In this guest post, author Chris Clarkson discusses his inspirations for his debut novel and the duality of its setting, the city of New Orleans. That Summer Night on Frenchmen Street will be published June 28 and is available for pre-order now.
Eight years ago, I was a frequent tourist to the city I now call home. New Orleans was everything I dreamt of. The food was iconic and exploding with flavor. The music: jazz, zydeco, and blues, permeated the historic streets. It didn’t matter if I was in the French Quarter or finding shade under oaks dripping with Spanish moss in City Park; music always found me. And the people that called New Orleans home made me feel so welcome. Saying goodbye was hard. The kind of hard that Louis Armstrong sang about in, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans.”
I vividly remember my last trip as a tourist. I was sitting on a streetcar, drinking a sweet tea to stay cool and observing the oaks on St. Charles. The oaks were still adorned with beads from Mardi Gras many months ago – and I decided that I didn’t want to know what it was like to miss New Orleans anymore. I wanted to know what it was like to stay.
In the fall of 2017, I arrived in New Orleans. I was an author with an agent, but no publishing deal yet. During the night, after working nine-to-five, I’d sit down with the sounds of the city—late night trombones, the occasional second line, and the frequent ambulance, police, and fire sirens, and I’d write.
I can’t remember the moment Tennessee Williams and Jessamine Monet came to me, but I do remember when my rose-colored glasses came off. Within a few months, I had adequate time to shift my perspective from tourist to local. The bright lights of Bourbon Street were no longer a novelty. I now preferred the cozy and only mildly chaotic scene of Frenchmen Street. Live music. Locals. And the escape of everyday life. In some ways Frenchmen Street felt like a fairytale. Crowded but not too crowded. And that’s why I picked Frenchmen Street for the location where Jessamine and Tennessee shared their first dance.
The longer I lived in New Orleans, the more my viewpoint shifted. The Big Easy was no longer easy and carefree for me. I traded the tourist experience to live in the city that I used to visit frequently in fiction. Before, I’d write about the palm-tree-lined Canal Street while Maryland prepared for another snowstorm. Like Tennessee, I longed for an elsewhere, an elsewhere that was easy. But as a local, fiction could not distract me from the truth. New Orleans is not the city that care forgot.
As a local, I learned about the neutral ground and how relentless a downpour could be, especially when the pumps (a one-hundred-year system to divert rainwater and prevent the flooding of the city) were down. I also learned about boil water advisories. And the lingering effect that Hurricane Katrina—“the storm”—still has on the city today.
In That Summer Night on Frenchmen Street, I tap into another thing I learned as a local. New Orleans is a city of the haves and have nots, a tale of two crescent cites. Tennessee’s family lives in the historic Garden District, which harkens back to antebellum grandeur. The mansions built in the eighteen-hundreds with wrap around porches, porch swings, and elaborate iron wrought gates—hold the same image of the south as Charleston, Savannah, and Natchez.
Jessamine Monet and her brother Joel do not live in the Garden District. Their experience is middle-class. Their mother used to be a teacher, but now works in the hospitality industry. While researching and immersing myself in stories to create Jessamine’s perspective, I learned that most of the teachers were let go during Katrina. I also learned about the stark contrast between the cost of living and income. Which is why Jessamine’s cousin, Solange Blanchard, frequently mentions the Treme rent not paying itself.
That Summer Night on Frenchmen Street explores my conflicting feelings of a tale of two cities. Tennessee embodies my experience as a tourist and Jessamine represents my local experience. Despite the frequent outbursts of his parents, New Orleans is a haven for Tennessee. It’s a place where he can start over and get lost in the melting gumbo pot. While Jessamine frequently wishes to escape New Orleans. For her, home is where she lost her father to the storm and several classmates to violence.
New Orleans is a city of duality. Beauty and grandeur exist alongside decay and rising crime. And rich history is everywhere you turn. Alongside the complex and complicated history of the Crescent City, music still lives and breathes. Even when the shutters and windows are boarded for a hurricane, you can still hear slow jazz and see the laughter in the streets and the sweet sound of someone being called “my baby.” New Orleans is a place for lovers, creatives, lost souls, found souls, and everyone in between.
It’s hard to believe that New Orleans has been home for five years. I arrived unpublished, wide-eyed and wearing rose-colored glasses. Five years later, I’m a little wiser, published, and the rose-colored glasses have come off. I will always be grateful that a piece of me, Tennessee, and Jessamine will forever exist in this city that I love.
I hope that readers who have never visited New Orleans will be inspired to pay a visit to this complex and wonderful city—and just maybe, take a ride on a streetcar and let it lead them to their dreams.
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Debut author Chris Clarkson studied English literature at the University of Maryland, where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He works during the day as an outreach coordinator, where along with many other responsibilities in this role, he regularly assists with the implementation of diversity initiatives. When he is not writing, Chris spends his time as a wandering local, discovering his muse in coffee shops, street art, and old bookstores. He lives in New Orleans with his dog Avery and a collection of notebooks filled with words for stories waiting to be brought to life. Find him on Twitter at @ChrisWrites3434.