Joy Castro’s debut thriller, Hell or High Water, is set in New Orleans almost three years after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. In this page-turner, Times-Picayune reporter Nola Céspedes is longing for a story that will launch her career as a serious journalist, but an assignment on missing registered sex offenders is not what she had in mind. When she discovers that the recent outbreak of abductions in the city may be linked to her story, Nola sets out to find the culprit—uncovering much about her own past in the process.
In a Q&A with BookPage, Castro explains her love for New Orleans and the challenges of writing a crime novel.
Hell or High Water is very vividly set in New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. On your website you explain that your husband is from Louisiana, and you’ve been visiting the city for 20 years. Why does post-Katrina New Orleans make a good setting for a crime novel?
Thank you! Katrina hit in August, 2005, and the book is set in April, 2008.
Hell or High Water works particularly well in post-Katrina New Orleans because the novel looks specifically at sex crimes, which have a long aftermath. There’s the initial trauma, and then there’s the long, difficult, uncertain process of coming back, of healing. Just because offenders are caught and convicted—and often they’re not—does not mean the damage is somehow magically healed. Recovering is a process. It takes time, and it’s frustrating and painful to the survivors, who often don’t get the help they need.
You’re probably already anticipating the analogy. The city of New Orleans, which is still wrestling with the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation, experienced a similar story writ large. The storm itself was over by September, but its fallout, both in terms of the emotional trauma and the practical difficulties of rebuilding, has lasted for years.
No matter how committed they are, survivors can become exhausted, frustrated, heartbroken, fed up. That’s the story I wanted to tell: the story of aftermath.
What do you love most about the city?
The people. They’re gritty, resilient, smart, strong and passionate. There’s also a tremendous, joyous insistence on pleasure in New Orleans, as well as a hard-boiled gallows humor, which my protagonist Nola shares.
The city is also very beautiful, and its layered cultural history is dense, conflicted and complicated: Native American, French, Senegalese, Congolese, Spanish, Anglo, Italian, Irish and more. I wanted to honor that beauty and complexity.
Like almost everyone, I also love the spectacular music and food of New Orleans. That was the most delicious part of the research—eating, drinking and going out everywhere that Nola would go.
There’s a tremendous, joyous insistence on pleasure in New Orleans, as well as a hard-boiled gallows humor, which my protagonist Nola shares.
This is your first novel. How was the experience of writing Hell or High Water different from writing the nonfiction or short fiction you’ve published?
I’d never worked from an outline before, but I did so with this novel, because it was very important to make sure all the pieces fit together precisely.
When I wrote my memoir The Truth Book, I already knew the story, since I had lived it; I just had to write it. With short fiction, I generally write toward a line or an image, and discover the story as I go.
But a novel—especially a plot-driven novel like a thriller—is a much more complicated organism, with a lot of moving parts. I had to make the story up from scratch, and I had to test the logic of the narrative. Writing an outline let me do that.
In the novel, Nola, a reporter, researches a story about the registered sex offenders who have gone off the grid since Katrina. How did you come up with this plot? What sort of research did you do?
It’s rooted in fact. During the hurricane evacuation, over 1,300 registered sex offenders went off the grid. By early 2008, when Hell or High Water is set, 800 had still not been relocated. That’s true, and that was provocative to me. I thought, That’s a story. What happened to those people? Where are they now? Are they back in New Orleans? Are they a threat? So I thought it would be interesting to have a reporter investigate the story, to see where it took her and what she learned.
I have so much respect for newspapers and journalism in general and for the Times-Picayune in particular, so I made Nola a Times-Picayune reporter.
In terms of research, I learned a lot about various sexual offenses, including nonviolent, non-threatening ones, and the psychology of different kinds of sexual criminals. I also learned about various methods of rehabilitation: what works, what really doesn’t. I was helped by some great university research librarians. All of the information and statistics in the book are drawn from recently published scholarship.
Finally, I researched the long-term effects of sexual crimes on survivors, such as the increased incidence of depression, suicide attempts, drug and alcohol abuse and destructive relationships even long after the assault takes place.
This is a serious problem that our society faces. Sending a rapist to jail does not solve everything for the person who’s been raped.
The interviews with sex offenders in the novel stay away from cliché and portray these characters as real human beings. To what extent did you base Nola’s interactions on reality?
Thank you. I’m glad you think so.
Well, sex offenders are real human beings, so I started there. Let me first clarify that Nola does distinguish in the novel between mild, nonviolent offenses, like consensual sex between a 19-year-old and a younger teenager who are in a relationship together, and the kinds of serious, violent sex offenses, like rape and molestation, of which we usually think in these discussions.
But even regarding these serious, damaging offenders, I wanted to write compassionately and realistically about people who, because they do things that are so heinous, are often written off as monsters, as being too horrifying to contemplate or simply unworthy of our interest or concern. This isn’t true, of course. Rapists and child molesters are not uncommon, and they often pass for normal. They’re often people who’ve been hurt and damaged themselves, and they’re as varied and complex as any other population, so I wanted to show that.
I’m not particularly sympathetic; they need to be stopped. But while demonizing someone can satisfy our sense of moral outrage, it’s not very illuminating or interesting, and it doesn’t make for very good fiction.
Of course, the terror and trauma caused by sexual assaults are devastating, and many people react to sexual criminals in an extremely negative way. I understand that, and I tried to give that perspective a voice in the novel, too, by letting various characters express those feelings of pure revulsion and fear.
I didn’t interview any sex offenders myself for the purposes of writing this book. However, I had the unfortunate opportunity to observe one closely for two years during my early adolescence. After my parents divorced, my mother married a man who was later convicted and imprisoned for child molesting. I ran away at 14, an experience that The Truth Book details. It was a difficult experience, and I’ve been curious about the topic ever since.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing a crime novel?
My literary training was in high modernism: Faulkner, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf. That’s what I did my scholarly doctorate in, and that’s what I’ve been teaching at the college level for the last 15 years. So even though I wanted to write a thriller because I’ve always loved mysteries, I was initially drawn toward lyrical language and the interior, subjective world of imagery, memory and psychology rather than to plot and action.
Instead of implementing the law of cause and effect, I wanted my characters to sit around having epiphanies and profound thoughts—not a lot of suspense there! So I had to learn how to plot, to make one thing lead to another. It was a grueling process, and I went through many drafts of my outline and many drafts of the manuscript. I learned a lot.
Hell or High Water is the first in a series. What happens next? Do you have an arc in mind for how the series will play out?
Yes, I think so. Nola’s got her own demons, and in each book, the crimes she investigates affect her personally in some way.
In the next novel in the series, Nearer Home, which is also set in New Orleans (the title comes from a Robert Frost poem), Nola becomes uncomfortably involved in the murder of a journalist—one of her former teachers, in fact. She decides to solve the crime, but there’s a political angle, and things get complicated. She becomes a target herself.
In a long-term sense, Nola yearns to understand herself and her past, and since she’s Cuban American, the locale where the books are set may shift in the future. I’m really interested in politics and the environment, so those issues keep working themselves into the novels, too.
Are there any crime series or authors who inspired you to write in this genre?
Oh, yes. I’ve always loved mysteries and thrillers, beginning as a young child with the Bobbsey Twins series and moving on to Sherlock Holmes and others.
I also really enjoy the novels of Patricia Highsmith, Tana French and John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. After writing Hell or High Water, I found Raymond Chandler (where had he been all my life?), so he’s been an influence on Nearer Home. To relax and feel cozy, I like Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie series, which is set in Edinburgh. His books are so gentle. Comfort crime.
What are you reading now?
John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Though I’d read a couple of le Carré’s novels in high school, I had sort of forgotten about him. However, my husband and I recently stayed in an apartment in Spain that happened to have several of his books on the shelves. I started with A Murder of Quality, which was marvelous, and have been bingeing since then. They’re terrific.