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Interview: Guest Editor Pia Z. Ehrhardt

On the city of New Orleans and storytelling

Flash Frontier: Kia Ora, Pia. Tell us about your relationship to New Orleans. How long have you lived there, where do you live and how does it compare to other places you’ve resided?

Pia Z. Ehrhardt: I moved to New Orleans in 1980. Growing up, I lived in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Italy, and Canada. I never felt I belonged to any of these wonderful places, but after thirty plus years in New Orleans, raising our son here and surviving Katrina, it’s become my heart and my home.

FF: Place is often paramount to good storytelling: setting the mood, knowing the intricacies of its history, understanding the subtleties of the culture. How does your experience with New Orleans figure into your own storytelling, either directly or indirectly?

PZE: We used to live across the lake from New Orleans in a bedroom community called Mandeville, and I found myself setting my short stories in New Orleans as a way to will myself over there. We moved to the city in 2002. For the last five years I’ve been writing memoir and the city’s tolerance and charm and humility, I hope, infects my work.

FF: This city features frequently in popular culture, from movies to novels to ballads to crime shows. Outside observers glimpse the French Quarter, Uptown, the rolling Mississippi and the meandering bayous, and gain a sense of the mystery or allure of New Orleans. From Roger Moore’s James Bond to the more recent True Crime series, from Huck Finn’s adventures on the Mississippi to the labyrinthine world of Robert Penn Warren’s novelization of Huey P. Long – the list of works inspired by New Orleans / Louisiana is extensive. What is your favourite part of the city, or the city’s history, from an inside perspective? What about the city is mystifying, or alluring, to you?

PZE: This is such a gorgeous, overgrown, messy, voluptuous, maddening city. I’m grateful for the racial layers, the diverse neighbourhoods, the beauty and sound of our people; the tourist/cliché bits, and the regular daily bits, like driving the streets at night so you can peek into shotguns and creole cottages; the pop up thunderstorms; and – as we speak – the crape myrtles that bloom heavy in June, bowing branches and dropping petals that stick to the bottom of your shoes. New Orleans insists that you notice her and that you care for her. Crime here is out of control. Poverty, homelessness. There is no end in sight to these problems. My husband and I work small, chipping away by supporting the arts and literacy programs, by teaching. To give up on New Orleans would be to give up on ourselves.

FF: We couldn’t talk about New Orleans and creativity without mentioning music. What kind of music figures into your creative life, and how has the city’s musical pulse influenced you?

PZE: I’m the child of classical musicians, so music is an absolute necessity and a constant in my life. If I didn’t live in New Orleans, I’d still be listening to brass bands and the Marsalis family and Trombone Shorty. But how great it is to hear them in person, right around the corner.

On survival

FF: Can you tell us about the centrality of Katrina? Did the city’s creativity change as a result? Do you have an excerpt from your own writing or another author’s that captures something of the essence of the city in relation to the struggles and triumphs surrounding Katrina?

PZE:Katrina almost destroyed what was already a fragile city. There are 100,000 who never came home. It took every bit of the last thirteen years to rebuild schools, hospitals, our infrastructure and our houses. There are still empty neighbourhoods. But blighted streets now house new restaurants, art galleries, shops. New people came in and bought homes on the cheap. The city’s fighting gentrification, but also benefitting from the jobs being created, the services being offered. It’s a struggle to know how to stay authentic and change and prosper at the same time.

After Katrina, locals were protective of the experience, and resentful of outsiders who came in and rode the tragedy as their own. This bristling has eased up, thanks to the distance of years. We don’t want anyone to forget what happened here, and we’re sympathetic to other communities facing their own disasters.

I wrote a lot about coming back after the disaster, about the guilt and relief of being a survivor because we didn’t lose our house. I wrote an essay about my son’s soccer team, how they regrouped and prevailed in the year after Katrina hit. The team became a kind of surrogate for the recovery the parents didn’t yet trust would happen. Here it is – online at Oxford American.

On writing and humming

FF: Your stories are often grounded in realism, portraying domestic intimacy while maintaining an edge, or a distanced view. Is this a balance you consciously go about creating, or does it come naturally to the way you think about writing a good story?

PZE: I like walking the knife’s edge between what is real and out of my control, and what I can make up and control. When the going gets tough, make things worse. This exacerbated tension is how I get the truth to pop out. Hopefully.

FF: What are you currently working on? Do you care to share a glimpse or small excerpt?

PZE: I’m working on an essay about humming because my son recently pointed out to me that I hum. Who knew? He knew. It’s a pleasure to write about music – all kinds of music – while I track when, where and why hum the tunes I hum. Here’s an excerpt:

My hums aren’t ear worms or arena songs. I never hum entire songs, like Enya’s “Boadicea,” which she pulls off without a whiff of vibrato. My humming isn’t yogic; I don’t practice brahmari or “the bee,” and hearing this loud buzz in yoga class feels indiscreet, although scientists say that humming lets certain species know it’s safe to let their guard down. I’m chronically self-conscious, but not about my hums which lift me into a protective cloud of companionship.

FF: Writing quality flash fiction requires discipline at self-editing. Do you have any tips for writers honing their craft? How do you arrive at the sparest of stories that still maintains a central resonance?

PZE: Cut most of what makes you comfortable. Keep in what you’d rather cover up, what frightens and exposes you (your characters). Insist on hearing what your early drafts are trying not to tell you. Don’t waste a word, or a second of the reader’s time.

Lagniappe…

FF: Finally, a note about food. If the novel could be described as a rich complex gumbo, and a short story might be called a humble yet surprising po boy, what culinary delight might you ascribe to flash fiction?

PZE: A raw oyster on the half shell dipped in a concoction of ketchup and horseradish and Crystal hot sauce, then swallowed whole to make the top of your head flare.

FF: Thank you, Pia!

PZE: Thank you, Michelle!

Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, Narrative Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review. Her essays have been honored as Notable in Best American Essays and Best American Sports Writing. She is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship and the Narrative Prize. Her work has been performed at Symphony Space, Word Theater, and on WKQR. She lives in New Orleans and Queens, NY.

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