Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson collaborated on Child of the Flood, a documentary novel chronicling the story of John Boucher, an 18-year-old who is knocked unconscious and loses his memory as a result of the flooding following Katrina. As with previous collaborative projects, they use a format incorporating photography with text, and reportage with narrative fiction.
Below, Maharidge shares his thoughts on the project:
Within a week after Hurricane Katrina, I knew that I wanted to write a book about it. Despite my 30 years as a journalist in a career in which I have authored seven nonfiction books, I also knew that I wanted to capture the story in a novel.
Why a novel? One answer is that I had already written about a lot of the problems that I knew would face the Katrina evacuees, issues affecting all working class people—stagnant or shrinking wages, the lack of affordable health care, the high cost of housing, and so on. That story has been told in a majority of my nonfiction books. I felt there was nothing more I could say that I had not already said in that form.
A larger reason is what one can accomplish in a novel. No matter how many times that I interview someone, I can only go so far in getting inside the head of that person. In fiction, an author can journey into the soul of a character and reveal things impossible to expose with journalism.
I was strongly influenced by the reality-based fiction of the 1930s, most notably that of John Steinbeck and his great exodus novel, The Grapes of Wrath. It was really a reported, or documentary novel. It began as journalism in 1936, a series in the San Francisco News. Steinbeck then spent time with Tom Collins, who ran the Farm Security Administration's camp in Weedpatch. Driving an old bread truck, Steinbeck and Collins roamed the Central Valley in the rainy winter of 1937-38. The scene in which the Joads are flooded out of a boxcar is based on the time the men helped save some families. The Hooper Ranch in Grapes of Wrath was really the Tagus Ranch on Highway 99; in the 1980s, I found that old woman Tagus still bitterly cursed Steinbeck.
In a similar manner, Michael Williamson and I tried to immerse in the lives of Katrina evacuees.
What emerged for me is the story of John Boucher, an 18-year-old from the marsh country south of New Orleans, who is knocked unconscious in the epic flood that accompanied the hurricane, and who loses his memory. You will read about him being reborn as he sets out to find his long lost half sister in California with a fallen union-organizer-turned-cab-driver named Joe.
John is in for an intense ride. His is one story in the modern exodus, and it will speak to the tens of thousands of others from New Orleans and its environs that were displaced. John confronts what Steinbeck called the "marching phalanx," that is, the crushing forces working against the individual. These forces are far different from those of the 1930s, but equally onerous. John and Joe end up battling this marching phalanx, catastrophic for Joe, but from which John emerges strong and changed by all that has occurred to him.