“Yeah, I live in New Orleans…”

Hi, Kathi.  Thanks for the mention of Water Mark.  Since I’m one of the September authors, I’ll take you up on your ever-so-gentle hint that I blog.

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. 

JM Redmann

9 Responses to ““Yeah, I live in New Orleans…””

  1. 1 Amy Marie Miller August 29, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    Great piece I am waiting with great impatience (kidding) for Watermark. I am very interested in what’s going to happen in this on, thank you for continuing go drive.


  2. 2 bookgeek August 29, 2010 at 10:26 AM

    Thanks for this blog – I also look forward to Watermark!


  3. 3 Lisa Girolami August 29, 2010 at 11:55 AM

    Beautifully written, JM. It is inspiring to me and my writing. Thanks for the wonderful insight.


  4. 4 Ali Vali August 29, 2010 at 9:31 PM

    Thanks for those words JM. C and I woke up today around 4 in the morning and it was raining outside, and that’s the only weather comment we shared today. The scars remain but this place is home, and friends like you is what makes it special.


  5. 5 clifford henderson August 30, 2010 at 12:02 PM

    Hey Jean,
    So interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about “place” with the novel I just finished editing. If you describe it right, be it a room, a city, a place of work, it can do so much work for you in terms of describing character. In an improv class I once took, the teacher made us describe a lake as if we’d just fallen in love, then describe it as if we’d just experienced a death. I’ve never forgotten that exercise. Really look forward to “Watermark.” I loved “Death of a Dying Man.” It lived up to its awesome title.


  6. 6 clifford henderson August 31, 2010 at 4:23 PM

    Started “Watermark” last night. So fun!


  7. 7 J.M. Redmann September 2, 2010 at 12:14 AM

    Thanks for the comments everyone. I was wondering if anyone would read it. I know this is partly abour promoting our books, but it’s also nice to have a place for writers to talk about what is going on in our lives. We spend so much time alone in our rooms with the terror of the blank page.


  8. 8 JR September 2, 2010 at 8:20 PM

    Thanks for writing this blog entry. As an architectural historian, I’ve been waiting for the release of Water Mark just to see how you would deal with some of the issues you mentioned here. Our professional association meets in New Orleans this year, and to be honest, I’m glad I’m not on the panel selecting papers covering local architectural history. I am glad, however, that you and others (Ali Vali in particular) are thoughtful enough (and courageous enough) to share your thoughts with us on the spaces and places you call home.


  9. 9 MAL September 4, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    “Watermark” has just jumped to the top of my ‘to read’ list.

    Thanks for your comments describing the ongoing impacts of Katrina on the sense of place for people. I have been a frequent visitor of your city over the past 20 plus years but, when I first returned in 2006, I was stunned by the reality of change and the impact on my friends’ lives.


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