from Nathan C. Martin and Friends.
the waves sea monster

The Waves, a new quarterly LGBTQ reading series, will hold its inaugural reading at 7 p.m. on Thursday, August 28, at Antenna Gallery (3718 St. Claude Ave.)  The series will present local and visiting writers alongside emerging and student voices to encompass a multigenerational LGBTQ perspective.

This edition of The Waves will present an all-local cast of writers featuring Chanel Clarke, Tyler Gillespie, Elizabeth Gross, Megan McHugh, Kay Murphy, Brad Richard, Anne Marie Rooney, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Spencer Silverthorne, and Madeleine LeCesne.

The Waves is also accepting submissions from writers interested in reading at future events.  You can find info and submission guidelines at their website.

As always, this Room 220 event is free and open to the public.

About the authors:

Anne Marie Rooney is the author of Spitshine, as well as two chapbooks.

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers was born in a hailstorm, is the author of the poetry collection Chord Box, and lives on a street named Desire.

Tyler Gillespie is a pale Floridian whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Rolling Stone, Salon, NPR, and PANK, among other places.

Madeleine LeCesne is a senior at Lusher School and a writer in the Certificate of Artistry Program, directed by Brad Richard.

Elizabeth Gross throws her poems around and recently some have landed in LEVELER, Painted Bride Quarterly, B O D Y, and the upcoming Queer South anthology from Sibling Rivalry Press.

Spencer Silverthorne is a MFA candidate in poetry at the University of New Orleans.

Chanel Clarke is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers and has had poems published in Anti-, Flag and Void, Smoking Glue Gun, and Hayden’s Ferry Review.

Brad Richard directs the creative writing program at Lusher Charter School, has published three books and two chapbooks, and is working on, among other things, a manuscript titled Reconstructions.

Megan Mchugh, who recently completed her MFA at UNO, is a garden teacher with the Edible Schoolyard New Orleans, and also grows/designs flowers at the flower farm and design studio, Pistil and Stamen.

Kay Murphy is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Orleans. Her poetry and essays have been published far and wide.

Panelists at the first Rising Tide conference, in 2006, which brought together bloggers and other tech-savvy citizens to discuss the role of the Internet in the rebuilding and future of New Orleans. From left: Dedra Johnson, name forgotten, Greg Peters, Scout Prime, and Ashley Morris (photo by Maitri, via Flickr).
Panelists at the first Rising Tide conference, in 2006, which brought together bloggers and other tech-savvy citizens to discuss the role of the Internet in the rebuilding and future of New Orleans. From left: Dedra Johnson, name forgotten, Greg Peters, Scout Prime, and Ashley Morris (photo by Maitri, via Flickr).

The University of New Orleans Press—in collaboration with editor, journalist, and former New Orleanian Cynthia Joyce—is seeking recommendations for content to include in a new anthology of some of the best Hurrican Katrina-related blogging and online writing.

“If you wrote, or remember reading, blogs/posts that should not be missed—because they crystallized the particular challenges of post-Katrina life, or maybe even inspired action for addressing them—I want to hear from you,” Joyce said.

The anthology will focus on online-only entries that were written between August 2005-August 2007 and revealed a layer of post-Katrina life that wasn’t typically picked up by traditional news outlets.

There will also be a section, “PLEASE FORWARD,” that will contain some of the emails and missives that may not have had a permanent web address but were repeatedly passed around via group email lists in an effort to fill the information void. Joyce is looking for submissions for this section as well.

The book’s official description:

“A collection of writing never before published in print—and in some cases no longer accessible online—the anthology will highlight the unprecedented role blogging played post-Katrina, both as a critical news source in the days and weeks immediately following the storm, and as a catalyst for the region’s recovery in the months and years that followed.”

Email submissions, suggestions, and/or questions to

Last spring, Press Street unveiled in a soft opening the new Reading Room 220 on the first floor of our headquarters on St. Claude Avenue. The community space—which hosts events, adult writing workshops, Big Class activities, and more—includes a collection of quality books and periodicals that span subject, format, and genre. Many are from independent publishers and are not readily available in bookstores and libraries around town. As we continue to acquire books and catalog and organize our collection (which will soon be available for your perusal on Goodreads), we will feature some of the noteworthy publications that you can find at the Reading Room 220.

by David Ohle
Calamari Press

Like Moldenke, the protagonist of this idiosyncratic book that begins and ends with the refrain that he will ‘remain’, Motorman has shown its own determination to endure.  Written by New Orleans native David Ohle for his master’s thesis at the University of Kansas, Motorman was first published by Knopf in 1972 and championed by no less than literary tastemaker Gordon Lish, but was out print a few years after publication.  While Ohle published stories infrequently in various periodicals for 30-odd years, Motorman acquired a sort of mythological aura thanks to its scarcity and eccentricity on one hand, and on the other to the persistence and photo-copying acumen of a growing cult following.  Motorman was finally republished, with a keen introduction by Ben Marcus, in 2004 by 3rd Bed, and again in 2008 by Calimari Press.  A host of other Moldenke and non-Moldenke books by Ohle have since been published or are forthcoming, including The Old Reactor due out in September, which was excerpted by the New Orleans Review in 2012.

Motorman reads like an absurdist take on the journey narrative, as the singularly named Moldenke sets out on a trip that is part quest, part escape, and part picaresque.  Prompted by the vaguely menacing threats from the all-powerful, all-present Bunce, who torments Moldenke by messing with his utilities, putting him through endless dead-end phone calls filled with arcane instructions, and trailing him with human-ish, goo-filled functionaries called jellyheads, Moldenke seeks (maybe) friendly company, love (sort of), and (possibly) something resembling peace of mind.  As Moldenke travels a ruined, dystopian landscape characterized by government moons, nonsensical weather, and ‘mock’ wars where soldiers volunteer their injuries, the contrast of Moldenke’s mundane struggles and the setting’s grotesqueness energizes the narrative.  Like most books that take place in futuristic settings, it’s the recognizable echoes of the present that lend potency, here cast by Ohle, to great effect, with more deadpan menace than flash-bang spectacle.  It is never clear whether the absurdity tinges this world harmless or harrowing, and it is this tension that makes Ohle’s vision truly unsettling.  What the story of Moldenke offers is not a way to transcend and make sense of an absurd, hostile world, but rather how to live in it, and ultimately, remain.

Motorman was generously donated to the Reading Room 220 by Calamari Press.


By Cate Czarnecki

There are lots of things to discover within the glossy pages of Phillip Collier’s newest book, Making New Orleans: Products Past and Present, many of which have already left an indelible impression on New Orleanians. The beautifully crafted oversized book is chock full of photos and advertisements of companies both active and extinct. While the collection is filled with history, Collier is by trade a graphic designer and not full-time historian. The book reflects his innate understanding of visual design and layout, and he leaves a lot of the storytelling to the experts. The book is divided into two major sections: past and present. From there, chapters are arranged based on the product types ranging from Coffee and Chicory to Rockets and Ships. Each chapter begins with an informative essay by a notable expert. Bill Rau, of M.S. Rau antiques, lends his knowledge to that particular area, and other contributors include Arthur Smith (of the Louisiana State Museum), Peter A. Mayer, Errol Laborde and Clancy DuBos.

The New Orleanian was a New Yorker-esque magazine published in the 1930s.

Many of the writers address the ritual-based relationship between New Orleans consumers and local products: the pairing of a po-boy with an ice-cold Barqs root beer; chicory-laced coffee and the daily paper. It’s natural to sentimentalize what you know, but here the affection for the brands of yesterday comes across as truly genuine and rarely saccharine. Products have a way of unconsciously weaving their way into the fabric of your life (to quote the infamous Cotton slogan).  They inform place and memory, themes which are central to Collier’s work. When the Hubig’s pie factory burned down in 2012, Collier was still doing research on the book which would become Making New Orleans. That day, he went out and bought a pie and stuck it in his freezer, knowing that it would play some sort of role in the collection’s future.

Picayune cigarettes, which were manufactured on Magazine Street in the early 1900s, were packed with the same caporal tobacco used in Gauloises cigarettes, widely known as the most delicious cigarettes in the world.              Mmmm…. Gauloises….

Delving into the oddities of the past is one of the pleasures of Making New Orleans. A particular favorite discovery of mine was the American Frog Canning Company in the ‘Dis and Dat’ section, which sought to corner the market on the burgeoning frog industry by selling start-up frog raising kits. “The company claimed to be virtually competition-free and a great market opportunity during the global financial collapse of the Great Depression.” the featured paragraph explains. A enlarged advertisement shows a happy couple effortlessly planting their frog pond, catching frogs, and (a little too passively, in my opinion) packing live frogs into crates to be shipped back for a profit. “Our lessons will give you complete instructions.” the manual ensures. Other sections, like Press and Print, emphasize the mostly by-gone days of daily print. “During its 300-year history, New Orleans has been home to more than two dozen newspapers printed in 10 different languages – 12 were published at the same time…” Peter A. Mayer explains in the introduction, noting that if not for the Advocate, New Orleans would be the largest city in the country without a daily paper. “From 12 to one to none? Unimaginable!”

The American Frog Canning Company offered all one needed to become an amateur frog canner.

In this sense, Making New Orleans is more of a cultural atlas then anything else, a tribute to the deep ties between local consumers and the products that fill up their lives. There are plenty of companies included that we recognize today – Zatarains, Luzianne Tea, Big Shot soft drinks – and many more that time has mostly forgotten. Towards the end of the book, Collier showcases the next generation of New Orleans products, with pages on Nola Brewing Company, KREWE du Optic sunglasses, and Fleurty Girl. It makes you wonder about what a new incarnation of this book will look like in 100 years – which of today’s local brands will still be around, and which will have faded away over time. One gets the impression from the enormous variety of the items catalogued in Making New Orleans, however, that a century from now New Orleans will still be populated with objects that embody a cultural value to the people who live here and beyond. Or maybe we’ll all be back to raising frogs in our backyards.


Local author Allison Alsup was among the winners of the 2014 O’Henry Prize, which honored her short story “Old Houses” published in issue 38.1 of the New Orleans Review. Alsup’s story will be included in the anthology The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, to be released in September by Random House.

The annual O’Henry anthology intends to collect the best short fiction published in literary journals around the world. Alsup will appear in this year’s installment alongside authors such as National Book Award-winner Louise Erdrich. Other stories in the anthology were initially published in places such as the New YorkerHarvard ReviewTin House, and Granta.


A map of Dublin, drawn by Vladimir Nabokov, based on Ulysses.

New Orleanians will celebrate the (fictional) life and times of James Joyce’s protagonist Leopold Bloom with a communal marathon reading of the famous novel that features Bloom’s antics, Ulysses, at this year’s Bloomsday, sponsored by Crescent City Books, beginning at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 16, at The Irish House (1432 St. Charles Ave.).

Attendees are invited to read (10 min. max) or simply listen to the tale and to partake in the exquisite Irish cuisine prepared for sale by chef Matt Murphy.

This year’s featured celebrity readers include Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Susan Larson, Brian Boyles, Stephen Rea, and Pandora Gastelum.

This event is free, Irish, and open to the public.

campanella bourbon

By Jeri Hilt

Richard Campanella’s newest book, Bourbon Street: A History, provides an impressive historiography of the street, from genesis to its present-day manifestation, and attempts to unpack the role that the “adaptive commodification of culture” has had on its longevity and success. Bourbon Street is described in the book as both a phenomenon and a globally recognized symbol that “single-handedly generates imagery and reputation about an entire metropolis.” Campanella espouses: “For some, that Bourbon Street image is a delectable mélange of historicity and hedonism; for others it’s iniquitous, crass, phony, and offensive.”

While Campanella’s text is layered, Black New Orleans should be highly suspicious of the use of the words “hedonistic” and “culture” in works such as this. The word culture is often a moniker used innocuously for people of color to denote a vagueness of difference. Even when this undefined difference is praised, as is the case in Campanella’s Bourbon Street, it is the impulse to denote a distinction—whatever follows—that makes one wary.

When this denotation of culture—insert here undefined descriptions of people of color—is used in tandem with the term hedonistic, you’ve likely decoded an essential thrust of innate hypocrisies embedded in narratives of American history. These hypocrisies and the denial of their existence do not relate directly to Campanella’s text, though culture and hedonism do appear in precisely this manner.

Throughout the book’s accounts of historical periods—steeped in the literal commodification of a particular form of human existence (enslaved Africans) and the attempted annihilation and dispersal of another form (nations of native peoples)—the “adaptive commodification of culture [emphasis added]” is credited for both Bourbon Street’s infamy and success.

In our interview, Campanella explicates his theories on Bourbon Street’s spatial development, economic resilience, and cultural fascination. He also gives voice to the trends that he feels have informed America’s longstanding cultural fascination with the city of New Orleans.

Room 220: Which disciplinary aspect of the book did you find the most intriguing? I know you’re a geographer, housed in the school of architecture.

Richard Campanella: The spatial aspect. Being a geographer, I’m intrigued about how character gets ascribed to space and place. Going back to the 1920s, one of the transformative inflection points in the change of Bourbon Street from a completely mundane, prototypical downtown New Orleans street—prior to the Civil War—to the very exceptional place that it is today was the advent of a new social innovation called the nightclub.

Nightclubs, as opposed to prior variations—such as the so-called concert saloon of the late 1800s—fostered a sense of exclusivity, that you must be privileged and empowered to be in such an exclusive place. They fostered that sense of exclusivity in part by creating a barrier between the public space of the street and the private space inside, and it was patrolled, if you would, by a doorman who controlled access. So you almost had to be of a certain caste, class, and appearance—and of course these places were strictly segregated—to get in.

Upon going inside, you partook of that sense of exclusivity—so, again, note that spatial barrier between public space and private space. Fast forward forty years later, and that barrier starts to disintegrate. There had been many, many changes on Bourbon Street coming off the 1962 – 1964 vice crackdowns of District Attorney Garrison. Coming out of this, many of these clubs and bars lost their major profit machine, which came out of illicit gambling and “B drinking.” They had to figure out how to make money a new way.

Sometime in 1968, some unremembered bar figured out that instead of trying to get a pedestrian outside to come into the private space, why not open a window and sell the drinks directly to the public space. It was called window hawking at the time, and it eventually gave birth to the “go-cup” and the transfer of Bourbon Street nightly activity from the exclusive indoor space of the clubs to the public space. So that barrier came down, and this birthed the nightly pedestrian parade, and now everyone knows on Bourbon Street—with the exception of a couple of famous places like Galatoire’s and Pat O’Brien’s, where people really do go out of their way to go and stay there—for the most part, the attraction, the spectacle, is in the street. So places retool themselves to eliminate that barrier. That’s what I mean by space and social geographies, and that intrigued me the most in deciphering where this curious artifact came from.

1870s sketch of present-day 300 block of Bourbon Street, looking downriver toward the French Opera House, Courtesy City of New Orleans, Vieux Carré Commission

Rm220: You link the term “structurally based social memory” to the reputation of Bourbon, which is described as hedonistic. What are your thoughts about structurally based social memory?

RC: Basically, if you see it, you remember it. Consider what the American understanding of New Orleans might be today had we demolished the French Quarter a hundred years ago. Americans would probably not think too much about New Orleans. It would probably be something with a storyline mixed between Houston and Mobile: there might be a sense that it was a historic city; we may or may not still have Mardi Gras. I think that, because the French Quarter was preserved, we told historical stories and we remembered the Creole population and the Francophone population. The preservation of the French Quarter later inspired the preservation of Treme, Marigny, and the Lower Garden District. Had we not had that original preservation of structures, we would not have breathed life into collective memory.

Now, the flip side of that is what happens when places are completely demolished. As you know, the South Rampart Street corridor, maybe 5 percent of it is still standing now—visitors to this day are disappointed when they learn that maybe the city is the birthplace of jazz, but you can’t visit the cradle.

Another one is cityscapes of slavery and the slave trade. This was the major slave trading city in the nation for the better part of forty or fifty years, but there are very few structural remnants—the auction blocks where public auctions happened are mostly gone, so you could visit New Orleans today and not see an explicit structural reminder of that.

Rm220: Do you see any parallels between the influx of Anglo-Americans flooding into the city after the Louisiana Purchase and post-Katrina gentrifiers?

RC: Yes, I see historical parallels between the tension of 170 – 200 years ago and today. One has to be careful about drawing parallels, but there are rough equivalents.

Rm220: I saw similarities.

A plaque marking the designation of Bourbon Street during Spanish rule, shortly after which the city’s incorporation into the United States and the resulting influx of Anglo-Americans spawned similar tension between locals and transplants as one finds today. (photo by Richard Campanella)

RC: There are definitely parallels of a resident, native-born population suddenly experiencing an influx of—oftentimes more empowered, better educated, and wealthier—outsiders. The language barrier is gone now, but there are, of course, linguistic differences. In no small amount of time the original group starts to feel threatened and increasingly resistant. So much of the history of 19th-century New Orleans is this one of working out this tension between this 80-year-old, rather provincial, conservative city that is suddenly being enveloped into this much larger expanding nation.

Fast-forward 200 years, and one could see parallels there. This was a city that had not participated in the boom of the rest of the Sun Belt. It had not participated in the industrialization seen in other parts of the country. It was something of a backwater. It had the highest nativity rate in the nation, and then suddenly—or, not quite suddenly, because there was a steady stream of transplants coming down restoring old houses since the 1920s into the 2000s—there’s no question it up-ticked right after the storm.

Then, more significantly, in a larger, second wave in 2008 – 2011—when the rest of the nation went into a recession and when we were still flush with recovery and insurance dollars here—a generation of young educated people “starved for authenticity” thought they found it here. They are coming for very different reasons, make no mistake: The Anglophones who came 180 years ago were here to make money, but today they’re here for a sense of honest-to-goodness cultural fascination. Now that’s beginning to change a little bit because of the tech boom here, the digital media boom, the tax credits for the film industry, but there’s a fair number of these educated outsiders who are arriving here because of those opportunities.

Rm220: Very much so…

RC: …maybe not very much so. I still feel that they are first and foremost here for the culture and the cultural environment of the cityscape, and are doing the best they can to get a job and make a living here. I’m not entirely convinced that the people moving to New Orleans right now are just here for their jobs and then fall in love with the city. I think it’s the reverse.

Rm220: So you think that most of the people who have recently moved here are because they are culturally fascinated?

RC: They’re self-selected for Orleanophilia, a fascination with this place and the sense that it’s undiscovered—Brooklyn and San Francisco are just crawling with people like this, whereas New Orleans is not. That’s why there’s a boom on, because there’s a sense that it’s this ‘undiscovered Caribbean Bohemia.’

Rm220: Can you really make the argument that New Orleans is virtually undiscovered?

RC: I’m not arguing that. I’m giving voice to the perception that I believe informs this trend. Living here, we’re up close to this, and so the notion that New Orleans might be perceived as undiscovered by other Americans might seem preposterous, but that’s because we’re so close to it.

Rm220: I was intrigued by this line in the book, “New Orleans is the active producer, molder, and exporter of culture.” What do you think the cultural image is in the context of the book?

RC: A large part of the cultural image that gets construed locally and exported is exactly the one that Bourbon Street commodifies and sells. The city presents itself as a place to do things you wouldn’t normally do, and it has a historical reason to do this. It’s not just hedonism in one sense—it’s nocturnal entertainment, it’s escapism, it’s indulgence. The city has produced and exported these mystiques in various advertisement campaigns, and Bourbon Street is the space where it’s commodification got zoned into its existence. So, when we hold our nose over Bourbon Street, we should realize it is very much a product of local, cultural, organic—bubbled up from the bottom—and it invented itself. It’s genuinely local.


Photo by Jeri Hilt
Photo by Jeri Hilt

Five New Orleans writers will explore the theme native, homeland, exile through readings and a Q&A from 6 – 8 p.m. on Wednesday, June 11,  at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.).

They will provide attendees a concert of voices from women writers of color that unflinchingly captures the coming of age in America’s New South. This event is part of the New Orleans Loving Festival, a multiracial community celebration and film festival that challenges racial discrimination through outreach and education.

This event is free and open to the public.

The authors:

ADDIE CITCHENS is a Mississippi native and New Orleans-based writer of literary fiction. She has been featured in the Oxford American‘s “Best of the South” edition, in Calloloo journal, and others.


JERI HILT is a Louisiana native with roots in New Orleans, Avoyelles Parish, and Shreveport. She writes fiction and teaches literacy in the Lower Ninth Ward.

AMBATA KAZI-NANCE is a writer and teacher living in her hometown New Orleans with her husband and son. She writes for Azizah magazine and Grow Mama Grow, a blog for Muslim mothers.


J.R. RAMAKRISHNAN‘s journalism has appeared in Style.comHarper’s BazaarChicago Tribune, and Grazia, amongst other publications. Her fiction has appeared in [PANK]. She arrived in New Orleans by way of Brooklyn, London, and Kuala Lumpur, her original hometown. She is director of literary programs for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.


KRISTINA ROBINSON is a poet and fiction writer from New Orleans. Her work appears in the BafflerXavier Review, and the nonfictional collection of photographic portraits and essays One Drop, to name a few.


Photo by Jeri Hilt


Richard Sexton’s Creole World

posted May 17, 2014
In this book, three white dudes tell you what "creole" is. (All images by Richard Sexton from "Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin American Sphere" published by the Historic New Orleans Collection.)
In this book, three white dudes tell you what "creole" is. (All images by Richard Sexton from "Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin American Sphere" published by the Historic New Orleans Collection.)

By Taylor Murrow

In Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere, photographer Richard Sexton offers a visual essay of his travels in Haiti, Panama, Colombia, Cuba, and New Orleans, while essays penned by scholars Jay D. Edwards and John H. Lawrence offer historical perspectives on the origins of the term “creole” and the ties that bind the word to New Orleans.

Edwards notes how linguistic evolution has taken the word from its origins referring to the locally born children of the French Louisiana colony to a hazy range of proud and negative connotations. Richard Sexton’s definition, for the purposes of this book is, “a hybridized entity connected genetically or culturally to the Old World but created in the New.” His photographic journey began in 1974, when he left on a clichéd adventure for college-aged students: a road trip from his Georgia home throughout Latin America. Along the way, he briefly stopped in New Orleans, where he now has lived for more than twenty years. Today, Sexton is well known for his majestic landscapes and architectural scenes. In Creole World, he continues that tradition with more than two hundred full-color photographs, a selection of which is currently on view at The Historic New Orleans Collection, that capture recurring elements of modern and ancient cultural influences throughout this region.

Bustling street scenes and quiet interiors share an unmistakable vigor and timelessness, sometimes making Bourbon Street feel worldlier than the Garden District. An amalgam of cultures and traditions, New Orleans is different from other cities in the southern United States—this we know—and nearly everything from the breezy attitude of its inhabitants to the structure of homes and neighborhoods bears some European and Caribbean influence. Periods of French and Spanish colonial rule, an influx of nearly 10,000 Haitian refugees at the turn of the nineteenth century, and even a shared subtropical climate all played profound roles in shaping the physicality and social makeup of the city we know today.

Throughout this book, the brightly painted houses, lush and airy courtyards, street vendors on cracked sidewalks, and haunting decayed facades all visually connect New Orleans to the Caribbean and Latin America. The authors acknowledge that Sexton’s intention is not to simply point out commonalities between New Orleans and Latin America, but that is certainly an effect. Ornamented wrought-iron railings that line balconies of Havana look strikingly familiar to anyone who’s strolled through the French Quarter. A dark-skinned Madonna with child painted on the wooden shutters of a Haitian botanical shop mirrors a sculpture on Caffin Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward. A photograph of raised tombs in a cemetery might be mistaken for St. Louis No. 1, but it is actually in Cartagena, Colombia—an entire chapter titled “The Ritual of Burial” shows that New Orleans’ tombs are not unique, and if anything emphasize the city’s global Catholic ties.

Of course, positioned alongside the striking architectural beauty are examples of poverty and economic struggle that also hit close to home. A chapter devoted to Haiti reveals daily life among structures still damaged from the 2010 earthquake. Chapters “The Predicament of Preservation” and “Frayed Elegance” both highlight how colonial and postcolonial opulence has deteriorated into crumbling edifices with chipped paint. The presence of humans is noticeably peripheral, practically nonexistent in these photographs—if they do appear, it is never in a way that presents them as central to the story. Instead, the images allow the buildings to speak of the past and present lives of these places and of the enduring quality of creolization that pervades them.

Prose at home. (AP Photo/Paul Hawthorne)
Prose at home. (AP Photo/Paul Hawthorne)

By Ari Braverman

I was late telephoning Francine Prose. Thrilled by (and not a little nervous about) our impending conversation, I forgot that New York operates one full hour ahead of New Orleans. Thus I returned home from the store to a missed call from a 212 area code. Francine Prose had called—and left a message! I was mortified as I dialed her number. But, even after a crazy spring of interviews and reviews, she sounded genuinely glad to hear from me. As we talked about her new book, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, I was struck time and again by the range of her grace and empathy, characteristics that inform every facet of her work.

The book, inspired by a real-life photograph of Violette Morris—an accomplished French athlete turned Nazi collaborator—is a multilayered portrait of Paris before and during the Occupation. Each of the book’s many narrators has a different perspective on what happened to Lou Villars (Prose’s fictional Morris), how and why she becomes the brutal figure she does. Ultimately, Lovers at the Chameleon Club is an excursion through the middle territory between history and remembrance, good and evil, love and betrayal, and a reminder of the importance of art in history’s dangerous moments.

Room 220 will host Prose to celebrate the launch of her new novel with a Happy Hour Salon from 6 – 9 p.m. on Monday, May 19, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). Prose will be joined by local author Michael Jeffrey Lee, whose book of short stories, Something in My Eye, she selected for the 2010 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction.

Room 220: Tell me about your initial reaction to the photograph that started it all, “Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, 1932” by Brassai.

Francine Prose: I’m a huge fan of Brassai’s and I know his work—I have about five of his broadside books, so I’ve known the photograph for a long time. It’s very beautiful. But it was only when I found out in the wall text at a museum show that the woman in the tuxedo had worked for the Gestapo that I became even more interested, because I knew nothing about the people in the photograph. When I did some research, I found out she had led this very complicated life. She had, in fact, been a spy and a professional athlete, and she was assassinated by the French resistance. That’s really where the book started.

That club, which I called the Chameleon Club, really existed. It was called Le Monocle, and there are all these Brassai photos of it. Recently, I was reading a biography about Jane Bowles, and she went there in the 50s. It was still around! That was amazing to me.

“Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, 1932″ by Brassai, featuring Violette Morris (right), the athlete-turned-Nazi-collaborator who inspired Prose’s book

Rm220: What was it about Violette Morris—someone who’s not necessarily a huge historical figure but who does exist in history—that drew you to her?

FP: Partly it was just her story, but there’s also something about the photograph, something about her, that gives off the aura of something disturbing. I can’t describe it any more than that. And the longer you look at it, the more her lover looks to be in some sort of drug haze. At first she just seems to be a pretty girl, but if you look a little closer, there’s more than that going on. There’s a lot about the photo that not only draws you in, but sets you on edge. And I think it’s meant to.

Rm220: There’s something grotesque about it.

FP: I mean, Morris’ ring, her fashion choices. She’s not just your normal cross-dresser. There’s something else going on there.

Rm220: Is this the first piece you’ve written that’s relied so heavily on looking at photographs?

FP: I’ve written a lot about photography. I’ve written a lot of catalogue essays for photography books. I wrote a long piece about Diane Arbus. I’m very interested in photography. I look at it all the time and I write about it quite a lot, but typically nonfiction. The thing about photography, everybody knows, is that it just captures a moment. With writing, you need to expand that moment to do anything with it.

I looked at the Brassai books over and over and over, but I used films, too. There are a lot of film clips on YouTube from that time that you can see that really helped. Images are like portals. They help you imagine your way back into that time. Little kids, when they look at a picture, imagine they can get inside it—at least I can remember imagining that. In a way, writing provides some of that, too. You look at the picture and suddenly you’re in the picture. That’s sort of what this process was like.

Rm220: There are many different narrators in this piece, so the story doesn’t progress along a typical narrative track. Did you find that writing about a photograph lent itself to writing the book as constellation of perspectives, as opposed to a linear structure?

FP: It wasn’t planned. When I realized the book wasn’t going to be nonfiction, I had to find another way to do it. I started with what’s at the beginning of the novel, the photographer writing home to his parents in Hungary—Brassai wrote many letters that were like the ones in my novel. I realized that for obvious reasons he couldn’t tell the whole story, that in fact there was no one who could tell the whole story, because each person only knew a part of it. The minute that happened I realized I needed to use a number of different narrators. The question, then, had to do with how I was going to do their voices. Again, it wasn’t planned, but it wound up that except for Yvonne the nightclub owner, all the narratives come from written documents of a certain kind. There’s the Henry Miller character, the two women who are writing their opposing memoirs. There are a lot of books that have multiple narrators, but I couldn’t think of another novel in which the narrators are all writing something, so I was kind of on my own.

Writing that way made the process a great deal easier. The “biographer” of Lou, for example, isn’t the greatest writer in the world. She has these lapses into writing quite badly. So far, I’ve been really fortunate—the novel has gotten a lot of really wonderful, intelligent reviews. But the few that have been not so intelligent don’t seem to notice that I wrote those sections that way on purpose. It’s not that I didn’t know that Natalie, Lou’s biographer in the novel, was given to hyperbole and purple writing. I meant to do that! I meant it to be a bogus biography written by a neurotic who can’t seem to stop talking about herself.

Rm220: Writing memoir-as-history seems to be very popular right now. What do you think about that? Your book trades on some of those tropes but is very clearly a work of fiction.

FP: Many of those books are works of fiction and don’t declare themselves works of fiction. There have always been books like that. The book I drew on a lot was this awful French “biography” of Violette Morris that was written, I think, in the 70s. The biographer didn’t bother telling you what was true and what was invented. I was thinking about all the biographies that tell you what the character was thinking when the biographer could have had no way of knowing. But more than that, there’s so much bad writing in these books. I was very conscious of that, too. I didn’t want to do too much of it because it’s off-putting, but I wanted it to be clear that I was introducing an element of parody.

Rm220: Your characters make a lot of social commentary, particularly about Paris’ climate of economic depression and fear of immigration. Was that an intentional correlation to our current cultural climate?

FP: Yes. While researching the book, I read all these books about Paris between the wars. I found this paragraph listing all these problems: fear of immigration, heavy taxation, fear that you can’t raise your kids to lead a better life that you did, economic problems, and so on. I read it to my friend over the phone and she asked, “Is that about the present moment?” I said, “No. Actually, it’s about the 30s in Paris.” Which is very scary to me, because similar things could have been written about Germany in the 20s and 30s. I thought a lot about the rise of fascism, what leads people to be vulnerable to totalitarianism. It’s a novel, not a historical book, but all those things were in my mind as I was writing. There’s no moment in history that’s not a dangerous moment.

Rm220: As I was reading the book, I had a strange feeling that was like, “God, I hope this novel isn’t prophetic!” And then I had to dial myself back because this is a book about things that have already happened!

FP: I had the same feeling myself. Absolutely.

Rm220: How did you deal with writing about queer identities in a text that’s contemporary but also set in the 1930s?

FP: The one thing I really don’t want to be misunderstood—although there have been some slight indications that it’s not clear enough—is that Lou’s cross-dressing and gender identity are not causative factors in her becoming a fascist. She was denied the ability to be the person she actually wanted to be. The only things she wants, which are to be loved and to be an athlete, are taken away from her. Then she goes someplace where, after being treated horribly, she’s treated like a star. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, that’s very seductive. Resentment makes people vulnerable to totalitarianism. The Germans, for example, were told they had been stabbed in the back.

Rm220: Has there been any criticism of making the “villain” of the book a homosexual person?

FP: No, but I’m sort of nervous about it. My German editor said, oddly, that he wasn’t concerned about the reaction of the German readership to the book but that he was concerned about the reaction of the gay community in Germany to the book. I said, “Really?!” The thing is, as we all know, sexual preference and one’s moral nature are not connected. Within the gay community, the straight community, this community, that community, the range of saintly to demonic is the same. Just because you’re one way or another doesn’t give you a leg up on morality, one way or the other.

Also, the book has been described as talking about a period of decadence, but I don’t myself particularly see cross-dressing as decadent. I was confused about what that means. I just see Lou as a figure who was born at the wrong time.

Rm220: Speaking of the timeframe, I wanted to know about your decision to end the book in the 2000s, particularly with a video still of that hand from Carrie.

FP: People like Lou or like Hitler—you think they’re safely under the ground and then they just pop up again. We can’t rid ourselves of that. Somehow it seems to be part of the species. Just when you think it’s over, it turns out not to be over. I wanted to bring it into the present because, unfortunately, it exists in the present. Carrie, if you look at her story, is just a normal girl—except that she has some telekinetic powers—who’s tormented until she becomes a mass murderer. It’s a story that just keeps happening.