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Interview with Patty Friedman, author of Taken Away

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Patty Friedmann has been writing for many years. She has not only published books, she also reviews, essays and short stories in publications such as Publishers Weekly, Newsweek, Oxford American, Speakeasy, Horn Gallery, Short Story, LA Lit, Brightleaf, New Orleans Review, and the Times-Picuyane.

Her novels have been chosen for Discover Great New Writer, Original Voices, and Book Sense 76 selections.H er humor book was syndicated by the New York Times.

Her two latest books are a young adult novel called Taken Away and a literary e-novel titled Too Jewish. She also is the author of six darkly comic literary novels set in New Orleans: The Exact Image of Mother; Eleanor Rushing, Odds, Secondhand Smoke, Side Effects, and A Little Bit Ruined, as well as the humor book Too Smart to Be Rich. 

You can visit her website to find out more.

I see that one of your latest novels is an e-novel. After having quite a few published novels, what made you decide to try a different route?

In all honesty, that was not a decision I would have made if it were not for the relationship with the publisher.

Julie Smith was starting up an e-publishing company, and she wanted one of the first three books on her list to be an adaptation of a short story that she had included in an anthology she’d edited, New Orleans Noir. She had me right there.

I’d never been as excited about a piece of writing as I’d been about that story — even though I had six novels already to my credit. It was a Holocaust story, but I set the tragic repercussions to play out in the world of mean girls in the 1960s. Translation: I used it to shame not only my high-school classmates, but also everyone who ever attended the fancy school where I graduated. The prospect of building a novel around that work was irresistible.

The novel is larger than that tiny setting: there’s a lot of larger cruelty to be found in the expanded story, of course. Thanks to Julie a powerful novel came to life. So it was hers to publish, and her medium was electronic publishing. I think I’m still of the school that loves to hold a book in my hands. My book Taken Away is both a gorgeous paperback and available for NOOK and Kindle. A compromise.

The cover of Taken Away is certainly one that sticks with you – what is the significance of the picture of the doll?

I’m very lucky, huh. That cover has what I think is called curb appeal: it makes people stop and look. It’s kind of shocking and a little sickening. I’m grateful for it, having had terrible book covers in the past. It does the same thing I like to think my fiction does: it gives an ambiguous message that allows the reader to make her own interpretation.

Under that cover is a story that can be read superficially: ah, a little mystery, a little romance. Same for the photo: ah, a broken old doll, floating in algae-covered filthy water; makes me think of dead babies. But the novel has more substance: it’s a story about a huge disaster to a city and a near-disaster to a family, both eliciting struggles with trust. The photo, too, makes one wonder what happened, what might happen, and also whether there is a strange beauty here.

Being a resident of New Orleans, was it hard or just natural to incorporate the devastation that Katrina caused into the novel?

Oh, no, it was just the opposite. I didn’t see devastation as good subject matter at all. By the time I wrote Taken Away, I’d already learned a lot of lessons about writing about big messes. I’d had a novel come out that had carried my old protagonist, wealthy wacko Eleanor Rushing, through the storm. Katrina was very democratic, and Eleanor was right in the flood with no basic amenities. But critics didn’t like it, saying she wasn’t the right person to carry a Katrina novel. The unspoken message was that they wanted poor people on top of roofs in another part of town.

My signature style, literary dark comedy, didn’t play in post-Katrina New Orleans fiction. The few novels that have emerged since have been overloaded with not-so-subliminal messages of damage and pain and suffering and love and harmony. I can’t play a violin over my city.

I hope when I wrote Taken Away that I showed the destruction without pounding away at it and focused on the enduring quirky personalities of the people who lived here before the storm. We’re funny people who have something of a secret code. It may be that you have to have been born here to know it. The reader experiences Katrina, but I’m not maudlin about it.

How did Katrina change your life? Did it affect your writing in any way?

Personally, I’m like the title of one of my previous novels, “a little bit ruined.” I know I have post-traumatic stress disorder. My life is radically compromised in the way I live. I didn’t evacuate for Katrina, so I was trapped in the flood, with four feet of water in the first level of my house, for eight days until someone came in and rescued me. I won’t bore you with the details of my personality changes, but I’m very squirrelly. Personality issues probably aren’t connected to the effects on my writing. I think my writing is affected more by the market.

Before the storm I really had a special niche, creating idiosyncratic genuine New Orleans characters and stories that only a native could know. Katrina brought in the carpetbaggers, and now what passes for New Orleans fiction — and I include Treme in this — has slid down into cliches that sell — and that don’t have much to do with the world I used to write about. So I just don’t feel like doing new writing. My novel set in the 1950s and 1960s got around that problem, but I don’t know if I want to do that again. Those weren’t pretty times in the South.

Was any of the novel inspired by actual events?

Well, there is Hurricane Katrina. But that’s like saying a novel was inspired by World War II. The only specific event that played into the creation of this book was a big legal wrangle after the storm involving allegations that a physician at Baptist euthanized very ill patients there. It put a lot of focus on the hospital, and it gave everyone more information of what went on inside the hospital than otherwise might have been available in the general media. That’s probably why I chose Baptist for the setting.

What’s next from Patty Friedmann?

Last month Susan Tucker from Tulane asked me to donate my papers to the archives at the Newcomb Women’s Center. While shoveling out the Augean Stables, I came across a children’s book, a humor book, and three novels that I’d never done anything with. I’m not donating them because, even though I feel this is an end-of-life kind of move, I probably will consider giving each another shot. One of them seems to work perfectly as a sequel to my e-novel. Strange…

Is there anything else you would like to share?

There is one thing I’d like to say about Taken Away. I wrote it as a young adult novel because someone had told me to write one, but I never had read one. That meant that I created my own guidelines. I’m generally a no-holds-barred kind of person, so I thought if I eliminated four-letter words and didn’t put anybody in situations where sex was an issue, I’d have done my part. As a result, this book may have a 15-year-old narrator, but it seems to read just fine for adult audiences. So I want to emphasize that it’s young adult, but not really.

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