I was aware of Tom Piazza before Why New Orleans Matters. His writing was long a go-to for insights into the music I loved. But this book, about the city we both love (and where he had moved years before Katrina), really made clear his genius. Since then, he’s given us more music writing (in part through his contributions to the wonderful HBO show Treme) as well as novels like the brilliant A Free State. I am thrilled to have him here today.
How does a book start for you?
Usually for me a book starts with an image, a situation, dialogue that I can hear, something already in progress. Almost never does anything worthwhile start with a Big Idea. I can’t make a plan, figure out characters in advance, and then just execute the plan. I can’t see the point in writing a book that way. But I know plenty of writers who do — good ones, too.
Who in your latest book has surprised you most – and why?
My most recent novel, A FREE STATE, actually did start with a plan, which I had to dismantle completely before the thing came alive. But it really came alive, to the extent that everybody in the book surprised me. I had to let them surprise me, or the book would have been dead on arrival. That book was a very spooky experience to write, but I guess they all are. Maybe without revealing too much I can say that the narrator of the final chapter probably surprised me the most, just by appearing.
When and/or where is your latest book set and is there a story behind that setting?
A FREE STATE is set in Philadelphia, mostly, in 1855, and it deals with the moment when the argument over slavery was coming to a boil at the same time that blackface minstrelsy was the dominant form of popular entertainment. The central character is an escaped slave who is also a very brilliant musician. I had started playing banjo, which is really an African instrument, at its root, and doing a lot of reading about the history of the instrument. In one of those histories I saw an ad reproduced, which had been placed by a slaveowner, offering a reward for the return of his “property,” and in the description the escaped man was described as being “very proficient on the banjar.” I thought — there you have it — a man whose greatest talent is his greatest vulnerability. The story grew from that.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am about a year into work on a brand new novel; I guess it would be fair to say that it is my most ambitious book yet. We’ll see how I feel about it by the end! I’m hoping to have it done by the fall.
Which question didn’t I ask you that I should have?
Who am I reading right now? Glad you asked! Melville, Whitman, Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain, not necessarily in that order. But I’d be lying if I said Melville isn’t my main man.
Tom Piazza is celebrated both as a novelist and as a writer on American music. His twelve books include the novels A Free State and City Of Refuge, the post-Hurricane Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and the essay collection Devil Sent The Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America. He was a principal writer for the innovative HBO drama series TREME, and the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Bookforum, The Oxford American, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other periodicals. He lives in New Orleans.