Like Tess, the main character in Lies Agreed Upon, I first encountered New Orleans as a tourist. I loved the city each time I visited, especially its historic architecture, its history and culture, and its rich culinary heritage--but I chose it as the setting for the mystery in Lies Agreed Upon because of a real event in my family.
My maternal grandparents came from Louisiana, and I knew vaguely that their families had once been well-to-do landowners and businessmen. I heard that, as a girl, my grandmother had been tended by servants who were former slaves. But I knew very little more until my mother and her siblings, who had been raised in very modest circumstances in southeastern Texas, were surprised to learn of inherited land near New Orleans. A bitter legal battle over ownership ensued between my mother's family and relatives still living in Louisiana.
The Louisiana courts eventually ruled that the property belonged to all descendants of the original owner: a Spanish immigrant who arrived in Louisiana in 1838. As one of his many heirs, I received a family tree with the names of 307 people--and that's not counting my generation of descendants and their children and grandchildren. As far as I know, no heirs ever benefited from the contested property. The life stories of the people in that family tree bear no resemblance to the events in my novel, but the surprise inheritance, its hidden history and its family feud inspired the basic premise of my mystery tale.
Another event in the novel is based on personal experience, too. My paternal grandfather worked as an oil rig foreman in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana. When I was a girl of about 6, we visited my paternal grandparents in Louisiana where my grandfather was working--and complaining over the prodigious amount of shrimp he had to supply the Cajun roughnecks. My grandparents were staying in a house near a bayou, and we were fishing from the bank one day. While the fishing poles were temporarily untended, a huge gar was somehow hooked. My mother grabbed the fishing rod just before the gar dragged it into the water, but my grandfather seized the pole from her and landed the fish. My grandfather then handed me the dying gar on a line and ordered me to drag it to the nearby shack of a poor black man. It was a terrifying duty since the fish was still snapping in its death throes, and, I am ashamed to admit, I was a child of segregation and afraid to deal with a black stranger.
My children--raised in California in a home of mixed ethnicity and with friends of every race and religion--happily cannot relate to the prejudices of my childhood. But no story set in the South can ignore the bitter residue of slavery and Civil War. I doubt my contemporaries who grew up north of the Mason-Dixon Line ever played "Rebels and Yankees" as a I did as a child. The little kids in my neighborhood had never read a history book, but they knew exactly which states were on the "good" Confederate side. I had the misfortune to have been born in Kansas during a brief sojourn there by my parents, and this doomed me to always playing a Yankee in our mock battles. Since the Yankees were always the fewest and littlest, I always lost.
Even today, I think old scars still mark Southern politics (consider the interesting geography of the "red states") and Southern culture, black and white.
I love New Orleans' varied cuisine, and I included mentions of it in my story because food is so essential to the character of the city. For example, I recall a tour of the Garden District during which the guide noted that famous actors like that they are largely left in peace by their neighbors there; of course, residents would have paid much more attention if they were famous chefs, he added! Louisiana's distinct Creole and Cajun food traditions are separated from neighboring regions by more than miles. In my family, my father's Texas-oriented side was firmly fixed in a tradition of fried food, while my mother occasionally honored her roots by serving Creole-inspired dishes. I used to mentally call these collisions "the okra wars," where the fans of the crisp, floured and fried okra of Texas stridently rejected the Creole-spiced stewed okra and tomatoes of Louisiana,
The way people speak is important to the flavor of a place, too. So I thought it essential to some of the older characters to capture the distinct accents of New Orleans and its environs. Older people are more likely to speak in the "Yat" of New Orleans or in French-accented Cajun voices. I tried to balance this with readability. Louisiana natives will doubtless find lapses in authenticity, and I hope they'll forgive them.
If you haven't guessed, the Hotel d'Iberville, Beauvoir's Oyster Bar and Restaurant, the Alhambra gardens and The Lost Lady Restaurant are imaginary. Other places--1850 House, the Oak Alley and Laura historic plantations, Tremé landmarks, the Garden District, the cemeteries, the restaurants in the French Quarter, and the clubs on Frenchmen Street--all do exist. You can't tour with Happy Cajuns Swamp Adventures, but there are many swamp tours that will let you feed marshmallows and raw chicken to alligators.
The history and culture of Louisiana and New Orleans are rich and complex, and I could only touch on them to provide a context for the characters. I urge readers to explore further, not only through reading but with a visit to New Orleans, to sample its unique cultural "gumbo" for themselves.
Copyright 2013. Katherine Sharma. All rights reserved.