Story and photography by Cheré Coen
“They say there are blessings from Katrina.
Mine was I lost my job.”
I wrote that opening to my latest novel, the first in a paranormal mystery series, because it was an expression I had heard repeatedly while working as a post-Katrina volunteer coordinator. Not necessarily the loss of a job, but that something good had emerged from the nation’s worst natural disaster.
For me, however, it was a career change.
When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, my heart shattered into a million pieces. I knew I had to do something to help my hometown of New Orleans so I quit my newspaper job and was hired for a Unitarian Universalist recovery program. At the same time, I started freelance writing on the side. One thing I was never able to do as a newspaper editor was travel writing, my dream job, and my new flexibility allowed me to do that.
Both experiences inspired me to write “A Ghost of a Chance,” a story about a newspaper reporter named Viola Valentine who ends up on her roof after Katrina floods New Orleans and experiences an epiphany of sorts. She leaves her loveless marriage, boring job and overbearing family and follows her dream of becoming a travel writer. But the storm also blew open a psychic door. Now she sees ghosts who have died by water as a SCANC, a person who experiences “specific communication with apparitions, non-entities and the comatose.”
As Viola enters her new career as travel writer, solving mysteries that appear with apparitions everywhere she goes, the one person she hopes to speak to — her daughter who died of leukemia years before — continues to elude her.
Or does she?
In “A Ghost of a Chance,” Viola joins a group of journalists in Eureka Springs, Ark., for her first press trip as a travel writer. These trips are arranged by tourism officials, aimed to introduce journalists to their areas so they might write about them. Some of the articles I have written about in DeSoto magazine have been the result of press trips.
One of my first press trips was to Hot Springs, Ark., where I met Karen Ott Mayer, your illustrious editor. Karen, our friend Bobby Hickman and I were three people that would have been routinely separated in grade school. We had way too much fun, but then we were treated to the world’s smallest St. Patrick’s Day Parade (one block long) with Mike Rowe, star of the TV show “Dirty Jobs” rolling down the street on a toilet. The festivities were followed by a concert by Mini Kiss, a Kiss tribute band consisting of little people with a form of dwarfism. Karen, Bobby and I also spent time on a Shreveport press trip where we zip-lined over 100 alligators, enjoyed a Halloween party at a Chinese restaurant and viewed crafts based on the Rapture along with a collection of taxidermy at the Touchstone Wildlife and Art Museum.
So naturally I had to include Karen in my books as character Winnie Calder, a native of Mississippi who lives on a farm and raises goats while penning travel stories. Everything is fictional and I will swear to that in court if Karen sues, but art reflects life and I’ll leave it at that. Other travel writers who were not as much fun made their way into my books in a not so glorious light, but I won’t name names.
As for the paranormal aspects of the books, I’ve always been fascinated by ghost stories and Eureka Springs has more than its share. Lucky for me there’s an amazing writer’s retreat there named Dairy Hollow. Thanks to their generosity — the fees are subsidized — I was able to spend two weeks of quiet bliss working on my novel. Most of “Ghost of a Chance” takes place at the 1888 Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, which I visited on numerous occasions. The history behind this Victorian beauty ranges from the elite visiting the springs on vacation to a quack doctor professing a cure for cancer while hiding the bodies when his patients failed to recover. Needless to say, there’s a good reason why the Crescent Hotel is known as “America’s Most Haunted Hotel.”
But back to Viola, my heroine of the series. Like me, she changed jobs after Katrina and begins again, but she still grieves for the losses in her life. In each book, she must solve a ghostly mystery in her travels but, since she can only contact those who have died by water, cannot reach her daughter on the other side. In “A Ghost of a Chance,” she discovers this new ability to speak to the dead and learns how to use it, but nothing is easy. She still must deal with her crazy New Orleans family and an ex who won’t let go.