After twenty years in Manhattan, it was time to water my Southern roots. Since I’d always loved New Orleans food, music, history and unvarnished hedonism, I took an apartment in an 1840s Creole townhouse in the French Quarter. My landlord Frank, an eccentric elderly Sicilian with an eye patch, quirky attitude and murky past, occupied the downstairs and slave quarters while I took the second floor with a gallery overlooking the street.
Frank explained that the mansion fell into decline when the Quarter became a slum in the ’30s. By the ’80s it was a derelict pasta factory which Frank (whom I discovered was once heir to an Italian food empire), restored to a fare-thee-well. A deeply superstitious charismatic Catholic with a life-sized Jesus in his atrium, he had the building exorcised several times after experiencing peculiar late-night sounds and smells. He swore the place had an evil aura lingering from voodoo and slavery days, but the only noise I ever heard came from the street during Mardi Gras. I thought his exorcisms would be better directed toward the Formosa termites devouring the attic.
With its iron-laced galleries, grand staircase, triple hung guillotine windows, and twelve-foot ceilings, the Dauphine Street house oozed antebellum atmosphere. I couldn’t resist making it my heroine’s home in Twelfth Night, my novel exploring the dark side of the elegant, elitist Creole world of 1857 Louisiana. As I wrote away, I discovered something singular and liberating about sharing space with my characters along with a view of the Quarter they would’ve seen 140 years earlier.
Another brand of inspiration arose one carnival season at dusk. I was on my gallery when fog swarmed off the Mississippi River, so thick I could barely see across the street. I heard muffled voices and watched fascinated as a clutch of costumed revelers in long, hooded robes emerged from the gray miasma and fluttered beneath a pale streetlight before vanishing like a will-o’-the wisp. Deepening the illusion were ships horns, church bells and the clip-clop of hooves from passing tourist carriages. With parked cars hidden by the fog, I saw something truly frozen in time, resulting in my “time slip” book, Incarnate. Still more creativity was roused by a visit to the house occupied by French painter Edgar Degas in 1872-3. Hours alone in the rooms where he lived and worked resulted in my newest novel Creole Son.
The Big Easy was inspirational beyond my wildest dreams, but, Southern nostalgia stoked, I left in 2003 for southern California of all places. Fate dictated that I would live in a house built by one of old Hollywood’s most famous cowboy stars.
Part 4 of a series on living with history.