Please welcome Joy Castro as she talks about her first fictional novel, Hell or High Water
Joy Castro Interview:
New Mystery Reader: Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about your new novel and what inspired you to write it.
Joy Castro: Sure, and thank you. Hell or High Water is a thriller, and it’s set in New Orleans three years after Katrina. A female tourist has been abducted from the French Quarter at the same time a young reporter at the Times-Picayune, Nola Céspedes, is assigned to write a story on the hundreds of sex offenders who went off the grid during the hurricane.
That’s true, by the way: over 1300 registered sex offenders went missing during the Katrina evacuation, and by 2008, about 800 had still not re-registered anywhere. They took the catastrophe as an opportunity to disappear. When I learned that, I knew I had a story, and that’s the story I gave to Nola.
Nola is a hard-boiled, cynical protagonist with troubles of her own. She starts investigating sex criminals, and it leads her into some complicated danger.
The novel is inspired by two kinds of resilience: the resilience of survivors of Katrina, a natural disaster followed by a long aftermath of mismanagement, and the resilience of survivors of sexual assault, with which many survivors struggle for years. I wanted to write a story that highlighted the bravery and toughness of both kinds of survivors, who faced first catastrophe and then neglect. That’s what inspired the book.
NMR: You set your story just a few short years after Katrina, can you tell us how this particular timeline was important to the story?
JC: The story of the storm itself has been told and retold many times already and will continue to be so—often beautifully and powerfully—but I wanted to set this novel a few years afterward, when it had become very clear to everyone that the damage was not going away, that the rebuilding process was going to drag on and on, and that justice was often going to be hard to find.
Not to strain the parallel, but this is often the case for survivors of sexual violence, too, so the setting felt perfect for this particular story.
NMR:Your novel brings up several issues, some relating to disparities in social class, some relating to government failures, some relating to personal coping mechanisms. Which do you think is perhaps the most relevant that you’d like your readers to understand, or are they all equally important?
JC: For me, they’re inextricable. Violence operates on multiple levels at once: the level of the nation-state, the level of social life and the street, and the most intimate, personal level. On each level, violence is used to silence, subjugate, and subdue.
Whether it’s due to our citizenship in a particular nation, our social class, our gender, our racialized bodies, or some other factor, we are all told, “You matter,” or “You don’t matter,” multiple times throughout our lives, and sometimes that verdict is reinforced with violence.
We all participate in either the embrace of this social determination or a resistance to it. I’m more interested in the resisters.
NMR:One of the many issues you raise is that of the civil rights of sex offenders, do you think that maybe our government should put a finer line on who ends up on the list? That perhaps this clouds the real issue when the subject of the sex offender registry is being debated? What other type of improvements do you think can and should be made?
JC: Our sex offender registries are a flawed, evolving system, and we see errors and excesses in both directions: on the overzealous end of the spectrum, as when young people who’ve had consensual sex with their slightly younger partners end up on the registry, and on the careless end, when unrehabilitated predators slip through the cracks and attack again.
The registry is clearly a work in progress, but it’s a beneficial way to protect the innocent. We just need to keep fine-tuning the concept.
NMR:Your novel is obviously well-researched, can you tell us what were the most shocking facts you discovered while writing?
JC: Thank you. I really enjoyed doing the research about New Orleans history, but the research into sex crimes was definitely the most shocking. I think I was most surprised by a polygraph study done in 2000 with men who’d been convicted on one or two counts of molestation. On average, they’d each actually molested around a hundred and ten victims. I also learned that child molesters have usually been active for about sixteen years before they’re convicted. That’s stunning.
If you have readers with a particular interest in the research that mystery authors do, they might like this piece <http://inreferencetomurder.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/07/author-rr-with-joy-castro.html> that talks more about the various kinds of research I did for Hell or High Water.
This couldn’t have been an easy story to tell; how difficult was the telling for you, and what was the hardest part?
I love this material so much, all of it—New Orleans, the characters, the food, the music; even the crime and the criminal psychology is so fascinating—that drafting the novel was a pleasure. It was taxing in the way that any long project with an uncertain outcome is taxing—investing years in a book, not knowing if it will ever be published—and then it’s true that some of the material is nightmarish, but mostly I just felt charged to be working on a challenging project.
I did have difficulty at the craft level, though, because of my academic training in modernist literature: Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner. I did a scholarly doctorate in modernist literature and then taught it for several years in the academy, and—much as I love them—modernist novels aren’t exactly known as page-turners, and they’re not good models for a thriller writer. I’ve written elsewhere <http://writerunboxed.com/2012/07/06/from-the-ivory-tower-to-the-gritty-gutter-by-joy-castro/> about my struggles with plot, suspense, and cause-and-effect. To write this novel, I had to retool.
NMR:Your character has a pretty intense dark side to her, which seemed very realistic; were you ever asked to tone her down, and if you weren’t, what would you have said in response if you had been?
JC: Many editors did pass on the novel because it was just too dark, so I’m lucky that Karyn Marcus, who was then at St. Martin’s, loved it anyway and took it on.
One change that happened is that initially, the protagonist Nola Céspedes was even mouthier, and Karyn knew that readers would have a problem with her potential unlikability due to other issues, so she suggested toning down Nola’s verbal outbursts. I agreed, and I liked the effect. It drove Nola’s character inward, which makes her seem even more isolated, more noir-ish. I’m fond of the old hardboiled heroes from Hammett and Chandler, so as Nola became more laconic, her character clicked more deeply into place for me. I really like the idea of a twenty-first-century Latina Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade.
NMR:And while this is a very disturbing story, you do offer up hope. Although it does seem a battle to get to that place. What do you see as the most important step in the healing process?
JC: Realizing that you’re messed up. As long as you’re functioning—as long as your coping mechanisms are still working for you, you can think, I’m okay. I might be suffering, but I’m okay. Life’s just hard. You can justify things to yourself. To begin healing, you have to realize that you’re functioning in an unhealthy way—that your mind’s not right.
This is true at an individual level and at a societal level. The “intervention” is now a cultural cliché, but it signifies the fact that something dramatic is often necessary to wake an individual up. The old coping skills have to fail, like when you wake up hungover and realize you gambled your house away last night. Or when a society wakes up and realizes its dependency on fossil fuels and overconsumption of natural resources are sick and self-destructive.
NMR:This is such a vividly drawn character, that no doubt your many new fans would love to see her again. Any plans for that to happen, and if so, could you tell us a bit about what to expect next?
JC: Thank you. The second novel in the Nola Céspedes series, NEARER HOME (after the line in the Frost poem “Desert Places”) will be out in July 2013.
Like the first book, it’s set in New Orleans, and many of the characters recur. But it’s a very different story.
While running in Audubon Park at dawn, Nola discovers a body—and it turns out to be someone she knows. She decides to investigate, and it leads her into the midst of police corruption and a political cover-up. Pretty soon, it’s her own life that’s at risk.
NMR:Finally, what if anything, would you like readers to most take away from this story?
JC: Excitement, anticipation, surprise. I want readers to feel blown away and eager for more.
NMR:Thank you so much for the wonderful book and for sharing some time with us!
JC: Thank you. I’m really glad you liked it. These are great questions, and it’s an honor.
JOY CASTRO teaches literature at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Her 2005 memoir, The Truth Book was elected an ABA Book Sense Notable Book.