"I Either Had to Write This Story, or Leave, or Go Crazy."
Local author James Nolan discusses lunacy, evil, tobacco and his new novel (not in that order)
Photo Courtesy of Marcel.li Sàenz
James Nolan is the author of Perpetual Care: Stories and the forthcoming novel from the University of Louisiana - Lafayette Press Higher Ground.
I first met Nolan at a photo shoot, where he requested that the photographer shoot him with cigarette in hand. Afterward, the three of us sat around the photographer's porch, discussing the pros and cons of Spanish and Canadian tobacco, the inexorable swelling of warning labels and the economic situation in western Europe, among other things. (I mostly had to wing it on half-remembered NPR reports for that last bit, but I like to think I held my own.)
When I met Nolan again, this time at his Dumaine Street apartment in the French Quarter, he had shed his linen suit in favor of capri pants and a threadbare button-down. His blond 'do hung slightly lank in the humidity, but he still moved with jaunty confidence. The self-proclaimed "Quarter Rat" offered me iced tea and showed me around his elegant, if slightly Spartan, apartment. Fading tapestries hung over the kitchen nook and around the main room, which was split by a folding screen into sitting room and bedroom. In his study a small laptop sat on a writing desk next to an immense dictionary lying open on a wicker table. An antique typewriter sat on a shelf opposite, surrounded by a swelling mass of books with a shiny, antique dagger hanging dangerously overhead.
We sat at his dining room table with a bowl of beefsteak tomatoes between us, and I blurted out the first question that came to mind. I was stalling for time so that I could build up to the real question: What was up with all the transvestites in Higher Ground?
When did you decide to write Higher Ground?
I came back and looked at the city and just decided I had to write this book or leave or go crazy…so it was a way of dealing with the aftermath. The black humor we have here in New Orleans - you have to laugh; and there were moments of just absolute hilarity. And so that’s how it kind of became the screwball detective story it is today.
What did you find hilarious?
Politics. [He blows out a mighty puff of Marlboro smoke.] The black humor of people dedicated to this place coming back but with no way to survive. The impossible odds of everything. [He chuckles.] We had the National Guard in the street; I remember one moment really clearly. I'd come back from a party in the French quarter - it must have been about December - and the National Guard were under my balcony with their M16s. I took my speakers from my stereo and put them on my balcony and blasted Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row and they went away.
The mention of the Guard sparks a memory of a character in Higher Ground, based closely on Addie Hall, who was murdered and dismembered by her boyfriend Zack Bowen, but not before she first made headlines by flashing Guardsmen to keep them interested in patrolling her block. You didn't want to flash them?
No, I thought I'd let Bob Dylan’s poetry flash them. I saw the whole things as black humor, grim but funny. And the grimmer it is the funnier it is.
How did you know that you wanted to come back in the first place?
There was no doubt in my mind that I would have come back. I probably would have left new Orleans if not for Katrina, but it really nailed my commitment to being home again and fighting for the city.
Because the one thing in life you can't buy is belonging. [Offhand, he suggests that this is a "good quote." Despite being miffed at this incursion into my editorial process, I'm compelled to agree.] And I belong here. And I've spent most of my life traveling, living in other cities wonderful places - San Francisco, Barcelona, New York and Madrid - but this is the only place I really belong so it really feeds my fiction.
Where were you thinking about going?
For a while maybe back to Spain, but I lost my residency there so I couldn’t go back. I got a Fulbright [Scholarship] there in 1979 and I taught there for two years; I got another Fulbright in 1988-89 and then they figured they couldn't get rid of me so they just hired me. I lived there10 years until 1996 when I moved back here. I love Spain. it’s a whole country like new Orleans without the guns.
What's your favorite part about teaching?
Seeing writers take that leap and go from bad or okay to really good and sometimes it happens overnight. I think that a lot of writers suffer from this sort of romantic myth of the lone genius and suddenly they will come forth with their manuscript and startle the world, and they just sit there spinning their wheels for years.
Who's your favorite author?
Flannery O'Conner, I couldn’t live without; Gabriela Garcia Marquez; William Falkner; Walt Whitman; Pablo Neruda; more contemporary, in terms of fiction, T.C. Boyle. He lives in southern California so he has an ample amount of satirical material; he has a keen satirical eye, but he uses it to get at some pretty deep, dark things. So he’s dark and funny, and that’s kind of what I aspire to be also.
What's your favorite accomplishment by a student?
Right after the storm I gave this workshop at Loyola as part of the Loyola writing institute called "Writing Your Hurricane Story. Out of that workshop came Richard Deichmann’s book - he was the doctor in charge of evacuating Memorial Hospital - called Code Blue. Sally Forman was communications director for the city and she wrote a book called Eye of the Storm, about being with Nagin after Katrina. And Carolyn Perry just wrote a book called For Better, For Worse. I think these people really needed to get those stories out there.
Regarding Higher Ground: how did you decide to end it the way you did? You left the ending sort of...open.
Who knows. Nobody knew how things would turn out and so of course you had to leave it open because being here after Katrina was, to say the least, an open experience. But the ending came to me when a good friend of mine, the jazz singer Kim Prevost, had a birthday. Kim and Bill Solley are both living in Houston, part of a diaspora of musicians. They came back for Kim's birthday and they rented a limousine with champagne and went to Broadmoor to see Kim's grandmother's house that had been destroyed in the storm. I realized in that moment that I had to have a limousine in the last scene with people going to see the ruins of their lives. [He thinks for a moment.] Kim and Bill never moved back.
What's up with all the drug dealers, crooked cops and transvestites?
I live in the French Quarter. [He laughs] These are my neighbors, that was all documentary, or verisimilitude.
And why the French Quarter?
I was born in the Tremé and grew up in the 7th Ward and Broadmoor. My family first came here in 1852; they lived here for three generations in the French Quarter - they had a tobacco store - so I've always kind of identified with the French Quarter. There's nowhere else I'd live in the city. And also, I'm a pedestrian - I don’t drive - and it's one of the few neighborhoods you can actually live in and just walk, you don’t need a car here.
Why no driving?
I hate cars. I hate gasoline, I hate oil. I think they're destroying the earth. Also, as I've told my niece, if you don’t have a car you have to live in a beautiful place, because what cars do is they take you to the ugly places.
So your family owned a tobacco shop. [I ponder how avid a smoker Nolan is, and how eager he was to conduct the interview somewhere he could smoke indoors.] How does that square with your irreverent view of tobacco use?
I published a book of essays in Spain. This is a book called Fumadoras [I immediately lose the thread of the title. I apologize to my readers for my poor Spanish.] which means “smokers in the hands of an angry god.” And that’s just the lead essay. It's kind of why I continue to smoke against enormous peer pressure and I think the cover says it all. It keeps me an outsider. It allows me to go outside a lot. I think smokers spend more time outside than environmentalists. So I think it's an interesting perspective to see the world from, it’s the absolute, most despised group of the united states. I'm sure that a gay black witch could be elected mayor, but not if she had a cigarette in her hand.
We have a President who smokes.
Secretly! And increasingly, I’m thinking that’s the best thing about him.
We get into the nitty-gritty of his troubles getting his book published, and we turn to a favorite topic of mine - the recent trend towards building one's "brand." I ask if there's an authorial mirror to the trend of filmmakers becoming brands rather than innovating.
Of course there is. Writers are brands now. You absolutely have to be pigeonholed. If you write one good mystery book, they don’t want one good mystery book; they want to see an outline for a series. They're only buying books that will extend into other media. And you can see the results; everything that comes from New York and Los Angeles in terms of film and literature is just horrible. I mean, its James Patterson and Mel Gibson.
Are the early serialized novelists - Crichton, King, Grisham - to blame?
Except for Stephen King who went on to other interesting things I think it kind of froze their careers. I often think that the only thing worse than failure in America is success. It's like the blue dog. Once you’ve succeeded you have to keep punching out blue dogs for the rest of your life.
I realize we've gotten off-topic. I meant to ask about your characters. There's of course the crazy fan who takes what happens to characters personally - do they come alive like that for you? Do you get involved with your characters?
I do. I actually went back and revised the novel because I missed my characters. I wanted to go back into their world. When you’re writing novels, its like having a dollhouse and you’ve created this little world and its tempting to keep going back to it. But eventually you have to cut them loose and wish them well. Like children. I really had a great amount of fun with Miss Dixie Rosenblum, who's the Uptown sister who's the sort of Cruella de Vil of the novel, just making her as mean and ornery as I could. It was just a great amount of fun. And then the psychiatrist, and the cult leader; they were evil people, but it was just fun to play with that evil. I don’t think you'll ever be able to write noir unless you're fascinated by evil and like to play with it.
So you believe in evil?
Well I think its hard when you're writing noir to "psychologize" and be too compassionate. You really have to create vivid portraits of scary, evil people. As a Catholic I do believe it’s a part of human nature - original sin. I think that if you "psychologize" it too much, and you say "aw, well, the poor guy, his daddy hated him and his mommy spanked him and that’s why he's cutting people's throats," that’s not going to be a really interesting portrait of evil.
Is there a counterpoint? Goodness?
I think that’s what happens in the novel. These people who are being driven crazy by their circumstances come together around Miss Gertie, who is a 76-year-old evacuee from Lakeview, and they find community. I think a lot of New Orleanians after the storm found a community that they didn’t know existed because people needed each other. It brought out an enormous amount of goodness in people. Natural catastrophes being out the best and the worst in people, and that’s a cliché, but I think that what people had to do to survive after the storm really did bring out a lot of good in people. When you're up against such impossible odds you have to be really sure of why you're living somewhere when it would be so much more comfortable to go somewhere else.
Any other projects coming down the chute?
Yeah, I have another collection of short stories that I'm finishing now and I hope to have that coming out in the next couple of years, with the tentative title You Don't Know Me.
What's the subject matter?
Half of it is New Orleans and the other half is Americans living in Europe.
What do you do when you're not writing or teaching?
I used to spend a lot of time in Mexico, but now it’s really scary. The last place I went was a little town called Pátzcuaro. I went there to get away from the first anniversary of Katrina; I just couldn’t bear it. I lived in Jed Horne’s house there. Sorry - Jed Horne? He wrote the Breach of Faith book about Katrina. Now Jed tells me they found five decapitated heads on the disco in Pátzcuaro.
What else should we know about this book?
It’s a hybrid book. It’s a comic noir. We don’t see a lot of that because we usually associate noir with crime fiction and murders and we usually associate comedy with a kind of boisterous, almost frivolous attitude towards life and so a comic vision of crime is unusual.
And about you?
I perform with a flamenco troupe. Ven Pa’Ca. It means “come over here” in Andalusian Spanish. And I’m bilingual in Spanish.
Higher Ground has won the Faulkner-Wisdom Gold Medal and will be released this autumn by the University of Louisiana - Lafayette Press.