Interview with David Rutledge (’97)

“The ever-present possibility of disaster throughout our history has— I would argue—helped to strengthen the culture.         David Rutledge

1. Could you talk a little bit about this project? I understand that Where We Know: New Orleans as Home is the second book in a planned trilogy. What did you originally envision?

As Hurricane Katrina grew to a terrifying size and approached the Gulf Coast, I – a six-year resident of the French Quarter of New Orleans – evacuated to Houston; then, after I sat in a hotel room in Houston and watched the levees of my chosen home town fail on television, I flew to be with family in Seattle, not knowing how long I would be there or how much had been lost.

My brother is the founder of Chin Music Press, an independent press based in Seattle that has a concentration on Japanese books.  At that time, though, he proposed that we put together a book of some sort in response to the disaster.  We did not know how this would work out, how we could put together a successful book under such distressful circumstances. We simply felt the need to respond, as we watched people waiting days for water or wading through city streets in desperation or being scattered about the country and labeled “refugees.”

The result was our first New Orleans anthology. The result was, in fact, magical: somehow New Orleans writers responded from around the country – wherever they happened to be as the city flooded and sat, filled with water, for weeks.  There were some friends who responded, some colleagues, some folks who we had never met before.  All of them came together to make Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?     So, to answer the question directly: we originally envisioned a response, a passionate response to the devastation of New Orleans.  Beyond that, the book—both books, in fact—grew from the ground up, from the streets of New Orleans up.

After our book release party at the Saturn Bar in the ninth ward of New Orleans in February of 2006, one of the first literary events in the city after the flood, we knew we had achieved success.  Never did I imagine so many people thanking me—thanking all of us—for putting together a book.  That first book captured something of the experience of the hurricane and the flood; it also helped the cultural recovery of the city.

2. One of the things that arises from this book is the sense that New Orleans is more real, more artistic, more authentic, more historic, more vivid than any other hometown. (As Ali Arnold says, “New Orleanians find few reasons to cross a bridge because we can move through time and space just by standing still on the corner, listening to God himself stroll into the streets on the notes of a horn that trills into the night.”[p. 254]) Is that so? How did you come to New Orleans?

New Orleans does have a strong spirit that many American cities have cleared away to make space for strip malls, fast food and Starbucks.  In this city, history is present in a way that brings depth to the culture.  At the same time, I do not want to oversimplify or romanticize that idea.  This year, a long-standing mid-city neighborhood was demolished to make room for a new $800 million veterans hospital.  That means progress and jobs.  It also means wiping away some significant history.  In New Orleans, there is a real tension between the two— a tension which may not be as present in other cities, where progress and profits reign.

Personally, I came here for a very practical reason: a job.  I have been teaching at the University of New Orleans since 1999.  From the start, though, I decided to live in the French Quarter, to have a nice New Orleanian contrast to the practicality of the job.  The Quarter, by the way, is not just Bourbon Street and drunken tourists (although that is part of it).  The Quarter is music and architecture, beauty and life.  Oh, and did I mention the food?

Yes, New Orleans is as creative and alive as any city.  It is historic, artistic, plus it has a wonderful literary tradition.

3. Although this book is filled with people who are determined, hopeful, hard-working, etc., there also seems to be an undercurrent of anger. Do you anticipate that the federal government will respond to this or other outcries by becoming a better steward of the land and waters and a more responsive agent of the people?

No, I don’t imagine the federal government will step up.  The suffering of those who were most affected by the BP oil spill of last summer is now being swept under the rug.  Obama, that president for whom many of us had great hopes, played the corporate game all through that disaster, having his press conferences, for example, on the cleanest beaches, rather than emphasizing the impact of this disaster.  With the oil companies still running the game, the Gulf of Mexico is at risk.  (To see what oil companies—BP, specifically—will do when no one is looking, one need only look at Nigeria.)

There is definitely a sense of anger in this city, and not only because of BP and how FEMA and insurance companies treated the people of this city after the Federal Flood.  (Note: it was not the “hurricane” that destroyed New Orleans.  It was the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers.)  Yes, there is a sense of anger, but I actually do not quite understand why the rest of the country does not have a greater sense of anger over the many federal failures.

4. A sense of cyclic disaster is recognized by the excerpts from historical writing as far back as 1721, only a few years after the city’s founding. Can you discuss the importance of foregrounding the contextual vulnerability of the city?

My purpose in highlighting the continual disasters—and continual threat of disaster—is, first, to help put Katrina and the failed levees into historical context.  Immediately following the disaster, many books came out in response.  That is appropriate; in fact, it was heartening.  It is understandable that in the aftermath of a tragedy people do not think of the larger picture.  By 2010, when Where We Know came out, I thought it was important to begin to see how recent events compare to those of the past.  There are striking similarities.  One of my favorite examples is the post-hurricane newspaper editorial of 1837 which claims that there are plans to build improved “embankments” to protect against flooding: “We can thus guard against the possibility of future inundations …”

The book, though, always has an eye toward the culture of New Orleans.  The ever-present possibility of disaster throughout our history has— I would argue—helped to strengthen the culture.  It is as though the people of the city know that they must work to protect it.  The same is true in the city’s sentiments about corporations taking over and destroying the culture, the most recent threat that the city must confront.  Mardi Gras parades are not sponsored by Pepsi.  Starbucks is not permitted in the French Quarter.  There was an outcry from local bookstores when Border’s opened a mega-store on St. Charles Ave.  (Of course, now Border’s is shuttered, as though a hurricane was approaching, and the local bookstores continue.  There are, by the way, some excellent local bookstores in New Orleans, another wonderful part of the culture here.)

All of these threats to the culture, be they physical or corporate, help to rally the people of New Orleans together in an effort to keep the culture going, not as a museum piece (which is another danger), but as a living, breathing way of life.

5. This book is so beautifully made. Can you talk a little about selecting the artwork and maps, including the dust jacket embossed (?) with the names of neighborhoods and the half-jacket on top of that? Sometimes even the graphics (as on the title page) seem to suggest additional meaning. The maps and the naming—does this somehow witness things that are now lost, as well as recognize different ways of seeing the same thing?

It is a nice looking book, isn’t it?  However, that is not something for which I can take any credit. That work was done by Josh Powell, a Seattle-based book designer.  He has also done beautiful (and very different) work on a novel about suicide clubs in Japan (among other ideas), Oh!  by Todd Shimoda; an extraordinary collection of photographs by New Orleans’ Jennifer Shaw entitled Hurricane Story; as well as an upcoming book about a groundbreaking Seattle locavore (think smelt, think sea urchin), Shiro: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer.  

As with Where We Know, the design of these books is part of the content; the design works with the words.

One goal of Chin Music Press is to create books that are worth having as books, books that cannot be replicated by a Kindle.  Books as objects of art.  Where We Know has plenty of pleasant surprises in the reading experience as well as in the experience of discovering the various details of the design.  I am especially fond of that image by Matt Phelan, right near the end of the book, of birds bursting out of the muck of an oil spill, and soaring onward.

And, if you peruse closely enough, you will find an entertaining little story about the designer himself, which we put in there without his permission.

6. Is there something about your time at Case that made this project possible?

Case is only very loosely connected to this particular book.  After I earned my Ph.D. at Case and began hunting for a job, knowing that I would go anywhere for that first job out of grad school – I applied for jobs from Barrow, Alaska, to Puerto Rico – I took a job at the University of New Orleans.  So, in a sense, Case helped get me to New Orleans.  (By the way, I never did hear back from Barrow, Alaska.)

However, I had many excellent teachers at Case who helped sharpen my skills as a writer and reader.  I hesitate to name them, for fear that I will leave someone off, but here it goes: Roger Salomon, Gary Stonum, William Marling, Tom Bishop, Armando Zubizarreta (in the Spanish department).

I did have another book come out last year which Case helped to make possible, a scholarly work on Vladimir Nabokov, Nabokov’s Permanent Mystery: The Expression of Metaphysics in His Work (McFarland, 2011).  That book is directly attributable to my time at Case—a time that I look back on fondly.

David Rutledge earned his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve U. in 1997, with a dissertation on Vladimir Nabokov.  He has been teaching at the University of New Orleans for twelve years, and fell in love with the city.  He has edited two anthologies about New Orleans and, after much revision of the dissertation, published a book on Nabokov.
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Susan Dumbrys

Susan Dumbrys