You wrote Why New Orleans Matters in the months following Katrina, and the second half deals with the aftermath of the storm. Had you already conceptualized the first half, a memoir of how you fell in love with New Orleans?
Oh, no. In fact, before Katrina people would periodically ask me if I were thinking of writing anything about New Orleans, and I’d say no. I had been in New Orleans for 11 years when Katrina happened, but I still didn’t feel that I knew enough. There are so many layers to the place.
Right after the disaster my better half, Mary, and I were in Missouri, where she grew up. It was extremely traumatic being stuck there and watching what was happening down here and not being able to do anything about it. I talked to my editor at Harper Collins, Cal Morgan, and he asked if there were anything they could do to help. We started talking and very quickly evolved the idea for a very short book that would make the case for why New Orleans has to survive, because at that time there were a number of voices out there, including some high-profile ones, who were saying, ‘Hey, yeah, the place should be just be bulldozed.’ The book was my response to that.
Reading City of Refuge, which you wrote afterwards, I got the sense that Why New Orleans Matters served as a blueprint for the novel. Did you purposefully use it as a roadmap or did experience subconsciously bleed in?
One is non-fiction and the other is a novel. Those are two different modes. Some people assumed that Craig’s character was based on myself, his experiences on mine, but that is really not the case. The problem that Craig faces in the novel is that he is a family man and has divided loyalties, to his family and to the city he loves. I have a friend who moved to Chicago with his wife and children from New Orleans after the disaster, as Craig and his family do, and I got a lot of insight into the choices, and the anguish, involved from long conversations with this friend, as well as from other friends who were in similar situations. His experience is very different from my own, although I and, obviously, everyone else had to make hard decisions about whether to come back or not.
When you write a novel, you always use what you know and what you experience and you always use your own emotional life and your experiential life as—maybe it’s fair to say—a prism or lens through which certain things become larger and certain things smaller. You use your own experience, but I wouldn’t call the result autobiographical in any sense.
There’s a lot of me in SJ, too, [the other protagonist, an African-American carpenter from the 9th Ward], and a certain amount of me in Lucy [his sister with dependence issues], and there’s probably a certain amount of me in Alice [Craig’s wife].
You say there’s a certain amount of you in SJ. Are there other people or experiences that went into creating that character or is he a general everyman?
You can’t create an everyman out of nothing. I’ve tried to spend my life around people who know what they’re doing, and SJ is a very serious and skilled carpenter and an extraordinarily capable man, at some cost to his emotional life. I’ve known a lot of people like that; a lot of them were and are musicians.
Since I was in my teens, I’ve spent lots of time around older musicians. I was very fortunate in my late teens and early twenties to know musicians who played with many of the great jazz bands, even as far back as the 1920s and 30s–men (and some women) who played with Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson. I had a window onto a stance that one could find, and still can find, among African-Americans of a certain age. A kind of discipline—emotional and in every other kind of way—that you have to have to get through life as an African-American male, and that wouldn’t even occur to most white people. That’s not to say that life is easy for anybody, but a lot of what I learned from those men went into SJ—and a lot of respect and gratitude for those lessons.
And I’ve known a lot of people like Lucy, as well, SJ’s sister, people who abuse themselves but are surprisingly capable in many ways even with their liabilities. Mary, my partner, is a civil rights lawyer, and through her I’ve ended up knowing people from all levels of society and degrees of involvement with the legal system, whom I wouldn’t have known otherwise. My physical idea of Lucy was based directly on a woman I met for two or three minutes in an evacuee camp in southeast Missouri a week after Katrina. Sometimes somebody you meet for two minutes sets all these resonances going and becomes a fully formed character in your imagination. Some people you know for decades and can never quite get a handle on them.
Are there certain reactions from readers or critics to either book that stand out, particularly from those who lived through the storm?
I would say in the case of both books that the response was overwhelmingly gratifying and moving—the kind of thing you’d wish for as a writer—although you’d never wish for the experience that went into it. I’m very, very, very proud that these books seemed to have strong effects on people, particularly on other people who went through the experience of the disaster.
I got a certain amount of splash-back from Bush-type Republicans who took umbrage at my obvious contempt for the administration that was running the country at the time. I do have contempt for them, and for everybody who was as at an executive level and dropped the ball during that disaster, [including] the governor of Louisiana at the time, and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans who is in my opinion not just a local but a national disgrace. Many of these Bush apologists would begin an email or a conversation by saying how much sympathy they had for the displaced poor people and African-American people and how those people would be so much better off in other places. I noticed repeatedly that the rhetoric of people who wanted to see African-American and poor people out of this town was always couched in great solicitude for their well-being. But where was that solicitude when they were here and we might actually have been able to help them? So I ran up against that a fair amount—but it was a small percentage of the reaction. I heard from a lot of African-American readers who really liked both books, and that made me very proud.
Since you wrote Why New Orleans Matters the city has made a tremendous comeback. How would you describe the state of the city 8 years out?
I hate to do this, but I’m going to pass on this question; let me tell you why. After Why New Orleans Matters came out I toured all around the country for four months or so, talking about the city. Right after that, I wrote City of Refuge and spent another two years living with the storm and all that tragedy, and then I toured for two months talking about that book. When that was over, I took a deep, happy breath and was just about to say ‘I’m finished talking about New Orleans for a while’ and just as I though that, David Simon called and asked me to be a writer on Treme, which was still in the planning stage.
I was one of the original six writers, along with my oldest New Orleans pal Lolis Elie, and David Simon. Eric Overmyer, George Pelecanos, and the late and badly missed David Mills. I was one of the principal writers for the first three seasons. Then HBO offered only enough funds for half a final, fourth season, and the Writer’s Room was dissolved. But my point was, just as I was ready to move on and think about something else, I spent another three years writing about post-Katrina New Orleans. Now I want to focus on other things for a while.
So you’ve written a memoir, a novel, and a TV series about Katrina. What was the difference in those approaches from a writer’s perspective?
The most obvious difference with television is that it’s a collaborative form, so you’re in a room with other people. Everything has to be a consensus. It was very exciting…a lot of fun, and very stimulating. When you write a novel it’s just you and it. You sit there and you have a sort of inner writer’s room with a bunch of impulses that exist in a state of tension with one another. Part of you wants to be lyrical, part of you wants to be very goal-oriented and steer the plot, some of you is afraid of a bad tendency you’re seeing in a good character, part of you is afraid of a good tendency you’re seeing in a bad character, part of you is going to try to steer the car in a tougher direction, and then another part of you wants to steer for a more tender direction, and another part of you has an upset stomach from some jalapeno peppers you had for lunch…so there’s a kind of inner conversation that’s going on that in a funny way gets extended out into the room when you’re writing with other people. You become more an advocate for one approach rather than containing all these competing advocates in your head.
Were you brought into the Treme Writer’s Room for a certain perspective? Were there certain characters or storylines for which you had ownership?
The first season everything was shared; everyone wrote every character. In subsequent seasons it was that way too, except that Anthony Bourdain, who was a consultant from almost the beginning, was given the chef’s character to write, especially in New York.
So now you’re focused in a new direction?
I’m very proud of Treme, but I’m glad to be working on a novel again.
I have a contract from HarperCollins to deliver [my new novel] next June. It has nothing to do with New Orleans. The main character is an escaped slave who plays banjo. It takes place in 1855, but it’s not a historical novel. I tend to dislike ‘historical novels,’ and I don’t feel that I’m writing one.
Looking back, My Cold War was written in a completely different style than the two books that followed. What inspired you to tackle the Cold War as a theme and metaphor for one man’s midlife crisis, if you can call it that?
That’s a hard question to answer. It’s like saying: ‘What made you fall in love with your wife?’ I can list a bunch of things, but I don’t know how illuminating it is. Ultimately there’s something mysterious about our affinities, and that includes a writer’s affinity for his material.
Being roughly the same age as that novel’s narrator I can tell you that I had some of the same experiences and grew up in a similar place to Atlanticville. It was a place without a sense of place. Obviously, here in New Orleans, we’re in a place that very much has a sense of place, but those post-World War II suburban towns that sprung up in the late 1940s and 1950s in many cases had been farmland or marsh ten years over even five years earlier. There was no palpable history. I was aware of that strange disquieting aspect of where I grew up at a very young age and those kinds of things stay with you. Also, I was home from school on the day President Kennedy was shot, and I used my mom’s reaction as John Delano’s mom’s reaction. Those were indelible sets of experiences.
Your writing is very lyrical in places, and you often reference music in your writing. How did your work as a music writer influence and shape your fiction?
I don’t know about the music writing, per se, but clearly if you’re somebody who’s very sensitive to music you’re going to be led around by your ear…and be more sensitive to pacing, tempo, texture, density. And you’re probably going to have a better than average ear for dialogue…for tonal color. These are all things that you encounter in a very direct and unmediated way in music.
You’ve lived in New Orleans for 19 years now and seem to have assimilated fairly naturally. Were there certain aspects of living here that were more difficult to adjust to and ways in which you still feel like an outsider?
I don’t like people to knock on my door without calling first. That’s one way in which I’ll probably never be a local! And I get impatient in traffic. That’s about it. I don’t feel like an outsider or an insider. I don’t think in those terms. I just feel happy sitting where I’m sitting. I like being here. I like being in the street during a second-line. I feel comfortable here.
Okay, one last question that I ask everyone. This is, after all, a food city and you wrote quite a bit about the restaurants. Where are three places you’d eat if you were paying, and 3 places you’d eat if you could divert the money wasted on one unused FEMA trailer and instead treat a few unsung heroes of the recovery to an opulent night out?
Probably the restaurant we enjoy going to the most right now is Boucherie, up on Jeannette Street. The guy who runs it is a brilliant young chef [who] started going around town in a food truck after Katrina. It’s some of the best, most imaginative, and soulful food in the city. His prices are actually significantly under a lot of major restaurants.
God, there’s just so many good restaurants in New Orleans and I’m friends with so many chefs; I don’t want to leave anyone out. The next two would have to be some combination of Upperline, Brigtsen’s, Bayona, certainly Mosca’s across the river, and Clancy’s way Uptown, Domenica. My God—there’s so many. Just put an ellipsis or else we’ll be here all day….