Ten years ago, I had a dream. In it, an elegant woman was seated at a table. She was around thirty-five, with icy blonde hair; across from her, a fresh-faced young man with a dark brow. The two were flirting. I recognized the locale—a bar on Magazine Street in New Orleans, the city where I live.
Suddenly, a voice said, “She’s really almost two hundred years old.” I jolted up. What sort of world was this? If the seductive woman was so old and the boy around twenty, what was the balance of power between them? And, of course, how did she live that long and stay that beautiful?
Although I’d never written from a vision like that before, this image—both fascinating and sinister—compelled me to try.
I conjured a few sketches set in the year 2121. Reliable life extension, I imagined, would be a reality—but just for those who could afford it. A society where some literally “buy life,” but produce nothing. Poor people live by strict rules in small tribes or, at large, amidst extreme scarcity. The very rich, called the Heirs, are ancient, perfect—and troubled. New Orleans is a set of islands crisscrossed by canals like Venice, a no-person’s land at the shrunken nation’s rim.
Malcolm de Lazarus is a foundling who went to work at the age of five, saving his earnings so that one day he might afford immortality. Lydia Greenmore is a psychiatrist whose patients are in their second century. Their relationship evolves as he moves from employee to personal assistant to confidant to something like foster son and beyond. Adventure by adventure, Malcolm encounters the darkest side of Heirs’ privilege, which threatens all he knows and loves.
I published scenes in a local literary journal in 1999. The editor liked the response, and asked me to serialize the novel. At that point, I was known for my Southern realism, not science fiction or fantasy, but I gave it a try. I liked the possibility of taking on philosophical, political, and spiritual themes through myth. Current day income disparity, and the enormous growth in the population of the “super-old” were concerns of mine. Both of my parents are now in their nineties, increasingly dependent upon their children and caregivers.
After two installments, I paused. I realized the challenge was to imagine not only the story, but the society, and its history. I reread my favorite authors who describe believable, frightening futures: Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and P.D. James.
I also read again the writers I first discovered at Smith who depict rigid class distinctions, for example, the 19th-century England of Charles Dickens and George Eliot. New Orleans’ still-lingering stratification interested me, as did its traditions of masking and satire, and its vulnerability to climate change.
In 2005, I got a year’s grant to complete the book. The fellowship term began on the first day of classes at Louisiana State University, where I taught writing—August 29, 2005. We were taking our younger daughter to college when Katrina struck. It was weeks before we could get back. Our house was habitable by October, but it was a different life that we returned to.
The crisis took our energies; you know what they say about the curse of living in interesting times. Another book of stories, and four more years of teaching, also intervened. But over that time I refined and considered my myth, tested it against my own experience, especially concerning the things about our country and my region that “The Storm,” as we call it, had exposed. The revelation of what the characters really did want and need—as opposed to what they were told to desire—became my central theme. Lydia’s true identity developed, as did her investigations into the inner lives of her very old charges. Malcolm began to distrust the privileged class he hopes to join.
As part of its publicity, University of New Orleans Press commissioned works of art inspired by the book. We had a show in one of the revitalized gallery districts in New Orleans in April. Painters, collagists, and illustrators from three continents participated.
Readers have been engaged by the novel’s vivid world, and the social issues it raises—and by Malcolm’s voice. My dream of a young man and a woman old enough to be his great-great-great-grandmother developed a world of its own. Both characters, it turns out, had secrets that could make them dangerous or visionary—or could set them free.
Moira Crone ’74, author of The Not Yet (UNO Press, 2012), has also written three collections of short stories, two novels, as well as works for adult new readers. She taught creative writing at Louisiana State University for many years and was the director of its MFA program. She has received major fellowships for her fiction from the Radcliffe Institute, the NEA, and the ATLAS program for Louisiana artists. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Oxford American, Mademoiselle, Image Journal, and over forty other magazines and fifteen anthologies. In 2009, she received the Robert Penn Warren Award from the Southern Fellowship of Writers for the body of her work.