Writer James Nolan had planned to sit on his cast-iron, French Quarter gallery, but by the time I arrived, the gallery had largely ceased to exist. Or at least, the one above it had. His was next on the demolition list. "I feel like I'm in one of my stories," he said, gazing from the street at the missing floorboards, construction materials and piles of rotted wood, suspended two stories up. If Nolan has suddenly found fiction intruding on real life, it's no surprise. The poet, translator and essayist didn't begin working on fiction in earnest until after his return to New Orleans from Spain in 1996. A fifth-generation New Orleanian, he credits the city for the shift. "You have to be rooted in a place to write fiction, and then the stories and characters bubble up from that place," he says. "During the years I spent traveling and living in more cosmopolitan cities, I was in love with words, foreign cultures and an international worldview, but it never translated into feeling rooted enough to imagine characters and place clearly enough to write about them."
Winner of the 2007 Jefferson Press Prize, Nolan's first book of short stories, Perpetual Care, is set largely in New Orleans. The city's pervasive sense of mystery as well as its frustrations, its unique attitudes and atmospheres seems to seep from the pages.
Nolan dismisses the adage about writers needing physical distance to effectively evoke a place. "Those of us who live here already have enough distance on New Orleans, because we need it to stay sane."
Humor is one means of achieving such distance, and it's a technique Nolan uses to great effect throughout the collection, infusing even the darkest moments with a sort of gallows hilarity. If the rule of thumb for fiction is to find a character, put him in a setting and get him in trouble, Nolan explains, New Orleans offers some very specific options. "The kind of trouble you can get into in New Orleans can be disturbing and upsetting, but it can also be hilarious," he says. The lives of his characters pivot on this razor-thin edge, careening from moments of high humor and delight to sudden and destructive events.
Death is never far away in Perpetual Care, which opens with three stories set in cemeteries or at memorial services. "Unlike in Anglo cultures where death is swept under the carpet, in New Orleans we treat it as a family member," Nolan says. "It's never far from our consciousness."
But if Nolan's characters are surrounded by evidence of their own mortality, they may be just as likely to try to deny it, along with other truths about themselves, their families or their pasts. Populated by a vivid cast of characters, ranging from an ex-hippie food critic to a noir detective to a transvestite plumber, the collection happens upon characters as they reckon with among other things self-understanding. Divided into three story cycles, the collection sees names and characters recur throughout, an effect Nolan intended "to reflect the New Orleans sensation that we're really only 10 people and the rest is smoke and mirrors. That there's one degree of separation between people."
All of the stories in the collection, with the exception of the last, were written pre-Katrina. That final piece, called "What Floats," was the easiest to write, Nolan says. "It literally poured out, an absolutely visceral response to the decision we all had to make after the storm: Stay or go." The story recalls when the child protagonist stayed in his home for 10 days with his mother's corpse after she died suddenly of a stroke. Decades later, the man returns to the city for the first time to visit his mother's former home, which has been destroyed by Katrina. Nolan had been wondering how to approach the subject when he came across a newspaper article about a child who underwent a similar ordeal. "The metaphor occurred to me that staying in New Orleans after Katrina was like remaining in a house with your dead mother. My mother had passed away two years earlier and I felt that you couldn't just abandon your dead mother," he recalls.
Nolan has since completed a novel, Higher Ground, set in the aftermath of Katrina and told from the perspective of four different characters. "What's interesting to me about natural disasters is not the disaster itself but the human reaction to it," he says. "The first wave of Katrina stories was sensationalistic, journalistic, and about the catastrophe itself. The real Katrina stories will come in a second wave more nuanced, complex treatments of the subject."
Despite the considerable riches that New Orleans presents its writers, there are certain challenges that come along with being a writer here, Nolan says. "New Orleans is a very inward-looking city. Especially for us natives, it's easy to get sucked into a nostalgia that doesn't travel well." On the flip side, a dearth of local independent presses means New Orleans writers are faced with trying to interest far-off publishing houses in material that is often culturally very different from the rest of the United States. "We have so many good writers in New Orleans, and the problem many of them face is that they don't know where to publish their work," he says. More local presses or stronger connections with university or other small presses in the South would help ensure good, local work finds an audience.
In the meantime, the city will continue to inspire its artists with the same double-edged passion Nolan evokes in his short stories. In "La Vie en Rose Construction Co.," a photographer returns to the city after 20 years away, and contemplates the prospect of working there once again. "The creative possibilities here seemed endless," he reflects. "And so did the destructive."