Q&A with local scribe Dan Baum, author of Nine Lives
11:11 Productions Dan Baum
How do you report on one of the most-covered events in recent U.S. history? That was the conundrum facing Boulder-based writer Dan Baum, then a New Yorker staff writer, when he arrived in New Orleans a few days after Hurricane Katrina. Baum and his wife and writing partner Margaret Knox's ultimate decision was to write a book not about the storm, but about the city and people forced to bear its brunt. The result, the recently released Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, is nonfiction that reads like epic fiction, a chronicle that weaves together the incredibly vivid tales of nine members of New Orleans' diverse citizenry over a four-decade period. The work has been warmly received, earning gushing reviews and popping up on several best-seller lists.
We recently sat down with Baum to talk about reporting -- and not reporting -- on Katrina, the joy of putting his ass on the line and the current financial and existential storm battering the writing business.
Westword (Joel Warner): While there have been endless accounts of Hurricane Katrina, at least to me there doesn't yet seem to be one, definitive take on the event. Why do you think that is?
Dan Baum: Well, you have a lot of Katrina books. There are memoirs. There are jeremiads. It's why I didn't want to write a Katrina book. But you may be right that there is not a thoughtful, analytical, complete story of Katrina. And it could be that it's too soon. I have found that you have to wait a while for people to calm the fuck down. And get some distance and get some perspective.
When I wrote my first book on the war on drugs [Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure], I could go back to the Nixon and Reagan and Carter White House administrations and because it was far enough in the past they could talk with some honesty on what they had done. The closer I came to the present, the less wise people were. The more defiant they were. Someday, somebody will write a really good book about Katrina. And they will get [former FEMA head] Michael Brown to sit back and talk about those days and own up and reveal stuff he just wouldn't be able to now. It's just too raw.
WW: You know Brown now lives around here, right? Have you ever tried to contact him?
DB: I am not really interested in Katrina anymore. In a funny way, the whole reason I did the book the way I did it is because I got burned out covering it. It became clear to me that Katrina and the recovery was never as interesting as New Orleans. All my inches in the magazine were focused on FEMA this, the National Guard that. What all of us that were covering the recovery were fundamentally missing in that first year was what a weird place New Orleans is. We were covering the recovery as if it could be happening anywhere -- as if it could have been happening in Los Angeles or Indianapolis.
WW: So what was the tipping point for you? When did you decide you wanted to write this book in a fundamentally different way?
DB: We came up with the idea in late 2006. My wife and I didn't want to write a book about Katrina, we wanted to write a book about New Orleans. But how do we do that? We looked for one person's story that would throw a rope around the whole city, but we could never find one story that would include everything. So we were just going to have to intertwine a bunch of people's stories. One of my models was Cornelius Ryan, who wrote The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far. He chose a few individuals and took them through these World War II battles. Every now and then, he gives you this third-person context, but not so much. So we said, "Well, shit. This is not about Katrina. We want this to go over forty years." So we picked eight characters. And in doing eight, we came across a ninth, and we realized, if we have one more, we have that great title.
I'll tell you what is gratifying. The whole time I was doing this, I felt I was pushing myself and pushing the form. It's a weird experiment to keep nine characters straight and whipsaw them around in this story. And I knew we were pushing the form in that regard. And I knew we were pushing the form by using the tone of fiction to recreate these scenes. There is no third-person voice. It's all told from the characters' point of view. And it's all told in scenes. It's weird, and I told people it felt really good. As old as I am -- I'm 53, and I am really putting my ass on the line. I am not writing a safe book.
I thought I was going to get creamed by the reviews. I thought somebody would take me off at the knees. You read reviews like that all the time. Usually you have nonfiction book writers review nonfiction books, and everybody wants to do this sort of thing. Everybody wants to stretch out and kind of wing it. And kind of recreate and write scenes and delve into shit they didn't see. And then when you are asked to review a book like that, often you eviscerate the writer for doing it. As if to say, "Who do you think you are?" And I thought: This is what is going to happen to me. And not a single person has dinged me for that. Maybe times are changing as to what the public is willing to tolerate.
WW: The fiction-like scenes you mention are almost unbelievably detailed. Did you have to do a little reportorial hocus-pocus to recreate those moments -- especially the ones that occurred three or four decades ago?
DB: I did as little reportorial hocus-pocus as I could manage. Here's how I could do it. Let's say Ronald [one of the main characters] is telling me about a scene in Miss Duckie's garage on voting day. Miss Duckie has passed away and her garage is gone. But I looked at a photo that Miss Duckie's son had. I found a photo of what a voting machine looked like in those days. I knew what was on the radio at that time. I knew what it smelled like. I knew what it sounded like when the waterfront is running.
A lot of those details I have been able to ascertain. I don't know for sure when I write, "She squinted in the smoke from her cigarette," but I know she smoked all the time and I know she squinted when she smoked. And I asked her son, "Tell me about her voice. Imitate her for me. Stand up and imitate her for me. Try to use the tone of her voice that she used." And I always carry a little digital camera. When someone tells me about a place, I would go and then shoot everything. Not much has changed in New Orleans. So I did as little whole-cloth making up as I could. In fact, I don't know if I did any making up.
WW: How did you keep all of the information organized?
DB: One thing I did this time was I put all my interviews with a subject in one file. It makes it word-searchable. I would stop from time to time in my writing and take a little time to do a timeline: "I have a 1965 scene from Ronald and a 1965 scene from John Guidos. I have a '67 scene from Frank and a '67 scene from Billy. I have nothing from that period with Joyce." I'd have to go back and ask her about that period.
And I talked to Margaret all the time. So I had two heads keeping this all straight. But also the knowledge that if you don't get the motherfucker in on time, you don't get paid. That concentrates the mind wonderfully.
WW: What's interesting is that this book may have the biggest build-up of all time. You don't even mention Katrina until the last third.
DB: Remember, it's not about Katrina. Our goal was to write it in such a way that by the time Katrina shows up, the reader would almost forget it is coming. So when Katrina starts to show up, the reader says, "Oh no, not now." We wanted to delve so deeply in New Orleans that Katrina would be as much a surprise to the reader as it was to the city.
WW: Now that the book's out, have you heard from any of the nine main subjects?
DB: Four of them came to the book launch in New Orleans. I can't find Anthony Wells, which is painful. I just can't find him. Nobody knows where he is.
It is tough to be written about. And a few people were a little touchy about being written about. But there's been nothing substantive. I am eager to find out if it changes their lives.
WW: You had a personal upheaval of sorts in the lead-up to the book when you were let go by the New Yorker. How did that impact your take on the upheaval these people were facing?
DB: The only real effect of that was that part of getting fired from the New Yorker involved them having me write a blog about New Orleans. I had to do it every day. It forced me to learn about the city. They told me, "You're gonna be able to write three lines each day in a blink." No, I wanted to write 1,000 words a day. Whole, complete pieces each day. It was really fun. But it was a lot of work. Go and find the guy who sells live turtles for turtle soup. And write about encounters on the street. Watch car accidents. People in New Orleans loved it. I got so much fan mail. It was very gratifying.
WW: So what could a place like Denver learn from what's happened to New Orleans?
DB: To me, the fundamental thing about New Orleans is everyone in New Orleans has more time than money. Here we tend to have more money than time. We never see our friends and family. We never sit on our porch for hours on end. We don't center our lives around five-hour dinner parties. We are about getting things done. I think we could all learn something about living more in the moment.
As for urban-politics stuff, I will tell you one thing: All of the big plans to make New Orleans bigger and better, the Urban Land Institute plan, the mayor's commission, the governor's commission to fix New Orleans, they all failed. Nobody was listening to the people of New Orleans. If you want to do something big in town, listen to the people first. Find out what people like about the way things are before you change them, because if people don't want the changes, they won't happen. And you will end up wth a lot of ill will. That's what happened in New Orleans. They forgot the listening piece.
WW: You've done a lot of different things in journalism: newspapers, Rolling Stone, New Yorker, nonfiction books, blogs. What's your take on what's happening to the industry?
DB: I really think we are all in for a few bad years. Because right now the public is used to getting everything for free on the web. People want to read stuff on the web and they are used to getting it for free. But when newspapers disappear and magazines disappear, people are going to see that unless you fund reporting, the quality of the stuff you get on the web will not be satisfying.
That said, I personally believe that in the long term, people want to read good stuff, and if it means someone has to figure out the business model for people to pay for it, it will happen. But until the public goes through some period of getting substandard stuff, we in this business are going to have a hard time. But then, people are going to say, "I want in-depth reporting, the way I used to get it from a newspaper. I want real literature. I may be reading it on a Kindle screen, but I want real literature, I want real, in-depth reporting, a well-researched book about Guantanamo or some other important issue." And someone has to pay for that. I don't know the business model, but someone will figure it out.