STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Laura Lane McNeal [Dollbaby]


Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal. Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books/Viking. Historical fiction. Hardcover. 337 pages.

“New Orleans was like that. A live-and-let-live attitude was ingrained into the fabric of the city; no one cared who you were or what you looked like—you had a place and everyone respected that.”

Laura Lane McNeal’s debut novel focuses on several generations of women looking out for one another and learning about each other in 1964 in New Orleans. Ibby grew up in Portland, Oregon. After her father dies in an accident, her mother drops her off at her grandmother Fannie’s grand old house in New Orleans. A bit of culture shock for this girl. Ibby expects her mother to return for her but it soon becomes clear her mother never planned to return for her daughter. Ibby settles in with Fannie and her black caretakers Queenie and Dollbaby. Queenie cooks and her daughter Dollbaby cleans and sews clothes for Fannie and many others. They also watch over Fannie as she’s prone to suffering breakdowns. Ibby’s never seen black people before moving in with her grandmother and she learns to adapt to this new, diverse environment as best she can. She comes to live with Fannie in 1964 as a wide-eyed twelve-year-old and by 1972 she’s seen and experienced enormous changes and grown into a smart, confident teenager.

“Ibby put her hand on the gate to Fannie’s house and wiped the sweet from her forehead. She remembered when her mother had dropped her off for the first time. The house had seemed so ominous and uninviting. It gave her a much different feeling now, like that of an old tattered blanket: it wasn’t much to look at, but it made you feel safe just the same.”

Fannie’s bottled up her past and every so often it bubbles over and causes her to need institutional tune-ups. Her long kept secrets slowly unfold among the walls of this old mansion with its locked rooms and mysterious history. Actively involved in civil rights protests along with her brother, Dollbaby envisions a brighter future for her daughter Birdelia. Ibby grows up under the care of these women. At first she’s unsure about her living situation but grows to care deeply for all these women and their unique perspectives on life’s challenges. Told from the perspectives of Dollbaby and Ibby—an insider and outsider point-of-view, it’s a wonderful, meticulously researched novel about creating your own family and support systems wherever you end up. McNeal includes details about eccentric and curious elements that make New Orleans such a vibrant, unusual city.

McNeal grew up in New Orleans where she received degrees in marketing and journalism. She ended up working in banking, later earned her MBA and worked in advertising and as a freelance writer. After Hurricane Katrina, McNeal decided to reinvent herself and focus on something she’d always wanted to do: writer fiction. For three months, eight hours a day while her son was at school she wrote the novel’s first draft. She work-shopped the novel at literary festivals with several editors. When her agent sent out the full novel to five or six publishing houses she received offers from all of them.

I recently spoke to Laura Lane McNeal from her home in New Orleans.

Amy Steele: I read that Hurricane Katrina inspired you to write a novel. How?

Laura Lane McNeal: I had gone to a small school in New Orleans that was very art oriented. They had this shelf of books of authors who’d gone to that school. I studied journalism but I always wanted to (write a book). Life got in the way. I got married, had kids. Katrina hit and the first time in our life we had mandatory evacuation. Someone called us and said your whole house is flooded, the whole city is flooded you can’t come back to the city. We drove up to North Carolina because my parents were there in a small town. We got an email from my kids’ school that schools were closed indefinitely and enroll in school wherever you are now. We stayed up there for five months.

My life had been ripped out from under me. My husband had to return to New Orleans because he’s a lawyer and was working with the oil companies. I didn’t know where he was half the time. I’m sitting in a foreign place watching the news of what’s going on down here. There’s talk of the rebuilding the city or that you can never go back. It was a strange feeling. I decided if I was going to start my life over I was going to do what I always wanted to do and that was writing fiction. I was going to write about New Orleans as my way of preserving the city basically. Once our house was redone, I started taking writing classes at Loyola. Everyone who lives in New Orleans knows it never changed. For hundreds of years. Well now everything had changed.

author Laura Lane McNeal

author Laura Lane McNeal

Amy Steele: Why did you want to write about the 60s in New Orleans?

Laura Lane McNeal: I decided to go back to the 60s which was a changing time in the United States to capture what was there. It was kind of my love song to the city. To put it down on paper for eternity.

Amy Steele: What kind of research did you do?

Laura Lane McNeal: I researched the novel for two years and I was taking writing workshops. I’d written another book, a political thriller, and that’s how I got my agent. I decided I better hurry up and write this novel.

Amy Steele: How did you get the idea for Dollbaby?

Laura Lane McNeal: I wanted to write a classic novel. Southern gothic. Gothic meaning that there’s some kind of eerie aspect to the story. I wanted to write in third-person I wanted to write a classic novel that wasn’t vampires or Dystopian that was based on human relationships. I went back and read a lot of classics from the 30s. It started out as a story with the old house and the cuckoo grandmother and secrets in locked rooms. I don’t know how I can up with the dolls. I think I had just read PD James’ book Children of Men where these women had dolls in baby carriages because they couldn’t have children of their own.

I just picked 1964 at random because I remember the 60s were a very turbulent time. LBJ was getting ready to sign the Civil rights act. It was Freedom Summer in Mississippi. There were sit-ins at the counters and there was a lot of tension. I decided it had to incorporate everything socially that was going on at the time. That’s when I decided I was going to write from two different perspectives. From Ibby’s perspective and from Dollbaby’s or it would’ve been one-sided if I hadn’t done that. I wanted to include the five women’s different views and that’s how I chose to write from two different views.

Amy Steele: The voices of Ibby and Dollbaby sound like who you imagine them to be. How did you develop their voices?

Laura Lane McNeal: When my editor bought this book she said ‘I hate the name Dollbaby. It sounds tawdry and it’s not marketable.’ But you come down here and go to the grocery store and it’s “here’s your change baby.” Whatcha doin’ doll? It’s normal everyday life. New Orleans is 70-80% black. It’s just a way of life. When my editor came down for a conference last September when she got off the airplane the first thing someone said to her was ‘welcome to New Orleans baby.’ There are lots of different accents down here. This has always been a port city. There’s so many different cultures here—what I call a gumbo culture. It’s just all mixed up and together. After Katrina everybody wanted to talk about what it was like growing up and I listened. When I was developing the characters I was trying to incorporate all those different voices.

Queenie is the status quo, not wanting things to change. Dollbaby and her brother are fighting for change. Birdelia is expecting change. Ibby is an outsider and not knowing what to make of it. Fannie you think she doesn’t know what’s going on but she does and she does what she can. And Ibby not knowing what was going on around her and learning about it along the way. That’s why I wanted to make the character that way. New Orleans is a live and let live city.

Amy Steele: It’s really women-focused. You have all these women taking care of each other with no men around. Queenie’s husband is around but not that much.

Laura Lane McNeal: You can find family where you least expect it. Really the heroine of the novel is Queenie because of everything she undertakes and goes through. She says “you always gotta dance even when there’s no music.” Even after Katrina everyone has their joie de vivre. The French settled here around 1722 and around 1750 instead of giving over this territory to Canada they did a secret treaty with Spain. The French didn’t even know they had taken over. When the Spanish came in they tried to put a ban on all the French. Said we’re outlawing dancing but the French were screw you we’re going to dance even if there isn’t any music. The point is you have to celebrate life no matter what comes your way.

Amy Steele: What do you hope people take away from the novel about New Orleans?

Laura Lane McNeal: A lot of times when people write about New Orleans it takes over the story. I tried to stay away from the clichés. I wanted to stay away from The French Quarter. The wanted me to write about the French Quarter so that’s why I wrote that scene where Fannie takes Ibby to get the perfume. New Orleans is basically a character in itself and I didn’t want it to overshadow the story. I wanted to tell a side of the city that people didn’t know. That’s why I had it set up that way.

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purchase at Amazon: Dollbaby: A Novel

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meet Laura at book reading/event:

Thursday, September 11 – 6:00 PM
San Francisco, CA
Liquake Benefit: Viva La France
Dolby Chadwick Gallery
210 Post St., Suite 205 San Francisco, CA 94108

Saturday September 13 – Noon
Baton Rouge, La
Barnes & Noble at LSU
100 Raphael Semmes, Baton Rouge, La
Tailgating Book Signing at Barnes & Noble LSU

Wednesday, September 17 – 7:00 PM
Houston, TX
Blue Willow Bookshop
14532 Memorial Drive

Friday September 19 – 12:00-2:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
Tulane University Book Store
Talk and Signing

Wednesday, September 24 – 7:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
E. Cordes Book Club

Sunday, September 28 – 4:00-6:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
Pirates Alley Faulkner Society Juleps Party

Wednesday October 1 – 7:00 PM
Metairie, LA
Jefferson Parish Library
4747 West Napoleon, Metairie, LA
Talk and signing
(504) 889-8143

Thursday, October 9 – 7:00 PM
Sausalito, CA
Why There Are Words
Literary Reading Series

Saturday, October 18 – 10:00 AM-5:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Museum of Art Book Club Day in association with the Women’s National Book Association
1 Diboll Circle, New Orleans, LA (City Park)

Monday, October 20 – 7:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
Tricia Hall Book Club

Tuesday, October 21 – 6:00 PM
Destrehan, LA
St. Charles Parish Library in association with the Friends of the Library Author Program
Talk and Signing

Wednesday, October 22 – 7:00 PM
Portland, OR
Annie Bloom’s Books
7834 SW Capitol Hwy, Portland OR 97219

Thursday, October 23 – 11:00 AM
Metairie, LA
Metairie Literary Guild

Saturday, November 1 – 10:00 AM-5:00 PM
Baton Rouge, LA
Louisiana Book Festival

Wednesday, November 5 – Time TBD
New Orleans
Stewart Clan Book Club

Friday, November 14 – 7:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
Patron Party
New Orleans Book Festival

Saturday, November 15 – 10:00 AM-5:00 PM
New Orleans, LA
New Orleans Book Festival
City Park, New Orleans

Wednesday, November 19 – Noon
New Orleans, LA
Margo Phelps Book Club

Saturday November 22- Sunday November 23 – Time TBA
New Orleans, LA
Pirates Alley Faulkner Society
Words & Music Festival

Thursday, December 4 – 11:00 AM
New Orleans, LA
Le Petit Salon (Private)

Monday, December 8 – 1:15 PM
New Orleans, LA
Sally Suthon Book Club

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