Edith here, so happy to welcome Ramona DeFelice Long to the blog.
Ramona, a friend of all the Wickeds, released The Murderess of Bayou Rosa, her debut novel, this month, and she’s giving away a copy to one lucky commenter today. She’s a personal friend, with whom I’ve shared several small-group intensive writing retreats in a convent retreat center – and lots of laughs in the evenings. She’s a brilliant lifelong storyteller and a kickass, no-holds-barred commentator on contemporary politics and culture.
Here’s the review I posted:
The storytelling in this debut historical novel is atmospheric, compelling, and delightful. Defelice Long immerses you in 1920 bayou village life, with all its rivalries, prejudices, strengths, and secrets. The characters live with the immediate past effects of the 1918 influenza pandemic and the War to End All Wars, with family loyalties and past conflicts playing an equal part. The unfolding of the story’s layers is skillfully done, and the ending satisfies.
Several characters share the narration, but I most fell in love with Geneva. My reading over two days included tears and laughing and nodding in understanding. I recommend you get this book now and do nothing else until you finish it.
And here’s the book blurb:
“In the summer of 1920, in the town of Bayou Rosa, Louisiana, a free-spirited woman named Joelle Amais shoots her lover in the back but won’t tell anyone why. Joelle is a woman with a checkered past, and as the weeks stretch between her arrest and a delayed trial, her defiant silence threatens to blow Bayou Rosa apart.
Joelle’s only ally is her daughter Geneva, the town schoolteacher, whose demure demeanor hides the stubbornness she inherited from her mother. Geneva is determined to see her mother get a fair trial, but now the town is faced with a legal and moral dilemma. With rows of new graves in the cemetery from a devastating world war and influenza epidemic, can a jury of twelve men vote to hang a woman they’ve seen grow up since birth?”
I was thrilled Ramona agreed to an interview on the blog. Being part of her daily seven AM Sprint Club has gotten my work day started in the best of ways for years, and she has edited every book in my own (Agatha-winning) historical series. So let’s get started.
E: The Murderess of Bayou Rosa is set in Louisiana, where you grew up. The atmosphere in this book is so vivid and rich, I felt like I was there – and I have only been to the state once, for a conference in New Orleans a few years ago (I didn’t even leave the city). Can you talk to us about which aspects of the setting came from your own life or that of your older relatives? Which from research?
R: All of it, and none of it. The town of Bayou Rosa, the people who live in it, and the events of the story, are all complete fiction. However, bits and pieces are drawn from real places: the courthouse resembles one in my parish (county) seat; my great-grandfather grew lemons and Satsumas in a small citrus grove; my mother brought me to a traiteure for a tonic because I was skinny; my grandmother shopped in a general store with a gathering of old men (hat tip to Ernest Gaines) in the back; the same grandmother survived the Spanish influenza; in high school, my mother washed dishes in her aunt’s restaurant. All characters come from my imagination except the horse. Cisco is based on my Uncle Johnny’s horse Frisco, who lived to be 37.
There are hundreds of little towns in south Louisiana that could be Bayou Rosa, but while I have a rather colorful family, none of our true-life antics made it into the novel.
E: I love that the book takes place in 1920, an era I’ve been looking into lately. Why did you set it then, and what were your favorite/most useful research sources and tools?
R: When most people think of the 1920s, they think of Prohibition and the Jazz Age, but the 20s was a time of great social upheaval in the U.S. There were race riots and the Great Migration, post-war advances in medical care, the vote for women, a resurgence of the KKK, and the introduction of electricity, automobiles, and telephones. In isolated places like Bayou Rosa, however, those advances would not happen for a few more years. And there were small towns that suffered the loss of so many taxpayers during the Spanish flu, it took years to recover—and then the Crash of ’29 happened.
I mostly chose the early 1920s because women were finally free of their corsets! It was so difficult to think of meals that could be prepared with all-fresh ingredients, but describing dresses that required a corset was a dealbreaker.
My favorite resource tool is Google. I have also built up a collection of Louisiana books. The most useful of those was the WPA project guide, published in the 1940s. For the scenes in Baton Rouge and Memphis, I used various city guides.
E: I read your blog post about having written an open-ended short story that readers urged you to finish. Did you envision a full-length novel when you wrote the short story? What convinced you to write the book?
R: I wrote “Light of the Moon,” about a young woman jilted at the altar, for a charity anthology. In my mind, the story was over even though there was not a clear, tied-with-a-ribbon ending. I never considered a sequel until Sister Jean, our convent retreat facilitator, asked if there was one. She wanted to know what happened to the sheriff. I went to Catholic school, so I couldn’t say no to a nun!
I didn’t have any idea what happened after the short story ended, but I had a pretty good idea of the crime that put Mama/Joelle in jail, so I decided to write a prequel, hoping the prequel would held me find the sequel. (It did not.) I could not figure out how Geneva could tell the whole story, so I used multiple narrators. That ended up being lots of fun. I never made the decision that “I will write a novel now,” but my prequel got longer and longer, and I had not even touched the sequel part. The story decided for me that it had to be a novel.
E: I have read many of your wonderful essays and short stories. Because of their length, my own short pieces normally don’t require as much time to produce as a novel. How long have you been working on this book?
R: It took me about six months to write the events that happened in the short story (2/3 of the manuscript). The ending? I wrote at least ten endings. It took me a year and a half to write the sequel part. I only persevered because Catholic, nun, etc. I started in June of 2018, so a tad over two years.
E: It was time well spent! The way the story unfolds is layered in so many brilliant ways (starting with the surprising end to the first scene). Did it unfold easily to you, or did you spend a lot of time going back and layering in nuances?
R: Expanding a short story to a novel is a strange experience. On the one hand, I knew the characters from the short story, but since a novel requires a larger and deeper narrative landscape, I got to discover each character all over again. In terms of plot, the short story provided the inciting incident and the climax. I just had to provide the landfill in-between and the ending.
I am a pantser, so while I knew where the story was headed, I did a lot of meandering to get there. My writing habit is to write, write, write, and then cut cut cut. The first draft was 104,000 words. I cut back to 94k. Even with the meandering and the cutting, the first three parts did come easily. The final part was like pulling teeth from an angry rhinoceros.
E: Is this your first completed novel, or do you have other books in the proverbial drawer (and if so, when do we get to read them, she asks selfishly)?
R: I have one practice novel in a drawer. I may take a look at it again to see if it should stay there. I have short works out on submission. (Note to self, check Submittable.)
E: You have spent years improving other authors’ books as an independent editor, including all my Quaker Midwife Mysteries. Did a developmental editor look at this manuscript? If so, how was that experience for you? (I know for me, I always do a big head slap when you point out something in my story that I might have critiqued in someone else’s.)
R: I did have both a developmental editor and a proofreader review the manuscript. I have been in multiple critique groups, so weighing criticism and advice was not new to me. Sadly, my Trusted Reader and longtime critiquer, Russell Reece, was not able to review it for me. Most of my work goes through Russ. Every writer should have a Russ.
E: I loved the dedication to the women who helped shape you, and I’m pretty sure you listed your grandmother, your mother, your sister, and your granddaughter, which touched my heart. Will you share a bit more about these women?
R: We lived with my grandmother until I was seven, and I was very close to her. I used to sneak into bed with her at night. She wore a soft white nightdress, and her chenille bedspread and long curtains were white, so in the dark, her bedroom seemed to glow. My first memory is of snuggling against her, watching the curtains blow around from a thunderstorm. They looked like ghostly arms, but I felt safe with her. (See what I mean about meandering?) I have written a lot about my mother, who was the baby of her family and lost her father when she was 9 months old. In first grade, she decided she would be a nurse, and she made it happen despite a whole lot of obstacles. My sister Annette is the most generous person I know. She’s also a huge cozy mystery fan. Sydney? She’s proven that old saying to be true about not really knowing love until you have a grandchild (or a dog).
E: What’s your next publication – of any kind – coming up?
R: Eek, nothing! I have some pieces out on submission. Right now, I’m promoting and trying to enjoy the rush.
E: You gather writers in many genres on Facebook every morning at seven for the Sprint Club, an hour of uninterrupted writing work. For me, it’s a perfect start to my work day, and it’s so heartening to know others in many locations are joining in at their own desks. When did you first start urging others to join you, virtually, for this devoted hour?
R: I think I began sprinting on Twitter in 2011. In 2012, I wrote my first blog post about it. That’s about the time I transferred to posting on Facebook instead of participating on Twitter, so the quick answer is 2012. I really wish I’d made note of the first sprint thread I posted, but alas, I did not realize at the time what a phenomenon (smile) it would become.
E: It’s definitely a phenomenon. Thank you for joining us!
Readers: Do you have a favorite grandma memory? Or an influential nun in your life? And for Sprint Cub regulars, please identify yourselves! Ramona will give away a signed copy of the book, and if the winner wants a copy of the anthology from whence the novel arose, please say so.
Ramona DeFelice Long writes short fiction, essays, memoir and one novel about family, women, and quirky things that come her way. Her work has appeared in numerous literary and regional magazines. She is a Louisiana native now living in Delaware.