Last Thursday a group of teachers and about forty eighth graders from Belle Chasse Middle School (in Plaquemines Parish) visited me at Tulane. Everyone in their grade had read RUINED, and students had to take a test and write a paper in order to win a place on this field trip. In the morning they went on a tour of Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District, one of the key locations in the novel, and then they sprawled on the lawn outside the Department of English, eating their lunches. At noon we all crammed into the Media Lab in the English department for a chat.
They were delightful, of course, and I really enjoyed their visit. And big props to their very creative and dedicated teachers for using the book as a starting point for explorations of Louisiana social history. One teacher, Shelley McGar, wrote to me before the field trip and said that after reading the novel they’d embarked on “research and discussion about burial practices, death photography, yellow fever, the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue and the cultural influences of the refugees, voodoo and its incorporation with Catholic practices, the plaçage system, Creoles versus "Americans" in the New Orleans of the 1800s, among other topics.”
The field trip was organized by another teacher, Zana Curley, who emailed me back in February to see if it was possible. Zana was born in my hometown, Auckland. (New Zealanders infiltrate everywhere: we’ll be in charge of all Louisiana soon.)
When the group was leaving to go back to school, Zana handed me letters from a number of students. These letters included several questions I don’t think we covered during our chat, so I told her I’d post answers on this blog. Hopefully they’ll placate the other readers who wander here from time to time, wanting answers about the book. Thanks so much to all the students who came to visit me, and all those who wrote me letters. I’m going to take the letters back to New Zealand with me in May to show my family.
SPOILER ALERT: people who haven’t read RUINED yet should avoid reading these answers until they’ve finished the story.
Keshawn: Did Rebecca’s Dad reunite with his family? Did Rebecca move back to New York, and how is Lisette in heaven?
Rebecca and her father go back to New York together, but now they can come to New Orleans whenever they like, to see Aunt Claudia and Aurelia (and Anton, of course). I think Rebecca’s father might even buy a place there – maybe an apartment in the French Quarter. And I’m sure Anton is planning a trip to NYC at some point. Lisette is reunited with her mother, of course: she’s not condemned to haunting the cemetery and the Bowman mansion anymore.
Justin: Why didn’t Rebecca die instead of Helena?
Lisette saves her, just in time. And then there’s the crumbling tomb … But it’s pretty touch-and-go for Rebecca for most of that final showdown in the cemetery, as you’ll recall.
Devin: Which school is Temple Mead supposed to represent? How did you come up with the plot of the story? How long did it take you to get your book published?
I made up Temple Mead, though for its exterior and location I was inspired by the beautiful main building of Louise McGehee School in the Garden District. [Note to McGehee students: I know your school is a much happier and more sensible place than Temple Mead! No slights are intended.]
The plot of the novel came from lots of different places – experience, invention, pieces of ideas, other people’s stories, notions, questions, images, my interest in Louisiana history, my interest in cities, the characters that began to form in my head … Everything started coming together at some point, and I realized it could be a novel.
The first pieces started clicking together early in 2006, I guess, and I delivered the final draft to Scholastic in December 2008. So – almost two years of work, with another eight months work on the publisher’s side before it was in book stores.
Madison: Why did you name the book RUINED? Why did Lisette’s father want her to take care of him when he had yellow fever?
I had a notion of New Orleans as a city in ruins after Katrina – or at least somewhere that was seen that way by other people. And a key part of the curse is that a house will lie in ruins at the end, and that does happen when the Bowman mansion burns to the ground.
Lisette’s father loved her very much and
wanted to see her again before he died. And people didn’t understand the causes
of yellow fever then: he may have thought she was immune. He didn’t think she’d
be in danger – not of catching yellow fever, and certainly not of getting
Jacob: Why did you choose New Orleans as the setting for this novel? What is your favorite cemetery to visit, and why?
I’ve lived in New Orleans since the summer of 2004, but I’ve been interested in it and writing about it for much longer. (It’s a location in my first novel, Queen of Beauty.) One of the seeds for this book, specifically, was a night-time carnival parade; another was learning about voodoo in New Orleans; another was exploring the Treme neighborhood for the first time. New Orleans is swarming with stories, as you know. Swarming with ghosts.
Cemeteries I like very much, wherever they are. My family went on holiday to Norfolk Island when I was a teenager and I made two visits to the old cemetery there to explore. (There are lots of Mutiny-on-the-Bounty connections.) Oddly, the only cemetery I’ve toured in New Orleans is Lafayette, which is by no means the oldest one in the city. I think I was intrigued by it because I drive past so often: I started thinking about what might be going on behind those high white walls. F. Scott Fitzgerald lived for a short time in New Orleans, and the house where he stayed overlooks the cemetery.
I’m always on the hunt for graves of writers, musicians, artists and adventurers I like – Kate Chopin and Tennessee Williams in St Louis; Anne Bronte in Scarborough, England; Charlie Parker outside Kansas City. On ‘Authors Ridge’ in the cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts: Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott and her family. Laura Ingalls Wilder in Mansfield, Missouri. Oscar Wilde in Paris. Robert Johnson outside Greenwood, Mississippi – probably his real grave. Billy the Kid in New Mexico – probably NOT his real grave. Jane Austen in Winchester Cathedral. George Armstrong Custer at West Point. (A disclaimer: I know Custer was crazy and awful, but after I read the fantastic Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell, I was obsessed with him for a while. Good books can turn your head.)
Mitchell and Seth: Are you going to come out with a sequel?
I’m working on a second book in a ‘haunted city’ series right now, but it takes place somewhere else. Mitchell suggested New York, which is a good idea, but at the moment I’m writing something set in old York – in England – which is the most haunted city in the world. [Note: Mitchell told me I should NOT call any sequel RUINED 2, and I will take his advice.] You know, I may write a sequel to RUINED at some point … never say never!
Thanks again to all the eighth-graders from Belle Chasse Middle School (and teachers) for your enthusiasm, ideas and encouragement. I really enjoyed your visit.