Back in September of this year, a book was published with the intriguing title A Twisted Ladder and with a creepy cover image of a house in New Orleans. This book, a classic example of Southern Gothic literature, is chock-full of the weirdness that makes the South so fascinating: family curses, voodoo, insanity, decaying plantations, “ghosts”, and a female protagonist who is trying to make sense of it all before she succumbs to her family’s penchant for schizophrenia.
In an interesting blend of horror and medical science (neuroplasticity anyone?), first-time author Rhodi Hawk gets it so right. And for fans of A Twisted Ladder (review here), there are many more books about the damned LeBlanc family waiting in the wings.
Dread Central had a chance to chat with Rhodi Hawk in the midst of a whirlwind book tour (which is why the interview is coming so far after the book’s release) and found her passion for Southern Gothic and horror refreshing. Her musical “guilty secret” was fascinating as well (Foggy Mountain Breakdown, anyone?).
DC: Wow. Where to begin, Rhodi? I suppose a thank you for taking time to do this interview is a good beginning. Now, let’s get the trivial out of the way: What is the Rhodi Hawk Story? I read you originally hail from Texas, but then everything skips to the point where you begin your career as a transcription linguist for the US Army. Do you mind taking us on the journey from Texas to the Army? Where in Texas are you from? Where did you go to school, and what did you study? What does a transcription linguist for the Army do? Just any little tidbits of trivia about yourself are appreciated.
Rhodi Hawk: Well, the truth of it is, I guess I’m not really “from” Texas. I was a Navy brat, and we were stationed at a new base every 6-9 months while I was growing up. I couldn’t even tell you half the places I attended school in the early years. But I did spend two years of high school in the same place — Silverdale, Washington, across the Sound from Seattle. So I grew up all over the US, coast to coast, which has probably contributed to my vagabond nature as an adult. But, because I have a huge branch of my family in Texas and we returned to Texas year after year to visit, I claim it as my homeland. Right now I divide my time between Texas and Louisiana.
DC: I read in the publicity information I received that A Twisted Ladder came into being when you dreamed of a murder that really happened. Would you like to elaborate on that?
RH: Well, it was a strange thing. I’d dreamed that I was somewhere out in the water in the middle of the night. It was dark and difficult to see, but I knew what was going on. A murder had occurred. I did not witness the actual killing. The body was being disposed of there in the water. The details of it still chill me to this day– the way the limbs moved on the surface, the fog, a stained green sack, and how cold it was out there. I awoke to my clock radio going off. I don’t usually remember my dreams, but this one hung on. Then, as I was rolling out of bed, the newscaster reported how in the early pre-dawn hours human remains had been discovered out on the water. He also gave details — one thing in particular that pertained to the deceased’s condition — that exactly matched something I saw in my dream.
I couldn’t get the dream out of my mind. I don’t know whether the corresponding real-life incident was coincidence or something else, but it got me wondering because some of the women in my family seemed to have uncanny insight. It was around that time that I’d begun thinking about writing a novel. Because the dream was so vivid, I was drawn to write about the moment of discovering the body in the water; however, I was still so disturbed by it that I changed almost all of the details. More than that, I wondered about the dream itself. The “coincidence.” The questions it raised about whether a kind of sensitivity was involved. And I wondered, was it possible to hand down those kinds of sensitivities from generation to generation? Can a thing like that exist in your genetic code? I began sketching out a story from there. The term “twisted ladder” is a commonly used metaphor for DNA. In my book there are phenomena that keep recurring as traits among members of the LeBlanc family. We first explore it during the historic thread that runs from 1912-1927 and then again in the modern day.
DC: Southern Gothic is a genre of American literature that I love but many uninformed people tend to think is more soap opera-ish than what it really is. How would you define Southern Gothic for our readers?
RH: Soap opera-ish?!? Ha! For me, Southern Gothic is the Deep South culture combined with a particular kind of dark mood. It encompasses a broad range of literary works. I admit I love the scarier spectrum within that range.
DC: Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did this dream that led to A Twisted Ladder get you going as an author?
RH: Oh, yes, I always wanted to be a writer.
DC: When you began work on A Twisted Ladder, was it your intention that this book out-Southern Gothic some of the more famous Southern Gothic books out there? So many of the elements of a traditional Southern Gothic novel are present here: the old monied family with its secrets, the decaying plantation, voodoo, insanity, New Orleans, etc. What intention, if any, did you have when you began writing A Twisted Ladder?
RH: I actually never thought of genre, let alone anything as specific as Southern Gothic. This was just the story that came out. It was [fellow author] F. Paul Wilson who first pointed out the matter of the Southern Gothic genre to me.
DC: How much research did you do prior to beginning writing? You have so many fascinating things in the book that I had never read about before: what it takes to run a sugar cane plantation (I didn’t even know Louisiana HAD sugar cane plantations), many aspects of Creole culture and architecture, life on an early 20th Century plantation, and, perhaps most fascinating of all, neuroplasticity or cortical re-mapping. Not something one reads about everyday, particularly in a horror novel.
RH: Years. Years of research. I did so much research that one would think I did it just for the giddy sake of it and not to fuel the book. OK, that would probably be true. But here’s what the research was like: setting off into the bayou; taking note of every plant, tree, and critter I found; eating my way through Southern Louisiana. Oh, yeah, and poring over a snapshot in history when the speaking of French was outlawed in Louisiana, and so was drinking alcohol, and the Antebellum era had faded, and the Great War ended and the Great Flood began. I found it all fascinating. Maybe about 5% of the research ever found its way into the book because there was just way more juice than I could hold in my jug. Fortunately, there are five more books in the series for me to “research.”
DC: Neuroplasticity plays a huge, yet subtle, role in the book. Would you mind explaining what it is?
RH: Neuroplasticity is simply a way of describing how the brain changes. Say, for example, you decided to learn how to play the fiddle. When you first begin, you form brand new neurons that enable you to do this. The more you play, the bigger these neurons become. That’s one aspect of it. Another aspect is the brain’s ability to reassign its own brain functions. So if you lose your hearing, the part of the brain that would ordinarily process sound becomes useless. But the brain will take that unused space and assign it to something else, like enhancing your vision or your sense of touch. In terms of psychotherapy, it can be useful to turn around your thought processes so that you can “master” challenging or upsetting situations.
DC: You also had to have done research on schizophrenia as that plays such a huge part in the things your main character, Dr. Madeleine LeBlanc, has both studied and has to deal with in her own family. Why schizophrenia? Insanity is already a given by Northerners as a Southern personality trait (just kidding).
RH: Ha ha, very funny!
Originally, I’d intended to work Alzheimer’s disease into the story. That was a natural choice because so many studies on genetics have centered around Alzheimer’s sufferers. But my grandfather had died of the disease, and it was painful for me to write about, so I switched to schizophrenia. This actually felt much more relevant to the phenomenon, too. It was easier to dovetail schizophrenic symptoms with clairvoyance and the hounding from river devils. Also, I’d already spent a fair amount of time around schizophrenia patients and was accustomed to the patterns, the tendencies, and common threads among them. This made the story flow.
DC: I also read that you wandered River Road between Hahnville and Vacherie, Louisiana to get a real feel for the area. Now that is the opposite side of the River Road most tourists (myself included) are familiar with. How does it differ from the more traveled, plantation-heavy northern River Road? And is Bayou Black a real place? That was the only area I was unfamiliar with and could not find on a map.
RH: Yes, I travelled all over River Road, north and south. The reason for my choice of location is simply because there’s a real life homestead that became the main house of Terrefleurs. It’s very old, still standing, and not open to the public.
And yes, Bayou Black does exist. It’s not near River Road, though. It’s down by Houma, Louisiana.
DC: Did any real plantations inspire Terrefleurs and Glory (I am fascinated by antebellum architecture)?
RH: I’d rather not say the name of the place that inspired Terrefleurs. However, I can say that Glory is purely fictitious. It came about as an amalgamation of Greek Revival-style (non-Creole) homesteads that lie along the river. On the other hand, Locoul Plantation, a neighboring homestead in the book, was directly inspired by Laura Plantation. Locoul is the surname of the family that owned Laura. Laura Plantation is currently open to the public—a beautiful example of Creole architecture and lifestyle. Another interesting thing about Laura is that it was run by a woman. Matriarchal plantations were much more common among the Creoles than the Americans, who viewed women as the gentler (weaker) sex who were not well-suited to matters of business.
DC: It is sort of a given that if you set a novel in Louisiana, New Orleans MUST play a role as well. I find the city to be magical and unlike any other American city I have ever visited. What is your take on New Orleans, and did you live there at any time during the writing of A Twisted Ladder?
RH: Ironically, I never lived there while I was writing it, though I visited often. I’d had family there so it was one of the continuous “return to” places while I was growing up. I do have a home in New Orleans now as I’m working on the sequels.
DC: There are a lot of subplots going on in your book: Chloe LeBlanc and her life; Madeleine, her brother, Marc and their childhood friend, Zenon Lasky; and what happens in the lives of Marc and Zenon. Then there’s Madeleine and her problems with her father as well as her burgeoning romance with neurologist Ethan Manderleigh. Severin and who or what she is and how she fits into the story. How on earth did you manage to juggle so much in a 500+-page book and do it so that the stories flowed into and around each other so seamlessly?
RH: Simple. I rewrote the book about a hundred times. No, just kidding. I rewrote it about a hundred and two times. Anyway, the more I went over it, the easier it was to add detail to each thread and weave them together into the story.
DC: The title of the book itself is fascinating — atwisted ladder is a reference to DNA as that is what a single strand of DNA looks like — and family (the twisted ladder here) is paramount in the book. But you also have two eras interweaving throughout the book, the present day and Prohibition-era Louisiana. Another twisted ladder, I presume?
RH: Yes, I like repeating motifs. Even if they get so oblique that they’re not recognizable to anyone but me, it somehow creates a rhythm that carries the story along.
DC: I haven’t read too many of your interviews yet, but I did catch one that compared your book with the late Michael McDowell’s brilliant and uber-creepy Blackwater Series. Are you familiar with those six books (came out month-by-month WAAYY before Stephen King did The Green Mile), and do you think the comparison is fair?
RH: I was not familiar with Michael McDowell until after A Twisted Ladder was already under contract. I’m tickled by the similarities and honored to have my work compared to his.
DC: You’ve said there’s more to come about the haunted LeBlanc family. When might readers expect the next installment?
RH: Ooooh, I’m loving this because I’m working on it right now, and it’s been very exciting. The historic thread in the sequel picks up again right there in 1927. It’s just after the Great Flood, around the time when Huey P. Long came into power. You’ll find out how the family established ties in Bayou Black back when the Houma tribespeople held a major stake in local commerce and bayou pirates were flourishing.
In the modern day thread of the story, Madeleine is trying to keep from slipping deeper into the briar, but a string of murders among the homeless population forces her to spend more time with Severin than she cares to.
DC: Which authors are you a fan of or inspired you to become a writer? And who do you read nowadays? Any current writers you think people should be made aware of?
RH: As a child, I loved fairy tales. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens was and still is a favorite. My grandmother had an illustrated copy — I wish I could get my hands on one like it now. I love the sense of wonder and the incredible world J.M. Barrie built. Both my grandmothers used to tell great fairy tales, too, though their stories were nothing like the sweet, sparkly wonderlands Barrie created. My grandmothers would tell much spookier, more Gothic fairy tales, bless their souls. Right from the start, I was inspired to tell tales of my own and eventually to write them down, pretty much from the time I learned my ABC’s.
As an adult, I’d say that Anne Rice’s early works like The Witching Hour contributed to my desire to write a novel-length work. I also loved the continuous stream of books from Stephen King and, in an opposite style, the lush historic fantasies of Diana Gabaldon.
As far as newcomers, I’d recommend Sarah Langan, Alexandra Sokoloff, Hank Schwaeble, and David Wellington.
DC: Since this is a horror site and your book is classified as horror, are you a fan of the genre? If so, what books and movies are among your favorites?
RH: Absolutely, I’m a fan of horror. When I was younger, I loved to read short story collections like Alfred Hitchcock’s Tales of Mystery and Horror. Nowadays, it’s harder to get to that point where I actually feel fear, but I can say I am truly scared by works from Sarah Langan, whose style is very literary and wonderfully disturbing. Same is true of Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s not a horror purist, but when she goes there, she pulls no punches. A while ago I read R. Scott Bakker’s Neuropath, and I still can’t shake the chill of it. Well-written, fast-paced, and DISTURBING philosophy. In film, Session 9 is probably one of my recent favorites.
DC: One might argue that the main character of your book is Madeleine, but others could just as easily say that Chloe is the lynchpin. Who do you consider the “main character” of your novel?
RH: I would say it’s Madeleine, mostly because much of the story is told looking over her shoulder, observing what she observes. Chloe is a force, but we rarely see inside her head.
DC: When did you actually begin writing A Twisted Ladder? You won the 2007 International Thriller Writers’ Scholarship for debut authors with, I imagine, quite a bit of the book written?
RH: Yes, A Twisted Ladder was complete when it won that award. I had just signed the publishing contract. It was really exciting when the book won because the competition was very stiff. As far as when I started writing it, though? It took me about seven years to complete, and about 90% of that time was spent doing rewrites. The first draft took me something like two years of on again, off again writing.
DC: You have been on a book tour recently. What sort of feedback have you been getting from people who have read the book?
RH: Most everyone seems to want to know about the forthcoming books of the series — whether the LeBlancs are still around, whether the world of the river devils continues to intersect with emerging neuroscience, that sort of thing.
DC: Has Hollywood shown any interest in your book yet?
RH: We’ve been getting inquiries; we’ll see what happens.
DC: Thanks for stopping in Louisville and signing the stock of your book at the two local Barnes & Nobles. Now I have a signed copy!
RH: My pleasure! Doesn’t take much convincing for me to stop by Louisville. Love that area.
DC: Is there anything you would like to add that I have not asked?
RH: Only that thematically, the core science behind A Twisted Ladder is something very close to my heart. Superstitions are sometimes based in fear or random observations, but they are also sometimes based in things we simply don’t understand yet. It seems that every year advances in neuroscience and neurotechnology illuminate fascinating new aspects of the human mind. And with each new revelation we realize there is still so much to discover. My hope is that we can continue to explore the mysteries of the brain.
DC: Everyone gets this question from me so… What is one thing no one knows about Rhodi Hawk that you think they should know?
RH: Hmm, I guess it would be that in addition to writing books, I write songs on my banjo. I started learning the instrument in 2006 and was immediately hooked, even though I was terrible at it. (Every time I sat down to play, my dog Maggie would get up and walk out of the room.) But musical practice turned out to be so similar to the writing practice, and writing songs feels like it comes from that same corner of the brain that helps me write books. It’s addicting.
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