A Conversation With Laura Lane McNeal:
Q: What inspired you to write DOLLBABY?
In a way, I think I’ve waited all my life to write this novel, but it finally came down to a single life-changing event that inspired me—Hurricane Katrina. When New Orleans lay in ruins after the storm, far-flung politicians questioned whether a city below sea level was worth rebuilding. As much as it angered me to hear this, 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. I wrote DOLLBABY for the people of New Orleans.
Q: How did you choose to set your novel in New Orleans during the civil rights era?
My original intention was to recapture a bygone era. I chose 1964 somewhat at random, as it was the beginning of some of my earliest childhood memories. It wasn’t until I began doing research, reading newspapers from the time, that I became cognizant of the extent of social change in the air, and I felt I couldn’t tell a story about New Orleans without the civil rights movement becoming an integral part of it. In a sense, writing the novel led me on my own journey, picking up pieces of a puzzle I didn’t know were missing.
Q: Do you have memories of New Orleans during this time?
New Orleans is steeped in the tradition that any life event is cause for celebration. Where else do they bury the dead above ground, have hurricane parties, dance around with napkins on their heads, or think sucking crawfish heads is loads of fun? On the flip side, I have vague memories of side windows at restaurants, separate drinking fountains, separate bathrooms, separate schools, war protests, and love-ins at Audubon Park. I was an outsider looking in, though, too young to understand what was going on around me.
Q: DOLLBABY is told through the perspective of 11-year old Ibby, an outsider to Southern culture, and Queenie’s daughter, Dollbaby. Why was it important for you to include both of these voices in the story?
I felt dual perspectives were vital to the story. Ibby’s voice lends the eye of a young impressionable girl who is just beginning to question the world around her — a new world she doesn’t quite understand. Dollbaby, who is older and wiser and from a completely different background, takes Ibby under her wing and explains the ways of the South. By doing so, Doll reveals her own inner turmoil as she struggles to embrace the ramifications of the changing times. In this way, their stories were able to overlap, intertwine and ultimately resolve themselves.
Q: What prompted you to write from the perspective of two young girls, rather than adults?
One basic theme that permeates the novel is discovery. From both Ibby’s perspective, as well as Dollbaby’s, the lingering question remains—who am I, and where do I fit in this world? It’s a question everyone asks of herself at some point, which is why it remains so poignant. What does life, and ultimately death, mean? I felt this discovery was more powerful coming from a young girl who had very little perspective on the world around her. It is a coming-of-age novel, certainly, but it is more than that. It also asks the question—what do I do when I get there?
Q: How much of your own life permeates this story? How have your experiences with New Orleans affected the way the Ibby encounters Southern life?
Southerners are natural storytellers, keepers of their own oral history, so when I decided to write the novel, I rounded up tales I’d heard as a child, threw them into a big pot, and added a pinch or two of my own story now and then. It became clear that I needed a character able to discover New Orleans from a fresh point of view in order to translate these peculiar customs to the reader without having to explain them outright.
Q: Did your writing process entail any research into the Civil Rights era?
I researched the novel for well over two years before I sat down to write it. The research ran the gamut from re-reading Southern classics such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Faulkner’s Light in August, books about old New Orleans and Southern folklore, as well as books by respected black authors such as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright and Toni Morrison. I read the newspapers of the time, both the regular dailies and the black weeklies. And finally, I read books including Voices in Our Blood, a literary anthology of the most important interpretations of the civil rights movement, past and present, a book I highly recommend.
Q: New Orleans truly becomes a character in DOLLBABY. What is it about this city that you hope readers will understand after reading DOLLBABY?
In New Orleans, there is a saying — you can leave New Orleans, but the city never leaves you. The language, cuisine, architecture, the mix of cultures, the way we celebrate life, even the way we celebrate death, can’t be duplicated. New Orleans has always been a place where people from all walks of life live in close proximity, creating a shared culture, a sort of commonality that exists regardless of race or background, a diversity that goes beyond skin color or place of birth. The novel lends a glimpse of what it was like to live in such a place, one I felt needed brought back to life after Hurricane Katrina so the city could once again breathe on her own, even if she remains a faded rose who hasn’t lost her thorns.
Q: This is your debut novel. What were some of the challenges you endured, and what have you taken away from the experience?
Upon completing the rebuilding our home after the flood, which took two years, I took the opportunity to enroll in a fiction writing class at Loyola University. For several years after that, I participated in a writer’s workshop. By the time I sat down to write DOLLBABY, I already had an initial novel under my belt. That experience gave me the confidence to write DOLLBABY the way I felt it needed to be written, from both a black and white perspective. My goal was to write a classic Southern novel that would have legs. I wanted to prove that you don’t need vampires or made-up worlds to tell an enduring and engaging tale, that meaningful stories exist in everyday life. What have I taken away from the experience? You have to believe in yourself and be passionate about what you’re doing. I’ve also learned there are many more stories out there for the telling!
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading DOLLBABY?
I think Norman Mailer said it best: “Novels go happiest when you discover something you did not know you knew: an insight into one of your opaque characters, a metaphor that startles you… a truth… that used to elude you.” In a sense, I hope this is what readers will take away from DOLLBABY, a truth they didn’t know existed, but are happy to discover.