Nancy Lemann by Betsy Sussler

BOMB 22 Winter 1988
022 Winter 1988
Lemann01 Body

Photo © 1987 by Sandra Russell Clark.

Lives of the Saints is a wild and frolicking tale cast with magical characters from the deep south of New Orleans. Nancy Lemann’s first novel, a comedy written when she was twenty, is filled with a bittersweet pathos. Its imaginary protagonists careen between their deep-rooted code of honor and a deep-rooted desperation; great pride and great sorrow with a joy and a will to survive, that is at times protean and at times illusive. Her second work, The Ritz of the Bayou is an account of the trial of Edwin Edwards, then Governor of Louisiana, for racketeering, fraud, and bribery. And while the cast is as wild and magical as before, they in fact, are not imagined.

“There is so much human frailty floating around that it is a dramatic thing to see, for better and worse, and I have to say that there, among the human frailty, I found something I had ceased to expect, and it was written in dramatic script, when otherwise, when it was over, life was written in small print. It is not that I advocate human frailty, but I had never seen so much of it, all at once, and it was a sort of breathtaking spectacle.”

—The Ritz of the Bayou

Betsy Sussler What do Southerners think of Yankees?

Nancy Lemann In the South, everything is laden with style, which tends to obscure the substance. You can’t do anything without this style whereas the Yankees are much more straightforward. I find it sort of refreshing or a relief sometimes because with the Yankees you can just go about your business in a straightforward manner.

BS Don’t you think the style that the Southerners have leads to a more enigmatic kind of grace?

NL Yes, very well put.

BS That’s eminently more seductive?

NL Perhaps. There are some Yankees I’ve known though who have been equally charming. Maybe I find more drama in New Orleans. Things are a bit larger than life there. Maybe because it’s a smaller stage than New York so you can hold it all in your hand.

BS You said, at one point, that there was only one Northerner who had the grace to apologize to you for what the North did to the South. I don’t think Northerners understand what they did to the South—the isolation and economic ruin after the civil war. How do you think that grace and charm, that eccentricity, had to change after the war? I’m going to answer my own question. I think it’s more desperate now.

NL Their circumstances were changed. Defeat hangs longer in the mind. This is why the Southerners remember it and it’s on the top of their tongues but of course the Northerners forgot a long time ago. It’s very downtrodden in the South. That’s one result. There is an underdog mentality. We had the Sun Belt Prosperity and opulence of the oil boom a few years ago, but that’s dying now. The South is geographically remote from the “hub of the universe” up here. The Southerners are cut off. They’re off in their own world. Cultivating their own gardens, and there is grace in that I think.

BS You have written, and I’ll paraphrase, ‘In the South you tend your own garden…a humble garden, humbly tended becomes very great—but a garden tended with delusions becomes nutty, eccentric.’ Some of your characters speak in these wild fragments—Mary Grace spoke in wild non-sequiturs. For instance, at the funeral where she starts telling you that she loves your hair and then that she loves high heels and then how the death of this little boy, Saint, reminds her of the time her husband told her to get her haircut…

NL But humanity is the same all over. These differences, these niceties are not the most important or profound thing.

BS Your protagonist, in Lives of The Saints, Claude Collier has a profound longing for something he cannot locate. And this longing seems to have a self-destructive quality, or manifests itself that way in Claude.

NL My theory of him was based on an Aristotelian tenet: great virtue must breed devastating vices to make a tragic hero. Aside from that, to take a character like him who was so self-effacing…humility…

BS Who was this Boston voice? Is he someone you were in love with?

NL That’s in The Ritz of the Bayou. I’d be interested to know your reaction to it in light of Lives of the Saints.

BS What intrigued me in Saints, is that your writing seemed so innocent; and I knew that it wasn’t. For instance you have these words or phrases you bring up again and again like a litany. This very gauche writing that becomes in fact, very beautiful. The Ritz was very clipped, fragmented, and all of these dear, eccentric, and desperate characters. I didn’t think it was all that different from Saints, even though The Ritz was non-fiction.

NL Good, I’m glad. I had a lot of intellectual problems with it because in a novel, you’re the boss, anything can happen, you can make things exactly how you wish they were, whereas The Ritz of the Bayou is a true story, I had to play with the cards I was dealt. I couldn’t do so much with my material. On the other hand, I had great material. The material spoke for itself. The truth was stranger than fiction, in this case, you might say, but intellectually traumatic because it’s not like writing a novel. There are more constraints. You just have to tell what happened and that’s it. You can’t make it how you wish it would be. Going back to that Boston thing, you see, for instance, if I were writing a novel, I would make much more of that and you would understand what was going on, whereas the way The Ritz of the Bayou is now, I’m trying to protect everyone because these are real people, including myself. So I had to just hint at things that I was trying to say and I feel that in this case, by saying too little, I may not have said enough and I may not have really gotten my point across in that book.

BS There’s all this longing in your books, a longing and a love for the land and the people and the place that you’re from, like your heart. That’s the most similar thing to love for another human being so I made the connection.

NL I’m glad you noticed that that’s what it was all about, but of course I could have done a lot more with it in a novel and in the future I intend to.

BS But in your fiction, Claude left the reader hanging—you would write, “You’ll just have to imagine what his kisses were like.” You were coy. I mean, I think you like leaving hints.

NL People say they want more sex scenes but sex scenes have to be done in a certain way, so it’s good, I mean, God. I’ll try to put it in Sex Lives of the Saints, my next novel. Another intellectual problem I had with Ritz of the Bayou was that Lives of the Saints was about people I considered to be saints and Ritz of the Bayou might as well have been called “Lives of the Sinners” because I was thrown into this atmosphere of corruption that I’d frankly never been in before because I grew up with the kind of people in Lives of the Saints—innocents. So I do not understand entirely. Whereas honor is a thing that I can understand.

BS I wanted to ask you at what point you think innocence becomes guilt. You were talking about how closely-knit the Governor’s family is. In fact many of them were on trial right along with him. In the South, family is very important. You’re completely loyal to your family—do anything for them. (Right, definitely.) That’s a code of honor that in the South is above the law. Now you could say, if you stretched things a bit, that this code of honor was at work amongst the Cajuns in the governor’s milieu. Is that thought?

NL They say about Murray Kempton, the columnist—he covers a lot of trials—that he has sympathy for the underdog and that he is disposed to find goodness everywhere. That’s in his blood. I felt that too. I got it from my father, an optimistic mind. I had to look for the good. Writing is an enterprise mounted in hope, as my hero Walker Percy said and I would not do it unless I based it on that premise. That is my premise. Therefore I’m looking for a hopeful sign. I found a hopeful sign, even in such unlikely circumstances as that trial. Unfortunately, politics is sort of a life or death issue in Louisiana and I am one of the only people who had sympathy for the governor. Everybody else hates him. But I’m just looking at that as a Shakespearean tragedy, King Lear, the downfall of a man by his own flaws. I’m not looking at it as Louisiana politics. And I’m looking at the atmosphere, the characters, the drama, the pathos, innocence and corruption. It’s apocalyptic.

BS While I was reading The Ritz, I was wondering if people would even believe it was non-fiction. If you’re not from Louisiana…

NL I don’t know what people feel about that. I said to my publishers originally when they accepted it, “You’re sure you don’t want me to make this into a novel?” But they said, “No, we want the real thing.” In this case, I think they thought the truth was stranger than fiction and it is. For example, the names, Camille Gravel, the Governor’s lawyer, and Pappy Triche, another lawyer in the case, I mean you couldn’t make that stuff up better if you tried. I love that stuff. Can you imagine, an old gent named Camille, and a great man at that? He was enigmatic. I heard dark things of him, but he had the air of an honest man and a true one. He was a sort of Sir Thomas Moore figure to the King in his long association with the Governor. He was an enigmatic figure in Louisiana politics, for Louisiana politics are thought to be a dirty game.

BS These men, the Cajun Governor and other defendants had come into a power structure that they’d never had anything to do with, a power structure that had never paid them any mind, you know?

NL It’s dramatic and quite clear that in New Orleans you really have high society, and then you have 50 to 70 percent Black population, and then you have the Governor and his cronies, from the country, they clawed their way to the top, they were born on sharecroppers’ farms…

BS Completely possible, right?

NL Yes. It’s a class struggle because the society people in New Orleans have always been against these populist leaders like Huey Long and why these populist leaders were born with none of the advantages that the society people were. Politics is not my beat and I’m not fit to talk about it but it’s poignant to see, when I’d go home…a downtrodden state, a hated charming leader. Louisiana is just this downtrodden place; it was getting worse and worse, a dire economic depression. Everybody hated the Governor, who was considered to be corrupt, who had grown to be a demagogue. I don’t blame it all on him. It’s not that black and white to me.

BS All the people that you know in New Orleans are against the Governor?

NL Totally against him. I was influenced by that when I wrote the book and all the people I most admire hate him, like Walker Percy and my brother, Nick Lemann; and I was influenced by that. They have a rigid code of honor, but I have a different drummer particularly when the conventional uptown wisdom (uptown is what they call society people in New Orleans) is at issue. In New Orleans, you have a segment of the population that’s real genteel, old French names, old money, frosted hair, that sort of thing, it’s kind of like preppies up North. At carnival, they actually think they’re kings and queens, they’re royalty. They throw out trinkets from the floats down to the masses and everything. But then again it’s a culture like that, that is that ancient and traditional, that becomes so rich.

BS There are secret societies, right?

NL The carnival krewes and the carnival societies, it’s ridiculous, yes, veiled in secrecy. These are grown men, pillars of society, they’re dressing up like Harlequins at midnight and going to their friends’ houses to knight their sons and read their daughters proclamations naming them the queens of Comus and of Rex. These are Mardi Gras organizations which stage parades and balls. Mardi Gras is composed of these secret societies. Rex is the most open and civic one. The rest of them are very social: Comus, Momus, Babylon, Proteus, etc. They each have a parade at night and then they have a ball and throughout the year, they have these hare-brained shenanigans.

BS What forms these networks?

NL Your family name. This is society in New Orleans. It’s anti-Semitic, it’s racially prejudiced. I’m a Jew. I know what it is to be an underdog. I grew up with anti-Semitism in New Orleans so I can look at it, speaking as a Jew or as a black person and yet I can see it has its points.

BS That love/hate.

NL Because it’s nutty. It takes a nut to dress up as a duke on a horse at age 50 and parade down the avenue with a marching band. Frankly, I appreciate that. Prejudice and ignorance cannot be counted in that atmosphere; yet on the whole, as I go back and forth between New Orleans and New York I notice a lot of things. Here is one reason why I don’t want to give up New York. To go to the North you trade some worldly comforts for your independence. That’s a fair trade, you understand.

BS There’s a very strong caste system in New Orleans which is impossible to escape. You can’t class hop the way you can here.

NL That’s why I like that place Benny’s Bar in The Ritz because never have so many different strata of society been collected in one small, smoldering room.

BS You compared the graft and corruption trials in Connecticut to the Governor’s in Louisiana. You said that the trial in New Orleans was more “sophisticated, conducted by smart fellows who would leave fewer tracks behind them.” What did you mean by that?

NL What I meant was that the characters in the New York case were wired; they had FBI agents…they had tapes…they had all that kind of stuff. They had incredible evidence against these people. It was like nickel and dime stuff and they were sort of like nickel and dime crooks. In the New York City case for instance, I think the amounts of graft involved were low compared to the Louisiana case, in which the defendants profited $10 million. These people were incredibly sophisticated, and the government did not have the evidence to convict them. That’s what I mean when I said that they left fewer tracks behind them. They danced on the edge of the law. They knew all the most sophisticated loopholes and technicalities and how to cover their bases and they just covered their tracks behind them.

BS You talk about their recklessness and their joking. For instance, that scene in The Ritz of the Bayou about the governor’s brother. The prosecutor accused him of being the bag man because he had been brown-bagging money all over the state. So he goes into a bar and puts a brown bag over his head and he starts joking about it—puts “Please Release Me” on the juke box. I mean there is a belief in the South that they have their own laws and I do think this comes from the war. I’m not talking about the Black issue here because that’s not something that a Northerner can discuss.

NL There’s a certain amount of hypocrisy up here. My brother’s writing a book right now about race relations and the underclass and I think his theory is that after the war, the North was the promised land and everyone came up here, but it turned into the ghettos of Harlem and Chicago and it just didn’t work out.

BS It didn’t. The Northerners are no better but I don’t…I have to say I don’t understand the relationship between the blacks and the whites in the South. I don’t.

NL I never saw that much brutality between the races in the South. I saw a fairly gentle and jocular relationship between the races in the South. That’s what I’ve always seen. Maybe I’m living in a dream world but that’s what I’ve always seen.

BS What’s the joke about? There is a hidden joke that the whites keep towards the blacks and the blacks keep toward the whites in the South.

NL I think the people are so jaded, frivolous, cynical, and wise that they’re not overly earnest. Earnestness is a quality you see up North. People are not that earnest in the South. There’s a lot of humor down there, and it’s dark humor, it’s gallows humor a lot of it but it’s wry—ironic. And I think in race relations there’s even that element.

BS Do you think there is a veiled language in the South, that part of the reason the South has spawned so many great writers is that they need to uncover the veil?

NL It reminds me of a quote from Graham Greene where he’s talking about Africa, darkest Africa, it might be in The Heart of the Matter. He said the reason why he likes Africa is partly because of his love of the underdog, which I relate to in the South because the South is the underdog always. He likes it because it is humanity in a sort of defeat, corrupted and undisguised. They say Graham Greene has a romance with failure.

BS Also the underdog learns to lie. Any vanquished people, any people under the subjugation of another people learn to lie so they can maintain their culture.

NL Lie is a derogatory way to put it.

BS A Veiled language, an Other language, a language that they used with outsiders and a language they used for their own…

NL It takes a long time to understand and master a thing, a culture, city, a people; and being from New Orleans and having been born and raised there, of course, I can understand it; yet having been up North, I can compare it to something.

BS I guess what I’m saying is that was the way Southerners had of never really being mastered. An Iron Magnolia is one type of Southern woman, the matriarch, the one who has all the accoutrements of being a Southern woman and yet is very strong, runs everything, a certain no-nonsense…

NL Profoundly feminine and yet the boss.

BS Right. But there’s another type of Southern woman, the…

NL Wilting Gardenia?

BS I’m thinking more about Mary Grace. How would you…

NL I would call her more of a Crackpot Belle. She’s a real old time Southern Belle. And I certainly grew up with some girls like that and they are dear to me because they don’t make them like that up here.

BS No, they don’t. How would you describe them?

NL I would say their lives are comprised by emotion and affections, their charm and vivacity, and personality. It’s almost like a cult of personality. What they have is personality and emotion, that’s their life. Such people can make life very dear because they are so charming. Claude Collier had some of that in him, not to say he’s effeminate…

BS He had a softness coming from the respect with which he treated other people, as if people are fragile.

NL I think possibly a Southerner is less likely to break your heart because he does have a well-developed sense of honor that he’s going to adhere to; so he’s just going to be careful not to entangle you in a certain way unless he means it. There’s a certain Yankee virility, though…

BS You have a way of putting together words that are at odds with each other, like despair and opulence.

NL The title, The Ritz of the Bayou, refers to the megalomaniac grandeur of an old hotel in Alexandria, Louisiana, set in a small crumbling town, such grandeur in a humble state…

BS But there’s also an opulence to the land. I have these longings just for the smell of New Orleans because it’s so rich and dense and thick.

NL Sweet olive and gardenia. It’s very dramatic. It’s a bit larger than life down there. Like in Lives of the Saints, my heart’s constantly breaking into a million pieces when I’m there…the people most dear to me are there.

BS Why do you think it weakens you down there?

NL The reason why they call it the Big Easy is because it’s so easy, too easy, that’s one thing. And if I had never come to New York, I don’t think I would have been able to follow my profession.

BS You don’t think you would have been able to write down there? But you go down there to write.

NL It took me eight years to find a publisher for Lives of the Saints, and sad to say, it took coming to New York to do so. Then I could see who all the people were and identify them and when I saw Gordon Lish, I just said he’s a nut, that’s the man for me. That’s the only man who’s going to take a chance on me. I think I was right and if I had never come here I wouldn’t have met him, I wouldn’t have known who he was, I wouldn’t have known to go to him, it’s just that simple. And New York is good for business and New Orleans is good for the heart.

BS You talk about human frailty as something that moves you. This is from The Ritz of the Bayou:

It’s the drama of the tropics and of your native place, what belongs to you and you to it. A flawed thing can be more full of life than a perfect thing. You can only state the condition of the thing. You can only state the condition of the thing you love despite its flaws…You may be filled with longing and unease but one thing you know, when you are there, your ticker’s back in business.

NL Part of that is just the place where you’re from. If I’m standing on a street corner in New Orleans, I can think back a hundred years or I can think of my uncle or my father or Walker Percy or Claude Collier. Whereas if I’m standing on a street corner in New York there are not those layers of meaning that come to a thing you know so well… the place that bred you. I think familiarity breeds passion rather than contempt.

BS You mentioned your dad and feeling safe in the threadbare elegance of his offices. Is that because this threadbare quality is still there? It’s survived?

NL That’s from The Ritz and I was comparing him really to the governor. The opulence of the governor, compared to my father with his threadbare elegance. The threadbare elegance is something real as opposed to something fake. My father is constant. He has that rigid code of honor.

BS Let me ask you this, I have an idea of what the code of honor is in the South. What do you think it is?

NL I think it is to be kind and to treat people gently and to put others above yourself. It’s a gallantry, it’s a gallantry. But there is something different that transcends the North and the South, which Walker Percy, my father, my brother, Gordon Lish would have which is anti the Governor because the Governor is unscrupulous, a charming rogue. There is a code of honor that transcends North or South that simply doesn’t stand for that, that doesn’t fall for that. Now I myself fall for that. But these other people that I admire and hold most dear, they don’t fall for that. Interesting thing. They’re unforgiving and they’re stalwart and they’re stern and maybe it’s a woman’s thing with me, where I have much more pity in my heart. I pity the governor for not knowing the difference between right and wrong or for not being able to resist the temptation, for not being a great man.

BS Who got the governor into power? It wasn’t the people in New Orleans that got the governor in.

NL They claw their way to the top and the little man supposedly admires them for starting at the same place he did and yet ending up in a millionaire’s mansion, an opulent fake imitation antebellum millionaire’s plantation.

BS You know Walker Percy. What was his influence on you?

NL Walker is the living writer I admire. It was he who ever made me see a way to write. He has a marriage of style and substance in his writing that is unique. He is a true original and a true modern. The only modern, as I say, that I look up to and care for. Graham Greene is living though, and in this century I also like Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse and Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Salinger. Walker has a profound solicitude that is what makes him dear to me. The generosity of the man, to look outward instead of in. I’m an introspective type myself of course, and that’s the only way that I can find the universal, to find it within myself; but Walker has the genius to sit in his office in a small Southern town and see the universe and dream it up out of his head. I went to the Governor’s trial and followed the Governor to get material, because I couldn’t always dream things up out of my head. Walker’s stance is: Something is wrong—What is it? He relates this to the individual as well as to the century—both the specific and the general. This is what I mean by his profound solicitude. He is the great man I have known.

BS You use this word despair a lot. What does that mean to you?

NL In The Ritz it meant that what I tried to say is that there is a very downtrodden air to Louisiana and especially while the governor was in power, there was this stark violent contrast between his demagogy and the suffering, the increasing suffering of the people. But I’ll tell you what the despair…

BS What is it in the upper classes?

NL The despair of the upper classes?

BS Because in Lives of the Saints you talk about Claude’s despair, and Mr. Collier’s despair…

NL That’s different. Of course Mr. Collier illustrates another Aristotelian principle, a man who has great good fortune whose fortunes are severely reversed throughout the course of the story. He loses his son. That’s his despair. He had concrete reasons. But Claude’s despair…He lost his brother so he had concrete reasons too, but he was a little bit desperate before that.

BS But Mr. Collier had had that falling out with his wife for all those years and he locked himself away and read Homer…I mean he had his own little world to protect himself from despair.

NL With Mr. Collier you have a man driven beyond endurance by the sorrows of the world but who deals with it in a more uplifting constructive way, through scholarship, ancient Greek, whereas Claude who had the same source of sorrow dealt with it through alcohol and other destructive things as you said but where does that source of despair originally come from? Maybe solitude…He had moments of abject self-loathing. He was thus wise.

BS But Southerners are never alone.

NL Claude was never alone.

BS They’re always partying. Of course I know you can be alone in a crowd.

NL Claude, why, why didn’t he just marry Louise? Why? Why do you think?

BS What do you think? You were Louise, right? (laughter)

NL No, I’m God. I just wrote the thing. I’m the boss.

BS Why didn’t he marry Louise? Because I think for me, Claude represented something that I’ve always been very afraid of—and that is a love…believing in things so dearly that you don’t really want to know the truth of them, you don’t want to know the evil side of them. It’s much easier to embrace only half way than to have to embrace the evil too.

NL Interesting analysis.

BS That’s what Claude represented. It’s a certain kind of weakness that I have a great empathy for. What was it to you? He always clung to desperation. He chose it even before his brother died.

NL A man must overcome his advantages just as another man must overcome his disadvantages. The governor overcame his disadvantages by clawing his way to the top. There is a vitality in that. But Claude was born with every advantage, he didn’t even have to work, so he existed in a state of limitless possibility—which is not good for the soul.

BS He has a sadness to him which is almost debilitating.

NL But he was so gallant, he was so kind, entertaining everyone that I guess it took a toll on him.

BS He gave too much without thinking of himself.

NL I think he was a saint and is a saint happy?

BS No, a saint isn’t happy but “saint” implies a certain kind of martyrdom which I’m not…the saints in the South are hedonistic and I guess this is where I get confused.

NL You’re right. He is a hedonistic saint in that he had vices, but that goes back to that Aristotelian definition of a tragic hero. His virtues were so great that they bred devastating vices. That’s the theory of him. However, I’m not going to bring him back you see.

BS Does he stay in Boston?

NL He got in trouble. But trouble once in a while isn’t bad. Frankly I could use some.

BS So Claude is someone you know.

NL I don’t know if I want to give away my trade secrets.

BS Did he really slip away or did the character just slip away?

NL Claude is an invention. This was a novel. That’s…how it differs so intrinsically from The Ritz of the Bayou even though I had such great material with The Ritz of the Bayou and it’s my heart’s blood as much, but one thing I’m proud of about Lives of the Saints is it is a true invention, a true fiction. Claude is an invention. He does not exist.

BS What I’m trying to say when I ask did the character slip away, I know he’s an invention, but he’s still the spirit of the South and the spirit of the South always slips out of one’s grasp. That’s why it’s survived so long. It’s evasive. So I guess what I’m asking is are you going to go back to the South to find that character or that strength?

NL The way I have Claude right now is he shows up, up North coming back and thank God I’m back to novel writing.

BS You want to talk about that for a while? Does it take place up here or down South.

NL It starts out up North. I do want to bring back the Colliers. I couldn’t possibly do without Mr. Collier and I’m just going to have to bring him back. He’s in Ritz of the Bayou too, otherwise known as my father, the courtroom existentialist, the fellow who’s grading oysters. Mr. Collier is the only thing in Lives of the Saints that really is not an invention. He’s my father. But he didn’t say those things to me, when he gives Claude those rules of life about be kind and everything. My father’s not that obvious. He teaches by example not by directive and he would never just sit me down and say this. So he has many invented aspects but…

BS You speak of sangfroid as grace in adversity—wisdom—having been around the block a couple of times. Otherwise you’re too innocent and too honorable and you don’t have that dark suave glamor, those shallow human lusts which make you humane. You’re very humane so I wonder where you think this innocence comes in.

NL Again it goes back to the difference between Lives of the Saints and The Ritz of the Bayou. It’s partly what you said about how Claude had that thing that you empathized with…that’s what Lives of the Saints was all about, the innocence of people, but in The Ritz of the Bayou I came across something that’s rather a mystery to me. The veil has not been rent from the temple on this. I still don’t understand it but the point of that book to me was, and I don’t know if I got my point across but in this atmosphere of corruption I found something beautiful and I must make my peace with it. How odd that in corruption I would find that rare thing, peace. That’s one reason I said my ticker was back in business now, but in those unlikely circumstances of corruption, there I felt life and…

BS Human frailty was what you were talking about.

NL What happened to me there. I’m not going to spell it out in the interview either because it would be too gauche but basically I was involved in something innocent when I went down there but as I became involved in the trial (there’s a lot of human condition floating around in a courtroom, and frankly I could use some—and I certainly got some there). You have the big things, good and evil, going on in a courtroom and everything is larger than life. The Governor is larger than life; that’s why he’s so dramatic. But I went down there with this innocence but I became involved myself in corruption, betrayal, weakness and worse and yet it had a certain beauty to it and it opened my heart. It didn’t end well but I found a hopeful sign there.

BS What do you think this beauty is?

NL I can’t say now.

BS So what’s the next book about?

NL It may have in it what we call a May/December romance, much older man, much younger girl. And it starts here, up North.

BS Are they Southerners, living up North?

NL Some of them. I don’t want to just stupidly say it’s going to be a cross between Lives of the Saints and The Ritz of the Bayou but I do want to have the aspect of to some extent lighthearted escapist entertainment which I think characterizes Lives of the Saints to some degree.

BS I thought Lives of the Saints was a tragedy.

NL It’s just another tragi-comedy. I feel that I write comedy but I could never just write comedy, it wouldn’t be true enough. I feel that it’s my duty to write comedy and I feel that I do write comedy. What I want to do is create a world that you want to dwell in so that the whole time you read the book, you can’t get enough of it; you want to dwell in that world and then when the book is over, you wish it weren’t. That’s really one of my aims.

BS Have you been able to write up here? You said at one point that you could only write in the South, is that true?

NL Oh no, no. But I do tend to get my material down there but then I really get down to business up here. Both with Lives of the Saints and The Ritz of the Bayou, I got my material in the South and I wrote the first draft in the South but I wrote the revision up North and really whipped it into shape, with…

BS With some distance up here.

NL But I don’t like to have too much distance. I have this theory that you have to pay your dues and if you’re writing from this distance, you tend to romanticize the South and I don’t want to write something that’s all fake and dishonest and dripping with romanticism. I want to face up to it in a real way that’s not fake, as when you’re actually down there paying your dues, the bitter with the sweet. It’s certainly not all a party down there. There’s that despair.

BS Do you identify real strongly with your characters? I mean when you write them, do you become one of the characters for a while?

NL I mean my heart’s blood is in those characters. I even feel my destiny is inextricably linked with the governor because my heart’s blood is in that book. So when I went back to New Orleans this past month and came face to face with my subject, the Governor and his campaign which ended so dramatically in defeat last Saturday night, it’s pathetic but I was satisfied to make my peace with him.

BS What did he say, how did you do that?

NL He said, “She said in the book that one of my aides put the moves on her and I asked her which one it was so I could fire the other four who didn’t.” (laughter)

BS And…

NL One day he came up to me and said, “Can I have a private chat with you please?” So I followed him into the alleyway and the thing about him is he’s larger than life and conserves himself to play that very role. It’s like in a Fred Astaire movie, where in a 90 minute movie, they only actually dance for five minutes, though you only watch the movie for the dance. That’s what he’s like. So if he takes you into the alleyway, it’s a big deal. He’s manipulative in that way. And he’s got this huge megalomanic entourage around him—bodyguards, aides, etc. He doesn’t really have the common touch even though he’s supposed to stand for the people. So anyway, there we are in the alleyway. I get real nervous when I’m with him. Everybody hates the man. So first I made a little joke, we were at a brokerage house so I said, “Well, at least they can’t pin the stock market crash on you.” Then he said, “I heard you were upset about the remarks I made about you at The Press Club (regarding The Ritz on the Bayou), because if I did wrong, if I acted wrong, if I said the wrong thing, I’m sorry.” My heart was breaking because the thing about him is to me, he’s not so much corrupt as ignorant and gauche. That’s the reason why we shouldn’t have him for a governor because he’s ignorant. He has no idea of education and he has no idea how gauche he is. But adversity became him. His trials deepened his character, in my opinion, and in this very small petty example I believe he could wonder if he had said the wrong thing (which in this case he hadn’t—I thought it was very big of him to mention my book because it is not so kind to him though it tries hard to be.) He said, “I thought you were pretty nice to me in the book.” And I said, “I hope so.” It amazed me that he could understand what is such an artistic book. I mean this is not a book about facts and figures and politics. It’s this very artistic book as a novelist would write, and it amazed me that he could understand it, but I think he did.

The Fiery Pantheon by Nancy Lemann
Vivian Vázquez Irizarry and Gretchen Hildebran’s Decade of Fire by Roya Marsh
Robert Foster Clearing Rubble Bronx NYC

Decade of Fire is a remarkable tale of the Bronx’s rise from ash, standing to set the record straight about the fires that ravaged the borough in the late ’60s and ’70s.

Colluding with the Hoax: A Conversation with Kevin Young by Adam Fitzgerald
Barnum Bailey

The writer of Bunk on American hucksterism, racism, plagiarism, and why we believe what we want to believe.

Take Note by Julia Bosson
Joan Didion 01

Unchanging times, in Joan Didion’s South and West

Originally published in

BOMB 22, Winter 1988

Robert Mapplethorpe by Gary Indiana, Nancy Lemann, Mike Kelley, Gary Stevens, Gleb Panfilov, Brice Marden by Saul Ostrow, and Rose English.

Read the issue
022 Winter 1988