In the 1990s, when James Reese was employed at the New Orleans Museum of Art, he would sneak his lunch into the gallery that housed a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Elizabeth Vige-Lebrun. With a little research, he discovered the fascinating memoirs of the artist, who had been a favorite in the queen's court. The artist inspired an inkling of a story. She would also become the model for Reese's fictional portraitist, Sebastiana d'Azur, in his debut novel, The Book of Shadows
, part one of a trilogy. Soon after, he came across the true story of a French hermaphrodite named Herculine Barbin. He based his main character, also called Herculine, on this androgynous character, and his novel was born. In the first book, Herculine is rescued by Sebastiana from a miserable orphanage and brought up among witches, where she discovers her own supernatural power, which happens to be communing with the dead. In The Book of Spirits
, the recently released second installation in the trilogy, Herculine leaves France for pre-Civil War America, where she seeks her own identity and becomes involved in the Indian Wars and freeing slaves. Reese happily places his novels in the gothic genre, but he is adamant that hermaphroditism and witchcraft are metaphors for an outsider's existence and the universal discovery of one's innate talents. His novels could also be labeled historical fiction, erotica and fantasy. Whatever the genre, Reese's books certainly explore the arcane.
5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25
Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania St., 895-2266