Tom Piazza

Tom Piazza, writer in residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, is the focus of today's Conversation with the Times.

“A Conversation ...” is a regular Times feature, designed to give our readers a glimpse of various individuals who stop in and share an hour or so of their time, talking with us about today’s issues.


Age: 56

Lives in: New Orleans

Hometown: Seaford, Long Island

Education: BA from Williams College, MFA from Iowa Writer’s College

Professional: Author of 10 books, including “City of Refuge,” “Why New Orleans Matters” and “Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America”; writer for HBO series “Treme”

Favorite authors: Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Dante, Tolstoy

FLT: Has writing always been a great love of yours?

PIAZZA: No, I liked music first. My great love was playing music. I sort of taught myself to play piano and played jazz piano in New York City while working at a book shop. I did start writing early, however. I was 16 when I wrote for Downbeat magazine and it grew from there. I wrote for the New York Times arts and leisure section writer. My first book of fiction was a short story collection called “Blues and Trouble,” which won the James Michener Award. I have two novels out, “My Cold War,’’ which won the Faulkner Society Award, and “City of Refuge,’’ which won the Willie Morris Award. I won a Grammy in 2004 for best album notes for “Martin Scorcese Presents the Blues.” Norman Mailer was the first writer who made me want to be a writer. His prose was absolutely electric, with very intense imagery and emotion. Hemingway was the writer I learned the most from and tried to emulate.

FLT: What are your favorite books that you have not written?

PIAZZA: Books by Don DiLallo, Norman Rush, Mary Gates, to classics by Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hemingway. I never cared for novels of manners. Being the grandson of immigrants, I like books with great social conflict and angst. I like books that undermine the givens in life and show the extraordinary possibilities of life.

FLT: At least two of your books focus on Hurricane Katrina. Where were you when it happened?

PIAZZA: I’ve lived in New Orleans since 1994. When the storm was approaching the gulf, I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts working on another novel. I’ve always had a dismissive attitude toward weather or hurricanes. I grew up in New York City and paid no attention to weather. My partner Mary called on a Saturday and Katrina came ashore late Monday, August 20, 2005. I said I’d see her in a couple days. She said she wouldn’t see me in New Orleans because there was a mandatory evacuation. She and her niece and a friend were going to the family farm in Missouri. I couldn’t drive into New Orleans, so I went to Missouri and stared at the TV for a couple weeks. After two weeks, I got the idea for my book “Why New Orleans Matters.’’

It was intolerable, like watching someone you love suffer terribly and not being able to do anything about it. Those who lived through it will never get over it. Two weeks after the storm, we were back in New Orleans. Small parts were still underwater, but most were not. My house, a rental, was not flooded. The water stopped eight blocks from the house. A chunk of roof was blown off, the ceiling caved in and everything got soaked, but that was nothing compared to others. Mary’s house had 7 to 10 feet of water on her street. Her house had to be gutted. She lost everything on the first floor and it took a year to get it redone.

The real killer was the violence done to the continuity of community perspective. That sense of being in the world that depends largely on sense of community, especially in New Orleans. That sense of community is so strong in that city that Katrina was a huge mental health crisis that continues to this day. Suicides there have been an epidemic.

FLT: How did you end up writing for the “Treme” series on HBO?

PIAZZA: David Simon, the show’s co-producer with Eric Overmeyer, read “Why New Orleans Matters.” To my surprise, he invited me to dinner with him and Eric and a wonderful writer named Paul Mills, who later died on the set of the show when they were filming the second to last episode of season one. They invited me to be a writer for the show. I was surprised. I felt maybe they’d ask me to be a consultant. I was very surprised to be one of six writers for the first season, which has continued on for the second and third seasons.

FLT: Had you done anything like that before?

PIAZZA: No. That’s why I was so surprised. I never thought about it, never wanted to do it. I’m a film fan, a classic film buff, but never watched episodic TV other than “The Larry Sanders Show.” That was genius. It’s different writing for TV.  It was a leap of faith.

FLT: Do you enjoy writing for “Treme”?

PIAZZA:  Sure. Sure, I do.

FLT: How does it stack up against the other kinds of writing you do?

PIAZZA: It’s just different. The sense of proprietorship is different. In writing a novel, it’s you and the reader in a dance, one on one. It’s all the writer’s choice. I like that intimacy. For a TV show, it’s not just you. There are producers, other writers, sensibilities, influence and much more collaboration. All writers are involved. There’s a lot of frictions. There’s not the same sense of proprietorship.

I have two anecdotes. I was in residence at Otterbein College in Ohio where all were reading “City of Refuge.” The talks were intense about characters, and it was a fantastic experience as a writer.

The other experience involved “Treme” where a college friend and I went to a viewing incognito. There were big gatherings in New Orleans at bars to watch “Treme.” It was there with this large group who were talking at the screen, laughing at jokes in real time. 600,000 people watch the show. If 600,000 bought my novel, that would be great. The impact on people reading the book is one on one. On the other hand, 600,000 are watching something I wrote, and I can observe them watching and reacting to it. It’s completely different. If I had to pick one, it would be a novelist. I’ll die with those boots on. I love the novel. But the TV show writing has also been great fun. It’s wonderful to see professional actors, writers, directors in action.

FLT: Did you ever walk into a place like a piano bar and just play?

PIAZZA: I don’t do that so much anymore, but I’ve been thinking about it. I’ve been playing for myself, working on stuff. New Orleans is a real piano town with a lot of really good ones. I’d feel humbled. I’m aware of my limitations at the keyboard. But I’ve been practicing be-bop. Not that many in New Orleans play that style so it might be fun to do a gig. But I’m so busy. Life has gotten more busy, not less. It’s gotten to the point where I have to decide where to spend my energies. I’m not complaining. It’s great.

FLT: Between now and the end of the school year, what’s your schedule?

PIAZZA: I’m going to Long Island to see my mom. She’s 85 and lives in the same house I grew up in. She’s doing great. I’ll be there for Christmas. I have a talk at the Center for Fiction next Wednesday on novel writing and TV writing. I have a writing meeting for my episode of season three of “Treme” Jan. 4 to get up to speed with seasons one and two.

My residency here is full time in the fall, and in the spring I go back home. I have to work on Episode 8, which will take about three and a half weeks.

FLT: How do you keep the continuity in writing Episode 8 and the plot in Season 3?

PIAZZA: I don’t know. I’m confident it will work. I’m sure they won’t let me jump out of that plane without a parachute. I don’t know how it will go.

FLT: What are your impressions of Geneva and the Finger Lakes region?

PIAZZA: I came to Cayuga Lake 30 years ago for a wedding. This is the first time I’ve been here for any length of time. I’m struck with the extraordinary beauty of the landscape. During a preliminary visit in the spring, it was still cold and gray. In fall, it is gorgeous. Mary came up and got a guide book for everything. She’s a civil rights lawyer in New Orleans and is very interested in civil rights history and slavery, the Underground Railroad. She loved the Underground Railroad history and Harriet Tubman in Auburn. We went to the Women’s Rights Historical Park in Seneca Falls. It’s extraordinary. We went to Palmyra for Joseph Smith’s history. It’s fantastic just driving around to the small towns, Skaneateles, Ithaca, Rochester. The lakes are great. It’s been a delight seeing such a beautiful area. I’m expected to miss New Orleans cuisine and I have. But I have to say there are good restaurants, like Halsey’s, Port’s, Red Dove, Torrey Park. I felt right at home more than I expected. I got a great welcome from the Colleges and the students. It’s been an extraordinary experience. In Geneva, I love the architecture — the Smith Opera House knocked me out. I walked in and saw the amazing interior. I was delighted and have enjoyed just experiencing it to the extent I’m able to.

FLT: How have you found the students?

PIAZZA: They’ve been wonderful. The ones in my class are dreamboats. The students were handpicked for my workshop, so they were bound to be engaged, interested and accomplished. It was wonderful working with them. All of them wrote two stories and they got better. The conversations in class were all good. It’s been gratifying. It’s been a long time since I was in college. It’s such a different landscape now. I made a list of novels and short stories they need to read if they want to be writers. They seemed excited and asked to do it again. In the spring, it’s an independent study at a distance with three students. It will be hard to pick three. I’ll be back here for visits in March and April and two more writers will be coming here. I have a talk in the spring.

FLT: Are you writing something new now?

PIAZZA: I’m about 170 pages into a new novel. I haven’t named it yet. Getting a title is not easy. When I get one, I’ll throw a party.

— Transcribed by David L. Shaw

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