On the Verge
O. Henry Award-winning writer John Biguenet, who lives in New Orleans, is in Paris this month for the launch of his novel Oyster, published in French as Le Secret du Bayou, and to teach a creative writing workshop at the Paris American Academy. Biguenet’s previous book, The Torturer’s Apprentice: Stories, will be published in French in 2009. His new play, Rising Water, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, won the 2006 National New Play Network Commission Award and the Big Easy Theatre Award for Best Original Play. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for Paris Update.
Q: Le Figaro gave your novel a very good review recently, referring to comparisons between you and Faulkner, and mentioning Shakespeare in the very first line. Do you consider yourself to be working in the Southern Gothic tradition? Did you think of Shakespeare as you plotted the tragic spiral of violence that unfolds in Oyster?
A: With a conflict between two feuding families resolved by murder and marriage, my novel had to take into account Romeo and Juliet. But the larger influence was Antigone, in which a sister seeks to fulfill her responsibilities to a dead brother – whatever the cost. Is it part of the Southern Gothic tradition? To be honest, I think Oyster depends as much on Zola as on Faulkner.
Q: Because – in terms of Zola and Faulkner – the forces driving your characters are much larger than the characters themselves? In other words, the forces driving them are beyond their control?
A: Oyster is concerned with the transformation of the United States after World War II as a national government and a national economy supplanted the essentially local politics and self-contained industry of the isolated communities where most Americans still lived. Though the inexorable momentum of these forces is certainly beyond the control of the novel’s characters, the most resourceful of these characters recognize the opportunity offered by the changing environment to expand their wealth and power. But to succeed, they must be willing to violate tradition – and sometimes the law.
Q: What made you choose the bays and oyster beds of Louisiana as the setting for the conflict between the Petitjean and Bruneau families?
A: Oyster is a story about a world in transition. The role of women, the shift from family businesses to corporate capitalism, the intrusion of national media on local communities, the breakdown of religious authority, the economic consequences of environmental degradation – everything in that world is in flux. Needing a setting appropriate to the subject, I chose to place the story in the wetlands of coastal Louisiana. Between earth and ocean, the wetlands seethe with both rot and birth. Where better to set a story about things on the verge, about becoming?
Q: The historian Daniel Boorstin, in his book of essays entitled Hidden History: Exploring our Secret Past, describes the American frontier as “the fertile verge.” In your own essay about Oyster, you talk about the verge, “about decay frothing with new life.” Could the audience think of your play Rising Water as being set on a verge as well?
A: In Rising Water, a couple awaken in the middle of the night to find their pitch-dark house filling with water. Clambering into their attic, and then onto their rooftop, they struggle not only to survive but also to keep the guttering flame of their love from being extinguished. Near the end of the first act, Sugar tries to convince his wife, Camille, that “maybe it’s not the end of the world that’s going on outside. Maybe it could be for us a new world just beginning.” His wife resists him: “You talking crazy.” But trapped on their roof in the second act, Camille confesses, “You know, what you said before, I’m beginning to think you might be right. In this moonlight, everything looks so strange, so fresh. Maybe it’s not the end of the world, this rising water.” And then she plaintively asks, “Oh, Sugar, you really think it’s possible? You really think two people – the two of us – we could begin again?”
Q: I know you are working on a second book of short stories. Do these stories in any way resemble those in The Torturer’s Apprentice? In that the reader is often put in a tight or at least surprising spot – asked to think and feel in new ways.
A: Having written both forms, I think of short stories as fundamentally different from novels. This difference arises from the relationship of the writer to the reader in each genre. A novel is the only modern art form in which the audience (rather than the creator) determines how it will be apprehended. In other art forms – symphonies, operas, ballets, films – the audience is held captive for the performance of the entire piece. Short stories, too, are designed to be apprehended without interruption. But the novel is at the mercy of the reader’s life and its myriad distractions, so the novelist cannot predict how the experience of the novel will be segmented by each reader. The short story, on the other hand, has the potential to be – like a poem – a moment of crisis. My new stories, like those in The Torturer’s Apprentice, attempt to reveal such moments. I finished last night, for instance, “Confessions of a Werewolf,” a longish story about a wolf who is disgusted by his transformation each month into a human being. If it succeeds, perhaps it will provoke a crisis in those readers who are condemned never to know metamorphosis in moonlight.
Q: On a lighter note, you’ve been president of the American Literary Translators Association. What’s it like having your work translated into French?
A: I have a very gifted translator, France Camus. And everyone at Éditions Albin Michel, my French publisher, has been wonderful to work with. So for me, it’s been a great pleasure to be published in French. But if you are asking what it feels like to be translated at all, I think it’s what Mussorgsky would feel listening to Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition, the suite of pieces the Russian composed for solo piano. For example, because of the nature of the two languages, my novel is one hundred pages longer in French than in English. And that is only one of many unavoidable differences – some of which may well be improvements over the original. Since English is a forced marriage of French and German, there is a purity to the music of the translated sentence in French that is impossible to achieve in its original English. As you can see, reading your own work in translation teaches you a great deal about both what you have written and the language in which you have written it.
Q: You lost most of your books in the flood that occurred after Hurricane Katrina and have written about it for The New York Times. When you come to Paris, do you buy books to take home with you?
A: The most unexpected consequence for me of the collapse of the levees built by the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers and the subsequent destruction of 80 percent of New Orleans, including our house, was the loss of my ability to read books and watch films. I suppose I was so overwhelmed with the problems we faced – no access to money because our bank was submerged, uncertainty whether we still had jobs, no place to sleep, my city under martial law – that I couldn’t relax my imaginative grip long enough to inhabit another character on the page or the screen. I have only now, nearly three years after the levee collapse, begun to read again. And it was here in Paris that my recuperation began when Odile Hellier at the Village Voice bookshop on the Rue Princesse gave my wife and me a stack of books as a gift after she learned we were from New Orleans. Out of gratitude, I painfully made my way through those books, and now I am reading again. In fact, we’ve bought four books just this week at the Village Voice.
Interview by Jeanne Bernard
Oyster: published byEcco/Harper Collins in the United States and Orion Books in Britain
Le Secret du Bayou: published by Éditions Albin Michel
The Torturer’s Apprentice: Stories: published by Ecco/Harper Collins in the United States and Orion Books in Britain; to be published in French by Éditions Albin Michel in 2009.Favorite