How to Write a Novel About Post-Katrina New Orleans

Ten years after her Atlantic debut, author Sara Gran has released her most ambitious book yet


"I took all of my interests and put them into one thing," says Sara Gran from the back yard of her childhood home in Brooklyn. She's just returned from New Orleans, the setting of her fourth novel, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead. "As a writer, if you're interested in a combination of things that other people think are crazy, it's a pretty rare gift to be given. Sometimes bringing disparate elements together and letting them bump into each other allows the author to illuminate things he or she couldn't quite illuminate otherwise. If you want to know the truth about something, fiction can be a much more effective vehicle than nonfiction."

Gran charges at literary genres with a knife between her teeth. Her novels are possessed of such confidence that the words seem nailed to the page. Among scribblers and readers alike, few inspire such excitement, not only for what she's written, but also for what she's yet to write.

With Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, Gran elevates the detective story as literature and brings together a sophisticated mystery, a witty, antagonistic private eye, and a city she knows too well. "New Orleans has an edge of violence and nastiness," she says. "After all the graciousness and kindness and hospitality there's a certain brutality." 

She moved to New Orleans in 2004 to escape a hurricane-besieged Miami. The following year Hurricane Katrina hit. ("Now before I move to a place, I research it.")

"We were stuck in traffic for 20 hours," she says. "There were no rooms to be found between New Orleans and Houston. But every small town in the South has a tiny corner with the bad lodging and the bad pawn shop and the bad tattoo parlor. After an exhausting search, we found an awful, disgusting, wonderful little hotel. A hooker hotel."

She continues, "We turned on the television and saw the people in the Superdome, and the broadcasters said this storm is really coming, which we had not been taking seriously up to that point. And I saw those people in the Superdome, and it was obvious to me that they were going to die in there, which is not what happened, thank God."

She moved back to the Crescent City following the storm and its sorry aftermath.

Gran made her literary debut in The Atlantic in 2001, just prior to the release of her first novel. Her road to publication was not unlike that of many authors. "I was 29. The economy had been good for a long time, so I thought, 'Well I'm sick of this job. I'll quit and find a new one.'" When no jobs were to be found, she focused her energies on writing. "I lived in an apartment where the roof leaked and the ceiling fan fell down once—it was a just total shithole. I was living in a very un-gentrified corner of Brooklyn. One day, I walked to the other side of Williamsburg because I wanted to buy my groceries from the 99-cent store. My part of the neighborhood didn't have things involving fruit at the grocery store. It was like, microwave cheeseburgers. So I go and I buy my groceries at the 99-cent store—a really depressing way to spend the day. I started crying on the way home, filled with self-pity and a legitimate questioning of the incredibly bad decisions I'd made."

Writing, it seemed, was one of those bad decisions. "I gave it a try," she decided, "and it's not working out. I need to let go." She headed home with her 99-cent groceries and tears and self-doubt. And waiting on the answering machine was a message from Laura Hrushka, renowned editor-in-chief of Soho Press. "She wanted to buy my first book. I mean, I got home and there was a message from her and I knew that's what it was. I knew she wouldn't be calling to say, 'Fuck you. Don't send us anything else.'"

That book was Saturn's Return to New York, a well received work of literary fiction. She followed it with the bone-chilling Come Closer, her most celebrated work, and a universally acclaimed horror novel. With Dope, she hit her third genre in as many books, penning an evocative 1950's noir.

Thumbnail image for saragran_edit.jpg"After Dope in 2005, I started a book set in New Orleans. After Katrina, the novel fell apart. There was no place to go with it. Katrina left behind a completely different city." New Orleans has long been known as "The City That Care Forgot." Upon her return, it was immediately clear that crime was not so amnesic. "New Orleans is the most creatively brilliant piece of our country. It is also the most violent piece of our country," she says. "Economics is a big part of that, but I think it's disingenuous to call economics the whole story. There are poorer people everywhere who don't kill each other, not that I blame anyone for their reaction to such extreme circumstances." She clarifies: "In my little hippie, middle-class, white girl worldview previous to post-Katrina New Orleans, I had thought that art heals things. And I saw how incredibly wrong I was. Art did not heal those communities at all. It coexisted side-by-side with the trauma and the wounds and the violence."

This realization informs the narrative of Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, where she writes:

People kill each other everywhere. The difference was that in New Orleans, no one tried to stop them. The cops blamed the DA and the DA blamed the cops. The schools blamed the parents and the parents blamed the schools. White people blamed black people and black people blamed white people. In the meantime, everyone went on killing each other.

New Orleans has long proven a notoriously difficult city to capture in prose, and Gran, for all her talent, did not find it an easy task. "Setting is the most important character in a book," she says. "Place is the most important part. I tried with New Orleans, and I tried and I tried and I just wasn't getting it right. And I realized that I had to write about it from the perspective of somebody who didn't really get it. I mean, New Orleans is still a very mysterious place to me. And if you're not from there you're always an outsider. So for me, the key to making New Orleans work was admitting how little I know and admitting how little I understand."

Her years in the city—not as a tourist, but as a taxpayer—make the novel work. Gran's New Orleans hits every note expected, with an unexpected nuance that only comes with a 504 area code and a degree in cultural anthropology.

"There are all these stories about how people fell down on the job post-Katrina, and what they did that was so awful, and how they fucked up," she says. "We all know those stories. Lesser known are the stories of people who did not fall down on the job—of people who went out and got boats and rescued people. People who knew how to steal went out and stole boats and went out and rescued people. A lot of the young men people tend to call 'thugs' in New Orleans—young men of ill-repute, young men who are involved in the criminal lifestyle—because they knew how to break into places, they broke into places like Walgreens and Whole Foods to steal water and diapers and food for people. But none of these stories cancel each other out or add to a coherent whole. There is no coherent whole to the story of New Orleans. And there is no coherent whole to the story of Katrina. There are just these different elements that coexist. And that really changed the way that I see the world."

Presently, Gran lives in San Francisco, where she is writing the second Claire DeWitt novel. But the New Orleans stop on her book tour left her conflicted. "I was there these past three days," she says. "It was my first visit since 2007. I caught up with old friends and made great new friends. The whole time I was thinking that I shouldn't have left. It's such a wonderful place and things are obviously much better now. The city is really getting it together and people are really dropping the hostility and the crime rate is improving. I went to this wonderful dinner at a writer's house and I met several fascinating New Orleans characters. I landed in New York late, called my boyfriend, and proposed moving back. When I got off the phone there was a text message from a friend at the party. It said: 'I came home. My neighbor was murdered.' And my nostalgia is over. That's why I don't live there anymore."

That feeling, though, is perhaps best expressed in her novel. 

I loved New Orleans. I thought I was finally home. I loved the city so much it hurt sometimes.

"The truth is a funny thing," Constance said. "Just when you think you've got a hold on it, it slips away."

Image Credit: Deborah Lopez