Most historical novelists know the rush of unexpected inspiration, of stumbling across an obscure tidbit from another time and place that switches on that creative lightbulb. My most unusual encounter came in the French Quarter when I did something as innocuous as venture onto the second-floor gallery of the 1833 Creole townhouse where I lived. It was one of those mild south Louisiana winter nights, and while I stood there, a fogbank swarmed off the Mississippi River, so thick I could barely see across Dauphine Street. Although fog inhibits sight, it can magnify sounds and smells. I became aware of voices, the lonely drone of riverboat horns, cathedral bells and the clip-clop of hooves drawing tourist carriages. As I inhaled the sharp, wintry odor of the Mississippi, my face damp from the fog, I realized everything I saw, smelled, heard and felt could’ve come from the mid-nineteenth century. While I was processing that revelation, street voices prompted me to lean over the iron railing to see a gaggle of silhouettes in black hooded robes. I figured they were heading for a Mardi Gras party, but for a moment they played tricks with my sensibilities. Viewed through the swirling fog, they could’ve been, beneath their costumes, noblemen or vampires, pirates or priests, nightmares or dreams. Reality got derailed by a rogue moment as unsettling as it was memorable.
I’d heard for years that no American city owns a more omnipresent past than New Orleans, and that fragile reverie justified such claims. I could hardly ignore an ancient ambience potent enough to conjure intense nostalgia and, frankly, mess with my mind. Armed with this new alternative consciousness, I was now open to experiencing more of the same. Caught in an intense summer rainstorm, I saw the cities of the dead steam and shimmer as though living things were rippling free and soaring to the heavens. Even more evocative was a period costume ball at the Bourbon Orleans Hotel where wealthy white men once selected mistresses of color at the infamous Quadroon Balls. Given the ballroom’s tragic history, it seemed an ethnocentric conceit for modern day men and women to don frock coats and hoop-skirts to mimic those forgotten souls forming doomed liaisons a century and a half ago.
This was all very intriguing, but what was I supposed to do with it? I’d already explored antebellum New Orleans in my novel, Twelfth Night, and the Reconstruction period with Creole Son, about artist Edgar Degas’s life-changing visit to Louisiana. I figured the muse was playing me for a fool until, once again, past and present fused as I pondered what might happen if these revelers were propelled into the realm they artlessly imitated. How would 21st century sensibilities interact with an exotic 19th century jambalaya of white slaves, black masters, courtesans of color, cryptic African religions, and a fierce caste system that seems like fantasy today? The obvious answer was time travel, and although I’d written nineteen books in the contemporary, adventure, historic and mystery genres, this was well outside my comfort zone. Of course I grabbed the gauntlet.
The biggest challenge was a believable way to whisk my protagonist back in time, at least as believable as time travel can be. I steered clear of such classic vehicles as George Orwell’s machine and Jack Finney’s government projects, and settled on an ethereal entity I called the August Ones. Since too much information can kill an illusion, I left details about those enigmatic guys to the imagination of the reader, and of my protagonist as well, a modern-day librarian named Madeleine (with a pretentious nod to Proust) St. Jacques whom I sent to 1861 New Orleans on the eve of the Civil War. With those key elements in place, I sat back and hoped the August Ones would steer me to that sublime moment when the characters manipulate the writer. It happens only if you’re true to your creations, and in this case, it came in spades. Once I finished that crucial first draft, I set it aside before returning for a fresh look and to start the final edit. In the meantime I searched for a title, which, oddly enough (or not), I found in the book I was reading, Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Seville Communion. I got yet another metaphysical nudge when this sentence jumped off the page: “Still is an adverb of time.”
The result is Still Time, and to this day I’m bemused by those shadowy, furtive collaborators who pushed me to produce it. If there is a point to this post, it’s that creativity or the muse or whatever you want to call it may be a harsh mistress but she’s also endlessly beguiling and unpredictable, and I for one can’t wait for the next dance.
Michael Llewellyn, December 14, 2015