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Interview: October 2010

October 2010

Writing for a YA audience for the first time, native New Zealander Paula Morris brings the mystery and excitement of one of America’s oldest cities to life in her novel, RUINED, which follows a lonely teen named Rebecca through the streets of New Orleans as she gets shunned by almost everyone --- except for a ghost and a gorgeous guy named Anton.

In this interview with’s Norah Piehl, Morris talks about the places and people that inspired her to write a book like RUINED, elaborating on how living in a new place has helped her “go undercover” as a writer and the culture shock she experienced upon moving to “The Big Easy.” She also reveals why she modeled the cliques at Rebecca’s school after ancient Roman society and offers tips on how teens can help her adopted home recover from Hurricane Katrina. What inspired you to write RUINED?

Paula Morris: I wanted to write a mystery/adventure story that my niece could read. She was about 14 or 15, I think, when I first started working out the story, and when she read the outline, she gave me very useful feedback. And, of course, there were some aspects of New Orleans's unique culture and history that seemed to demand a story. I'd been living there for several years, and I was ready for the challenge.

TRC: Did you, like Rebecca, experience any culture shock when you moved to New Orleans?

PM: Absolutely. I've lived in quite a few different places, and there's always an adjustment period, when you learn new words and customs, and when you start making sense of the place. It’s more than just the geography --- it involves getting to know its mood quirks, I guess. And its people. In New Orleans, there's a lot to learn. Luckily, I'd been there several times before and studied some aspects of its culture for my doctoral thesis. My husband and I also got married in New Orleans several years before we moved there. We have very good family friends in the city, and they've been excellent guides and hosts over the years. Still, living in a place helps you see it in different ways. For writers, living somewhere can help you go undercover.

TRC: Your descriptions of New Orleans in RUINED are very evocative --- sometimes spooky, sometimes inspiring. Is your portrayal of the city fairly accurate? Was there anything that you invented for the sake of the story?

PM: I took artistic license with a number of things, especially the carnival parade --- that route would never be allowed! All the houses are made up, in that they're not based on particular places in Treme or the Garden District. They read like real places, I hope, because I'm very familiar with the way houses look in those neighborhoods. The school, Temple Mead Academy, is invented, though I borrowed the general location from an actual school in that neighborhood because it worked with the location of Rebecca's house and the cemetery. The café that all the girls frequent shares a location with a real-life café, but I've re-named it and re-decorated it to my own tastes! And liberties were taken with the cemetery because, in real life, it would be quite easy to climb over the walls near the Sixth Street gates --- getting locked in wouldn't really be a problem. The Bowman tomb has no particular role model either, I'm afraid to say. I went on a cemetery tour late in the day --- I mean, when I'd almost finished writing the book --- so I'd already imagined something specific. Writing fiction is all about experience meeting invention. Everything has to serve the story.

TRC: The girls at Rebecca's school compare the social structure there to that of ancient Rome. Are those terms --- Plebs, Patricians, etc. --- really used in New Orleans? Do you think there are parallels between New Orleans and ancient Rome, and if so, what are they?

PM: No, the Roman terms aren't used by schoolgirls in New Orleans --- not that I know of, at any rate! As soon as Aunt Claudia started talking about the root of the street name, Prytania, I guess I started wandering towards the ancient world...Aurelia's name is Latin, of course, and Anton is named for Marc Antony. As you can probably guess, I'm very interested in Rome. The rigid hierarchies of Roman society seemed to lend themselves to the stratified world of Temple Mead. It was another thing that Rebecca didn't know about, as well. You're always trying to make things as difficult as possible for your characters. Rebecca is really out of her element in her new school. There are too many things she just doesn't understand.

TRC: What's something in New Orleans that most tourists never see but that you think shouldn't be overlooked? What surprised you most about the city now that you have lived there?

PM: Most tourists just see the French Quarter, and maybe the Garden District. Crossing Esplanade Avenue to explore the Marigny is a good idea. Crossing Rampart Street to see Treme is another. And I’d highly recommend going all the way uptown to eat a po’ boy at Domilise's. I’d often take visitors to see the Steamboat Houses at Holy Cross. They're something special --- and ridiculously odd. I can also highly recommend Liuzza's By the Track, in Midcity --- great gumbo, great po’ boys.

What surprised me most about New Orleans...hmm, that's a good question. Maybe the heat. When we moved there, I knew it would be hot; I'd been there in the summertime before. But the endlessness of the heat, its suffocating, all-consuming ferocity --- that was something else. The lizards as well, perhaps. There are so many lizards!

TRC: When Rebecca and Lisette walk through the city, they see countless ghosts from all different eras of New Orleans's past. Do you think history is more present in this city than in other American cities?

PM: Yes, the peeling layers of history in New Orleans are often visible. Over-eager town planners have done their damage, as they have in many places in the US, prioritizing cars over neighborhoods. But New Orleans is an old city, founded in 1718, and it's seething with stories, secrets, dramas and mysteries. Even highway overpasses can't obliterate those.

TRC: Do you believe in ghosts?

PM: Yes, I do.

TRC: Have you ever had your fortune told?

PM: Several times, though I can never remember anything they tell me.

TRC: What books would you recommend for readers who want to learn more about New Orleans, past or present?

PM: My favorite novel set in New Orleans is A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole, though teen readers might want to wait a while before tackling it. NINE LIVES: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum, is a great nonfiction book about contemporary New Orleanians, and Ned Sublette's THE WORLD THAT MADE NEW ORLEANS: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square, is a fascinating social history.

TRC: RUINED was originally published in hardcover last year, close to the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. How, in your opinion, is the city doing? Did you always know you would try, in some way, to integrate the hurricane's aftermath into your novel?

PM: The city is doing fine and not-so-fine, depending on the block you’re looking at --- and, of course, your point of view. In terms of writing RUINED, the storm --- and the flood that followed --- is one of New Orleans's most defining moments. It's a shadow that everyone lives with; there are physical and psychic scars. You can't set a novel after the storm and not mention it.

Even though Rebecca is living in the Garden District, where there was hurricane damage but no flood damage, she hears about the storm. The school she's attending was closed for an entire semester --- all the girls had to go to school somewhere else, most of them in another state. It was a time of tremendous loss and upheaval. The storm haunts us all, in a way --- all of us who were living in New Orleans that August. And ghosts, as we know, don't go away.

TRC: Are there still opportunities for young people to get involved in the recovery efforts? Where might your readers go to learn more about volunteer opportunities in the city?

PM: Interested readers could investigate, which identifies a wide range of volunteer opportunities for children, teens and adults. Many community groups, schools and churches all over the country are still sending people down here to help rebuild. Unfortunately, there's still a lot to do.

TRC: What books by other authors do you enjoy that you think might also appeal to your teen readers? What are you reading now?

PM: I'm possibly the last person in the world to be reading THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by Stieg Larsson. For teen readers, I would recommend the Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend. Start with THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE, AGED 13 3/4. It's hilarious. I've read it at least a dozen times.

TRC: Can you tell us a little bit about your future plans? What project are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?

PM: I've just finished a second YA novel, DARK SOULS, which will be published next year. It's another supernatural mystery set in a very old and haunted city --- this time in York, the small city in England where I went to university. I think it's a bit scarier than RUINED, actually --- maybe because York is teeming with ghosts.