Gambit readers know Ian McNulty as a cuisine guy from his weekly look at New Orleans restaurants, but his new book, A Season of Night: New Orleans Life After Katrina is more than that. A look at coming home after the storm, with a special focus on Mid-City, Season of Night has earned advance praise from the likes of Ace Atkins and John Biguenet (see A&E editor Will Coviello's take in this week's paper).
Q: There've been lots of Katrina-tinged memoirs. How is yours different? What do you bring to the tapestry of our storm stories?
A: The books I've seen so far have been histories of the disaster or individual tales of living through the storm and all the chaos it brought. But "A Season of Night" is about homecoming. It's about the decision to return to a city that, at the time, was utterly broken. My book is a very intimate account of what it meant to move back at that time and live in a place that was unspeakably creepy, depressing, infuriating but oddly joyful and energizing all at once.
Many of the literary agents I contacted early on dismissed the project for the very reason you mention. It seemed like the memo had gone around that there were too many Katrina books in the pipeline already. So I'm very grateful that my publisher took a closer look at my manuscript and decided it was indeed different.
Q: I know you're from Rhode Island, but talk a little about how you came to town, and why you stay.
A: After college I was settling into a great life in Rhode Island. But I thought before I laid any serious roots I had better explore a bit more. I knew about New Orleans in the usual second-hand literary way, so I had a pretty distorted notion of what the city was all about. I expected to come down for an exotic dalliance of six months or a year and literally envisioned myself staying in some French Quarter garret, reading Faulkner between bar shifts and having a tragic love affair with a Creole vamp named Yvonne or something like that. I had no clue.
But when I actually got here, the reality of New Orleans proved much more intriguing than I had imagined. I lucked into a great job as a reporter at City Business newspaper, covering financial services of all things, and found myself in a newsroom with a bunch of locals about my age. It was my job to learn about the city even through a lens like banking and the friends I made gave me an inside track on the gentler, richer traditions of local New Orleans. This place sank its teeth pretty quick, and before long I knew I had found home.
One reason I stay, despite the serious problems here, is because I think as long as I live in New Orleans I'll have no worries about growing old. In a lot of other cities, it seems like if you're not young, hot and rich then you're marginal to the city's story. Here, the older people grow, the better they are at the really great things about this city. They've had more experience as New Orleanians and that makes their lives richer and more fun. My friends who are much older than me seem to have their own story for every street, every bar in the city, and I envy them. Every year Mardi Gras gets better for me because I know more people, have a better ritual and understand the whole context a little better. When you go to Rock 'n' Bowl, college kids all the way up to grandparents are out there dancing to the same music, which is New Orleans music. The identity of this city is so strong, that living here feels like participating in something bigger than yourself, and for me that's hugely rewarding.
Q: Your book is a story of Mid-City, which hasn't always taken center stage in Katrina tales, or in tales of the city in general. Yet it is, in many ways, the real New Orleans. Any thoughts on that?
A: I certainly believe Mid-City is the heart of New Orleans, but it doesn't really fit the high profile image of the city so I think it's often overlooked. Certainly, when I first arrived in New Orleans I thought of Mid-City as a sleepy, working-class neighborhood that didn't have any of the wrought iron balconies and Spanish courtyards I'd been sold on. But again, when I finally moved here the reality proved much more interesting than the image. This neighborhood is as diverse as New Orleans gets, and that goes beyond black and white.
It was a natural decision for me to write about Mid-City, because that's where I live and that's where I experienced the Katrina aftermath. I knew the other books coming out about the disaster would be broad and tell the story of the city, so I tried to keep "A Season of Night" focused on what I was seeing and doing, and much of that was close to home.
What's happening in Mid-City now deserves more attention. The neighborhood was very badly damaged by the levee failures, but it wasn't wiped out. Most of the homes are old, solid and built four feet off the ground, so they were repairable once people could actually move back home. Today, I think Mid-City is better off than it was before the storm, and I believe it will continue to thrive. New people are moving here because it is still reasonably affordable to rent or buy, and there are new businesses opening up all the time. We're seeing people who have lived in the suburbs for a long time move to Mid-City because, after Katrina, they want to reconnect with the fabric of New Orleans again.
Q: You write about food for Gambit, and there's a good deal in Season of Night about the importance of food and restaurants restoring normalcy to the city. How's the restaurant scene doing today, for better or for worse?
A: In terms of business, the story from restaurant owners is a mixed bag. There are fewer residents, and tourism and convention numbers are down, so that has to make things tougher for them. The poor national economy will also hurt if it means fewer people are traveling here and more people are packing a lunch.
But long-term, I think Katrina was a galvanizing experience in the restaurant world here that has already had some very positive results. There is a greater diversity of restaurants now than ever. People are reinvesting in the city, and many of them are doing that with restaurants. Guys who barreled in here with taco trucks in 2005 now have some pretty nice taquerías, but you also see local chefs who have long dreamed of opening their own restaurants doing just that. Iris and Patois come to mind. Those came about after Katrina, and I think they are two of the most exciting restaurants in the city right now. There are a lot of new restaurant owners in the game, and I think that comes from some carpe diem moment a lot of us had after the disaster.
New Orleans people here have been embracing the things that feel like home to them. Our restaurants definitely do that. I think the restaurants that cater largely to tourists will have a much harder time than restaurants that have an ongoing relationship with local customers and feel like part of daily New Orleans life. That's why there's always a line at Mandina's door when church lets out on Sunday and a line outside Galatoire's for Friday lunch.
Q: So many people have Katrina animals now. You have a dog named Ginger. How did she come to you, and how has her personality changed since the storm?
A: Ginger was a stray who followed my 11-year-old Labrador and I around the neighborhood on our walks after I moved back home. She would basically shadow us from a safe distance. Animal rescue volunteers had tried to get her, but she would always scoot away. I had been chased by a pack of dogs on Halloween night 2005 as I was riding my bicycle through an empty stretch of Bienville Street, so I was acutely wary of stray dogs. But this dog looked so gentle and needy, I couldn't help but to eventually take her in when I was finally able to get close to her on our walks.
A vet checked her out and said she looked like the victim of long-term abuse, and of course she'd been on her own for three months in the flooded-out streets here. So she was extremely jumpy and skittish, fearful of any loud noise and given to preemptive cowering. She was pocked with scars and welts, and proved adept at finding hiding spots, even in my gutted house. I'd find her hiding in a destroyed kitchen cabinet or an empty hearth.
Ginger has been in my care for two and half years now and she's still a mess, but she has come a long way. She still enjoys a nice hiding spot, especially a berth underneath my bed, and she has the mood swings of a seventh grader. But she's very loving and makes a great jogging partner and fiercely defends my house from the postal carrier. She's been to dog therapy and is now on anxiety pills, which also sounds like some human Katrina survivors I know so maybe she's just in sync with the times.
Q: What do you want Season of Night to accomplish? Who do you want to read it, and what do you want those people to learn about the city from your witness?
I humbly hope that locals will read this book and relate, if not to the whole experience of urban pioneering than at least the urgent desire to return home despite all the calamity on the ground and the clucking from disapproving pundits. I hope the book will help locals remember the wildness of that period, and the visceral energy a lot of us felt at that time. I hope this memorializes that dark but still inspiring time for some people.
More than that, though, I hope people outside New Orleans read the book and get a sense of a surreal and avoidable chapter in the history of our epic city. I want people to know what it was like here and what we had to fight through to get where we are now. The official recovery has been infuriatingly slow and marked by endless bungling, but when I look at my block today and remember the empty wasteland it had been during that first winter back, I am awed by what individuals have accomplished.
Just about everyone who lives in New Orleans right now had to make a deliberate decision to return. I think that's extraordinary. Everyone had to take a look at a city that was ruined -- and where even before the storm the normal stats for American success were way out of whack -- and decide for themselves that they wanted to get back in. Then they had to decide when and just how they would do that, pretty much all on their own.
This community went through something incredible together. That's a bond all of us share now. Everyone has their Katrina story, and I hope having the chance to share mine with many people will help others understand why New Orleans is so precious.