John Gregory Brown just finished making history.
Now, he plans to make some more. His current book, “Audubon’s Watch,” is a lushly written glimpse into a little-known aspect of the life of wildlife artist John James Audubon. It revolves around letters from Audubon to his daughters and the legendary naturalist’ s acquaintance with a New Orleans physician named Emile Gautreaux.”
Gautreaux was an intriguing figure in his own right, a reluctant graverobber who occasionally dug up and dissected corpses as the only way to advance in his medical knowledge and benefit the living. And it was the death of his wife, Myra, that brought him and Audubon together. Fascinating stuff — and, except for Audubon, entirely fictitious.
There was no Emile Gautreaux, at least as far as Brown knows. No Myra, no letters. Physicians did rob graves in the early 19th century, but the character of the doctor was a composite. “I love to research subjects I don’t know anything about,” said Brown, a Sweet Briar College English professor, whose wife, Carrie, is also a novelist. “At the time I started writing this, I knew nothing about Audubon, nothing about birds, nothing about anatomy.” Or, as Brown explained in an interview earlier this year, “For me, the primary difference between using wholly invented characters and using actual historical figures in a work of fiction is that the historical figure is a vessel of sorts, into which the author pours the ideas and emotions that he is interested in addressing, whereas with invented characters the vessel must be created along with those ideas and emotions.”
“Audubon’s Watch” was favorably reviewed in the Times-Picayune in New Orleans (Brown’s hometown) and generally praised by the New York Times. “The Times reviewer was Stewart Onan, who is also a novelist and a kind of a toich guy,” said Brown. “He had a few criticisms, but there were legitimate ones. Generally, he was complimentary. The main thing is just to get reviewed in the Times.”
Brown sees “Audubon’s Watch” as the first book in a trilogy featuring three very difference driven geniuses with ties to New Orleans — Audubon, jazz musician Thelonius Monk and basketball star Pete Maravich. He’s already started on the Monk book, “The Inventor’s Mistress.” All of these were sort of obsessive people,” Brown said, “and I’m fascinated by that personality type. I read a biography of Audobon’s wife, Lucy, that painted Audubon as this sort of mad scientist who had a lot of trouble with his day-to-day life. She kept him going.”
Brown was supposed to travel to New Orleans last week to appear at a book festival, but the event was postponed because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in New York. “Meanwhile, Carrie is leaving for Indianapolis,” he said, “to receive an award from the Great Lakes Booksellers Association for ‘The Hatbox Baby.’
Carrie Brown also “makes” history. “The Hatbox Baby” takes place at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, and its main character is a doctor who used that venue to demonstrate new advances in saving premature infants. “The fact that we often do similar work is great for us,” John Gregory Brown said, “because each of us is the other’s best critic.”