Interview with 'Man of Mystery' Michael H. Rubin
A cursed plantation, bloody murder-suicide and key figures from Louisiana history make The Cottoncrest Curse a thrilling Halloween read.
Michael H. Rubin’s thriller The Cottoncrest Curse can definitely be judged by its cover. With the title in white and a raised drip of blood coming down from the “o” and the “n,” this debut novel is both terrifying and tactile at first glance. Open to the prologue, in which a docent in an antebellum costume describes a gruesome murder-suicide on the stairwell of a massive plantation home, and you’ll be hooked on Rubin’s captivating story.
As the tour guide goes on to explain, “the deaths of Augustine and Rebecca Chastaine weren’t the start of the famous Cottoncrest curse. And they weren’t the end of it either.” Locals in Rubin’s South Louisiana setting whisper about the curse, believed to be an otherworldly force that took the lives of the Chastaines and the colonel’s father, who committed suicide at the end of the Civil War. Sheriff Raifer Jackson knows that even a ghost needs a mortal accomplice and concludes the murder a double homicide with local peddler Jake Gold the prime suspect.
Assisted by an overzealous deputy, the town doctor and racist Knights of the White Camellia, Raifer leads a manhunt for Jake through a village of former slaves, swamps of Cajun Country and the bordellos of New Orleans.
We interviewed Michael H. Rubin, an attorney, former jazz pianist and Louisiana history buff, by email about his first foray into fiction, the inspiration for his character Jake Gold and what it really means to believe something is “cursed.”
EZB: Where did the idea for this book come from? I know it’s described as a legal thriller, but it’s so much more than that. And how long did it take you to research and write?
MHR: My wife, Ayan, and I walk very early every morning, and during our walks we discuss, in detail, possible story lines, characters and plot points. When I sat down to write the first chapter, we had already planned out the arc of the story. The actual historical research and writing took about a year and a half.
EZB: Did you have any say in the book’s creepy cover or was that all LSU Press?
MHR: The LSU Press was great to work with. My wife and I discussed what we envisioned for the cover, and Laura Gleason, of the LSU Press staff, added her vision to ours and executed it superbly.
EZB: Your characters are quite colorful and memorable, especially the Jewish peddler, Jake. How many of them are based on actual people in history?
MHR: The protagonist, itinerant peddler Jake Gold, is entirely fictional, although his character was very loosely inspired by my great-grandfather, a Russian immigrant who left his home and family at the age of 12 to escape the pogroms and who, when he finally made it to America, started life here as an itinerant peddler. However, Jake’s adventures are not those of my great-grandfather.
Though all the key characters are fictitious, they interact with actual historical figures. Louis Martinet, a black lawyer, was a key figure in the legal history, not only of Louisiana, but also of the entire country. He came up with the idea of trying to use the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause in the post-Reconstruction era to end segregation, an effort struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in the infamous case of Plessy v. Ferguson, the notorious “separate-but-equal” decision. Likewise, P.B.S. Pinchback, also mentioned in the book, was the first black governor of Louisiana. Many aspects of the novel are firmly grounded in actual events, and the depiction of plantation life, Civil War battles, how physicians cared for the wounded, the plight of both sharecroppers and former slaves, the details of raising sugarcane, the culture, the speech patterns and the New Orleans locale are all historically accurate.
Of course, out in this countryside, unlike in New York or even in New Orleans, they had never seen a Jew. That meant that Jake could do anything he wanted, could be just like anyone else. He wasn’t Yaakov the Jew. He was Jake Gold, the Peddler Man. Jake Gold, a good, short American name. He was just like many others in Louisiana — a man who could speak more than one language, who had come here to make his own way, who would be judged on what he did.” – Chapter 5
EZB: Is Cottoncrest inspired by a real-life plantation, and how does the curse factor into your plot?
MHR: The Cottoncrest Plantation is a fictional locale, but it is representative of 19th century plantations throughout the South, which were often centers of power for both good and evil. Plantations were also one of the primary points of intersection between blacks and whites, between the landed aristocracy and those who were much less privileged, and between merchants and itinerant traders.
The “curse” has nothing to do with magic or spells. When bad things happen and we cannot readily discern the cause, we are prone to say that things are cursed. That is just another way of saying that we don’t know the full truth about what occurred. And that’s the heart of what my novel is all about — whether we can ever know the full truth of our family’s history, how we would respond if we found out things about our ancestry that we did not expect and how we would choose to act if we learned something that would benefit one person but seriously harm another.
Maybe the Cottoncrest curse was worse than people said, or else there was something very, very strange going on here that had nothing to do with a curse.” – Chapter 6
EZB: As a native of South Louisiana, it was especially fun to read about the Cajuns and how they fit into the class order back then. According to your research, were they respected for their ability to take care of themselves out in the swamp or were they considered low-class citizens because of the way they lived and ate?
MHR: Today, the Cajun culture is celebrated, but for many, many years it was not. For most of the first half of the 20th century, Cajun French was not permitted to be spoken or taught in many Louisiana schools, even those in Southwest Louisiana, the area of the state in which French Acadians originally settled. Cajuns, whose ancestors were the French Acadians expelled by the British from Nova Scotia during the French and Indian wars in the 1700s, were looked down upon by the Francophones living in New Orleans, who traced their ancestry back to Paris and the French aristocracy. The lack of respect that those in New Orleans accorded the Cajuns was not only because Cajun French was more colloquial and less patrician than the Parisian French spoken in the Crescent City, but also because the Cajuns worked with their hands and lived in the swamps. Early New Orleanians regarded Cajuns as coarse and unsophisticated.
The Acadians had calloused hands and sunburned faces. They lived in the swamps and ate anything they could catch or shoot. Crustaceans that lived in the mud of ditches. Old alligator gar, fish too ugly to even look at. Catfish with their protruding lips and stinging, fleshy whiskers. Even alligators and possums and armadillos.” – Chapter 7
EZB: Your character Bucky introduces plenty of humor into the story, keeping things from getting too dark. Were you aware of the need to balance the gruesome murder with some lighter scenes like Bucky’s gaffes?
MHR: Bucky earnestly desires to be respected and admired, and the disconnect between what he wants to be and how he speaks and behaves makes him a bit of a buffoon and creates some comic relief. And you’re right, without Bucky the story might be too dark. Bucky represents all of those who behave in a way they believe will earn them the admiration and respect of their peers, without recognizing how others really regard them and without taking into account the moral consequences of their actions.
It had all happened just as Bucky had imagined, from the moment he and Raifer had gotten to Cottoncrest. He was famous because he had seen the dead Colonel Judge and all. He had been where the curse had hit and had seen what it had done. People wanted to listen to him. They wanted his opinion on everything. He had shown them. He had become a real somebody.” – Chapter 18
EZB: What can attendees look forward to during your Louisiana Book Festival appearance, and do you have any other events/signings scheduled for the fall?
MHR: I’ll be giving a short multimedia presentation about the historical background and Southern setting of The Cottoncrest Curse, which will give attendees at the Louisiana Book Festival a greater appreciation of the milieu in which the novel’s characters operated, followed by a brief reading from the prologue and then a Q & A session.
I’m in the process now of setting up appearances at events not only throughout the South but also across the country. In November, for example, I’ll be taping a segment for the “Connie Martinson Talks Books” television program, which airs in Los Angeles. While in California I will be one of the authors featured at Bouchercon, which is being held in Long Beach, California, this year. Bouchercon is an annual gathering at which authors of mysteries and thrillers mingle with fans of those genres. I’ve been invited to speak at several Boucheron events and will be introduced as one of this year’s “Men of Mystery.”
See Michael H. Rubin at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge November 1 from 1-1:30 p.m. in House Committee Room 6.