Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Importance of Boogie Woogie

Over the holidays I took some time to revise my book proposal. One of the editorial suggestions I received from one of the most respected editors in the publishing world was to add “more color”—especially for a New Orleans based book. While I don’t think my style is bone-dry, I must admit, scholars are known for their obsession with precision. Because so many liberties have already been taken with Toole’s life story, I initially dedicated myself to getting the story accurate and making it cohesive. But I know the importance of color. Even Piet Mondrian recognized the need for boogie woogie as he painted with remarkable precision.

So I decided to address some of the most colorful questions that readers would certainly ask when reading this biography. Questions about Toole’s sexuality and insights into his last few months on this earth form much of the intrigue surrounding his brief life. But the question for me was how to answer these questions. My treatment of such topics could not be reckless, simplified or overly grand.

Like most writers, when stuck, I turn to reading. And one of the books I picked up over the holidays was Ned Sublette’s The World that Made New Orleans. I was looking for a new text for my class on New Orleans Literature and Culture and I had grown tired of Herbert Asbury’s The French Quarter. Thus far, I have found that Sublette’s work is one of the first books on New Orleans that energetically synthesizes the city’s complex roots from a global perspective, without falling into that clich├ęd metaphor of New Orleans as a “cultural gumbo.” I have yet to finish the book, but so far Sublette has given me a worthy lesson in adding color to a historical narrative, without compromising its integrity.

And so I returned to my proposal with fresh eyes. And instead of paining over edits, I embraced the need to discard five pages here and add three paragraphs there. I thought of the dozens of studies Gericault did for The Raft of the Medusa or Picasso’s many studies leading up to Las Meninas, and I strived for a bigger picture.

The picture is not complete, but I think my colors are more vibrant. So to Mr. Sublette I say, thank you.