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The Drive That Changed Everything

An interview with Queen Sugar author Natalie Baszile, whose visit to a Louisiana sugarcane field resulted in her debut novel. 

queen sugarThe year was 2005, and San Francisco author Natalie Baszile was invited to a birthday party in New Iberia, Louisiana. She had been working on a book for the past six years and had set her story in a fictional town based on the one her dad was from near Lake Charles to the west. Her story didn’t focus on a particular industry, but she knew her main character Charley needed to inherit a crop for her plot to work.

She hired a tour guide to drive her around and saw rice and sweet potato fields as potential crops for Charley. “I was waiting for some kind of feeling. At the end of those two days, I had not found anything,” she recalls. Baszile went on to the party and was telling a friend about her predicament. Her friend casually mentioned some sugarcane land that was in her family and offered to show Baszile. “So we hop in the car and we head toward St. Martinville and pull over into a sugarcane field,” she says. “It was just a very special moment, because I stood in the middle of this field and I just knew knew in my bones that I had found the crop for my character.”

Through quarterly visits to Iberia Parish, Baszile learned about the planting, growing and harvesting of sugarcane right along with Charley. Queen Sugar is divided into sections that capture the growing season, from June through October, when cane fields begin burning in South Louisiana and their sweet smoke fills the air. “I just felt a tremendous obligation to capture that culture and so I had to experience a lot of those things for myself in order to be able to write about them,” she says.

Her original story — which featured a father named Ralph Angel and his son Blue living in their car in Los Angeles who decide to return home — grew to include feisty Charley, her daughter, Micah, grandmother Miss Honey, Prosper Denton, an elderly farmer who takes Charley under his wing, and a host of other characters. Ralph Angel’s plight to dig himself out of a hole of poverty and become a role model for his son pulls at the heartstrings just as much as Charley’s desperate attempt to coax something lush and prosperous from the 800 acres her father left her.

Across the field, wide and long as ten city blocks, stunted cane stalks dotted the earth, their straggly leaves a starved shade of pale green with deeply sunburned edges. Grass and weeds grew thick and matted between the rows, which were preposterously rutted with tire tracks. Even to Charley’s untrained eye, it was clear no one had been out there in months. Where were the neatly tilled rows, the lush cane plants high as a man’s shoulder? Where was the moist soil, dark and rich as ground French Roast? Under a morning sky coated with clouds gray as concrete, Charley stared out over fields that should have looked like the hundreds of lush acres she passed on the drive down, but didn’t.” Queen Sugar, Chapter 1

Baszile says grandmother Miss Honey was inspired by her own Miss Rose, and the characters who turned out for her grandmother’s funeral the inspiration for townspeople and relatives in her fictional St. Josephine Parish. But it’s Ralph Angel who strikes a chord most with readers. “I am gratified and relieved that most readers see him as a tragic character in the story and not just unlikeable,” she says. “A lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘I have somebody in my family who is just like this’ or ‘my brother is like this.’ The book might not have had that darker thread had he not been there.”

Readers have also confirmed her success in capturing the look, feel and culture of South Louisiana, with some writing to tell her she made them see their hometown in a new way and farmers from other regions saying she managed to capture what it’s like to work the land. “That’s been very rewarding for me,” she says. “I wanted to make this an authentic experience for the reader. If you’re from that area, I wanted you to read this book and say OK, she got it right. If you’re not from Louisiana, I wanted you to have that experience of being transported and really feel as though you’re there.”

It was eleven o’clock. It was noon. Relatives arrived in steady waves like a river’s rising tide—Great Aunt Rose from Opelousas with her high cheekbones and Charley’s same smile; Uncle Oliver and Aunt Madeline, with the same red tint in their complexions; cousins Screw Neck and Joe Black, Buzzard Gravy and Maraine … People two-stepped to blues and zydeco humming through Uncle Brother’s rigged sound system. In one corner of the yard, folks slapped dominoes on the rented tables, while in another, men gathered at the barbecue grill as smoke drifted into the woods.”Queen Sugar, Chapter 8

Natalie_Baszile_1In the vein of other Southern writers to come before her, Baszile takes the reader to what feels like a foreign land for some and introduces them to the sounds, smells and way of life that make the real-life Iberia Parish a special place. Taking a look at her bookshelf during our phone interview, she lists Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Rick Bragg, Ellen Gilchrist and Ernest Gaines among her collection. If she had to choose one, it would be Gaines.

“There are aspects of Queen Sugar where I try to very subtly pay homage to Ernest Gaines and his work,” she says. “I have all of his books here on the shelf. I really appreciate his work and I have so much admiration for him and his ability to write about South Louisiana.” Fellow African American writer Lalita Tademy has also become a sort of mentor to her after the two met in 2011. (Tademy’s new book Citizens Creek is also on our Fall/Winter Reading List, and the pair are scheduled to appear together for an author event in Menlo Park, California, in February.)

From her home base in the Bay Area, Baszile plans to continue to write about the Bayou State, setting her next novel in New Orleans. And she received some exciting news from Hollywood recently. Harpo Productions has purchased the film rights to Queen Sugar. The ink was barely dry on the contract the day we spoke and Baszile hasn’t cast Charley in her mind yet, but says she imagines Charles Dutton or Morgan Freeman as farmer Prosper Denton. The decision is ultimately in Oprah’s hands, but hopefully readers will see Charley and her sugarcane crop on the big screen soon.

Featured image from Flickr Creative Commons by Eugeni Dodonov.

Queen Sugar is currently available online and in bookstores. See Natalie Baszile at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville October 11-12, Texas Book Festival in Austin October 25-26 and Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge November 1. Her full schedule of events can be found here.  

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