The other night, as I walked to Lilette to meet my friend Laura for dinner, I walked past this house:
It made me smile, as the New Orleans dedication for decorating for the holidays (any holiday, really) always does.
I posted this picture after taking it, along with a caption along the lines of it’s almost Twelfth Night and the start of Carnival! Someone commented, a bit surprised, “already?” which once again made me realize how different living in New Orleans is from living anywhere else, really, in the country. Nobody outside of Louisiana (unless they’re Catholic) understands how Carnival actually works, which makes sense. If it doesn’t affect you, how would you know? So, I decided explaining Carnival would be an excellent blatant self-promotion post, particularly since A Streetcar Named Murder is built around (sort of) a Carnival krewe and their membership recruitment ball. So, buckle up, Constant Reader, I’m going to give you a sort of primer for New Orleans Carnival.
Carnival begins on Twelfth Night, January 6th, and the season continues until it ends at midnight on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras is actually the last day of Carnival, not the entire season; but over the years Mardi Gras has become synonymous with Carnival, but the locals will always correct you when you call it Mardi Gras instead of Carnival; and ‘mardi gras” literally translates from the French to Fat Tuesday), when the bells of St. Louis toll the beginning of Lent and the police clear everyone off the streets of the city (no one is supposed to be out on the streets after midnight; I used to love to stand on the balcony at the Parade watching the mounted police officers slowly making their way down Bourbon Street as the crowds disperse before them–and behind them the street is empty). I’m not going to get into the history of Carnival and how it all began as a “farewell to the flesh” before the religious solemnity and penance of Lent; but that’s the part most people don’t get if you’re not from here or Catholic. Christmas, Carnival, Lent, and Easter are all tied together. Twelfth Night is always a fixed date because Christmas is fixed for December 25th; but since Easter’s date is never the same, neither is the date for Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday, which is always forty days before Easter.
So, first things first. If you want to know all there is to know about each year’s Carnival, you start by getting a copy of Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide, seen below. (You can order it on-line if you’re curious about it.)
(Don’t @ me, I know it should be Carnival Guide, but Mr. Hardy is Mr. Expert on all things Carnival, so we let him get away with it every year.)
The guide is invaluable, even though now there’s a parade tracker app so you always know where the parades are. The parades are what most people associate with New Orleans and Carnival/Mardi Gras; the big ones that shut down St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street aren’t until the last two weekends before Fat Tuesday. I don’t even know how many parades pass by our corner during parade season, but it’s a lot. (I’m hearing that the parade routes are being truncated a bit because of not having enough police officers to pull parade duty, but I don’t pay a lot of attention and just look at the Guide–which I have yet to get a copy of this year.) So, parade season is the two weekends prior to Fat Tuesday. The first weekend is easy, really; there’s parades on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and evening, and Sunday afternoon. Then we get a two day respite before they start in earnest, and there’s always at least two a night beginning the Wednesday before Fat Tuesday. Muses is Thursday night, following two others; there are also three on that Friday. Saturday afternoon is my favorite, Iris, which is followed by Tucks. Endymion is the big parade on Saturday night but it has a different route; it doesn’t come down St. Charles unless rain has caused it to be postponed for a night (when Endymion rolls down St. Charles on a Sunday night it’s a nightmare out there at the corner because Endymion is HUGE). There are parades all day Sunday, culminating with Bacchus Sunday night; Orpheus is the grand finale on Monday night, and of course on Fat Tuesday Rex follows Iris and then come the truck parades. There are also other, smaller, walking parades earlier; Krewe de Vieux, for example, is enormous and is a Saturday night later this month. After Twelfth Night and before Parade Season, there are balls and parties and walking parades and all kinds of celebrations leading up to the parades. The bleachers are already going up at Liberty Circle and all along St. Charles.
So, what does A Streetcar Named Murder, which is set in October, have to do with Carnival, and how is this a blatant self-promotion post?
Because the plot of Streetcar is set around an October costume ball for one of the newer Carnival krewes, the completely fictitious Krewe of Boudicca (it was Athena in earlier drafts, until I realized that I should check to make sure such a krewe doesn’t exist anywhere and sure enough, there is one; either in Metairie or on the north shore), which is also kind of new-member rush for the krewe. Our main character, Valerie, has no interest in belonging to a krewe; as she says, she’s fine “just going to parades and catching throws.” But her neighbor/best friend Lorna wants to join Boudicca, and she is dragging an unwilling Valerie along for the ball. It’s at the ball that the murder takes place; turns out the membership chair for Boudicca is Valerie’s nemesis, and of courea Valerie is the one who finds the victim after she’s stabbed.
And of course, it’s Carnival season again in New Orleans! So more info and blatant self-promotion to come!
So, when Ellen Byron was preparing to interview me for our live stream event from Murder by the Book, she sent me some questions to prepare myself with. They were good questions, actually, and I thought that taking time to answer them when I can think about the responses would be an excellent BLATANT SELF-PROMOTION post.
So, without further ado, here we go!
What inspired your book? Series premise and the specific story?
That’s an interesting story, actually. I had been toying with the idea of writing a cozy for a long time–I’ve always liked them–but never was sure I could do it; there were rules, after all, and I’m terrible about following rules, always have been. Several friends have been encouraging me for years to do it, but I always hesitated. It was (I thought) outside of my comfort zone, and while I would toy with ideas here and there, none ever came to anything. My partner’s office is near a costume shop, and he’d had to go in there one day for some reason or another, and as is his wont, he struck up a conversation with an employee about the costume business, how they made money, how they stayed open all year, etc etc etc. He’s very curious. Anyway, that night I mentioned to him that someone had yet again suggested I write a cozy, and he wasn’t sure what one was, so I gave him a thumbnail overview, and he said, “Oh, you should do a costume shop” and proceeded to tell me about his conversation with the shop employee. I agreed it was an interesting idea, and stowed it away in the back of my head for future reference, and would think about it now and then, come up with characters and a community for the main character to be a part of, and so on. But at the same time I kept thinking New Orleans wasn’t the right place for a cozy series–basically looking for ways to fail instead of reasons to succeed, which is the underlying theme of my life, really–and so it went. An editor I’ve worked with before was interested in the idea of my writing a cozy series, so I wrote up a proposal and sent it off. They liked it, but couldn’t sign it, and recommended I take it somewhere else, so I did. It evolved from a costume shop to an antique shop during the process of me signing a contract with Crooked Lane; they liked everything about my idea except for the shop itself, so I had to change that. I went down to Magazine Street and walked for a block, writing down every kind of shop I saw, and sent the list in–and we all came to an agreement about the series being structured around an antiques business. As for the story, well, I wanted to talk about and explore the gentrification of New Orleans that has been ongoing almost this entire century, and how real estate has just exploded around here. (It still staggers me that our rent was $450 when we first moved here; the lowest rent I’ve seen advertised in our neighborhood is around $1500 for less than thousand square feet. Our original apartment now rents for $2500 per month now, which is insane.) What happens to Valerie–the fear of a new tax assessment pricing her out of her house–actually happened to a friend of mine; and the prices just seem to keep going up all the time. You can’t even buy a condo in my neighborhood for less than $350, 000 now–the asking prices for houses in the neighborhood are completely insane. Every time I see a new listing in the neighborhood for half a million dollars or more I think, we really should have bought when we moved here–but home-ownership is New Orleans isn’t something Paul or I have ever been terribly interested in. Termites, tornados, hurricanes, floods, black mold–no thanks! But man, what a return on our investment had we bought in 1996!
We both write series set in New Orleans. Why do you find it so inspiring? Especially when you’ve lived in so many other places?
I’ve lived all over the country–we’re from Alabama, and I’ve lived in Chicago on the south side, the suburbs, Kansas, Fresno, Houston, Tampa, Minneapolis and then New Orleans. New Orleans is the only place I’ve ever been to where I felt like I belonged, where I fit in; where I didn’t seem like the eccentric one. New Orleans embraces its eccentrics and doesn’t judge them, and I like that. I knew that first time I came here on my birthday in 1994 that if I moved here all my dreams would come true. And they have, which has been kind of lovely. And no writer could ever exhaust the inspiration New Orleans provides. I’ve written fifteen books set here and countless short stories at this point, and haven’t even scratched the surface. I’ve never written about the music scene here, for one glaring example, or restaurants or the food industry or…you see what I mean? There’s not enough time in my life to write everything I want to about New Orleans.
Tell us about your protagonist. Where did the inspiration for her come from?
My sister never had any interest in going to college or having any kind of career other than being a wife and mother. She was a straight A student and had numerous scholarship offers, but had little to no interest. I used to always think she had wasted her potential, but gradually came to the realization that she has the life she always wanted when she was growing up, and has never missed having a career outside of the home–so rather than feeling bad about her lost potential, I should have been happy that her dreams came true. I started thinking about that more, and thought that would make a great starting place–a woman like my sister who wasn’t really very interested in college but went because it was expected of her…only to fall in love, get married, and drop out when she had twins. I really like the idea of a woman who’s not yet thirty, who wasn’t really sure what she wanted from life and then sidetracked to wife-and-mother, but with her kids now off to college and her husband having died…what do you do for the rest of your life when you’re a widow at thirty-eight and your kids have left for college? And the more I thought about her, the more I liked her and wanted to write about her.
Why did you choose the Irish Channel as the neighborhood?
My Scotty series is set in the French Quarter, and the Chanse series was set in the lower Garden District (where I’ve always lived and always default to it for that very reason), so I wanted to do something different this time out. Before I moved here, I had friends who lived in the Channel and I loved their house and I loved their neighborhood. I had already started writing a novella set in their old house, and I thought, why not use that same house for this series? The Channel did used to be considered a bad part of town, too, when we first moved here (so was the lower Garden District, which we didn’t know), and so I thought the gentrification issue would work better there than in my neighborhood. That part of the Channel is one I used to spend a lot of time in. As my character mentions in the book, I used to hang out at the Rue de la Course coffee shop at the corner of Magazine and Harmony–it was where I would meet friends for coffee. I’m still bitter it closed.
Similarities in our series: both widows, both have family mysteries, both live in the Irish Channel, you have jokes about potholes, I have a plot point about them. Let’s talk about NOLA’s potholes.
Oh, the potholes! Ironically, an active one ate one of my car tires a few weeks ago. Usually, if I am going someplace and have to turn around, there’s usually room for me to make a U-turn or I can turned into a driveway and turn around. This particular day the bar on the corner had reopened after being sold, closed, and renovated for a few months. So, there were cars everywhere, including blocking the driveways, and I thought, fine, I’ll just go around the block, which I hadn’t done in years. Because I hadn’t done that i years, I forgot there’s a massive pothole right when you make the turn so you have to jog left to avoid it. I hit the pothole, hard, and when I did, I thought oh that’s not good and as I continued driving I noticed the car was pulling to the left–which was the tire that hit the pothole. Sure enough, it was flat. It had a nail in it, and I happened to hit the pothole perfectly so that the nail dragged, tearing a hole in the tire. So, yes, New Orleans is a city of potholes–all different shapes, sizes, and depths. When the streets flood the water hides the potholes, and if they are really deep…the one on our street (which is reforming after being filled in and paved over for like the fiftieth time) ate a pick-up truck when that end of the street flooded a few years ago, so our street was blocked until the water went down and a tow truck could get in.
You have a Nolier than thou joke – I have OhNo!LA, an app that’s a runner in the book.
I wish I could claim credit for that joke, but I stole it from Bill Loefhelm, another New Orleans crime writer when we were on a panel together talking about writing about New Orleans and the need to get things right. He responded to a question about accuracy by saying something like “Yes, you really don’t want to set off the Nolier-Than-Thou people” and it still makes me laugh whenever I think about it because it’s so true! In all honesty, I am one of those people–nothing is more infuriating to me than reading something set in New Orleans that doesn’t get it right–but I’ve loosened up some as I’ve gotten older. I was even wondering if that was still a thing while I was writing this book…but since it’s come out I’ve seen any number of locals posting reviews and comments about “how (he) got New Orleans right” so it is still a thing. (And I’m glad and grateful people think I get ir right.)
How would you say your past experiences and jobs in life inform your writing?
I always say that life is material, as is every experience you’ve had. I’ve had so many jobs over the years and have been fired so many times I can’t keep track of them all anymore. But I also had a huge variety of jobs–fast food to retail to food service to banking to insurance to an airline to being a personal trainer to managing a health club to being a magazine editor to my present job working in an STI clinic as a sexual health counselor. Whenever I am creating a character and need a job for them, I inevitably fall back on one of my experiences. The main character in The Orion Mask worked at an airport–I’ve written a lot of characters who work for airlines–and so I try to get away from my own experiences once I catch myself doing it again. I have always had jobs that required interaction with other humans, so I’ve gotten to observe a lot of human behavior. I’ve written about high school students in Kansas (where I went to high school). I’ve written about fraternities because I was in one (hard as it is to believe now). I played football in high school, I’ve written about football players in high school. The only places I’ve lived that I’ve not written about are Chicago, Houston, and Tampa (I have written about Florida, but just the panhandle, where I spent of time as a kid).
I read a blog post where you talked about your relationship with the city. How has it morphed over the years and where does it stand now? It sounded like doing promotion and writing about the city reignited your love for it. What’s your writing process? You write in different genres. Is the process different?
As sad as it is to admit, it’s very easy when you live here to start taking New Orleans for granted. As I said before, I usually am so focused on what I am doing–work, writing, errands, chores, etc.–that I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings as I should (I think we are all guilty of this to some degree). About a year before the pandemic, my day job moved. I had worked in our office on Frenchmen Street for well over ten years–right across the street from Mona’s, in that block between Decatur and Chartres, so I was a block outside the Quarter five days a week, and we also used to do a lot of testing in the French Quarter gay bars and passing out condoms during Carnival, Southern Decadence, and Halloween. So I used to spend a lot of time in and around the Quarter. It was lovely–I could go to the Walgreens or the Rouse’s on Royal and there was a bank branch on Chartres Street, too, by the Supreme Court building. Anytime I didn’t have anything in the house to pack for lunch I could just walk into the Quarter and get something not only amazing but inexpensive. I used to walk past where Scotty lives all the time. After we moved into our new building in the 7th Ward, I don’t go into the Quarter much anymore. So I was starting to feel a bit disconnected from New Orleans already before the pandemic shut everything down. But I realized when I started doing promo for this book that I am not disconnected from New Orleans. I’ve just lived here so long that I don’t take as much note of the unusual or the weird as I used to–it’s become normalized to me. I’ve acclimated. It’s still just as weird and wild and crazy here as it always has been, it just doesn’t strike me as weird and wild and crazy the way it used to. I need to take more walks and spend more time exploring the city and checking things out. I don’t know if all the hidden places I used to take friends to eat in the Quarter are still there, either. Maybe after Mardi Gras…
So, Greg, why did you choose to write about an antique shop when you know nothing about antiques other than they are old furniture and so forth?
In all honesty, I didn’t originally set out to write about an antique shop, and while the book was in progress my utter lack of knowledge about the antiques business did have me incredibly concerned. Even though I had decided that Valerie herself would know nothing about antiques (that way, she and I could learn together), it still made me feel fraudulent and like I didn’t know what I was doing writing about something I didn’t know anything about. But then I went to Crime Bake, and at one of the panels a writer named Barbara Ross, who writes a Clambake New England series, confessed she knew nothing about clam bakes or any of those types of things…so she had to learn as she wrote the series. That was exactly what I wanted and needed to hear from someone and that was the right time for me to hear it, so I felt a lot more confident about the book when I returned home to New Orleans from that trip (it’s always nice to go to a writer’s event and learn something; I feel like I always do whenever I go to one).
Originally, I had wanted to write about a costume shop; which even now seems easier to learn about that antiques, to be honest. There used to be a costume shop in my neighborhood for years, on St. Charles Avenue on the lake side on the same block as Hoshun. I never went inside, but I always thought it was interesting that it was open year-round rather than just being seasonal; I would have thought they wouldn’t have enough business to do so. But it closed and another opened in the CBD near Paul’s office, connected to whatever theater that is in the next block–which means they had an enormous warehouse space to keep their costumes in, and their primary customers were local theater, film and television productions. I thought, yeah, that could be fun so I moved MY shop back to the block and decided to give them a warehouse to store costumes for commercial rentals in, out near the airport. When Crooked Lane wanted something other than a costume shop, I just went to the Starbucks at the corner of Washington and Magazine, got a latte, and walked down the block writing down the kinds of businesses I walked past. I sent those to Crooked Lane and they picked an antique shop, which was a bit daunting but….anything is do-able, right? And since I like to learn…in theory.
I did stop into one of the ubiquitous antique shops in New Orleans to talk to the manager, who gave me some good tips–estate auctions and sales, for example; something that hadn’t occurred to me–and also, highly amused that both Valerie and myself knew nothing about the business, suggested, “Start with Antiquing for Dummies.” I’m still not sure if she was kidding or not, but I thought it a pretty good idea, so I ordered a copy and had Dee–who works at Rare Things–suggest Valerie do the same in the book!
Serendipity, if you will.
And then I needed a name for the business. In the late 1980’s there was a marvelous supernatural syndicated series called Friday the 13th-the Series (because it just used the name, it was not related to the films in any way) in which there was such a shop called Curious Goods. The premise of the show is that the owner of the shop made a deal with the devil and all the items in the shop are cursed; he goes back on his deal and the devil drags him to hell. His niece and nephew inherit the shop and start selling things–only to find out that the items are all cursed –an older man with lots of knowledge tells them; they form a team to track down the objects, which can kill–or can make a wish of some sort for the person owning it come true, but death is required–and each episode focuses on one of the objects. I thought about calling the shop Curious Goods, as an homage, but then thought but the objects in this shop aren’t cursed, so I went with Rare Things. I liked the name, and thought it really fit; it’s really more of a curio shop than an antique shop, anyway.
And the benefits of an antique shop means I can have a lot of fun with future volumes, if there are more. How much fun would it be for Valerie to have to stay at some old manse working on an estate sale, only to be bedeviled by ghosts and secret passages and so on? It also means getting to explore history and areas outside of New Orleans; I am becoming more and more interested in the entire state rather than just New Orleans, too, so this really is kind of cool–more reason to explore Louisiana’s history! Huzzah!
So, that’s how this book came to built around an antique shop on St. Charles Avenue. More to come!