- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
In The Devil’s Muse, Bill Loehfelm puts his New Orleans patrol woman Maureen Coughlin into a mystery that takes place over one long night when a shooter cuts loose during the Mardi Gras parade. A great take on the procedural, The Devil’s Muse has a strong sense of immediacy and presents an insider’s look at New Orleans.
Bill will be returning to BookPeople for our New Voices In Noir Panel, this upcoming Wednesday, July 26th, at 7 PM, but we were able to get some questions to Bill before the event. He’ll be joined by Rob Hart and Jordan Harper for the panel discussion.
MysteryPeople Scott: I know you said you were wary about doing a story set around Mardi Gras since it’s a cliched backdrop for authors to use when writing about new Orleans. What did you see as the in to making the story fresh?
Bill Loehfelm: A couple of years ago, a friend and I were discussing writing about New Orleans, talking about avoiding clichés and the postcard version of New Orleans that we’re constantly selling. I told him I had a list of rules, of things I’d never write about, and one of them was Mardi Gras. But instead of agreeing with me, he challenged me, pointed out I had a lot of experience as a waiter and a bartender, a lot of inside experience with Mardi Gras that others didn’t have. That comment put the idea in my head of a Mardi Gras story told from the inside out, a story from the point of view of someone inside the infrastructure of the holiday. It gave me a fresh take on the subject.
When the opportunity for a Maureen Coughlin one-off came, it seemed to perfect time to take up that challenge.
MPS: I noticed I read this book in longer sittings than I usually do, mainly because the short time span of the story made it feel immediate. Did it have any effect on your writing the story?
BL: Originally, I was going to set the book over the last long weekend of Mardi Gras and cover more of the city, but that was just too much material, too much to explain. So instead I went the other way and decided to pack everything into one parade night, on one compact section of the parade route. I just wanted to see if I could do it. Now instead of four days, the book takes place over more like four hours, along about two miles of St. Charles Avenue. A Mardi Gras parade is such an intense experience, I thought a tightly condensed story would help communicate that intensity.
MPS: There is a documentary crew that plays a key role in the book. What did you want to say about the media’s role with either the city or the police?
BL: One of the hot debates in New Orleans right now is over authenticity, over what’s “real” New Orleans and what’s not. We call it getting “Nolier than thou.” I wanted to address that debate a bit, is the “real” New Orleans something you can even find as a visitor? Especially if you’ve come here looking for the clichés. And who gets to say what’s authentic? And I wanted to challenge how the media can focus on the negative, and how sometimes we tend to think as the negative interpretation or version of this city as more “real” than the positive. Sometimes we think of a murder as more authentic New Orleans than a parade. I don’t think that’s true.
And I’m fascinated by where power lies in modern media, especially the internet, but TV news, too. That power seems to lie with whoever can speak to the most people the most quickly and the most provocatively, who can get the biggest reaction – and not who can speak the truth the best, or truth to power. All the Maureen Coughlin books are about power, one way or another.
MPS: I noticed Maureen does less second-guessing in this book, even though you dropped her in an overwhelming situation. What besides experience has made her more self-assured?
BL: I think necessity. An officer I talked to for research told me that, whatever happens on your part of the parade route, it’s yours, no matter what it is. Everyone else on the route has their own massive responsibilities and they’re counting on you to have an answer, to handle your shit. That really stuck with me. We’ve watched her learning to swim for a couple of books. It was time to toss her in the deep end and let her fend for herself. She’s had a lot of faith in herself; I wanted to reward it.
MPS: What is the major quality that Maureen possesses that makes her a good police officer?
BL: I guess you’d call it empathy, or maybe emotional intelligence. Before she was a police officer, she had a long career as a cocktail waitress. If you’re going to survive in that business, especially as a woman and as someone of small stature, you need to learn how to read people and situations quickly and accurately, how to anticipate what they’re going to do, what they want, what they’re about, what they respond to. She’s developed those skills at a very high level. I think her big flaw is that she doesn’t understand herself nearly as well as she understands other people.
MPS: You’ll be a part of our new voices of noir panel. What do you think is the biggest misconception of the genre?
BL: To me, noir is to literature what the blues is to music, and I think people can misunderstand noir the way the blues gets misunderstood – that all the subject matter is dark, sad, and depressing. But noir, to me, like the blues, is about survival, especially in the face of harsh realities, and that’s what I love about it.
To get a better idea of The Devil’s Muse, check out the book trailer-
You can find copies of The Devil’s Muse on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Come by the store this upcoming Wednesday, July 26th, at 7 PM for our New Voices in Noir Panel discussion with Rob Hart, Bill Loehfelm, and Jordan Harper.