L&S: A Light on the Veranda is a stand-alone sequel to Midnight on Julia Street, the earlier novel that was set in New Orleans, and features a number of the same characters. Why did you choose to move the action to Natchez, Mississippi?
CW: Well, there were two reasons, actually. The first was that I was afraid a second time-slip novel would seem too similar in tone and scenery if I set it again in New Orleans, and secondly, a great friend of mine whom I’d gotten to know in the Big Easy, fellow writer Michael Llewellyn, was about to launch into a big research project The Ghost Castle Murder. His book was based on a true story that happened in Natchez, a small town four-plus hours due north of the Gulf of Mexico. (His novel is due out later this year, by the way, so watch for it!)
“What better spot to set a time-slip historical than in ‘The Town That Time Forgot?'” Michael said very persuasively, pointing out that he had a number of friends there in the hospitality industry, along with the owner of the town’s only bookstore, who might open doors for us both. “You are going to love this town of 18,000 souls and more antebellum mansions in five square miles than you’ll ever see in one place in a lifetime.”
I was sold.
L&S: So were doors opened? Do you think you glimpsed the “real” Natchez and not just what the tourist board might want you to see?
CW: Oh, yes! There was, of course, the famous Southern hospitality extended to me by virtually everyone I met, but I found people remarkable open to talk about the issues concerning racism and poverty that have dogged Mississippi’s history. They also legitimately could point to the positive changes in that state that have taken place there during our lifetimes. It turned out to be the perfect romantic and realistic setting for a book that takes place in the same location during eras that were nearly two hundred years apart, but with essentially the same cast of characters in both. A bit of a brainteaser for this poor writer, for sure, doing research in both time periods and keeping the story lines in both tales clear and intriguing to the reader. In my view, my friend Michael had a much more straightforward assignment: tracking down what he thought actually happened in the 30s murder case and then constructing a straight narrative — and he’s pretty sure he solved the case! However, he was braver going into the research, having no guarantee that, in the end, he could make a novel out of all that work if he didn’t find an answer to the murder that was convincing. Both of our “challenges” as writers researching in Natchez kept life interesting!
L&S: Given the plot in Veranda, you obviously encountered a lively music scene in Natchez. Did you know that going in?
CW: The jazz and blues music that Natchez produces was one of the enticements Michael emphasized early on in his campaign for me to set VERANDA there since he knew that the heroine, Daphne Duvallon, was a musician, albeit a Juilliard-trained classical harpist. At first I didn’t see how I could weave in that “uptown” aspect of her background until one of those wonderfully serendipitous things happened. I was doing an Internet search about harps and harpists–having always wanted to learn to play the harp, though I can’t read a note of music–and suddenly up came the name of Deborah Henson-Conant with an accompanying photo of a wildly pretty woman in leather hot pants, black fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, and wielding a bright blue, electrified small-sized harp! Who knew there were such things as jazz harpists?
Up until I’d encountered Deborah (whom I tracked down and interviewed for many hours over the phone and also viewed her concert videos), I’d never even heard the jazz harp played! However, the minute I saw that image of Deborah on the Internet, I knew exactly what was going to happen to Daphne when she returned South for the first time in nearly three years following her disastrous aborted wedding where she had left her philandering fiancé at the altar in front of 500 guests about five seconds before she was supposed to repeat “I do!” What really topped it all was that a very famous jazz club I knew in San Francisco, where I live, had actually been founded in Natchez and still was going strong in both locales. Biscuits and Blues becomes one of Daphne’s hangouts when she comes to Natchez to play her classical harp at her beloved brother’s wedding. Simon Hopkins, the dish-y nature photographer in Natchez for a few months to film the birds that John James Audubon painted in the area nearly two hundred years earlier, takes her to Biscuits and—
Well, let’s just say that in this novel, all the pieces came together effortlessly…which truly made it a joy to write.
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