TALBA WALLIS, AKA THE BARONESS DE PONTALBA
She has three names and two sets of clothes, four different professions, precious few scruples about breaking the law, and a perennially nagging mama. A girl who came into the world named Urethra just has to have attitude. And attitude’s the first thing you notice about the Baroness de Pontalba, as she calls herself in her night mode as a glamorous poet and performance artist. By day, she’d be a humble private eye if she had an ounce of humility.
When required, she’s an office temp because who’d suspect her of ransacking the boss’s hard disk while everyone’s on break? Or carrying a purseful of electronic bugs? She’s got what her mentor called the “right demographics” for spying without getting noticed–she’s young, African-American, female, and dresses like a Catholic school girl. Her fourth profession?
Computer genius. Hardware, software, code-slinging, hacking–you name it, she can do it. At home, she has an entire closet full of white blouses and navy skirts for her day gig and another of flowing silks in fabulous colors for her stunning night persona. Who’d imagine such a complex, independent woman would live with her mother? Talba does.
Miz Clara calls her “Sandra” most of the time, never “your grace,” like most of her admirers. It’s hard to get respect from Miz Clara. She thinks there are only three suitable professions for a child of hers–doctor, Speaker of the House, and president. So Talba doesn’t have to use her computer skills to bring in money and prestige–Miz Clara’s never going to be happy anyway. Instead, she searches for other people’s answers–and her own as well, which, perhaps, is the point.
It all began in 82 DESIRE, with her obsessive need to find the heartless doctor who talked Miz Clara into naming her baby girl Urethra.
In LOUISIANA HOTSHOT she discovers she knows nothing at all about her father–even whether he’s alive or dead. And in finding her answer, she uncovers further mysteries in her own life–but those are for other books
Talba came to be in an unusual way, perhaps, for a fictional character–she was born of woman like the rest of us. In other words, Miz Clara came first. The seed was planted one quiet Sunday night when my husband and I stepped out to a neighborhood restaurant to discover a poetry reading in progress.
A young black woman read–a poet named Mada Plummer–and I can see her now in a white blouse and navy skirt, though I’ve no idea what she really wore. She read a poem called, “How Did She?”, a work celebrating a mother who accomplished wondrous things against tremendous odds. I couldn’t help thinking: What would it be like to have a mother like that?
Somehow, in that subconscious place where ideas are formed, the notion of Miz Clara took root and surfaced when I began work on 82 DESIRE. I started out to write about a woman who was deeply bonded with her mother, and lived with her. That’s Talba all right–she’s deeply bonded–but it sure isn’t smooth sailing. The plain fact is, the leaf doesn’t fall far from the tree, and Miz Clara’s a piece of work–nothing likle the saintly mom of Plummer’s poem. Such, I’m afraid, is the creative process. Talba comes by her saltiness “right honestly”, as my own mama used to say.