Q&A with Ethan Brown, author of "Shake the Devil Off"

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Our cover story this week is an excerpt from Shake the Devil Off, Ethan Brown's new book about Zackery Bowen, the Iraq war vet and Katrina survivor who famously murdered his girlfriend, Addie Hall, before taking his own life.

I conducted an email interview with Brown about the book and his writing process. Here's Part 1; the second half of the interview follows tomorrow.

GAMBIT: Physically living at the nexus of Zack and Addie's story in the Lower Quarter plus trying to get inside their heads for more than a year -- had to do a trip on your own head. It's a dark place to live. How did all these interviews and this research affect your personal life and your personality?

ETHAN BROWN: Shake the Devil Off is easily the most difficult book I’ve ever written. The story has a gigantic “cast” of Iraq veterans and New Orleanians and I wanted to get all of their stories right and, much more dauntingly, capture two huge moments in history (Iraq and the federal flood) as accurately as possible. In addition, Iraq vets and New Orleanians are “tough crowds” who insist not only on the highest levels of accuracy but also on pitch-perfect tone. If you’re not terrified at the prospect about writing about Iraq vets and New Orleanians, you are an idiot. So I was very scared of getting things wrong while writing Shake the Devil Off and spent a lot of time imagining my work getting picked apart not just for matters of fact but also tone. (My fear is rooted in precedent, by the way: I became sort of obsessed with the obsessive critiques of Dan Baum by the blogger “Swampytad.")

So, to be honest since I’ve covered very dark subject matter in my previous books (Queens Reigns Supreme and Snitch) it was a fear of inaccuracy that haunted me throughout the writing process. I should also add that many members of the “cast” featured in Shake the Devil Off — such as Private Rachel Bosveld, who served with Zackery Bowen in Iraq — had an indirect connection to the murder-suicide and I was terrified of what they and their families would think of the book. I could easily imagine some of these folks being furious with me for bringing their world into the dark world of Zackery. Fortunately, so far that has not happened though of course in my darkly pessimistic worldview criticism of me from such folks is just around the corner.

G: OK, but I was less curious about your writing process and insecurity about getting the facts right than I was about how this all affected you personally. Did the research, the interviews, and the writing process do a number on your own personality? Was it depressing? What was it like for your wife and friends to be around someone who was so immersed in a subject so dark for so long?

EB: It was both difficult and rewarding being at the nexus of this story. It was difficult because, as I note in the book, the two apartments Zackery and Addie shared (on North Rampart and Governor Nicholls, respectively) were just blocks from my apartment. And I did my grocery shopping just about every day at Matassa's and had one of Zackery's closest friends (Capricho DeVellas) living in the studio apartment below mine. But there was something rewarding about all this closeness, too. If I had follow up questions for many of the people I interviewed, I could just hop on my bike and connect with them within minutes. And living at the nexus of these two lives gave me a powerful sense of what their lives were like and a very strong impression of what life is like in the service industry in the Quarter.

I also felt the weight of the murder quite heavily in my everyday life which I think imbued the book with a seriousness about the tragic loss of these two lives. Seemingly mundane moments like walking on the neutral ground on North Rampart or stopping by Matassa's had a heaviness and sadness that is hard to describe. The closeness made the murder-suicide unavoidable. This is depressing, yes, but I can't say I regret the closeness at all. I seek to deeply experience the worlds I write about because I believe that is the only way to produce work that approaches truth. When I finished the manuscript for Queens Reigns Supreme, for example, I quickly got it over to a longtime hustler from Queens. He read it in a single sitting and said "It was like you were out there on the block with us." That's the reaction I want from my work and I think that the only possible way to strike so close to home to the people you're writing about is to live with them. David Simon has famously said "Fuck the casual viewer," and I'd say "fuck the casual reader (or reviewer!)" The response that matters most, to me, is from Iraq vets and New Orleanians and I think the only way to get a positive response is to get as close to their experiences as possible.

G: Zack Bowen committed a horrible act. Yet at times you seem more sympathetic to his plight than that of Addie Hall, his victim. Do you agree? Is that a natural part of storytelling, of getting inside the head of a murderer?

EB: I should be very clear, upfront, about what I sought to do with Shake the Devil Off. I wanted to answer a simple question: “How did this horrific crime happen?” To answer that question, I knew from the outset that I had to scour military records and police reports and interview Zackery’s friends and family as well as those who served with him in Iraq and Kosovo. So Shake the Devil Off is, to use a somewhat cheesy construction, not a “whodunit” but a “why did he do it?” It’s very important to stress that by uncovering the “whys” behind Zackery’s murder of Addie I am not providing an excuse or rationale for the crime. And I should add that this is a highly complex case without simple answers. I do not believe that a direct, unobstructed line can be drawn between Zackery’s experiences in Kosovo and Iraq and the crime he committed. Those experiences were critical in shaping the arc of his life but do they entirely explain what he did to Addie? Absolutely not. It’s this complexity, I think, that makes the story compelling.

I must admit, too, that after spending two and a half years researching Zackery’s story, the insanely brutal murder of Addie remains incomprehensible. Indeed, lately I find myself returning to a great quote from Zackery’s friend Capricho DeVellas. “It’s just not something that is reachable,” Capricho told me nearly three years ago, “There are times when you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But then there are some things that are beyond the grasp of what we understand ourselves to be capable of, we cannot go to that length. It is surreally untouchable. It stays where it is.”

G: You're critical in the book of New Orleanians who rushed to make the point that Bowen wasn't a native, but some sort of transplant who brought his problems with him. Do you think Shake the Devil Off might receive the same reception from locals who resent you, a "Northerner," for airing their dirty laundry?

EB: I found the local reaction to Zackery fascinating and frustrating at the same time. There was a rush to proclaim “he’s not from here!” which was understandable on one level because it’s not like the city — especially one year after the federal flood — should ever have been expected to want to claim ownership of a murderer. And I fully grasp that to be considered a New Orleanian, one has to be born here. But I guess I found it sad — and still find it sad — that there was an effort to distance the city from Zackery because Zackery truly loved New Orleans and lived here for much of his life. I also think that there was some classism behind all the distancing from Zackery. Tara Jill Ciccarone wrote a smart piece about Zackery and Addie for NOLAFugees in which she very smartly observed that “to know them…you’d have to know a side of the city most try to ignore.”

As for the local reaction to Shake the Devil Off, it’s too early to tell. I suppose I could be resented for being a Northerner though I know that I’ve been upfront about my newcomer status—I am definitely NOT A NEW ORLEANIAN (to borrow Ashley Morris’ ALL CAPS blast on Zackery)—and I think that my book demonstrates my willingness to be a student of sorts of the city and that I have a deep love and respect for New Orleans. Regardless, I hope that Shake the Devil Off is judged on its merits and not on my background.

G: Is there anyone who chose not to talk to you for the book? Who and why?

EB: The refusals to cooperate came from the Addie side of the story. I found a few of Addie’s friends in Durham, North Carolina (her hometown) and even someone who claimed to be a cousin. But none of these folks would talk to me. I was also unable to connect with Addie’s immediate family, even after enlisting close friends of Addie’s in New Orleans to help me with this task. I am hopeful, however, that Shake the Devil Off will yield some long awaited connections to Addie’s family. Soon after Queens Reigns Supreme was published, for example, Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff (the drug kingpin of whose street name inspired the book’s title) reached out to me via a private investigator after stonewalling all of my interview requests. I was able to sit down with Supreme in federal prison and wrote a long profile of Supreme for VIBE Magazine which opened with Supreme confronting me—behind bars no less!—with his criticisms of Queens Reigns Supreme. I hope that something similar will happen when Shake the Devil Off is published and I hope that we can do an expanded version of the book that includes significant input from Addie’s family.

G: Was there any pressure from your editor or publisher to emphasize some of the more facile or lurid elements of this story?

EB: No, there wasn’t any pressure from my publisher to sensationalize the story. There was an understanding from Henry Holt at the outset that the story was shocking enough on its own and that I should try to avoid the tabloid treatment of the murder suicide that had profoundly dehumanized both Zackery and Addie.

Part 2 tomorrow.

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