A writer’s take on the new New Orleans
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New Orleans today: a restored house next to one that remains vacant. Photo by Carolyn Kellogg.
Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of the book Famous Fathers and Other Stories; she has won many awards, including the 2005 Narrative Prize. She makes her home in New Orleans and, although she didn’t know me from any other intrusive blogger, she graciously agreed to show me around. Before she’d finished, I was ready to move there. Erhardt sat down with Jacket Copy to talk about her hometown and her work:
Jacket Copy: How long have you lived in New Orleans and what do you like about the city?
Pia Z. Ehrhardt:I’ve lived in New Orleans since 1980, after leaving Mississippi to elope with my first husband. The marriage only lasted five shaky years, but I stayed put. I feel like I’ve been in a 30-year, up-and-down love affair with a city.
A lane of Live Oaks, shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Photo by Pia Z. Erhardt.
JC: How did the transformations caused by Hurricane Katrina in affect your relationship to and perception of New Orleans?
PZE: When I first returned to New Orleans in October (for the day, because my son and I were living in Houston for the fall semester), I saw a knocked apart, deeply wounded city and it broke my heart, because I didn’t know how to help, what to do, how to grieve. It was like watching someone you love suffer and the prognosis is iffy at best. But this a fiercely resilient place. Everything was the color of ash, but within a few months, green started poking through, grass, new leaves, and bushes that had stayed under polluted water for three weeks flowered. People dragged their belongings out to the street, and they were moving ahead, trying to reclaim their homes and businesses and lives. So you keep going on bits of hope and progress. This is a patient and proud and steadfast town, as are its people, and, come to find out, so am I.
More after the jump.
Destruction post-Katrina. Photo by Pia Z. Erhardt.
JC: You told me that your current book project was mostly finished before Hurricane Katrina, but that you’re reworking it to set it in the post-storm city. Could you discuss that a little?
PZE:I was writing a novel set in the New Orleans I knew before the storm, set in the early 2000s, but I don’t want to romanticize a landscape that doesn’t exist. Or continue the trajectory of characters that have since been through Katrina. So I’m resetting the novel to be post-Katrina. One of the challenges I’m having is that the story down here is still ongoing, and will be for the next 10 years, so I’m trying to write about what I see around me right now, keeping the details small and more intimate than what people saw on CNN. I’ve got a starting point and now I need to give myself the freedom to end the book where it ends, rather than waiting for the story of the city’s recovery to end.
The Lower 9th Ward today. Photo by Carolyn Kellogg.
JC: What are some of the challenges authors face when trying to address a calamity like Katrina in their work?
PZE:I can only speak for myself regarding writing about or after the storm. I’ve been blocked, I think because I was trying to get my arms around something that has too many moving parts, too much that’s wrong. It’s inconceivable what happened down here. How to do justice to the injustices? And I lost my neighborhood, but not my home, so I had survivor’s guilt. But last year I started writing small pieces, which gave me toeholds to climb up this giant sad rock, and then I collaged what I had, trusted myself to write about post-Katrina organically, and it seems to be working, albeit slowly, very slowly. I am afraid of heights, but I need the view up there.
JC: Which New Orleans authors are among your favorites?
PZE:Even as a young girl living in Canada, I was drawn, moth to flame, to New Orleans writers like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, seduced by stories set in New Orleans, like Walker Percy’s ‘The Moviegoer,’ Robert Penn Warren’s ‘All The King’s Men,’ and Eudora Welty’s short story, ‘No Place for You My Love.’ That first marriage of mine was not so good, but it brought me to a place I’d always loved in books and from afar. I feel grateful to live here and I’m glad you let me show you around.