A Conversation with Joy Castro


In author Joy Castro’s debut novel Hell or High Water, a writer for a New Orleans newspaper comes face-to-face with a number of convicted sexual offenders as she desperately seeks to uncover the truth behind a shocking series of murders that have left residents of the area rattled.

We called this intelligent, suspense-filled novel: “one-third a straight-up crime-thriller, one-third a lovingly detailed guide to the good, bad, and ugly of post-Katrina New Orleans, and one-third an intimate character study of a deeply flawed, potentially damaged protagonist and her rocky personal life.”  You can read our full review by clicking here.

What follows below is a mostly spoiler-free discussion about Ms. Castro’s background and the inspiration behind her debut novel Hell or High Water.

JOY CASTRO teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln. Her 2005 memoir, The Truth Book, was elected an ABA Book Sense Notable Book. (from the publisher’s website)

TE: Who is Joy Castro?

JC: Um, you’ve provoked me into stunned existential silence.

TE: What made you pursue a career in writing?


Joy Castro

JC: I was a terrible waitress. I wanted to be a diplomat and work for the UN, but I didn’t like political science in college. I got a Ph.D. in English and became a literature professor. Writing, which I’d loved since childhood, grew up on the side, like a vice, and eventually took over. I’ve kept my dayjob as a professor, though. They give me summers off.

TE: How did the idea for this particular novel come about?

JC: My husband is from New Orleans, and when his parents evacuated during Katrina, they came to stay with us. We all followed the story fairly obsessively, and the key fact of the novel–that 1300 registered sex offenders went off the grid during the Katrina evacuation, and many of them were never relocated–is true. It began to gnaw on me, and I kept thinking, “What if? What if a young female journalist got assigned to
that story? What if she had problems of her own?”

TE: The setting of New Orleans plays such a huge part of this novel, so much so that it could almost be considered a character of its very own. What made you choose this particular area of the country in which to set your story?

JC: I know it well and love it, so it was a pleasure to explore and honor it on the page. With this novel I was interested in the story of damage, fallout, aftermath, both on the personal, psychological level, as with the survivors of sexual assault, and on the larger scale of an entire community struggling with a natural disaster. Setting the novel in New Orleans was a chance to look at the complexities of both issues.

TE: Hell or High Water sometimes feels like a cautionary tale and at other times a dark, seedy noir-style thriller. Did you write this novel with more of a purpose to entertain or inform?

JC: Ah. Well, let me dork out as a literature professor here for a moment and say that, like Horace in _Ars Poetica_ and Sir Philip Sidney in _The Defense of Poesy_, I think the two functions are intertwined. To teach and to delight. I wanted to write a beach read for smart people–a book that would be fun to read but still have real sociopolitical substance.

TE: How much time did you spend researching the legal and psychological aspects of sex crimes while writing this novel?

JC: A lot. Weeks. The reference librarians here at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I work, were extremely helpful to me. The book took four years to write, and I kept having to go back to the library to research new issues as I realized what needed to be included.

TE: Did you meet with any sex offenders in person to discuss the personal and legal ramifications of their crimes?

JC: Great question, but no. It was my misfortune to live with a sex offender for two years when I was a child. My mother had married him; he eventually went to prison. That was plenty of in-person experience. For the novel, I relied on published first-person accounts by sex offenders that had been gathered in scholarly books and articles.

TE: Throughout the novel, Nola makes a very strong personal and political case against the death penalty. However, her convictions are starkly contradicted by the way the story ends. Can you explain what this discrepancy means for Nola and the story overall?

JC: Sometimes the ideological beliefs we hold and cherish (because we’ve developed them rationally) break down amid the passion and violence of real life. We humans are messy and unpredictable.

TE: The book ended rather shockingly, which makes me wonder, will we be seeing more of Nola in future publications?

JC: Yes. The sequel, _Nearer Home_, comes out this year. Nola has a disturbing new crime to investigate in New Orleans. When she’s out for her morning run in Audubon Park, she finds the just-murdered body of her former journalism professor. That’s chapter one…

TE: What are you currently working on?

JC: I just finished editing a collection of essays by twenty-five memoirists who’ve published work about their families. Their essays explore the ramifications of having done so and offer ethical strategies and literary techniques for navigating that particular minefield. (My memoir came out in 2005, so I’ve been interested in these issues for a while. They can be tricky.)

The new book is called _Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family_, and it comes out this fall from the University of Nebraska Press. I hope it will be helpful to writers who want to work with family material and interesting to readers who are just curious.

TE: Which mystery/thriller/crime authors have most influenced you as a reader?

JC: When I was quite small, I was obsessed with the Bobbsey Twins mysteries by Laura Lee Hope, which turned out to be the pseudonym for a number of authors who wrote those books. In middle school, I read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, so Arthur Conan Doyle was a big influence. I love John Le Carré.

TE: As a writer?

JC: Dashiell Hammett, Dennis Lehane, and Kate Atkinson. Hammett for the lean, propulsive style; Lehane for the core of humanity and moral justice in the midst of action- and suspense-driven plots. Kate Atkinson is my aspirational role-model writer. Her Jackson Brodie novels do everything. She’s brilliant.

TE: What was the last great book you read?

JC: I taught James Joyce’s _A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_ last week, so that’s definitely the most recent one.

Joy Castro’s novel Hell or High Water is published by Thomas Dunne Books and is available wherever fine books are sold.  You can learn more about Joy Castro by visiting her official website.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.