An Interview with James Nolan

by Philip K. Jason

Our review of James Nolan’s Higher Ground was posted on November 8. Contributor and new executive editor Philip K. Jason interviewed Mr. Nolan about the book. Here it is:

SLR: What inspired you to build a novel about New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina?

JN: Three days after Katrina hit, I escaped from the flooded city in a stolen school bus with the musician Allen Toussaint. As the bus bounced along darkened streets, I stared out of the window, not sure that I would ever see my native city again. That weekend in Baton Rouge, I wrote about riding out the storm in an article titled “Our Hell in High Water” for the Washington Post. I ended the essay by quoting not the tragic Blanche DuBois, as you might expect, but her earthy sister Stella: “I wish you’d stop taking it for granted that I’m in something I want to get out of.” Unlike many evacuees, I couldn’t wait to come home to the ruins. 

More than a month later, the minute the lights were turned back on in the French Quarter, I hightailed it back to my apartment there. And that was when ideas began to foment for a novel called Higher Ground. At that difficult moment, I decided that either I’d write the damned book, leave town, or go crazy. As horrifying as a disaster can be, it doesn’t produce a subtle range of emotions. People are too busy surviving, or not. The fascinating human drama occurs in the aftermath, as we pick through the wreckage of our lives. So that was where I started my story.

 SLR: What are the most important “lessons learned” for the New Orleans residents and for the rest of us?

JN: First, community. Second, humor. Third and most important, don’t count on the government to save you. You’re on your own.  

SLR: You take us through two investigations of the key crime: one by a police lieutenant who is himself under investigation; the other by a civilian hippie-type who has some community creds. Why this doubling?

JN: There’s a lot of doubling in the novel. For instance, the sleazy crippled snitch J.J. mirrors the respected crippled psychiatrist Bob White, and the shrink in turn mirrors the lame dog Schnitzel. The whole city, in fact, is crippled. When alive, the murdered character Marky served as a mirror to everyone around him, and the investigation into his death reflects a city barely limping along. Vinnie the cop and Gary the hippie drug dealer work at cross purposes to solve the drive-by, yet the cop himself is a murderer and the drug-dealer something of a saint. Everything is upside down. Gary the jailbird finds that he enjoys playing the cop only too well, and at one point realizes that he’ll remain a criminal just so he won’t turn into a policeman like his nemesis.  Many of characters in the novel are playing off of their shadow selves, and the references to Jungian psychology are more than just esoteric background.      

SLR: What were the most difficult things to “get right” in pursuing your vision for this novel?

JN: Getting inside the mind of a homicide detective wasn’t easy, especially for someone like me. Frankly, I’ve spent my life avoiding the police whenever possible. I originally developed Lieutenant Vinnie Panarello in a story titled “Open Mike,” which first appeared in the anthology New Orleans Noir. The story was short-listed for a Shamus Award as Best Private Eye Story of 2007, so I figured that I must be doing something right. Vinnie grew up in the French Quarter and despises what it’s become, and the best way to present such a stock romantic place is through the eyes of someone who hates it. He also incorporates the working-class Catholic sensibility that we natives now call Yat (from the greeting “Where y’at?”) So that clued me in as to how he thinks. Corrupt and cynical as he is, I gradually developed an enormous affection for him. Funny, but I recently met the wife of a French Quarter cop at a funeral, and had to smile at almost everything she said about her husband. She was describing my character Vinnie. 

SLR: Higher Ground has been labeled as “comic noir.” Do you find this genre label useful?  Accurate? Limiting?

JN: Some readers will find the novel sinister and disturbing while others will think it’s a real stitch. I meant for both to be true. Although I’ve taught literature for years, I could think of few models to guide me in any one direction that combined devastation and satire, despair and burlesque. My only points of reference were the satiric detective novels of Spain’s Eduardo Mendoza and Arturo Pérez-Reverte. But the hybrid form of Higher Ground—what I call comic noir— really came out of wrestling with the wildly contradictory elements we were living in the hurricane’s aftermath. It wasn’t until the Krewe d’Etat parade of that first Carnival after the storm, when I spotted their signature grinning skull in a jester’s cap, so emblematic of the city’s sensibility at the time, that I realized yeah, that’s it.


SLR: Will any denizens of New Orleans recognize themselves in Higher Ground?

JN: Heavens no! Especially not any of our upstanding policemen and politicians. In satire, people tend to recognize each other but seldom themselves. I deliberately didn’t name the hurricane in the novel because I wanted to go beyond any expectations of journalistic accuracy. Katrina has been done to death as reportage, so this is an imaginative account, yet one that pulls a lot from real life. One drag queen I know may never speak to me again after what I reveal about the queens’ tank at Parish Prison.

SLR: While revealing its problems, you make New Orleans into a magical place. What are the sources of its magic?

JN: The least magical part of New Orleans is the hard-sell party-hearty atmosphere generated by mass tourism, that nonstop foodie-and-brass-band orgy that most visitors and recent transplants mistake for the city’s real culture. This may be what we peddle, folks, but it’s not who we are. Of course, in the novel’s gritty post-storm setting, the fun factory is closed and tourism is toast. So this is when the real magic emerges, one centered around the die-hard residents, our tight-knit neighborhoods, wacky families, life-long traditions, nostalgia for the city of our youth, and those comic collisions between disparate types that form part of our daily lives. We cultivate a dark humor here in order to put up with this funky banana republic, this outpost of Caribbean culture marooned on the puritan U.S. mainland. The real ingredient that makes New Orleans so magical is that—in addition to the great food and music that everybody else in line gets for ten bucks—we have each other.


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