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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 that.

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 men.

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 tough sometimes.

    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 his ribs.

    "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 me together.

    "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."






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