"Start with What's Right in Front of You"
Constance Adler began composing the vignettes that would ultimately form My Bayou: New Orleans Through the Eyes of a Lover in 2004. This was before two of the seminal events in the story—the literal whirlwind of Hurricane Katrina and the emotional maelstrom of her divorce from the “Yoga King of New Orleans”—and, as such, the narrative becomes a journey that the reader takes along with her.
Adler delves into vodou (vodoun? voodoo? she explains the etymology better than I can in her book), recalls the bitter fury of wearing a back brace as a child, meditates on the connections between humans and animals and humans and other humans, chats with death, gets mugged, crosses the country and ends up back on the banks of Bayou St. John.
Originally a journalist, Adler jumped to creative writing a few years back in order to escape the restrictions of reportorial writing. My Bayou bridges the gap; as Adler herself puts it, she wrote the book by reporting on her own life, beginning with her decision to abandon the Big Apple in favor of the Big Easy. Here's her take on switching styles, in her own words:
On leaving New York and coming to New Orleans:
I don't know how I'd be if I'd have stayed. I was miserable—and I didn't know I was miserable.
On Bayou St. John, which takes turns as setting of and character in her book:
People who live along the bayou are very territorial. Everyone has a unique and subjective relationship to the bayou. This is my bayou because I say it's my bayou—no one has to agree with me.
On writing; particularly, her blog, "Emily Every Day":
A lot of things get started because you're curious about what will happen. I treat her (Emily Dickinson, the blog's eponymous heroine) as a spirit, a loa (more on that in a moment); she and I are the co-creators of that blog. And as for books: In 2004 I reached a point where I wanted to try something more ambitious … as I walked on the bayou, which I do constantly, I remembered that one of my teachers had said, "Start with what's right in front of you." Use that image, and let that image take you forward. Looking at my feet in the mud, and the bayou, the sky, the birds … the story took on a life of its own. And as for this book: There was a moment that every writer hopes they have; the book just started to come out on its own. It was pulling me along. It was very exciting.
(The loa are godlike spirits integral to vodou.) On vodou, including the spiritual possession that may or may not have temporarily claimed her person during a ceremony on the bayou:
What I do believe is real is the faith of certain practitioners within that religion. Sallie Anne [Glassman, a recurring character in the narrative] is a very sincere person. What she reports as her experience, I believe that as truth. Spiritual truth is subjective. …I tried to report exactly what I felt without judging it. Something was going on at the time; and there's something that happens with groups, with group energy.
On getting out of her own head and into that group energy:
It's an occupational hazard. It's hard for us to get started…it's that feeling of watching yourself. I think it's part of the human condition, that feeling of being split off.
On making the jump from journalism to creative writing:
There are limits (as a journalist); you're bound by other people's stories. I should preface this by saying that journalism was a wonderful education in writing, and forced me to go out and meet people and ask about things that were really none of my business—but also to pay attention, take notes and get it right, and to hold myself out of the story.
On dogs, which feature prominently in the narrative:
There's almost a biological imperative there. I'm in charge of nurturing him (Lance, her adopted mutt), so I have to believe he's the best dog in the world. Like spiritual truth, it's subjective. …That's the nature of love.
On New Orleans, the city that, quite literally, came to her in a dream:
It expanded my way of seeing so much, and gave me new ways of living. …You can't put your finger on it; you can point to the music, or the food, but there's an ineffable quality to it.