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Interview: Patty Friedmann 

Will Coviello talks to the New Orleans writer known for her dark humor — and whose latest book is for young adults

click to enlarge A sixth-generation New Orleanian, Patty Friedmann focuses on local details in her darkly comic fiction. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • A sixth-generation New Orleanian, Patty Friedmann focuses on local details in her darkly comic fiction.

A handful of novels released in the 1990s and early 2000s exposed local writer Patty Friedmann's dark sense of humor. She describes herself as a follower of the Confederacy of Dunces school of humor, and her work is full of local references, like to Isidore Newman School, which she attended. Eleanor Rushing was a novel about an erotomaniac who lives in a St. Charles Avenue mansion and stalks her minister. In Secondhand Smoke (2002), she created a distinctly loathsome protagonist. Jerusha, a Y'atty New Orleanian, is racist, vulgar and spiteful. She only finds the means to reflect on herself at the very end of the novel when her house burns down and she's left homeless.

  "Her home had to burn," says Friedmann, laughing. "She started out as a mean old bitch. The bigotry — she doesn't like black people, her son is married to a Jewish Chicago woman. And then she's suddenly at the mercy of all these people she looked down on. I found it hard to like her, but she was funny."

  That may seem odd for the subject of a humorous novel, but Friedmann perfected a deadpan voice that disarmingly addresses all sorts of bad behavior. She lost that voice after Hurricane Katrina.

  Friedmann had to be rescued from her home, its first floor swamped with floodwater. She kept writing, and her novels A Little Bit Ruined and Taken Away were both more tragicomic than her earlier works and dealt with the post-Katrina devastation. Though funny at times, the books didn't resonate or build on her earlier success, but Freidmann shrugs off that they weren't like the many serious accounts — fiction and nonfiction — of the disaster.

  "I had to be rescued. I have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]," she says. "I can laugh about it."

  She delved into more intentionally dark stories, like in a short story included in Julie Smith's anthology New Orleans Noir, and followed it up with an e-book titled Too Jewish.

  Freidmann recovered her old sense of humor, and No Takebacks again launches into rough material in an ultimately humorous novel narrated by an adopted 13-year-old boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and is physically abused, and watches his new parents separate. As tough as the situation is, he doesn't want to lose his new family.

  "This kid is funny but he doesn't know it," she says. "He tells us the little details that make it funny. You won't feel bad reading this book."

  Friedmann likens the boy, Otto, to the young narrators Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, who also are exposed to hard truths.

  In many ways, however, Otto is also based on Friedmann's own son, who was adopted and had ADHD. She declines to say the entire story is based on his life, but she had no problem imagining aspects of her son's life and perspective at 13.

  "My publisher said, 'You need to write another novel,'" Friedmann says. "I needed to find someone I love enough to live with for the duration of a book." She chose her son at a particular point in his life, and the book poured out in just four weeks, she says. "I had no problem writing from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy. I was there the whole time he was 13. I paid close attention to his school, his friends, his sister, his father."

  When the first draft took shape, she wanted a more complex and literary story, so she built on themes by adding more about Otto's sister. All her writing has literary aspirations, including a couple of works partially aimed at young adult audiences.

  Writing from personal experience is something Friedmann openly embraces.

  "Any writer who does not admit fiction is autobiographical is a flat-out liar," she says.

  Friedmann has given similar advice to young people. She sat on a career panel on writing for high school students and gave candid advice. After another local writer advised aspiring writers to study creative writing and consider master's-level writing programs, she told the students, "You should misbehave."

  Skeptical of writing programs, Friedmann believes they offer useless rules ("Don't ever use flashbacks") and encourage work with a "workshoppy" dullness — with even tones, perfect vocabulary and stereotyped voices.

  Freidmann didn't publish her first novel until she was almost 40.

  "I had to do some bad behavior in order to have something to write about," she says. "The only reason I became capable of writing fiction was to live a squalid life and listen to the voices on the street."

  Her work has benefited from her unflinching candor and local observations, although it's not always popular with family, friends and former Newman classmates.

  "I have spent enormous amounts of time hiding behind displays in the supermarket," she says.

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