by Susan Larson, Book editor, The Times-Picyune
Wednesday September 09, 2009,
For Morris, New Orleans is both literary inspiration and classroom, a home away from her native New Zealand, where she spends time each year.
Rebecca has a surprising destiny to meet in New Orleans, as she sees an ancient curse fulfilled, guided by a ghost girl who lives in the cemetery across her Uptown street, and who has tales to tell of the 1853 yellow fever epidemic.
"I became very interested in New Orleans history and culture," she said. "So when we decided to get married we came here. We got married on Sept. 30, and we would never have chosen that day if we had lived here, but there was no hurricane, we had beautiful weather.
"We came down here again in March 2004, and you know New Orleans in March -- lovely, fragrant, colorful, blossoms on the trees."
She teaches courses in fiction, screenwriting, and literary events management. The latter oversees promoting visits from such writers as Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie and Joan Didion. (The next writer in the Great Writers series is Carlos Fuentes, who will appear here next spring.)
New Orleans had previously appeared in Morris's fiction -- her novel, "Queen of Beauty," features a researcher working for a New Orleans writer, and several of the stories in her anthology, "Forbidden Cities," nominated for a Commonwealth Prize, are set here.
She is also the author of a novel called "Hibiscus Coast," about an art forgery of New Zealand's famous Goldie paintings and a sparkling parody of chick lit called "Trendy But Casual," about a beleaguered New York City publicist. The latter draws from Morris's Manhattan experiences as a publicist for Virgin Records and Polygram. Morris often found herself writing about New Zealand in New Orleans, and vice versa.
"After the storm, I found it quite difficult to write fiction about New Orleans," Morris said. " I didn't want to seem to seize the moment for commercial gain. .Â¤.Â¤. But I'd been a ghost writer for young adult novels for the past four years, so I was gaining familiarity with that world. I began to think of writing my own book."
"Katrina really is a shadow, isn't it?" she said. "I found it interesting to write something for young readers about that shadow without making it a Katrina narrative. Also, I was interested in the other shadows in our history as well, because there are so many of them. It's that darkness that makes New Orleans interesting and complex. And they are darknesses, they aren't necessary jolly uplifting episodes in history. For example, so many guidebooks never mention Haiti or the slave rebellion, and I wanted to be quite sure to look at the community of free people of color.
"I do know that some people think the book is quite critical of New Orleans. But I don't write cozy books. I also think that you can celebrate a place and revel in all its richness without writing boosterism -- I'm not working for the tourist board."
For her next book, the historical novel "Rangatira," Morris plans to draw on her family history. She is of mixed English and Maori (Ngati Wai, one of the indigenous peoples of New Zealand) descent, and her book takes place in 19th century England. That bridging of worlds and cultures comes naturally to Paula Morris, who revels in complication and richness.
"Maybe that's why I love quadroon balls," she said, "given my background. I love this city. It's always passing for something else, isn't it? Aren't we all?"
Book editor Susan Larson can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3457.