Q&A with Ro Cuzon, author of the Adel Destin series
Ro Cuzon has been named by George Pelecanos as "among the rising stars of the new generation of noir novelists." The first two novels in his Adel Destin series, Under the Dixie Moon and Under the Carib Sun, are released in paperback for the first time today. He spoke to us about the inspiration for writing the series and New Orleans.
What was your inspiration for writing Under the Dixie Moon and Under the Carib Sun? How did the novels start to take shape in your imagination?
Setting was my first inspiration for both books; life has taken me to some interesting places. Two of the most important have been New Orleans, my home for the past eleven years now, and the French-Caribbean island of St. Barts, where I lived for two years in the mid-nineties. These were places so unique that I just had to write about them.
Because I tend to live in the moment, with very little day-to-day introspection, writing is a way for me to make sense of the world, a means to go back in time and understand the shit that’s happened.
Under the Carib Sun was the first novel I ever wrote in English (the one that landed me my agent, Adam Chromy) but it had a different storyline initially, more closely based on my life in St. Barts which was pretty crazy. Most of the characters of Under the Carib Sun were there in that original story but the main protagonist was different. We got close to selling it to Random House but when it didn’t happen, I moved on.
I wrote two more novels after that before I hit on Adel Destin. By that time I’d moved to New Orleans and gone through the experience of Katrina. I was bartending at King Bolden’s, my friend’s bar/music club in the French Quarter. It’s acquired quasi-mythical status in Nola’s post-Katrina lore at this point; it was even mentioned on HBO’s Treme. New Orleanians were partying especially hard right after the storm and King Bolden’s was one of the go-to bars for this. Working there was a crash course on everything New Orleans for me, a time where I got to learn and experience things about the city that would have probably taken me years to discover otherwise. So, naturally, this all had to come out in story form. Also, I wanted to pay tribute to King Bolden’s, which ended up getting shut down after an ATF raid a couple years later—immortalize the place, if you will.
The first Adel novel took place six months after the storm, and again we almost sold that one to Random House, but it fell through at the last moment. So I went to work on the next Adel Destin ‘adventure’, Under the Dixie Moon, a story set four years after Katrina.
You're a former boxer, musician, bartender, and construction worker, among other things. You spent the first twenty years of your life in France, and lived in San Francisco, the Caribbean and New York before moving to New Orleans just before Katrina. How has your background influenced your writing?
I think the most experiences you have in life, the better off you’ll be as a writer. Not just for story material but also as a window into other people’s lives and struggles. Living on the fringe for a few years, working a bunch of different jobs, moving around and experiencing other cultures, mastering a new language—it all had a profound influence on how I experience the world and subsequently write about it. Incidentally, the novels that resonate with me the most tend to be from authors who ‘have been around’, so to speak. Not the stories themselves necessarily, rather something in the writing, a little extra flavor that shines through the words.
What was the hardest part about writing the Adel Destin series?
The logistics of making the three novels fit together seamlessly after the fact, as each book was conceived individually. Because once I’d decided to turn them into a series (or a trilogy at least), they ended up covering almost two decades of Adel’s life. I’m not very good at making charts so most of it had to fit inside my head.
Describe yourself in three words?
I am an introverted cynical optimist.
What makes great crime writing?
Morally ambiguous characters stuck in life and death situations, preferably in a setting that subtly explores social issues.
Why do you think New Orleans lends itself to noir in particular?
New Orleans is a city with a very, very dark past, a past that feels more alive than in any other places in the country. You only need to take a walk through the old parts of town to experience it (except for Bourbon Street—stay the fuck away from there). It’s there all around you in the air, the light, the heat and humidity, in the decayed elegance of the buildings.
What three things are you passionate about?
My family. Drinking wine. Eating.
How do you relax?
Cooking (while drinking wine). Riding my bike through the city.
What’s the most useful piece of advice about writing you’ve been given?
Put a gun to their pretty little heads and kill your darlings.
What was the last book that you read and admired?
Hard choice, but I’ll have to go with Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliot Chaze. George Pelecanos recommended it so I knew it had to be good. An amazingly well-written novel that happened to be about a crime, the kind of prose that makes me weep with envy.
Three crime novels that everyone should read?
There are really too many to name so I’ll just give you the first three that pop into my head. The aforementioned Black Wings Has My Angel. The Postman Always Rings Twice. And, for those unlucky souls unable to physically travel to Louisiana, any James Lee Burke novel in his Dave Robicheaux series.
Favorite spots in New Orleans?
The bar at the Napoleon House at a quiet time of day. Domilise’s for oyster & shrimp po’boy (or Johnny’s if you want to stay downtown). The streets of the French Quarter at dusk.
What’s your favorite line from Under the Dixie Moon or Under the Carib Sun and why?
"The past was the past, and judging from his own, it was often best forgotten." (Under the Dixie Moon)
I like this line because it’s a theme that runs through the whole trilogy—Adel’s desire to escape his past. Through his drug use, his travels across the world. His (acquired) ability to compartmentalize his darkest thoughts and actions. It’s something he manages to do at least to some degree in the first two books, but which becomes untenable in book three.
"The floor in front of the passenger seat had a gaping hole in its middle. A two-by-four was nailed across it, the road visible below, the rusted metal lace around it making Adel think of some unsightly tropical disease locals didn’t tell the tourists about." (Under the Carib Sun) This paragraph captures some of the essence of St. Barts to me. The novel’s entire setting is this place that most people view as a tropical island paradise and playground of the beautiful, rich, and famous. Which it can be, at least on the surface, especially to visitors. The flip-side to this image is an 8-square mile rock isolated in the middle of the sea, the equivalent of a claustrophobic mountain village awash in drugs, booze, and casual sex, with a ridiculously high cost-of-living.
Adel Destin is a tough-as-boots streetwise bartender and ex-addict. How much of Adel Destin is you?
The streetwise bartender ex-addict part, for sure. And I think I could still hold my own in a fight. But I’ve never killed anyone.
If you could choose, who would play Adel Destin in the movie adaption?
Tahar Rahim, the French actor who plays the lead in Jacques Audiard’s 2009 movie A Prophet.
What can readers expect from the third book in the series, coming out in May 2017?
Crescent City Stomp follows a split ten-year timeline that alternates between 2006 and 2016 and takes the reader into Adel’s past right after he arrived in New Orleans (the period preceding Under The Dixie Moon), as well as his future during the few months immediately following the ten-year anniversary of Katrina. The connected plots involve a missing stash of heroin and a police shooting.