A Conversation with Anne Simon
Author of The Year of Yellow Jack: A Novel about Fever, Félicité, and the Early Years on the Bayou Teche (UL Press, 2020)
About the Book
At the start of 1839, the small, south Louisiana town of New Iberia appears poised for prosperity. Acadian, French, English, and American immigrants have joined Spanish settlers in the area. Steamboats move up and down the Bayou Teche, carrying the products of the fertile land to market in New Orleans.
Across the bayou, Hortense Duperier enjoys a privileged life in a grand brick house with her husband, Fréderick, and their three children. Suddenly, Fréderick’s untimely death and financial reverses force her to manage the estate on her own.
When signs of the dreaded yellow fever threaten an epidemic, Hortense turns to Félicité, an enslaved woman from Haiti. Together, the two women dispense Félicité’s traditional remedies, defying the medical practices and social constraints of their time to save the young town.
Author image courtesy of Anne L. Simon.
ULP: Tell us a little about your background. What was your career before becoming an author? What made you want to write fiction?
AS: I was born and educated in the East, I came to Louisiana when I married. I practiced law until being elected a general jurisdiction trial court judge, handling every type case from disputes over broken refrigerators to first degree murder, death penalty recommended. Each day, I watched the human condition laid bare: the tragic, the comedic, the bizarre. I recorded details of the tales I heard and the people who told them in three notebooks—one for each of the parishes (counties) I served. I did nothing with my scribblings for two reasons: because I was prohibited by judicial ethics from trading on my position as a judge, and because I didn't know how to write fiction at the time.
At mandatory retirement I had the time to read books on writing and join a writing group led by my daughter-in-law. She teaches writing and will speak the truth to me. Scrambling names and locations, I turned out three crime novels loosely based on the cases I had heard.
The Duperier house in New Iberia, LA, was the home of Hortense Duperier and Félicité during the 1839 yellow fever epidemic, and serves as a setting in the novel. Image courtesy of Anne L. Simon.
ULP: What drew you to the story of Félicité and Hortense?
AS: The story of Félicité is legendary in the Bayou Country. An enslaved Haitian woman in the company of her widowed owner and a few of her white friends nursed what became the town of New Iberia through the 1839 epidemic of yellow fever. Contemporaries noted the successes of Félicité's traditional methods at a time when doctors treated with leeches and deprivation of fluids. She lies buried in the cemetery plot of the family that owned her—a practice unheard of at the time. The New York Times noted her death. Little else about Félicité is historically certain.
The relationship that must have existed between Félicité and her owner would not leave my mind. I had two gifts that I thought might aid me in my quest to recreate that period in history: a close friend with a large collection of papers collected by the prolific family that had owned Félicité and career-long experience in record research. Eventually, I found more clues to her story, but far short of enough source material for an historian. I embarked on writing a fictional account, consistent with known history, of what might have occurred.
ULP: Félicité is a major figure in the book but she is often silent and enigmatic. Why did you choose to depict her this way?
AS: The decision to write the story from the point of view of Hortense Duperier, Félicité's owner, came after consultation with experienced writers in this genre, African American friends, and much deliberation. I am a white woman of privilege, as was Hortense. Did I have the presumption to interpret the world through the mind of an enslaved woman of color? I answered the question in the negative. I decided to show the readers the known and imagined circumstances I uncovered and let them become acquainted with Félicité for themselves.
ULP: How did you go about researching this story? What difficulties did you encounter? Was there anything that surprised you?
AS: Having grown up with Lexington and Concord rather than Gettysburg and Appomattox, I had a lot of local history to learn. What I found was largely a history that did not include half the people who lived in the Bayou Teche Country. African Americans largely exist in history as given names and numbers on a list of the possessions of their white owners. But there proved to be a back door to their lives. The blossoming of general scholarship about the early nineteenth century and amazing genealogical efforts by our current residents is uncovering the reality of early nineteenth-century life. In my mind I moved back in time, and my research in the records uncovered a few more facts about "the old slave." I began to tell her story by recreating a plausible account of her life consistent with the historical scholarship that does exist.
Indeed, I had surprises. I am fairly competent in French, a blessing for this work, but the early nineteenth-century Louisianans spoke a variety of dialects: Parisienne, Acadian, Creole. Early on I realized that any attempt to compose dialogue in a manner faithful to particular dialects would sink the story. I decided to write in my own tongue.
Another surprise was the wealth of lore, albeit frequently contradictory, kept by the descendants of the original settlers of the Bayou Country and the lore of a small group dedicating time and effort to keeping alive the memory of Félicité. A surprising number of both groups still live within fifty miles of the location of this story. This corner of our country is unique in that regard.
ULP: You have written three other books, which are all legal thrillers. What was it like for you to switch genres?
AS: Hard work! My legal thrillers were based on actual cases. Although I changed names and locations of the events, and enjoyed describing this unique corner of our country, I could find all the information I needed in my own records and my own head. When I undertook to write historical fiction, I had no idea how difficult the task would be. Every action taken by a character, and every word spoken, every detail described had to pass the test of historical accuracy. I owe a great debt to my editor, Devon Lord, and to the UL Press for hiring her just at the right time for my work. I now read historical fiction with appreciation for what is involved in setting a story in another era.
ULP: You also highlight the roles that women––free and enslaved––played in this time period as well as the laws and social norms that limited their freedom. Why did you choose to focus on this?
AS: The story of Hortense and Félicité called to me because of my own.
My father provided me the education that by accident of birth he had been denied. Although grateful, I was unwilling to be limited by the restrictions that came with his gift. I did not confront him; I fled. I married someone who took me away to this part of Louisiana, which contrary to popular belief, is amazingly accepting. I became accustomed and thrived being "the only" and "the first"–– the only woman in my law school class and the first woman elected judge in this part of Louisiana. My husband made it possible for me to raise a family and have a career, albeit not at the same time. From the perspective of years, I am eternally grateful to these two men and I am endlessly fascinated by the variety of ways in which women, who rarely even now determine their circumstances, navigate life.
ULP: The looming threat throughout the book is the yellow fever epidemic, much like the threat of coronavirus today. What might we learn from historical events like this?
AS: The story of an epidemic is a story about people in crisis. In the yellow fever epidemic of 1839 and the coronavirus in 2020, we see the disease erase class and economic boundaries, and we learn that the behavior of ordinary people matters.
ULP: Do you have any recommendations or tips for others who want to become published authors?
AS: Unless you have been trained as a writer, accept that you are embarking on a long and difficult journey. Read books about the craft. Begin to write. Join a writing group. Learn to accept and to give criticism. Be willing to abandon a product that does not succeed and start all over again. Endure.