Last week I spoke with Salvantonia Clemente about his writing and music and how these two art forms intersect for him.
This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes speculative fiction writer R. B. Wood.
R. B. Wood is a recent MFA graduate of Emerson College and a writer of speculative and dark thrillers. Mr. Wood recently has appeared in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Water’s anthology, as well as online via SickLit Magazine & HorrorAddicts.net, and in the award-winning anthology Offbeat: Nine Spins on Song from Wicked ink Books. Along with his writing passion, R. B. is the host of The Word Count Podcast—a show of original flash fiction.
R. B. currently lives in Boston with his partner Tina, a multitude of cats, and various other critters that visit from time to time.
GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Let’s just dive right in and talk about your latest release, Bayou Whispers. Where did the idea for the book come from? Why did you choose New Orleans as the setting? And, why did you choose Voodoo as the primary magic system for the book?
RBW: Bayou Whispers was actually my genre thesis piece for my Emerson MFA. Believe it or not, it started out as a strict Southern Gothic horror story that took place in Georgia (with a different working title, of course)! But as I developed the characters, it became obvious to me that this story was going to be…needed to be… a fast-paced supernatural thriller with horror elements. But beyond genre, the story of my main character, Jeannine LaRue, is one of survival. We all have some sort of survival story to tell—especially after a year of Covid, so what better city to set the story in than a city that optimizes survival: Namely New Orleans? I spent a lot of time in NOLA in the 90’s and aughts…I love speaking with the locals, and then there is, of course, the music, the food and the history of the region. That’s when the voodoo and Haitian elements really came into play.
GMM: How much research went into the writing of the book for setting, characters, themes, etc.? Did you learn anything new while you were doing the research? Did anything surprise you while doing research?
RBW: Research is my Achilles Heel when it comes to “time sucking activities.” Before the pandemic, I traveled to New Orleans and spent a few weeks interviewing people (bars are great for conversations and I’ve been known to enjoy a cocktail or two now and then), researching locations, touring the actual Bayou in an airboat, and listening to some of the crazy stories that are still told about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I also watched Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts which is a brutally honest look at what happened and how we, as a country failed the people of New Orleans.
This experience (both the MFA and writing this novel) is where I truly began to understand my privilege as a white male and how the social changes we are undergoing as a country need to happen to truly create the diverse yet equal country we dream of. The number of discussions I had about race alone in New Orleans was both educational and passionate and who I am has changed—hopefully for the better. At age 56, I’m still a work in progress!
GMM: Is Bayou Whispers the first book in a series or a stand-alone novel? If this novel is part of a series, what can readers expect next? In terms of writing process, how has writing this novel been different from other things you’ve written? If this isn’t part of a series, what are you currently working on, or what’s next?
RBW: While Jeannine’s story is standalone, there are subtle links to my first novel, The Prodigal’s Foole. The book I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Illusionist & The Wizard and it takes place in 1880’s New York. The elevator pitch on this one is “To solve the unnatural murder of Manhattan elites including his Father, journalist Whitelaw Greeley engages with Harry Houdini and Nikola Tesla to uncover the truth.” I like to describe this upcoming work as a historical supernatural thriller. Think Caleb Carr’s Alienist meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker. There will also be some light connective tissue between this new book, Bayou Whispers and The Prodigal’s Foole. This may eventually lead to an “Avengers” like trilogy, but that’s dependent on sales and popularity.
BAYOU WHISPERS brief synopsis
Bayou Whispers is the story of no-nonsense New Orleans native, Jeannine LaRue, the sole survivor of her family after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, she believed she’d been saved, but soon found herself held hostage and sexually exploited, rescued months later by sheriff’s deputy Curtis Jones. Twelve years after Katrina, Jeannine is a new attorney who returns to New Orleans to save her old friend Curtis Jones—now a local thief and trafficker of stolen goods—after he is arrested for the murder of Jeannine’s captors, whose bodies have recently been found. But Jeannine discovers more than she bargained for when she uncovers a family history of dark voodoo magic and an unholy alliance with an ancient evil Haitian loa.
Bayou Whispers Prologue
31 October 2005
Orleans Parish, Louisiana
On Halloween night that year, no little ghosts or goblins wandered the streets in search of candy. No laughter rang out in what was left of the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. Two months after Katrina had ravaged this place, it still resembled a war zone, covered in debris and stagnant pools of foul-smelling water from the levee breach.
As midnight approached, a young teenager—naked, dirty, covered in mosquito bites, and with a nasty leg wound wrapped in crusted-over grey rags—stumbled from a copse of trees. She was thin, so very thin, weighing barely eighty pounds.
The muddy and cracked streets before her sat dark and empty; human detritus littered the roads and yards, and the skeletons of ruined homes bore unintelligible spray paint that looked more like the desperate scratching of a fluorescent wild beast than symbols from a nameless insurance company or traumatized recovery workers.
It was a city of the dead, a city of the damned.
Right foot, left foot drag. One step at a time. The pain didn’t matter. It can’t matter.
Jeannine had been walking for what felt like forever, almost in a trance, placing one bloody foot in front of the other. Moving forward was the only thing that mattered.
Keep moving. Those white guys might be following. Keep moving.
Right foot, left foot drag.
She walked through glass and rusted nails, around junked appliances and damp, moldy couches. A dog barked once in the distance.
A patrol car sat watch at the end of the street, engine idling. Jeannine approached, fear causing each step to hesitate. The light of a burning cigarette brightened as the occupant of the vehicle, still in shadow, took a long drag.
“Help,” croaked Jeannine. Her voice strained, rough. Insects chirped. Frogs called to their mates. No one heard her.
Right foot, left foot drag.
The person in the car took another pull, a dot of orange light flaring, then fading.
“Help!” she called, louder this time. The insects and the frogs stopped. The patrol car’s dome light winked on as the door opened.
She screamed as the cop ran toward her. She screamed as the cop took off his own shirt to wrap around her. She screamed as the cop carried her to the car.
“Jesus H. Christ! Randy, call for an ambulance!” yelled the cop.
The cop’s partner, still inside the car, got on the radio.
Jeannine continued to scream until her vocal cords tore. She tasted blood.
“You’re safe, honey,” said the cop for the seventh time. Jeannine finally heard him.
He stayed with her until the ambulance arrived and then rode with her to the hospital. He spoke to the doctors on her behalf. He sat with her in intensive care while Jeannine, clean for the first time in months, slept. He watched her tossing, turning, and moaning softly.
Randy, the cop’s partner, arrived at the hospital. He’d taken care of the paperwork and had brought a po’ boy and a coffee. The sandwich was left untouched.
For the next hour, the partners sat a silent vigil over Jeannine.
The first cop must have drifted off because he woke with a start when someone placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Officer Jones?” asked a man in scrubs. “I’m Doctor Broussard. Can we talk outside for a minute?”
The cop looked to his partner and he nodded back at him.
“Go,” said Randy. “I’ll be here.”
Jones followed the doctor into the hallway.
“Officer, we can’t find any of…” He glanced at a clipboard. “…Jeannine’s family. I wanted to let you know that in the morning, and assuming she’s still stable…” The doctor let his words drift off as he swallowed hard.
Jones noticed the man’s youth, how inexperienced he must’ve been before Katrina hit. The doctor looked like some of the baby-faced soldiers Curtis had met during the war—young men, children, really, who grew up quickly in the face of tragedy and death.
Jones put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder.
“Yes. Sorry,” said Dr. Broussard. “It’s been a long couple of months of giving out bad news.”
“I understand,” said Jones automatically. “Just hit me with it, Doc.”
“She…Jeannine…we are going to have to remove her leg. The infection is too severe and there is gangrene.”
“Do what you have to,” said Jones impassively.
“But without parental…”
“Will the surgery save her life?”
“Take her leg, then.” Jones’s left eye twitched once.
Doctor Broussard nodded. “I’ll need you to sign.”
A moment later, Jones returned to Jeannine’s room.
“Well?” asked Randy.
Jones slumped into a chair. “They’re going to take it in the morning.”
Suddenly, Jeannine sat up, ice-blue eyes wide, unblinking.
It was those eyes that had thrown him. This young teen—he’d met her once before the storm. He didn’t recognize her at first, as she practically crawled from the bayou, filthy and emaciated. The last time Curtis had seen her—she’d been covered in blood.
She had brown eyes then. He remembered them—unblinking and staring into a nightmare of unimaginable horror.
“Jane Doe” was Jeannine LaRue. Jones was sure being a child of mixed-race parents was hard enough to grow up with in this town, but this young woman had experienced far more and far worse than her fourteen years had prepared her for.
Jones knew who she was now; she had been returned unlike so many of those in the missing persons reports.
The details of so many lost souls broken down into height, weight, and hair color.
“You all right, Jeannine?” he asked.
She looked at Jones, eyes unfocused from the drugs the doctors had pumped into her.
“Papa Nightmare is here!” she said in a frantic whisper. “Papa Nightmare!”
“Shhh. It’s all right, honey. You are safe now. I’m here and I won’t leave you.”
Jeannine blankly looked at Jones. He gently helped her lie back down.
“Right foot, left foot,” she muttered as her eyes fluttered once before closing.
The drugs took a lasting hold, and Jeannine’s breathing slowed. She spoke occasionally, nonsense words mostly. Jones held her hand for the rest of that night. “You’re safe,” he whispered again. “I promise.”
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