"The Answers Are Never What We Thought They Were Going to Be"
R. Reese Fuller discusses his new book, the state of Louisiana and the nature of language, among other things
Reese Fuller inhabits the English language with an easy grace, and he has turned that ability to his advantage. As a writer and editor for the Times of Acadiana and Lafayette's Independent Weekly, he has used his way with words – canny and ebullient when spoken, razor-sharp when written – to indulge his own curiosity about people and places.
Angola to Zydeco: Louisiana Lives is a compilation of of Fuller's articles and essays on the peculiar experience of living in Louisiana – sometimes good, sometimes bad, usually weird and always incomparable. He opens the collection with the first story he ever wrote as a professional journalist, "Angola Bound," about a field trip of university students visiting Angola State Penitentiary, where most of the inmates are expected to live out their entire lives within prison walls. It's a compelling read on its factual merits, but it's the next story, "Thanks for the Memories," that strikes a more emotional chord, as Fuller narrates the last day in business for Gene's Food Store in Basile.
Joe Burge, the shopowner at Gene's, reappears a few stories later, and the book if chock full of other renowned and reviled Louisianians, from accordian maker (and mediaphobe) Marc Savoy to the late painter Elemore Morgan Jr. to novelist James Lee Burke to "King of Blue Grass" Billy Martin. He writes about raising tobacco and Tabasco peppers, about the rally for the "Jena Six" and how cockfighting rose and fell in the state.
Fuller will be signing and discussing the Angola to Zydeco at the Garden District Book Shop Saturday, November 19, from 1 to 3 p.m. In the meanwhile, here's what he had to say about the book, the compulsions that drove him to journalism (and history) and a few other subjects besides.
You went to (Millsaps) college for history, and now you’re teaching history (at the Episcopal School of Acadiana). How do you approach history as opposed to journalism?
I don’t see a lot of difference between the two, aside from one dealing with events that happened in the past and the other dealing with current events. To me both of them are about asking questions—about formulating good questions and figuring out what those answers are. And of course the answers are never what we thought they were going to be.
I’m dealing with eight graders; it’s critical to get them asking good questions. The answers almost aren’t as important. The important thing is to ask good questions.
So how do you formulate good questions? And in doing so (I go on some long-winded analogy about particle physics, something about altering things by looking at them) how do you not alter the environment on which you’re reporting?
By virtue of asking questions, you’re changing [reality]; you try to minimize your impact on the environment, whatever that may be. …It is changing, it’s fluid; you might come up with 20 questions but only get to ask two.
So how do you get kids who might be more interested in girls or boy or sports to dig history?
[Laughing] If you could figure that out, you could become a millionaire. There are far more interesting things at this stage of the game—the opposite sex, video games…I just try to impart to them that it’s continually about asking questions.
I mean, for me, the journalism thing—as crummy as the paycheck was—I really did love that I got to ask complete strangers questions and they’d answer them. What other gig can you have that?
We get on the topic of Marc Savoy, a musician and artisan who generally gives prewritten copies of his own sound bytes to reporters in lieu of an interview.
He’s got a weird take on things. He was doing his own thing before the whole Eighties kind of Cajun [music] thing took off…he’s always sort of done his own thing and on his own terms. He’s got this sheet called “An Interview with Myself.” …He’s tired of talking to the media, because the media gets it wrong, and of course I can’t run with that, you can’t bring that [self-interview] back to an editor, so I just gave him the mike and let him run with it. What’s more important: having a scholar say what they think about Marc Savoy, or having Marc Savoy say what he thinks?
Savoy, as quoted in Fuller’s “Marc of Distinction,” has a rather vocal disdain for what he sees as posers in the kingdom of Louisiana music and the trend of marketing traditions (like Mardi Gras) to tourists who don’t understand their history. That brings us around to the real meat of Fuller’s book: Louisiana. Fuller has his own thoughts on things the media have gotten wrong.
What do people think about Louisiana? It’s three things: gators, gumbo and Mardi Gras. What’s important is that people don’t see beyond those clichés to the components that make those up, and that’s way more fascinating than “they get drunk on a Tuesday.” Unfortunately, what we generally see is the surface of the water, and that makes for great tourism, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
It is what it is down here. It’s not a Cajun Disneyland. And so much of what happens down here gets reduced to that, like, “It’s so funny that they have crooked politicians.” But for people who have lived here all their lives, it’s not that funny. And so you get these kinds of things that come out of Louisiana, like “Swamp People” … People are drawn to it because it is strange, and it is fascinating, but if someone took the time to find out why their lives are the way they are, figure out what their hopes and dreams are, it would be much more fascinating.
And that’s kind of where we are in America. The Kardashians? I don’t know who they are or what they do but they write books. What happened to reporters as a profession? We don’t value it as a profession, we don’t pay people for it, so what we have is a lot of infotainment.
But while you’re here, revel with us in the poverty and the misery and the poor education system. That’s the reality of it. I think that’s what’s fascinating about Louisiana—there are these two extremes.
Eventually we come back around to his personal life.
This is really humiliating. My mother made me take ballet classes as a kid. I think it was only a year or two….they realized I had the dexterity of a small, three-legged goat, and they realized my career was not in dance. I was the clumsiest person on the planet and she [his mother] figured that would help me get some balance or equilibrium in my existence.
I’m a music geek, I think I always will be. Two kids, ages six and four, and a wife (Heather).
I’ll be ripping up a tile floor over Thanksgiving weekend, picking up dog poo in the backyard and probably mowing…it’s a glamorous life.
He starts chuckling, and then laughs more earnestly.
It’s a good life. It’s a good place to be.