Historical novelist Robert Hicks, whose 'A Separate Country' is set in New Orleans in 1879, sees a link between the city's cultural richness and the difficulty of life here
September 30, 2009, 4:00AM
For historical novelist Robert Hicks, the muse lives in many places -- a Confederate battlefield in the hills of Tennessee or in the heart of a widow who tends a cemetery in his best-selling first novel, "The Widow of the South." In his most recent book, "A Separate Country, " the muse has taken up residence in New Orleans, a city struggling to get back on its feet after the Civil War and to survive a yellow fever epidemic.
Christopher Berkey / AP PhotoNovelist Robert Hicks, shown near his home in Franklin, Tenn., is the author of "A Separate Country," a novel set in New Orleans following the Civil War. The city was home to Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood and his wife, a Creole belle named Anna Marie Hennen, the central characters in "A Separate Country." After Hood succumbed to yellow fever, he was buried in Metairie Cemetery.
At first, Hicks felt humbled in the face of his subject. "I thought, 'Who am I to write about New Orleans?' " he said. "The real fear is that people would say, 'You're a poser. You live in the hills of Tennessee.' But James Lee Burke and Julia Reed and a bunch of writers have been so nice to me, just so kind."
Hicks, a Florida native, has fond family memories of New Orleans. "My first airplane flight was to New Orleans -- it was a prop jet. My grandparents started going to Galatoire's in 1909. There was always this kind of great ease in the city. When I came back during my book tour in 2005 and there were really no bookstores, hardly anything, all of a sudden, the city became a completely different thing to me. And I made the decision that the next book would be about New Orleans."
Hicks wanted to continue the story that had begun in "The Widow of the South, " about the bloody battle of Franklin, Tenn., and one thing led to another. "I thought, 'I've got Hood. He's there in New Orleans.' At one point, Hood and the painter Degas were living across the street from each other. And I began to delve into the New Orleans of Degas. And I began walking the streets -- at that point, after Katrina, it was such a strange and funky place, so much about it came straight out of the 19th-century mentality."
"A Separate Country" is a powerful evocation of New Orleans as it was in 1879, a book thick with history, rich in atmosphere. The characters walk the city's rough and tumble streets, witness the corruption of the Louisiana Lottery and the toll of the yellow fever epidemic, enact their very human love affairs, hide their secrets. To read it is to visit, for the length of its pages, an all-enveloping, passionately rendered past, beautiful and hallucinatory. "This city is not for the fainthearted, " Hicks writes.
"A Separate Country" by Robert Hicks. AUTHOR! AUTHOR!What: Robert Hicks signs 'A Separate Country' (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99).
When and where: Oct. 17, for a discussion from 1:30 to 2:15 p.m. and a book-signing from 2:30 to 3:15 p.m. at the Louisiana Book Festival at the state Capitol in Baton Rouge, and Oct. 19 at 5:30 p.m. at Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans
FROM 'A SEPARATE COUNTRY'
"I stepped outside onto the courtyard outside the library and had a smoke. There is a kind of Louisiana sky that is so deep and blue and bottomless and bright that the occasional cloud that slips off the Gulf can cast a shadow with the power to shock and startle, before quickly moving off, leaping over walls and roofs and into the next courtyard. I blew smoke and watched a cloud glide over, and quickly the courtyard went black before reappearing again in blinding color. Mockingbirds and sparrows flitted away from the darkness, calling to each other in search of the light. If I had been aboard that cloud, I thought, I could have looked down on one hundred square blocks of the city, each carved into a delicate labyrinth of courtyards and hidden gardens. My wife had mastered these labyrinths, grown up in them. They would always be a mystery to me."
-- Robert Hicks
John Bell Hood's struggle to make a life for himself after a life of war and murder, maimed by the loss of one leg and the use of one arm; and Anna Marie Hennen Hood's passion for her husband and love for her family of 11 children come to life, as the characters live with secrets in their past that can cloud love in the present. This is also a story about stories. As Hood trusts his old acquaintance, Eli Griffin, to decide whether to publish his books, and as Anna Marie writes her journal for her daughter, Lydia, we see how memory and history color each human life and how tenderly those stories are passed on.
This story was unfolding in Hicks' mind as he witnessed the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As he traveled on a book tour that fall, everywhere he went, he said, "Hotels were full of people from New Orleans with dogs -- in Birmingham, (Ala.); in Memphis, (Tenn.); in Houston. I just kept going down to New Orleans, just trying to understand in my head what was happening to the Hoods . . . and I realized that the only way I could write about New Orleans today was to write about New Orleans then."
A lot of what drove Hicks to write "A Separate Country" was realizing that "a lot of what I knew about Hood was fiction. In the 1960s, there was this kind of revisionist history about Hood to make him into a villainous, murderous, jealous man, and that's not what I found. I hope I was honoring New Orleans, writing about the continuing impact of those five bloody hours at Franklin, and my goal also became -- and it's not what I began with -- I want those people who feel like they actually know who Hood is, if they've been living on the fiction that we call history. Maybe my take isn't right, but if it stirs the pot and we get a reassessment, it was worth it."
Hicks has come to writing in a roundabout way, yet in hindsight it seems inevitable. A music publisher and artist manager, he also is a partner in B.B. King's Blues clubs. An art collector and preservationist, he moved to Tennessee in 1974 and eventually joined the board of the house museum of Carnton. "The Widow of the South" emerged from his efforts to preserve the house and the Franklin battlefield. Along the way, he also co-curated an exhibition of "The Art of Tennessee" and joined the board of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The time he's logged in New Orleans inspired "A Separate Country, " and the story will continue in a third book.
"I get the sense that a lot of extraordinary places are hard places. I live in a cabin outside of Franklin, Tenn., (a late 18th-century cabin called 'Labor-in-Vain, ' near Leiper's Fork) and it's a hard place, like a lot of great places, like New Orleans. But if I can get people to read this book and love these people, it's worth it. A lot of people never look up and see what it is that they have. I live in a beautiful hollow, and have for 30 years, and one day a friend of mine said, 'Is this not one of the most beautiful roads on earth?' And I said, 'You're right.' I had grown accustomed to it. It's so easy for people who are there to be overwhelmed by all the hardness and miss all the richness."
Book editor Susan Larson can be reached at email@example.com or nola.com/books or at 504.826.3457.