Levees Not War
Restore the Wetlands. Reinforce the Levees.

Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Louisiana Anthology Interviews Levees Not War

Monday, July 7th, 2014

Louisiana AnthologyUsually when Levees Not War is involved in an interview, we do the interrogating. But now, we’re happy to report, the tables have been turned: Levees Not War is the subject of an in-depth interview with the editors of the Louisiana Anthology, Bruce R. Magee and Stephen Payne, professors at Louisiana Tech in Ruston. The Levees Not War Q&A is the second of a two-part interview with blogger and author Mark LaFlaur, focusing on Elysian Fields, a novel of New Orleans, that was posted on June 28 and July 5. Click here for the iTunes podcasts.

Bruce and Stephen have kindly posted two pieces from Levees Not War on the Louisiana Anthology website, “Is Katrina More Significant Than September 11?” and “Disaster Capitalism Will Solve U.S. Budget Deficit? Ask New Orleans and Wisconsin” (original links here and here).

At about 39:30 minutes in, the interview includes a 5-minute shout-out to the Rising Tide conference on the future of New Orleans held annually in mid-September at Xavier University (Sept. 13, 2014)—affordably priced and always interesting—with mentions of prominent keynote speakers such as Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, Harry Shearer, John Barry, and David Simon. Click here for more information about Rising Tide 2014.

The interview was conducted by phone in late April. Since the Q&A with Bruce and Stephen, Elysian Fields’s presence in bookstores, especially in the South, has expanded significantly. The book is now available at the stores listed below: support your local independent bookstores. We hope you’ll spread the word among your book-readin’ friends, and we welcome your suggestions of indie booksellers near you who you think might want to carry Elysian Fields.

EF_Kirkus

Bookstores Carrying Elysian Fields

New Orleans: Crescent City Books, Garden District Book ShopMaple Street Book ShopForever New Orleans, and Toulouse Royale

Baton Rouge: Cottonwood Books, Barnes & Noble at LSU

New York City: Three Lives & Co., McNally-Jackson Books

Atlanta: Eagle Eye Book Shop (Decatur)

Birmingham: The Little Professor Book Center in Homewood

Mobile: Bienville Books

Jackson, Miss.: Lemuria Bookstore

Oxford, Miss.Square Books

Bay St. Louis, Miss.: Bay Books

Memphis: The Booksellers at Laurelwood

Nashville: Parnassus Books

thanxamazonChapel Hill, N.C.: Bull’s Head Bookshop (UNC)

Durham, N.C.: The Regulator Bookshop

Houston: Blue Willow Bookshop

Little Rock, Ark.: WordsWorth Books & Co.

Berkeley, Calif.: University Press Books

San Francisco: City Lights Books

Seattle: Elliott Bay Book Company

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Tom Piazza on Writing for HBO’s “Treme”

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

“New Orleans has a mythology, a personality, a soul, that is large, and that has touched people around the world. It has its own music (many of its own musics), its own cuisine, its own way of talking, its own architecture, its own smell, its own look and feel. . . .

“It may be hard for people who have never been to the Crescent City to understand the passionate love people have for it, to understand why it’s worth fighting for—why it matters. . . . New Orleans is not just a list of attractions or restaurants or ceremonies, no matter how sublime and subtle. New Orleans is the interaction among all those things, and countless more. It gains its character from the spirit that is summoned . . . in the midst of all these elements, and that comes, ultimately, from the people who live there. . . . That spirit . . . is what is in jeopardy right now.” 

from the Introduction to Why New Orleans Matters

 

A few nights ago we went to the Center for Fiction in Manhattan to hear our friend Tom Piazza talk about writing for HBO’s popular show Treme, which most readers of this blog know is set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Piazza is an accomplished and versatile writer of short stories, novels, and books about jazz, blues, and New Orleans—ten books altogether. He has won a Grammy and other awards, and his writing has been praised by Bob Dylan, but until co-creator and executive producer David Simon phoned him in 2009, he had not written a screenplay.

The following is an account of the evening, with some paraphrasing and some direct quoting of Piazza’s remarks, and a bit of background explanation about the show, which we highly recommend. Tom Piazza did not say this, exactly, but one of the qualities of Treme that we have found most appealing, besides its vivid realism and honest evocation of America’s most unique, world-unto-itself city, is that about half of the show’s main characters are African American (Antoine Batiste, LaDonna, Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux), and each is an individual, not a (stereo)type. This is almost unheard of in American television. In fact, all of the characters, of whatever complexion, are treated with respect and psychological subtlety. Music, too, in many varieties, is accorded a place of honor. In many scenes, music is not there merely for atmosphere—it’s part of the action, like the other characters.

A Show Set at the Heart of New Orleans Music

A brief clip of a Season One episode that Tom had written was shown to give the audience a taste of the show, then the Center’s executive director Noreen Tomassi (shown with Tom in photo below) asked him a series of questions about similarities and differences between writing fiction and screenwriting, how the writing work on the show is organized, and so on.

(For those unfamiliar with New Orleans neighborhoods, the Treme, or Faubourg Treme [pronounced “truh-MAY”] is a historically African American “back of town” section of the city behind the French Quarter, across Rampart Street. It is named after a French planter, Claude Tremé, who married a free woman of color. The oldest African American neighborhood in the United States and home to a large population of free blacks since 1812 [thus 2012 will be its bicentennial], Treme includes the site of the legendary Congo Square—now covered by Louis Armstrong Park—where slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays to play drums and sing and dance. Treme has been the birthplace of countless jazz and other musical talents, including Alex Chilton, Louis Prima, and Shannon Powell, as well as Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band, who often appear in the show. What New Orleans is to America’s music, Treme is to New Orleans.)

Of the six writers for Treme, two are residents of New Orleans: Piazza and Lolis Eric Elie, a former columnist for the Times-Picayune who grew up in the Treme. Elie, too, though an accomplished journalist and maker (with Dawn Logsdon) of the documentary film Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, had also never written television screenplays. The other writers are the show’s creators, David Simon and Eric Overmyer (who worked together on HBO’s hit show The Wire), the late David Mills, and George Pelecanos, all veteran screenwriters.

Piazza explained that screenwriting is a combination of collaborative and solo work, some done with the others in the writers’ room and some alone. The six gathered at a room HBO had booked at the Monteleone Hotel. Certain plot and character aims were established early on—for example, by the end of the first season we’ll want this character to have moved physically or psychologically from here to here. After group discussions, sketching out rough outlines, the writers each went off to do solo work, which would then be brought back to the group to be worked over, cut, altered, elaborated, and so on. For one thing, writing for TV definitely requires working well with others, being able to compromise, bite your tongue, and bide your time.

In Treme, he explained, you have eight or ten principal characters who have “point of view”—that is, characters you can be alone with, whom the camera follows through a scene. The trick in making an episode is to “shuffle the deck” of the scenes in such as way that the pace never flags, the tension on the line never goes slack. But if you shift too much or too rapidly, the viewer may become disoriented or the narrative may get scrambled.

At the Crossroads of Fiction and TV

One way in which screenwriting is like fiction is that you’re writing against the tension of not knowing whether the material you’re writing is actually going to be used. You may work long and hard on scenes that you end up deciding not to use after all—fiction writers know about this—and the same thing can happen in the writers’ room.

As for screenwriting’s influence on his fiction, he said, at first he was wary of the schematic element creeping into his work, the necessary focus on plot (more than character and psychology). And yet there were ways in which the differences in the genres have sharpened some of his fictional instincts.

“One thing I’ve thought a lot about since starting with screenwriting for Treme is that in fiction there is always the question of what you dramatize and what you want to explain by way of exposition. In other words, do you show something happening, or do you tell about it as having happened at more of a distance? In film, where everything is dramatized, there is no equivalent to exposition except for the voice-over (such as something like having a narrator say, ‘It was a bleak winter of homes and entire neighborhoods nearly leveled, and determined residents struggling to get by and start over . . .’). This experience of writing for the screen where virtually everything is dramatized sharpened the questions I asked about what to dramatize when I turned back to fiction.”

Piazza said there were some tough questions facing the creators and writers and actors when preparing for the first season, such as, How do you come back after an extreme catastrophe like this? How do you try to get back to the kind of life your city had before? The writers and actors focused on the life of New Orleans as depicted in Why New Orleans Matters, copies of which were distributed to the members of the cast and crew by the production office before filming began. That book, which Tom wrote in five intensive weeks shortly after the storm (publ. Nov. 2005), shows the city’s life and culture as based around food, music, dancing, festivals—all of which are intertwined. While Season One was very much rooted in Why New Orleans Matters, Season Two was more about the nuts and bolts of survival, rebuilding your home and your city, struggling to get back to normal, dealing with the insane bureaucracy and other obstacles.

Doubts Allayed by High-Fidelity Realism

One audience member asked what impact the series has had on the people of New Orleans.

“Dozens of bars and restaurants with HBO host Treme-watching parties on Sunday nights. Even the Charbonnet Funeral Home has HBO. It’s a fantastic thrill to go to a bar or restaurant and all these people watching these lines you wrote are talking back to the character and responding to things they do. And there are all these blogs that have sprung up to discuss the show, such as Back of Town and Watching Treme that have this ongoing midrash of discussion about episodes and characters and verisimilitude, significance, etc.

Before the show started there was a certain amount of caution and skepticism, with people wondering how are outsiders going to tell this story? How do they know what we’ve been through? It was similar to the questions in early 2006 about whether there was going to be a Mardi Gras so soon after the storm. There was some hesitancy about whether it was appropriate, but enough people said, Of course we’ll have Carnival: there’s no way we’re not going to have Mardi Gras.”

When asked which characters he most enjoys writing for, Piazza replied that “you have to love writing about all the characters—and this is true of fiction too—but I especially have fun writing for the character Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn), who comes from this Uptown Garden District family, but he’s bohemian, a would-be musician who hangs out with all these musicians and artists. He switches modes of diction very flexibly, depending on the setting he’s in. Also, it’s wonderful writing for actors as good as the ones in the Treme cast, because whatever you write, you know they’re going to get it and be able to play it.”

As for what might be expected in the third season, Piazza was teasingly discreet, and too professional to spoil any surprises. He did venture a supposition, however, that a viewer could reasonably be surprised if the season did not deal in some way with such major events in the city’s recent history as the aftermath of the Danziger bridge shootings or “the savage, cynical, deliberate destruction” of public housing complexes that has made it difficult-to-impossible for lower-income residents of New Orleans to rebuild their deep-rooted lives in New Orleans.

Piazza was asked about the future, about how many years out the character developments can be envisioned. David Simon has said publicly that he sees Treme as a four-season show, though HBO has paid Simon “the compliment” of saying it’s as if in this complex, multilayered series Simon is writing a novel, and we want him to be able to bring that novel to completion.

That comparison strikes us as accurate, and although many works of fiction have been adapted for the screen (especially by HBO lately), Treme is one of the few television dramas we know of that can stand comparison with a serious novel for richness and subtlety. For those who might have missed David Simon’s remarks at Rising Tide 6 last August on the making of Treme and the show’s relationship to the city it represents, see our live-blogging here and a video of the keynote speaker here. See also

Until Season Three airs next spring, and even long after the show has resumed, we highly recommend Tom Piazza’s Why New Orleans Matters, along with his novel City of Refuge (2008) and his latest book, Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, a collection of articles and essays about musicians, writers, and New Orleans. He has written ten books altogether and is at work on a new novel, so he’ll keep you busy—and will repay the attention you give his writing—for a long time to come.

For More about the Treme and New Orleans . . .

Faubourg Tremé: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, a documentary film by Lolis Eric Elie and Dawn Logsdon

After the Flood: The Creator of ‘The Wire’ in New Orleans” (New Yorker review of Treme by Nancy Franklin)

New Orleans African American Museum: Tremé 200: Bicentennial 1812–2012

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts | Spike Lee’s acclaimed 4-hour documentary (HBO, 2006)

If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise | Spike Lee’s follow-up to When the Levees Broke (HBO, 2010)

Trouble the Water | Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, 2008. Includes 15 min. of video footage just before and during Hurricane Katrina by Lower 9th Ward residents Kimberly Rivers Roberts and her husband Scott. Winner of 2008 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize.

Michael E. Crutcher Jr., Treme: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood (2010)

Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (2008)

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“If there is a single factor most repsonsible for the extraordinary distance New Orleans has traveled in the years since its near-death experience, it is the city’s culture. Not only the city’s music, dance, funeral traditions, cuisine, and architecture—its look and its smell and its feel and its sense of humor—but the interaction among all those factors, their coordination, is what makes the city live, what makes it alive, in its unique way. . . .

“As of this writing, the notion that the written word is doomed, or doomed to irrelevance at least, because of the power and immediacy and omnipresence of electronic media, is so widespread that it has become almost axiomatic. But it is not true. . . . In the private space shared by the writer and the reader, one individual soul encounters nother and a spell is cast, created by both of them. . . .”

—from the Introduction to Devil Sent the Rain

 

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Credits: Top photo of TP (at P.J.’s on Maple Street?) by Sean Gardner, from Williams College alumni magazine; Congo Square illustration (dancing the Bamboula, ca. late 1700s, drawn by E. W. Kemble ca. 1880s) from Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University; The Center for Fiction’s executive director Noreen Tomassi and TP from The Center for Fiction; Treme Season Two poster from HBO.

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When Harry Met a Cover-Up:
Shearer Talks about “The Big Uneasy”

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

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[ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

We sat down recently with Harry Shearer—that is, we sat down and e-mailed him some questions, and he sat down and wrote some thoughtful replies—to talk about his new film The Big Uneasy, which tells the real story of why New Orleans flooded in Hurricane Katrina. (Click here for the trailer.) Here’s a brief sample:

Q. You’ve said that in President Obama’s 3-hour “drive-through” appearance in New Orleans in October 2009, he used the phrase “natural disaster,” and that that is what prompted you to make this film. Is anyone learning that Katrina itself did not flood the city, but that the levees’ failure is what flooded the city?

Shearer: Very few, very slowly. People sometimes make reference to the levee failure in passing, as if it’s a natural result of a storm like Katrina. But there still seems to be quite low awareness of the conclusion of the two independent investigations that, absent a badly-designed and -built “protection system,” the worst Katrina would have inflicted on New Orleans would have been “wet ankles.”

Q. Had you thought of making a film on this subject before the president’s remarks triggered you? (Somewhere we saw a mention that the idea had occurred to you at the Rising Tide 4 conference, and that you posed the idea but nobody responded and so it was up to you?)

Shearer: No, I don’t recall giving serious thought to it, though I may have mentioned at RT that wresting back control of the narrative of the city’s near-destruction might have required somebody to do such a film. But I’d really not thought of myself as that somebody until I heard the President say something that he patently should have known was not true.

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Before we continue with the interview, we want to talk a bit about the film. You may not have seen it because it does not yet have a distributor. Harry is working on that. Thus far it has been shown in New Orleans at the Prytania Theater uptown (it premiered before the Rising Tide conference in late August near the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina), and it has run briefly in New York City and Los Angeles. We saw it twice at Manhattan’s IFC  Center (as shown) and want to do all we can to spread the word about this excellent project—particularly to people with connections to film distributors with a social and political conscience.

Leave It to a Jester to Tell the Truth

Harry Shearer is famous as a versatile humorist, writer, and “voice artist” for The Simpsons and as Derek Smalls, the bearded Ringo-like bass player in This Is Spinal Tap, so at first it may not seem that a movie about the flooding of New Orleans would be his natural subject matter. How funny can it be to explain the catastrophic engineering failure that led to the flooding of 80 percent of the city and hundreds of deaths (if not more)? Although The Big Uneasy won’t have audiences rolling in the aisles, this compelling and richly sourced new documentary does clarify the facts about the disaster-within-a-disaster. Misconceptions are corrected. Cover-ups are uncovered. Truths are told. Acts of professional courage are held up to the light.

Shearer’s comic talent is for real, but his seriousness is authentic, too, as anyone knows who has read his Huffington Post blog pieces over the past several years or listened to his weekly radio program Le Show (KCRW, Los Angeles). He explains in the opening reel that he is a part-time New Orleanian. Through his work with Levees.org (no relation) and his blogging and other efforts he has helped keep the spotlight on his adopted city’s predicament with a commitment and persistence that should earn him some kind of Honorary Full-Time Citizenship award. You’ll understand why when you see The Big Uneasy.

In a recent post on HuffPo Shearer acknowledged that it’s ironic that “a damn comedy actor” should be taking up the untold story:

. . . the story that the flooding was a man-made catastrophe that developed over four and a half decades under administrations of both parties, and the story from a whistleblower inside the Corps of Engineers that the “new, improved” system for protecting New Orleans may right now be fatally flawed. . . . given that lapse among the professional journalists, it was up to a damn comedy actor to piece together the material that’s been sitting there, on the public record, all this time . . .

A review in New York magazine by David Edelstein said it well:

By the end of The Big Uneasy, I came to appreciate [Shearer’s] self-effacement. He’s not a filmmaker or an investigative journalist. He’s not really in his element here. He just, finally, couldn’t stand by and hear “natural disaster” one more time without picking up a camera and, like his protagonists, doing his civic duty for the city he loves so deeply.

Get This: The Flooding Was Not a Natural Disaster

The Big Uneasy is a feature film–length documentary about how and why New Orleans was flooded during Hurricane Katrina. It happened not because Katrina was so overwhelming: although it had been a Category 5 storm in the Gulf, Katrina was only about a Category 1.5 hurricane when it blew past (not straight through) New Orleans, sparing the city the brunt of the storm. The city flooded because of engineering failures in the federally built levees and walls of outflow canals that gave way under pressure even before the storm’s winds did their worst. The film draws on engineers’ reports, postmortem studies, and never-before-seen amateur video footage to show the flooding was not a natural but a man-made disaster. It was not inevitable. Contrary to predictable official claims that the storm was simply overwhelming and the levees were never designed to hold a storm of such magnitude, the flooding resulted from inferior engineering—a point that Ivor van Heerden (right) of the LSU Hurricane Center began speaking out about very soon after the storm passed.

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Interview with Mark Schleifstein
Pulitzer Prize-winning coauthor of
‘Path of Destruction: The Devastation of New Orleans
and the Coming Age of Superstorms’

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

Mark Schleifstein in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005. In the background is a barge that broke through the breach in the wall of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal into the neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2005, crushing the front end of a school bus (far right). Photograph by Ellis Lucia, courtesy of the Times-Picayune.

Mark Schleifstein in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans, 2005. In the background is a barge that broke through the breach in the wall of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal into the neighborhood during Hurricane Katrina, Aug. 29, 2005, crushing the front end of a school bus (far right). Photograph by Ellis Lucia, courtesy of the Times-Picayune.

Mark Schleifstein joined the Times-Picayune in 1984 as an environmental reporter after five years at the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi. Since 1996 he and his Times-Picayune colleague John McQuaid have written numerous major environmental series for the paper, most recently in January 2006. Schleifstein and McQuaid won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their series “Oceans of Trouble: Are the World’s Fisheries Doomed?”—a comprehensive eight-day series about the threats to the world’s fish supply, including the effects of coastal wetlands erosion on fish in Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1998 the Picayune published their series “Home Wreckers: How the Formosan Termite Is Devastating New Orleans,” a finalist for the 1999 Pulitzer.

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Interview with Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, authors of
‘Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security’

Friday, September 1st, 2006

Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security

Times Books, 2006 • $26.00
paperback $16.00
We spoke with Christopher Cooper and Robert Block in August 2006 as Times Books was publishing their powerful behind-the-scenes account of the federal government’s failure in Hurricane Katrina.

Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security is a superb, authoritative work that focuses on the federal response to the disaster-a catastrophe within a catastrophe-but also gives an excellent background on the history of FEMA and of the levee system around New Orleans. Cooper and Block know New Orleans (Cooper lived there 10+ years as a Times-Picayune reporter) and they know FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

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Interview with Ivor van Heerden, author of ‘The Storm:
What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina:
The Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist’

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan

Viking, 2006 • $25.95
paperback $15.00
www.thestorm-katrina.com

IVOR VAN HEERDEN of the LSU Hurricane Center is familiar to millions who watched the Katrina news reports as the straight-talking hurricane expert with a Dutch accent (actually he’s South African). In The Storm, he has written a detailed, analytical, and compelling account of Hurricane Katrina and its terrible impact on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. He shows what happened-and what didn’t have to happen.

What sets The Storm apart from other Katrina books is that van Heerden, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, goes on to propose a workable and affordable plan for Category 5 strength storm protection, modeled on the Netherlands’ successful system: a combination of reinforced levees, storm gates, and coastal restoration, including barrier islands.

On the publication of The Storm, we asked Dr. van Heerden to elaborate on some of his principal concerns about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers’ repair of the levees around New Orleans, and his hopes for political solutions to Louisiana’s environmental predicament.

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