Tom Piazza on writing nonfiction under duress

Uprooted from his adopted city by Hurricane Katrina, Tom Piazza has been living on the road, with a home base in Missouri, for months.

A week after the storm, he started writing about the importance of reviving New Orleans. Five weeks later he’d finished a book. Elsewhere, he explains what it was like to turn around an entire manuscript so quickly, while distraught and drifting and unsure of the future.

I asked him how he thought the book — which Alex Balk calls “a combination love letter, elegy, and plea for rebuilding” — turned out, and whether he had any other works in mind while writing. His answer appears below.

In writing Why New Orleans Matters in the weeks just after the hurricane, I felt almost that I was trying to will the city to stay alive, on the page at least, by summoning the sense of place and the music and food and human warmth that took me there initially.

A lot of the book was fueled by disbelief and rage at the attitude of people who have suggested that New Orleans not be rebuilt — that creepy, side-of-the-mouth “How dumb is it to live in a place below sea-level?” attitude, the familiar Bush-constituency mindset: “If you’re too stupid to see things our way, don’t expect any help from us.” The class and race aspects of this stance are too obvious and much-discussed to explore at length here. But it is probably worth saying a few things.

An insurance commissioner from North Dakota said on NPR that everyone chooses where to live. People in North Dakota choose to live there for certain reasons, so people who choose to live in a flood zone shouldn’t expect help from them. As if most of the people who had been hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina had “chosen” to live in or to stay in New Orleans, especially the poor, the sick, the elderly and the children.

But beyond that, half the country lives under a hanging sword. Weasels like Dennis Hastert love to wave the flag, but where, one might ask, are they actually willing to make a stand? Aside from Iraq, of course, where we have an Evil Enemy to fight and a Glorious Victory to anticipate. Let’s write off New Orleans because the levees are so expensive to maintain. Yes — and while we’re at it let’s write off San Francisco because it will be destroyed by an earthquake, write off Los Angeles with its wildfires and mudslides, write off St. Louis and Memphis because they are on an earthquake fault, write off eastern Missouri and the Mississippi Delta and eastern Iowa because the Mississippi River wants to flood again, write off New York because it’s the world’s biggest terrorist bull’s eye, write off Miami and its hurricanes…. Where do we decide that the country is more than just a quilt of profit-and-loss statements?

I wrote Why New Orleans Matters in five weeks — too quickly to think about it. If I was lucky, maybe its style is some kind of amalgam of the nonfiction stuff I have found most compelling, most of which was written by fiction writers — Orwell, Didion, Mailer, and Hemingway, especially.

I wish more fiction writers would tithe a certain amount of their energies to writing about politics and current events. If they are good they have tremendous evocative power at their disposal. I admire Denis Johnson and ZZ Packer for doing it. Sometimes, of course, it can go wrong. But fiction writers, because of the primacy they give to voice and point of view, tend to have more power available than your average reporter — more leverage on the objective events about which they report.

George Orwell’s mid-1930s book about British coal miners, The Road to Wigan Pier, is one of the best books of personally involved reportage ever written — New Journalism 30 years before the term existed. Wigan Pier achieved an amazing balance between personal affect, hard reportage and advocacy. Orwell went down into the mines himself, spent time at the miners’ houses, and figured out a probable budget on which a family would live to counter claims that the miners spent their money on frivolities. What he wrote has a great emotional topspin because he spent time among the people he writes about. His empathy for them shows.

Mailer in his way, and at his best, can get some of that same mix of elements into his nonfiction writing. His political convention pieces, especially Miami and the Siege of Chicago, are classics; in them he borrows a trick from The Education of Henry Adams by making himself a character written into the narrative in third person. This approach gives him a useful distance from his own involvement, as well as sanction to use his subjective responses instead of fighting them in trying to maintain a false objectivity. I also love some of the political pieces collected in Cannibals And Christians, particularly the ones dealing directly with the Vietnam War, like the Speech at Berkeley on Vietnam Day, which is one of the great anti-war harangues of the sixties. And the things he wrote a couple of years ago for the New York Review of Books on our Iraq involvement are as good as almost anything else he’s done.

The short pieces in Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem are probably my favorites among her nonfiction work — almost no wasted gestures. She is so much more detached than either Mailer or Orwell but she keeps this icy fire burning underneath everything and she can take your head off with one or two effortless-looking strokes. I just started reading The Year of Magical Thinking, which is also great. I recognize in it the true weirdness of grief and huge life change, the absolute disjunction between a previous plane of reality and a new one.

Hemingway’s Esquire pieces from the 1930s, especially those about the lead-up to World War Two, like “Old Newsman Writes,” and “Notes On The Next War,” are excellent, collected in By-Line Ernest Hemingway. These don’t seem to be widely known right now, and they really should be. Anyone who likes the genre should also hunt up his great essay, Who Murdered the Vets?, about the 1935 hurricane that devastated the Florida Keys. Hemingway writes about the failure of the federal government to evacuate the several hundred destitute World War One veterans it had sent to Matacumbe Key on a works project, and tells what it was like to help clean up the dead and rotting bodies after the storm passed. Stop me if this sounds familiar. You can find a downloadable facsimile file of the essay on the Internet. It is one of the strongest things he wrote.

My hope is that Why New Orleans Matters gives some sense of why the city is unique and precious, and of what stands to be lost for keeps if it is allowed to die. New Orleans is unlike anyplace else. Its culture — the food, music, architecture, rituals, celebrations, funerals — is a unified field. I hope that the book conveys some of the city’s sense of life, and that it will have some effect on shaping the conversation over rebuilding.


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