Under the Spell of Southern Literature
An interview with Rita Leganski, author of “The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow.”
We’ll be chatting with Leganski on Friday from 1-2 CST using the hashtag #southernlit and also giving away a few copies of “The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow.” Join our chat room here.
Published at the beginning of this year and one of our Fall/Winter Reads, “The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow” is a quiet little book that has kept growing and growing in readership and attention. First-time author Rita Leganski infuses just enough magical realism into her story to make it sparkle while also dealing with the real issues of tragedy, guilt and what it means to be different. Her book was long listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize for first fiction, along with a new award called the Crook’s Corner Book Prize for Exceptional Debut Southern Novels, putting her in a category with authors Wiley Cash, Ayana Mathis and Kevin Wilson.
Like her main character, Bonaventure, who is born without a voice but has a heightened sense of hearing, Leganski is quite an anomaly herself. Growing up in northern Wisconsin, she immersed herself in Southern literature to get through the cold winters. “Southern writers were my favorites,” she writes in the “About the Author” section at the end of her novel. “They took me from the plains of my northern home to a landscape vined in lushness, where flora had names like magnolia, scuppernong and trumpet creeper; where people had names like Scout, Calpurnia and Battle Fairchild; where places had names like Yoknapatawpha; and where a streetcar was named Desire.”
Leganski set her book in 1950s New Orleans and wrote her entire story without ever having visited the city or Louisiana. Those years of reading about the South fueled her imagination and her story, which beautifully captures the New Orleans area, its culture, mysticism and people.
Her attention to detail is second only to her lyrical prose, and even her chapter titles are a pleasure to read: An Eloquence of Face and Hands, The Abundant Good Graces of His Silence, Sassafras and Spanish Moss, Voodoo and Hoodoo And The Sweet By-And-By.
A thread of mystery runs through her novel, as the reader waits to find out why a character called The Wanderer killed Bonaventure’s father William. His mother, Dancy, is overcome with grief over the murder, while his grandmother, Letice, drowns in Catholic guilt over something that happened long ago. Creole housekeeper Trinidad Prefontaine, who possesses her own special gifts, is the only one who can help Bonaventure find the key to his family’s long buried secrets and soothe the sounds that haunt the little boy.
I interviewed Rita by phone and learned more about how the story of Bonaventure Arrow came to life, what happened when she did finally visit New Orleans and how Flannery O’Connor had a direct impact on one of her characters.
On magical realism and the development of “Bonaventure Arrow” …
In that genre, what’s magic is magic, but what’s real is very real. The reason that I did like nine months of research for the book is to make sure that what was real in there was very, very real. I went back to school as an adult, and my very last class in graduate school was a short fiction class, and the very last assignment was to write this short story. So, I wrote one I called The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, and it was 13 pages long and it was humorous. I never sat down to write a novel with it. I had applied at universities to teach, and I do teach at De Paul now, but I ran into the professor that I had written that short story for in the months after I graduated, and he said did you ever do anything with that story, because I think you should. So, little by little I’d go back and add a character, a situation and then there’d be more characters, and at some point it kind of took on a life of its own.
His silence gave pause to the experts who examined him; here was a curiosity beyond their expertise. (They could never have explained Bonaventure anyway because there is no scientific word for miraculous.) They knew nothing of Bonaventure’s rarified hearing, the acuity of which was an extraordinary grace and an unearthly symptom of the mystery behind his silence. They didn’t know that through his remarkable hearing he would bring salvation to the souls of those who loved him.
Going from 167 to 378 pages …
I got an agent in 2010, and Harper Collins acquired it in 2011. When my agent took it on, we kind of workshopped over the phone and they’d say, well, we need a little more of this and we’d like to see that. I was going in and constantly revising, so when Harper acquired it, it was maybe a couple hundred pages, and my very first conversation with the editor that I would work with, she said, wow I really love it, I love the prose, it’s beautiful, but it needs a dramatic through line. There’s not enough suspense.
In that very first manuscript, when William Arrow was killed, all I said was he’d been shot down by a crazy man who’d gotten hold of a gun. So, now I know that I have to have more suspense. I have this conversation with my agent on the phone and I’m saying, I don’t know what to do. I gotta have some suspense, and I’ve gotta weave it through a novel that’s finished. She said, hey, who was the crazy guy? The one who killed William Arrow. So, The Wanderer became that dramatic through line and of course he brought Eugenia Babbitt, and he brought Coleman Tate and he brought that whole storyline of solving who was it that killed William Arrow and why.
William attended his own funeral; it is a privilege allowed restless souls. The transcendence of the requiem mass offered to take him into the sky above, but he resisted and sat next to his coffin in the hearse on the way to the cemetery … There was, however, no psalm to describe the irony of William dying on his twenty-third birthday, or of the fatal bullet having traveled a notable distance, around corners, through tree trunks and solid red brick to lodge in the life of his pregnant young widow.
William Arrow did not rest in peace.
Curling up with Southern literature …
Where I’m from, it’s very cold, and the winters are long. There’s snow until the horizon. What are you gonna do? It’s a rural community and so you have your escape in books. I always, from the very first, had just an enchantment with Southern literature, whether it was when I’m young and reading “The Yearling” or on to where I’m now in high school and reading more of the classics and Carson McCullers and of course “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It was a world that I absolutely loved. There was like this magic place in my life.
To this day, I constantly reread Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, I happen to like Faulkner. I know there are a lot of people who don’t. I do. I think he really writes about the immortality of the human spirit in his very unique Southern way. I can’t see myself ever turning away from Southern literature as my first choice.
And then writing it …
Where I’m from is lovely in its own way, but it has its own literary heritage and culture. When Harper Collins realized that I’m writing Southern, but I’m definitely not from the South, they said we would like you to provide the reader with an explanation and that was a good thing to do because you know the South, and rightly so, they’re very proud and protective of their literary heritage. Who am I to come in and try to break into that?
So that’s why in the back of the book you have the essay “The Southern Side of My Heart,” which goes into all of my fascination with the literature and my continued fascination with it. It’s such a rich place to write about. I mean it’s really kind of an embarrassment of riches. I love the jargon, I love the food, I love the flowers. It just lends itself to lyricism and certainly to magical realism. When people ask me why New Orleans, I say you cannot get much more magically real than New Orleans.
Not far from Trinidad’s small inherited estate she found a swamp with palmetto flats thick as a jungle and laced at the edges with cardinal flowers and bald cypress. In the nearby bottoms, clumps of sphagnun moss languished among spiderworts and Christmas fern, and bayou violets were spectacularly showcased. Low growing partridge berry and piney woods lily filled up the swamp’s slopes, thriving among false foxglove and Carolina jessamine. It was her private paradise.
New Orleans Bound
I had something to work with and so I went down there with the story in my head and knowing exactly what I needed to check on. I kept copious notes of all my research and I made a list of things I was not quite certain of. For instance, in the first version, in 1923, when Letice is at Mardi Gras, I had her as Marie Antoinette. When I went down there and saw the actual ticket to the 1923 Mardi Gras ball, the theme that year was Arabian Nights and so I made her Scheherazade. I was able to see the menu from the [Hotel] Monteleone, when William and Dancy would have stayed there on their honeymoon. I walked that story and I knew where to walk, because I had written that story. I took the St. Charles streetcar, I knew where I wanted William to work, I looked in the window at Rubensteins, I ate beignets, I went to Antoine’s. It was like going there with a map.
I did learn never say New Orleans [Or-leens]. I learned that the hard way.
The Mood of the South
I was looking for the mood and I knew there was going to be so many ingredients. There’s voodoo and hoodoo and Catholicism and free people of color and the whole New Orleans history. The juxtaposition of being the center of the slave trade, while at the same time having a society of free people of color. There’s commentary contained within the novel about social structure and the prejudices. You had New Orleans as a site of Plessy v. Ferguson and yet it’s also Preservation Hall, there’s Congo Square. It’s overwhelming how much there is just in New Orleans itself, never mind you bring in the bayous, the swamps and Cajun culture and all of it. I tried, through all my reading, to kind of distill what it was that would capture and express a mood. Once I felt I had done that, it’s like, OK, now I’m gonna go down and see the rest of it.
Really, New Orleans or Bayou Cymbaline, it was almost like another character. It wasn’t the focal point itself of the story, I wasn’t really setting out to write a history of the area, but it became another character. I didn’t have the story take place right in New Orleans. I have the fictional town of Bayou Cymbaline, because I wanted someplace close enough to be under the influence of New Orleans but not totally under its spell.
Bayou Cymbaline was home to fishermen, shopkeepers, and makers of barrels; to poets, musicians, and philosopher types, and to every sort in between. To the casual observer, it might have seemed an odd mix of folk; however, such diversity infused the place with enough character to circle the earth twice at the equator.
Taking Bonaventure’s voice away …
As far as making him mute, I knew I was going to write magical realism when I wrote this story. The professor had asked for something different. He wanted us to expand our horizons. So, I tried magical realism and I knew I wanted to do something very sensory. As I’m thinking about the senses, I don’t want him to be without sight, because I want color, I want shapes, I want faces. Hearing is the most wonderful sense we have and in order for me to describe the sounds, it really lends itself – I mean I had to work very hard to do something to make sound into something you could envision. So, sound now became colorful and it had shape and it was very imaginative, so I wanted him to have this extraordinary hearing but I wanted him to be dependent on that and so I took away his voice.
Dancy had missed the other side of Bonaventure’s silence. She did not realize he could hear her heartbeat whenever he wanted to. She was unaware he could find the sound of her blood flowing and of the inflation and deflation of her lungs no matter how far away she was. She had no idea he could hear a bluesy trumpet in a French Quarter alley, or the shuffling of tarot cards in a Bogalusa sanctum, or the echoes of footsteps made by the Acolapissa more than than three hundred years before, or the fog rolling over Saint Anthony’s Garden some fourteen miles away.
The very last thing I wrote in that book was chapter one and I talk about the universe of every single sound. So there, I talk about this magical place that only he has access to and he cannot talk about it. Now, I used that same kind of device – the other character in the book who never speaks is The Wandererer and at the end, Adelaide Roman loses her ability to communicate and make any sense at all. I was showing it as an extraordinary gift when it was Bonaventure’s.
The Christ figure and Catholicism
In literature, there’s these archetypes, and there’s the Christ figure, the one who brings salvation and that’s sort of what Bonaventure is as well as William. The one that just makes it all better.
Bonaventure Arrow had been chosen to bring peace. There was guilt to be dealth with, and poor broken hearts, and atonement gone terribly wrong. And too there were family secrets to be heard: some of the old and all of them harmful.
Personally, I am Catholic so another reason for New Orleans – that little belt down there is heavily Catholic. I also took care because in the South, about every two blocks there’s a Baptist Church and I did not want to offend anyone. So that’s why I made Adelaide Roman break away. She’s some crazy splinter fringe International Church of the Elevated Forthright Gospel. And then Trinidad was my way of saying, you don’t have to be a member of any one organized religion. She is the most spiritual person in that book and on her altar, she has Mary and she has a rosary and she has a holy card. She also has a rabbit’s foot and catnip and rooster feathers. She sees the world as everything coming from God, yet she’s not part of any one organized religion.
Letice Arrow’s life revolved around Catholicism. She loved its ritual, its music, and its belief in a loving God. She also loved the mystery of it: the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. She loved the idea that suffering brought one closer to God, and that forgiveness could be found through confession, even though she felt she’d never attained absolution for her sins because she’d never received proper penance.
Flannery O’Connor meets Adelaide Roman …
You know the grandmother in A Good Man is Hard to Find, just sort of this obnoxious self-absorbed creature. Between Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, I would read them over and over and over just to get the feel of their characters and be under their influence. Adelaide Roman was born bad, and she died bad. That’s between her and God. She was certainly an archetype. She was just all things despicable in a person.
Adelaide Roman also believed that her daughter was being punished, but she felt it was for sneaking off to have sex before marriage, bringing shame on their family like the worst kind of sinner, and making Adelaide a grandmother at the age of forty-one. Well, Dancy would have to pay for that: Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Adelaide always cherry-picked verses from her King James Bible and applied them any which way she liked.
At the end, when she can’t communicate and she’s got these binoculars and she’s seeing all kinds of scandalous things … Here’s a woman who lived for gossip and she couldn’t tell anybody anything anymore. She could not gossip, and it killed her. I think Bonaventure summed it up very well when Dancy says, Bonaventure, what happened to your grandma? and he says, she got healed, because she did.
Father, Forgive Them
The book is about granting forgiveness and accepting it as well. You’ve gotta let go and say, I am forgiven, I’m sorry, and go on. It was at the very heart of the story and it was very complex, so you tell it through characters, their traits, their beliefs and why they do what they do. It was one of those things that was an additional consideration beyond location and having visited New Orleans. There was a whole other level to that story that took a lot of reflection and reading in order to incorporate and get the message across.
When Coleman Tate had gone, Letice took the envelope into her chapel and stood still before the crucifix. The words fell around her then like a kind and curing rain: Father, forgive them; they know not what they do. Right there and right then, Letice Arrow knew in absolute clarity that forgiveness is unconditional; it is complete in and of itself and always rises above the facts.
See Rita Leganski in person at the Louisiana Book Festival on November 2, where she’ll be interviewed by me from 11:15 a.m.-noon and will also read passages from “The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow.”