It's hard to say how many writers were dislodged, disrupted, disoriented by Hurricane Katrina and aftermath. I've been keeping track of a number of them through the “Thinking About New Orleans” series. Next Monday night, December 3, New Orleans writers will read by and for New Orleans writers at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, with old-fashioned bread pudding from Mara's Homemade offered in exchange for donations to a New Orleans writers' fund (details here). The readers are Edgar award winning novelist Tom Adcock, Joshua Clark, author of the Katrina memoir “Heart Like Water;” Louisiana poet and short story writer Lee Meitzen Grue, Orange award-winning novelist Valerie Martin, author of “Property” and “Trespass,” Edgar award winning author Julie Smith, and Kim Sykes.
Kim Sykes was born and raised in New Orleans (her brothers and sisters all lost their homes in Katrina). She is a Manhattan based actress whose face is familiar to anyone who has ever seen television commercials (or “Law and Order” and “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”). Her first published fiction——the short stories “Arrevederci, Aldo” and “Slaves of Brooklyn”–will appear in January and May of next year, respectively, in the Akashic anthologies “Queens Noir” and “Brooklyn Noir/3.” She is completing her first novel, “Angry Bird,” set in St. Francisville, Louisiana. On Monday night she will read from her unpublished short story “The St. Bernard,” about the housing projects where she grew up.
Q. Where were you when Katrina was headed toward New Orleans?
A. I was in New York. Most of my family still lived in New Orleans. A few stayed but we all figured it would come and go like the others in the past years.
Q. How did you and/or your loved ones in New Orleans manage during the initial storm and aftermath?
A. Most were in Texas with my brother, thinking they'd be home in a day or two. The ones that stayed were stranded after the levies broke. One on a bridge for several days, another, a nurse in a hospital, helping patients. A nephew and his family in the Superdome and various family members unaccounted for. Shock. Helplessness. Anger.
Q. What have been the effects of Katrina and aftermath on your life? On your work?
A. The stress from my family's situation caused illness and insomnia. My work suffered. My health. My mental well-being.
Q. How have you been able to keep writing? Has your work changed? If so, in what way?
A. In a huge way my work, my life has changed. Tragedy begets creativity. It pours out of me like a busted faucet. I can't stop it. I've got so much to say.
Q. Tell me about the writing of fiction you have written since Katrina.
A. There is little room for nonsense, beating around the bush, sort to speak. I get straight to the point. My characters say what they mean and mean what they say.
Q. How is your life going now? How have you been able to manage? Where are you living now, where are you working now, what are you working on?
A. I'm working on the novel called “The Angry Bird,” which takes place in northern Louisiana. I wrote in a hurricane scene. I talk a bit more about government.Life goes on. Most of my family are back in their homes. They seem to be settling some. So am I. My well-being is directly related to theirs.
Q. When you sit at your writing, what do you see now? Is that different from before Katrina?
A. Of course. How do I explain it except to say that I see past the bull.
Q. Has your own creative material/style/voice changed radically? Permanently? If so, how?
A. My characters have more of an opinion. More to say of substance. More thoughtfulness.
Q. What gives you hope?
A. That my family, despite what they've been through, find reason to go on.
Q. How has the community of writers connected with New Orleans helped you and others? What is most needed now to bring back the literary A.community?
A. Nurturing. Wait, we need that everywhere. A country that respects artists. That knows we are an important part of a healthy nation. Like doctors, and lawyers and the Congress.