was released on Fat Tuesday, 2006. Paul and I had been out of town–the truncated Carnival/parade season seemed almost too sad to handle, so we’d accepted a gig to speak at the South Carolina Book Festival. We flew back to New Orleans the Sunday morning before Fat Tuesday. I’d checked my email that morning before boarding the flight to Atlanta (we changed planes) and then our cab driver couldn’t get closer to St. Charles than Baronne Street. A parade was going as we got out of the car, and we had to cross the parade (it was in the high seventies and sunny) with our luggage–I’ll never forget looking up as we got ready to cross and catching a bag of beads with my hand just before it connected with my face–and got home. I checked my emails and my word! SO MANY EMAILS.

You see, that day’s edition of the Times-Picayune carried Susan Larson’s review of the book, and it was a rave! Everyone emailed me as soon as they saw it–I still bask in the glory of that review–and I was about to embark on probably the most ambitious book tour of my career.

I just didn’t see, though, how I could write another funny, light book about a city still in ruins whose recovery was still questionable.

The series was, for the moment, over–with the personal story not resolved the way I would have wanted, but it could stand as it was, should there never be another Scotty story.

Rereading it, I couldn’t but laugh at some of the outrageous twists and turns the plot took.

I guess you could say I’m proud of it.

One thought on “Mardi Gras Mambo

  1. You are welcome again. I well remember that visit, with Tim and me reading and laughing and saying, wait, wait, there’s ANOTHER one? about the triplets. Crazy times, but the camaraderie of being fellow writers and Kensington kin carried us through so much (a recent, quick perusal of a few of my journals reminded me of that).

    Like

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