The Floating World: Q & A With C. Morgan Babst

10/17/2017 10:08 am ET

With all the recent storm activity plaguing the Southeastern United States, reading The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst set during the aftermath Hurricane Katrina can seem like art predicting life all over again. This book presents a timeless exploration of what it means to be home and the things families can do to us and for us—both good and bad.

How do you define home? How does this novel define it?

During the decade I lived in New York—a period that felt like a brief sojourn, though it was long enough time for me to get a degree, take and lose a couple of jobs, meet and marry my husband, and birth a child—people would look at me funny when I referred to New Orleans as “home.”

“But you’ve been here seven years,” they’d say, “You get to call yourself a New Yorker now.”

I knew the subway system by heart—I once even schooled the new owner of an appetizing shop on the brand of cream cheese he should carry (and he still carries it)—but I was not, I insisted, a New Yorker. I was in exile there.

We’re particular about home in New Orleans. We’re touchy about nativity, longevity, about who gets to claim this messy, lovely city as their own. Even the word “from” is loaded; for us it means that you were born here—and probably your mama should’ve been born here, and maybe her mama too. It wasn’t until I went away that I realized that “from” means other things to other people, that you can be “from” whatever place it is you go back to.

My best attempt at a definition is this: home is the place that made you. Often that place is not the place where you grew up—it might be the college town where you came into your own or the city you chose to live in because it offered you the freedom to be yourself. New Orleans doesn’t give her children any choice in the matter, though: like a mother, she claims you as her own, knows you intimately, demands your loyalty—and when you go home, she feeds you red beans and rice.

In The Floating World, the Boisdorés are all struggling with the aftermath of the near-destruction of their home—not just their house, bashed in by a falling magnolia and riddled with mold, but their city, flooded, abandoned, and suddenly unable to care for her own. As the family works to rebuild, each character has to redefine home according to what they most need it to be.

One of your characters makes a point that whenever something is broken, it is the fault of the maker. Do you agree or disagree with him?

This line comes at the end of a scene in which Vincent, the patriarch of the family, is struggling to impart some of his knowledge to his granddaughter Del, who had once seemed likely to inherit the family tradition of cabinetmaking. She’s not being careful enough for his taste, angrily patching over damage in an heirloom hope chest rather than working carefully to improve the piece. His point is that frustration never produces good work; if a problem seems intractable, that’s because you’re just not trying hard enough to find the solution. But Del takes his advice slant: she hears him saying that she’s brought her current troubles down upon herself.

One of the reasons I love writing fiction is that I don’t have to choose sides. Answers are out; it’s the questions that matter. In this novel, I wanted to explore how we, as individuals, face challenges that seem insurmountable. How does one begin to address a catastrophe of municipal proportion? Is it helpful to track backwards to the root causes of a disaster and discover who is to blame? Certainly the Boisdorés have a lot to regret; they have arrived at this state of ruin through a cascade of failures—of levees, of love—that they should have been able to predict and to prepare for. They have to reckon with that, but their more urgent concern is figuring out how to move out towards the future.

Craig Mulcahy

After immersing yourself in this narrative, what did you come away with? What did you learn about yourself? What are you working on next?

Though The Floating World is my debut, is actually the third novel I’ve written. In some ways, I see those earlier books as apprentice pieces; like Vincent’s hope chest, they helped me hone my skills—taught me how to tell a story, structure a plot—but I didn’t put enough of myself into either of them. This novel, on the other hand, was an act of love. It felt necessary, as if I might drown if I didn’t translate all my love and grief for my city into words. I think that it succeeds where my drawer novels failed because that emotional investment shows on the page. As I move forward into my next novel—a noir about whiteness that I hope will end up being intense (and short!)—I am trying to maintain that level of emotional nakedness, so that the reader will experience, along with me, a moral drama that feels like a wallop to the chest.

This book paints a necessarily bleak portrait of New Orleans; what are some of the bright spots that you treasure about this place? What do you want people to know about New Orleans beyond Katrina?

I hope that, under the lake mud, the mold, and the water-stains, readers will still be able to see the New Orleans that existed before the storm and exists now again, if in an altered form. I actually wasn’t able to start writing the book until I knew that all would end, if not well, then with some hope that the New Orleans that made me would survive. It has. New Orleans is still a wet and verdant city, where strangers greet each other beside the walls of cemeteries with a nod and an “Alright,” where the smell of browned butter mingles with the sound of distant drums. We may not all be all right again—not that we ever were—but we’re working on it, and that gives me hope that, even after this summer of earthquakes and fires, tremendous storms and torrential rains, everyone from Houston to Barbuda will find the strength to get back up again.

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