Fifteen years after relocating to New Orleans, novelist Bill Loehfelm remains enthralled by the incomparable Big Easy—the setting of his latest thriller The Devil In Her Way.
Zola: Your protagonist, Maureen Coughlin, is a New Yorker emigrated to New Orleans like yourself. What made you decide to relocate to the Big Easy?
Bill Loehfelm: I’d always wanted to live somewhere different from Staten Island—somewhere slower-paced, somewhere more relaxed and warmer. More diverse. I’d been to New Orleans a few times to visit, it seemed like a good match for me. A little more than five years after my first trip to the city I was living here.
Zola: What were the challenges of setting a novel in a city you were new to?
BL: I’m not new here anymore. I’ve been in New Orleans over 15 years. That said, this is a challenging place to write about even for people born and raised here. Comparison is one of the ways we explain things to other people, and no place really compares to New Orleans. Writing about it is almost an act of translation.
One of the fun things about this book was revisiting my first few months, my first year here. One challenge was moving Maureen into post-Katrina New Orleans. In many ways, it’s a different city than the one I moved to. And trying to maintain an outsider’s vision of something I had lived through as a resident, that was a challenge, too.
Zola: As a male author, how do you get inside the head of a female lead? Is she based on anyone in your real life?
BL: I think it’s a trap to try and think “like a woman” or think “like a man” when writing a character of the opposite gender. It’s a weakness to think in generalities like that. It leads to stereotypes and clichés. My strategy was, and continues to be, to make Maureen a full, resonant, and complicated character. It’s the same strategy I use for all my characters. She’s a person first. I never think, “What would a woman do?” I think, “What would Maureen do?”
I think she’s been (or I have been) influenced by other fictional characters, but she’s not based on anyone I know.
Zola: The descriptions of the politics and routines surrounding a newly-graduated member of the New Orleans Police Academy are very specific. How did you learn all these details?
BL: Some of the details came from research, including conversations with officers on the job in New Orleans. Some of the stuff, I either tweaked the real thing, or guessed at it. I think the key is believable characters. Readers will trust you if they believe in your people.
Zola: You clearly love your adopted home, but even to this day we hear a lot of horror stories about the “new” New Orleans, which you express through the character of Maureen’s mother. What would you tell people who are thinking of visiting?
BL: I’d give visitors to New Orleans the same advice I’d give people visiting any other city. Be smart. Be careful. Put your cellphone away and mind your surroundings. Don’t stand on the corner at 3 AM counting the twenties you just pulled from the cash machine. Don’t go out late at night alone. Basic stuff like that. New Orleans is so different, a lot of people act like they’re in a resort, or at Disney World. We’re a real city with real city troubles. Don’t be an easy target. And, please, take what the national media says with a grain of salt. Come see the place for yourself.
Zola: What crime/noir novels have been most influential to you as a writer?
BL: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River was a huge book for me. It was exactly the kind of book I was looking to write. It gave me a target to shoot for. The Dave Robicheaux series by James Lee Burke has been hugely influential, even beyond my writing life. It’s part of the reason I moved to New Orleans. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, the Batman graphic novel from the ‘80s, was huge for me, too. Like the other work I mentioned, it’s great proof writers needn’t fear or be limited by genre. All of these books are about so much more than plot.
Zola: This is your second novel with Maureen as the lead. Are you planning more?
BL: Absolutely. The third Maureen Coughlin novel is already with my editor. Between the character and the city she’s in, I can’t see ever running out of material. New Orleans is generous that way.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.