As you brought up setting I thought that I’d go ahead and riff on that. New Orleans has always been a challenging city to capture, to get beyond the quirks and get to the character of the place. There is the New Orleans that visitors see and there is the New Orleans that we live in. I don’t think I’ve included a Mardi Gras in any of my books, yet to most people that’s what they know about the city.
Until Katrina hit us.
Yeah, I live in New Orleans. It’s been five years and the spotlight is back on us again. For those most part, those of us who live here just get on with our lives. I haven’t watched the TV specials or read the articles. We live it every day. The black lines tell me I’m on the first floor of the parking garage, the ones left by the flood. Instead of seeing them as a memory of the 11 feet of water, I use them to tell me that I need to straighten out and veer to the right instead of continuing down the spiral ramp.
So for Greg, Ali, me and all the authors writing about New Orleans, we’ve had to confront the challenge of an utterly changed city. The streets I walked down on August 28, 2005 weren’t there 24 hours later.
How do you write about a city you live in but no longer know?
My pre-Katrina books were set in a sort of vague now—I deliberately didn’t tie them to specific events that would date them. (Although, of course, technology did that for me anyway. No cell phones or internet in the early ones.)
But the two post-Katrina novels, Death of a Dying Man and now Water Mark, have to be historically accurate novels in a way that I’ve never had to do before.
Most places evolve over time, for example, New York City of 1950 is a different place than New York of 2010. Every year has changes, but for the most part they are gradual. Until 2005 I didn’t have to drive the blocks I wanted to write about—I’d been there six months ago, or a year ago. Maybe a store closes and something else opens, but that was about it.
New Orleans, always challenging to write about and get it right, abruptly added almost impossible layers to that challenge.
Oh, let me add, writing is hard. Cincinnati is hard to write about and get it right. (Or Milwaukee or Baltimore or Dallas or Sacramento). I’m not trying to compete about whose writing task is harder—there is no way to know. This is my story only. Writing is hard no matter where/how you do it.
But with New Orleans I had to confront how Katrina would have affected not just Micky, but all the characters in my books. Who flooded? Who didn’t? I had to know where they lived, which part of town. Where were their lives set? And not just their ‘now’ lives, but for some of them, where did they grow up? Did that survive? Where did they evacuate to? Why?
All our lives were thrown up in the air, a brutal, destructive game of pick-up sticks. A house destroyed, but a job remained. No work and all your family was in Houston, but your home didn’t flood. Or you didn’t know if you had a place to live or a job, but you had to make decisions in that limbo.
For us writers, the same had to be true of our characters. Setting isn’t just a plot of land on which a story is located. It’s where the characters live their lives. It changes as time moves on and the characters change with it. If the ground is fragile—the levees weak, the waters close as it is here, but all places contain their fragilities—the souls of the characters become entwined with it.