Exploring New Orleans' Noir

New Orleans has always been a rich source for mystery writers. Julie Smith, editor of the new short story collection New Orleans Noir, and Patty Friedman, one of the book's writers, talk to Farai Chideya about the Big Easy's seedier side, before and after the storm.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

New Orleans is known for Mardi Gras, fine food and jazz music, but even before Katrina, the city had a hard and downright seedy side. The new book, "New Orleans Noir," is a collection of short stories about the best of the Crescent City's very worst.

It's published by Akashic Books, which has created an award-winning Noir Series set in cities across the United States. Julie Smith co-edits the entire series and edited "New Orleans Noir." Patty Friedmann is one of the more than a dozen authors Smith tapped for the collection.

Julie Smith explained how she picked the writers.

Ms. JULIE SMITH (Editor, "New Orleans Noir"): Well, it was really important to me to have a diverse group. One of the things that the noir series does is it tries to explore a city through its neighborhoods. And so that was one thing I was keeping in mind. Who could write about this neighborhood, or who could write about that one?

But what I did was I made myself a list of about 40 or 50 writers, and if that seems like a lot to you, we have a lot of terrific writers in New Orleans. It was actually a matter of narrowing it down.

CHIDEYA: So you narrowed it down, and you really broke things down into a couple of categories. One of them is stories that came about before "The Levees Broke," that's the title of part one; and then part two, the title is "Life in Atlantis."

And Patty, your story is in the before. And Julie, yours is in after. So Patty, why don't you tell us a little bit about the story that you wrote?

Ms. PATTY FRIEDMANN (Contributing Author, "New Orleans Noir"): Well, it's really funny. I have a novel that is just coming out that is a post-Katrina novel. And yet, when Julie asked me to write for it, all I could think about was I was going to have to go way before the storm in order to write something.

And even though Julie debunks my myth about it when she asked me to write something dark, and I'm not really a crime novelist or traditional noir storywriter, I thought what's the darkest thing I could write about, and I thought, hmmm, high school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRIEDMANN: I wrote a story that was set back in the '60s, and it was about mean girls. And it kind of strikes a universal cord. High school in New Orleans, and it doesn't really seem to fit with all the murder and mayhem that is in the rest of the stories, but there's untold evil in my story.

CHIDEYA: So just give me, in a really brief encapsulation, what the story is about.

Ms. FRIEDMANN: My story is about a girl in the '60s who's in a private school, and of course the '60s in New Orleans was about civil rights. And this particular girl is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. And you take those two issues and you set her against mean girls, and you find that some pretty bad things happen.

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. FRIEDMANN: And I don't think I should go beyond that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRIEDMANN: Then just say that a red ribbon plays a key role in the story, so I'll leave it at that.

CHIDEYA: And, Julie, I want to go on to your story, which is more - it's more modern in a lot of ways. Certainly it's set in a more contemporary time after the deluge in Atlantis, as you put it your book. And it's got this kind of wry urban humor, although it's a very dark story.

Give us a description of what you wrote about.

Ms. SMITH: Well, the story is called "Loot" and it's set just after the hurricane. But there were two things that I had in mind. First of all, my neighborhood was the Garden District, which is a very fancy neighborhood in New Orleans.

So I was thinking about all those huge houses and the black women who work for those white families who lived there, and the relationships that develop between the black and white families, which often are rather close in a slightly distant kind of way, if you know what I mean.

And the other thing I was thinking of is the strange doublethink that we all had when we evacuated. We all laughed because we thought the city would flood or might flood and we might all be drowned. So in one sense, we were thinking. In another sense, nobody defrosted their refrigerator. Nobody took more than two pairs of shorts and three T-shirts.

Everybody has exactly the same hurricane story. They all took exactly the same thing. And when we came back, the streets were littered with refrigerators. So I wanted to work with that a little bit. So what the story is really about is a white family which has not come back. They've gone away for the summer and they've not come back. But they're worried about the woman who works for the men and her husband, because they fear that their house may be destroyed -which it actually is, in the hurricane.

So they say to that black couple, go and stay in our house. Please, we beg you, stay in our house until this storm is over. So what the story is really about is what could happen to a black couple in a predominantly white, very fancy neighborhood when the police go crazy. It's not a pretty sight.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, it definitely - as I mentioned, it has a sense of humor, but it definitely delves into the issues of race relations. And do you find that that's a theme throughout this collection?

Ms. SMITH: I did think that. Yes, I thought a number of the stories were -dealt with race, but I was happy that they didn't all. It's an important theme in New Orleans, since we have a predominantly black population and a really large white population. But I - yeah, I would say, at least three or four of the stories did.

CHIDEYA: Now, I noticed that you said my neighborhood was the Garden District. Where are you now?

Ms. SMITH: Well, what I meant was the neighborhood that I had in the book. But where I actually live is a neighborhood called Faubourg Marigny, which sounds wonderfully French and fancy but, actually, it's quite funky and Bohemian. It's just a little but down river from the French Quarter.

CHIDEYA: And Patty, what about you? How have you fared since the deluge?

Ms. FRIEDMANN: Well, I was one of the people who did not evacuate for the storm, and I lived in what you think of as the sliver by the river, but my - few square blocks where I am actually had a lower elevation than the surrounding area, and so we got about four feet of water. I'm back and rehabilitated, but otherwise fine.

CHIDEYA: One last thing that I will leave you with is a lot of people - as you well know, far better than I do - have left New Orleans, completely stressed out by the prospects of trying to make a way when life is so difficult there. And I actually had a friend from college who was shot and killed in a home invasion robbery, and her husband was shot and survived and her child was unharmed. And she happened to be a really great artist, Helen Hill. And what happens to artists in a time of suffering like this, in a time of uncertainty like this? Patty, and then Julie.

Ms. FRIEDMANN: Well, I can look at Julie, who has found other outlets for her art because she hasn't begun to start writing fiction again. I was lucky that I had a novel in progress when the storm hit and was able to bring it out. But I think a lot of us are stymied, and yet we're beginning to see New Orleans as being whole - in terms of its character, anyway - and capable of being plum for art.

I'm sorry about your friend. I want you to know that everyone in New Orleans knows her by name. It's a very small town and a personal town, and her loss was a very personal loss for all of us.

So in that sense, there's something about the art community and the community as a whole that's made New Orleans in some ways better, even though it's a very tragic place right now. I do think that art can survive here. I can't write. I think that I'm going to start writing short fiction because I think it's so hard to write anything that's huge right now. It's very hard.

CHIDEYA: Julie?

Ms. SMITH: I want to repeat what Patty said about Helen Hill. Her murder was a horrible thing for the city. But it did inspire a certain unity that we haven't ever seen here. We had a huge march on city hall to protest the crime. And it was really interesting, seeing the people pouring out of office buildings to join a march.

But as to the question about art, I think that most writers have - and some filmmakers have responded in one of two ways. One is they just sort of curled up in the fetal position and couldn't do anything, and Patty immediately wrote a book, which was a great reaction to it. And one other writer did that.

But really, there has been no fiction since the storm, except for Patty's book, which is called "A Little Bit Ruined." And a book that came out about six months ago by an author named Tony Dunbar, and our book, "New Orleans Noir" -we found that the short stories, as Patty said, was a good way to go because you could just kind of dip in and see how it felt again. But something about it is very paralyzing. I think one thing is it takes a year to write a book and another year to get the book published, and, you don't - we don't know what the city will be like in two years.

CHIDEYA: Julie and Patty, thank you so much.

Ms. FRIEDMANN: Thank you.

Ms. SMITH: Yes, thanks so much.

CHIDEYA: Julie Smith edited "New Orleans Noir," a new short story collection that includes the work of writer Patty Friedmann.

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