I met novelist Elise Blackwell through the Rich Roll Podcast earlier this year, the fount from which all good things seem to come. Her email was phrased carefully so I wouldn’t have to respond… which of course, made me realize both that she was a writer and that she had fielded more than one unsolicited email herself. We started corresponding and, when I asked, she agreed to send me a galley for her forthcoming novel, The Lower Quarter.
I started reading The Lower Quarter at a moment of peak chaos in my life—about to move across the country, struggling to finish my first full-length memoir, living out of my van while touring across the country and around the world, butting up against the limits of my sobriety, obsessing (as usual) about the best way to salvage a life I’ve abused worse than a rental car. The Lower Quarter is a dense book, crammed with emotional information and cerebral information. It’s about a lot of dark things—Post-Katrina New Orleans, art theft, Internet trolls, the evils of affluence, loss of autonomy, addiction, rough sex, rape, enslavement, murder, revenge. A gloss of the plot—a body has turned up in New Orleans, a possible clue to the whereabouts of a European painting missing for years—in no way prepares you for the spectrum of human experience that awaits. The novel is intense but it never becomes bogged down by the darkness that is its main concern. Ultimately, I found The Lower Quarter to be about recovery, about living with damage, and about reclamation. I’m an unabashed fan of the book (I already bought a copy for a friend) so I was pretty excited to Gchat with Elise about it.
M: Apologies if you’ve answered these a million times but… run down for me what the book is about. I could do it, but I’ll probably butcher what you had intended…
E: It’s a literary noir set in post-Katrina New Orleans. The plot spins about a body that is found in a hotel in the lower French Quarter and a painting that’s been missing from Europe for a decade or so. These cause the lives of the four main characters to intersect.
In thematic terms, it’s about restoration and recovery as well as various forms of power relations.
I’d say, too, that it’s also about what it means to live in a body, particularly one subject to power relations and boundaries.
M: “Thought-provoking” appears on so many jackets of books that really aren’t… but I spent a lot of the time I was reading this book actually not reading it, but thinking about it. “The discovery of a body” is an idea that reappears many times in the text in different forms.
E: There are ideas in there, to be sure, though I hope that a reader who wants to read for just story can do that. But, yes, embodiment is definitely one of the book’s ideas.
M: There’s the body of the murdered man. Then Johanna is just a body when Clay first encounters her. Marion is a body worker who seems to discover her own body… but it never feels like you’re cramming ideas into a story or warping the narrative in order to shoehorn these themes into it. It’s sort of a pedantic question… but how the hell did this story come to you? What was the germ?
E: Of course bodies are subject to power of various forms, and the book covers some of them: political, geographic, and sexual. I tried to explore this from different angles with different characters. For instance, the character of Johanna has, in the past, been subject to involuntary sexual power relations as well as confined by political boundaries. Eli has been incarcerated. Marion dabbles in the voluntary exchange of sexual power and is very much a physical being–from riding her bike to receiving tattoos. Clay has a tormented relationship with his own body, which is marred by a physical defect.
The book came to me while on book tour for my second novel, which was set during the Great Flood of 1927. It was a book whose publication history was interrupted by Katrina, and I wound up rewriting it after the storm. When it finally came out in 2007, my book tour started in Biloxi, and there I went on a morning run on the beach and was hit hard by the boundary between the part of the beach that had been cleaned up (near the casinos) and the part that was still a disaster area. The tour continued on to New Orleans. I stayed in an offbeat hotel in the lower Quarter that felt like it could have been in a noir movie, and I had the strong (but possibly totally false) feeling that someone had died in my room. Then it accumulated from there. Johanna was one of the earliest characters, or rather her art restoration studio was. I have a cousin who is an art restorer, and I was drawn to the idea of what it would mean to be someone who restore water damaged things in a water damaged place.
M: None of it feels like riffing on bodies or the idea of the body, though. It’s thinky, but it doesn’t feel flashy. It sits nicely with the themes of restoration/ damage/ ownership/ identity. Johanna’s sense of self is tied to a stolen painting. As an art restorer, she has to walk a fine line between restoring a painting and transforming it. What ‘damage’ becomes essential to a painting or a person? What needs to be undone and what needs to remain?
E: That’s a fabulous question. Johanna’s identity was born during the worst thing that ever happened to her. I’m pretty sure she would give up her identity to undo that thing, but of course she can’t. But I don’t believe in simple psychological formulas. Just about the worst thing I can think of to say to someone who has suffered a tragedy is “Things happen for a reason.” That’s moronic and insulting. Yet people do incorporate their damage and move on.
M: I love that you said that. Probably my greatest gripe with the world right now– more than ISIS, more than fast food restaurants that don’t give you free soda refills– is the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.”
E: A key question in art restoration, particularly of historically important paintings, is whether to hide their damage, to paint over a problem, for instance, and that works as a human metaphor. In the novel, at least three of the characters are what a friend of mine who has been in therapy would call “in conversation with their own damage.”
M: I’ve been listening to too much Dylan recently. Two lines came to mind when thinking about The Lower Quarter. “The executioner’s face is always well-hidden” as we learn almost nothing of the man who arranged for Johanna’s kidnapping and subsequent rape/ forced prostitution. And the line “I can’t be good no more/ honey, cause the world gone wrong.” The people in this book aren’t broken, but they are damaged, living in a damaged world, often damaging each other… but also, seeking something greater, whether it’s freedom or revenge or just forgiveness.
E: I think I didn’t want to make that man important, and Johanna certainly wishes he weren’t important. You’re right that the characters aren’t broken. Clay is probably the closest, and certain readers have loathed him, but I actually have some sympathy for him. He is trying to make something right, in his own way. He has a sense of penance. So, yes, I think each character is trying.
I don’t think that people who have suffered can go back, can restore themselves to what they were before. Transform is a good word, though of course sometimes it’s a negative transformation. Usually, for most of us, it’s mixed. So if you wind up liking yourself, you know that the scar tissue is part of it.
M: I have a tattoo of a woman’s name on my clavicle, a woman who happens to now be married to another man. I haven’t covered it up and I won’t because it would just be cosmetic and it would be in bad faith: oftentimes, our missteps and our bad decisions become who we are. Or at least part of who we are.
E: I think the most dangerous people are those who aren’t frank with themselves. I’m in favor of keeping secrets from other people (or at least there’s a lot of stuff I don’t want people to tell me!), but not from yourself. As for your tattoo, that makes a lot of sense to me. You know who you are.
At the novel’s beginning, Marion doesn’t have any tattoos. When asked if she’s afraid of the pain, she says no (and she’s definitely not), that it’s the fear of commitment.
M: Tattoos are always a little terrifying. Even if it’s something small, you’re absolutely a different person after it’s done.
I feel like I should be grilling you with tougher questions, but most of my questions are just variations on “interesting choice– great job!” I found your decision to keep the villain anonymous or at least undifferentiated to be mimetic of reality. In my experience, people who do horrible, dehumanizing things are rarely snarling, moustache-twisting villains, but normal-appearing people. And they seem to live their lives indifferent to the pain they’ve inflicted.
E: I think that is often the case, which is what makes Clay a more salvageable human than the full villain. As for the villain, I agree. It’s also the case that even people who do really horrible things are complex, and to write the character as a full-fledged character would mean engaging sympathetically with him. He also plays a minor actual role in the book, and what’s important is the action Clay takes and not who the bad guy is. The guy is a rich bad guy. He may well also be nice to elderly people and give to charity. If I wrote a book about him, I’d have to figure out if he had a dog or not–I’m guessing no–but it’s not about him.
M: This is a central question to writing any character, I think: dog or no?
E: Yes, it strikes me as an important distinction. When I found out Rafa Nadal “doesn’t trust dogs,” my tennis allegiances were upset.
M: Genres collide in TLQ, to great effect. In some ways, it’s straight-up detective fiction with a massive wounded-and-bleeding heart. What books or authors do you feel this novel is descended from?
E: I definitely set out to mess around with the tropes of noir, and so Chandler and Hammett were on my mind. I know a guy here who is a great Hammett collector, and I got to meet Elmore Leonard when he came to town ahead of donating his papers to the University of South Carolina library. But in a noir, the detective would have to tell the whole story in some hard-boiled voice, and Eli’s not really the kind of guy to look up Johanna’s skirt without asking. But there are definitely a lot of nods to noir–the setting suggested it strongly–and I did want the story to work at least sort of as a mystery. Not the what, really, but the why. And, to some degree, the who. It’s funny, the book was reviewed in a “mystery roundup” in USA Today, and I tweeted appreciation but also that it wasn’t a mystery. The very kind and generous reviewer tweeted back “But there’s a body! And a missing painting!” And I can’t argue with that. I think there’s also a strong debt, though, to some of the novels of Howard Norman, which blend elements of mystery into literary fiction.
M: When I think ‘Mystery,’ I first think of it as an outdated genre– hand-me-down airport paperbacks, etc. But it’ll always be resonant. So many of us are searching for something lost or stolen. I think what prevents TLQ from being ‘just’ a mystery is that what Johanna is searching for– autonomy, revenge, herself– can’t be carried in a briefcase or hidden under loose floorboards. And it couldn’t be told from one perspective because each of the four major characters is seeking something. Something different, but something lost or stolen, like Johanna.
E: Plenty of folks still read airport mysteries, but I wonder if the choice to read even those isn’t about something deeper. All of the characters in TLQ have been robbed of something. Marion has lost tangible things, including some of her own art and a (very small) inheritance, but also a sense of family and background. She’s searching for a way to belong to a place and a way to connect to other people outside of sexual power. Clay wants redemption, among other things. Eli has either lost or been robbed (depending on your perspective) of some serious time and also the possibility of love. Anyone who is self-reflective is trying to solve key existential mysteries.
M: What’s next for you?
E: I’ve just started working on a new novel, tentatively titled Spa, of all things, and set at a “wellness spa” in southern California. It’s about contemporary relationships with time and money. It started as satire but has become something more serious.
M: “Contemporary relationships with time and money” sounds innocuous. But, having read TLQ, I suspect it’s anything but…
Buy The Lower Quarter here
About the author:
Elise Blackwell is the author of five novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, An Unfinished Score, and The Lower Quarter. Her work has been translated into several languages, and her books have been named to numerous best-of-the-year lists, adapted for the stage, and served as the inspiration for a Decemberists’ song. Originally from southern Louisiana, Elise now teaches at the University of South Carolina. Her favorite Bob Dylan song is “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”