Wednesday, August 13, 2014

YA Guy Presents... YA! for Nature with Sherri L. Smith, author of ORLEANS!

One of YA Guy's favorite YA science fiction novels of the past, well, forever is Sherri L. Smith's ORLEANS. (Here's my review, in case you missed it.) Today, I had the good fortune to interview Sherri for my occasional series, YA! for Nature. Here's what Sherri and I talked about:

YA Guy: Welcome to the blog, Sherri!

Sherri L. Smith: Hi YA Guy. Thanks for having me!

My pleasure. Please tell us about your book ORLEANS.

SLS: ORLEANS is set in a post-disaster New Orleans where a series of manmade and natural catastrophes have given rise to Delta Fever, a disease so deadly that the U.S. Government builds a quarantine wall from Florida to Texas and disavows that part of the country. Fifty years later, the survivors in the former city of New Orleans have gone tribal based on blood type—the last rules laid down by the CDC to stem the disease. Against this backdrop, the heroine Fen is tasked with saving the life of her tribal leader’s newborn baby after their tribe is destroyed. On the other side of the quarantine Wall, a young scientist named Daniel follows the smuggler paths into Orleans in his search for a cure to Delta Fever. Their paths cross and well, I guess you have to read the book to find out what happens next.

YAG: I know from your dedication and acknowledgments that you have a very personal connection to New Orleans and to the events that occurred when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Can you tell us more about that connection and how it shaped your novel?

SLS: My mother was born and raised in New Orleans. She moved up north and met my father, but in later years, she returned to the city to take care of my grandparents until they passed. She was still living in the city when Katrina hit. Faced with the option of sitting in a car in traffic during the storm or weathering it in the 100-year-old house she’d grown up in, she opted to stay. Her house was damaged, but she would have been fine if the levees hadn’t broken and the city hadn’t shut down. There she was, a diabetic running out of insulin and drinking water in a city that had been quarantined against help. The Red Cross was not allowed in to offer aid under some misguided belief that people would be forced to leave. My mom tried to drive out of the city after the storm, but her truck was caught in flood waters and she had to be rescued by someone in a passing swamp boat. All told, it took my family a week of frantic phone calls and crazy plans to drive to the rescue (if only the few open roads were not patrolled by gun-toting law enforcement). At last, the Coast Guard, of all organizations, came to the rescue and got her out of the city and onto an airplane out of Louisiana.

Needless to say, it was a harrowing time.

In the aftermath of the disaster, Fen spoke to me, and Orleans was born. This book is my response to the tragedy of Katrina all along the southern coast. To the conversations about racism and rescue that took place as we watched the city drown. To the stories of gang members turning into protectors and law enforcement going rogue. I tried to remove race as an issue in Orleans and make it about blood type—something that you cannot see. Above all, I want people to remember New Orleans and Mississippi and all of the places forever changed by a single storm.

YAG: Of the two narrators in ORLEANS—a third-person narrator affiliated with the character Daniel, and a first-person narrator representing the perspective of the character Fen—I was most drawn to Fen’s voice and vision. Where did the character of Fen come from? Why did you decide to speak in her distinctive voice?

SLS: As I said above, Fen literally spoke to me. I was driving home from work one day in the weeks after my mom had been safely brought to California, and I heard a voice say “O-Neg Davis, he beautiful.” I had no idea what that was about, but I called my voicemail and left it in a message. And that turned into the powwow scene with Fen’s O Positive tribe and the O-Negs led by handsome Davis with his agate green eyes. Her voice was so natural to the story that I kept it. New Orleans is such a stew of cultures, it made sense that the natural language would be a patois of some sort. So there is “speaking tribe,” which is the voice Fen thinks in, and then there is “proper English,” which is used by the educated, the leaders and scientists.

YAG: Late in the novel, one of the characters—a scientist who lives the life of a hermit—states: “Nature knows what to do with a poison. She dilutes it.” There are so many ways to read these lines, but given your novel’s representation of human society, one of the things they suggest is that human beings are the “poison” that Nature needs to “dilute.” What’s your feeling about this? How do you read these lines?

SLS: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. I certainly do think that humans, along with all other life forms, are as much a boon as a burden to the planet, and Nature has its ways of culling the herd—such as disease, and our own solution, war. It’s like homeopathic medicine—there is the tipping point at which the poison is too weak to kill, but can help you build an immunity. In the case of the character in the book, he is talking about Nature’s ability to recover even after a major disaster—the oil spill from the Deep Water Horizon will have repercussions for decades, but the ocean will survive. One of the reasons it was dangerous to eat seafood in the aftermath of the oil spill was because the shellfish and bottom feeders sift through the water and act as filters. It might make them inedible, and lead to illness in both the shellfish and the creatures that eat them, but eventually the water will be filtered clean and new shellfish will be born and life will continue. That’s what is happening in the Orleans of the book, but it’s hard to take that long view when your life could end the next day.

YAG: Some readers and reviewers have termed ORLEANS a cli-fi novel. What do you think about this emerging genre of fiction?

SLS: Climate has always been a topic in speculative fiction, so I don’t know that the genre is new so much as the classification is becoming more popular now. I think it’s great if it gets people to look at books they might have missed. That said, the climate is the backdrop for ORLEANS, rather than the point of the story. So, if you are looking for eco-lit, maybe you’ll find this title, which is great—and then the characters and the drama will carry you to the final page.

YAG: Last question. You and I are fiction writers, not politicians or pundits. What’s the role, if any, of fiction in calling attention to environmental issues and problems?

SLS: Hmm. I think the job of writers, particularly speculative fiction writers, is to ask interesting questions. Like Mary Shelley—is it okay for man to create artificial life like Frankenstein did? What are the responsibilities of such actions? For Orleans—are we willing to abandon part or our nation to its own devices (which is very much what it felt like during Katrina)? If so, what are the consequences? What happens next? It’s true that writers are not politicians or pundits, but we are citizens of the world, and students of human nature. There is a reason writers become political prisoners in some societies. We ask questions. If we’re lucky, someone reads the book, thinks about it, and answers start to follow.

YAG: Thanks for being on the blog, Sherri! Readers, if you want to learn more about Sherri Smith and her writing, here’s where to go:


  1. This looks like a great book! And I love how authors are exploring varied POVs within a single novel. I think it's exciting! And Orleans looks fascinating!

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    1. It looks like a great YA cli-fi novel, can't wait to get a copy soon. Great interview!

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