Monroeville, Alabama must have story-telling elixir in its water table. Truman Capote summered there and the town gave birth to Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Mark Childress. A former part-time New Orleans resident, Mark has written the novels A World Made of Fire, V for Victor, Tender (named to several Ten Best of 1990 lists), Crazy in Alabama (made into a movie by Antonio Banderas with Melanie Griffith), Gone for Good, and One Mississippi. His articles and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Times of London, San Francisco Chronicle, Saturday Review, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Travel and Leisure, and other national and international publications. His new novel Georgia Bottoms appeared in February to strong reviews.
Q: You live in Key West now, having sold your New Orleans house right before Katrina. You wrote a terrific piece in Salon called “Disaster Tourism” about the danger that “the country was ready to begin turning its back on the whole thing” and recounting your first return. The piece ends, “Maybe New Orleans will be okay after all.” You’ve been back since? What’s your take now on New Orleans’ return to form?
A: I’ve been back to New Orleans a dozen times or more since Katrina. It has been amazing to watch the city go from dead to barely alive to beginning to thrive again, although it still feels largely depopulated to me in certain districts.
Considering the paucity of effective local (or national) leadership at the time of the storm, I’d say the residents of NOLA have done an amazing job of climbing out of the hole they found themselves in. Some things came back faster than I would have imagined at the time – the restaurant scene, tourism, violent crime. And some parts of New Orleans are just dead or still mostly dying.
My biggest fear, of course, is another storm that will demonstrate that the Corps of Engineers’ attempts to improve the levee system have been piecemeal and half-hearted. I still don’t understand how America’s most important port city can be left exposed in this state of long-term, extended danger, and nobody outside of New Orleans seems to feel any urgency about it. To me, the entire response to Katrina was a failure of our national will.
Q: How long were you a part-time resident? What do you miss about New Orleans?
A: I’ve been visiting New Orleans regularly since I first made several pilgrimages as a college student in the 1970s. During the 1980s when I lived near Mobile, I was here all the time. Finally I bought a place here in 2000 and sold it in 2005.
When I’m not here I miss everything about the city – the sounds, the smells of (most of) the streets, the heavy air coming in off the river, the way everybody calls you “baby.” I know it’s a cliché to say The Food, but how can you not? I tend to be fat anyway; this city encourages me in this.
When I am here, I don’t miss the storm drains that turn into lakes at each corner when it rains. But then, we have those in Key West too.
Q: Your work has often been characterized as Southern Gothic in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and those other southerners, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, and the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. How does your experience of New Orleans relate to those traditions — Southern Gothic and Magical Realism? Did New Orleans help feed those grotesque juices that seem to flow through your pen?
A: Well, and don’t forget our local New Orleans master and wizard, John Kennedy Toole. My most recent novel Georgia Bottoms is partly inspired by A Confederacy of Dunces. I decided to try to take on the same challenge Toole set for himself: to create a lead character who is unsympathetic in every possible way and make the reader fall in love with her. For Georgia, my character, New Orleans represents an almost impossibly rich and unattainable fantasy. She has spent her whole life in a little Alabama town, scheming and dreaming of a way to get to New Orleans.
My theory is that modern New Orleans is a city dedicated in every way to a celebration of decay. This makes it unique on the continent. It’s the only American city that actively and ritually acknowledges the existence of death, through the Carnival. It’s the most Gothic, the most exotic city in America. Where else could Anne Rice have placed her vampires? Brooklyn? Philly? I don’t think so.
I find myself following in the footsteps of Tennessee Williams. I have now lived in most of the places he lived. He had excellent taste in places to live.
It’s funny you should mention Borges. He’s a great hero of mine. One of my proudest days came when a friend and I came to New Orleans in the late 1970s to interview the great man himself for Saturday Review (remember that magazine?). Borges stayed at the Fairmont [now once again the Roosevelt Hotel, birthplace of the Sazerac cocktail]. We spent most of an afternoon hanging out with him and trying to make out what he was saying. He really loved Preservation Hall and hearing the “waves and waves of jazz.”
Q: You grew up partly in Ohio. I'm going to guess you don’t miss too much about Mid-West cuisine (like “meat and 2”). Given a long weekend in New Orleans, where would you eat?
A; Oh God, anywhere they would have me. Bayona, Galatoire’s, NOLA, K-Paul’s, Casamento’s, the Rib Room, the Upperline, Commander’s Palace, Arnaud’s, Acme Oyster Bar, Restaurant August, Bouligny Tavern, Brigtsen’s, Stanley and Stella!, maybe a muffuletta from Central Grocery,…. Do I have to stop?
Q: Can you share one or two of your favorite New Orleans stories, food related or otherwise?
A: Back in the mists of time, when I was a young editor at Southern Living magazine, they sent me to New Orleans to do a story on this hot new cuisine everybody was talking about: the “new Cajun” as exemplified by Paul Prudhomme. This was the moment when people were lining up around the block and waiting three and four hours to eat at K-Paul’s. I mean, Paul kind of invented modern foodie New Orleans with that restaurant.
Anyway, I asked Paul what kind of story I could do on Cajun cooking in New Orleans, and he laughed. “You won’t find much of it here,” he said. “We have to go to the bayou.”
He was so busy at that time -- but he took a week off from all his work to conduct
me and our photographer, Mike Clemmer, on a tour of Cajun country. We ate from morning to night. Paul’s old auntie cooked us eggs at dawn, then we went off to little stores in the back towns searching for homemade boudin and rabbit stew. Everywhere we went, of course, he was The King, the local boy who was making the big time, and the local people pulled out everything good they’d ever cooked and made us eat it with them.
Everything I know about Louisiana food, I learned that week from Paul Prudhomme.
Another memorable evening brought about by Southern Living was the night I took Thelma Toole out to dinner. Thelma was extremely peculiar, exactly like the character of the mother in A Confederacy of Dunces. I had spent the whole day with her, trying to cut through the overwrought dramatic monologue and get her to tell me something true about her son Kenny.
She picked the restaurant, Jonathan’s, a pricey place on North Rampart where everyone fussed over her. I don’t remember much of what we said but the whole thing was transportingly odd. Someone would stop by the table to say, “Oh I love your son’s book,” and she would swat his hand away and bark at him, “You are not FIT to appreciate my son’s GE-NEE-US.”
God, I do love that city.