INTERVIEW WITH 2018 PRIZE WINNER, WOODLIEF THOMAS
DSP: Congratulations on your win! What was the most challenging part of the book to write?
WT: Thank you. I imagine the most challenging part of the book was the
ending. From the time I started the novel over ten years ago I had a
very clear vision of where, on a literal level, my protagonist would
end up. The trick was figuring out how to get him to that place, and
to do it in a believable, well-paced, and gripping manner. I think I
figured it out but the thing was, I got him there and then realized
that wasn't really the end. One of the other main characters had
something that she still had to work out, so I let her go on and do
DSP: Who is your favorite character and why? Or who was most insistent
on being voiced first?
WT: My favorite character has to be Antoine. The whole idea of writing
the book came from him. He's inspired by an old neighbor of mine in
New Orleans, this guy whom everybody wrote off as an utterly wrecked
human being. This was understandable, as he did some pretty terrible
things, especially when he was drunk--which was pretty much always--but
he also had a really sweet, beautiful side too, a side that I was only
privy to because he lived right next door. The book came from the idea
of this cat somehow scraping together all the pieces of his life where
he was strong, where he was happy, and where he loved and was loved,
and through this act of remembering himself, going out and doing
something supremely beautiful.
DSP: What did the book teach you (about writing, the subject, yourself, other)?
WT: Writing this book taught me that everyone has an infinitude--and I
mean an infinitude--of selves, and of those selves' distinct
experiences, stored inside them, waiting to come out. I mean, where
did these people (characters) come from? And where did those things
they did and said come from? And this concept has been reaffirmed
watching my week-old daughter sleep. She's witnessed only a sliver of
what this world is composed of, yet she obviously has a very active
dream life in which she's swimming with dolphins, running through the
evening woods chasing lightning bugs, and consulting with Mayan
priests in the dead of night. But where did all that come from? It
must have already been in there.
DSP: There have been many books about New Orleans post-Katrina. What
made you choose to write about it?
WT: It was really just chance. I was living in New Orleans
post-Katrina, and the time and place I was living in (and the people
living in that time and place) were really interesting to me. I
therefore ended up writing about it. Katrina doesn't really have a
great deal to do with the book when you get right down to it, beyond
getting Maybelle (and therefore Antoine) on the road.
DSP: What are you working on now?
WT: I'm finishing up a short novel called Locust about a Native
American woman who covertly follows the Trail of Tears murdering white
DSP: Tell us about your writing life/practice.
WT: As a high school teacher, it's very difficult to write during the
school year. I therefore do a lot of writing in the summer.
DSP: What are you reading?
WT: I'm currently reading Orlando Furioso. I love old epic poetry.
DSP: We created the Del Sol Press First Novel Prize because there
aren't enough opportunities for writers to publish their novels
outside of small presses or the traditional agent/editor/publisher
route that often doesn't capture exceptional works like your own. What
advice or words of encouragement do you have for writers still seeking
the realization of their dream to publish?
WT: It's cliche, but just keep on grinding. If you don't feel like
it's time to give up, then it obviously isn't.
EXCERPT FROM JUST OFF ELYSIAN FIELDS:
I gripped the shaky wheel. I thought I was driving all right,
considering it had been eight years.The air coming in the windows was
warm, the pines blew past. The interstate seemed to be the Delta 88's
element—steady and straight. I was worried when I first pulled it out
onto Mazant as Ma waved, after the gray twenty-five-year old
Oldsmobile she let me borrow clunked real loud
and nasty into gear. How I pressed the gas but didn't get anything
back for a good second or two before the car squealed something fierce
as I turned the wheel and set off. But I knew how it was. Starting's
I crossed the Mississippi line around noon. A state trooper was
tucked into a stand of trees there in the median, and I was doing
seven over the limit. I pulled my foot a little off the gas, nervous.
I had no idea what happened when an unlicensed ex-con who wasn't
supposed to leave Louisiana was pulled over in Mississippi. I passed
him by and then looked in the rearview.
Nothing. Good. I needed a beer, but I was gonna wait. Yeah, I was
gonna wait. Just to drink something I took down some of that bitter,
luke warm coffee I got on the way out of New Orleans. I put the cup
down and tried to focus on the road.
Pharaoh knew something was happening, but I didn't want to
believe him. Just Saturday morning, nothing but two days before, I
found him drinking a brown-bagged twenty-two-ouncer on our favorite
bench on the promenade, looking out at the Mississippi. Those
fire-breathing-dragon, red silk pajamas somebody gave him were all
covered in dirt, and his cornrows were
coming loose real bad. He didn't look so good. He handed me a beer
from a plastic bag without saying anything, and I sat down next to him
without saying anything either. Then he started talking just like
that, just like always, still looking out at the river. Told me he
woke up on Toulouse, there in the Quarter, half in the street and half
on the sidewalk, the curb digging into
"I woke up and found out I done pissed myself, Antoine," he said.
"I ain't done that since I was a littlin, no. And then, come to find
out my bike was gone. C'mon, man, you know damn well I don't never
forget to lock up."
"It happens, Pharaoh," I told him. Even though I was worried by
what he said.
"It don't happen to me!"
And he was right.
He took a big drink, and he went on. Told me his red hat was
crushed too. That he'd started cussing and pushed himself off the
pavement. He was confused when he woke up, but he knew that from where
he was right then, the rising sun would be where the river was. So he
found where the sky was going light and made for the river just like
he always did when he woke
up, no matter where he found himself. As if every morning he needed to
see the river was still there, like only then he'd know he was still
real. The sun was just coming up over Algiers Point.
He crossed Decatur, and he walked over the levee and then along
the river down to the Governor Nicholls Street Wharf. The river was
smooth, Pharaoh told me, and the big gray sky it reflected made it
look just like the mercury spilled from a broken thermometer. He
listened to the water come all quiet against the bank for a minute,
and he walked to the edge. Took off his slippers and peeled off his
pajamas, on down to his drawers. Pharaoh walked on into the
Mississippi and swam out just about ten or so feet, and he floated in
that big old river of mercury, looking into the sky. He told me that
floating there right then, he realized he was scared. He realized his
time was running out.
"Come on, Pharaoh. You're fine," I said. I couldn't think any
other way. I looked at the river and took a drink from my beer. A big
freighter slowly rolled upriver, and I realized I was scared too.
Scared of not having Pharaoh. Not being able to talk to him, or to at
least know he was out walking the streets somewhere being Pharaoh. And
yeah, I was afraid I might fall apart; sometimes I felt like he held
"Here...look in my eyes," he said. He leaned over and opened his
eyes real big, and I looked into them. I realized I'd never looked
into his eyes for more than a second or so. While talking with him, I
usually looked out at Dauphine Street or the river, wherever it was we
were drinking, or not look at him at all. I saw that his irises were
milky and blue with age and the
whites were brownish and blotchy. The folds around his eyes seemed to
nearly cover them up completely.
"I don't see nothing," I lied.
"Got damnit, Antoine! I'm fixing to die. I can feel it."