Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Tom Adcock

By Jane Ciabattari

It's hard to say how many writers were dislodged, disrupted, and 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 actress and short story writer Kim Sykes. As a sign of ongoing support for New Orleans writers, a portion of the profits from “Heart like Water,” Joshua Clark's memoir, and from “French Quarter Fiction,” published by Clark's Light of New Orleans press, and from “New Orleans Noir,” will be donated to KARES (Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support), a hurricane relief program sponsored by the New Orleans Institute; KARES is the beneficiary of Monday night's reading, as well.

Tom Adcock is the author of six novels, including “Thrown-Away Child,” which is set in New Orleans. He has short stories in the Akashic Books series “New Orleans Noir” and “Bronx Noir,” and is co editor of the forthcoming “Brooklyn Noir.” He will be reading from the “New Orleans Noir” story “Lawyers' Tongues,” which Publishers Weekly says “capures the chaos of the hurricane's wake.”

Q. Where were you when Katrina was headed toward New Orleans?
A. My wife, Kim Sykes, and I were at home in Manhattan, then to our weekend place in upstate New York. Naturally, we followed the news closely

Q. How did you and/or your loved ones in New Orleans manage during the initial storm and aftermath?
A. Thankfully, nearly everyone of my wife’s family made it out of town before the hurricane landed. We had a long day of panic when one of my brothers-in-law, Kenneth, who would not leave the city, was unaccounted for. He later turned up, at the Super Dome.

All but one lost their homes, or experienced severe house damage. I cannot imagine what that would be.

Another brother-in-law, Reginald, told me what it was like for a middle-aged, working-class, home-owning guy who’d done pretty much all the right things in life, only to wind up with his house and car destroyed and making do in his daughter’s apartment in Atlanta:

“Imagine if I had to blow my nose. I got no Kleenex. So I want to drive down to the drugstore. Wait——I don’t have a car anymore. And anyhow, I don’t have any money and can’t get any because the ATM machines down in New Orleans don’t respond. So that’s it. I’m sitting here on the floor in a little apartment thinking about how I’ve got nothing and no place to go.”

I sent Reginald several pair of my pants and some shirts because he had only one change of clothes and we’re about he same size.

My wife’s aunt likewise fled to Atlanta, where she bunked with a daughter. She wasn’t a healthy woman, but I don’t think she died–rather recently–from anything of a physical nature. I believe she died of a broken heart because she’d lost her house and couldn’t go home. I think of her sister–my mother in-law Violet, who died in 1990. I’m glad Violet never saw Katrina. It would have broken her heart as well.

Q. What have been the effects of Katrina and aftermath on your life?On your work?
A. Sadness and anger is a bitter brew.

I am very concerned about the health and well-being of my wife, a New Orleans native. I am likewise concerned for her siblings and their families, all of whom have suffered greatly.

I am disgusted with the mayor of New Orleans, the ex-governor of Louisiana and, most particularly, the illegitimate president of the United States, that lying bastard. I am disgusted by the casino swine and the real estate “developers” who have flooded into New Orleans to loot the place.

I lived through 9/11/01 here in New York City, and the 1993 bombing that preceeded that terrorist attack. On Monday 9/11, I survived a terrifying three-hour period in which I had no contact with my daughter, whose place of employment was only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. These events were horrible. I would point out that in each case, the enemy was alien. But in the context of Hurricane Katrina, the enemy was domestic.

As the whole world sees what was done to a great city of the United States, as the whole world now sees the oppressive poverty that cheated a great portion of the people of New Orleans, as the criminal Bush regime continues to do nothing in support of its many promises during the infamous kleig-lighted photo-op in Jackson Square, I confess: I am ashamed to be an American. In fact, I no longer identify myself in such a way. I am a New Yorker, I am a New Orleanian.

Q. How have you been able to keep writing? Has your work changed? If so, in what way?

A. It’s difficult to write. Readers don’t like reading anger. And anger seems to bubble up, no matter how much I try to tamp it down.

Q. Tell me about the writing of fiction you have written since Katrina.
A. I wrote a short story set in the time of Katrina. I edited an anthology of short stories. I am working, terribly slowly, on a novel called “Blue.”

Q. How is your life going now?
A. My concerns are of nothing compared to what happened to Katrina victims. My home and my work are stable, for which I’m grateful.

Q. When you sit at your writing, what do you see now? Is that different from before Katrina?
A. I see that we are all here so briefly, so tenuously. I see that our leaders are, at best, a pack of fools; by their neglect, they are, at worst, the agents of social violence. Perhaps this is not so much different than my pre-Katrina worldview. Buy things seem so much clearer now.

It becomes my duty as a writer, therefore, to pull off the trick of recognizing the grim facts of life while at the same time cultivating a hopeful mood. Some trick.

Q. : Has your own creative material/style/voice changed radically? Permanently? If so, how?
A. Too early to tell.

Q. What gives you hope?
A. Ordinary people. My wife and I are someplace way beyond grateful to friends——and strangers——who have provided for our family in New Orleans, with gifts of cash, clothing, furniture and those very, very helpful gift cards to Target and Wal-Mart. (I had a dream once about one of my sisters-in-law using a gift card to buy socks and underwear for her kids. In my dreams, I saw her weeping.)

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 community?
A. Artistic events——literary, theatrical, musical——that benefit Katrina victims are hope and inspiration for all concerned.