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Laughter & Disaster in Postdiluvian New Orleans November 10, 2011

Posted by Mark Folse in books, Federal Flood, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, NOLA, novel, Odd Words.
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image Author James Nolan discussing his book Higher Ground.

An Odd Words “Dispatches from the Back” live from the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Words & Music Festival

Novelist James Nolan started the official Words & Music Festival opening event New Orleans, Mon Amour with an apology for the late start. “We have our own sense off time” in New Orleans, he explained. “It’s sort of like Mexican mañana but not as urgent.”

The author of a darkly comic new novel about postdiluvian New Orleans, he explained the apparently slow genesis of a book born out of the aftermath of Katrina: “It takes a long time for the human mind to wrap itself around disaster” but says asteady progression of Katrina-themed memoirs and novels are just around the corner. Asked about Dave Eggers’ comment at the Tennessee Williams Festival two years ago that there are a hundred Katrina books waiting to be written, “I think I’ve seen fifty of them in my workshops.”

Nolan insists his is not specifically a Katrina book–the storm that has just ravaged New Orleans in the story is never named–saying, “Katrina is just a setting for this, but it is a human drama, like The Tin Drum which is not about WWI but the lives of the characters in its aftermath. “The real human drama comes aftere the disaster.”

It is at heart a New Orleans story, which has been freely compared to Confederacy of Dunces and after the coffee-spitting funny short reading and character setup that came first that comparison is not far off the mark. “New Orleans is not the [setting] place but also a protagonist. I set out to write one of the great place novels, like Balzac or Thomas Wolfe.”

To help achieve that “genie-soul of a place” sense Walker Percy spoke about he chose to largely portray the setting in the French Quarter through the eyes of the character of Vinnie,  who loathes the neighborhood. “The best way to present someplace is throughthe eyes of someone who hates the it.”

Asked by a reviewer to characterize the book, he thought of the iconic logo of the carnival Krewe d’Etat. “I wanted my novel to be like the grinning skull in a motley fool’s cap.” He said the book combines “burlesque and disaster [because] that was the contradiction we were living at the time.”

While disclaiming the imprint of “Katrina novel” the book is propelled by the unikely collision of characters off all classes and neighborhoods, “the magic of the city at that time…the way everyone was thrown together.”

It was difficult to get a novel with the watermark of Katrina on the manuscript published, he said. The manuscript won the festival competition’s novel category several years ago and he immediately got agent but “in New York Katrina is box office poison…in New York anything about 9-11 is considered universal and anything about Katrina is considered regional.

“I’ve come up with a new defintion of regionalism” in publishing: anything that doesn’t happen in New York,” he quipped. The agent sent out the manuscript to a slew of editors “and all of these editors were promptly fired” in a round of New York publishing cutbacks. The book was finally issued by the University of Lafayette Press, its first fiction title, and he praised UofL Press for its commitment to publishing the culture of Louisiana.

I wasn’t going to buy a book this weekend–my slush pile of unreads is just to dangerously steep–but after hearing Nolan read from the opening chapter I followed him back to the booksotre/headquarters of the festival and got a copy for him to sign. If it holds up to that excerpt of the first chapter I think I many end up placing on the honor shelf in the front room right next to Toole’s Dunces.

 

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