A few months ago, I got hold of the galleys for Heart Like Water, a memoir by French Quarter Fiction publisher Joshua Clark of his experiences in the city during and after Katrina. I was immediately riveted by the raw emotional honesty and by Clark’s rich sense of the absurd. Then, a few weeks later, Morgana Press sent me a copy of Orléans Embrace, a gorgeous coffee table book which combines a 1993 study of the Vieux Carré by Roy F. Guste, Jr., with reflections by TJ Fisher on the effort to preserve the city’s unique legacy in the storm’s aftermath. When I brought Fisher and Clark together by email, I had no idea it was going to turn into the biggest Author2Author feature yet, but these two survivors clearly had a lot to talk about.
TJ Fisher: Louisiana, New Orleans, and the French Quarter in particular has always been an intriguingly ripe Mecca, a convergence point for writers and artistically creative persons of all types. Whether born here or transplanted, New Orleanians somehow instinctually understand that the age-old agonies and ecstasies of griefs and galas go hand-in-hand.
Once you’ve lived this lifestyle, and partaken of this odd collective consciousness, could you ever leave, really? Could you give up the confections, concoctions, incarnations, and incantations of New Orleans? Few can, as Lafcadio Hearn once said, without regret. No, once you have drank from the fountain that is the Vieux Carré, it is impossible to willingly give up the strange connection of camaraderie that infiltrates the French Quarter. Clearly, you stayed, I stayed, others who left with no choice now look for a way to get back, and other seek to move here still—as there is no place like New Orleans, and there never will be.
I guess my real question is this: High disaster broke me through a 7-year writing block. I would certainly not recommend being stripped to the marrow of your bones, or grappling with runaway misery, anger and sadness, as a cure for anyone, but a torrent of emotions and words flowed out of me like floodwaters. I hardly left my French Quarter room for a year, working on Orléans Embrace. I just had to write, and write, and write. I could not stop; what was unleashed could not be turned back, would not be silenced. I found my voice. Yet it was the most difficult piece I have ever written. I know you are a talented writer, and you’ve brilliantly shaped and edited several incredible books before Heart Like Water, but I am wondering if the horrors and nightmares (and, yet, enlightenments) of Katrina, the passions and truths you have seen laid bare, the things you now know, also compelled you to unlock yourself as a writer?
Joshua Clark: Forcing myself to write this book, there certainly was a purging of emotions—has anyone ever had to write a memoir about a national tragedy this soon?—and it’s forced me to deal with many things that many New Orleanians have avoided and hence continue (and will probably always continue) to suffer from. On the flip side, I still haven’t had the chance to totally absorb some of the horrors, because when I was living here immediately after the storm, I was simply too busy trying to get food and water and keep smiles on peoples’ faces, and then, later, because I’d been so busy working on the book. The things I saw, I should have cried many times—but rarely have. But I think our works differ greatly: Heart Like Water is part adventure story, part love story, part documentary. I have tried to show what it is about New Orleans that we love, and loves us. You tell us what it is, and you tell it well. I’d sooner jump out my window than have to translate the city’s spirit and architecture directly into words. So I admire you for that.
I often ask people to picture the lights going off in the room you’re sitting in. The computer, the air conditioning, phones, everything. Then the people, every last person in your building, on the street outside, the entire neighborhood, vanished. With them go all noises—chit-chat, coughs, cars, and that wordless, almost impalpable hum of a city. And animals. No dogs, no birds, not even a cricket’s legs rubbing together, not even a smell. Now bump it up to 95 degrees. Turn your radio on and listen to 80% of your city drowning. You’re almost there. Only 28 days to go.
A large part of the story is the French Quarter, New Orleans’ calling card to the world. As you know, over 10 million visitors a year came to see this neighborhood, and many more dreamt of it. Through fires and floods and plagues, ten wars and six country’s flags, this neighborhood has crawled into its fourth century as the most inimitable neighborhood in America. And it was the Quarter that became an island, quite literally, in an ocean of uncertainty after Katrina. I have long asserted that our neighborhood has the highest concentration of eccentrics in the world. We estimate that only about 100 of these characters remained throughout the ordeal under forced evacuation. I didn’t know you stayed here for the storm. In fact, I didn’t know you before the storm. Were you here in the Quarter? Did you parade with us on Decadence? Did we have drinks, clean the streets together, and I didn’t even know it?
TJ Fisher: I believe it is impossible to write anything about New Orleans without the fierce emotion and attachment of a lover. She has a soul that lives in the sodden soil that cannot never be erased, removed or stripped away. And that soul seeps into us, clings to us, and we carry it with us everywhere we go. Right now we need tourists back. But I am not willing to pretend. We need them back with a conscience. If you are one of the 10 million annual visitors who visited and loved our city pre-Katrina, come back; you will still love New Orleans, and we need you! You will find no better time anywhere! But after a good time in French Quarter, I personally do not allow any friends or business associates to visit town without forcing them to tour the whole city. The reactions to what they see are stunning. Unbelievable. People have no idea. Before Katrina nobody paid attention to disappearing wetlands. I said in the book that pre-Katrina a football field a day of Louisiana disappeared, but I actually believe that was a low estimate.
I know I make people cry, as I am a very emotional writer, and able to convey that. My most gratifying moment since the book was published was a woman from St. Bernard Parish coming up to me and crying, saying how much my writing meant to her. But I will never write like this again, as I doubt you will either. Will you? I wonder how your editor perceived your first draft? Because you are a talented editor, was it hard for you let another edit you? I felt so sorry for my editor. He kept deleting the heart, soul and spirit, and I kept putting it back, until we reached a truce, a good compromise. Funny, he is an LA-based agnostic, but now he is starting to pepper his own journalistic articles and reporting with “heart and soul.” New Orleans definitely impacted and affected him, even from afar. He used to say I sounded like Sylvia Plath ready so stick my head in the oven. I would say, so, what’s the problem, what’s wrong with that? Aha—perhaps there is indeed a subliminal self-survival reason that I have yet to hook up my gas stove.
Now that I am right now back in New Orleans, it is a shock, to say the least. Nothing can prepare you for the stark new surreal reality. It is utter cataclysmic devastation. It looks although a nuclear explosion wiped out the town. Perhaps like Pompeii. Endless miles and miles of decimated ruined wasteland, ghostly cars sitting silently in driveways with their hood buried beneath layers of flood water silt, empty deserted homes sitting in-wait vacant, as if aliens abducted the inhabitants, the wildlife, everything… And then I come upon the indomitable French Quarter, an ancient oasis of 6 by 13 blocks, in existence since 1718, sitting smack dab in the middle of Baghdad. The Quarter is equally as eerie, too, so hauntingly sad. The power of the human spirit, that triumphs over all, has enabled the struggling yet strong businesses to reopen, but yet the faces, the scenes, the cadence, the sights, sounds and smells are all new, different, foreign. All that is so achingly and heartbreakingly familiar and beloved is gone, no more. I want to crumble, collapse, scream, cry, run away, as fast as I can, and never return to face this cruel new twisted and profane world – then I run into some sweetly smiling suffering soul, someone that I actually know, whether it be a casual acquaintance or a good friend, of days gone by, a pre-hurricane being from another place and time, and I stop to listen to their sad tale of woe, wreckage, heartbreak, sorrow and hopeful recovery, and then I think, perhaps is this not where I am supposed to be? I do not know. Dear God, I do not know. Perhaps it is my fate to survive. My fate to pick up the shattered shards. Am I supposed to be a torchbearer, the leader of a new day? Or am I the one who slips away, going quietly into the night? It is all too much for the human head, heart and soul to take in, absorb and make sense of.
We all have choices; some choices are out of our control, as when I argue with the Fates, they win — but I assume your choice it also to stay? And that your future works will continue to be centered on Louisiana and New Orleans?
Joshua Clark: Yes, I will stay in New Orleans. And one way or another, my works (whether articles, stories, or books I publish) will focus on New Orleans, but certainly this will only be a part of my writing, which has never really been only regional.
So far in my life I’ve only found two definitions of love that I think really hold true. And I think they both apply to my love for New Orleans. One comes from Faulkner: “You don’t love BECAUSE, you love DESPITE.” The other is from a poem of Barry Gifford’s in his book I published, Back in America: “If you can choose, it’s not love.” People always ask why I chose to stay in New Orleans for Katrina. I didn’t choose. I couldn’t.
TJ, you mention that you said in your book “that pre-Katrina a football field a day of Louisiana disappeared.” Well, that was indeed a very low estimate! In fact, we lose a football field every 15 to 30 minutes! America as a whole is utterly clueless about this national emergency. Our wetlands alone protect their oil, their imports and exports, their seafood….. It goes on and on. As I mention in the afterword of Heart like Water, we lose an area larger than Manhattan every year. Imagine if some country came and annexed Delaware from us. We’d be pretty pissed off, right? Well, we’ve already lost more land than that, and we’re doing it to ourselves. And it’s totally preventable. We only need about $20 billion over 20 years to fix it. The cost of the Big Dig. Or a couple months in Iraq.
You mention Lafacadio Hearn influencing you most. One of the quotes at the start of Heart like Water is his: “It is better to live in New Orleans in sackcloth and ashes than own the entire state of Ohio.” And that’s exactly what we did, what Heart like Water is all about, living here in sackcloth and ashes. I think people might be interested in knowing WHAT IT WAS LIKE to LIVE (not as reporter, but as citizen) in your own city, a modern American city, completely emptied of people and electricity…. imagine that… it’s beyond science fiction, but it really happened.
As for your questions about dealing with an editor, because I’ve done so much editing myself, no, it was not hard to have another edit me. I understand where they’re coming from. Amber Qureshi was a great editor, one who loves this city dearly, and allowed me to get away with all sorts of extravagances. The book was over 600 pages and she helped hone it down to 400; it really needed that. And, yes, I will certainly continue to write like this.
New Orleans lends itself to seemingly endless clichés: Desire. Seduction. Sultry. Timeless. History. Diversity. Religion. Hedonism. Contradictions. Intoxication. Laissez le bon temp roule—let the good times roll. The city that care forgot. The city that forgot to care… And after the storm we cringed as these traits and others were incessantly invoked. How do you, in your writing, manage to wade through them?
TJ Fisher: In writing and in life, I am enamored with the past in the present. I like reoccurring themes, enfolded and new again. Clichés? I embrace them, not fear them. That as well as echoes. I believe there are truths in truisms. Evocative. Old stories remain, remembered and relived. I don’t follow trends, or do things “by the book”, so I am immune to what is “passé.” You do not have to be a seer or a sage to see that in an increasingly bland world where many endlessly seek novelty and newness people will always find comfort in and connection with familiarly, repetition, customs, history, ritual and things that reek of old age, patina and soul. The roots and threads of cliché take hold and twist into something original.
To me, and to many, the attributes you mention that the national media often uses to malign New Orleans are in fact true. Our city is a city immersed in ethos, mythos and pathos, truth and lies, depending on where you stand. But yet all can be portrayed in an interesting or malicious way. Colorful and veiled or stark. Pre-Katrina we were regaled for the distinctive qualities that set us apart, what made us different, what attracted people; post-Katrina, the naysayers of the world damned us for possessing many of those very same characteristics that previously kept us from being Anywhere-USA.
I like the artists and the card readers in Jackson Square, ghost tours, carriages, second-line parades, street entertainers, formality and debauchery cohabiting; I like seeing a miniature pony, an alligator-size lizard, a guy with a snake draped around his neck, and costumed people rubbing shoulders with those cloaked in black-tie (with requisite drinks in-hand) as they saunter beneath my balcony. I like Theatre d’ Orléans. It would not be the same if recreated in suburbia. It is not the same at (the French Quarter of) Disney World or Las Vegas. I live in the French Quarter precisely because it is the Quarter, not prissy and perfect. Frankly, I like a little poison in my paradise. A place where flaws and imperfections are welcome. Applauded. I am not fond of gentrification and homogenization.
Pre-Katrina, did you consider yourself to be eccentric? Post-Katrina, do you think you’re unconventional? If the answer is yes to both, nowadays, are you more so or less so? Are you a fiction writer as well? If so, do you think your storytelling abilities will be better than ever? Following Heart Like Water, what’s your next project? I don’t know the postscript to your story, have you found love again?
Joshua Clark: I’ve said it before, I’ll say a hundred times more, I dare anyone to find a place with a higher concentration of eccentrics than the French Quarter. Anywhere in the world.
The Quarter is what you get when you take every kind of eccentric that exists, squash them into a 13 x 6 block rectangle, trapped between the Mississippi River, the projects, and the Central Business District on the other side of the widest avenue in America, and then stick in 212 bars that don’t have locks on their doors.
Anyone who’s been to our one main grocery store, the 24-hour A&P, knows that any given time of day or night, if there are 10 people in line, 7 of them are nuts. They’re just plain old nuts, sometimes in disturbing ways, but most often they are simply wonderfully, benevolently, beautifully nuts. And after you’ve lived in this neighborhood long enough and been in that line enough times, you begin to think that there’s only 3 people in that line are nuts. You’ve become a local.
In many ways, the Quarter is one big loony bin where the patients have taken over. And man, did we take over during Katrina’s aftermath. That’s a large part of what Heart Like Water is about. Most residents, even those who stayed through the actual storm, left in its aftermath, scared by diseased water and big men in uniforms with big guns. The neighborhood shrank into a family. Through our camaraderie, insanity, doubt, fear, hope and grief, we took care of each other. We took a much needed exhale after sucking on all the fright man and nature has to offer, and, learning to laugh again, wrapped ourselves in our neighborhood’s emblematic insouciance. Humor, that quality unique to humans, was our band-aid. Humor that is now, to me, both gut-busting and heart-wrenching.
As for me being an eccentric… I have no idea. Apparently some people seem to think so. But I guess if you think you’re eccentric, you’re probably not.
Yes, I write fiction as well. It’s appeared in various journals and anthologies. I don’t see myself writing much more nonfiction, certainly not books. This was just something I had to write. And as you’ll see, it’s written like a novel. It’s important, I think, to understand that Heart Like Water is not the memoir of a journalist sent out on daily assignments, rushing to file reports on his Blackberry, sleeping with fellow reporters in a guarded hotel high-rise or the suburbs or some makeshift office. This is what it’s like making love beneath Black Hawk helicopters while being eaten alive by mosquitoes, getting tattooed using a Mag Lite and car battery while the Mayor asks for 20,000 body bags over the radio, cleaning up fallen brick walls with our bleeding hands, cooking gourmet desserts with anything we can find, watching and feeling our neighborhood blow up in the middle of the night on my birthday, being awoken by bullets, then Black Hawks, then blue jays, then blaring alarms and finally, two months later, buses.
Heart Like Water is an adventure story, a very true survival tale, and as you said, a very personal love story. But really it is a love story between me and a city, the first place that ever loved me. So, in that sense, I never lost love.
Question for you: Our generation, reared after Vietnam, grew up in a kind of lull of history, imbued with a sense of invulnerability to tragedy. Then came 9/11. We struggled to find a new vocabulary. And we continue to do so with Katrina. I think our books are part of that struggle. For you, does fitting it into words ease the pain a bit?
TJ Fisher: Yes, grappling with exploring the dark shadows of loss, anguish and self-torment through writing—to know you made a mark—helps to tame the pain. Commemoration and valiant hearts transform the face of tragedy. Once someone survives calamity, the future looks different; suffering takes on a different meaning, as does laughter. As I have heard and now believe, if you bring forth what is inside of you it will save you, if you do not it bring forth what is in you it will destroy you. The fact that I’ve created and memorialized something tangible in Orléans Embrace that touches people makes me feel less consumed and devoured than I did eighteen months ago.
We often think our pain separates and alienates us, but it in fact unites us in a profound way. Although others rarely experience our exact same particular disaster, expressive vivid storytelling appeals to and links the human spirit in a special way. We are able to transcend the moment to recall our own private purgatories and personal nightmares. Post-Katrina, friends who had survived the Tsunami, 9/11, Kyoto and terminal illnesses reached out to me. It was shocking, humbling and eye opening to be forced to face the panoramic picture of how isolated we sometimes think we are when swimming in a pool of pain, suffocating in the hurts of disaster and trauma. It seems like we’re alone in our own vale of tears and individual pond of pandemonium, when actually it is a vast global ocean, a universal waterway that connects and enlightens.
As I learned with Katrina, we are capable of more than we learned or imagined. I think all post-disaster writing takes on a deeper, more esoteric meaning and significance as well, with an urgency
to seek truths and search out answers that might not exist. We see beyond our fond illusions and delusions, there is no painless passage. I notice that after Katrina I call upon ecclesiastic words and imagery far more often than in the past, in a way that still baffles me, like it flows straight through
me from a deep and mysterious well inside. So disaster bares us, strips us of our veils, but yet in an odd way empowers us as well.
My forthcoming nonfiction and fiction books are all based on and revolve around the French Quarter. She has left her indelible imprint on me. Each work is wildly different, but yet I see a continuation of the twisty gossamer and braided threads that entangle me. We can never close our eyes to what we have seen and loved. Next spring, I’ll be publishing Hearsay from Heaven and Hades: Secrets of the Saints and Sinners, and I’m also finishing a long-standing fictional trilogy project The Pearly Gates of Purgatory… That probably gives some slight clue as to my current state of mind and why I am hopelessly so enmeshed into the paradoxical sodden soil that is New Orleans!
24 August 2007 | author2author |