Photo credit: Craig Mulcahy
Describe your latest book.
For several months — maybe years — following the near-destruction of New Orleans by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, I wandered around telling everybody that everything was fine. I was fine, my family was fine, the city was going to be fine. Now, obviously, I was lying, but I didn’t know it at the time. It can take a while to absorb the fact that your home and everyone you know is in a state of ruin.
If I am remembering right (and I am not sure of the truth of anything I remember from those years), I was still saying things were peachy when I began to write The Floating World
, the story of a New Orleans family who leave their fragile eldest daughter, Cora, to ride out the storm on her own. Since my days of being lovelorn on public transportation, though, writing has always been the way I cope — it’s the way I trick myself into grieving.
By writing the story of Cora, who refuses to engage with what happened to her during the month she spent adrift in the flooded city, I learned acceptance. By sitting with Joe and Tess, whose marriage is ravaged by regret and recrimination, I explored the difficulty of trying to enter into someone else’s grief. In Del’s anger, I gave voice to my rage. In the loss of Vincent’s memory, I began recovering my own.
This is not to say that the book was a self-help project — though it didn’t hurt. Rather, I hope the The Floating World
reflects, in an honest way, the experience of grappling with and recovering from the sort of large-scale trauma that New Orleans suffered in 2005 — and that Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, Barbuda, and Mexico City (to name just a few) are dealing with today.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I’ll be a Shel Silverstein fan ‘til I die. The chicken-scratch silliness of his verses was probably the first thing to incite a creative urge in me — there’s a wildness and a freedom to them that can’t help but excite. The poem “Crowded Tub” from A Light in the Attic
is — along with some Merwin
, a bit of Bishop
, and The Jabberwocky
— one of the few poems I know by heart:
There’s too many kids in this tub
There’s too many elbows to scrub
I just washed a behind that I know isn’t mine
There’s too many kids in this tub.
Though I’ve chosen to believe that Shel wrote The Giving Tree
under some kind of Misery
-esque duress, I love his prosier books too — none of them more than Lafcadio
, which is basically a novel (and a thesis on colonialism) for five-year-olds. It can still make me laugh so hard water comes out of my nose, and I do believe that one day, when I’m old and famous, I’m going to get myself a marshmallow suit.
When did you know you were a writer?
The moment I chose to be a writer is one of those unnaturally vivid memories:
My dad and I are driving down Napoleon towards Broad, the grassy neutral ground streaming by to the left, the smell of Popeye’s thickening the air. He says to me, “You’re going to NOCCA next year,” and I blink for a minute, as if the lights have just been turned on.
(I’d been at the same Catholic school, with the same 56 girls, for 10 years at that point, and the idea that I’d be going to another school — and a public arts conservatory at that, with the likes of the Marsalis brothers — seemed incredible.)
“So, are you going to sing, or are you going to write?” my dad asks.
I barely have to think about it. It’s obvious that I will be perfectly happy reading and writing every day. Singing? Not so much.
It frightens me a little bit to wonder what would have happened had I not gone to NOCCA, where I studied with the wonderful writers Anne Gisleson
, Brad Richard
, and Tom Whalen
. I truly have no idea who I would have become had I not spent those 15 hours a week, every week, for three years, reading and writing at a pace that I haven’t surpassed since.
After college, I would occasionally try to shrug off writing — it was scary, it was crazy, I didn’t really want to live in a van down by the river. I tried working in publishing, tried teaching, tried restaurants, but I could never get my heart into anything else. Eventually I jumped off of the cliff and committed to writing as a profession, and I haven’t looked back since.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have a bit of an index card problem: I use them as bookmarks in whatever I’m reading, so that if I find a quote that I think I’ll need or have a “genius” idea, I can write it down before it slinks away. To deal with the resulting million very important 5" x 7” scraps of paper, I have wallpapered my home office in cork so that I can pin them to the walls, designing thematic and plot structures as I go along. It looks like chaos to everyone else, I’m sure, but to me it’s a marvel of organization.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I’m probably problematically attached to New Orleans. I think I’m actually in love with the city… only it’s a little hard to tell if it loves me back.
The other night we had a bunch of people over for dinner, and a friend’s husband started going off on the city — complaining about the infrastructure, the bus schedules, the schools. I had to excuse myself before I got violent. I mean, so what if we have boil-water advisories every other month? Who needs buses when we have charming street cars that go 10 mph (when they go)? And the schools are getting better; since Katrina we’ve gone from 49th in the nation to 42nd! Sure we have problems — some new, some old, some intractable — but the thing is: You don’t dis my love in my kitchen. No matter what you say, she will always be my dangerously verdant, stiflingly humid, roux-thick, death-obsessed, trombone-playing love.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
This is probably not news to your erudite readers, but everybody should be reading Maggie Nelson. Her brain is a wonderland, and her writing is a direct passage into that brain. Argonauts
is the best place to start — a fragmented but accessible and terribly moving memoir of transition. After that, you can read Bluets
, then The Red Parts
. Please save The Art of Cruelty
until the very very end.
What's the most interesting job you've ever had?
Right after college, I worked as a wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado, throwing saddles and taking tourists on long rides out into the heart of the national forest that bordered the property on all sides. As a Comparative Literature major, I’d been studying a lot of theory, slowly losing my grip on the immediate world and any ability I’d had to write about it. That summer of sunburn and sweat, pushing horses out of the hills at dawn and drinking Coors Lights in the bed of a truck at dusk, brought me back down to earth.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I spent several months in St. Petersburg, primarily because that was where Nabokov
grew up (and I needed to get better at Russian if I was going to graduate). His parents’ house by the Neva was… full of marquetry. But while rambling in the woods with friends I made in class — a brilliant budding linguist and a crazy Swedish woman — I fell straight into the world of the novels I loved, a place where you might stumble upon the rusted hulk of a beached Imperial ship or be invited into a cottage by a strange old woman to have marinated mushrooms.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
This is from Rainer Maria Rilke’s only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
(Trans. Stephen Mitchell):
"To be loved means to be consumed in flames. To love is to give light with inexhaustible oil. To be loved is to pass away; to love is to endure."
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
I despise what I call aftermarket words — redundant new forms of preexisting words like “irregardless.” I’m also a strenuous defender of the Oxford comma.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I’ve been known to drive 30 miles off the highlighted route to get chicken fingers and a butterfinger blizzard from Dairy Queen.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
In the last class of the course he taught at NYU, E. L. Doctorow
sat with his elbows on the table and gave us all the wisdom.
On not getting caught up in research: “Only writing is writing.”
On avoiding outlines: “You don’t want to be in a position of filling in what you already know.”
On second-guessing yourself: “Shut up.”
I was writing it down in my notebook so fast that some of the sentences trailed off, and I think it’s funny — and fitting — that the bit of advice that has been most helpful to me is the one that I had to fill in later from memory:
“Trust the act of writing to tell you what you need to know.”
This bit of advice has influenced my writing in every way, from how I compose (longhand, with my critical faculty turned off) to how I revise (read a draft like a stranger to better mine it for its knowledge — which may be different from my own).
My Top Five Books on Mourning
While writing The Floating World
, I surrounded myself, probably less than wholesomely, with the books that reflected my grief. These were not always, or even often, books about Katrina; with the exception of Rose’s book, the books I picked up about the storm were too orderly to feel true. To achieve catharsis, what I needed to read and to write was something curdled, off-kilter, like the keening of a woman at a grave. For me, these are the five books that best approximate that howl:
“Requiem” in Poems of Akhmatova
by Anna Akhmatova
(Trans. Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward)
Akhmatova spent a year and a half standing in lines outside of a jail in Leningrad, awaiting news about her imprisoned son. During that time, she began writing “Requiem,” a poem that bears witness to Stalinist terror.
Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides
(Trans. Anne Carson)
No one but the great poet Anne Carson should be allowed to translate a scream.
The Sound and the Fury
and Absalom, Absalom!
by William Faulkner
These two novels tell the stories of the Compsons and the Sutpens in swirling eddies of narrative — there are undertows, whirlpools, waterspouts — that pull the reader inevitably under, to drown in history.
One Dead in Attic
by Chris Rose
One Dead in Attic
collects the columns following Hurricane Katrina in which Rose chronicled New Orleans in extremis. There is no more accurate reflection of the city’s distress and its unraveling.
Men We Reaped
by Jesmyn Ward
Ward’s memoir in five deaths unburies a history — and a present — that should cause every American to mourn.
÷ ÷ ÷
C. Morgan Babst
studied writing at NOCCA, Yale, and N.Y.U. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in such journals as The Oxford American
, The Harvard Review
, The New Orleans Review
, and her piece, "Death Is a Way to Be," was honored as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2016
. She evacuated New Orleans one day before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. After 11 years in New York, she now lives in New Orleans with her husband and child. The Floating World
is her first book.