Joanne O’Sullivan’s debut YA novel arose from a lifelong love of the Gulf

BEST COAST: Inspired by time spent in New Orleans and the unique culture of the Gulf shores, local author Joanne O’Sullivan penned a novel about a teenager trying to put her life back together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
BEST COAST: Inspired by time spent in New Orleans and the unique culture of the Gulf shores, local author Joanne O’Sullivan penned a novel about a teenager trying to put her life back together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Scott Treadway/Treadshots

The young adult novel Between Two Skies is a debut in that genre for author and journalist Joanne O’Sullivan. But, although O’Sullivan is based in Asheville, the novel traces its genesis to the author’s time spent as a student at Loyola University in New Orleans.

“I had some girls in my dorm,” she says, “and I remember one of them saying that she lived south of the city. And I said, ‘There’s somewhere south of here?’ I didn’t actually know.”

She adds with a laugh, “New Orleans is a world unto itself, but what I didn’t know about Louisiana was all these cultures outside the city.”

In Between Two Skies, Evangeline Riley, a teenager forced from the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, must struggle to rebuild her life and re-create the community she lost. O’Sullivan celebrates the launch of the book at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe on Saturday, April 29. The event will include a conversation between O’Sullivan and fellow local author Allan Wolf and will also feature the music of New Orleans and the Louisiana coast.

Traveling to the Gulf Coast and experiencing firsthand the cultures she’d first heard about at Loyola — and in particular, seeing how tied they were to the land and the water — made an impression. “It’s really off the grid,” O’Sullivan says. “All kids fish. All kids are out in boats, know how to drive boats from when they’re little. It’s beautiful.”

While graduation took O’Sullivan away from New Orleans, she continued to visit both the city and the coast south of the city. But Hurricane Katrina in 2005 changed the author’s involvement with the area and its people. It took frantic searching to reconnect with two displaced friends, and she was compelled to be a witness to the aftermath of the storm.

“I tried to dig deeper,” O’Sullivan says. “You know what the narrative was. It was all about the levees breaking and how the city was affected.” But the coast also bore the brunt of the storm, and O’Sullivan followed the news and made repeated visits to the area to find out more about how these communities she loved either recovered or didn’t. “Some places were literally wiped off the map,” she says.

In the meantime, O’Sullivan had started her writing career, producing travel content for corporate clients as well as freelance articles for publications like the Citizen-Times and WNC Magazine. She also wrote books for kids, many of them focused on environmental themes, such as Migration Nation, about the lives of migratory animals, and the much-praised 101 Ways You Can Help Save the Planet Before You’re 12. She tried to write a novel for younger readers too, but in 2010 she found herself having to abandon it. “You know, you’re not really getting the voice,” O’Sullivan’s agent told her.

“I was like, ‘Fine.’” O’Sullivan says. “I’m going to write something that’s all about voice.”

When that voice came, it turned out to be that of a teen on the Gulf Coast who had lost her way of life. “It compounded from Katrina to Deepwater Horizon,” O’Sullivan says, referencing the offshore drilling rig that exploded in 2010, “and it all came together.”

As O’Sullivan researched and wrote, she also found the story growing from currents in her life, beyond her interest in south Louisiana. Partnering with her daughter during National Novel Writing Month in 2013 compelled her to complete most of a first draft. Her work as a travel and environmental writer helped her imbue Between Two Skies with its sense of place (an aspect of the novel that has already earned praise from several Louisiana natives).

O’Sullivan also drew on her time in Atlanta teaching English to Vietnamese refugees in creating the character of Tru, the blues-playing Vietnamese love interest whose own struggles in Katrina’s aftermath complicate Evangeline’s efforts to rebuild the life she has lost. Her work with refugees also helped O’Sullivan capture the tension between the will to survive and the desire to return to a vanished place that sparks so much conflict for Evangeline and her displaced community.

Reflecting on the process that led to her novel, O’Sullivan says, “I didn’t consciously collect these different strands.” Then she adds, “Everyone says, ‘Write the book that only you can write.’ But I don’t think you know what the book you can write is until you try to write it.”

WHO: Joanne O’Sullivan in conversation with Allan Wolf
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m. Free

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About Doug Gibson
I live in West Asheville. I do a lot of reading. Follow me on Twitter: @dougibson

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