john biguenet

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john biguenet
Fall 2009
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JOHN
BIGUENET
PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
WRITER CRAFTSMAN
BY
KATHY FINN
10
I
n a society whose artistic and creative endeavors focus
largely on matters of the moment, fiction writers with an
intuitive sense of history are rare. Contemporary American
stories and dramas tend to be torn-from-the-headlines affairs
that depict familiar characters, often in predictable conflicts.
Occasionally, though, a writer emerges who is not afflicted
with historical amnesia; who is equally at home in the present
and the deep past; who offers his readers startling characters
and situations they haven’t seen before.
John Biguenet, an O. Henry Award-winning writer and
professor of English at Loyola University, grew up in New
Orleans and sometimes sets his fiction in contemporary
Louisiana. But his stories also range across continents and
centuries, and frequently employ fantastic conventions along
the way.
His central character may be an itinerant torturer plying his
trade in Medieval Europe; a middle-aged American facing a
moral test while visiting Germany after World War II; or a
young engineer only mildly fazed by toads raining from the sky
in post-colonial Latin America.
“John in no way fits any kind of stereotype of what you’d
consider a Southern or Louisiana writer,” says author Tim
Gautreaux, a fellow O. Henry Award-winner who has set many
of his own stories and novels in his native Louisiana.
“I CAN SPEND AN ENTIRE DAY
ON ONE PARAGRAPH.”
—JOHN BIGUENET
Known for his down-to-earth characters and homey wit,
Gautreaux says he’d be inclined to term Biguenet “a cardcarrying intellectual” were it not for the fact that “he’s very
affable, earnest and just a nice guy.”
Biguenet all but ensured he would not be pigeonholed as a
regional American writer with the publication in 2001 of his
short story collection, The Torturer’s Apprentice
(Ecco/HarperCollins). A few of the stories in the book use
Louisiana as a backdrop, but most unfold in other parts of the
world, real or imagined. The works helped solidify his
reputation as a meticulous, intellectually rigorous writer with a
fearless imagination.
In one of the collection’s best-known stories, “The Vulgar
Soul,” a young man devoid of religious belief develops a
stigmata. As the five bleeding wounds of the Crucifixion
gradually appear on his body, believers gather to see and touch
him. He shuns the awe and attention of his new followers, but
when the wounds begin to heal he confesses:
“ ... the whole time people were whispering ‘miracle,
miracle,’ I never once pretended at something I didn’t feel,
didn’t believe. And now that it’s all over—I know it’s crazy—
now I feel like I’m living some kind of lie.”
The “Vulgar Soul,” which he later adapted for the stage, and
other stories brought Biguenet wide exposure. His fiction and
essays appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The
Washington Post, Esquire, Playboy, Granta (U.K.), Zoetrope and
various anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories
and Best Music Writing. His work has been published in the
United Kingdom and translated into several languages. His
repertoire also includes four books he edited or co-edited on
contemporary international fiction and on the theory of
translation.
Fall 2009/LOUISIANA CULTURAL VISTAS 11
A NEW ORLEANS BOYHOOD
Clear-eyed and bespectacled, with a gentle manner and a
sweep of silvery hair, Biguenet, 60, fits his title: the Robert
Hunter Distinguished Professor at Loyola. When he’s not in
a classroom, he’s the picture of an artist driven to write. Ten
minutes alone with a cup of coffee is an opportunity to
begin a new story or rethink a character. A two-hour block
might allow him to finish a chapter—or re-write a single
sentence over and over. “I can spend an entire day on one
paragraph,” he confesses.
He attributes his fastidiousness to his father who, after
years in the U.S. Merchant Marine, worked as a carpenter.
“His enormous respect for knowing the craft of
carpentry had a huge influence on me,” Biguenet says. “He
often said that a carpenter with enough wood and enough
nails ought to be able to build and fill an entire house. So I
approach writing that way. I ought to know how to
translate, how to write poetry, fiction, plays. It’s not enough
simply to get something on stage, I need to really
interested in foreign languages, and then in language itself.”
When Loyola University offered Biguenet a full
scholarship, his future began to crystallize. While working
toward an English degree at Loyola, he threw himself into
writing and also met the woman who would become his
wife. Marsha, then a student from Philadelphia, happened
by as Biguenet was giving an anti-war poetry reading on the
steps of the university library. She introduced herself, and
the pair joined in a protest march. “That was our first date,”
he says.
The two married and later headed for the University of
Arkansas, which had offered Biguenet a graduate
fellowship. He earned a master of fine arts degree in creative
writing, then became the poet in residence at the University
of Arkansas at Little Rock, a post he held for two years
before returning to New Orleans to teach at Loyola.
The couple eventually settled into the Lakeview
neighborhood where they raised two children, Nicole and
Jonathan. Marsha Biguenet now is principal of the lower
“I THINK, IN THE
END, FANTASTIC
LITERATURE IS NOT
ABOUT AN ESCAPE
FROM REALITY, IT’S
ABOUT DROPPING US
MORE DEEPLY INTO
A REALITY THAT
WE’RE BLIND TO OR
THAT WE CHOOSE TO
REMAIN SILENT
ABOUT.”
—JOHN BIGUENET
John Biguenet’s home library was largely destroyed by Katrina’s flood waters.
school at Metairie Park Country Day School.
understand how a play is made, and novels and short
stories.”
His hunger for writing was not always obvious, at least
to him. While he was growing up in the Gentilly
neighborhood of New Orleans, and during his years at Cor
Jesu (now Brother Martin) High School, sports were his first
love. The lanky boy was captain of the basketball team.
He also was an avid reader, though. He enjoyed writing
poetry and had an appreciation for languages. During
summers, he and his younger brother and sister would visit
his mother’s Italian relatives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“Brooklyn, then, was totally cosmopolitan,” he says. “We
would hear Italian and Greek, Arabic and Yiddish ... there
was kind of this soup of languages I didn’t understand, but
they sounded so musical. I think that’s when I began to be
12 LOUISIANA ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES\Fall 2009
EUROPE, LATIN AMERICA
As Biguenet continued to teach and write, his literary
horizons expanded. He began to tire of contemporary
American fiction and gradually focused more on European
writers of the 19th century—Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy,
Fyodor Dostoyevski, Jane Austen. The short stories of Anton
Chekhov still top his most-admired list. “I never read a story
by Chekhov without learning something. He’s been an
enormous influence.”
He also found kindred spirits in Latin America, in such
writers as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar and Jorge
Luis Borges. He met and talked with Borges late in the
Argentine writer’s life and says they shared similar feelings
about “the persistence of the past,” a sense of being part of a
13
PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
continuum that reaches from the past into the future.
Biguenet’s ancestors, whom he has traced to
northeastern France, first set foot in New Orleans some 250
years ago. “I walk in the French Quarter and (I know) my
relatives have walked those streets for hundreds of years. I
don’t think many Americans have that same experience of
rootedness,” he says.
Another connection he felt with Latin American writers
stemmed from their use of fantasy. Biguenet found the
“magical realism” honed by García Márquez and others
liberating.
“I think, in the end, fantastic literature is not about an
escape from reality, it’s about dropping us more deeply into
a reality that we’re blind to or that we
choose to remain silent about,” he says.
An element of fantasy he has found
particularly helpful in his own work is
the ghost. He used the device to
poignant effect in a story entitled
“Fatherhood.” In the story, a young
married couple grieves over the
woman’s recent miscarried pregnancy
until the ghost of a young child
appears in the room they had
prepared as a nursery.
“The man looked upon his wife and
child, and he felt something inside click
open—as if a secret lock had been
disengaged by small hands that, cupping
his heart above and below, had twisted it first one way and
then another.”
New Orleans, taking the young Biguenet along. While he
delighted in discovering the world of the open water, his
father made sure he also understood the cold realities.
During one trip the boy asked why the croakers they were
piling up in the ice chest were making so much noise. His
father answered: “They’re calling for their mama, but she
can’t hear them.”
Chilling, perhaps, but Biguenet got the message:
Sentimentality has no place on the water. Biguenet
recounted a version of the incident in Oyster.
His fishing experiences also had a clear bearing on
another of his stories, entitled “And Never Come Up.” The
narrator in the work relates a grisly but somewhat
humorous tale about a fishing trip with
his father where circumstances go awry
and the two are stranded overnight on
the water. In relating his story, the
narrator frequently digresses into
anecdotes about his dad.
“My father was a real sailor, all
right ... he told me one night when he
was good and drunk that the best
advice he’d gotten in a dozen years at
sea was from an old sailor: ‘Never
learn to swim—it only prolongs the
drowning.’ I remember when he told me
he took another swig of bourbon and then,
with one eye open, swore, ‘But goddamn
it, I already knew how to swim.’“
“I NEVER READ A
STORY BY CHEKHOV
WITHOUT LEARNING
SOMETHING. HE’S
BEEN AN ENORMOUS
INFLUENCE.”
—JOHN BIGUENET
HOME AGAIN
After publishing the stories of The Torturer’s Apprentice,
Biguenet seemed to refocus on his roots. In 2002,
HarperCollins published his first novel, Oyster, an earthy
tale of murder and intrigue among feuding families that
plays out in the marshlands of South Louisiana.
The novel hearkened to Biguenet’s past. His father and
grandfather often fished the lakes and marshes south of
DELUGE
The dangers of water confronted Biguenet in a
completely unexpected way on Aug. 30, 2005. It was the day
after Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans. Just as the
city was sighing its relief, water began gushing in.
Biguenet’s home was but one casualty of the deluge that
drowned some 1,500 people and left tens of thousands
homeless. Forced to live outside the city for weeks, the
writer began chronicling for The New York Times the
devastation wrought by the failures of government-
Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded following federal levee failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
14 LOUISIANA ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES\Fall 2009
PHOTO BY JOHN B. BARROIS
designed flood protection systems.
“He was personally affected in a very strong
way,” says longtime friend and novelist Valerie
Martin, author of several short-story collections
and nine novels.
Martin, who grew up in New Orleans and
taught at two local universities before
relocating to the Northeast, says Biguenet’s
ability to express “what it felt like to be inside
the process of trying to put your life back
together” made his New York Times chronicles
“some of the best stuff I read after the
hurricane.”
In some ways, Biguenet may have been
better prepared than others to face the lessons
of Katrina. His own history and philosophy
have made him skeptical, maybe even cynical,
about the idea that individuals command their
own destiny.
“We want to think that we’re all free agents,
individuals, and able to become all that we
want to be. The Europeans have been taught
over and over again that that’s not the way life
operates. Things happen that are outside your
control,” he says.
“Here in New Orleans we learned it over
and over again, as the city burned to the
ground, plagues hit the city, civil war,
reconstruction, the collapse of our levees. We
know that it doesn’t make any difference how
hard you work, how good a person you are.
Things are going to happen—they’ll destroy
your life, nobody will take responsibility and
you’re on your own to fix it.”
When Biguenet and his wife returned to
New Orleans from their post-Katrina exile, he
continued to write during any time he could
squeeze between teaching and the tedious
work of repairing their home. Before the storm
he had started a new play, but the disaster and
his anger over its cause spun him in a different
direction. He laid plans for a series of dramas
set in New Orleans during the weeks and
months after the flood.
In 2007, Southern Repertory Theatre in New
Orleans presented Biguenet’s Rising Water. The
play, in which a middle-aged married couple
are stranded by the flood on the roof of their
home and forced to face their destiny, became
the biggest seller in the theater’s history.
Recently, Southern Rep debuted the second
work in Biguenet’s three-play cycle. In Shotgun,
racial conflict piles on top of personal loss as an
African-American woman and her father find
themselves living under the same roof as a
white man and his son a few months after the
flood.
Scenes from the 2007 premiere of John Biguenet’s play Rising Water:
A New Orleans Love Story, starring Danny Bowen and Cristine
McMurdo-Wallis at New Orleans’ Southern Rep Theatre.
Fall 2009/LOUISIANA CULTURAL VISTAS 15
Rus Blackwell and Donna Duplantier portray New Orleanians in the
months following Katrina in Shotgun, a play by John Biguenet that
premiered at Southern Rep Theatre in May 2009.
PHOTO BY JOHN B. BARROIS
Because of the racial conflicts
involved, Biguenet felt strongly
that Shotgun should have an
African-American director.
Southern Rep brought in Valerie
Curtis-Newton, who teaches
directing at the University of
Washington School of Drama and
is artistic director of The
Hansberry Project in Seattle.
“In many ways we mirrored
the play, a white man working
with a black woman, trying to
uncover the truth of these
characters,” Curtis-Newton says.
Drawing a parallel with iconic
African-American playwright
August Wilson, who created a
history cycle to explore the
“psychic wound of slavery,” she
says: “I think John’s exploring the
psychic wound of Katrina and
the levees breaking. I think
there’s a tremendous accomplishment in even beginning to
undertake that.”
Writer Martin was not surprised that Biguenet delved
into racial issues in Shotgun. A “preoccupation with race
relations” characterizes New Orleans writers, she says.
Martin undertook her own examination of slavery a few
years ago in a novel entitled Property. She says she was
working on the book at the same time that Biguenet was
writing a short story called My Slave.
“That story is a really brief but sharp look at slavery and
what the mentality of the (slave) owner had to be,” she
says. “John has a real speculative imagination; he considers
all the time what it’s like to be someone appalling.”
Biguenet used a similar approach in his story The
Torturer’s Apprentice, which Martin describes as exploring
“the mentality of a torturer and the idea of torture as art.”
“I THINK JOHN’S EXPLORING THE PSYCHIC WOUND OF KATRINA
AND THE LEVEES BREAKING. I THINK THERE’S A TREMENDOUS
ACCOMPLISHMENT IN EVEN BEGINNING TO UNDERTAKE THAT.”
—DIRECTOR VALERIE CURTIS-NEWTON
PHOTO BY JOHN B. BARROIS
In the work, an experienced
medieval torturer, Guillem,
teaches a young man how to
administer intricate physical
punishments to persons declared
guilty of heresy and other
offenses.
“Annoyed at first by the boy’s
squeamishness, Guillem came to
appreciate his apprentice’s
gentleness. He had often sensed
that cruelty was the enemy of the
torturer. In fact, cruelty seemed to
him a kind of arrogance that a
professional would disdain; it was
an intoxicant of amateurs.”
Actors Lance E. Nichols and Donna Duplantier
were among cast members of the premiere of
John Biguenet’s Shotgun at Southern Rep
Theatre, directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton.
16 LOUISIANA ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES\Fall 2009
At its most basic level, The Torturer’s
Apprentice explores the nature of a
parent-child relationship and efforts by
the parent figure to prepare the child
for life’s harsh realities. Biguenet has
touched on the theme more than once
in his work, in part because of his own
strong feelings about it.
“We persist in offering children a
sentimental view of the world, and I
don’t think they need it,” he says. “I
don’t think it’s particularly useful to lie
to them about the way the world
works.”
One young writer among the many
who have benefited from Biguenet’s
own “parenting” skills is New Orleans
author Joshua Clark. In 2003, Clark
included Biguenet in an anthology of
local writers he published, called French
Quarter Fiction. He became particularly
well-acquainted with Biguenet after
Katrina, when they sometimes traveled
together to other cities to participate in
panel discussions and carry the
message of what had transpired in New
Orleans.
“Here I was, this young guy writing
short stories, and with everything he
had going on, he said, ‘If you have
anything you’d like me to look at, I
will,’“ Clark recalls. “He gave me a lot
of feedback on a story and he made it
much better.”
As he continues to mentor up-andcoming writers, Biguenet intends to
keep articulating the impact of the 2005
disaster on New Orleans. His third play
in the Katrina cycle, tentatively entitled
Mold, is under way, as is a novel that
addresses aspects of the tragedy he
hasn’t covered in the plays.
Yet another novel and more stories
also are in the works. And one day
when time allows, perhaps Biguenet
will get another sailboat to replace the
one he lost in the hurricane.
“When I went out to the marina to
check on it, I saw that the pilings had
gotten broken in half, but all my knots
held,” he says. “I thought my father
would be proud of me that I tied those
knots properly to the cleats.” LCV
___________________________________
Kathy Finn is a freelance writer and editor in New
Orleans. She edits the theatre and performing arts
magazine On Stage.
For more information about John Biguenet’s books, log on
to www.johnbiguenet.com. His archived columns for The
New York Times about Hurricane Katrina and the federal
levee failures can be read online at
www.biguenet.blogs.nytimes.com/. Information
about Southern Rep TheatreTheatre can be found at:
www.southernrep.com.
Fall 2009/LOUISIANA CULTURAL VISTAS 17