Interviewer Luan Gaines:Why did you choose New Orleans' Bourbon Street for your novel? Was there a particular incident that inspired the story?
Leonce Gaiter:I wanted to play with the pulp noir genre. I studied film in college and fell in love with movies like “The Big Heat,” “Lady from Shanghai,” and “Out of the Past.” At the same time I discovered writers like Jim Thompson, Chester Himes and Dashiell Hammett. I’ve got to admit that to this day I often find more vibrancy and profundity in these so-called “detective” novels than I do in bushels-full of today’s so-called “Serious” literary fiction.
I knew I wanted to use New Orleans and I had the main character of Alex in mind. The pre-civil rights era timeframe came to mind when reading something about Martin Luther King that enraged me. It was some white southern Republican who was probably a former Klan sympathizer trying to prove he’s no longer a white supremacist by extolling the “service” MLK had done for America. As if there was no difference between cleaning white folk's moral toilets and cleaning their porcelain ones. There was this twisted denial of the rage that black folks felt—which to my mind is a denial of our humanity. Outside my home, I was raised almost exclusively around whites. So I imagined the enraged Alex in pre-civil rights New Orleans, trapped between two worlds – one of which he rejects because it will not accept him—the white world; and one for which his sense of his own privilege will not allow him to settle—the black one. He belongs to neither, but insists on the best of both.
Why is Bourbon Street, essentially the Devil's playground at Mardi Gras, an apt location for this tragic tale of hatred and revenge?
I never even contemplated another location. The story and the locale were joined at the hip from the first. One was part of the other. My parents are from New Orleans, and I spent some of my childhood there. Because of my family’s unfortunate southern gothic attributes, New Orleans was always a dark and oppressive place to me. It was someplace that leeched from people the worst they had to offer. Particularly when it comes to race, New Orleans, a port city for the slave trade, drips with the corpses of black men and women. Historically, for blacks, it is representative of the house of horrors on which this country was built. As for Bourbon Street, the name itself drips of excess and the insatiable appetite for vice. What better microcosm of this vision of New Orleans?
Deke Watley, a white Texan, is shocked by the mixing of races in New Orleans, presuming his own superiority, barely tolerant. How does Deke's behavior mirror that of society?
For most of this country’s history, the majority simply accepted the brutalization and debasement of a significant portion of the population. I don’t believe that people are “basically good.” Most people are neither good nor bad. They equally follow the paths of least resistance, and greatest self-interest. These can be combined in any number of ways. They may lead them to tolerate Jim Crow and American Apartheid, actively promote them, or even actively oppose them. Deke is not thoughtful. He takes the world as it’s presented to him, too numb to believe he can ever do anything to change it, and figuring that, for him, it’s not all that bad. I think he’s an “everyman.” He’s just like the vast majority of us.
Deke walks into a nightmare, oblivious in his own self-absorption. Did you expect your readers to be blindsided by the story in the same manner as Deke?
Absolutely. That’s why I used him as the identification figure. Deke walks you through the book, while Alex makes everything in the book happen. I think it’s important for the modern reader to understand what an outrageous, unthinkable creature Alex is—and we see that through Deke’s eyes. What’s amazing, is that even in this day and age Alex is outrageous. Unlike most “angry” black male characters in fiction, he doesn’t turn his anger inward. He does not self-destruct. He lashes out. He attacks those who stand between him and what he wants. He uses the same methods his white father uses. He uses those methods with the same lack of conscience.
Deke never questions his invitation to gamble in Alex Moreau's game, but jumps at the opportunity. What does this tell us about his character?
He’s greedy. He sees a chance to take some amateurs and he jumps at it. Deke is not necessarily interested in a challenge. In the book he’s referred to as a gambler “in name only.” Again, it was the path of least resistance for him.
The powerful and arrogant August Moreau pulls the strings that make all the other characters dance, all but Alex. Does his blindness at the hand's of Alex's mother teach August anything? If so, what?
It certainly doesn’t improve his behavior. Something happens that even he could not have fathomed, so he retreats behind his fortress walls, as if to protect himself from other horrors he feels lurk out there. Unfortunately for him, he keeps the most dangerous thing imaginable inside the fortress with him—his son Alex.
There are vivid contrasts in your book, the most obvious, of course, black and white. But evil also comes quickly to mind. Is there "good" to balance that evil in any of the characters?
There is, but on Bourbon Street, good cannot survive. Hannah is the most vivid example of that. Back when she knew Deke in Texas, she was considered an angel. She remembers that, and it tortures her. She’s aghast at what she’s become. And we see the same thing happening to Deke when he silences a man to save his own skin. When he came there, he was a gambler, but he wasn’t a killer. Now, he may well be, and he notes what’s happening to him, and wonders aloud if the same thing happened to Hannah.
Your characters are extreme, none more so than Ray, with half of his face destroyed (yet another contrast). Does Ray acknowledge what his life has become more readily than the others? If so, is it because he looks at that damage every day in the mirror?
What Ray has become eats away at him day after day because he has to look at it, and because of the way he looks, he’s now trapped in Alex’s world. He’s trapped on Bourbon Street. Alex disfigured him for calling Alex names. We assume he called him “nigger.” In revenge, Alex made Ray the ultimate “nigger” – an outcast, marked on the outside.
Alex is the only racially mixed person at the hotel, although Jimmy is always ready to do Alex's bidding. Is it Alex's connection to August that shapes his relationship with the other characters? Please explain the dynamic.
Half black, Alex is only allowed to run the hotel and act imperiously toward white folks because of his father’s reputation and protection. It’s stated in the book that the older Moreau had promised to kill anyone who touched his son. And Alex explains that the hotel is a “toy” given to him to shut him up, and the other characters, most of whom work for his father, are there to keep an eye on him, so that his father can intervene if he goes too far. However, considering what we see Alex do… we dare not think what “too far” might be.
Clearly, the Hannah of Deke's memory is changed from the woman he meets in the bar years later. Why does Deke so readily believe he is forgiven for the past? Is this stupidity, ego or hubris?
Stupidity, ego and hubris. Sounds like a typical man, eh? Just kidding. I don’t think it’s so much that he believes he’s forgiven. He believes he CAN be forgiven. But he doesn’t realize how much Hannah has changed. He doesn’t realize how desperate she’s become. He doesn’t realize how devastating a blow he dealt her.
Father and son, August and Alex, are caught in a conundrum of mutual hatred, yet August funds his son's lifestyle and manipulates his pawns. What does August want from Alex and why does he hate him so much?
They are father and son. Alex is the only child August has, born of an extraordinary relationship—one unlike any August ever experienced and he will not see its like again. It was a relationship operatic in its beginnings, and its end. It’s a relationship that literally struck August Moreau blind. Alex is the seed of this greatest passion of his life—regardless of how twisted it was. He feels himself bound to Alex inextricably. It’s almost as if he strangely continues the relationship with Alex’s mother through Alex.
What is August's attraction to Christine and hers to him?
Both cherish power and see it in one another. In Christine, Moreau, a white man, sees a woman he regards as a “queen,” despite the color of her skin. Now that’s power. In August Moreau Christine sees a rich and powerful white man whose power she can co-opt to use to her own ends. As mentioned, I have spent most of my life outside the home with white Americans. While they are trained early to belittle or disregard black Americans, our status as their “other” can be turned to power. It’s this idea that drove the Christine character. In 1958 she has turned what should be her greatest handicap in August’s eyes – her blackness – and used it to make her regard her as a “queen.”
Why does August allow Christine to keep the baby? Is August anticipating his power over Christine once she has the child, or is there a more sinister motive?
Knowing Christine, he could never have stopped her from having the child, but nor would he want to. She literally lures him into an alternate world in which their relationship – the union of two great powers – makes all the sense in the world. Only when outsiders finally dare to threaten his power due to his relationship with Christine does he begin to question the situation.
If Alex didn't hold on to his hatred and plan for revenge, could he tolerate living near the man who killed his mother?
If Moreau had not “caged” Alex, he could have walked away. He asks his father to “let him go,” and give him what’s rightfully his. But his father refuses. Again, as he did with Christine, Moreau wants to control Alex, to match his power against Alex’s by “putting him in his place.”
The story unfurls almost as a Shakespearean tragedy, father vs. son. But I have to admit I never saw the ending coming. Without giving away the finale, is the extreme denouement necessary in purging Alex's rage?
It is extreme. But it’s not only Alex’s rage. It’s Hannah’s as well, and even Stacy’s. He just set the wheels in motion. And by the end, Alex’s rage is almost spent. After the fire scene in his father’s house, he just wants his freedom. It’s the other players and their individual plans that force him to keep going.
Since there is no real love and little feigned affection between characters, the entire story is built upon a struggle for dominance, father and son, white and black, wealth and poverty. Is each of these struggles a microcosm of society? If so, please explain.
There’s the memory of love. Moreau remembers what he felt for Christine, which is as close to love as he can get. Pritchett loves Stacy, and Stacy almost loved Pritchett back when she thought he could give her what she wanted. Hannah loved Deke way back when in Texas before he hurt her. This is about love denied and love gone bad. It’s no accident that this book is about a black man and two women trying to break free from a white man who refuses to let them go. Moreau is white America to me. Simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by those he takes into his house, disfigured by his treatment of them, refusing to recognize the rage his actions have engendered…
No one has clean hands in Bourbon Street, not even Deke, the outsider. Aren't they all trapped in a house of horrors, exposed for what they are? Is anyone redeemable? Is Alex?
Redemption…hmmm. It’s a very Christian concept in which I don’t necessarily believe. People are what they are. And I believe that each and every one of us is capable of committing horrors. The history of this century should show us that. Germany, Rwanda, lynchings. Most people involved in these acts and movements were not Hannibal Lecters. They were normal folk. Like you and me. I believe humans are most dangerous when they insist on their innate goodness. Then, they can put a godly face on the terrors they commit. Only by acknowledging the devils within us, can we keep them at bay. Bourbon Street is about the devils within us.
What is the role of your female characters, Stacey and Hannah? Are they any less tainted than the men or more adept at manipulation?
By the end of the book you realize how damaged Hannah is, and toward the end, you realize that Stacy can’t change. It’s just too late for her. They have less power than the men, and covet power less, so they do a little less damage. That’s all.
Betrayal is everywhere, exposed over and over as the story plays out. What is the ultimate betrayal for Alex?
I think the greatest betrayal is having no world to call his own. He’s been denied the white world in which he’s grown up, and raised not to settle for what the black world offers him in 1958. His great strength is that he has the will and the ruthlessness to craft a world of his own.
For all the violence and manipulation, I never sense any cynicism in your writing. Is this an accurate assessment? Why/ why not?
Very often in modern writing cynicism shows itself in an “above it all” authorial stance. Writers tend to judge their characters and treat them with contempt. I never write someone I could not imagine myself being. To treat my characters with contempt would be an act of self-loathing. I think such cynicism is often aimed at the act of writing itself. Let’s face it. The craft ain’t what it used to be. Books rarely capture the public imagination the way films often do.
Your prose is brilliant, shot through with instances of shocking brutality. In what way can language become a weapon for a writer?
Like a good musician, I believe a writer must be himself at all times, but possess appropriate voice for the subject matter. Coltrane didn’t play a ballad the same way he played “Chasin’ the Trane.” Each was equally him, but each was quite different. Same thing with prose. The tone, sentence structure and writing style for Bourbon Street were geared specifically to that story and that locale. It will be similar, to, but quite different from the prose you’ll see in subsequent pieces. As you may have guessed, jazz is the greatest metaphor for writing to me. The improvisatory feel, the shifts in mood, tempo, and rhythm, the intensity – it’s what I hope to achieve in writing.
What do you most want readers to learn from reading Bourbon Street?
I don’t think I want them to learn anything, really. I want them to feel as if they’ve glimpsed the forbidden, as if they’ve gotten a glimpse – I hope a radically entertaining glimpse – into hell. Particularly at this time in America’s history, we seem to be reinventing ourselves in our own image of our own purity. That frightens me. People convinced of their own goodness are the most dangerous creatures on the planet.
What was the most difficult part of writing this novel? The most rewarding?
As always, the most difficult part of writing a novel for me is the rewriting of it. I’m not a first draft kind of guy, so there’s just a lot of grueling, repetitive work involved. The most rewarding thing is—I hope—having made a somewhat unique contribution to the noir/pulp genre I’ve loved in books and films since I was a teenager. Frankly, I can’t wait for the day when I can say the most rewarding thing about a novel is the money I make from it!
Are there any particular writers who have influenced you?
Oh yes. Faulkner, as you may have noticed. I grew up on him. The great pulp writer Jim Thompson was a big influence, and the works of Canadian writer Robertson Davies has probably left their mark. Finally, the early post-modernists like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. While I read and loved black novelists like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin and Chester Himes, their books were often too painful. They often made me angry. Again, it may have been because so many of the characters turn inward the hatred aimed at them from the majority.
Do you have any words of wisdom for would-be writers?
If you’re not doing this for the money, you’re doing it wrong ;)
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines
conducted her interview with Leonce Gaiter via email for curledup.com.
Click here to read her review of Bourbon Street.