Friday, 19 April 2013

Joni Rodgers on The Hurricane Lover

Questions by Catriona Troth

Joni, when I first mentioned doing this interview, you described The Hurricane Lover as ‘a soul project’. Can you tell us more about why it means so much to you? 

At the end of summer 2005, in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of thousands of evacuees poured into Houston, and thousands of Houstonians (including my husband and me) volunteered with massive relief efforts. I witnessed great suffering, strength and compassion and heard scores of stories, some heart-wrenching, some hilarious, all intensely personal. But what I saw and heard was not at all reflected in the news coverage seen by the world, and that troubled me terribly.

The week after the storm, as I carried water to people waiting outside in the oppressive heat, I heard a New Orleans police officer remark that this situation was “great for media people and con artists”. The concept struck me like a hammer. Characters and plot took root as I continued to schlep water outside the stadium. A month later, Hurricane Rita left us without power for several days; I finished the first draft in the dark, charging my laptop from my car battery, and the story became a true “tale of two cities” as response to Hurricane Rita spun out of control.

When I excitedly called to tell my editor at HarperCollins, she flatly said, “Everyone’s sick of this hurricane thing, and you should stick with women’s fiction.” My agent agreed and said, “Maybe in five years. But why bother? Ghostwriting pays much better than fiction.” I’m so grateful for that rejection! For six years, the story simmered. Research rabbit holes opened. In 2008, Hurricane Ike tore through Houston. I couldn’t resist going outside to experience this awesome force of nature. (NOT recommending that!) Left without power for a month, I tethered my laptop to a neighbor’s generator and did a major rewrite.

Every time I returned to the story, it became stronger and more personal; my heart felt crowded with the voices I’d heard that summer. Nibbles of interest from editors and agents always came with their ideas of how the book might be refocused to be more marketable. I couldn’t bring myself to make those compromises. I was so deeply invested, no way was I giving up creative control. I waited until the time was right and published THE HURRICANE LOVER as an indie.

It’s not the most money I’ve ever made for a book, nor the least, but it’s the book that most clearly says what I set out to say, breathes the best dialogue I’ve ever written, took me on the most exciting research journey and captured the genuine intention of my heart.

Wow! That answer got a bit long-winded! (No pun intended.)

Your anger at the government’s wholly inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina is palpable. You volunteered at the Houston Reliant Center, so you saw some of the consequences at first hand. As well, you use, as chapter headings, the published emails that show how ill-prepared and (shockingly) flippant the officials in charge were. When did those first become public? How much digging did you have to do to find out the truth of what had happened? 

The Center for Public integrity fought to have email to and from FEMA director Michael Brown released via the Freedom of Information Act in 2006. I waded through about 1000 pages, sifting and categorizing messages that started the week before the storm and went through mid-September. I was really blown away by what I found. (Oy! Another pun!)

I remember at last year’s LBF, you said that the reason the traditional publishing houses turned down the book was that had ‘too much sex and politics.’ Can you say any more about that? I’d have thought sex and politics were great selling points! 

One would assume! I think (sadly) if this book had been written by a man, it would have gotten a very different reception, which is why I submitted it to only a few people and ultimately decided to bide my time and keep it close to the vest. In 2008, I didn’t know what the wild world of publishing was about to become, but I was starting to suspect. Patience is not usually one of my virtues, but it definitely paid off here.

The tricky thing with writing a political novel is to avoid it becoming a polemic (something I think you have managed very well, by the way). Part of the trick is sympathetically embodying different points of view. How hard did you find that? Did you enjoy writing characters that you might violently disagree with in real life? 

Thank you! I’m glad you see it that way. It wasn’t hard at all, because so many people I respect and love live by belief systems very different from my own. In my family, there’s a broad spectrum of political and religious persuasions, and my dad loves to stir up animated conversations. My favorite scene in the book is the Sunday dinner where Shay’s conservative father provokes Corbin into a knock-down-drag-out argument about Iraq, global warming and the election of George W. Bush. Shay’s mother points out the real difference between them: “Liberals care about humanity, and conservatives care about people. Seems like it shouldn’t be so hard to build a bridge between the two.” That, in a nutshell, is how I feel.

The other documents you use as chapter headings are the weather forecasts that chart the development of Katrina. How much did you have to learn about the science of hurricane forecasting? How did you go about the research? 

As I constructed an hour-by-hour timeline for each hurricane, I became totally fascinated by those elegant, all-caps forecasts. I made an ongoing hobby of watching storms and storm forecasting and enlisted the help of a brilliant meteorologist, Dr. Jack Beven, senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center. Most astonishing was the climate change research. Just two weeks before Hurricane Katrina, a scientist at MIT published compelling evidence that linked increasing hurricane intensity and rising ocean temperatures, which he predicted would spawn powerful megastorms. The hurricane season that followed was a record-smasher that cost billions and killed thousands of people. Now we’re seeing freakish winter storms too. We simply cannot continue to ignore the real and devastating effects of climate change.

You’re a Texan, aren’t you? How well did you know New Orleans before writing the book? How did you get to know the city – before and after Katrina? 

I lived on Gulf of Mexico in Florida when I was a child, and my sister lives in central Florida now, so I’ve driven back and forth along the Gulf Coast many, many times since we moved to Houston in 1994. I’d passed through New Orleans and loved it, but really didn’t know the city that well. Mostly I relied on research, interviews, a lovely immersion in the local jazz and Cajun music and long conversations with elderly evacuees. A year before Hurricane Katrina, a computer simulation called “Hurricane Pam” calculated very accurately exactly what the water depth would be in each part of the city if (when) the levees failed, so I was able to use that and Google Street Views as a sort of chess board as I moved characters through the plot points.

You’re a member of the League of Extraordinary Authors – a collective that’s been around a lot longer than Triskele. Can you tell us a bit more about how it works? How did you guys get together? What makes the group tick? 

As indie publishing opportunities heated up in 2011, I kept thinking that midlist authors – critically acclaimed and bestselling authors who’d been disenfranchised or creatively outgrew the corporate publishing realm – were in position to reap the most benefit. We already had traditional book biz chops and credibility; now we could add to that the agility and creative control of indie publishing. Most of us have backlist rights, a cultivated a fan base and ongoing agents/publisher relationships. Others are small/micro-press authors who find themselves facing the same marketing challenges faced by indies. I thought it made sense for us to come together as a branded coalition and as a community of friends, so I formed a private discussion group, then a Facebook page (, and Twitter ( to supplement our blog (, which functions as a digest of member blogs.

So far it’s been pretty informal; membership is invitation only, and we operate by the credo “In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” In May, my daughter and I are launching Stella’s Umbrella, an upmarket online “booktique” that will prominently feature League XA members, along with other indie, small and micro-press authors. The benefits of belonging will be exponentially greater, so I suppose we’ll have to be a bit more structured, but for now, I’m happy being a doting hippie mama who encourages everyone be as they feel. It’s an incredibly talented group of artists. I’m so proud to be part of it.

You have been published traditionally and through the indie route, so you have a foot in both worlds. What, for you, are the biggest positives and negatives of the two routes? 

For me, there is really just one world; I think the imaginary lines between indie and corporate publishing are obsolete. Positives of the indie business model are creative control and marketing agility, which far outweigh the downsides: lingering prejudices and an annoying glut of carpetbaggers who drove prices down with a gold rush mentality. Positives of corporate publishing are financial backing, marketing help and (with certain publishers) prestige. On the downside: the agonizingly constipated process and the fakakta notion that agents and editors know more about writing books than writers do. Heresy Alert! Skilled authors (even we silly women scribblers!) are plenty capable of creating great stories without in-house formula being shoved down our throats, and readers are waking up to the fact that more and more high quality, creatively risky, organically grown fiction is coming from the indie, small and micro-press world.

We recently asked several Indie authors what they’d learnt since publishing their own books. What would your key lessons be (about publishing, about the Indie community...or anything that strikes you)? 

The Bard said it best: To thine own self be true. Be true. In writing and in life. At the end of the day, come what may, you’ll know that you stubbornly held on to your joy, generously gave your love and enjoyed a hell of a run.

See also:  our review of The Hurricane Lover


  1. Fascinating interview, and I have to read that book. I found Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson, wonderful exploration of the meterology behind hurricane forecasting, and the subsequent effects it had on Galveston. Thanks to both of you for a real insight.

  2. Thanks so much, Catriona, for the insightful questions. It was a pleasure.

    JJ, I also loved the book ISAAC'S STORM! I read it after Galveston took another major hit with Hurricane Ike in 2008. Many parallels. The living history of the Gulf Coast is totally fascinating.