By Leslie Lindsay
On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed 955 homes of the small coastal town on Pass Christian, Mississippi. With a 28-foot storm surge, the highest recorded in U.S. History, 55-foot waves, and winds reaching 120 mph, the down was wiped off the map–at least temporarily.
Meanwhile, I was experiencing my own little whirlwind at the time: new motherhood. Tucked in the insular little community of Northfield, Minnesota, we weren’t affected by the tumultuous winds of Katrina, but the late-night feedings and wailings of “Baby Kate.” Still, we heard devastating stories of how lives were upturned at the hands of the greedy sea, the FEMA tents, the floating coffins in watery graves. Our hearts ached.
Today, I am honored to share a virtual cup of coffee with award-winning author Margaret McMullan as she describes the small town historic jewel of Pass Christian, the witness of small acts of heroism, and a compelling tribute to the residents of the Gulf Coast.
Leslie Lindsay: Aftermath Lounge honors the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Can you tell us about your experience during those days when the storm hit?
Margaret McMullan: Shortly after the storm hit, my husband and I drove down from Evansville, Indiana to Pass Christian, Mississippi. We saw aerial footage of the town and we could see that the roof on my parents’ house was mostly intact – that’s all we could see. We brought water and a lot of supplies to donate. There was a gas shortage then, and limited cell phone coverage. The closer we came to the town, the more it became like a war zone. The National Guard was there to keep people away, but we got through, thanks to a relative.
The night before we left, my mother told us to forget about everything else — all she really wanted was the painting of her mother, which had been smuggled out of Vienna during WWII. We had house keys but there were no doors. When we got there, the house was gutted – the storm surge had essentially ripped through the house. We put on rubber gloves and spent the day sifting through the debris, dragging out any salvageable pieces of furniture. The water had shoved through the closed shutters, plowed up under the foundation and tore open the back walls, bashing around the furniture, sinks, toilets, stoves, washers, driers. We never did find the painting. Elizabeth Bishop wrote a wonderful villanelle called “One Art.” She wrote about losing small items like keys and an hour badly spent, then she progresses to the greater losses — her mother’s watch, a house, cities, rivers, a continent, and finally, a loved one.
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she starts. “So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I thought of that poem a lot.
L.L.: Your family played a key role, helping Pass Christian rebuild. What were a few moments that influenced you during that time?
Margaret McMullan: We saw so many people from all walks of life and they were suddenly homeless. My father organized financial donations. There were no fire trucks left after the storm, so he made sure Pass Christian got a fire truck. We were always big supporters of the library too. The Pass Christian Policemen had stayed during the storm to make sure everyone was safe. They had tried to stay safe in the library, but then when the water rose, they had to shoot out the windows to swim away to safety. I used that information in the title story of Aftermath Lounge. These men were real heroes.
L.L.: Did you know from the moment the storm hit that someday you would write a novel about it? Or did a later experience give you the idea? If so, can you share?
Margaret McMullan: At first I just witnessed. I think that’s what writers do mostly. We witness. Then the material lets us know what it wants to become. I just took notes. Later stories started taking shape and they were all in different voices. It was the only way I could work at this material.
L.L: Part of your inspiration for the novel came from your family’s beautiful mansion. How did your own experiences in that house shape each of the stories you wrote?
Margaret McMullan: Well, it’s hardly a mansion, but I was surprised to discover just how much a house could mean. Everyone always says it’s just stuff, but there were so many collective memories there. When we stood and looked at everything so undone, it felt like our times spent there were gone too. Katrina had such a huge impact on the coast, on my family, and on me. I am always telling my students to write what they most care about, to write what keeps them up at night.
I had to write about Katrina. I had written about the Civil War, Reconstruction and WWII, so I saw Katrina as an historical event. I treated the hurricane more as setting. It’s in the background. The human drama is in the forefront. I’m always interested in what people do or don’t do in the face of real catastrophe. I didn’t want to write from one point of view either. I wanted to give voice to a variety of people because Katrina affected everyone.
L.L.: What was your writing process like for this novel? Did you know from the start it would be a novel in stories? Or did that become apparent only after you began writing?
Margaret McMullan: There were so many news stories coming out at the time. I write nonfiction, but I couldn’t get my thoughts together. I couldn’t make sense of anything. Out of habit, I took a lot of notes. I could only deal with writing about all that was happening a little bit at a time. And my own personal story just wasn’t that interesting. I personally witnessed and experienced the best in human nature. People and communities came together and helped one another in the most meaningful way. They endured with a great deal of kindness and grace. So I chipped away at the material. I wanted to tell a community’s story.
L.L. Wow–what a powerful, and important undertaking. I just loved it. The stories are still with me.Thank you, Margaret.
University of Missouri-St. Louis
Inklings Book Group, Unnamed Venue, Evansville, IN
Kaskaskia College, Unnamed Venue, Centralia, IL
- Twitter: @margaretmcmulla
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“…a diverse gallery of characters grapple with their lives in Katrina’s aftermath…McMullan opted for fiction to deal with the emotional truths of the lives impacted.” Read full review.