When Julia Reed met the man of her dreams and, at the age of 42, finally got married, she realized it was time to move on — and out: out of a former slave quarters off Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The apartment sat secluded behind a Creole cottage, and it was your classic French Quarter setup: charming and crumbling.
Reed — a native of Greenville, Mississippi; a senior writer at Vogue; a contributing editor at Newsweek; and a food writer for The New York Times — loves to entertain, but her oven was the size of a tin can. Her dishwasher wasn't hooked up to a water line. And her microwave ... well, she didn't have a microwave. There wasn't enough counter space. But there was no end to the noise.
Located between the two biggest gay bars in New Orleans, nights inside Reed's place were spent thumping to the disco beat; mornings to the sound of a tone-deaf nun singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" at the nearby Cathedral School. Add to this the "triage unit" Reed's landlord had hired to make repairs. If it wasn't bricklayers at the crack of dawn, it was roofers who'd leave in the afternoon without tarping over the holes they'd made. Given a rain storm, Reed's rugs would get soaked and her books water damaged. For further damage, factor in the wildlife below and above ground: subterranean termites and flying Formosan termites.
Time, then, for Reed and her husband John to search the Garden District for a house, which they finally found: a Greek Revival at the corner of First and Chestnut — another New Orleans classic but one in need of mega repairs. And time, according to Reed's The House on First Street (Ecco/HarperCollins), for the real troubles to begin.
Start with Eddie, the couple's contractor, and his team of immigrant workmen. You want a room torn to bits? No problem. You want a room painted once and right, outdoor paving laid according to plan, or a roof that doesn't (repeatedly) leak? Eddie is not your man, but he was Reed's. She threatened, repeatedly, to kill him.
And then there was Antoine, a handyman with a heart — when he wasn't in jail. The charges: public drunkenness or possession of crack. (Reed bailed him out, repeatedly.)
And then there was the day, 10 months into the renovation of the house and four weeks after the couple finally moved in, when a hurricane hit, then the levees broke. It was 2004.
Reed and her husband, a lawyer, were the lucky ones, and she knows it. The couple fled for a time to her parents' house in Greenville, and they returned to New Orleans days after Katrina to find their house in one piece. But major areas of the city ... You know the story. The House on First Street is subtitled My New Orleans Story, but it's the city's story too in the aftermath of Katrina, with Reed filing early, onsite reports for Newsweek; Reed traveling with and delivering food to National Guard units; and Reed tracking the whereabouts and safety of those who'd served not only in her kitchen but as her friends. And then there are the chefs of the city, who got their restaurants running in the face of terrible conditions.
New Orleans' road to recovery continues to this day. But the road to The House on First Street was a hard one too, because in the epilogue, we read of Reed's no end of rotten luck. Roughly a year ago, her book was ready for the publisher. But a burglar got his hands on some things: the author's TVs, some jewelry — and her computer. She'd backed up exactly one chapter of her book.
Renovation of a house. Recovery of a whole city. It's all in how you look at it, but try rewriting a book from scratch. Reed did. She had to. And it's hard to imagine the lost version being funnier, more exasperating, and more affecting. For fans of Reed's previous book, the best-selling Queen of the Turtle Derby, I don't have to tell you.
Julia Reed will be signing The House on First Street at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Wednesday, July 9th, at 6 p.m. She'll also be at Square Books in Oxford the next day at 5 p.m. But before Reed's booksignings in Memphis and Oxford, the Flyer had a chance to talk to her by phone from New York City, where she was scheduled for a booksigning. It was the third stop on a national tour. But the interview ran into a problem: the whereabouts of Julia Reed. Twenty minutes after the scheduled time for our talk, the publicist was saying that Reed was trying to call, but there was no word from Reed. Then there was, with an apology for not calling on time and a kindly request. I'll leave it to Reed to describe:
Julia Reed: This is the wayward Julia. I'm so sorry for not calling you on time. My phone died. I was on the street in New York. I've literally had to duck inside a friend's apartment to make this call.
The Flyer: Thanks, and that's nice of you to do.
Oh no, it's not nice.
Because today has been crazy. I'm going to ask if you could postpone this interview until tomorrow.
Fine. I can get back to cleaning my apartment.
I know the feeling. I was cleaning the pile on my desk last week, and I found unopened invitations to last year's Christmas parties. My office is a very scary place. Tomorrow then ...
It's the wayward Julia again ... finally. You must have a really clean apartment by now.
I do. And today's better for you than yesterday?
I'm fine. My book party last night, which was supposed to last from 6 to 8, ended up lasting till midnight. But here I am. Slightly worse in voice but not by much. I'd better start behaving. If I act like this for every signing on this tour, I'll be dead.
The House on First Street is about a home renovation, and it's about your adopted hometown, New Orleans, during the worst natural disaster this country has seen. But it's also a homecoming of sorts for you, back to Greenville, Mississippi, where you grew up.
I left Greenville when I was 16 to go to boarding school, and I pretty much never came back. I worked in Washington, moved to New York. I was 44 when Katrina hit, so, at 44, when you move back in with your parents ... well, that's something you don't count on happening.
But it was sort of nice. When I left home, the last place I wanted to be was where my parents were. So, after an interlude of 30 years, you appreciate it a lot more. It was a silver lining.
There was lots of talk after Katrina about who should have been FEMA director. Almost anyone but the one we had. My father ... He would have made a better director. He was great. He immediately got wireless Internet for my husband and me, new phones.
While your mother was peeling tomatoes to feed the hundreds of those in Greenville who fled New Orleans.
Well, that was just obsessive, crazy. God forbid we have another hurricane. But if you are a refugee, a good place to go is Greenville, Mississippi.
What's this about having to rewrite The House on First Street?
The book was due on a Monday. On the preceding Thursday, nobody was in the house for about one hour. A man broke in through a kitchen window, stole two or three TVs, all my jewelry — and my computer.
When my husband John got home and called to say the house had been broken into, it was like ... the TVs are gone. That was really no big deal. The jewelry, which I had a huge freakout about later ... At the time, I could deal with it. But when he literally could not get out the last line of what he was trying to tell me, I was convinced he was going to tell me my dog Henry was dead.
"No," he said. "The burglar kenneled him up!"
Henry's so friendly my neighbor calls him the burglar's assistant. He probably licked the guy's face when he came in the window.
So, it was the computer that John was trying to tell me about. After the initial, complete, and total shock (and my not-lovely reaction, let me just say) ... The best place for something like this to happen is New Orleans.
Why is that?
When they heard about the burglary, all my writer friends were like, "Oh Jesus, I would jump in the river if that happened to me, kill myself." Whatever. In New Orleans, things are so bad that if you're not dead or you didn't lose your family or your house to Katrina, nothing really bad has happened to you. It's a good place to keep your perspective.
So, I thought, Okay, I'll just rewrite the book. I did say last night at the signing that I'd be happy to do something just once. My husband and I renovated a house, and then we sort of re-renovated it. I wrote a book, and it got stolen, so I rewrote it.
I thought you were going to tell me that the computer was recovered, and your book was too.
Hell no! Are you kidding me? The New Orleans police department?
They got fingerprints. They got the guy's footprint. And I was like, this is great! But one police guy said, "Lady, this ain't CSI."
New Orleans didn't even have a crime lab at the time. It took another year for me to rewrite the book.
Does the rewrite differ from the first version?
Who knows? You're not the first person to ask me that, and I should have a better answer, but I don't.
I don't think it's much different. Basically, it's your life you're writing about, and if you're not somebody like James Frey, the story remains the same.
When your troubles began with the house and then Katrina hit, did you know at that point that you had a book?
I thought: renovating a house. It's so not interesting. It's everybody's story. I had a renovation like everybody in the world has a renovation, which is a bad renovation. It's not worth writing about — unless you have a hurricane or you live in Provence. My friend the artist Bill Dunlap — a hilarious guy, he's from Mississippi — he described my book as "A Year in Provence meets The Poseidon Adventure."
But a week before the storm, I was with my agent, talking about peddling a book idea: maybe my growing up in the Mississippi Delta, which used to be a much richer, more thriving place. We had an economy back then. Greenville was a great port city. We had a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper. Home of so many writers.
Then the storm hit, and I thought, Why am I writing about my former home when my current home is suddenly a lot more interesting? So I wrote about it immediately for Newsweek and for Vogue.
I knew that Doug Brinkley had gotten his contract for The Great Deluge. And there were other strictly storm books. So many books. My publisher wanted a book about New Orleans that would have staying power. I don't know if I've done that. It is very much a description of a place before, during, and after. In a way, I'm hoping it stands up as a love letter.
And it is that — a testament to the people of New Orleans.
I'm a lot more optimistic about the future of the town now than I was before the storm. There were things like the school system, for example, that you could not have fixed without it literally being blown away. That's a continuing story.
A lot of people saw the horror show the week after Katrina, and for them that was the end of the story. The city was under water. FEMA failed. Blah blah blah. What I still get a lot is: "How could New Orleans have reelected that mayor?" It's a good question. We have a buffoonish mayor who's an idiot.
But I didn't want the book to be political. The thing about New Orleans is: We made our own problems. Folks — the so-called social elite or economic elite — had opted out of any civic involvement. They were going to spend their life savings on their daughter having a successful Mardi Gras debut. That sort of thing.
That is a recipe for disaster, and we got a disaster. We dodged the hurricane, but after the levees failed, what was writ large was what a cesspool the city had been before the storm.
Now everyone with a remote backbone and brain realizes you get the government you deserve. And now you've got a level of volunteerism and civic responsibility that never existed before. You've got garden-club ladies lobbying the legislature when the government fails us, whereas before it would have been an eyeroll and "Oh, that's just Louisiana and that's our governor."
The feds are doing us a huge favor too by arresting every single corrupt politician we've got left. You've read about the money in Bill Jefferson's freezer. Jefferson's whole family is now under indictment!
Sounds like Memphis.
Memphis has a lot in common with New Orleans.
You know the city well?
When I was a kid we went to Memphis to buy clothes or eat at Justine's. You know, we'd just get in the car and drive. We'd stay at the Peabody. I've stayed at the Peabody more than any hotel in the country.
When I was growing up, Memphis and New Orleans were our twin cities.
Not Nashville, even though you had grandparents who lived there and you visited often. You write in The House on First Street that you even considered moving to Nashville, but you prefer a city with some grit.
Yes. You know that book by Peter Taylor, A Summons to Memphis, where he compares Nashville as a city of churches to Memphis as a city of barrooms. It's the barrooms that "get" me.
It was the musicians and restaurant owners and chefs who got New Orleans somewhat back on its feet when the city was practically a ghost town.
The work those restaurant people did can't be overestimated. The fact that where people used to eat ... that those places were back a month after the storm. It was a reassurance.
New Orleans is a neighborhood town — neighborhoods that bump up against one another. A place like the Upperline restaurant: For those in New Orleans who live in that neighborhood, it's their joint.
I think I gained 100 pounds going to all the restaurant reopenings. It was my civic duty.
Where does the rebuilding of New Orleans stand today?
At one point, there was lots of talk: Will New Orleans be rebuilt to look like Disneyland? First of all, it hasn't been rebuilt! We don't have to worry about it looking like Disneyland. You can't pave over a culture.
Speaking of coming back, where's your handyman, Antoine?
After I spent about a billion dollars on Antoine, he's sadly back in jail, where I think, this time, I just might leave him.
And Eddie, your contractor?
I'm still having to correct mistakes he made. Eddie's the gift that keeps on giving.
Don't tell me he's still doing work for you.
No! The other day, I looked at my office window, and it was cracked. I thought, How did that happen? We'd had a mildly windy day, and all of a sudden I had this huge crack in my office window. It was a window Eddie had forgotten to glaze. So it had been rattling around. A thousand dollars later, I replaced the damn window. Other little stuff you can't even imagine. It was a major day when we actually got grass in our yard. But the house is pretty much done.
Why didn't you, at some point, just say to hell with it?
Aside from the daily throwing-up-my-hands, what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-me, why-am-I-here, you think of the alternatives. We have a chance now to restore the best things about New Orleans. The choices are rich.
And you have yet another book. It's due out soon.
It's called ... what? Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and it's a collection of my food columns for The New York Times. But because The House on First Street was delayed for a year because of the rewrite, the new book bumps up against it. It's an embarrassment of riches.
It is. Thank you, Julia Reed.
Thank you. I'm sorry to have driven you crazy.