TMN: During the Tournament of Books, David Rees said City of Refuge feels like it’s breathing and stretching and moving like a big organism. What scope did you set when you began writing?
TP: Hurricane Katrina wasn’t just a local or regional disaster. The story didn’t just have to do with people’s houses getting smashed or flooded. People were taken out of their usual narratives and thrown all around the country into other people’s narratives. Probably half the novel takes place outside of New OrleansHouston, Chicago, Missouri, upstate New York. Anyway, I knew the book would need to reflect that kind of upheaval and those kinds of contrasts.
Anytime you write a story that attends to people’s social or political lives as well as their interior, emotional lives, there is going to be a lot of tension among elements. City of Refuge contains several different types of discourse and narrative. I think that rattled some people, but it was the only way I thought I could, in fact, make the book be the kind of organism it needed to be.
TMN: What are your five least favorite things about New Orleans?
TP: Most of the same things I would dislike anywhere: Indifference to poverty and its causes. Violence. Racism. Greed and opportunism. Lack of curiosity.
TMN: How does your creative process begin?
TP: Usually with an image, a voice, or a gesture. I need to have something in mind that I know is true, and then I can build on that. I need to see that red wheelbarrow. If I can see it, or hear it, and I’m not just trying to tell myself I saw it or heard it, then I have something to go with. I like Picasso’s remark: I don’t seek; I find. I try to keep that in mind.
TMN: What are your three favorite books to recommend to people?
TP: Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann looks and reads like a big 19th-century family novel but is in fact a Trojan horse full of all these Modernist techniques that slip in and do their work without the reader noticing. Norman Rush’s short-story collection Whites is a neglected masterpiece. Bloods, an oral history of black Vietnam veterans by Wallace Terry, is one of the most astonishing books I’ve ever read. The speakers come from across the class and rank spectrum, and Terry manages to bring their extraordinarily varied voices to the page so that they appear in front of you like holograms.
TMN: What’s something you’re not good at but wish you were?
TMN: Who is your archnemesis?
TP: Everyone’s archnemesis is some version of himself or herself.
TMN: What is your favorite object in your office/workplace?
TP: I like antique folding rulers; I always have at least one or two within reach. The one in the picture is made, like most of them, of boxwood and brass. I love how precisely it is put together. I like the paint on it and the marks and patina that come from having been used by someone who knew what he or she was doing. This ruler is somewhere around 90 years old. My father was an engineer, and there’s something about the irreducible utility of this thing that probably makes me feel connected to the best part of my dad, too.
TMN: What are you working on next?
TP: I’m working on a new novel set mostly in New York City, but also in other parts of the country. I don’t really like to talk about work-in-progress, at least until it’s more than halfway done, but this book is as different from City of Refuge as could be. I told my editor that it is essentially a comic novel but with tragedy riding underneath, set against a more or less epic landscape. I don’t know if he believed me. I’m also putting together a collection of my nonfiction pieces, and I’m writing for David Simon’s new HBO series Treme, which is set in post-Katrina New Orleans.