Thursday, March 4, 2010

Q & A: In the Sanctuary of Outcasts (Neil White, 2009)

Question and Answer with Neil White
2010 Finalist: Barnes & Noble "Discover Great New Writers Award"
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

1. What motivated you to write about your experiences at the Carville, LA compound?
I witnessed an unprecedented convergence of cultures — the last 130 leprosy patients in America, 500 federal convicts, 100 prison guards, an ancient order of nuns and a Franciscan monk. The misunderstandings, along with the enlightenments, were extraordinary.

I was a man for whom image meant everything. And I was sent to the one place in the country where outward appearance meant nothing. I wanted to document this odd, magical time and place.

2. Can you give readers a short summary of your memoir?
In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is the story of the year I lived in the national leprosarium in the U.S. While there, surrounded by men and women who could not hide their disfigurement, I finally was able to see my own.

3. While at Carville, what was your writing routine?
While at Carville I took copious notes. Every time I heard a great line of dialogue, or witnessed something compelling, I wrote it down. But, primarily, I wrote in a notebook in diary form (or wrote letters to family and friends). I didn’t really start to write in the creative non-fiction/memoir form until after my release.

4. Can you share information on the history of leprosy and explain why the disease is not as prevalent today?
Leprosy is the oldest disease known to man (skeletal remains put the disease at 3,000 years old). For centuries, it was considered a curse from God, a disease of the soul. But, in the 1800’s a scientist identified a bacilli that caused the disease, but quarantine was still the order of the day. In the 1940s, at Carville, a cure was developed. Now, most Americans who contract the disease are treated on an outpatient basis with a multi-drug therapy. For most modern day patients, the stigma is much worse than the physical side effects.
Experts say 95% of Americans have a natural resistance to the disease. But in developing nations like Brazil and India, it is still a pretty serious health issue.

5. What were two of the most profound relationships you observed at Carville?
Certainly, my relationship with Ella Bounds (an old woman with no legs who contracted the disease at the age of 12) was one of the most important in my life. We couldn’t have been more different. She was 80; I was 32. She was African-American; I was as white as they come. She was weak of body and strong of spirit; I was just the opposite. She guided me, gently, with story and metaphor, but mostly by how she lived.
On the prison side, I’d have to say my friendship with Link (a crack dealer/carjacker from New Orleans) was the most profound. He made unmerciful fun of me, challenged my worldview and, essentially, wouldn’t let me get away with anything. We became pretty good friends. And to this day, he’s one of the funniest men I’ve ever encountered.

6. Explain the common use of aliases among the patients and the use of pseudonyms on gravestones.
Leprosy carried such stigma that upon arrival at the colony the residents were made to take aliases to protect their families. Many of the patients were abandoned. They were buried in a cemetery on the colony grounds. Often the tombstones were engraved with a pseudonym.

7. What was the reaction from the leprosy patients and the inmates at Carville when you published your book?
I’ve been surprised at how positive the reaction has been from all sides. The leprosy patients didn’t like the fact that I used the term “leper” in the beginning of the book, but I think they are at peace with it now. The inmates — at least the ones I’ve heard from — have all enjoyed the book. And even a guard or two has reached out to tell me how much the experience meant to them. So, all things considered, the response has been positive, if not downright generous.

8. Can you tell us what happened to some of the characters depicted in the book?
Ella Bounds died in 1998. She’s buried in an unmarked grave just north of her childhood home. Harry is still alive and living at Carville. In fact, he just started volunteering at the museum. Jimmy Harris died in 2002.

On the inmate side, Doc is back in jail for an alleged SEC violation. He adamantly proclaims his innocence. I’ve had no contact with Link since my release. Frank Ragano’s book, Mob Lawyer, was published just after his release. He died in 1998. Dan Duchaine, the steroid guru, died in 2000. Steve Read (an airline entrepreneur) died in 1999.

9. What was it like for you to foray from investigative journalism articles to writing a memoir?
It was a huge adjustment. Journalists are focused on the lives, acts and motives of others. But a memoirist must take that microscope, that scrutiny, we put on others and turn it inward. It’s very different. I spent about a decade studying the top memoirist/personal essayists to develop that craft.

10. What are your current projects and who are some of your favorite authors?
I’m working on some essays — and a script. Not sure about my next book project. Some of my favorite fiction writers are Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Tom Franklin and a great, new novelist, Jonathan Miles. Favorite nonfiction writers include Bill Bryson, Tobias Wolff, Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Joan Didion, and Vladimir Nabokov (for his brilliant memoir, Speak, Memory).


  1. WOW - what a great interview! I totally plan to pick up this book, the subject sounds fascinating! Great job!!

  2. Great interview questions! It sounds like a very interesting book -- you sure do know how to pick them. I look forward to more of your interviews!

  3. Who is the narrator of this book? How did the author enhance this book?