A conversation with Faulkner & Friends author Vicki Salloum on bookstores, dead writers and finding inspiration no matter what life throws at you.
Annie Ajami is a woman trying to forget her past. She stands shivering in the Irish Channel of New Orleans on the freezing morning of her bookstores’s grand opening. An old woman and two boys stumble into the store. A man wanders in. It doesn’t take Annie long to discover that the old woman is homeless and the man, shabbily dressed but cerebral looking, is an acclaimed author who disappeared from public sight years ago after his novel became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Ignoring her reservations, Annie befriends these down-an-outers and together, with their help, the shop she has named Faulkner & Friends becomes a beacon of hope for the city’s undiscovered writing talent.
Born in Gulfport, Mississippi, Vicki Salloum has lived in New Orleans for many years. Her debut novella A Prayer to Saint Jude was published in 2012, and her latest novel, Faulkner & Friends, was released last month. An ode to the independent bookstore peppered with literary references from Faulkner to Joyce, Salloum’s book is ultimately about the power of friendship and finding solace in even the darkest of times. Given their current situation, her characters could easily give up and sink into despair, but they don’t. Instead, they support each other, give thanks for what they do have and pray for a miracle.
“Faulkner & Friends is a captivating exploration of loss and the resilience of those who retain hope and faith through unimaginable tragedy,” says Bev Marshall. “With astonishing skill and compassion Vicki Salloum weaves the stories of a writer, a bookseller, a destitute grandmother, and two troubled boys who form a bond of humanity at its core. An engrossing and unforgettable read, boldly conceived, and beautifully written.”
We interviewed Salloum at home in New Orleans by e-mail recently. Read on to find out her favorite Faulkner novel, which author she’d invite to lead a discussion at her own bookstore and where she goes for personal reflection in the city.
EZB: Why Faulkner in your title and name of main character Annie’s bookstore?
VS: Faulkner is in my title because all my life I have wanted to own a bookstore named Faulkner & Friends. I’ve thought of other names, such as The Poet’s Lament, but for some reason Faulkner & Friends always stuck. Sad to say, if I ever did open a bookstore I couldn’t name it after Faulkner because another existing bookstore in New Orleans already has done so. So I would name it Flannery & Friends in honor of the novelist Flannery O’Connor.
EZB: What’s your favorite Faulkner work and which of his do you find most challenging to read?
VS: I thought Light in August was beautifully written. And one of my favorite short stories is Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.” I didn’t like his novel As I Lay Dying, and The Sound and the Fury was very difficult.
EZB: Annie is a sweet character but a bit naive, especially when it comes to opening an independent bookstore these days, but she says it’s her dream and she was going to do it no matter what. Have you ever jumped in head first and done something even though you knew it might not be a success?
VS: Annie did what she did because she was desperate. She had hit rock bottom in her life, so she didn’t feel that she had much to lose by failing at a business when she had already failed at life. As for me, I think I jumped in head first at writing fiction even though I knew I might not succeed. But as a writer, you don’t have anything material to lose if you fail. The thing I’ve most wanted most in my life for the last 30 years has been my own bookstore. I’ve had many chances to jump in and lease a storefront and start one, but I was smart enough to do my research and know that by opening the kind of store I want — one that sells mostly literary fiction — I’d probably be committing financial suicide. But you know what? I still just might do it. I can’t get over the obsession. Years ago, I told my husband that if the novel Faulkner & Friends was ever published I would celebrate by opening a bookstore. And, honestly, that’s all I’ve been thinking of doing lately.
EZB: How would you describe New Orleans’ current bookshop culture, and do you have a favorite shop?
VS: I’ve had three favorite shops, all of which have gone under. One was in the Faubourg Marigny, a tiny space no bigger than a child’s bedroom but with the greatest collection of books. Another was in the Bywater neighborhood and, even though I live a good distance away, I would go there to buy my books. It went out of business more than a year ago. Another was pretty close to home and I would also go there to buy books because it was a humble establishment with a welcoming environment and the kindest owner you would ever want to meet. But it went out of business in the last six months. So now I go to Metairie and buy my books at Barnes & Noble or shop online at Amazon.
EZB: In her business plan, Annie wrote “great fiction is a million years from dead.” Who are some of your favorite fiction writers in New Orleans and beyond right now?
VS: My favorite local fiction writer is Louis Maistros, who wrote the novel The Sound of Building Coffins. The book is magical and heartbreaking and soulful and stunningly original. Another favorite local writer is John Kennedy Toole, who won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for A Confederacy of Dunces. Mr. Toole happened to have taught me freshman English at a small girls’ Catholic college in New Orleans years ago before he committed suicide. My two favorite poets are Lee Meitzen Grue and Julie Kane. Two other great local novelists are Bev Marshall and John Biguenet. Beyond New Orleans, I adore William Kennedy, who wrote Ironweed, my copy of which has torn and missing pages because I’ve read it so many times, and Jesmyn Ward, who wrote the magnificent National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones.
EZB: Several of your characters in this book are homeless and, while most people would probably write them off as bums, Annie takes them in and befriends them. Do you remember the last time you discovered someone was much more than they first appeared?
VS: That would be my husband. I wasn’t too impressed with his external circumstances when I first met him but, thank God, I looked past that to who he was. He turned out to be the most extraordinary human being. Deciding to marry him 22 years ago was the best thing I ever did.
EZB: Your character Leo is really a once-famous writer named Marvin Everillo. If you owned a bookstore, what living writer would you wish to walk in the door and lead a book discussion?
VS: You know, I take after my character Marvin Everillo: I like my writers dead. But if I had to pick a living writer to lead a book discussion, I would probably pick Marilynne Robinson or Teju Cole or Neil Gaiman or Abraham Verghese.
EZB: Your character Zella and eventually Annie find peace and solace at St. Mary’s and the shrine of Father Seelos. Is this a real spot in New Orleans? And where’s your favorite place in the city to go for personal reflection?
VS: Yes, St. Mary’s Assumption Church and the Francis Xavier Seelos Shrine are real places. St. Mary’s, which was completed in 1860 and built for the German Catholics who immigrated to New Orleans. It is located in the Irish Channel. Coincidentally, it happens to be located on the street right behind my fictional bookshop. The Shrine of Francis Xavier Seelos is housed in an enclosure behind the altar of St. Mary. Francis Xavier Seelos was a Redemptorist missionary priest who was pastor of St. Mary’s in 1867, the year he died of yellow fever at the age of 48. In his day, Father Seelos was such a humble, compassionate priest that everyone pronounced him a living saint. Like the characters in my novel, I sometimes go to the Seelos Shrine and kneel before the statue of Blessed Seelos to find inspiration and encouragement. And always I leave there with a sense of joy and gratitude and optimism.