Morgan Babst looks around the cork-lined walls of her office, where images and notes are pinned for inspiration and reference, and sees a new novel taking shape. Over time, the world of that book will come to surround her.
But outside the window overlooking her exuberant garden, there is New Orleans, layers and layers of it — the world of her childhood, the post-Katrina landscape, and the universe of her first novel, “The Floating World.” This book is a broken-hearted love letter to New Orleans — remembered and wounded and imagined — in all its complexity and fragility and trouble and possibility.
Babst set about writing this novel eight years ago, when she was a homesick New Orleanian living in Brooklyn, struggling to cope with her own experience of evacuation and loss. Taking as her mantra, “no way out but through,” she has crafted an evocative, darkly illuminating story of a complicated biracial family blasted apart by their Katrina experience.
The Boisdorés are an old Creole family — Joe Boisdoré is an artist who works in wood, using the skills he learned from his father, Vincent, who is descending into the world of dementia. Joe’s wife Tess Eshleman, who is white, is a psychiatrist at home in the world of Uptown society. She and Joe have separated, but both are worried about their daughter Cora, who stayed in New Orleans during the storm and was so traumatized she is now practically catatonic.
Cora’s sister Del comes back from New York to find the family home damaged by a huge fallen magnolia, and the family shattered and broken as well. How will the Boisdorés remake their lives in this changed city?
So the story goes — meditating on race and class and the fault lines in a city and a family. To read it is to be back in those days of daily stress and struggle, making sense of life forever changed, envisioning a way out or a way forward, and searching for the meaning of home.
The meaning of home is one thing Morgan Babst is very clear about. She and her young family moved back to New Orleans last year and settled in on Prytania Street. She met her husband Scott Habig at a Katrina fundraiser in New York, and the plan was always to return home. Years passed, and finally, it was time.
“My daughter, Lise, had just turned 5 and New York was becoming her place,” Babst said. “And I wanted to give her oak trees and family ... It finally became untenable to not be here. And even though I made it a crisis, it was the least traumatic transition you can imagine.”
Babst’s family roots are wide and deep in New Orleans. Her grandfather was Clay Shaw’s defense attorney, and both her parents are lawyers. She remembers big family gatherings, crawfish boils, cooking duck gumbo and shooting water moccasins in the swamp.
“I was always in an oak tree,” she said. “I was always getting yelled at by the golfers in Audubon Park. I’ve always been a loner, but in New Orleans, the whole city is your company.”
Babst went to NOCCA, then to Yale, then to NYU. She has lived in France and Russia, worked in publishing. But writing, like New Orleans, is her source of happiness. “Writing this book was a way to stay in New Orleans even when I wasn’t here. I’m still writing myself home.”
And reading herself home, too. She remembers reading Chris Rose’s pieces, “that nervous breakdown on paper, so helpful and painful.”
To research her book, she turned to that landmark anthology, “Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization” edited by Arnold Hirsch and Joseph Logsdon; “The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans,” by Lawrence N. Powell; and “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life – A Story of Race and Family Secrets,” by Bliss Broyard.
“One of the things I admire about New Orleans is its courage in the face of racial conversations,” she said.
She’s realistic about the complex responses to fiction about Katrina. She dedicates her book “for New Orleans.” She could easily have added “with love” but that is clear from every page.
“I just wanted to offer it to anyone who needs another depiction of what we went through here,” she said.
That time, that place, that experience — they all feel real — to Babst, to the reader too. “The world of the book is so layered over the real world,” she said, “that I can see it. I can feel it at my rib cage.”
WHAT: Morgan Babst signs “The Floating World”
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17
WHERE: Garden District Book Shop
2727 Prytania St., New Orleans
INFO: (504) 895-2266