I met Laura Lane McNeal in New Orleans last fall, just as her book DOLLBABY was hitting it big. This is her first novel, and so I met her as she was on the cusp between being a familiar, fellow, struggling writer, and the superstar that she has emerged as being. Her book amazed me for so many reasons. First, it contains history of the U.S., as well as the more local history of New Orleans without sounding like a lecture. I learned a lot reading this book. But it also captures a more subtle New Orleans flavor than other pieces I’ve read. You’ll see below what went into the creation of the voices of the characters, as well as how hard it was to record the book while maintaining the complex and subtle variety of accents that one finds in that part of the world.
This is your first novel. How has your life changed since its publication?
There is a certain freedom to feeling anonymous, especially when it comes to your writing. For years I sat at my computer wondering if anyone would ever read anything I’d written. Once my novel was published, exposed for the entire the world to see and comment on, I felt a bit naked! It can be overwhelming, that’s for certain, and I’ve learned a lot along the way, but my biggest surprise and comfort has been how very supportive all the other authors have been, ones that I’ve met, and in particular ones that I’ve only come to know online. They understand what you’re going through — they lend a hand, pull you up, tell you it’s okay to breathe. I thank each and every one of them for that! You do have to learn to manage your time and your stress, and I’m finally able to do that after almost a year. And I’m back to writing, which in itself gives me peace of mind.
What’s next? When is the paperback coming out and are you touring? Might DOLLBABY be made into a movie?
The Paperback for DOLLBABY is set for release June 23. I will start a brand new tour for the release, and I’m thrilled to be visiting other parts of the country that I missed on the hardback tour! The tour is still being finalized, and other venues and cities will be added as we go along, but you can visit the Events section of my website to get the exact information: http://www.lauralanemenceal.com.
By the way, my website has a Readers Group Guide, a slew of Queenie’s recipes that are great for book clubs, and an interactive map of New Orleans, among other things.
As far as DOLLBABY being made into a movie, all I can say is that I don’t go to one event where that question doesn’t come up! We have had many inquiries regarding the movie rights, so stay tuned and keep your fingers crossed! New Orleans is referred to Hollywood South because so many movies are being made here these days. And given that all the venues in the book are easily identified, it should be a piece of cake to make DOLLBABY into a movie. It would also give moviegoers a chance to see another side of the New Orleans!
And I’m busily working away on my next novel that starts on Christmas Eve 1926 at the bonfires on the levee on River Road in Louisiana. The Great Flood will take over everyone’s lives, crops have failed, and The Great Depression is about to send a once affluent family fighting for their very existence.
How did you get the voices of each character to sound so differentiated without overdoing the accents?
Trying to get the culture right was one of my biggest goals when writing DOLLBABY.
New Orleans is often portrayed as gritty and the characters a caricature. I strove to show another side of the city, the one that most outsiders may never have considered.
What makes the city unique is that it is multi-cultural, so much so that I often refer it as a gumbo culture. Over the course of a few centuries, many of the dialects have melded in one way or another, yet on some ways, still hold a distinct presence. New Orleans has been a major port since its inception in 1722 by the French. Then came the Spanish thirty years later. When Louisiana was purchased in 1803, an influx of Americans and Europeans came to seek fortunes, and around 1850 there was another surge of immigrants – the Germans, Jews, Italians, and Irish — the same contingent that was also settling the Bronx at that time, which is why some of the accents in New Orleans sound scarily similar! And then there are the Africans, the Canary Islanders, the indigenous tribes, the Croatians, the Cajuns, the Chinese, Koreans and so many more, each bringing their own culture and language. New Orleans has a tendency to embrace each of these cultures, bringing them together, rather than separating them. And you wonder why New Orleans has so many celebrations!
How did I differentiate the voices without going overboard? The language here has more to do with nuance than accents, the placing of the words in a different order, the sound, the cadence. When I worked with the talent for the audio book, she had watched some videos about New Orleans and commented that she couldn’t believe how many different accents there were! I started laughing. I said that’s right, and each person in the story, even a different generation, might say the same word differently! We spent several hours going over pages of words she and the producer had given me, and I pronounced them the way each character in the book might have pronounced them. Then I gave them a list of words they hadn’t thought of, like how to say New Orleans for instance!
Do you belong to a writing group? Is it helpful? How does it work?
When people ask me how to get published I give them some simple advice. Learn how to write first. That may sound simplistic, but this is the step many people overlook! I am a journalist and a marketing professional by trade. I learned how to write long ago, but I had no idea how to write fiction. That was a whole different animal. So I enrolled in writing classes at a local university. Once you finish, you can be invited to join a writer’s workshop. In the workshop, there is a teacher and ten pupils. Each person has to submit one hundred pages of writing over the course of a workshop, which lasts the same amount of time as a college class does –i.e. for several months. During the course of the workshop, your work is critiqued in 25 page installments, both in writing by each member of the workshop, and in class where each member comments on your work. Many people won’t take a workshop because they don’t want other people commenting on their work, but I can tell you, this is a crucial step! You have t get over your fears and learn to take the good and bad, while ignoring the inevitable impudent comments that come from people who may be jealous or lack confidence in their own work. This is apart of the learning process, but you can’t write in a bubble. You need feedback on your work. Another option is to start your own writing group with people you like and trust. Bottom line, you need another set of eyes to give you some insight – don’t let it get to an editor or agent without having someone else read your work first and give feedback, or it will be back to the drawing board. You’re not given a second chance to present to agents or editors, so make it right the first time!
What writer’s works most helped you with DOLLBABY?
Oh, where to begin? While researching DOLLBABY, I read or re-read so many classics to try and get my mind in the right place. I also wanted to capture an old style of writing, a classic style, so I went back to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Faulkner’s Light in August, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms. I read Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Tennessee Williams. I boned up on New Orleans culture with old time writers such as Lyle Saxon. I read current literature, too many to name. I was very influenced by Sue Monk Kidd, both for her writing style and her views.
Many people have compared DOLLBABY both to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and to Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, as there are parallels to both.
What advice do you have for writers struggling to get their work published?
There is no simple answer, and one person’s path will not necessarily be your own. But I will say this. Learn how to write. Learn what agents are looking for. Learn what is going on in the industry. Don’t try to to follow a trend. Write something that will stand out (for being exceptional, not for being far out!) And keep at it! The writer’s that are published are the ones that didn’t give up! Finally, learn from your mistakes and move on! Become a better writer. Then start all over again. Hint: your first novel may not be the one you get published, so keep trying.
This book was written in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What abut the tragedy brought about the writer in you?
In a sense, I believe I’ve waited all my life to write this novel, but it came down to a single life-changing event in 2005 that inspired me to begin writing —Hurricane Katrina. While eighty-percent of the city fell victim to the floodwaters that stubbornly resisted returning to the sea after the storm, far-flung politicians began to question whether a city built below sea level was worthy of rebuilding. As much as it angered me to hear this banter, it gave me a renewed determination to do two things: embark on the writing career I’d put off for so many years, and tell the story of New Orleans, the way it was and never would be again. In a way, I wrote DOLLBABY for the people of New Orleans.
After the disaster, I noticed that the people who had returned to the city wanted to reminisce, talk about what it was like in New Orleans before the storm. From the age of twelve, I’d promised myself that, at some point, I’d write a novel. I searched for years for a story worth telling. Now, I knew I’d found it. That story became DOLLBABY.
In one aspect, DOLLBABY is the story of New Orleans, but more importantly, it’s a story of love, loss, resilience and family, universal themes that triumph even through adversity. DOLLBABY portrays a world that no longer exists, yet in some ways, it’s a world that exists for all of us.
Why did you choose to name the novel DOLLBABY for your novel when it appears that Ibby Bell is the protagonist?
While it seems logical to name a novel after the main protagonist, that’s not always the case. THE GIRL WITH A DRAGON TATTOO is one novel that comes to mind right off the bat – the book was about the girl with the tattoo, but she wasn’t the main protagonist, the male journalist was. And while Ibby Bell is indeed the main protagonist in DOLLBABY, her coming of age story is not the only story in the novel. In fact, it’s not the main story. Once all the doors in Fannie’s house are opened, once all the secrets are revealed, DOLLBABY is the story of Dollbaby. Each of the secrets of Fannie’s life lead up to how Dollbaby came into the world, and explains how these five women’s lives are inextricably intertwined because of her very existence. Ibby plays a main part in exposing these secrets, and the story of her life is valuable, especially when it comes to helping her understand the life’s lesson they are all seeking – where do I fit into this world? Sometimes you have to look beyond the ordinary to find the answer.