When Lara Naughton arrived in New Orleans last year to spend one month working on a novel, she had no idea that she would later pack up her busy life in Los Angeles and move here. A year ago, she bought a condo in the Central Business District and got a job teaching creative writing to gifted teenagers at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Like many literati before her, Naughton has found fodder for her writing among the madness, the magic and the mindlessness of post-Katrina New Orleans. Even at its worst, there will always be another character on the next bar stool whose story needs telling.
Even now, as record crime statistics force many to turn their back on New Orleans, the creative spirit here thrives. Perhaps especially now, Naughton says, "There's nothing that's going to be as interesting as watching and being a part of a place that is so broken."
Naughton is one of many writers who have embraced New Orleans post-Katrina. Individually and collectively, they feel a calling to capture the emotions of the storm's aftermath along with the peculiar culture of New Orleans, a culture that refused to die in Katrina's floodwaters.
Janis Turk, a travel writer based in New Orleans and Austin, explains it thus: "There is a sense among writers here that we are standing at the edge of the most important, definitive moments in New Orleans' history, and we've been handed the grave responsibility of accurately, fairly -- and without wincing or looking away -- bearing witness to all that has happened. The largest natural disaster in the history of this nation happened here."
Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Ford grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, but lived in New Orleans for many years. "Home is a place you choose," he told a packed audience at this year's Tennessee Williams Festival. Ford decided to come back after writing an op-ed piece for The New York Times about Katrina. He said that he and his wife, who were living in Maine at the time, sat and "cried and cried" over the ravaged city.
Meanwhile, former syndicated columnist Leonard Earl Johnson is among those who have left. After living in the Faubourg Marigny since 1977, Johnson recently moved to Lafayette, where he says he can continue to indulge his love of music and food.
Having reached a certain age, Johnson says he doesn't want to deal with rebuilding a city or saving a culture. Because Lafayette is cleaner and has less crime, it offers him a more comfortable lifestyle, he says. He adds that when he returns to New Orleans, he comes back with a certain cache -- in contrast to what he refers to as the numerous "writer bums" hanging about the French Quarter.
Johnson recently returned to the French Quarter for a well-attended afternoon reading -- a literary salon, if you will -- at which Kenneth Holditch, considered an expert on both New Orleans and Tennessee Williams, read from Holditch's evolving memoir about his historical juxtaposition with the great William Faulkner.
Meanwhile, on the balcony, an editor at The Times-Picayune predicted that it would be a long, long time before the front page of the daily paper is printed without a Katrina-related story. Nearby, a poet based for three decades in Berkeley, Calif., spoke of the importance of bearing witness to Katrina's aftermath and discussed plans to relocate to New Orleans.
Over in Bywater, the local Bywater Marigny Current may have drifted away in the floodwaters, but one of its founders, Helen Krieger, is still writing. In fact, while in exile in her native Wisconsin, she rewrote from scratch the 400-page novel that also was destroyed in the flood, reducing it to a much tighter, cleaner 200-page draft.
Krieger is now working on a set of short stories collectively titled, Don't Cry, Little Monster. Set in New Orleans before and after the storm, the tales follow several characters trying to make sense of their personal relationships. If "chaos descends" this hurricane season, she has a back-up plan to move into recently purchased property in Austin, Texas. Meanwhile, Krieger doesn't plan to leave New Orleans permanently. "It has this feeling of frontiersmen," she says. "You feel a struggle and conflict going on."
Two winning ingredients of any novel.
During a recent trip to direct short plays at La Petit Theatre, New York-based director (and Tennessee Williams biographer) David Kaplan mentioned that he has written in Paris, Provincetown and even Russia -- but has always wanted to pursue his craft from New Orleans.
Sabrina Canfield moved to New Orleans last June from Portland, Ore., where she says that city's extreme sense of order "had me down."
"It's been really inspiring to live somewhere where there's a lack of order, and where it doesn't really feel like there are as many, or that there are the same kinds of, expectations concerning how my days should be structured," Canfield says.
Canfield was one of about 30 writers participating in a literary luncheon in April at the Hotel Monteleone, where novelists and memoirists submitted their works to a literary agent from San Francisco and heard her advice on getting published. The agent told the group that she is particularly interested in words set in the Big Easy -- and penned by New Orleans writers.
Joshua Clark, founder of Light of New Orleans Publishing, says since Katrina, his business plan begins right outside his front door. "There is so much talent here that needs to be exposed," he says. "For the ones who stayed, Katrina has been at the forefront of their writing. It irrevocably frames our view of the world now as writers. No matter what you write, you can't get away from it, even if you don't say the word 'Katrina.' I know that my tie to this place, my need to represent this in my own words, has grown a lot stronger since Katrina."
NPR commentator and Gambit Weekly essayist Andrei Codrescu shares that view. "New Orleans poets have done their best work since the storm because they have rid themselves of literary pretensions and went to the heart of what really concerns them," he says. "The many books of nonfiction that appeared after the storm are also proof that not only are writers not fleeing New Orleans, they are flocking to it.
"The same goes for photographers. We are now the most overly photographed city in the world. In time, the fictions will appear, too. I think that there will be a migration of young writers to New Orleans in the next few years because of the challenge and complexities of our lives now."
At the same time, the city's roller-coaster recovery ride exacts the same toll on writers that it does on all residents.
Janis Turk says each time she returns from her travels, it feels like pulling off a scab. "I step on a plane and land in beautiful places untouched by Katrina, and for the next few weeks, the pain of New Orleans' 'blue period' becomes far away and surreal," she says. "I get a respite from the weight of it all. But because of that, I'm cursed to be a perpetual tourist in the town I love, and re-entry into New Orleans' hard reality is sometimes painful."
The need to tell the truth about the city hits home when Turk is "stung" by the words of strangers, who often exhibit a "fallacious, illogical, limited understanding of the situation." She says she often encounters people abroad who show more compassion for New Orleans than do the people in states that border Louisiana. "People either think New Orleans is completely 'back to normal' or they think it is still underwater. They have no clue. To them New Orleans has become the new Venice, dismissed with a pithy, flippant phrase -- 'It's below sea level, you know.'"
Local authors and poets continue to give weekly readings in the city's bookstores alongside nationally and internationally renowned scribes. Places such as the Gold Mine Saloon on Dauphine Street and the Maple Leaf Bar uptown remain popular, says James Nolan of the Loyola Writing Institute, because people still feel adrift and need to connect.
"That has always been a primary role of poetry," says Nolan, "to create and preserve community. Now we need it more than ever. We remaining writers feel compelled to try to put it down in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama to maintain our own sanity -- and to communicate with the rest of the country. I feel a new kinship with the French Existentialists -- Sartre, Camus, Beckett -- who stayed in bombed-out Paris after World War II, trying to invent a literature that gave meaning to a city and culture that had been stripped of any meaning by the war."
Nolan has watched new writers blossom in his fiction and nonfiction workshops, responding to the crisis by writing about it. That's where Richard Deichmman, the doctor who directed the evacuation of Memorial Hospital, began his chilling book Code Blue. "New Orleanians have always been good storytellers, and now we all have a hell of a story to tell," says Nolan.
As for his own literary response, Nolan is working on a novel set from February through May of 2006, when he claims the whole city was entering into Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. "As a fiction writer, the aftermath has been more interesting than the storm itself to me because it's a human tragicomedy, not a politicized adventure story," he says. "How people actually survive tragedy is always more poignant than the sensational details of the tragedy itself."
Susan Hamovitch, a filmmaker from New York City, has temporarily relocated to St. Bernard Parish to make a film about rebuilding efforts there. She offered a free workshop at the Violet Community Center to teach those who lost their homes and those with "survivor's guilt" how to pick up a camera and tell their own stories. One of her students, an older woman named Lettie Lee, is now doing street interviews in front of Walgreen's. Lee's film, Lettie Lee Asks a Question, recently won an award at the Pelican d'Or Film Festival.
Hamovitch has befriended many, joined a sheetrocking crew, been invited to backyard crawfish boils and into the homes of those who spend every day rebuilding. Her film focuses on just three individuals, however, chronicling their private moments, marital spats and attempts to make sense of the aftermath.
Each of these fascinating people warrants his or her own film, says Hamovitch, adding that the project sometimes can "bedevil and exhaust" her. That challenge -- and unspoiled views of the Mississippi River, where she walks her locally adopted dog named Violet -- provides the allure that keeps her here for now.
Playwright John Biguenet says returning to the city and kicking in his front door to see what was left of his house sparked him to begin really writing about New Orleans. His play, Rising Water, A New Orleans Love Story, about a couple who wake to find their bedroom flooding during Katrina, saw an extended run this spring. "Everyone in the world believes that New Orleans belongs to them," he says. "So, I had never really written about the city before. But the flood changed everything."
It's time to get busy telling the world the story in which New Orleanians have found themselves, Biguenet told an audience during the Tennessee Williams Festival, adding that the first hurdle will be finding the right storytelling form. Something like this has never happened to America before. People in France compare it to Chernobyl and Germans to Dresden, he says. "We don't have a story for comprehending what's happening to this city. It wasn't a natural disaster. It was a man-made catastrophe. We just don't have a structure for telling that story."
During the storm, Joshua Clark stuck around and interviewed others who were stranded. In Heart Like Water, due out in July from Simon and Schuster, Clark tells of banding together with fellow holdouts, barbecuing in the empty streets of the Quarter, bicycling dangerously near gunfire and bathing in a courtyard swimming pool before he and his friends realize the seriousness of the situation and begin to fear for their lives. A portion of the author's royalties from the book will go to the Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support (KARES) fund, which supports New Orleans area writers affected by the storm.
Clark originally is from the Washington, D.C. area and moved to New Orleans eight years ago. He also edited anthologies, French Quarter Fiction and the more recently published Louisiana in Words, a minute-by-minute look at life in the state.
Despite all that has happened, Clark is a constant cheerleader for the city and says life in the French Quarter remains easy -- "Why the hell would you live anywhere else in America? It's ridiculous. Once New Orleans sinks its claws into you, you don't want to go anywhere else."
Literary events such as the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival in March, Saints and Sinners in May and the Faulkner Society's Words and Music Arts Festival in November remind everyone of the Crescent City's rich literary tradition.
Saints and Sinners, geared toward the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, is the only festival of its kind in the U.S., according to Karissa Kary, associate director of the Tennessee Williams and Saints and Sinners festivals. She notes that many writers who have moved away still try to maintain ties to the city by returning for the festivals.
Post-Katrina New Orleans contains "layers upon layers of concepts, ideology, metaphors, lies, deceit," Kary says. "Any good-quality writing material that one would like to write about you can see here at any given point. Katrina sharpened that and made things even more apparent. Things going on in New Orleans can be applied broadly to social ills everywhere."
At the Williams Festival, during a panel discussion titled "New Orleans as a Home for Writers ... Still," three local writers and natives of New Orleans discussed the distinctive elements of the city that spark creativity.
Christine Wiltz, biographer of New Orleans madam Norma Wallace, told the audience that the local color, which is "just to die for," has been embraced by young people now moving to the city who embrace it as she did, walking the streets with a feeling of ownership. "I have tried to leave this city any number of times in my life," she says, "and then find myself someplace like the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles, waking up one morning and thinking, I've got to go home now, packing the Volkswagen Bug and within two hours being out of there and on the road."
Wiltz says she has spoken with many writers who are struggling with the challenge of writing about the city now, chronicling the aftermath for the rest of the country.
The introduction to New Orleans Noir, a collection of short stories featuring the city before and after the storm and edited by Julie Smith, states that never have so many writers in such a small area become so passionate and so desperate at the same time. Smith writes that they are both immobilized by the task and inflamed by it.
Novelist and investigative journalist Jason Berry says post-Katrina writers have an exciting opportunity. "Everyone who is serious about what's going on here has to struggle with the heavy sorrow and the losses and burdens that people carry -- without ignoring that grand sense of comedy that is so much a part of the literary landscape and the society and the cultural reality of these latitudes," he says.
During his evacuation from the city, Berry was comforted by embracing its culture, driving around and listening to Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and James Booker.
New Orleans' literary culture, he predicts, will soon be stronger than ever.
"A flood of literature is coming out of the place, fiction and nonfiction," Berry says, "because everyone is dealing with these angels in the mud."
- Cheryl Gerber
"There is so much talent here that needs to be exposed. For the ones who stayed, Katrina has been at the forefront of their writing."
Joshua Clark, founder, Light of New Orleans Publishing
- Cheryl Gerber
"I feel a new kinship with the French Existentialists Sartre, Camus, Beckett who stayed in bombed-out Paris after World War II, trying to invent a literature that gave meaning to a city and culture that had been stripped of any meaning by the war."
James Nolan, Loyola Writing Institute
- Cheryl Gerber
- Lara Naughton came to New Orleans to write a novel and fell in love with the city. She now teaches writing to teenagers at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Holditch Kenneth Holditch is considered an expert on both New Orleans and Tennessee Williams and is writing a memoir about his historical juxtaposition with William Faulkner.