Resources for the Teacher - Floodgates
Guide for the Incurably Curious: Teachers, Students and People Who Just Plain Like to Read
I’ve always included Authors’ Notes in my books, to answer questions like, “Where, exactly, is Joyeuse?” and “Are the Sujosa real? The answer to both those questions is that they only exist in my imagination. Still, a lot of what I write is based on fact. I think that’s an important way to approach stories about an archaeologist. I believe it’s perfectly valid for me to make up stories about Faye, because she’s quite real to me but, in the end, she’s a fictional character. Still, when she delves into the past, I feel a responsibility to make that past real, or at least plausible. I enjoy taking the opportunity at the end of my books to talk to you about where some of those lines between fact and fancy lie.
Since my books are being read in classrooms and in book groups, I think of my “Guides for the Incurably Curious” as opportunities for me to participate in those discussions. I visit many classrooms and book groups over the course of a year, and these are the kinds of questions people like to ask. If you or your class or your book group would like to chat further, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I answer all my e-mail, when humanly possible, and I’d love to hear your response to some of these questions.
1. What did you think of the New Orleans setting for this book? Do you think Faye’s response to this unique and historic city was right for her character?
I grew up a hundred miles from New Orleans and, as a child, I visited relatives in the city occasionally. While in college, I spent a summer working offshore, which meant that I drove to New Orleans once a week, on my way out to the natural gas platform where I worked. Since then, I’ve visited for reasons as varied as business trips, a child’s college visit to Tulane, and plain old tourism. Simply put, I love the place. I love the food. I love the ancient look of the Vieux Carré. I love the food. I love the locals with their infectious zest for life and their improbable accents. I love the music. Did I mention that I love the food?
When I proposed this book, my editor was skeptical, saying that New Orleans had already “been done.” I made my plea, pointing out that I have a personal history in the area. I told her that the destruction left by Katrina would make New Orleans a unique place to do archaeology, because Faye would be digging through a physical layer of history left behind by the floods. This layer was history, just as surely as the layer left behind by Andrew Jackson’s Battle of New Orleans was history, but the Katrina debris is only a few years old. I think that’s interesting. And then I told her that I knew New Orleans had “been done,” but that I didn’t think it had been done by a novelist who was also an engineer and who might just have something to say about the levee failures. She saw my point, and you hold the resulting book in your hands.
And then there’s the question of Faye. I might love New Orleans, but how would she feel about it? Well, Faye’s not me, but she shares my passion for American history, and New Orleans is American history all rolled up in a single package. I knew she’d be fascinated with the place and I did my best to communicate that. You’ll have to be the judge of how well I did.
I enjoyed a memorable trip to New Orleans while preparing for this book. I was saddened to see that the cleanup there was still not complete, but I found that the city’s beauty and convivial spirit were undimmed. If you have travel dollars in your family budget, I urge you to spend them there. It would be a very pleasant way to help rebuild a city that is truly an American original.
2. Did you enjoy reading the thoughts of Colonel James McGonahan and Chloe Scott, as presented by Louie Godtschalk?
I love writing the parts of my books that give a sense of history as seen through the eyes of characters from the past. I get to speak in the voices of people who couldn’t possibly be part of Faye’s stories any other way, and this keeps my work fresh for me.
Colonel James McGonahan is one of my favorite historical characters. When I conceived of this book, I knew that I wanted to highlight engineers in some way. I’m an engineer by training, with a bachelor’s in engineering physics, a master’s in chemical engineering, a license as a Professional Engineer, and a number of years of experience as an environmental engineer. When people ask me why I write about an archaeologist, I give them an answer that is only half-joking: “Who wants to read about an engineer?” My profession has a stodgy, geeky reputation that’s not entirely undeserved, but popular opinion forgets one thing about engineers. We have an insatiable need to know how things work. My own philosophy has always been that interested people are interesting people. Thus, engineers tend to be especially interesting people. Writing Colonel McGonahan’s memoirs gave me a chance to show you how fascinating we can be.
Chloe Scott gave me a chance to “be” a modern working engineer, something I actually know a bit about. I wanted very much to deal with the levee failures in this book, and I also wanted very much to avoid blaming any one person or agency for the catastrophe. The flood protection system for New Orleans began when the city was first designed, and it has been evolving for nearly 300 years now. Human error, institutional problems, political maneuvering—there are any number of possible contributing factors for the disaster after Katrina. Some of those possible reasons have been mentioned by characters in this book. I read extensively on the subject, but personally do not feel at all able to pinpoint blame, nor do I want to. Chloe’s resolve to do the best she could with the resources at hand presents an engineer’s approach to life, so I have let her tell us what that approach means to her.
3. How did you respond to the feelings of those characters who survived Hurricane Katrina? Did they ring true?
I wrote the scenes depicting the feelings of Katrina survivors by trying to imagine myself in their shoes. That’s how I write all my characters, actually. I could easily imagine myself feeling Nina’s outrage and Matt’s shocked withdrawal and Bobby’s horror at his memories of those first days. Most of all, I tried to communicate a feeling that I think is common to survivors of a traumatic event: the feeling that it’s never over. People do move on, some more successfully than others, but the mental image of disaster lurks in their brains, ready to be triggered by the sound of a high wind or by news of a tropical depression forming off the coast of Africa. You can learn to live with those fears, but I don’t think they ever really go away. I kept that image of permanent disruption in mind when I crafted my characters.
4. How did you respond to the news that Bobby Longchamp was a distant relative of Faye’s?
I explored Faye’s mother’s family fairly thoroughly in the earlier books, but have never done anything with her father’s people. People often ask me how to pronounce her name, and I always say that Faye’s family has been in the Americas for centuries and she’s got a southern accent as thick as mine. She pronounces it like an American: LAWNG-champ.
When I wrote the scene introducing Bobby, I hadn’t yet given him a last name. I knew he came from New Orleans aristocracy. When it came time to name him, it struck me that this was a man who would pronounce Longchamp like a Frenchman: LAWN-shaw. (Or something like that.) I instantly decided that Faye didn’t need to be alone in the world with no kin, so I gave her Cousin Bobby.
Coincidentally, I also just met a very distant cousin—fifth cousin, once removed—through the wonders of the internet. It has been fun getting to know each other and discovering family traits that seem unexpectedly strong after an interval of six generations. I enjoyed giving Faye that same experience.
5. Did you think Faye’s pre-wedding jitters felt true to her character? How did you feel about Joe’s response to her behavior?
Faye’s relationships with men have always been colored by the absence of men in her home while she was a child, and the abandonment many women in her family suffered. Her love interest in Artifacts was years older than she was, a literal father figure. Two possible relationships in Relics failed over issues of trust. She perceived that the man she was dating was living a lie, and a man she might have dated rejected her because he disagreed with her on an important ethical issue. Beginning in Effigies and ending in Findings, she is involved with a man who is her age and thus not a father figure, but who is powerful and possibly controlling. She has had important platonic friendships—Sheriff Mike, Douglass, and possibly Wally—with much older men who may also have filled the hole in her life left by her father. And her world was rocked in Findings when two of these men were murdered.
Given this history, is it any surprise that she is terrified to think Joe might leave her?
Joe understands Faye, and he loves her. He is the least confrontational person imaginable, but he is not a doormat. This is not a situation he could let continue forever. I’m very glad that Faye figured out her feelings before Joe had to sit her down and explain things to her. J