Dan Baum’s Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans is a stunning non-fiction look at a collection of ordinary (and not so ordinary) people who represent the essence of the City of New Orleans – for better or worse. If you haven’t read my review yet, go ahead and check that out – we’ll wait.
Now that we’re all on the same page, I forgot to mention an interesting side note in my review. Baum and his wife, Margaret Knox, work together as a two-person journalism team under his byline. Baum does much of the legwork, while his wife serves as “bureau chief.” You can read about their interesting arrangement here.
Atlantans should also note: Both Baum and Knox once worked for the AJC. Of course, I forgot to ask Baum about that. Enjoy the rest of the interview.
Baby Got Books interview with Dan Baum, author of Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans
Baby Got Books: You’ve indicated that you don’t think of Nine Lives as a “Katrina book.” Clearly though, this book grew from your reporting on Katrina for The New Yorker. Why did you think it was important to go back to New Orleans and write Nine Lives, a book that tells a much deeper story about the culture and people of New Orleans than anything else that I’ve read about the city since Katrina?
Dan Baum: Big as it was, Katrina is not the most interesting thing about New Orleans. To say the city is unique goes way beyond the food, the music, and the architecture. New Orleans’s relationship to those three guiding obsessions of American culture — time, money, and race — is completely different than in any other part of the United States. I had the sense, reading and participating in the coverage of Katrina, that all of us reporters were so focused on the disaster that we were missing what was really important.
BGB: The preface to Nine Lives is one of the more insightful takes on New Orleans that I’ve ever read. With maybe one or two exceptions, my experience has been that the best writing about the city (at least post-Katrina) has been by people who are not from there. Why do you think that is?
DB: The usual advice to young writers is to “write about things you know about,” but Tom Wolfe turns that advice completely on its head and I think he’s right. He says writers should write about things they don’t know about so that they have to do real research and real learning, and not fall back on their lazily acquired preconceptions. Also, if you live in a place like New Orleans, it becomes commonplace, and you lose sight of what makes it so weird to people who aren’t familiar with it. The trick in writing “Nine Lives” was recreating the city both for people who know it well and those who don’t.
BGB: The narrative style in Nine Lives is one of the book’s primary strengths. Dan Baum the interviewer is almost entirely absent from what is presented on the page. Clearly your intent was to let these people speak for themselves. Was it difficult to resist the temptation to editorialize, explain, or put things into context for the reader?
DB: No, Margaret and I decided early on that everything would be “in scene.” I was only present for a small number of the scenes in the book. (The evacuation of Anthony Wells, moments in JoAnn Guidos’s bar, and a few others), so it was easy to leave myself out.
BGB: That said, why is Anthony Wells’ story the only one presented in the first person?
DB: I started out writing Anthony the way I wrote the others — in close third person. But those chapters really lit up when Anthony was talking. Finally I decided to get out of the way and let him tell it. Of the nine, Anthony uses the language in the most magical way.
BGB: I love the fact that you let most of the unique New Orleans words and phrases (e.g., neutral ground, banquette, debris (as a food item), merlitons, etc.) go by without providing definitions or expository remarks. As an outsider, how difficult was it to get your bearings in the unique cultural world of New Orleans?
DB: New Orleanians make it easy. In other places, people are doctors, or janitors, or school teachers, and live in the town where they live. In New Orleans it always seemed to me that living in New Orleans is what people do, and the jobs they hold are really secondary — just to pay the rent. I’ve never been in a place where people are as conscious, minute-to-minute of the place where they’re living and their own place in the culture. At first I thought, well, it’s just because of Katrina. But as my nine characters told me their pre-Katrina stories, I realized, no, this is how this place has always been.
BGB: Some of the people that you follow describe activities that are deeply intimate, criminal, and/or of a nature that one wouldn’t want them widely broadcast. In your Acknowledgements you mention that the interviewees motivations for revealing so much about themselves is unclear. Are you aware of any repercussions that have arisen for those who participated with the writing of the book?
DB: No. I’ve gotten back a quibble here and there and minor factual details — the color of a hat, the type of flowering shrub, the spelling of a name — but, amazingly, nobody’s complained that my portrayal of them was too intimate. I didn’t put in anything they didn’t tell me themselves. But I agree; I’m flabbergasted at the things people told me.
BGB: I have a friend who is a newspaper editor, and he has a theory that any book over 300 pages is a victim of poor editing. Given that your book weighs in pretty close to that restraint, do you have a similar philosophy?
DB: Not specificially. But a book has to have a good reason to go long. And nowadays, publishers are pretty strict, because of the cost of manufacturing books. This may change with Kindles and other means of reading books. I don’t necessarily buy that the public’s attention span is shortening. If it’s good, people will read.
BGB: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your time in New Orleans reporting on Hurricane Katrina and writing Nine Lives?
DB: During the time I was researching the book — January to June 2007 — I was also writing a daily online column about New Orleans for the New Yorker’s website. (Those who are interested can find it on my website, www.danbaum.com, and click on “articles.”) The blog, willy-nilly, proved popular in New Orleans, which was extremely gratifying. Nerves were rubbed raw in those days — they still are — and New Orleanians were rightly suspicious of outsiders interpreting their city. That New Orleanians liked what I had to say about their city was very heart-warming and encouraging.