Writing a novel is a lot like making a gumbo…and other musings... I’m sometimes asked why I write what I write—how I come to a decision that I’ve found a story I think is worth telling, and where I get my material. Well, for starters, I like to tell stories. I come from a long line of storytellers, even if none of them were writers. Though my dad, mom and two grandmothers could all tell a really fine tale, the king of the family was William Henry “Pop” Wells, my paternal grandfather. He was a gifted old-school yarn spinner who could sit at the kitchen table and mesmerize his grandsons with his hunting exploits back in the desolate night woods of Arkansas. ﷯He told one story over and over: about how Ole Henry, his cunning black-and-tan hound—or as Pop explained, “the best dog that God ever let live”--helped him track down the biggest raccoon that ever roamed the bottom lands of the White River. Yet though I heard this story a dozen times, it was so full of detail and pregnant pauses that, no matter how many retellings, I felt absolutely transported unto that magical night and place when that wily old coon finally met its match. As I got older, I came to realize that these stories had purpose. They filled in family history and inclinations but they also entertained. And who wouldn’t want to entertain? I honed my storytelling skills as a journalist, gravitating to what is loosely called feature writing. The peak of that was during my days on The Wall Street Journal when the paper had a generous travel budget and an appetite for offbeat stories that they published on Page One as sweeteners for our largely business-centric readership. That’s how I ended up in places like Kodiak Island, Alaska, covering a golf tournament up the side of a snowy, bear-infested mountain, and in a Congolese rainforest, following a troop of orphaned juvenile gorillas being taught gorilla ways by human minders with hopes of introducing them back to the wild. What could be more fun than those kinds of assignments? Well, I had greater ambitions. By the time I hit my thirties, I wanted to write novels though I had no intention of quitting my great day job. I learned, however, that the process of writing a novel required an order of magnitude more discipline than penning those sweet 1,500-word Journal feature stories. That discipline would come over time but meanwhile I felt I had plenty of potential material. I’d grown up on a little farm in the Cajun bayouside hamlet of Bayou Black about an hour southwest of New Orleans. My mom spoke Cajun French, danced the two-step and cooked a mean gumbo. My dad was an outlander from the bottomlands of Arkansas who wandered into the Louisiana swamps as a teenager and fell in love with the place. He fished; he hunted alligators, frogs, squirrels, rabbits and raccoons and was as comfortable in the night swamps and woods as bankers are in their offices. He passed that on to his six sons. One of our nearest neighbors was Annie Miller, a woman who paid good money for live reptiles—snakes, gators, turtles and lizards—reselling them to zoos, collectors and such. She needed product so my dad, brothers and I became accomplished live-snake wranglers and turtle catchers (gators, back then, were scarce). She went on to become “Alligator Annie,” the founding mother of the Louisiana swamp tour industry. South Louisiana, settled 300 years ago by a polyglot of peoples, remains America’s last redoubt of Southern Europe. During our early years on Bayou Black, in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, my French-speaking mom had plenty of people to converse with. Fewer people down on the bayous speak French today but many still do. The cooking, the coffee, the attitude; the music, the eccentricities, the climate; the sprawling, often breathlessly beautiful low country landscape and our connection to it—it all rolled into something that felt intuitively different and more interesting than boilerplate America. I wouldn’t realize how different and interesting until I moved away and saw it from a distance. After graduate school at Missouri, my journalism career prospered. Because of it I got to live in a lot of interesting places—South Florida, San Francisco, London, the suburbs of New York City and for six years Manhattan itself. I traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia and Latin America. The farther away I got from the bayous and bayou culture, the more interesting they became to me. It was analogous to the “shock of recognition” that often comes when you read a great writer who has framed some core element of your own experience in a way that you see it with a clarity never before experienced. My epiphany came one day as I sat in the Manhattan offices of The Journal, where I served as an editor and writer on the Page One staff. Looking around at my esteemed colleagues, more than a few who had graduated from Ivy League schools, I realized that I was likely the only person on the entire staff who had ever skinned a possum or sucked a crawfish head. It wasn’t a matter of boasting but I couldn’t think of a single person among all these interesting and talented people who’d had an upbringing more colorful than mine. Surely, as a writer, I could make something of that. I began using my leisure time writing short stories which, in truth, were mostly thinly veiled anecdotes about my encounters with bayou people and places, capturing accents, manners of dress, ways of thinking, humor—intended or not. Some fair share of this material I’d collected as a young pup reporter on my hometown weekly newspaper. In retrospect, these stories weren’t very good but they did show me that if I stuck to some reasonable schedule, the pages would pile up. And they set the table for something bigger. That’s because, as I sent them around, begging writer friends for the name of agents or book editors willing to read them, the rejections piled up. The stories were too thin on plot. Most of my characters were not fully formed or believable. But one rejection note stopped me in my tracks. After a polite litany of everything that was wrong with my stories, the editor wrote: “You can clearly write. But…I want to love this boy in this one particular story but you’re way too distant from him for us to really get to know him. You need to get closer to your characters.” What the hell did that mean? I fumed and stewed over it for a couple of days thinking it was just another throwaway line to blow me off—“Really, what does she know?” And then something clobbered me. A story, or at least the skeletal frame of a story, popped into my head. It would be about a runty Cajun teenager whose mom has died in childbirth, leaving him an only child in the care of his utterly heartbroken father. His dad is an alligator hunter who salves his grief with long stretches in the swamp and strong drink, leaving the boy to largely fend for himself in a crumbling house in a lonesome bayou backwater. He mostly dodges school because the hulking bayou bully attends the school and torments him every time he lays eyes on him. That’s all I had—no real plot, just a central character, the boy, and the setup. Oh, and he had a name: Emile LaBauve, nickname Meely (because a huge number of Cajuns have nicknames). And I knew as soon as I typed the first sentence that the boy would tell the story first person in his own unvarnished voice—an unmistakable bayou voice full of the idioms and cadences and an unerring sense of place that I’d soaked up in my formative years. He was totally in my head. How much closer to my character could I get than that? But where did this really come from? Meely wasn’t exactly me—hardly an only child, I grew up with five rambunctious brothers. But I knew something about the straits of an only child who grows up poor because my own father had been an only child, brought up in a tar-paper shack in the lonesome east-central Arkansas river bottoms. And though my dad had been an attentive father, his dad—Pop, the gifted yarn-spinner--was also at times a difficult man, prone to drinking binges that would cause him to disappear for days at a time. And, of course, some part of the boy was me. Like a lot of scrawny boys, I’d known my share of schoolyard bullies. I also knew grief. In 1968, we lost one of the Wells boys to a mosquito bite when he contracted viral encephalitis. I was 19 years old the day my 16-year-old brother died. I remember driving out to the bayou where we used to live, parking my car on a dirt road and walking and walking and walking in the woods until I was too exhausted to cry anymore. In the novel, Meely, upon learning of the death of his mom and would-be sister during childbirth, runs off into the swamp and keeps moving for two full days until he falls, unconscious and uncaring, into a deep swoon. His father, a master tracker, has to take to the swamp to rescue him. “Ah, so this is what it’s like,” I recalled thinking. You take a little of this and a little of that and make something entirely new—not so different than the way the spices and vegetables and other ingredients meld in the gumbo pot. Everything is transformed, often in a surprising way. They say the key to writing is to write what you know and I now realized what that editor was trying to say to me. I knew this boy with startling clarity and I would let him explain himself to you. I knew his heart, his fears, his lonely aspirations; his resilience, his resourcefulness, his refusal to hate or even judge his wayward father because he shares and understands his father’s grief. I wrote Meely LaBauve in a feverish twenty days aboard my new-found writing office—the commuter train that carried me back and forth, an hour each way, to my job in Manhattan. True, the book took four years of rejection before it was rescued and published by Random House thanks to an editor named Lee Boudreaux. But it was the obvious portal to my being able to call myself a novelist and I owe a great deal of its success to that advice from that editor. (And to Lee Boudreaux for falling from the moon and saving my little novel from oblivion.) Five other novels have followed, all of them set in the bayou lands of South Louisiana. It’s not that I’m not interested in other settings and landscapes. It’s just that I feel I’m not done telling stories in the place that still continues to fire my imagination and the place I still know best of all. I realize also that there’s a missionary aspect to this. Having been lucky enough to see some decent swath of the world, I think I also see my homeplace with a clarity—and perhaps, charity—that I wouldn’t have if I’d never left. I think I’m in a pretty good place to decode us to the rest of the world—to let strangers see us in a way that illuminates what makes us unique and interesting. My take may be mildly romantic but isn’t naïve. Meely and my other novels deal with serious issues like racism, class, poverty and environmental degradation. But I am not yet, at least, a cynic and my main characters all tend to exude a buoyant optimism as they travel through verdant bayou-country landscapes littered with characters and places that don’t much exist in the rest of the world. I also like to have fun with this. I always wanted to write a survival story and I have with my latest novel, Swamped! co-authored with my niece, Hillary Wells. It’s just been published and you can read more about it here: www.bayoubro.com It is set—where else?—in Louisiana’s exotic Great Atchafalaya Swamp, known simply as the Basin to most locals. It’s something to brag about—the largest contiguous hardwood swamp in all of North America, the interior only really accessible by boat, airboats or planes. It’s roughly the size of the much better known Everglades National Park and the Everglades’ equal in terms of diversity of wildlife. If you want to see big gators and wonderous bird life it’s a good place to go. But you wouldn’t really want to be stuck there without food, water or a way to tell the outside world you’re lost. As a kid and young man, I spent a huge amount of time fishing and exploring the Great Atchafalaya. Its photogenic mystery; its inexhaustible bends and desolate backwaters inspire both awe and respect. I still visit every chance I get. I just fished there with my brother, Bob, a couple of months ago. And in Swamped!, getting lost in the Atchafalaya is exactly what happens to Jack Cane Landry, high-school senior and homeboy, swamp savant and weekend swamp-tour guide, when the plane he’s riding in crashes in a remote part of the swamp. The other surviving passenger is Olivia FitzGerald, a Harvard-bound New York City teen who’s on a father-daughter trip planned and insisted on by her philanthropist dad. She’s never been to the Louisiana swamps and would prefer not to be here now. She’s only come to please Daddy. Okay, confession. Most men are boys at heart and most boys have a ridiculously recurring fantasy: to be stranded some place (desert island, deep canyon, remote forest, swamp, pick your venue) with a winsome young woman whom you are able to save with your cunning and bravery. As this heroism unfolds, the lass, who might never have paid much attention to you otherwise, begins to warm up to you. The primal need to survive has distilled for her your virtues which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. You might even get lucky. The problem with this facile set up is that, among other things, contemporary young women don’t want to be “saved” by anyone—which is not the same as saying they don’t want to survive. And so it was that Olivia’s character, with the help of Hillary, evolved into someone who isn’t exactly what you think she is when you first meet her. She isn’t really fragile and she isn’t exactly a snob. And Jack, though swamp-savvy, isn’t monolithically brave but he isn’t exactly the hick Olivia first takes him for. As their ordeal deepens and they trade life information, a funny thing happens: that “shock of recognition” that they may have more in common than they might ever have imagined. And they do realize one central thing: survival absolutely depends on sticking together. Another character emerges—the swamp itself. It was a choice to make Olivia a New Yorker, in part because I’d lived there and had had at least a glimpse of her world, and because it lets us reveal the swamp in all of its glory and awfulness to someone who sees it with fresh eyes. And she has a pretty good guide—Jack, who comes from a big Cajun family and through stories reveals to her the indelible connection between this magnificent low-country landscape and the culture that has so deeply embraced it. A romance of a different kind begins to form in Olivia’s mind. She begins to see that Jack, despite their dire straits, loves the Atchafalaya and his life there as much as she loves the Maine wilderness where, it turns out, her well-to-do family has long had a summering cottage on a remote seashore. She begins to see the swamp, Louisiana and its culture, through his eyes. As her fears subside, she begins to like what she sees. So what finally happens to these two great kids as they cope, with little other than their wits, with insect hordes, gators, weather, exhaustion and isolation? Hey, buy the book. It’s a good read.--Ken Wells


            Alligator Annie Miller