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READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

INTRODUCTION
When vice had a legal home and jazz was being born—the captivating story of an infamous true-life madam
 
New Orleans, 1900. Mary Deubler makes a meager living as an “alley whore.” That all changes when bible-thumping Alderman Sidney Story forces the creation of a red-light district that’s mockingly dubbed “Storyville.” Mary believes there’s no place for a lowly girl like her in the high-class bordellos of Storyville’s Basin Street, where Champagne flows and beautiful girls turn tricks in luxurious bedrooms.  But with gumption, twists of fate, even a touch of Voodoo, Mary rises above her hopeless lot to become the notorious Madame Josie Arlington.
 
Filled with fascinating historical details and cameos by Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and E. J. Bellocq, Madam is a fantastic romp through The Big Easy and the irresistible story of a woman who rose to power long before the era of equal rights.
ABOUT CARI LYNN AND KELLIE MARTIN
Cari Lynn is a journalist and the author of four books of nonfiction, including The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice with Kathryn Bolkovac, and Leg the Spread: A Woman’s Adventures Inside the Trillion-Dollar Boy’s Club of Commodities Trading. Cari has written for numerous publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Health, The Chicago Tribune, and Deadline Hollywood. She has taught at Loyola University and received an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Los Angeles. This is her first novel.


Actress Kellie Martin is most fondly remembered as ‘Becca Thatcher’ on the ABC series Life Goes On for which she received an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She has since appeared on Christy, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, Drop Dead Diva and Ghost Whisperer, as well as numerous television movies and feature films. She was most recently seen as Captain Nicole Galassini on Lifetime’s Army Wives. She is the national spokesperson for the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). In 2001, Reader’s Digest named Kellie a national “Health Hero” on its cover; and Lifetime Television profiled her in Intimate Portrait. She is the owner of the online children’s boutique, ROMPstore.com and a graduate of Yale University. Talk show appearances in the last year include Today, Access Hollywood Live, The Ricki Lake Show, Marie, and Home and Family.  Recent press coverage includes TimeMagazine.com, People.com, CelebrityBabyScoop.com, as well as a regular blog on Parenting.com. Martin lives in LA with her husband and daughter. This is her first novel.
A CONVERSATION CARI LYNN AND KELLIE MARTIN

  • Tell us about your writing process. It’s fairly unusual for a work of fiction to have two authors—how did you two work together to write Madam?
  • Cari: Kellie and I were introduced in the early 2000s by a mutual friend. By that point, I’d already been researching Josie Arlington for a year in hopes of writing a nonfiction book about her. I’d uncovered details about her life but was sadly starting to realize I wasn’t finding enough to fill an entire nonfiction book—records had been lost or destroyed, and I wasn’t having much luck tracking down her ancestors. This scenario isn’t unusual; even great stories often can’t sustain all that’s needed for a nonfiction book. Typically, this is the point I let the story go and move on to something else. But I couldn’t. Josie stayed with me.

    It so happened that one of my previous nonfiction books, Leg the Spread, had just been optioned for film/TV. It occurred to me: maybe Josie’s story would work as a TV series. At the time I was a big fan of HBO’s Deadwood. Storyville seemed like it would make for an equally compelling, gritty, historical setting. Only problem was, as much as I could see the story coming to life onscreen, I didn’t quite know how to translate that into a screenplay format on the page. I was living in Chicago at the time, not exactly a mecca of screenwriters, so I had no one I could talk to about craft. And that’s when a friend introduced Kellie and me.

    Kellie had been reading screenplays since she was a kid, and she was familiar with the photographs of E. J. Bellocq. Plus, she was a fan of Deadwood. So I went to L.A. and we wrote a pilot script together. The rest is the most typical Hollywood story around: everyone was interested in the script . . . and then nothing would happen.

    The years went by and I again grew frustrated that Josie was still in limbo. One day, I sat myself down at the computer and attempted to turn the story into a novel. People always assumed I had a secret desire to be a novelist. But I never did. I loved true stories. I loved interviewing people and immersing myself in the world of my subjects. Only, Storyville had long ago been razed. Housing projects now stood where women had legally turned tricks and men drank absinthe and where jazz was invented. I stared at that blank page for several months. And then it was like a trap door in my mind opened and the novel came tumbling out.

    I had the screenplay and the true events as my guides, but what was intrinsically lacking in both of those was emotion. A screenplay is written as action and dialogue only; it doesn’t explain what people are thinking, nor can you get into their heads and describe their motivation—that’s what an actor brings to the character. As for history, it’s dates, places, names, circumstances. But who were these people? What were their dreams, their fears? What made them smile? What drove them, what scared them, how did they experience disappointment or joy or love? What did they do when they got up in the morning?

    I wrote for three years, hoping to take names and circumstances that had been buried in dusty New Orleans history books and bring them to life.

    Kellie: Cari and I were able to work together on Madam through the miracle of modern technology. About eight years ago we started our e-mail exchange about Storyville and our mutual fascination with the characters who inhabited this world. Years and countless cell phone conversations and sunny Southern California hikes later, we hatched Madam.

  • Ms. Martin, you’re an actress, and Ms. Lynn, you’re the author of several works of nonfiction. How did your respective backgrounds inform your writing?
  • Cari: I was trained as a journalist and spent much of my career doing investigative writing, so I’m very comfortable—and greatly enjoy—research. It sounds incredibly daunting now to say that I’ve been researching Josie Arlington for nearly a decade, but it’s true. Part of my brain practically lives in Storyville.

    Kellie: When I break down a character in a script, I map out her emotional arc and make choices on who she is and what makes her tick. Each time I act in a scene, I imagine what happened to my character just before the moment we see her and what will happen after the last line in the scene. My character’s words and thoughts must feel authentic in the moment for me to move or incite those watching at home. Figuring out the emotional arc and twists and turns for Mary Deubler is no different for me as an author. When writing I have the luxury of showing all the moments you never see onscreen. A novel can stretch out and explore those moments to the fullest. We can get in the character’s head, read her thoughts, or go back in time with her.

  • What drew you to Mary Deubler’s story? Why did you decide to focus on her, especially considering how many fascinating historical figures were roaming the streets of New Orleans around the turn of the century?
  • Cari: I was doing the tourist stroll around New Orleans, when my then-boyfriend pulled me into a tacky French Quarter Voodoo shop I would otherwise have avoided. My eyes fell to a book of New Orleans ghost stories, and as I flipped through, there was the story of the haunted tomb of Madam Josie Arlington.

    I’m not especially interested in ghost stories, but what got me was how Josie had designed her tomb. She’d bought a plot in the elite Metairie Cemetery and, as if that wasn’t scandalous enough, she fortified it to be higher than all the surrounding plots (many of which held the remains of men rumored to have been among Josie’s clientele). Her tomb would be built in rose granite, and she commissioned a bronze statue of a young woman to be poised at the tomb’s door. Only, the woman’s back would be turned to the other tombs, as if shunning them. The story goes that Josie died feeling she hadn’t achieved what she’d truly wanted: social acceptance. And her tomb was her final thumb to the nose, her way of making sure she had the last laugh.

    This struck me. Here was someone who’d single-handedly built an empire—an accomplishment unheard of at the time for an unmarried woman, especially one who didn’t have family money or a prestigious surname. She was completely self-made. Also, she’d never been shy about advertising she was a madam—quite literally, she printed advertisements to promote the Arlington. So why did Josie, in the end, care what anyone, especially society people, thought of her? It was Josie’s emotional Achilles heel that piqued my interest.

    I was leaving New Orleans the next morning, but I needed to see Josie’s tomb. It was raining, and Metairie Cemetery is vast and imposing with its winding paths of grand, aboveground sepulchres. With a flight to catch, I had to leave the cemetery before I was able to find her tomb.

    But I later returned to New Orleans. Josie’s tomb did not disappoint. The bronze statue of the woman, draped in a flowing gown, a bouquet of roses nestled in the crook of her arm, was streaked with a patina that made it look as if she were crying. Atop the tomb, stone flames burst into the sky—and, as the lore goes, have been known to ignite into real flames while the bronze woman leaves her post and wanders the cemetery.

    Kellie: I was introduced to the brothel photographs of E. J. Bellocq while studying art history at Yale. Bellocq’s image of the woman wearing striped stockings and drinking a glass of Raleigh Rye stayed with me (and happily became the cover image for Madam). She had a confidence that I can’t imagine a lowly prostitute possessing. Ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. I wanted to know more about that woman. I wanted to walk in her dirty boots for a while.

  • What are you working on now?
  • Cari: A new book of historical fiction! Who would’ve thought (certainly not I). Josie showed me the way, and now there’s no turning back. It’s set in New Orleans and is based on the true story of a woman whose name might be familiar.

    Kellie: I have been acting and producing a few television projects, one which airs in March called Dear Viola. My kids’ e-boutique, ROMPstore.com, keeps me constantly busy and is a welcome break from acting and writing. At ROMP, my seven-year-old-daughter, Maggie, and I choose and photograph all of the “unplugged” wooden, creative, open-ended toys. Maggie and I are also working on a children’s book about her obsession with bugs. Yep, bugs.
    DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
    1. The novel is bookended by letters from Mary’s niece, Anna. How do Anna’s opening words set the tone for the rest of the novel? Anna begs for Mary’s forgiveness for her ingratitude. Based on what you know of Mary, would she have forgiven Anna?

    2. The opening scene takes place on Mary’s thirtieth birthday. She notes that she fears she “would succumb to a tragic end, just as everyone she’d dared to love.” Why does she feel this way? Why doesn’t her successful career as Madam Josie Arlington offer her any comfort?

    3. What is Mary’s relationship with Peter like? Why does she support him? Does he appreciate her efforts?

    4. The novel is filled with fictional versions of many historical people, including Mary Deubler herself, as well as Jelly Roll Morton, E. J. Bellocq, and others. What does this lend to the story? What techniques do the authors use to transport the reader to turn-of-the-century New Orleans?

    5. How is race dealt with in the novel? Is New Orleans, as some of the characters proclaim, truly more progressive in terms of civil rights than some of the cities in neighboring states?

    6. What does Mary’s postcard of the Arlington Hot Springs Hotel represent to her? Do you think she ever attains the kind of peace she imagines the hotel would offer her, if only she could get there?

    7. Both Ferdinand and Mary visit Eulalie Echo, who tells each of them in turn that they have a touch of the “Devil” within. Eulalie tells Ferdinand that his talent needs “a spark o’ the Devil to make it smolder.” What does she mean by this? Do you agree? How do Ferdinand and Mary both master their darker sides in order to succeed?

    8. How are Mary and Countess Lulu White juxtaposed against each other? What did you make of the Countess? Why does she refuse to let Mary join her bordello? Is her dislike of Mary borne solely out of jealousy?

    9. What effect does Peter’s death have on Mary? Is her decision to send Tater after Lobrano something you would have expected her to do? She feels relieved when Tater tells her that Lobrano isn’t dead after all. What does that tell you about her character?

    10. Discuss Lobrano. Is his remorse over Peter’s death genuine? Why, after so many years of torturing Mary and her family, does he seem to change his ways? Is it simply guilt, or is there more to it? Do you believe he will suffer for his actions? Do you want him to?

    11. After giving her a tour of her very own bordello, Tom Anderson turns to Mary and says, “This is your play, Josie. You’re the famous actress now.” What does he mean by this? Does Mary take it to heart? Is the “role” a burden to Mary, despite its luxurious trappings?

    12. The novel focuses mainly on Mary’s rise to power within Storyville. What kind of life do you imagine for her after the book ends? She vows to “never again owe anyone anything.” Do you think she succeeds?

     
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