Not many novelists, during an interview, can manoeuvre one of their feet behind their head and still not miss a conversational beat. Amanda Boyden did (I'd asked about her background as a contortionist), though she first devoted some moments to a more decorous arrangement of her skirt - nobody wants a wardrobe malfunction to appear in print.
An American, she's in Toronto to promote Babylon Rolling, her second novel, a good story and a deft look at class and race in the petri dish that was pre-Katrina New Orleans.
She lives there now with her husband, Canadian writer Joseph Boyden (of Three Day Road fame).
They live in New Orleans despite the fact that the city has one of the highest rates of violent crime in the United States; that she and her husband were witness to a "point-blank, black-on-black murder and the guy couldn't decide whether he was going to shoot us or not," and that, in the wake of hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is in danger of becoming a tourists' "boutique city" devoid of the vibrant raunch and bubbling cultural life that drew her to it.
When you hear her story, though, that choice of city is not a surprising one. Danger and uncertainty are magnets for her, even at the age of 43. "I simply can't live a cautious life," she says.
Born in Minnesota ("I managed to flip out of my crib almost as soon as I learned to walk"), she grew up in Chicago and St. Louis. She faced hurricane Katrina alone - her husband was in England on a book tour - and in the confusion that followed the evacuation orders she realized she and many others were inching slowly along the wrong highway for the Texas destination they had been assigned.
"I see cars over there going like 60 miles per hour and I'm sitting here doing maybe six miles an hour. And I said, no. Uh huh. There's this huge, grassy median between us. I'm in a Jeep. And I'm going over. So across I go. And I realize I've done it right in front of a camera crew, and I hear on the radio, 'Oh no, what is she doing? This is how accidents happen.' And I look in the rearview mirror and I'm the Pied Piper - everybody behind me, we all know that we need to get over there, and so I'm leading hundreds of cars over the grass."
When she returned, she saw the devastation. "You understand," she says, "what would happen to the world if all human beings disappeared, how nature would come back and take over again. That's what happened to the Lower Ninth Ward - houses are overgrown and here come the vines and the streets are crumbling and the birds are singing all over the place. What remains is being bought up and sold, and there's mad scrambling for junky little places that are being gentrified (a change to which she concedes she and her husband are contributing.)"
She always loved to write, and as early as 6 or 7 she was pretending to be a journalist, making up weird news stories and mailing them off to her aunt. There was something restless and unfocused about her, though - her undergraduate degree was in photography and video, not literature, though she describes the process as "essentially writing short stories, and then adding visuals to those stories."
She'd wanted to write and direct her own film before the age of 30 (didn't quite make that, but she and her husband are currently working on a film script based on his novel, and are also collaborating on a screenplay about the life of art collector Max Stern).
Her restlessness ended when, in her early 30s, she was raped, strangled and left for dead.
"It happened in Milwaukee," she says, "and I was the first victim. He was a serial rapist. I know of one woman who died. I'm alive now only because I think he believed he succeeded in killing me. He hit me in the back of the head with the butt of a gun. Then he strangled me to the point that my contact lenses popped out of my eyes.
"I had been bartending, dating musicians, leading a sort of random life. I really felt [after the attack]like I'd been given a second chance. That I'd better do more with my life than what I was doing. So I went looking for an MFA program - I'd been writing on my own, on my days off from bartending, writing in longhand in spiral notebooks, a whole novel. It's a little harder than you first assume. And I thought, 'I could use some help with this.' I ended up at the University of New Orleans."
That first novel never made it into print (it went up for auction in New York the week of 9/11, she says, and shared the fate of the twin towers), but she met her husband-to-be in New Orleans on the first day of classes (she was in a not-very-happy relationship at the time, hoping, she said, not to complicate matters further by meeting "a good-looking man who was going to be studying writing ... and I took one look at Joseph and I thought, 'Oh, no!' "). They married in 1995, and she was happy to change her name from Buegé (which no one could pronounce or spell) to Boyden.
After graduating from university, they lived for a period in Toronto, where she learned to be a trapeze artist, first from a neighbour who not only had a trapeze hanging in her loft, but also happened to be trying to put together a troupe.
"I fell in love with the entire discipline of circus," she says. "[I]went down to Harbourfront and trained, got put in their performance troupe, and when we returned to New Orleans I started an all-female trapeze troupe there."
Although she retired from it three years ago, she says she made a living at it - mostly convention-based work at up to $200 (U.S.) an hour.
"How lucky I am," she says, "that I've had the chance to live life rather than just sit in an attic room somewhere and write about a writer writing."
Mind you, she never stopped writing, while accepting odd (and odder) jobs. For a period, she worked as a stuntwoman in Los Angeles. Her first published novel, Pretty Little Dirty, appeared two years ago to critical acclaim.
Now, she's writer in residence at the University of New Orleans, lives with her husband in a former grocery store in a very mixed neighbourhood (rather like the fictional Orchid Street of Babylon Rolling) and writes.
Though she loves Canada, she describes New Orleans as home, and I asked her why.
"Jazz fests," she says, "certain aspects of Mardi Gras, the fact that people love to eat and drink, people live for the day there, they don't live to work. They will have a three-hour dinner or a two-hour lunch and think nothing of it. They love music ... there's an appreciation for living there that is not usual for the States. For me, that's great. I don't work 9 to 5, never could, never will. New Orleans is the perfect place for someone like me. It's who I am."