A collection of short stories came out shortly after Hurricane Katrina–all strewn with garbage and filled with people drinking on stoops because they were in such high levels of anxiety. Of course I didn’t know what the other stories were going to be about. All I knew was that the editor was the friend of a highly respected creative writing teacher-slash-writer in New Orleans. So I’d written him a short story. And I hadn’t seen it until it was in print. The book was titled Life in the Wake.
My story was about a person very much like me. A born New Orleanian, a writer, who’d met what here I’ll call a carpetbagger. A very realistic story. New Orleans had more carpetbaggers than it had termites. Anyone who wanted to appear sensitive and charitable came to town. Especially writers and photographers. They came to capture the experience ex post facto. Surely their imaginations could conjure up what it was like to be trapped in flood waters in 95 degrees with no running water, no electricity, no phones, no food. They could extrapolate all that to the craziness in which they imagined themselves. Scribble, scribble, scribble. My short story didn’t make the “me” character look anything but shell-shocked, but it also made the carpetbagger look fatuous. The story had done its part.
But it was just one lousy story. It didn’t do anything for what was going on for me as a writer. The outsiders may have felt they’d found a deep, possibly endless mine of material to write about. Race issues, poverty, damaged homes, damaged families, even damaged minds. But me? I had nothing left. My New Orleans, my terribly nuanced, funny, ironic New Orleans that only a native possibly can know, was so badly destroyed that I was sure I never was going to see her return. I could go into the grocery nearest to me and with one glance distinguish between who’d been here before the storm and who had not, but I couldn’t see writing about the survivors. We slowly were getting back to being darkly funny, but nobody outside out private asylum would understand. I’d already had one novel criticized because I’d chosen a wealthy, quirky white woman as a protagonist for a novel that takes her through Katrina. The reviewer wanted a serious story set in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Just when I’d decided it was time to take to the rocker with my grandchildren, mega-agent Charlotte Sheedy came to town and took pity on me. (Her client Eve Ensler was here for The Vagina Monologues.) She took me to breakfast, assessed my situation, and pointed out that no one had written a young adult novel about Katrina. She suggested a story about a baby disappearing during the storm.
I’d only once before written a novel based on someone else’s idea, and it had been a disaster, but I figured Charlotte was a definite genius, so I went to work that day. I wrote about what I knew, which was uptown, where I’d been trapped for eight days because I didn’t evacuate. I wrote about Baptist Hospital, because the friend of a friend had written a nonfiction book about the horrors of what went on there. And I produced Taken Away in not too long. It was the story of a 15-year-old white girl whose baby sister has open-heart surgery three days before the storm, then disappears in the chaos right after. I asked Charlotte to look at it. She, like any New Yorker or, really, any non-New Orleanian, had expected me to write about a black child disappearing in the Superdome. I had no way of writing such a book.
I wasn’t a carpetbagger. I didn’t have that kind of “imagination.”
I wrote what I knew. And I knew New Orleans.
I even knew New Orleans when I had to wade through four feet of water.
I moved across town pushing a plastic bin with a few possessions.
Not a carpetbag on dry streets.
Patty Friedmann’s two latest books are a YA novel called Taken Away [TSP 2010] and a literary e-novel titled Too Jewish [booksBnimble 2010]. She also is the author of six darkly comic literary novels set in New Orleans: The Exact Image of Mother [Viking Penguin 1991]; Eleanor Rushing , Odds , Secondhand Smoke , Side Effects , and A Little Bit Ruined  [all hardback and paperback from Counterpoint except paper edition of Secondhand Smoke from Berkley Penguin]; as well as the humor book Too Smart to Be Rich [New Chapter Press 1988]. Her novels have been chosen as Discover Great New Writers, Original Voices, and Book Sense 76 selections, and her humor book was syndicated by the New York Times. She has published reviews, essays, and short stories in Publishers Weekly, Newsweek, Oxford American, Speakeasy, Horn Gallery, Short Story, LA LIT, Brightleaf, New Orleans Review, and The Times-Picayune and in anthologies The Great New American Writers Cookbook, Above Ground, Christmas Stories from Louisiana, My New Orleans, New Orleans Noir, and Life in the Wake. Her stage pieces have been part of Native Tongues. In a special 2009 edition, Oxford American listed Secondhand Smoke with 29 titles that included Gone with the Wind, Deliverance, and A Lesson Before Dying as the greatest Underrated Southern Books. With slight interruptions for education and natural disasters, she always has lived in New Orleans.
You can visit her website at www.pattyfriedmann.com.