Setting the Tempo: TOM PIAZZA
Highlights from Issue 31: Ode to the South
Tom Piazza in his New Orleans home / April 2007
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
By JC GABEL
Tom Piazza grew up on Long Island, New York, but has lived in New Orleans for the last 14 years. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as an ardent jazz fan and historian, Piazza fell in love with the Crescent City, which spawned not only jazz itself, but also some of the most unforgettable works of American literature.
In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina, Piazza wrote his ode to the city, Why New Orleans Matters, which was published by HarperCollins just three months after the storm. He is the author of eight other books, including the short story collection Blues and Trouble, the novel My Cold War, several collections of jazz writings (Understanding Jazz, The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz and Blues Up and Down: Jazz in Our Time) and a portrait of bluegrass music great Jimmy Martin (True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass). He is currently at work on two new novels, one of which is set in New Orleans.
Piazza spoke with STOP SMILING this past spring about what has become of his favorite American city.
Stop Smiling: How soon after Hurricane Katrina did you decide that you needed to stop what you were working on, and write a book about why New Orleans mattered?
Tom Piazza: In August, right before Hurricane Katrina, I was doing a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, working on another novel. I was about to drive back to New Orleans on the Saturday before the storm. Before heading out I called my better half, Mary, and she said, “Actually, you’re not coming down. Everybody is evacuating.” I hadn’t been paying attention to the storm watch at all. So I drove to Missouri instead and met her there at her family’s house, and that’s where we rode out the storm and watched everything fall apart on television. It was horrible. The only thing I can compare it to in my own life is watching my father die of sepsis in front of me in the hospital.
It was hard to get information the first week after the storm. They were posting satellite photos on the Internet, and we were studying them, trying to figure out where our streets were, wondering if the water had gotten there. You had no idea really what the situation was, neighborhood to neighborhood or block to block. I didn’t know if there would be a city left, if I had a house, if Mary had a house. We just didn’t know anything. I was going crazy like everybody else, and I thought, “Well, maybe if I can write something.” I talked to Cal Morgan, my editor at HarperCollins, and quickly the idea of a short book about why the city needed to live took shape. That was right around the time House Speaker Dennis Hastert made his infamous remark about it not “making sense” to save the city. That really got my Sicilian blood pumping and I thought, “Here’s why it needs to be saved, you fucking prick.”