Joanne O’Sullivan’s debut novel, Between Two Skies, features Evangeline Riley, a sixteen-year-old girl who loves her hometown, Bayou Perdu. She spends most of her time on her boat with her father, until Evangeline’s entire world is flooded. Hurricane Katrina forces Evangeline’s family to evacuate Bayou Perdu and leave everything behind. O’Sullivan’s novel is a sweet and heart-breaking tale of family, love, and recovering what’s lost.
This is an excerpt of an interview. You can view the full interview in our third issue here!
SRJ: You’re from New Orleans?
Q: I went to college at Loyola. When Katrina happened, I was almost obsessively checking what was going on. I signed up to go down and work with that community, but then I found out I was pregnant with my son, and I couldn’t go. “You might be exposed to mold and things that can be damaging,” my doctor said. So, because I couldn’t be there, I started writing about it instead. I started reading all these narratives. The scene where Evangeline comes online to nola.com, I did that. You know, things like “Has anyone been down such-and-such-avenue?” and “Oh, I’ve been down there and this happened.” I just listened to what people were saying was happening. That’s where the idea came for telling a smaller story. You know, what we saw on TV was looting and riots and all the really dramatic stuff, but what was really happening beneath the surface was all these smaller, less dramatic tragedies.
SRJ: I was wondering where Evangeline’s voice came from. There are so many voices to enter into from that whole situation. Why Evangeline’s?
JS: I honestly don’t know where her voice came from. That’s one of the mysteries. I write in scenes. I get a snippet of dialogue and I write a scene around it. Then, I connect the scenes and figure out what’s happening based on that. The process of writing this book came from my interest in Hurricane Katrina. I always knew it was going to be a teenager’s voice telling the story though. I mean, it happened right at the beginning of the school year. People had either been to school for about a day, or hadn’t been to school yet, so thinking about that as a kid, how traumatic that would be, that your school doesn’t exist anymore and then you’re in some place that you’ve never heard of before.
SRJ: It’s a very poignant tale, the story of Katrina, the loss the storm took.
JS: So many different angles over the years have been told. Through my work with Asheville Citizen Times, I get to interview authors who come through town. I was working on this novel just as I interviewed Daniel Wallace about his release, The Kings and Queens of Rhone. He said, “I never know what a book is about until after I’ve written it. I don’t even concern myself with that question.” Then three months later, it occurs to me what my novel was actually about, which is my dad dying. It was an emotional journey around the same age, the whole family division, the family roles reconstructing themselves after an absence. The roles shifted.
SRJ: That’s so interesting, especially given Evangeline’s choice to stay with her dad because that’s where she felt connected. Meanwhile, her sister felt lost by the whole situation. The family rearranged.
JS: She [the sister] arguably had more to lose—all her status, her position—but it really wasn’t there to go back to any more, you know? What she had wasn’t really a connection to the land, but her status and her privilege and she was never going to get that back.
SRJ: It’s so hard to believe that you weren’t living in New Orleans when you wrote the novel. The place seems so vivid.
JS: Thank you! I went back every year. I mean, Bayou Perdu isn’t a real place, but it’s loosely based on a composite of several different towns. A lot of it came from research. The images that she sees when she goes back, they’re all images of post Katrina. They came from real things. In college in New Orleans, a girl I knew said, “I’m from Morganton City. It’s ninety minutes south of here.” I remember thinking, “South of here? There’s something south of New Orleans?” I really thought that beyond the city, there’s the river and then the Gulf of Mexico. But the further down you go, the more blurred the line between land and water gets. The way of life is so different from New Orleans. It’s all about water and living with the water. So many people don’t know that place, that way of life. It’s so precious now. Every day, a football field sized piece of land disappears and it won’t be here ten years from now. So, that was motivating, to capture this endangered place and way of life. There’s no way to reverse it. And that’s sad.
SRJ: When you were writing Between Two Skies, did you know it was going to be YA? Or was that sort of a happy accident?
JS: I did, yeah. I had written another novel that was middle grade, which I always thought was what I’d write. I’ve rewritten it about sixteen or seventeen times. I had an agent, but for my nonfiction. I gave my middle-grade to my agent and she said, “I can’t really tell you what it is, but it’s not right.” She said, “If you’re trying to write YA, YA’s all about voice.” I had received some feedback that it was too overwritten, too controlled by the narrator. You could feel it. And so, I decided, “All right, I’m going to write a YA all about voice.”
SRJ: And you succeeded!
JS: And that’s what Between Two Skies came out as. So, even though she didn’t sell anything for me, she gave me the advice that created this book. One little bit of advice. You never know where these things are going to come from.