Novelist and TV Writer Tom Piazza Explores the Writing Process

Novelist and TV Writer Tom Piazza Explores the Writing Process

"Writing a novel never turns out to be exactly what you thought it would be like," says 67-year-old writer Tom Piazza. "If it does turn out to be exactly as you thought it would when you first started, then there's probably something wrong with it."

Clearly, Piazza knows what he's talking about. In addition to his novels—including City of Refuge and A Free State—the author has written for HBO's critically acclaimed TV show "Treme," about a group of local New Orleans musicians dealing with the repercussions of Hurricane Katrina.

On the heels of the release of his latest novel, The Auburn Conference, Piazza opens up about his writing process, the influence that New Orleans, the city he lives in, has had on his work, his post-book rituals, and more.

In The Auburn Conference, fictional versions of writers like Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe meet at a special conference to discuss "the future of the nation." How did you come up with that premise?

I actually had the idea on a long drive from Virginia to New Orleans back in 2018, which was right before the midterm elections. Like everybody else in the country and around the world, I was wondering what was going on in America and just wondering how to even get a handle on thinking about it.

It occurred to me that the writers who were working in the 19th century and were young when the country was young—like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain—were doing so during a time when everything seemed up for grabs in America. It was still a new country that was being invented. They were also confronted with the very central fact of slavery—so there were all these possibilities and questions connected with deeply troubling facts about the country.

It seemed like the particular date I would set the book in, 1883, was a time for all those voices with moral urgency and vision to be looking at the country at a crossroads.

Did working on The Auburn Conference help you process the current state of political affairs in the United States?

The way I think about writing a novel is not so much about answers but a set of questions and charting the understanding of what's at stake, what the actual nature of the problem is. We have so much discourse available to us now that it can be hard to even really see what the real question is in the midst of all the angry and often unfocused advocacy. So, writing a book is really about getting a handle on what the actual issues and questions are, and I should say that the questions under consideration at the time that I set The Auburn Conferences in are the same ones we are dealing with today.

Tell me a bit about your writing process.

Writing a work of imaginative fiction, which is obviously what this is, involves a kind of balancing act, a dance between actual fact and imaginative illumination of those facts. With The Auburn Conference, there was a lot of research to be done, but you also can't have that submerge your imagination. The research can become the horse that is pulling the cart instead of the thing that’s there to serve the characters and the story.

In my view, if you're writing a novel, the characters are what come first because the story flows out of them.

Generally speaking, writing a novel never turns out to be exactly what you thought it would be like. If it does turn out to be exactly as you thought it would when you first started, there's probably something wrong. In my view, if you plan it all out in advance and then execute the plan, you're likely to have a novel that is not particularly interesting or flavorful.

How is writing a novel different from writing TV scripts?

It certainly is different. One of the things about writing for episodic TV is that the realities of logistics, money, securing places to film and the other moving parts involved in TV production [require] you to plan in advance where you are going to be and when.

If you're filming and, all of a sudden, decide that episode six is going in a completely different direction, but you're already on episode three, that presents problems not only for the writer but for a whole lot of people so you are forced to think almost mechanically about the structure of the plot and story. Of course, you have latitude for invention in dialogue and the specifics of any given scene, but there is that imposed necessity from the beginning on having a pretty well-thought-out plot.

How does where you live impact your writing?

It depends on the specific project. I live in New Orleans and, for me, living through Hurricane Katrina was a life-changing experience, specifically as a writer. It made me less patient with certain things and more focused on others. It did change me as a writer. It changed the things that I thought were important, re-arranged the balance of things, plunged me a lot more deeply into the kinds of experiences that people have had through history.

Has the advent of the Internet changed the writing industry?

It makes research much easier and gives access to information, but I'm not sure that beyond the strictly mechanical things it has affected it. I don't think that the Internet has really changed the nature of what I do.

Who are some of the writers who have influenced you most?

I've always gravitated towards writers who have both a lyrical and historic imagination. One of the first writers who really made an impression on me as a fiction writer was Norman Mailer. One thing that was very true about him is that he had a very vivid style and was also really deeply concerned about the fate of the nation, which was impressive to me as a very young writer.

Also, Hemingway, whom you can learn a lot of things from: not to get too decorative or flowery in your writing unless there's a real point to it. You can also learn that you can tell a reader what a character is thinking by just telling them what the character is seeing.

I also always loved Joan Didion, another one of those writers who always had a lyrical style of a very particular type and was also passionately curious about American society and culture.

What happens when you’re finished writing a book? What does the end of the process look like?

Certainly, you need a break. One of the things that invariably happens to me is that, almost every time I finish a book, I get possessed by some new hobby that usually involves collecting. After I finished A Free State, for example, I woke up one day and thought I must begin to collect electric guitars, so I started acquiring them.

When I was up in New Hampshire finishing City of Refuge, on the other hand, I went to a place that sold oriental rugs and ended up spending about a year and a half acquiring a few and really learning deeply about them.

*Feature photo of Tom Piazza by Mary Howell

Anna Rahmanan is a New York-based writer and editor whose words have appeared in Time Out New York, Tablet, Newsweek, the Huffington Post and more.
More posts by Anna Rahmanan.
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