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If I Could Turn Back Time

I occupied the second floor of this Creole Townhouse.

Few authors know where to expect inspiration, but that’s only part of the excitement of our profession. So is venturing into unknown territory. Despite being a fan of George Orwell’s The Time Machine, Jack Finney’s Time and Again and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, I never considered writing time travel because the market was lopsided with poorly written, badly plotted stories about some woman getting hit on the head and waking up to discover she’s Cleopatra. Such books had, to quote Dorothy Parker, all “the depth and glitter of a worn dime.” My reluctance changed some years ago when I lived in the French Quarter, and did something as innocuous as going onto my gallery one warm winter evening to enjoy a glass of wine. I wasn’t there long when fog began rolling off the Mississippi River, steadily thickening until I could barely discern houses across the street. While fog inhibits sight, it sometimes magnifies sounds and smells. I grew acutely aware of muffled voices, the lonely drone of riverboat horns, cathedral bells and the clip-clop of hooves drawing carriages. As I inhaled the rich, fecund odor of the Mississippi, it occurred to me that everything I saw, smelled and heard could have come from the mid-nineteenth century, including the 1833 Creole townhouse where I lived. While I was processing that revelation, I heard voices in the street and leaned over the iron railing to see a quartet in hooded black robes. I’m certain they were heading for a Mardi Gras ball, but for a moment they played tricks with my sensibilities. Viewed through the swirling fog, they could’ve been musketeers or vampires, nightmares or dreams. Regardless of the truth, I have to admit being beguiled by a moment lost in time that was as unsettling as it was unforgettable.

The old French Quarter is especially mystical and timeless in fog.

That fragile, intoxicating reverie reminded me that no American city claims a more omnipresent past than New Orleans, especially the old French Quarter. Its ancient ambiance, I had learned, was potent enough to mess with my mind, just as its exotic history was ideal for conjuring spirits of the past and evoking intense nostalgia. The town’s fabled cemeteries, called “cities of the dead,” prematurely ravaged by unforgiving heat and subtropical rains, are especially evocative. Caught after a summer rain, their mausoleums steam and shimmer like living things. This is as it should be. Antebellum New Orleans was, after all, a realm apart, a uniquely ethnocentric jambalaya of Creoles, white slaves, black masters, courtesans of color and a caste system that seems like fantasy today but was all too real.

Nothing evokes New Orleans eerie past better than her Cities of the Dead.

Thus New Orleans was the irresistible setting of my novel about time travel, Still Time, and the world my heroine, Madeleine St. Jacques, inhabits when she’s whisked back to 1861 and the eve of the Civil War. The book is available on Amazon, in paperback and on Kindle.

 

 

9 Comments

  1. Bebe
    Nov 23, 2014

    Beautifully written, Michael! I’m eager to read the book.

  2. Scott
    Nov 25, 2014

    This is one of your most visceral posts. I certainly appreciate your fine written machinations, intonations, and gleaning prose from atmospheric experience. Those are by far your best traits. As for New Orleans, it will be clouded in total fog one day, under water, lamenting the past that finally washed over it.

  3. Ayres Phillips Merrill Dicks
    Jan 1, 2015

    It will be interesting to read Goat Castle since Jennie Merrill was my Great Aunt and I grew up at Glenburnie right across the pasture from Dick and Octavia’s Goat Castle. Lots of secrets still kept within the family on that one ( along with all kinds of other outrageous stories). Merrill Dicks

    • Michael Lewallen
      Jan 1, 2015

      Thanks for your comment. After ten years and dozens of interviews, poring over old letters and reading 1930s newspapers, I uncovered some pretty amazing stuff. I certainly hope you like how I’ve woven fact and fiction together. BTW, are you related to Sissy Dicks?

      • Merrill Dicks
        Jan 2, 2015

        Hello Michael, Yes, Sissy is my brother Ian’s widow and I should have said “great, great” Aunt Jennie. We grew up surrounded by the “murder” and all the stories that came with that event. My grandmother’s (Pauline Steward Merrill) side of the family did not like talk about it much; I think the scandal was an embarrassment to their aristocratic sensibilities, but my father (John B. Dicks, Jr.) and grandfather (John B. Dicks, Sr.) told us lots of stories about Jennie, the murder, and Dick Dana. My father knew all the characters well and, with his friends, used to chase Dick around in the woods when he was young. Also, my great Aunt Violet Merrill Olsen told me some things I did not know before she died. I wonder if Sissy showed you the bundle of letters between Cousin Duncan and Aunt Jennie that were marked “If you are any kind of friend, bury these with me when I die” or something to that affect. My brother found them under my Aunt Margaret Merrill’s bed at Airlie after she died but as far as I know, never broke the seal and read them. If you spent that much time in Natchez and talked to Sissy, then you must know that my poor brother more or less took over the roll of “Wild Man of Natchez” before he died. Runs in the family. We heard wild family stories growing up that are woven into the tale of our collective Southern ancestry going back several hundred years. What a weird time and place. I always thought it was all too outlandish to make into a believable story but look forward to what you have done with it. Sincerely, Merrill

    • Loretta Honnoll Ross
      Sep 13, 2015

      Merrill, I am Loretta Honnoll Ross. I grew up at Elmscourt. My family lived there until after Grace retired and returned. However she was there off and on. We were there from 1950-1973, I remember you well but knew Ian better because he lived there much longer. I remember playing with you when your family would come over while in town.

      I adored your grandmother and grandfather. I used to spend the night with Ms. Pauline when John B. was out of town. So many great memories and stories. I can’t wait to read this book. Loretta

  4. Michael Lewallen
    Jan 2, 2015

    Dear Merrill,

    Sissy was kind enough to share the letters on the condition that they not be directly quoted, a request I honored. There was however a clipping about marriage which I found very telling as it reflected Duncan’s attitude and there was always much speculation about his liaison with Jennie. I knew about the townies chasing Dick, a rather cruel moment I’ve included. I should mention that the book is about the four major characters and not just the murder which doesn’t transpire until three-fourths into the story. I’ve tried hard to be loyal to the facts but it is a work of fiction and by necessity includes a certain amount of speculation. Please give my regards to Sissy and thank her again for her generosity. -Michael

  5. Carla Martin Reed
    Jan 13, 2015

    What an enticing and evocative introduction to your book Michael! I look forward to reading it!

  6. Charlotte Patterson
    Feb 21, 2015

    Michael, I so very much enjoyed reading Still Time! You have done an amazing job of capturing the mystique of New Orleans, old and new. I immediately connected to Madeleine (Maddy) – “Southern Strong”, but also vulnerable. A much different read than Creole Son, which I also loved, that again painted a tangible picture of such a romantic time. You managed to entertain me as well as slip in some fascinating history!

    Very eager to get my hands on Past Time and see what mischief Madeleine can stir up in tsarist Russia circa 1914. From New Orleans to St.Petersburg, I cant wait!

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