Report by Betsy Porritt:
Dan Baum cuts an interesting figure in a straw boater, sleeveless shirt and baggy, fuchsia pink trousers. When he talks, it is with the confidence of a New Yorker reporter with hand gestures to match. He speaks with a warm eloquence and easy precision directly reflected in the clean lines of his prose. It’s easy to see how he gained the trust of the diverse cross section of characters that are presented in his book Nine Lives. And characters they are, although this is a work of non-fiction. Baum has creatively re-constructed nine narrated lives of pre-Katrina New Orleanians as a way to explore the deeper issues within the heart of a city that is so much more than one awful hurricane. While the whole world of journalism and storytelling was looking one way and “disappeared down the rabbit-hole” that was Katrina, Baum looked the other and found a wealth of stories itching to be told and begging for representation. “New Orleans”, he said, discussing the secret to his success in gaining access to so many people’s personal narratives, “is a story-telling place.”
Baum discussed the way he applies fictional narrative techniques – character, structure, dialogue, point of view – to the stories of real people, obtained through interview and observation. He also uses his writers’ skill to adopt the tone and language of his interviewees, bringing us close to their experiences. The book may not always be completely factual – it may even contain a few outright lies – but the truth of the matter remains. This is a book about trauma and recovery: the depiction of Katrina as just another pot hole in the warped and bumpy lives of our protagonists makes this not tale of re-construction but an historical account of a city, filled with more heart than any fictionalized account of heroism could be.
A self-confessed “old journalist”, Baum has found his own way to get to the bones of a character and a story. Experience has taught him about people and given him the skill of listening to them. Somewhere along his career (as well as The New Yorker, he has written for Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and Playboy), any outright ego was knocked out of his writing and he learned how to present the world without infusing it with an overpowering sense of himself.
Maybe this is why he makes such a good journalist and why Nine Lives is such a compelling read. His characters reflect his interviewing style and are all the more real and rounded for that. We learn more about Joyce Montana through the way she sees her husband and son than we ever would if she were simply talking about herself. In his talk last Thursday in Cudd Hall, Baum discussed some tricks of the trade – including fast typing; re-reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style; asking off-topic/unexpected questions; and approaching an interview as though it’s a “shrink appointment” to help the interviewee go truly “deep.” But it’s clear that an understanding of people is the real secret ingredient to journalistic success. Well, maybe that and a flamboyant choice of leg-wear.