Dan Baum’s Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans explores a gritty, mesmerizing culture through the eyes of nine spectacularly different individuals as their true stories unfold before Katrina hits. Baum, who’s lived in Colorado for more than five years, traveled to New Orleans after Katrina to cover the aftereffects for the New Yorker; what moved him more than the damage and loss was the patchwork of vibrant histories he stumbled across as he met the fascinating residents of the Big Easy, from a retired streetcar-track worker in the Lower Ninth Ward to the uptown-society King of the Carnival. Before the book’s release last month, Baum reflected on reporting the nonfiction narrative.
5280: What most shocked you during your reporting?
Dan Baum: The candor with which these people were willing to talk about their lives was jaw-dropping. Talking to people in New Orleans is like being a kid in a candy store for a journalist. These interviews were more like psychotherapy sessions.
Why these nine particular people?
What I love about that place, and what I hope comes through in the book, is that they’re all very different—but there’s something about them that’s the same. One thing is the intense, deliberate focus on the present. A celebration of “right now”—not how to make tomorrow better.
Amid tragic circumstances, was it hard to refrain from pitying your subjects?
I don’t recall feeling pity. In a way, you kind of envy them. It’s amazement at the richness of their lives. They deal on a day-to-day basis with the stuff that really matters.
Are you nervous about showing the book to these folks (your characters)?
Yup. But I had principles in doing this. One: No villains. Two: All their stories had to end happily. I’ve told their stories as truthfully as I can, and that means mining their psyches in a way that they don’t necessarily do themselves. I hope they won’t be angry.
Did you walk away from New Orleans with any life lessons?
The key to great interviewing is time. Sometimes you don’t talk about the matter at hand; sometimes you just have to sit on the porch and not talk.