Turning the reader on to our city anew: An interview with Susan Larson

By Derick Dupre

Susan Larson has established herself as the most visible individual guide to literary New Orleans. A new edition of her compendium, The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans, has just been released, offering updates to its takes on New Orleans literary history, its resource lists, reading lists, and writer recommendations. It’s a guide for both local bibliophiles and the visiting tourist who may have an inkling that there’s more to New Orleans’ literary history than a Tennessee Williams play.

Larson was the books editor of the Times-Picayune for more than twenty years, and can now be heard on WWNO’s The Reading Life. She is the president of the Women’s National Book Association of New Orleans, which recently established the Pinckley Prize for Crime Fiction, a new literary contest that honors the memory of former Times-Picayune columnist Diana Pinckley. Larson was also a judge on the 2012 Pulitzer Prize committee for literature, about which Room 220 interviewed her.

Larson will present her updated book from 7 – 9 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 15, at Crescent City Books’ Black Widow Salon (230 Chartres St.). She recently spoke via email with Room 220 about her updated Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.

Room 220: The literary landscape of New Orleans has changed in the almost fifteen years since the first publication of your book. In a very basic way, this can be deduced through the updated, slightly edgier photograph on the book cover. In which ways do you think it has changed?

Susan Larson: The literary landscape has changed vastly—I think for the better—in the past 15 years. However, the slightly edgier cover also reflects my personal state of mind at present. When I wrote the first book, I was filling in gaps in my own knowledge, having only arrived in New Orleans 14 years earlier, and I think that accounts for the nostalgic cover image, which was created by Times-Picayune photographer Ted Jackson.

For this second edition, I feel less nostalgic, more forward-looking, more confident as a writer and a critic, having lived through the 15 years that are the subject of the update. Our gorgeous tattooed model, Lauren Graham—her tattoo says “New Orleans or bust!”—exemplifies the passionate recent arrival, and photographer Paulette Hurdlik captured the perfect moment. A side note: I am fascinated by the phenomenon of the Katrina tattoo, and I collect books about tattoos.

Rm220: Do you have any?

SL: No Katrina tattoos for me.

Rm220: It feels like a lot of new additions to the scene (poets, bloggers, practicers of nanofiction) washed ashore after Katrina. How do you view this influx as a post-Katrina phenomenon in the context of New Orleans’ literary history?

SL: New Orleans is rich in literary history, for sure, and all the things that make that up—literary landmarks, festivals, libraries, bookstores—are still here after Katrina, and coming back strong. Those things do attract writers, but really more as something to bump up against, soak up and move beyond, unless they are scholars.

What do creative writers need? Reasonable rents, cheap places to drink, supportive booksellers, wonderful research centers, a culture of which they feel a part. We got that, as they say in the Dorignac’s commercial. I’m not sure at all that so many disciples come here now—I think the majority of our writers are looking to put their own stamp on the city, if they are writing about New Orleans at all. Of course, if you write a vampire novel set here, you’re writing in Anne Rice’s long shadow, but I don’t think many of our playwrights feel like they are necessarily descendants of Tennessee Williams. I’m also heartened by the good things that are happening for young writers in our high schools, and there are some bright lights on the horizon, I think.

Rm220: In the update to The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans, what are some overall things you kept in mind when presenting to readers the city’s literary culture?

SL: Literary culture is a complex thing with many entry points—from the kid who signs up for the Neighborhood Story Project, to the young writer training hard at NOCCA or Lusher or UNO, to the established New York writer who comes to town for personal reasons, knowing that he/she can work anywhere. We are lucky in our diversity, but that’s always been our strength. We love to act it out and carry it on. I hope The Booklover’s Guide will make its readers value our history, while introducing them to lots of writers and books that they will love as much as I do. The greatest compliment I’ve received is hearing from folks who’ve read it and said they headed to the bookstore for other books. That’s my dream reaction—turning the reader on to our city anew or again.