Critical Mass

Thinking About New Orleans: Tom Piazza’s Katrina Novel

By Jane Ciabattari

It’s hard to judge how many writers have been displaced, dislocated and disoriented by Katrina and aftermath. I’ve been keeping track of some of them via our series, Thinking About New Orleans. Now it is nearly three years since we were glued to CNN watching Katrina, the flooding of the levees, and Rita, and the bitterly insulting lack of federal response. The aftermath continues. Tom Piazza, who spoke to us the first year after Katrina and last year, as well, has a new novel, “City of Refuge,” coming out this month. It will be launched at Octavia Books in New Orleans on August 19.

In her starred review of the book in Booklist, NBCC member Donna Seaman writes,“In the pre-storm chapters, the conflicts and dreams of Piazza’s characters, men and women of bedrock goodness, define home, revealing all that Katrina will disrupt and destroy.Then,in unforgettable scenes of biblical consequence,Piazza dramatizes more devastatingly than any journalistic account the hurricane’s shocking aftermath,aligning the failure to protect, rescue, and respect the people of the Lower Ninth with the sweeping brutality of war.By following his characters into the Katrina Diaspora and back again, Piazza tells a towering tale of self, family, and place, a story as old and heartbreaking as humankind itself.”

Q. Are you back in New Orleans?  Back to any sort of normalcy?
A. I’ve been back in N.O. since shortly after Katrina, with intervals of traveling and working elsewhere for a month or two at a time. People ask me all the time about how the city is doing, and I always say, it’s a different answer depending on the neighborhood, and sometimes depending on the block. But then that has always been true in New Orleans, even before Katrina.

Q. During our previous discussions you have talked about the novel you have had in the works. Now it’s about to be published. How were you able to get the book done?
A. “City of Refuge” just started writing itself. I did not in any way plan to write a Katrina novel, and in fact I really felt that I had said what I had to say in “Why New Orleans Matters.” But the characters appeared unbidden in my mind and started being who they were, and doing what they were doing. That was in March 2006. One thing I did know early on was that I needed to write this book without wasting any time. The material is so intense, and it was so bruising to have to reenter that Katrina emotional landscape every day, that I just put my head down and wrote as quickly as I could. But luckily this was one book where almost everything came to hand naturally.

I never would have gotten it written, though, had it not been for Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The situation in New Orleans for the first couple years after the disaster, and still in many ways now, presented and presents so many logistical challenges from so many angles, that I needed to get out of town as much as possible just to focus on the work. So those
six- and eight-weeks stays at those colonies were so important.

Q. How do you think the novel will be received in New Orleans?
A. “City of Refuge” was just picked to be this year’s One Book, One New Orleans selection.  If you don’t know about this, it’s a literacy initiative in which many cities participate, the idea being for as many people as possible in a given city to be reading the same book at the same time. Anyway, it is incredibly gratifying that my adopted city has adopted my novel. Hard to convey how proud I feel about that. It’s a little funny though: I finished “City” at the very end of January, which is only a little more than six months ago. The One Book people are talking to me now about the characters—SJ, Wesley, Craig and Alice and Annie and the rest—as if they are living people. After living alone with them for so long it is strange to have other people come into this world I created and have independent relationships with these characters. Strange, but really, really great.

Q. What are you working on now?
A. I’m putting together a collection of nonfiction pieces about music and politics, and I have also, apparently, started another novel. But I’ll be going on book tour for about two months…so concentrated work is going to be delayed until the end of October. Which is fine; I am looking forward to hearing how people react to “City.”