It struck me as sadistically brilliant. But as it sunk in, I realized there was considerable pressure to try to be interesting and/or insightful and/or witty on both sides of the Q and the A. But, I wouldn’t have to worry about being misquoted. Then again, if I didn’t end up sounding interesting/insightful/witty, I couldn’t blame it on being misquoted. Apparently, they don’t call this The Nervous Breakdown for nothing.
So how did you find the topic for Madam?
Like most of the topics I write about, it found me. I was in New Orleans visiting a friend, and I stumbled across a book of ghost stories that featured Madam Josie Arlington and her haunted tomb. It wasn’t the ghost story I was interested in, but the part about her life, how she rose to great wealth and power as one of New Orleans’s most infamous madams.
But didn’t you once say you’d never write fiction?
Oh, well…yeah, I did. And I believed it. My first love is nonfiction, and I tried for a year to write a nonfiction book about Josie Arlington. But records had been lost or destroyed, and I wasn’t able to cobble together enough to fill an entire nonfiction book about her. But I couldn’t let her go. I tried to make up all sorts of excuses why I should let her go, but she stayed with me. That was nearly 10 years ago. In the interim I thought, well, maybe the story is a screenplay, and a mutual friend introduced me to the actress Kellie Martin and we wrote a pilot. And if you live in L.A. you can probably finish this sentence, but the pilot hung out in option-land for several years. I got to the point where it was more frustrating to watch Josie in limbo than it was to try my hand at fiction. And so, a few years and many drafts later, Madam: A Novel of New Orleans is now venturing out into the world.
You’ve written other books that are narrative nonfiction. What’s narrative nonfiction?
It’s a true story that reads like a novel—as opposed to a true story that reads like a textbook.
So why was it a big deal to jump from narrative nonfiction to fiction?
For me the biggest leap was to historical fiction. When I’m writing nonfiction, I’m interviewing a ton of people, or shadowing people, and for one of my books (Leg the Spread) I spent two years essentially undercover to research my topic. I was immersed in the world I was writing about. But with historical fiction—Madam is set in 1897 New Orleans—the world is no longer, it isn’t happening at the moment, all around you. I’ve spent considerable time in New Orleans for research, but the specific places in Madam (the red light district called Storyville, the bordellos, the saloons) were razed long ago. So you have to start reading everything you can and figure out how to cull the details that bring the story alive.
Sounds like writing historical fiction was harder than writing nonfiction?
No, not necessarily. They both have their own highs and lows. With nonfiction, you’re often waiting—hoping—for something to happen. And, more often than not, things don’t play out in the ideal way, and you have to figure out how to incorporate all the detours and missteps and dead ends into your story in a compelling way that keeps your audience wanting to turn the page.
What’s one question, as a writer, you always get asked?
People always assume I must be extremely disciplined, and they want to know my writing schedule. Do I write at the same time every day? Do I make myself write for a certain amount of time? I hate to disappoint them, but no, I don’t have any writing schedule or quota. In fact, a lot of days I don’t write, or can’t write or just don’t feel like writing. I write when it hits me, and sometimes that’s for ten minutes, and sometimes it’s all day and through the night. Which leads me to the myth about being disciplined. It’s funny because part of what I love about being a writer is the absence of structure. I can’t remember the last time I set my alarm clock.
CARI LYNN is a journalist and the author of four books of nonfiction, including The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors and One Woman’s Fight for Justice with Kathryn Bolkovac, and Leg the Spread: A Woman’s Adventures Inside the Trillion-Dollar Boys’ Club of Commodities Trading. Her first novel, Madam, was released by Plume in February 2014. She has written for numerous publications, including O, the Oprah Magazine, Health, the Chicago Tribune, and Deadline Hollywood. She has taught at Loyola University and received an M.A. in Writing from the Johns Hopkins University. She currently lives in Los Angeles.