I can remember as a college scholarship student, surviving on bagels and high hopes, how I came across a reference to Marie Laveau in a Creole cookbook. I was struck by this amazing, larger-than-life figure, this black woman of power living amid slavery and oppression. And then I began to get signs, to stumble over references to Marie everywhere, in a song, in a text. I became convinced I was being “haunted” into writing about her. But I didn’t believe in myself enough to think I could actually tell Marie’s story.
Five years later, I got a six week fellowship to attend the Yaddo artists colony where I got immense support and encouragement from the other artists there. Thus I began Voodoo Dreams, writing the first chapter in a mad burst of imagination. After that, I traveled to New Orleans to find out more about the city and about Marie. I was mesmerized by New Orleans, by the mists in the street by morning, by the offerings left at Marie’s Tomb, by New Orleans’ atmosphere of mystery, and by my sense that it was a city where anything could happen.
I developed rituals for my writing. I could only write when I had everything laid out just so on my desk, I kept a small artificial rose on my dresser, I had to have room to pace, and a window to stare out of – all these details seemed important to discovering Marie, to telling her story. At some point I became a nocturnal writer, almost unable to write during daylight. And there were times, when I had tucked my daughter in bed, and my husband was asleep and the moon was high, when I swore Marie was there, peering over my shoulder as I wrote.
My early chapters were written long hand on yellow legal paper. Later I got a typewriter, but I every time I had to make a change to the manuscript, I would always begin at chapter one, re-typing the entire manuscript, revising and re-working it. I re-wrote chapter one at least 26 times. Later, I got a computer, but I still couldn’t make a change to Chapter 13 without starting from the beginning and working through the entire novel. It may be that I work this way to promote continuity in the book, or it could be I’m just obsessive.
Finally, in 1983, I had completed a draft of Voodoo Dreams. My agent sent it to a dozen publishers, but all rejected it. In addition, my novel, and the fact that no one wanted to publish it, contributed to my not getting tenure at the University where I worked. A senior professor told me that the subject I had chosen was inappropriate – no one wanted to read about a black woman – that I should have written a different book. I lost my job.
I have always been plagued by fears of rejection, stemming from my parents divorce when I was very young, which left me to be raised by my grandmother. So I took this new rejection as further evidence that I wasn’t meant to succeed, that I was worthless. I remember sitting in the middle of my apartment, the night before I would move away to a new job, with everything packed in moving boxes, everything covered with packing tape – and how empty it was: empty of dreams, empty of hopes.
It was four years before I went back to the novel again. Four years that I didn’t write, that I couldn’t even think of myself as a writer. I went through long periods of depression and self-hatred. And then finally, I began writing again out of utter desperation, out of complete hopelessness. I knew it was the only way that I could feel redeemed.
Of all the drafts of my novel, this one took the longest. Not so much because the writing was hard, but because as I was writing, I was coming to terms with my life: with my sense of rejection, with the heart attack and death of the grandmother who was more than a mother to me, with my divorce and remarriage, with infertility problems, with becoming a mother, and with myself as an African-American, a woman, and a human being. Marie’s story became the story I told myself to keep going. The book became much richer as a result -became the repository of the sediments of my own life, layer upon layer, until it was full. And in this draft, I began to write Marie Laveau as a heroine, rather than as a victim and her story became more triumph than tragedy. I can remember looking out my window one morning as I was writing, looking at the snow layering the woods outside my house – so quiet, so cold – and knowing that the daffodil bulbs I’d planted were sleeping in the ground, waiting to emerge, just as I knew that Voodoo Dreams was also about to re-emerge.
Gradually, my story and my life, came together. When Marie said “I am!”, I rejoiced; when Marie learned that being a woman is a wonderful, magical thing, I believed it too. You see what Marie does is discover her self, her potential, as I did, as everyone does. There are many roads to empowerment: through vision, as Marie did; through imagination, as I did; or through love, or through prayer, or through all the spectrum of the human spirit.
And then when I had finished the manuscript, when, after almost a decade it was really and finally done, I knew that I had triumphed, just as Marie had. I remember writing the book’s final line, feeling a wonderful sense of calm, and wondering about the daffodil’s I’d planted – though by then I’d moved far away to California. I had written as good a book as I knew how – had written the book I wanted, written it for myself. I had risked the craziness of writing a book where a woman can be immersed in water for an hour and emerge alive, walking on the tips of the waves, and I had also emerged alive. It took another three years of sending the manuscript to publishers before St. Martin’s accepted it. But while waiting, and hoping to be published, I learned that publication isn’t the reward – it’s wonderful – but the reward is in the self, in belief, and in hope.
What’s important, and what I hope my readers are inspired to do, is to keep going, to take risks, to believe in yourself and to know that everyone around us is a hero or heroine, the man at the grocery checkout, your boss, your friend, your daughter or son, that we are all a part of the myth of our own lives.
I still get scared. I still feel insecure, but I have a wiser acceptance of myself now – and I tell stories to inspire me. And behind me I can feel the spirit of Marie Laveau, of my Grandmother, and of many others, in a rainbow of spirits black and white, across time and space telling me, telling us all: being a woman is just fine. Being a person is just fine. The power be passed down through the generations.