[Note: This interview first appeared in Science Fiction Weekly in 2005.]
In late August 2005, a Category 5 hurricane called Katrina struck New Orleans, causing over thirteen hundred deaths, and over $100 billion dollars in damages. It was a hurricane so destructive, and one that has made such an impact on America’s social consciousness, that it’s under consideration by Time Magazine to be deemed its “Person of the Year” (a distinction once given to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin). And when Katrina’s storm surge caused the 17th Street Canal levee to break, flood waters overwhelmed the city, ensuring that the city, and it’s residents, will never be the same.
Just as Hurricane Katrina affected America as a whole, so did it affect the science fiction community. Three members of our community in particular witnessed Katrina’s impact first-hand, these being: long-time New Orleans residents Poppy Z. Brite, Andrew Fox, and Albert E. Cowdrey. Science Fiction Weekly tracked down these Katrina survivors and asked them to relate their experiences and to speculate on their beloved city’s future.
Poppy Z. Brite was born in New Orleans, LA in 1967, and has lived there for most of her life excepting a thirteen-year stint in North Carolina. She is the author of many novels, including Lost Souls and Exquisite Corpse, and is the editor of the Love in Vein erotic horror anthologies. She has won the International Horror Guild Award and the British Fantasy Award, and has several times been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award. Her website is poppyzbrite.com.
Andrew Fox was born in North Miami Beach, FL in 1964, but attended Loyola University in the 80s and moved to the Crescent City for good in 1990. He is the author of two novels, Fat White Vampire Blues (2003) and Bride of the Fat White Vampire (2004), both of which take place in New Orleans. His website is andrewfoxbooks.com.
Albert E. Cowdrey is the author of the novel Crux, and is the winner of the World Fantasy Award, for his New Orleans-set short story, “Queen for a Day.” He regularly publishes short fiction in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and has lived in New Orleans for many, many years.
Science Fiction Weekly interviewed Brite and Fox via email in October/November 2005. Due to the effects of Katrina, Cowdrey was out of email and landline phone contact, and so was interviewed via cell phone and snail mail.
With Hurricane Katrina bearing down on the city, the evacuation of New Orleans must have been a frightening and chaotic time. What was your experience leaving the city like?
Cowdrey: Actually, the real crisis developed slowly. Piecemeal. I considered myself an old hand at big storms, much like the hero of my story “Grey Star,” though unlike him I didn’t plan a hurricane party. What worried me about Katrina was the slowness of its approach. That always gives a storm time to grow. I’d already practiced my evacuation skills last year during Ivan, so on Saturday the 27th of August I called ahead to a B&B in a plantation house in Natchez, closed the storm shutters on my home, tossed my dog and clothes for four days in the car, and set out ahead of the rush. I think it was Sunday when the storm exploded into a Cat 5 and headed straight for the city. Then followed cumulatively one disaster after another.
Fox: Unlike our experience in 2004 with Hurricane Ivan, when [my wife Dara and I] had to load our infant son and six of our cats into the Mercury Grand Marquis and then sit on the roads for fourteen hours on an interminable trip to the Memphis area, we actually didn’t evacuate for Katrina. I had made prior plans to take the whole family with me to Albuquerque, New Mexico to attend Bubonicon and to see my folks. So we parked the Mercury at the Louis Armstrong Airport’s Park-N-Fly lot the Thursday before the storm and flew off to Albuquerque. We had no notion that a killer storm was heading for our home until midnight on Saturday, when my mother-in-law Phyllis called to tell us she was evacuating to College Station, Texas. We had been scheduled to return to New Orleans on the following Monday, and for a while it looked as though we might only have to delay our return by three or four days, as Katrina took an eastward turn towards Mississippi at the last possible moment and (apparently) spared New Orleans the doomsday hit we’d all been fearing. Then, on Monday, I got online on the hotel’s complimentary computer and read that the 17th Street Canal levee had broken. At that moment, I knew that if the levee breach wasn’t repaired within ten to twelve hours, much of the city would go underwater. I was astounded and appalled to learn that the Army Corps of Engineers had not made the contingency plan of having large quantities of emergency levee repair equipment stockpiled close to New Orleans; it took them days to begin to try closing the breach with giant sandbags, and by that time the majority of the damage to the city had been suffered long before. I was horrified to see on CNN that many of my most beloved neighborhoods, places where I’d lived for years, had been inundated. Dara and I had the surreal experience of watching CNN over a single twenty-minute time period and witnessing not one, but two of our friends and acquaintances be rescued by boat on national television. One of them was an elderly woman, stricken with arthritis and heart problems, to whom I’d been delivering a food box each month for years.
Brite: We left with our oldest cat and our dog, leaving 24 other cats behind with a supply of food and water. Like everyone else, we were in denial and thought we’d be back in two or three days. As it turned out, animal rescue groups in boats had to break into our house a week or so later, both we and our animals went through hell, and we’ve recovered 20 of the 24 left behind. I’ll always be deeply ashamed of those missing four, two of whom I know died (one of whom I found dead and dissolving in our kitchen), two of whom I’ve been unable to locate dead or alive. At any rate, we drove from New Orleans to my mother’s house in Mississippi, an 80-mile trip that took us 8 hours and about which I hope not to think again for a long time.
It must have been very hard to leave your homes, and then to be out of contact with friends and loved ones for a lengthy period of time. How long were you out of touch, and how did news of your homes, friends, and relatives first start trickling in?
Brite: I first got online three days after the storm: we’d lost power at my mom’s, but we made a supply run to Jackson, Mississippi and I found a wireless place and started desperately emailing animal rescue people and groups. That was when I got my first emails from friends, satellite photos of our house, etc., but at that point I was frankly more concerned with the animals. That was also when I first realized that my readers had started donating money to us through PayPal — money that kept coming in for more than a month after the storm and has, quite honestly, kept us afloat during this horrible time. We’ve had a little help from FEMA and our insurance company, and my husband’s gotten some unemployment since his restaurant was destroyed, but I really don’t know what we would have done without those donations from readers. I plan to put a free, downloadable short novel — something I wrote when I was 12, but it’s a fun thing — on my website to thank them. It ain’t much, but it’s a little gesture that I hope will help them know how much they helped us.
I also received help from writer friends and friends of friends, including Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, and Stephen King. I don’t know King except through mutual friends, but I’ve been a huge fan for most of my life, and I wrote a blog post about rereading Misery while waiting in a gas line. Our mutual acquaintance (and Dark Tower chronicler) Bev Vincent forwarded it to King, and King wrote back asking if there was anything he could do for me. I said just hearing from him was a big cheerer-upper, but if I had an inscribed copy of Misery (one of my favorite novels), I’d treasure it for the rest of my life. A couple of weeks later, guess what turned up in my mailbox: a signed first edition of Misery with one of the sweetest inscriptions I’ve ever read. If anyone ever has an unkind word to say about Steve King, they’d better do it when I’m not around.
Cowdrey: I think I must have fallen into the Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm syndrome, hypnotically telling myself that everybody must be okay. Fortunately, my sister lives in Hawaii, well out of Katrina’s path, and she knows almost everybody I know. So she became a human switchboard, taking calls and relaying numbers. What a joy to respond to the melodious beeping of my cell phone and hear a familiar voice! Friends were in Taos and Memphis, Connecticut and Denver, and scattered across the whole inland south. One obstinate old Dutchman stayed in uptown New Orleans for the whole ordeal, living on MRE’s bummed from the army; one 78-year-old woman, already sidelined in her country retreat with Montezuma’s Revenge contracted while attending a wedding in Acapulco, survived courtesy of a crippled son who stayed with her. I already knew the human frame is tough, but until Katrina I never knew how tough.
Fox: All I can say is, thank God for the internet and email. I didn’t have a computer in Albuquerque, but the hotel had a courtesy computer by the front desk that they would let guests use for fifteen minutes at a time. Since Asher, my 8-month-old, would typically wake up around 5 A.M. and threaten to wake up his older brother and keep Dara awake, I got in the habit of taking him downstairs, getting some coffee, and sitting in the little computer kiosk with him on my shoulder. Not easy to type, but I managed. The staff were kind enough to let me stay in there as long as I wanted, only asking me to vacate when another guest needed to use the computer. I started keeping a daily log of my experiences and thoughts on the Night Shade Books discussion board, and a number of my friends and coworkers located me through that venue. I also received a bunch of emails from various groups I’d been involved with in New Orleans–including members of the George Alec Effinger Memorial Writing Workshop and the New Orleans/Gulf South Booksellers Association–and we bounced our stories of survival back and forth, along with whatever news of home we were able to glean. I picked up most of my information regarding my area in Algiers from the Times-Picayune’s website, www.nola.com, which featured message boards divided up by neighborhoods. That’s how I found out that my area had been spared severe flooding.
The devastation to the area was colossal; what sort of losses did you incur? You all surely sustained much property damage, but did any of you sustain losses of a more personal nature? Did any of you lose any of your writing?
Fox: For more than a week, we had no idea whether we’d lost everything or not. I faced the possibility that all of my computers and backups, all of my stories and novels and notes, could have been lost at my home and office. Dara was tortured by the thought that our seven housecats were likely starving and dehydrating inside our home. Algiers, our neighborhood on the west bank of the Mississippi River, was spared the devastating floods that crippled so much of the rest of New Orleans, since it was the only city neighborhood not adjacent to Lake Pontchartrain.
My family and I are among the extremely fortunate. Little did I realize, two years ago when my wife and I purchased our home in our sleepy, boring part of Algiers, that I’d bought a home in what would be the luckiest neighborhood in New Orleans. We’ll need a new roof on our house and garage, but our friend and handyman Mr. Martin and his son have already patched up the bad parts. We’ll need a new fence and gate and have lost most of our trees. But all of our possessions inside are pretty much as we had left them. Our cats have made it through the crisis mostly all right, although one, Jack, suffered liver damage from lack of eating and is currently being force-fed in an animal hospital and may not make it.
For a time, I thought I might’ve lost all my computers and backups and prevailed upon any friends or editors who had hard copies of my recent stories in their possessions to send me copies. As it turns out, all my computers and files at home are fine, although my backup computers I’d stored at the State Office Building downtown may be lost to me, as that building suffered severe flooding on its ground floor and basement and has been classified as an environmental hazard due to the rapid growth of mold; in order to get inside, one has to wear a full-body hazmat suit, I’m told.
The worst loss we have suffered and will suffer is the loss of so many of our friends to other cities and communities. Many of our friends have lost their entire homes, their jobs, and their children’s schools. Already, several members of the writing group I’ve belonged to for more than ten years have emailed that they will not be returning to the city; there is literally nothing left for them to rescue.
Brite: I was within days of finishing a novel revision when the damn thing [Hurricane Katrina] started turning toward us, and I worked like a madman to get it finished before we had to leave — or before I died, since I didn’t think we were leaving — and I finished that mother on Saturday night and emailed it to my agent, and the evacuation order came in Sunday morning. I try not to brag, but I still think that was pretty hardcore.
Cowdrey: In Natchez I learned that my house wasn’t flooded, for it stands on the natural levee of the Mississippi, the highest land around. Still there was wind and falling water to think about. The first day back. I opened my front door in fear and trembling, only to discover that my house was almost undamaged. Yes, there was a certain aroma emanating from the fridge; yes, there was no gas; yes, my ancient hot water heater for reasons still unclear had given up the ghost; yes, the stuff in the fridge had given sustenance to a million tiny flies (Drosophila melanogaster, a biologist friend informed me, though I don’t guarantee it). A neighbor’s huge cedar tree standing almost on the property line had fallen on her house, where it reposes to this day. Perhaps the most astonishing case of survival was my computers. Shut up in 100+ degree heat for five or six weeks, they switched on with only the usual clicks and pings. No internet service, of course—the land-line phones were, and to this day remain, out. To the best of my knowledge, I lost nobody I care about, except the New Orleans I grew up in, much of which is gone forever.
Looking to the future, what sort of effect do you think this disaster will have on the literature of the region? For those of you who lived and wrote stories set in New Orleans, will you be able to do that again in the future–will it be too difficult emotionally, or is it “what doesn’t kill us makes great fodder for our fiction”?
Brite: Of course I’ll write about New Orleans — there’s really nothing else I want to write about — and I know I’ll have to deal with this eventually in my fiction. At first the idea of writing about a New Orleans where this never happened was tempting, but it soon came to seem callous and irresponsible: if I want to write honestly about the city, how could I ignore an event that will shape it for probably the remainder of my lifetime and beyond? Now I pretty much know how I’ll do it, and while I can’t exactly say I look forward to it, I do see a lot of potential for hope in the work.
Fox: I personally feel it is more incumbent than ever upon those of us who know the city to write about the city and its culture, its challenges, and its unique strengths. In both of my published novels, New Orleans the city has been a central character, as much a subject of exploration, humor, and horror as my vampire character Jules Duchon. No other American city in modern times has suffered the kind of calamity that New Orleans has suffered, in terms of losing as much as sixty percent of its housing stock and being completely depopulated for almost two months, with its entire citizenry scattered to every corner of the nation. The story of the rebuilding of this city and region will be an absolutely fascinating one, a story which I fully expect will permeate both my fiction and nonfiction writings for years to come. New Orleans has always been a city of extremes — the good (the food, the music, the culture, the architecture, the open and friendly nature of its people) is exceptionally good, and the bad (the politics, the crime, the school system, the economy, the streets) is abominable. The challenge that the city faces now is to somehow ensure that its exceptionally good qualities win out, or at least over-balance, its abominable qualities. I am very happy to be able to say that during my brief time back home, I have been uplifted by the wonderfully positive energy I’ve encountered from my fellow returnees. People are excited to be back here. They are eager to make things come back to life again. If the politicians and bureaucrats don’t screw us over too badly, we may be able to rebuild a city, perhaps smaller than it was, whose terrifically wonderful qualities are not so burdened by the abominable. I certainly want my writing and my work with the Louisiana Office of Public Health to contribute to that goal. I expect that the overwhelming majority of my fellow New Orleans-based writers feel exactly the same.
Cowdrey: Southern lit has always had an appetite for disaster, and New Orleans in particular has always partied in the conviction that tomorrow you may die. I would expect that tendency to be reinforced. For a science fiction writer there’s a special appositeness in living through a catastrophe. I grew up on the SF/Fantasy of the Fifties, which was nearly all end-of-the-world stuff; if the nukes didn’t get us, the Triffids would, or alien invaders, or giant spiders, or something. So here’s life, imitating art again, as it loves to do. The logical assumption is that art will return the favor, though I think some time will have to pass before such terrible events can be assimilated and reshaped. When I got home the door of the house across the street had been spray-painted “X/OB,” meaning “house checked/zero bodies.” I’ve started trying to write a story with that title, but it’s slow going. Too many dead, too many holes in my personal past. Writing can help the healing process, but can’t hurry it along.