My new novel, La Valse du Bayou Serpent (The Bayou Serpent Waltz) is nearly done. I hope for a June 29th launch—my birthday. One of the tricks I employ when writing longer works, and sometimes shorter works, is to interview the characters. This gives me background on them—most of the information I gleam, I won't use in the story, but it is crucial to how the character thinks and acts. One of the most interesting character in my book is Pete LaSache. Those of you who have read my short stories will already have met Pete. I've used him often before. Pete is a black man who has never learned to read and write, but his stories reflect a knowledge and sophistication well beyond his education. Well, let me allow him to tell you himself.
Me: Mr. LaSache, tell me a little about yourself. How did you become a storyteller?
Pete: My great grandfather was a slave for a plantation owner over by Franklin, Louisiana by the name of Henri LaSache. When the Civil War ended, my great grandfather packed up what little belongings he had and made his way to Serpentville, Louisiana, taking only one thing from the man, his name, 'cause that was his as much as him. The family been there since. My granddaddy and my daddy were both tenant farmers, meaning they lived in a shack, worked their butts off, and barely made a living. I never went to school. As soon as I could walk, I was working in the cotton fields. When I turned seventeen, I asked Mr. Hank Fontenot if I could tenant farm for him. He gave me a couple of acres with a beat-up cypress shack on them, and told me that three-quarters of what I earned was his. One-quarter was mine. One day, I had the great good fortune to meet this beautiful young woman waiting for a book mobile, one of those traveling libraries in Ellison Parish, and we hit it off. She read to me about all these Greeks gods, and those characters she found in her books. She tried to teach me to read, but it wouldn't stick. Anyway, after a while, we hitched up and had this wonderful little boy. I knew that as a tenant farmer, I wasn't offering him much of a chance, so I told Monsieur Hank that I wanted to work in his cotton gin, and it just so happened, he needed somebody, so he said yes, and that's where I am.
Me: But how did you become a storyteller?
Pete: Well, that goes all the way back to Africa, the Xanekwe people, but I ain't telling none of that to you. You can read 'bout that in the book. I'll tell you this, though. White folks tend not to listen to Black folks. They tend to look through us or get mean if we say what we think, so I found a way to say what I thought through those stories. If they listen, real careful, they'll get what I mean. If not, then it's just a story. I started telling stories after my daddy died. It just seemed natural-like.
Me: Tell me a little more about how you met your wife.
Pete: Rowena? She was working on her daddy's small farm off the Isaacton gravel road. She had to quit school to help out the family, you know, but she had a mighty thirst for learning. She flagged down the book mobile bus and demanded they let her check out some books. Blacks weren't allowed to do that then. At first, they told her no, but Rowena is hard-headed sometimes, even at that young age. She made a deal with the librarian. She would check out books and write a book report for every book she read. That way, she got to read and practice her schooling. I was leading this old mule out to Monsieur Roza's field when I met her coming out of that book mobile with a stack of books. She was fifteen and the most beautiful girl I had ever seen before—tall, almost as tall as me, pretty, eyes so black you could see yourself reflected in them, long slender fingers, smooth chocolate-colored skin, and a head of black hair that shot out every which way. I knew I was gonna marry her the minute I laid eyes on her. She knew it too. I never regretted a moment of my life with her.
Me: What are your beliefs?
Pete: If you mean religion, I ain't big on church-going. I mean, Jesus didn't have no roof over his head when he preached. He didn't wait for the folks to come to him. He went to where they were—in the fields, in the streets, wherever—and he didn't discriminate. Black, white, tan, rich, poor, man, woman, kid, it didn't matter to him. All he saw was the red of their hearts and the gray of their brain. Jesus was a great man, but he wasn't the only one, you know. There were lots of great men and women throughout history. Was he the son of God? That he surely was. Of course, if you think on it, we are all the children of God. We all have the greatness of God in us, you know, but not too many of us let it shine through. That's what I believe.
Me: Anything you want to add?
Pete: Not too long ago there was a Cajun man, a good man, who loved to stand out in the middle of his cotton field and marvel at how simple and wonderful his life was. Every morning, he woke up, drank his coffee, went out in his field, and worked his crops. At night, tired and happy, he would spend time with his family. It was a good life, a life he wrapped around himself like one of those cocoons caterpillars wrap around themselves before they become butterflies, but he never made it to the butterfly stage. Pretty soon, all the farms around him sold out to the big farmers—those with machines to do the work that mules and men used to do—and the man, the good man, realized that the world was changing around him, and if his family was to have a chance in life, he had to do something, so he packed up, sold his farm, moved to town, and got a job. But he couldn't forget the life he left, the simplicity, the wonder, you know. He died, a shriveled little man, the cancer inside him eating away at his body and his dreams.
Me: Is there a moral to your story?
Pete: A moral? Nah, it's just a story about a man who lost the will to live. The end.