by Margaret McMullan
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed 95% of the small coastal town of Pass Christian, Mississippi. With a 28-foot storm surge, the highest recorded in U.S. history, 55-foot waves, and winds reaching 120 mph, the town was wiped off the map—temporarily.
Award-winning author Margaret McMullan saw the destruction firsthand. Her family’s historic Gulf Coast home—her father’s beloved southern jewel—was one of the houses in Pass Christian devastated by Katrina. Despite the chaos immediately following the storm, McMullan’s family was among the first to rebuild and donated to the Red Cross, the Pass Christian fire station, and the Pass Christian library.
During this time, McMullan witnessed small acts of heroism that inspired her to write about the community and its people, and how tragedy shapes our character. In 2010, she was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship to complete the project.
Born in part out of her family’s deep connection to the community, Aftermath Lounge: A Novel in Stories (April 2015, Calypso Editions) releases at the 10-year anniversary of Katrina and comprises fictional vignettes about the people of Pass Christian in the storm’s wake. The stories are connected by a setting near to the author’s heart—the McMullans’ home, which was originally constructed in 1845 and restored by her father numerous times over the years.
Aftermath Lounge is a compelling tribute to the Gulf Coast and resurrects the place and its people alongside their heartaches and triumphs. It is a riveting mosaic that feeds our desire to understand what it means to be alive in this day and age.
Margaret McMullan is the author of six award-winning novels including In My Mother’s House (St. Martin’s Press), Sources of Light (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Cashay (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), When I Crossed No-Bob (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and How I Found the Strong (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Her writing has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Ploughshares, Southern Accents, TriQuarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Sun, and many other publications. She received an NEA Fellowship in literature for Aftermath Lounge and a Fulbright award to teach at the University of Pécs in Pécs, Hungary, for her upcoming non-fiction work, Where the Angels Live. Her anthology of essays by 25 well-known female authors writing about their fathers, Every Father’s Daughter (McPherson & Company), is also available in Spring 2015. She currently holds the Melvin Peterson Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
Interview with Margaret McMullan
- Aftermath Lounge honors the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Can you tell us about your experience during those days when the storm hit?
Shortly after the storm hit, my husband and I drove down from Evansville, Indiana to Pass Christian, Mississippi. We saw aerial footage of the town and we could see that the roof on my parents’ house was mostly intact – that’s all we could see. We brought water and a lot of supplies to donate. There was a gas shortage then, and limited cell phone coverage. The closer we came to the town, the more it became like a war zone. The National Guard was there to keep people away, but we got through, thanks to a relative.
The night before we left, my mother told us to forget about everything else — all she really wanted was the painting of her mother, which had been smuggled out of Vienna during WWII. We had house keys but there were no doors. When we got there, the house was gutted – the storm surge had essentially ripped through the house.
We put on rubber gloves and spent the day sifting through the debris, dragging out any salvageable pieces of furniture. The water had shoved through the closed shutters, plowed up under the foundation and tore open the back walls, bashing around the furniture, sinks, toilets, stoves, washers, driers.
We never did find the painting.
Elizabeth Bishop wrote a wonderful villanelle called “One Art.” She wrote about losing small items like keys and an hour badly spent, then she progresses to the greater losses — her mother’s watch, a house, cities, rivers, a continent, and finally, a loved one. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she starts. “So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I thought of that poem a lot.
- Your family played a key role, helping Pass Christian rebuild. What were a few moments that influenced you during that time?
We saw so many people from all walks of life and they were suddenly homeless. My father organized financial donations. There were no fire trucks left after the storm, so he made sure Pass Christian got a fire truck. We were always big supporters of the library too. The Pass Christian Policemen had stayed during the storm to make sure everyone was safe. They had tried to stay safe in the library, but then when the water rose, they had to shoot out the windows to swim away to safety. I used that information in the title story of Aftermath Lounge. These men were real heroes.
- Did you know from the moment the storm hit that someday you would write a novel about it? Or did a later experience give you the idea? If so, what was it?
At first I just witnessed. I think that’s what writers do mostly. We witness. Then the material lets us know what it wants to become. I just took notes. Later stories started taking shape and they were all in different voices. It was the only way I could work at this material.
- Part of your inspiration for the novel came from your family’s beautiful mansion. How did your own experiences in that house shape each of the stories you wrote?
Well, it’s hardly a mansion, but I was surprised to discover just how much a house could mean. Everyone always says it’s just stuff, but there were so many collective memories there. When we stood and looked at everything so undone, it felt like our times spent there were gone too.
Katrina had such a huge impact on the coast, on my family, and on me. I am always telling my students to write what they most care about, to write what keeps them up at night. I had to write about Katrina. I had written about the Civil War, Reconstruction and WWII, so I saw Katrina as an historical event. I treated the hurricane more as setting. It’s in the background. The human drama is in the forefront. I’m always interested in what people do or don’t do in the face of real catastrophe. I didn’t want to write from one point of view either. I wanted to give voice to a variety of people because Katrina affected everyone.
- What was your writing process like for this novel? Did you know from the start it would be a novel in stories? Or did that become apparent only after you began writing?
There were so many news stories coming out at the time. I write nonfiction, but I couldn’t get my thoughts together. I couldn’t make sense of anything. Out of habit, I took a lot of notes. I could only deal with writing about all that was happening a little bit at a time. And my own personal story just wasn’t that interesting.
I personally witnessed and experienced the best in human nature. People and communities came together and helped one another in the most meaningful way. They endured with a great deal of kindness and grace. So I chipped away at the material. I wanted to tell a community’s story.
Praise for Aftermath Lounge!
“I love these stories. They’re so smart, beautiful, true—and so real—that they seemed like part of my own history. I felt homesick in the best way, flooded with a kind of saddened joy. They snuffed the gimlet-eyed adult and brought to life again, for a while, the wondrous child.” — Brad Watson, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
“I like these new stories so much it’s hard to know where to start. But a good place to begin would be…well, Place. She brings it to life like few writers can. You can almost feel the heavy air on your skin. As for her characters, they’re three dimensional people who are so real, you feel like they’re in the room with you. She’s got a great ear, a fine eye, and something else that you can’t buy—namely, a very large heart.” — Steve Yarbrough, The Realm of Last Chances
“Aftermath Lounge is a beautiful, compelling collection, the emotions as powerfully charged as the winds of a hurricane. Margaret McMullan writes movingly about those living in and pulling themselves out of destruction and chaos and loss to salvage all they can of love and redemption. From the voices of orphaned children to the least likely man to don a Santa Claus suit, there are moments of devastation, comic relief and grace.” — Jill McCorkle, Life After Life
“In Aftermath Lounge each short story, like a homing pigeon, returns to the Gulf Coast to explore how its people struggle with the ghost of Hurricane Katrina. With riveting prose, Margaret McMullan tracks the weblike connections of family and friends haunted by the storm from Pass Christian, Mississippi, to Chicago.” — William Ferris, The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists
“How strange, that the best apocalyptic fiction of the year should come to us, not borne on the maelstrom of nuclear fire or horrific epidemic, but rather in this series of beautifully crafted and masterfully interwoven literary stories. In Aftermath, our humanity is not simply swept away by the fury and chaos of Katrina; rather, it is tested, sometimes broken, sometimes intensified, and ultimately renewed by the deluge. A hopeful Book of Revelation.” — Pinckney Benedict, Miracle Boy and Other Stories!
For more information or to purchase Aftermath Lounge, make sure to check out Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, and Margaret McMullan’s website.