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  • Written by Marnie Woodrow
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  • Spelling Mississippi
  • Written by Marnie Woodrow
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On Sale: July 27, 2011
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-36624-5
Published by : Vintage Canada Knopf Canadian Publishing
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Rich in the detailed nuances of the human heart, and swimming in the decadent atmosphere of New Orleans, Spelling Mississippi is a seductive, liberating novel about the ties that bind -- and those that simply restrain.

After Cleo arrives in New Orleans on holiday, she’s not quite sure what she means to find there, or how long she will stay. At first, all that is important is that she’s finally “away”: that she can let go of her life in Toronto and allow herself to be caught up in the swirls of the city itself. This is the New Orleans of magnolia breezes and bourbon afternoons, and Cleo gives herself over to days spent experiencing the French Quarter in the languorous fashion it seems to require. But then one night, while sitting alone on a wharf watching the Mississippi roll by, something happens that wakes her up from her reverie and gives her an urgent sense of the direction in which she must go.

When a woman in an evening gown and a rhinestone tiara leaps over Cleo’s head and into the Mississippi River and disappears into a mammoth swell, Cleo is at a loss for what to do, and can only run away. Having just witnessed what she believes to be a suicide, she spends the night distraught and alone in her hotel, the Pommes Royales, replaying the scene in her mind and unsuccessfully barricading the doors against the flood of emotions headed her way. Over the next days, despite efforts to return to her explorations of the city, she cannot shake loose the intensity of this experience, as if some aspect of it has opened her eyes to truths unknown.

Madeline, it turns out, had not intended to commit suicide, and did not. Rather, she leapt into the river because she needed to, and survived her crossing -- and the night itself -- despite the evening clothes weighing her down. For her, water has always had an irresistible pull, and at that dark hour, when everything in her life and in her marriage appeared to be falling apart, it was just the remedy for her anger and her pain. When she emerges on the other shore, Madeline isn’t sure of how exactly this swim has changed her, but she knows it has, and triumphantly sits down for some turtle soup and a bourbon at a favourite café. She will spend the next days trying to take back control of her life. What she doesn’t realize, though, is that she has also changed the life of another.

A brief report on the evening news about a mysterious river-swimmer who has just been unwillingly plucked out of the Mississippi sends Cleo the lifeline that she needs. Certain that this second swimmer must be the same woman, Cleo becomes determined to find her, having become tangled in the flowing robes of her story on that fateful night. And as we follow them separately -- Cleo on her search through the streets of New Orleans for Madeline, and Madeline through her struggles to figure out what she even needs to find -- each woman’s story unfolds in waves of experience and memory in such a way that it seems fate has always meant for them to meet.

For instance, Madeline and Cleo both arrived in New Orleans haunted by, and trying to escape, their pasts. Cleo’s mother disappeared when she was young, as the family was moving to Canada from England, and Cleo has never been able to escape the pain of her absence. Madeline’s mother was always too present; not only could she not make up for Madeline’s father leaving, but she pushed her daughter away besides. Yet Cleo and Madeline also share in not being able to come to terms with what pushes them forward. They are like two rivers flowing to a single path, each gaining momentum as it nears the other. And when the confluence occurs at last, their shared desires and needs come together with startling force, crashing at the shores of their histories one experience and one memory at a time.

As it continues on to its enchanting conclusion, Spelling Mississippi redoubles in both intensity and magic, and Woodrow draws us into its flow with writing driven by equal parts passion and wry humour. This is a love story set in New Orleans, after all, and the rules do not necessarily apply. What is certain, though, is that this book marks the debut of a thrilling new novelist, whose work will stay with us just as surely as Cleo and Madeline and New Orleans will haunt each other for time to come.


The Mississippi River belongs to the people. That night, it belonged to just two.

First came the cool, metallic stink of barges moving silently on the river, the ripe scent of things ready to rot and burst from the vines and trees. Magnolia blossoms hung like little yellow corpses, up and down the narrow streets and wider, more American boulevards, their sweet musk a sulky memory. Away from the twenty-four-hour sour of the French Quarter (though still in it, according to any map), she sat alone on the edge of the Governor Nicholls Street Wharf, her feet dangling well above the water. Inhaling the soothing churn of the river, its chilled and unknowable contents, she grew drunk on all these smells -- and so didn’t catch the scent of someone coming up behind her.

The smog and fog tangoed, twisting her view of the opposite shore, now a strip of ochre fuzz between a moonless sky and the notorious water below. The upriver bridge appeared to be a pretty string of lights along which cars sped. There was scant light on the wharf itself, no more than a pale beam thrown down from a lone standard some distance from where she sat. She didn’t see the shadow of a woman racing toward her over the concrete.

The humidity took each individual sound–the thrum of tires on the distant expressway bridge, bass-line thuds from Quarter jukeboxes, horn squeals, a bold crack of what might’ve been gunfire or the rebellious muffler of a car on a side street -- the damp November wind took each of these sounds and perverted them all into one low, seductive moan. A human call rose up here and there, and now and again, a warning blast from a boat. She didn’t hear the small thunder of high high heels coming at her from behind.

The woman had come running, dressed in an evening gown and a rhinestone tiara. She hurtled her body over a dark object, not knowing it was a person, and not caring. She made a perfect arc over whatever it was, hitting the water below with gun-crack precision. There was a tidy splash. Touched by the quick wind passing over her shoulder, and startled by a sudden spray of droplets on her bare legs, the seated woman woke from her reverie. All at once the unexpected presence of a stranger collected in her consciousness: the ghost scent of fine perfume, an echo of high heels hurrying, and a shadow, followed by a splash. She would smell and hear and see these things, in and out of sequence, forever.

Leaping to her feet, the young woman stared out at the water for what felt like a very long time. She stood dangerously close to the edge of the wharf, squinting and blinking. The night murmured and twinkled as it had before, as if nothing unusual had taken place. She peered harder at the water, holding her breath. At first it seemed there wasn’t anyone out there. But her heart roared to life and she stifled a cry as up bobbed some glittering thing a few yards out, surrounded by the arms and legs of someone who now made a fine, if temporary, show of swimming.

But she knew. The young woman on the wharf knew exactly what she was seeing, for who but a suicide would jump into a river so deep-down mean, and in the month of November? And who but a fool would sit there in the dark, courting danger and finding it, too? In that moment she wished she’d been mugged or battered in some other way. An odd thing to wish for, but this woman knew what was happening. Having seen this kind of watery exit from the world before, she did not want to witness a second such act of strange and private violence.

She didn’t call out “Stop!” or scream for help to incite a riot of rescue, nor did she leap in after the woman to make a valiant attempt at salvation. No, she didn’t do any of the things a person in her position ought to have done. She ran.

The young woman ran until the ground beneath her feet turned from wharf concrete to weeds, to rail track and cobblestones slick with fog. She ran without breathing -- or so it seemed to her once she’d stopped. Later on she would realize that the only people who run in the slow city of New Orleans are muggers and dealers and other sorts of criminals, but in those precious moments of flight she didn’t care about local pedestrian customs. She had one destination in mind: away from there.

She ran without releasing the scream that coiled inside her. Her conscience pulsed through the blur as she sprinted: Call the police. There is still time. Call the police. A tourist, she didn’t know that the coast guard patrolled the river or that the police station was very near by. Do something, a voice inside her shrieked. And so she did: she ran.

The river looked after the rest.

* * * * *

When she bursts into her room, the first thing Cleo Savoy sees is the red announcement of the hour glowing in the dark. Switching on every available lamp, she keeps one eye on the clock, as if her safety will increase with the forward march of time. When the numbers advance from 1:11 to 1:12 a.m., she exhales. Locks the door and secures the chain with shaking hands, telling herself, Never happened -- you imagined the whole thing. Yes, she decides, it was a ghost, the kind of river-apparition one’s apt to see after so much bourbon on an empty stomach. A ghost, and nothing more. If it was 11:11 -- I’d make a wish. I’ll make one anyway: I wish I’d never seen that.
Marnie Woodrow|Author Q&A

About Marnie Woodrow

Marnie Woodrow - Spelling Mississippi
Marnie Woodrow is a former bookseller and the author of two acclaimed collections of short fiction, In the Spice House and Why We Close Our Eyes When We Kiss — both praised for their richness of detail, authenticity and passion. Spelling Mississippi will be published in the UK by Transworld/Black Swan in November, 2002. Marnie Woodrow lives in Toronto.

Author Q&A

1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I suppose reading other people’s books is to blame in the best possible way, by which I mean that I wanted to do what other writers had done for me. I wanted very much to create a world not-mine for hours and make other people think and feel. Reading William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice really sent me on my way. I remember reading it late at night while babysitting, thinking, I want to do this! I want to make people lose themselves. Make them reach for the dictionary as well as for their own, possibly-buried questions. I’ve written stories of some kind since I first learned how to make a sentence. It’s been my biggest comfort-zone, my truest sanctuary.

2) What inspired you to write Spelling Mississippi? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
To pin it down: two things inspired this novel. A photograph (National Geographic magazine, July 1967) of a young woman holding a mud-soaked book retrieved from a flooded library in Italy during the famous 1966 deluge in the city of Florence. I wondered who she was, who she might become and, more pressingly, who her daughter might be. The second “inspiration” was my three and a half month stint living in New Orleans and all the crazy, wonderful people I met in the French Quarter. Once back in Toronto, I realized a French Quarter woman could indeed try to swim the Mississippi -- and succeed. My website essay “Memory: The Best Trickster” (in the PLAY section) provides insight for those interested into how front-line research and fuzzy but loving memory can create amusing situations when they collide.

3) What is it that you’re exploring in this book?
I can only see this now, after the fact. I think I was trying to understand the concepts of self-acceptance/acceptance of another person, along with fate/coincidence; letting go of the past so that you might envision a truly inspiring future; and yes, big love. I also explored the notion of a city as a character unto herself, which New Orleans is, for me: a woman everyone wants to meet at least once in their lifetime. And then realizes, maybe once is quite enough?

4) Who is your favourite character in Spelling Mississippi, and why?
To choose a favourite character in something I laboured over for years is impossible. I’m very fond of them all, even as they drift away from me. I really enjoyed Mrs. Ryan, the hotelier, because every time I wrote her scenes I felt warm and happy as I typed. Laughing during the writing of a novel is a rare but oh-so-sweet occurrence. I think you need to make one character your darling fool, as Shakespeare taught us all, and Mrs. Ryan is that wise fool for me.

5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
If you hated it, say so. If you loved it, or even just enjoyed it, say so. In either instance, have reasons why. And oh, be sure to serve bourbon sours that night if you’re so inclined: the most astounding confessions/connections happen over bourbon sours, even if they have nothing to do with the appointed book of the night. Don’t worry about seeming silly; let your hair down and talk, really talk. That’s my wish.

6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
I find interviews, the process, very educational in both positive and negative senses. Readers of newspapers in particular should know that quotes are often chopped and that the author is often fed a question, which she (dutifully) answers. Strangely, the honest answer is then applied to a question she wasn’t actually asked. Example: when describing the last stages of creating a novel, I told a journalist that I wanted to kill all of my characters off, that I was, because of fatigue, sick of them all and found them aggravating. He then reported that even I, the author, admitted that every character in my novel was/is aggravating. Reading his piece I had to laugh, because I knew how much had been twisted around. For a previous book of mine (In The Spice House) I was asked (on live TV) what the recipe for lasting love is. I had just broken up with someone and was still quite raw, so I said, “I'm fasting just now, recipes don’t appeal to me.” What else can one say to such a crazy question posed by someone who admitted she hadn’t even read the book??

7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
“How truly boring is it to be a writer?”

“Come clean: did you write this novel in your pyjamas, and if so, tell us what your pyjamas look like.”

“What is your current bank balance, and should anyone even bother to write to you asking for money/donations?” (A: Nope!)

8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
No. I must say that I am 100% pig-headed that way and tend to be working on something else (if even only in my head) when this aspect of the process gets rolling. It would be deadly to take cues or directions from critics or journalists who meet authors under great duress (post-partum-whatsit/promoting/touring). One’s imagination defies commentary and decrees, or should. I do this because I am compelled to, so critics hardly matter.

9) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Everyone I’ve read, but probably, most especially: Tennessee Williams, Raymond Carver, James Baldwin, Auden, ee cummings, Dorothy Parker and Grace Paley. Screenwriters and songwriters also keep me going when the going is more than a little rough. I make tapes for each book I write, tapes that instantly bring me into the mood I need for a given piece.

10) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some
of your other passions in life?

Acting, absolutely. My love of performing is, I realize, in complete opposition to the solitary, brooding nature of many writers. In fact, I am quite split this way. I still dream of doing the toilet-paper commercial no one ever forgets, or the live-theatre character role of my dreams. Juliet’s wet-nurse comes to mind here! Acting is the biggest high ever, next to riding a roller coaster. The high of writing is much quieter, a slow burn, yet also satisfying in ways I never dreamt possible. Also, if I weren’t so shy on a level, I’d be a portrait photographer, snapping people in the midst of their amazing one-time lives. Cooking is my only other “passion.” I communicate through food when I’m not writing. Which is why, when I’m working on a book, I almost always lose weight. I need a chef.

11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
Jazz, by Toni Morrison, a book so perfect that I still cannot believe it was written by a human being.

Praise | Awards


"An affecting tale of one woman's immersion into the gloriously decadent city of New Orleans." -- National Post

“The hype around Marnie Woodrow’s debut novel is justified…. Spelling Mississippi is a spellbinding tale. New Orleans is where it happens -- that sultry, blues-ridden city -- and Marnie Woodrow is a writer who knows how to conjure up a setting…She’s a terrific writer, and her wonderfully wry sense of humour enhances Cleo’s journey…. Spelling Mississippi is the book to read this season and Woodrow, with two story collections behind her as well as this fine novel, is the writer to watch.” -- Vancouver Sun

Spelling Mississippi begins with a visually stunning drama that lingers ‘like the ghost scent of fine perfume’ over all the pages to come…. The narrative shifts smoothly between Cleo and Madeline, suspensefully unfurling their pasts, troubled childhoods, backstories ripe with longings and secrets, like the mini-cities of the dead, haunting the present…. Woodrow is a delicious tease, offering cool quenching sips of information, but spiked with intrigue. The story swirls compellingly on, at times funny, wise, erotic, always precisely detailed and vivid. A kind of romantic melancholy permeates the pages…. The charm and strength of the telling is the intimate reality created, the bang-on dialogue and characters [are] fully flesh and blood…. Spelling Mississippi, in the best way, is alive, both spirited and haunted.” -- Eliza Clark, The Globe and Mail

"Debut novel surfaces with extraordinary power…. Marnie Woodrow, who in this debut novel already displays a brilliant feel for atmosphere and setting ... invites you in to drink in all that atmosphere, and immerse yourself in her world. Spelling Mississippi is a novel that will absolutely surround you ... [It] reads like a langorous swim to a private island." -- Hamilton Spectator

“Southern light shines on stunning debut…. Woodrow has executed the shift to the long form with shocking grace and considerable skill….. Spelling Mississippi is full of intelligence, humour and passion.” -- Xtra!

“One of the hottest novels of the season…Not only is Marnie Woodrow’s Spelling Mississippi raising the temperature of book reviewers everywhere, it is set in that most humid of cities, New Orleans….Filled with humour, it is a delicious novel for a very hot July day…. Spelling Mississippi is witty, wise, smart and sexy.” -- Andrew Armitage, The Sun Times

Spelling Mississippi…is a sweet, eccentric love story that I wished would go on forever….The story is original, sexy and presents an unforgettable portrait of New Orleans.” -- W.P. Kinsella, Books In Canada

“Strikingly written….an entertaining, appealing book….[Woodrow] relies on innovation and overdrive to spur her story, and the result is an arresting and original first novel.” -- London Free Press

“With the mighty Mississippi river providing a majestic background of intrigue, and the city of New Orleans the setting for romance and charm, Ontario short story writer Marnie Woodrow makes an impressive debut as a novelist with Spelling Mississippi. She delves deeply into the psyche of her exciting and mysterious characters. The author’s skill in spinning a good yarn is evident. Romance, drama, betrayal and sex -- it is all here, punctuated with fascinating historical detail…. " -- Winnipeg Free Press

"an affecting tale of one woman's immersion into the gloriously decadent city of New Orleans." -- Noah Richler, National Post

“Woodrow’s voice is original, her craft superb…. Spelling Mississippi has a lot of foreward thrust, a steady supply of reasons to turn the page.” -- The Gazette, Montreal

Spelling Mississippi is drenched with an eerie and feminine sensuality from the very start. The scents, scenes and sounds of the book are all an elaborate foreplay for the greater things to come….There’s aggravation, mystery and a strange romance that will haunt you long after the last page is read.” -- Ottawa Citizen

"Woodrow's lush prose drives a satisfying and coherent narrative…. This is a love letter to New Orleans in all its steamy glory: the magnolias' reek, the non-stop nightlife, the potent Southern hospitality. Woodrow keeps the sexy story pounding along toward Cleo's and Madeline's eventual connection, which is so intense they suspect that something must be terribly wrong. Yet by the end, you can't help but conclude that, with Spelling Mississippi, Woodrow has done something terribly right." -- Susan G. Cole, NOW magazine


Spelling Mississippi is charged with the eccentric energies of its characters and its New Orleans setting. A love story that is tender, but also witty, sexy and highly intoxicating.” -- Timothy Taylor, author of Stanley Park

"A smart, sexy, moving jazz riff of a novel." -- Emma Donoghue, author of Slammerkin

"In this bourbon-soaked barnburner of a tale, the Mississippi River becomes the catalyst for one woman's midnight swim and another's plunge into obsession. The setting is a New Orleans stocked with star-crossed lovers, barflies, thwarted dreams and mother-daughter showdowns. [Spelling Mississippi] plays with notions of fate and inevitability in the characters' lives, themes that fit nicely with New Orleans' reputation for romance and magic.... The novel is, at its root, about people overcoming their tangled, traumatic histories to authentically find one another." -- Quill & Quire


NOMINEE 2003 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award
NOMINEE 2003 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Why does Madeline swim the Mississippi at the opening of this novel? Why has she her entire life?

2. Beginning with Cleo’s presence on the wharf just as Madeline is taking her plunge, much of the flow of Spelling Mississippi depends on coincidence and/or fate. What is the difference between the two? Discuss particular moments in the text, and in Cleo and Madeline’s relationship, in which fate or coincidence come into play.

3. Self-imposed exile and or being rejected unwittingly are important themes in this novel. Almost every character -- Cleo, Madeline, their parents, for instance -- experiences some form of exile or rejection. Discuss how Woodrow uses these themes. What might she be saying about emotional bonds? About following your own path in life?

4. What do you think of Johnny? Canadian readers and reviewers have indicated that he’s one of the most digestible/believable characters. However, U.K. readers seem to have more difficulty with him. Is it possible that a man of fifty years of age could be this boyish, this simple in his outlook? And is he as simple as he seems? His perspective has a strong presence late in the novel. Why do you think that is?

5. Spelling Mississippi has been praised for the detail and impact of its setting, New Orleans. For you, was the city a backdrop to the story or was it something more? Had this novel been set in Ohio, would it have held the same resonance? Have you been to New Orleans? Do you desire to go there, whether because of this novel or separately? Why or why not?

6. If you were to sum up this book to a friend, what kind of novel would you say it is? A love story? A journey of self-discovery? The story of a city or a river? Something else?

7. Woodrow unfolds the histories of her characters throughout this novel, often as stories Cleo and Madeline get each other to share. It is only in the end that the two women, and us readers with them, become aware of what “really” happened in their early lives. Why do you think the author used this technique?

8. Mrs. Ryan admires travellers, yet also says to Cleo that “one of the best ways to get stuck in a place is to end up running a hotel.” What do you think she means? Discuss the importance of travel in this novel, and of getting stuck in places.

9. Why does Cleo leave New Orleans when she does?

10. The author alludes to several works by other authors in her text. What effects do the references to other works have on your reading of this novel? How do you connect the other writers to this book? Do the mentions inspire you to explore their works?

11. Rivers, ferries, ocean liners, Florentine floods, diving, swimming… Water is a constant presence in this novel. Discuss the effect of this element on the story, on the characters, and you as a reader. What does water signify for you?

12. The most difficult relationships in this novel are between mothers and daughters, and between husbands and wives. Do Madeline and Cleo come to terms with their mothers? What do you think Woodrow is saying about motherhood and marriage?

13. Cleo and Madeline, and Johnny as well, spend a lot of their time traipsing from bar to restaurant to bar in search of drinks and food and each other, and whether together or alone. Discuss such activity in the novel. In drinking, are the characters trying to lose something of themselves? Find something? Although the three more often turn to bourbon, can their drunkenness be connected to the recurring references to water in the novel?

14. At the end of the novel, it is clear that Mrs. Ryan’s words about New Orleans are equally suited to the relationship between Cleo and Madeline, as the women certainly haunt each other’s thoughts. What we don’t know is whether they parted too quickly or too slowly -- or at just the right time. What do you think? Discuss the novel’s ending and its epilogue.

15. Cleo describes herself as a “poet-chambermaid” and Mrs. Ryan is a writer who has been working on a novel for thirteen years. Discuss the act of writing in terms of the characters in this novel and how they communicate. For instance, can connections be found between Cleo’s travelogue of postcards and journal entries, the cheques sent by Madeline’s mom, the letters Madeline writes but never sends to Cleo, the poem Cleo writes in Florence, the postcard that arrives in Toronto to end this book?

16. How important is the notion of labelling oneself according to sexual preference? In this novel about unexpected love, do you think the characters avoid doing so? Why? What do you think/feel about such labels in real life?

17. Who is your favourite character in this novel? Why?

18. What was your overall impression upon turning the last page? Did you feel you had been taken someplace? Did you feel conscious of not connecting with any parts of the novel, or with some very much?

19. Where will Madeline and Cleo go from here? Imagine your own ending to their story. Will they find happiness together, or part, of necessity, yet again?

  • Spelling Mississippi by Marnie Woodrow
  • March 11, 2003
  • Fiction
  • Vintage Canada
  • $14.00
  • 9780676974324

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