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September 21, 2015

Book Notes - Elise Blackwell "The Lower Quarter"

The Lower Quarter

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Elise Blackwell's The Lower Quarter is a vividly told work of literary noir set in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"The novel's greatest strength is how it imbues both the loftiest and the seediest moments with grandeur and pathos without being overwrought or overwritten. An artful, gritty love story, eulogy, and survivor narrative for the city of New Orleans post-Katrina."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In her own words, here is Elise Blackwell's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Lower Quarter:


"Dark Water," Galactic (with John Boutte)
This song captures a cadenced energy that is palpable in the Marigny and the lower part of the French Quarter, where much of the novel is set—a certain mix of exuberance and destruction, of darkness and the art you can make from it. I listened to this often while writing the first draft.

"Fortunate Son," Cat Power
Ivan Neville singing "Fortunate Son" became a post-Katrina anthem for me (and a lot of other people), and I watched it over and over on YouTube. The lyrics get at the kind of class issues that shaped New Orlean's experience of Hurricane Katrina, which was both a natural and a manmade disaster. Neville's version wasn't available on Spotify when I went to put together this playlist, and I started listening to Cat Power's version, and it spoke to me in a new way, in part because two of the four point-of-view characters in my novel are women who have not been born with silver spoons in their mouths. Chan Marshall's voice also reminds me of Johanna.

"Criminal," The Revivalists
This band is a post-Katrina New Orleans band. I first encountered their work in the Louisiana Music Factory, which is a fantastic store briefly mentioned in The Lower Quarter. Obviously the band's name suggests one of the novel's central themes: recovery. Among their songs, "Criminal" most suggests the novel's characters to me, albeit in a way I cannot articulate well.

"9th Ward," Morning 40 Federation
I could have chosen any of this band's songs, all of which capture one of the flavors of degeneracy that streak New Orleans—but also the generous inclusion and exuberance in that degeneracy. Ultimately I picked "9th Ward," because the novel is partly set in the sliver of the Nine Ward most transformed after the storm—and because it's the one available on Spotify. (But definitely also listen to "Gin instead of Whiskey," "Corkscrew," and others if you like this one.)

"Unsatisfied," The Replacements
One of the great things about pop music (and "Unsatisfied" is The Replacements at their most pop) is its ability to freeze certain moods of youth, and this song is a perfect capture of that restive sense of wanting more out of life but not really knowing what that might look like yet. It's a mood I felt quite a lot about the time the song first came out, and one that defines the character of Marion at the start of the novel. Her already half-assed Plan A has been dismantled by circumstances, and she doesn't know how to begin re-assembling her life.

"Smoking Gun," Magnolia Shorty
One afternoon in 2011 or so found me on Chartres Street, sitting in Sylvain, which is a restaurant/bar that is very much a post-Katrina establishment: historical building, menu that's only barely recognizable as New Orleanian, elaborate bar with fresh herbs and exotically flavored bitters, and bartenders aspiring to local celebrity in their chosen field. On that day, one such cocktail artist was handing out Magnolia Shorties—a concoction he'd named after bounce musician Magnolia Shorty. This was the scene: a mix of local hipsters, local professionals, and tourists—nearly all white—drinking a pricey cocktail named after a hip hop star killed a few miles away in a gang murder. I'm not saying the drink shouldn't have been named for her—she might have liked that—but that moment says something about the nature of the city's transformation that this paragraph cannot. It was a moment not yet imaginable when The Lower Quarter is set, but I tried to write in some of its seeds. (I chose "Smoking Gun" from among Magnolia Shorty's titles as a nod to noir, though the murder weapon in the novel is not a gun.)

"Rain Shower," Olu Dara
I love everything about this song and sometimes listen to it on repeat all afternoon. The lyrics obviously link to motifs in the novel: trying to reconnect after a storm, resiliency in the face of obstacles, romantic love, looking for what comes after the aftermath. But what I got from this song most of all during revision was its lessons in structure. Listen to it.

"I Want You," Elvis Costello & the Attractions
Obsessive love's weird mix of selfishness and self-destruction undergirds this song and reminds me—without sounding like him—of the character of Clay. The song also hints at the sexual power relations that are among the power relations the novel explores. I also wanted to include an Elvis Costello song as a gesture to his post-Katrina stint in New Orleans recording the brilliant Allen Toussaint.

"Guilty," Randy Newman
I also wanted to include Randy Newman because I associate him with the place. Hurricane Katrina hit just after I thought I had completed my second novel, which happened to be set during the Great Flood of 1927. As every radio and television station in the country was busy playing Newman's "Louisiana 1927," I heard back from editor after editor that my book was not publishable in part because readers would have "Katrina fatigue" by the time it would hit shelves. "No one's going to want to read about water in New Orleans next year," one said. As I rewrote the book to take Katrina into some account, the song (which I still had on vinyl from forever ago) remained both dear to me and painful to listen to. I picked "Guilty" for this playlist because it captures the selfish pleasure that guilt and regret can become, giving me another angle into the character of Clay.

"A Little Less Conversation," Guitar Shorty
Early in the novel, Johanna makes a comment about people's actions (rather than their thoughts or words) being what matters to her. This song also came to mind because each of the novel's four main characters tend naturally to isolation and aren't particularly good at interacting with others. When forced to interact, as they are, they do better either indirectly through physical objects and spaces or through direct action, particularly sex. I should probably say something high-minded about plot versus dialogue, but it's the sex. And this song is unapologetically about sex. In choosing between this version and the classic Elvis, region and Guitar Shorty's Hendrix connection won out. (This song is also a great antidote to the self-indulgent moroseness of the previous two tracks.)

"Heart of Steel," Galactic (with Irma Thomas)
"Heart of Steel," particularly as boomed by Irma Thomas, embodies the incredible strength and resilience of New Orleans and also of the novel's two central female characters. The song's narrator takes on some blame for her predicament ("Should have never stared down the voodoo queen"), but the listener never doubts that she will tough through any trials. New Orleans (together with so much of the Gulf Coast, including the stretch of Mississippi where Marion grew up) suffered horribly. Almost two thousand people lost their lives, and many people continue to suffer economically and emotionally. The narration of New Orleans' reinvention too often elides these facts. In the run-up to the ten-year anniversary of Katrina, many journalists glossed over the suffering or spoke of "silver linings," and editorials even went so far as to suggest that Katrina was a good thing. That way of thinking is both wrong-headed and offensive. Yet it's also true that no one who really knows the place doubted the strength of its heart and soul or believed that its long, rich, strange collective history would not reshape around whatever it came its way, as painful as the fates of so many individuals were and, in many cases, continue to be. "Heart of Steel" offers me a way to celebrate my favorite city's collective resilience without being happy that it was necessary or minimizing individual suffering.


Elise Blackwell and The Lower Quarter links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for An Unfinished Score
Read Her Like an Open Book essay by the author
TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)


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