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State's Evidence

When is a mystery more than a mystery? When something's rotten in the state of Louisiana and the novelist is Elizabeth Dewberry.

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It was late on the evening of Fat Tuesday when the governor of Louisiana discovered his wife Marie dead in a New Orleans hotel room, a suicide from the looks of it (alcohol, pills), but who's to say and who's to know?

And it is roughly a year later -- same date: Fat Tuesday; same city: New Orleans -- when Grayson Guillory, the governor's 35-year-old daughter, comes face-to-face with the real killer because she's to say and she's to know. And what a difference a year makes.

In the space of that year, Grayson has: watched her father destroy all evidence of possible wrongdoing in the death of his wife. (The official story from the governor's mansion: heart attack.) Watched as the governor marries Marie's sister, Audrey. Watched as her mother explains in a secretly self-made videotape that "they" are out to murder her. Watched as her godmother, the state's lieutenant governor, offers Grayson cold comfort. Watched as Grayson's husband Carter, the governor's speech writer, becomes himself a possible party to the possible crime, only to meet his own suspicious end. Watched as her mother's former lover meets with an equally unlikely end. And watched as her father -- by his own admission "a combination of Huey Long, JFK, Machiavelli, and Jesus Christ" -- gets reelected governor as a first step to winning (with a suitable first lady by his side) possibly the White House.

But in Elizabeth Dewberry's new novel, Sacrament of Lies (Blue Hen/Putnam), Grayson is also on the lookout for her own safety and any evidence that she may be dead right in her suspicions that her mother was in fact killed, that that crime was executed by those nearest and dearest to her, and that she herself is partly to blame for the cover-up. Are her suspicions warranted? Or are they a good sign that what plagued her mother -- anxiety, manic-depression, paranoia -- is starting to plague Grayson as well? And there you have the real mystery in Sacrament of Lies. Just as Dewberry would have you have it.

"I see the book primarily as a character study and family drama," the author said recently. (The date of our interview, by coincidence: Ash Wednesday; the place: from her home by phone outside Tallahassee, Florida; the occasion: a 35-city book tour set to begin later that day in, where else, New Orleans). "I pretty much reveal who did 'it' on page one. I never thought of it as a 'mystery.'"

But the author, already with a fourth novel "rattling" around in her and a number of writings for the stage already under her belt, apparently did think of it in terms of another play, a certain well-known play that deals precisely with the action and inaction, thoughts and second thoughts of a single character caught inside bad politics and worse family behavior.

"The thing was inspired by Hamlet," Dewberry conceded. "I had a play going, and my director was going to Hong Kong to do an all-Asian Hamlet. I said to him, 'Where do you start when you think how you're going to stage Hamlet in different places in the world?' And he said, 'I think, Something's rotten in the state of X. How would Hamlet relate to that culture?' So I started thinking, Something's rotten in the state of Louisiana and went from there. I did some research on Mardi Gras. Did some research on manic-depression. And, of course, I read a lot about the history of Louisiana politics. I'm not a historian. But reading Louisiana history was fascinating. It's a strange state."

As strange as the state Dewberry's husband, author Robert Olen Butler, puts himself in to write -- a "deeply nonrational part" of himself he calls the dreamspace? Earlier this year, viewers online could watch (and comment) as Butler composed a short story he called "Aeroplane." Would Dewberry be up for, in Butler's words, "getting naked in front of your computer and letting people watch"?

"No. I'd never do it," she said with a laugh. "But I totally admire him for it. One of the enemies of getting into that 'dreamspace' is self-consciousness, and for me self-consciousness comes in the form of thinking, Oh, a reader would find this boring. I do care whether it's boring, but, in the act of writing, the primary goal has to be to be true to a character's voice. If I felt someone was watching me I simply couldn't find that dreamspace. I've always written like a Method actor."

This is good, because, as playwright in residence at Florida State University who's also done her fair share of teaching creative writing, she knows a voice when she hears it. And so far as certain drawbacks to teaching are concerned, Dewberry admitted, "When I teach creative writing I've found it does influence the writing process. And one way it does is it makes me self-conscious. I go, Ooh, does this sound like that thing I just told a student not to do? That's ... that's bad. But playwrighting, it's a collaborative art, there's just more mechanics to teach. But in Sacrament of Lies, I loved doing the 'parts.' I think it came as a kind of ... well ... I hesitate to use this word, but it came as a blessing. I realized I could write what the characters are saying and what they're doing but also what they're thinking. In writing a play, that is so hard to do. I always want to put in stage directions that say, 'What she really means when she says this is the exact opposite. Actor, do that!'"

Anything of the autobiographical in Dewberry's latest novel and her two previous novels, Break the Heart of Me and Many Things Have Happened? According to the author, "My heroines are getting stronger and surer of themselves, and, while none of it's autobiographical, that's sort of been my personal arc too. And it's true I felt a lot more vulnerable in the world when I wrote my first novel. Its protagonist was as well. But Grayson, on the one hand, she thinks she may be crazy, on the other hand, she's willing to fight for truth, what's right, and she has a core strength in her."

And isn't that "core" what Grayson really inherits from her mother, aside from the outward signs of Marie Guillory scattered throughout Sacrament of Lies and adopted by her daughter? That it's core honesty that Grayson's grappling with too?

"Thanks for saying that," Dewberry said. "I never thought of it in those terms. But I like it."

Core honesty on the part of Elizabeth Dewberry too when in college at Vanderbilt she said she'd ride down with her roommate to Memphis, sit at The Peabody, and drink daiquiris. "We thought this was incredibly sophisticated of us" is how she described it, then she corrected herself in a long-distance callback minutes later to clear up the point.

"Those weren't daiquiris we drank at The Peabody," she confided. "They were virgin piña coladas. We were actually underage at the time."

Spoken like a good stickler for detail, for the truth, and not unlike a certain protagonist named Grayson who's had it with anything less than truth. No mystery about it.

Elizabeth Dewberry signing

Sacrament of Lies

Burke's Book Store, Tuesday, February 26th, 5-6:30 p.m.

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