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Conversation: Tom Piazza, Author of ‘Devil Sent the Rain’

From Bob Dylan and bluesman Charlie Patton to novelists Norman Mailer and Gustave Flaubert, from the Mississippi Delta and to, especially, his adopted home of New Orleans, Tom Piazza covers a lot of ground as a writer on music and culture.

His works of fiction include the novel, “City of Refuge,” and those of non-fiction include “Why New Orleans Matters.” His new book is a collection of essays on a wide array of topics, titled “Devil Sent the Rain.”

[A transcript is after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that jumps from these pages is an interest in what I’ll call American originals. Dylan, Jimmy Rogers, Charlie Patton. Start with that word “original.” What interests you? What grabs you?

TOM PIAZZA: Well I think with all those figures who you named, and probably most of the others in the book, there seems to be a way of piecing together an artistic approach of personality from a lot of disparate sources. And so all those figures are original in the sense that they cross lines, whether ethnically, racially, regionally, aesthetically, you know, that are generally thought to be not broach-able. So each one of them has a very distinct, individual voice, but they also have a kind of very personal way of making sense of their influences.

JEFFREY BROWN: So give me an example. You pick one.

TOM PIAZZA: Let’s take Jimmy Rogers. Jimmy Rogers was a railroad brakeman from Meridian, Miss. He was born white in a southern town of Mississippi, but he really made his reputation singing blues, singing African American blues. And that in itself was something of an eyebrow raiser when he came along in the late 1920s. You mentioned Bob Dylan. Dylan is maybe the greatest example of all in some ways, because here was a Jewish kid from Minnesota who came to New York and went through all these sort of successive incarnations, first as a kind of imitator of Woody Guthrie and a blues singer, and always making sense of these very disparate influences on him.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, there is always this question — often this question — of authenticity that comes in there with Dylan. You wrote an essay here that interested me on Gillian Welsh because I’ve been listening to her new album. She was raised in well-off circumstances in Los Angeles, she is doing these roots, folk music and you wrote in the essay, trust the song not the singer. Explain.

TOM PIAZZA: I think it’s very easy to get hung up, especially in a celebrity culture, and especially in a culture where there is so much emphasis on people’s public persona. It’s really easy to get hung up on questions of where people came from. But, I think if there is a promise to American culture, it might reside somewhere in the notion that what’s most important is where people go, where people are able to go, given where they started. So there is always this tension between, you know, the place of origin and the path that one takes through all this different variety that we encounter in American culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: And of course, the other part of that American original is this notion of being an American artist. And there is one point where you talk about the problem of having an individual voic,e but also, in the Walt Whitman term, speaking, containing multitudes, right?

TOM PIAZZA: Well, I think all artists have a kind of maybe a dual citizenship in that way? In that they are doing something very personal if they are any good, if they are, you know, if they are worthwhile as an artist, they are doing something that nobody else does. At the same time, you are speaking for many, many people, on your good days at least. You are articulating things that maybe a lot of people are half conscious of, or partly conscious of, or not conscious of, but that is there sort of lying in wait under the surface to be brought out by somebody in a creative way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now the second part of this book focuses on Katrina and New Orleans. Clearly, I mean, obviously a rift for that city. You write of it as a rift for this country, and clearly for you personally. Explain.

TOM PIAZZA: Well, you know, I live in New Orleans, I’d been living in New Orleans for about 11 years when Katrina hit and it was a big dividing line for me, for sure. And after that disaster, for any number of reasons, I looked at reality in general a little bit differently. I think any time that you encounter some kind of cataclysmic event, especially that effects not just you, but the entire community with which you identify, that you live in. It changes your perception of reality, it changes your perception of the weights and balances of things, the relative importance of things. So I wrote two books very quickly after Katrina, “Why New Orleans Matters” and the novel, “City of Refuge.” And after writing “City of Refuge,” I felt as if I had been almost literally picked up by a tornado and kind of spun up in the air and then set back down and I had to take stock a little bit. Your relationship not just to the future changes when you go through a disaster like that, but your relationship to your own past and to your surroundings. So in a way I think of “Devil Sent the Rain” as a kind of stock-taking, a kind of going over things that were abidingly important to me beforehand, and to the country as a whole. And also it’s easy to forget that Katrina was a watershed event, no pun intended, for the entire country. Many things changed as a result of what happened in New Orleans and it spread through the country of course, because people were uprooted from New Orleans and went all of the country as we know.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you are still living there. Where are we now in New Orleans, and where are you now as a writer?

TOM PIAZZA: Well, New Orleans is in a funny kind of way kind of a frontier town now, I think the way a lot of places are when they go through, you know, an event that changes everything. So in other words, there are all kinds of opportunities. Many young people have been coming to New Orleans, a lot of artists, a lot of lawyers, a lot of activists and a lot of opportunists. You know, people who are interested in doing real estate development, either the good type or the not so good type. So it brings a lot of fresh energy to the city. So there is a tremendous amount of fresh energy in New Orleans right now. Large parts of the city are still, you know, limping along at best. Other parts have made absolutely extraordinary resurgences. So it’s a mixed bag. It’s a mixed bag living there. For me, in a way I feel as if I’ve spent five years— it’s kind of like being conscripted. I guess you are kind of— you get drafted. I was living there, I loved the city and the culture and so I was sort of conscripted into writing about it for five years. And I’m working— I’m about 140 pages into a new novel now and it has nothing to do with Katrina, so I’m very happy about that.

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