Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Julie Smith

By Jane Ciabattari

This is the second in our series about New Orleans writers. It's hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. Julie Smith, a former reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the San Francisco Chronicle, has written 20 mystery novels, nine of them about a female New Orleans cop, Skip Langdon, and four about private eyes Talba Wallis and Eddie Valentine. She won the 1991 Edgar award for New Orleans Mourning. After Katrina, she made a detour in her writing, she explains here.

Before Hurricane Katrina, I was a mystery writer and I guess a piece of me still is. Just not right now. During what we call the exile (and it really was), anything I might have written would have to have been called “Disoriented in Dallas.” But I wasn't writing and worse yet, I wasn't even reading. And the funny thing was, the disorientation didn't stop when we all finally came home, the second week in October. I had an identity crisis of major proportions.

Why write a mystery right now, I kept thinking, when so many people have died? Who would care about one person? (That is well under the legal limit in a mystery, but you get the idea.) Besides, even as the shrinks kept warning us about post-traumatic stress disorder, I seemed beset by a mysterious lethargy. But how could I have PTSD? My house was completely intact. My refrigerator even survived. I had no excuse at all not to be able to get up off the sofa.

I did read in that period. I spent many more hours than I should have perusing both the local paper and the New York Times, both of which were doing a great job covering the storm and its aftermath. And I read books, too, mostly mysteries, I think, despite the fact that I couldn't write one; oh, and Why New Orleans Matters and The Great Deluge when it came out.

But while I was pulling the covers over my head, my neighborhood roiled with turmoil. We were supposed to be pulling together and instead, people were getting on each other's nerves like they were all related. I was acting strange, sure, but everyone else had popped their corks. A woman friend of mine egged some people. Another left town to go look at property elsewhere. As in anywhere else. And she somehow forgot to mention it to her husband.

Suddenly I came alert. This, I said. This is what I have to write. So I sat down and in one afternoon outlined a mainstream novel about me and my crazy-acting neighbors in my benighted, messed-up post-K neighborhood, and then I started writing. I'm still working on it, but every time I mention it to my agent, she changes the subject. So I've taken to calling it my therapy novel. Clearly, she doesn't think it has a chance in the marketplace, but I can't help it, I have to write it.

And I keep wondering, how many keyboards all over town are clattering away right now? So far as I know only one novel has been published since the storm–a mystery, ironically, Tubby Meets Katrinaby Tony Dunbar–though the nonfiction would fill a bookstore. Is everybody writing a therapy novel? Does anybody care?

I also have written short stories, including one for an anthology I edited called New Orleans Noir (due out in March 2007), part of the noir series published by Akashic Books. Now this really might be the second bit of post-K fiction to arrive. Nobody seems to know of anything else. While I'm here I'm going to commend it to you. Boy, are the stories raw!