An Interview with 2019 Summer Reading Series Author: Carole Stivers

Posted by Lea @ Arbor Teas on 25th Jul 2019

Join us this summer to get steeped in a story! The Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series presents an original work of fiction by a different author each year. Released one chapter per week, each serialized novel is meant to be enjoyed all summer long by tea-lovers and non tea-lovers alike. Why? Because next to iced tea, nothing goes better with summer than a good read.

This year's book, The Butterfly Garden, is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. This nuanced murder mystery unravels a tale of clashing social values and long-simmering animosities, stirred in the wake of a devastating storm. Arbor Teas' Lea Abbott interviewed author Carole Stivers in advance of the release of this year's book to better understand her method, her inspiration and her exciting future publications!

1) Writing is a second career for you. What sparked your interest in writing, and when did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

When I was a kid my best friend was an avid reader, and together we created characters like “Carbuncle and I,” a sleuth and his diminutive companion who solved crimes. We made up a company that sold “MiniCrypts,” little crypts you could put on top of your TV to remind you of your loved ones, and we wrote hilarious ad copy. But I was just the artist and idea-maker—my friend was the writer (she later wrote for a newspaper).

As for me, I loved to tinker, to build things. And once I started focusing on science as a career, math and science classes took up all my time. Through college, I didn’t take a social science class unless it was required, or unless it was easy and wouldn’t eat into my lab time.

People would always comment that I was a good writer. But there’s a big difference between writing a science article, report, patent, or grant proposal, and writing fiction! I dabbled with a community college creative writing class while in graduate school at the University of Illinois, and again when my daughter was small and I quit work for a few years. But I tended to shy away from “writerly types,” and the inexact science of putting pen to paper.

Fast forward to 2011. I had quit my last job in 2008 to start a biotech consulting business. My daughter had finished college and was into writing fan fiction. She took a few classes at the San Francisco Writing Salon and suggested that I might do the same. My teachers there talked about the “process” of writing, which fit my mindset as a scientist. I met other “techies” who were trying new things. And I soon realized that I did have a knack for “that type” of writing. I couldn’t stop thinking of stories to tell. I already had the idea for my current novel, The Mother Code , in mind, but along the way I also wrote short stories and took lots more classes and workshops. I started getting into writer’s retreats and meeting other writers, and these became my new army of friends. In 2018, when I was signed by my agent, my writing gave me the permission to retire from consulting.

I love the solitude of writing, and the places where it takes my mind. And I find I can combine it with my other favorite passion, travel. I’m lucky, because if you want to stick to writing, you must love it. And if you want to be read, you have to be willing to listen to the way others respond to what you have written, to take strong criticism, and to revise, revise, revise—all things I had learned well in my previous job and as a consultant.

I’ve been met with some very satisfying success in this “second career.” But my advice to would-be writers remains the same: Don’t give up your day job, because writing is not a sure thing, and certainly no way to make a living. But if you have a passion for telling stories, never give up writing either!

2) Where did you get your idea for The Butterfly Garden?

The idea for a story involving a butterfly garden first came to me during a November visit to the Monarch Butterfly Natural Preserve at Santa Cruz California’s Natural Bridges State Beach. From my childhood on the Great Lakes to my adulthood in California, the butterflies’ strenuous existence has always astonished me; these preserves, found up and down the California coast, form part of their challenging western migration route.

The spring after that visit to Santa Cruz, I took a trip to New Orleans. I’d been there on numerous business trips, soaking in the food and the night life. But on more recent trips I’d gone as a writer, bent on learning more about its environs, culture and history. The New Orleans Garden District, a walkable neighborhood of historic homes, was a place I had visited often. On that trip, I learned about the local flora and fauna there from area residents and tour guides. I also spent time in Audubon Park and at the New Orleans Botanical Garden in City Park. The Botanical Garden has its own Butterfly Walk and Hummingbird Garden, where monarchs thrive perennially. I was pleased to learn that the butterflies of New Orleans had survived Katrina and had come back in force soon after.

At the time, I was thinking about writing a serial for Arbor Teas, where my friend Lauren Doyle Owens had published her story, The Wintree Waltz , in 2016. And I had just reread an old Agatha Christie mystery from the library. I thought that the serial nature of the Summer Reading Series would lend itself so well to mystery—I was surprised no one had done it yet!

In the end, the analogy between the tenacious life cycle of the monarch butterfly and the rebirth of New Orleans after Katrina was not lost on me. And the idea of a mystery set in New Orleans was a no-brainer. Thus was born The Butterfly Garden .

3) Why did you choose to set your story in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and to highlight issues of class and race?

New Orleans is a crossroads of culture, unlike anywhere else I have visited here in the U.S. It’s 300-year history includes stories of the African diaspora in the form of the slave trade, of French and Spanish landowners from Haiti and Cuba seeking fortune in the establishment of plantations, of French Canadians fleeing hostilities in their homeland, of Germans and Brits and Scots and Irish seeking fortune in trade, all intermarrying with each other and with the Native Americans who came before. The descendants of these early inhabitants still dominate the city’s ethos. And they are the font of the city’s abiding importance in American art, literature, and music.

But the problems facing New Orleans today are also emblematic of those facing other U.S. cities—unequal distribution of wealth, institutional racism, political corruption, and above all, climate change. Katrina acted as a catalyst, an upheaval that brought decades of festering social and economic disparity to the surface. For days, until Lieutenant General Russell Honoré was able to restore order, law enforcement ran amok. The engineering fiasco that was the levee system was revealed to the greater public. Long-standing issues with inadequate city services were exposed. The plan to demolish the “bricks,” the once proud public housing projects built in the 1940’s, was just one example of the exploitation of disaster on the part of the city’s “haves” to clear New Orleans of its “have nots.”

In every story that takes place in New Orleans, the city becomes a character. I thought it would be fascinating to place a small mystery, whose roots are buried deep in the past, in the midst of all this chaos.

4) How did you research this story, and what was one of the most surprising things you learned?

Much of my information was garnered through travel. Some key New Orleans spots that I visited specifically for this story included:

Katrina Museum: The Presbytère, a Louisiana State Museum next to the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter, houses two wonderful displays: The “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond,” and “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana.” This informative museum, and the St. Louis Cathedral itself, are well worth a stop when you’re in town.

The Land Records Division: The Land Records Division at 1340 Poydras in New Orleans is the consolidation of offices formerly known as the Recorder of Mortgages, the Register of Conveyances, and the Custodian of Notarial Archives. The Notarial Archives are a source of information dating as far back as the city’s founding and are used by researchers world-wide. The wonderful attendant at the office on the day I visited was a huge help as I worked out the legal intricacies of my story.

Metairie Cemetery: There are many interesting cemeteries in New Orleans, each full of the iconic lichen-encrusted above-ground crypts. The Metairie Cemetery, located southeast of City Park, has the largest collection of elaborate marble tombs and funeral statuary in the city. Home to great families, captains of commerce, soldiers, and statesmen, it’s the place where “anybody who’s anybody” in New Orleans society might seek to have their family memorialized. Like City Park, it was underwater after Katrina, but has since recovered—and with no loss of its inhabitants!

Another source of information was books. There are so many great books that take place in and about New Orleans. The two I relied on most heavily for this story were:

  • 1 Dead in the Attic by Chris Rose, a reporter for the Times Picayune, consists of a series of articles reflecting the author’s struggle with PTSD as he documented the aftermath of the storm.
  • The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story by Julie Reed, contains lots of details about houses and small businesses in the Garden District, and the effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on that neighborhood in particular.

I also viewed some very good documentaries. One was Harry Shearer’s “The Big Uneasy” (2010). But if you really want to understand the truth about New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, watch Spike Lee’s award-winning documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” (2006) and his follow-up, “If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise” (2010). Characters like Patsy Lee and her daughter Shantel and grandson Simon, and like Chauncey Turner and his son DeWayne, were modelled after interviewees in these documentaries. Displaced by Katrina, people had to seek new lives; many never returned. All these documentaries are now available through public libraries.

Though I had read about many of the issues facing New Orleans after Katrina, I still had no idea how dire and desperate—how purely out of control—things were just after the storm, and about the stress disorder that so many survivors still endure. A final source of information was friends, native New Orleanians who so graciously combed my manuscript for inaccuracies. And in the end, I think one of the most surprising things I learned was something that one of these friends told me: You can ask a hundred people about what happened during and after Katrina, and everyone will give you a completely different story. In retrospect, I should have known this would be true—because we all experience such horrific events through the filter of our own very personal experiences.

This friend also told me that people in New Orleans were tired of talking about Katrina. No doubt that’s true for some, but by no means did I find it to be universally true.

5) How did you select the names and roles of your characters?

Hayden Kayne is very loosely based on a real New Orleans lawyer, whose fall from grace after Katrina was oft chronicled in the New Orleans Times Picayune. But Hayden’s character is tempered with the sensitivity of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the liberal leanings and kind sensibilities of my own brother, an Ohio lawyer who helped me with some of the legal aspects of the story. As my brother was quick to recognize, my Hayden’s name comes from Hayden Cain, the crusty old gentleman who handled our father’s family’s wills and estates when we were young. But I changed the spelling of his last name to match that of the Kayne Prime Restaurant in Nashville, a fine southern establishment where one can famously dine on such delicacies as thick slabs of bacon topped with maple cotton candy.

As Hayden developed from a peripheral to a central character in my story and explored the roots of his own conflicted identity, I soon realized that he embodied the confusion that erupted in New Orleans after Katrina. Of all the characters I have created over the years, he soon became one of my favorites.

Nancy Carroll’s name is an amalgam of my mother’s first name, Nancy, and my own first name. But the name Carroll is a prominent one in New Orleans. Regarding the other ladies…I have long been a fan of the musical The Music Man, which takes place in Iowa. One day while having lunch in a New Orleans restaurant, I spotted a group of women at a nearby table who reminded me of Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife in The Music Man, and the gaggle of ladies in the musical who famously sing the song “Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little.” My friend, a New Orleans native, leaned over to me and said, “There’s your cast of characters!” So, the doctor’s wife, Madeleine DuParc Barrington , is my Eulalie Shinn—the civic leader, the one who runs the show. I loved writing her, and entertaining her thinly veiled prejudices regarding everything from local society to other people’s inadequacies. Her husband George is named after my father. Estelle Azby Willoughby (whose middle name comes from the name of Azby Destrehan, the last of the Destrehan plantation family, and whose last name comes from an Ohio town near where I lived as a child) is just a sweet sycophant of Madeleine’s.

The name Watson is important in my husband’s family—the maiden name of his grandmother, who owned farmland in southern California. William Watson and his father Henry are very loosely modelled after known New Orleanian families who have had a hand in New Orleans real estate development since the 1800’s.

Claude Thibodeaux, his father, and his grandfather Casimir (I actually met a Casimir in New Orleans!) are of Creole descent. Early in the history of New Orleans, the term “Creole” referred to a slave born in the New World, a free person of color, or a person of mixed racial heritage. But especially after Louisiana was brought under American control in the early 1800’s, the white descendants of the French and Spanish who lived in New Orleans began to call themselves “Creole” as a way to distinguish themselves from the Americans flooding into the city—for whom they held nothing but disdain. These old Creole families, who aspired to a refined style of European living, often gave their children ancient classical Greek or Roman names, or the names of Roman Catholic Saints.

Mrs. Johnston was a beloved teacher of my daughter’s in grades 2-3.

As for all the other names, except for Cochon the cat (see below), I just dreamed them up!

6) Did you hide any secrets in this story that only a few people will find? And, if so please share some hints!

By way of an answer, here are some questions:

  • In Chapter 2, Hayden rides a motorcycle down St. Charles until he sees the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Circle. Madeleine makes an observation about this same statue later, in Chapter 6. Her reference is somewhat comical today. Why?
  • The jail at the Union Passenger Terminal (1001 Loyola Ave.) where Hayden finds himself in Chapter 2 was meant to accommodate prisoners evacuated from the flooded Jefferson County Jail after Katrina. But it also became used to house people arrested for looting and other petty crimes. How long was this makeshift jail kept up and running?
  • In Chapter 2 we find mentions of dynamited levees, alligators in the streets, and rooftop snipers in the wake of Katrina. Did any of these threats really exist? And was there a historical precedent for Richard’s suspicion that the levees had been dynamited?
  • Letty’s dropping salt on the kitchen floor at the beginning of Chapter 6 is actually of significance. Madeleine Barrington’s condemnation of Letty’s mother as a sorceress and practitioner of “voodoo” later in that same chapter are far off base as usual. But do you know why the salt is important, and why “voodoo” was not the right term for Madeleine to use in any case?
  • Cochon the cat, whom we first meet at the end of Chapter 8, is purportedly named after the pig’s head upon which he was found dining outside a butcher’s after Katrina. But this name has specific culinary significance in New Orleans today. What is it?
  • In most states in the U.S., a “notary public” is just a person licensed to serve as an impartial witness in signing important legal documents. But Louisiana’s “Napoleonic Law” is unique in the U.S.; the legal system in Louisiana—unlike that of any other state—derives from a Civil Code established by a French emperor in 1804. A Louisiana Notary has broad powers usually reserved for attorneys in other states. The Notary is a well-known person with a reputation to uphold, and his duty is essentially to lessen the burden on the court system. This is supposed to result in better enforcement of the law. But does it always do so?

7) This story was purposefully written to be released in a serial format, but can also be read in one sitting. Did writing for the serial format impact your writing style?

I don’t think it impacted my writing style that much. As I did in my novel The Mother Code, I wrote this story in close third person, from multiple points of view. This structure lends itself well to mystery, where “who knew what, and when,” is so crucial. And I tried to make each chapter a complete story, each ending with a little cliff-hanger that would keep the reader wondering. This had become a habit in my novel-writing as well, as I sought to create a page turner.

There is possibly one difference between the two, however: In my novel, the chapters were of varying lengths, as befit the scenes. The serial format forced me to think along the lines of short vignettes, each of approximately equal length. It thus forced me to outline and pre-plan more—something I’m not very good at! I tend to be more of a “pantser” by nature.

8) What is your favorite childhood book? (Or what current authors do you admire?)

My favorite childhood books included the Nancy Drew mystery series, anything by Dr. Seuss (especially The Sneetches and Other Stories), and P.L Travers’s Mary Poppins series. My favorite school-age book was To Kill a Mockingbird , because I so strongly identified with the character of Scout (my Jem was my older brother, and my Boo Radley was named Mrs. Mosely). For some reason, I went through a Kurt Vonnegut phase in college. And in my thirties I read Ayn Rand—I loved the character of Dagne Taggart in Atlas Shrugged . These days, my favorite authors are Isabel Allende and Margaret Atwood. My favorite book right now is The Atlas of Reds and Blues by my friend Devi S. Laskar—a bit hard to take, but so beautifully written, and one that I simply can’t forget.

9) You have a new book, The Mother Code, set be released by Berkley Books (Penguin Random House) in May 2020. Please tell us about it!

The current “flap copy” for The Mother Code goes something like this:

It’s 2049, and the survival of the human race is at risk. The earth’s inhabitants must turn to their last resort, a plan to place genetically engineered children inside the cocoons of large-scale robots—to be incubated, birthed, and raised by machines. But there is yet one hope of preserving the human order: an intelligence programmed into these machines that renders each unique in its own right—the Mother Code.

Kai is born in America's desert southwest, his only companion his robotic Mother, Rho-Z. Equipped with the knowledge and motivations of a human mother, Rho-Z raises Kai and teaches him how to survive. But as children like Kai come of age, their Mothers transform too—in ways that were never predicted. And when government survivors decide that the Mothers must be destroyed, Kai must make a choice. Will he break the bond he shares with Rho-Z? Or will he fight to save the only parent he has ever known?

In a future that could be our own, The Mother Code explores what truly makes us human—and the tenuous nature of the boundaries between us and the machines we create.

This story started with a simple vision of a boy living inside a robot in the desert, and included some standard science fiction tropes: the consequences of biowarfare, the delicate nature of our planet. But over time, it began to take on other themes: the nature of the mother-child bond, and the “self versus other” paradox that parallels the evolving relationship between a child and its mother as the child grows up; the preservation of a human consciousness through AI, and how such a creation might ultimately find meaning in its existence; the evolution of a new type of intelligence in which a developing human mind is paired with a machine mind, and what that might mean for the future of humanity. I have a penchant for creating huge casts of characters, and many in this story had to die. With all these characters, themes and the associated world-building, it took me eight years to finish this “simple” story!

10) Anything else?

I just wanted to give a shout out to my great beta readers for The Butterfly Garden : Eden Chubb, Jacqueline Hampton, Holly Hess, Lauren Doyle Owens, Gary Reeve, and of course my “captive audience”—my daughter Jeannie and husband Alan. Also, to Lea and Aubrey at Arbor Teas, for trusting me to write the story and for their incisive edits.

Answers to the questions under #6 above:

  • Under the leadership of then-mayor Mitch Landrieu, General Lee was removed from his plinth on May 19, 2017, within days of the removal of three other confederate monuments in New Orleans: The Battle of Liberty Place Monument, the Jefferson Davis Monument, and the General Beauregard Equestrian Statue. All these monuments are currently still in storage, awaiting their fates.
  • Fully operational by September 3, 2005, the temporary jail at the Union Passenger Terminal was abandoned on Oct. 17, 2005, by which time 1284 arrestees had been booked.
  • Based on subsequent research, the alligators, sniping, and dynamiting were rumors and nothing more. The alligators were a fun but false myth. The sniping, which Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame insisted he’d participated in, did not in fact occur. And the levees were not dynamited—they simply failed. Long-standing rumors of a dynamiting operation aimed at saving the French Quarter during Hurricane Betsy in 1965 are also unfounded—though Richard may have believed they were true. But these dynamiting rumors were in fact spurred by real events that occurred during the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. At that time, a decision was made to intentionally destroy portions of the levees to flood large areas of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, thus displacing over 10,000 residents.
  • Salt is sometimes used in spellcasting by practitioners of “Hoodoo,” often to banish negative energy from a home. While oft confused with one another, “Voodoo” and “Hoodoo” are not interchangeable. Both are a mixture of various beliefs, practices and religious elements, and both have roots in Africa with aspects of ancient worship. But Voodoo is an established and recognized religion, with the attendant leaders, teachers, representatives, services and rituals. Hoodoo is not a religion, but rather a set of practices that draw heavily from folk magic, especially that which originated in West Africa and tends to be practiced in Louisiana (though its practice is not exclusive to that region).
  • Cochon the cat is named after a great butcher shop and a Cajun restaurant in New Orleans, both owned by chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski.
  • One can never be too certain when relying on the integrity of powerful political figures!