NINE LIVES author, Dan Baum shares an especially peculiar moment in his experience of Post-Katrina New Orleans.February 12, 2009
Every now and then during Hurricane Katrina's immediate aftermath a ghostly apparation would move through my field of vision, and before I could get a purchase on it, it would be gone. Then one day as I was riding a stolen bike through the rubble, it pulled up alongside me. It was an old-fashioned Cadillac hearse, white, with big red crosses daubed on the doors and hood in house paint. Behind the wheel was a scowling, curly-haired young man who leaned across the street and demanded, "Who the fuck are you?"
He wouldn't shake hands. "All the infections going around? Fuck that. Get in." He said he used to be an emergency-room doctor at the Touro hospital, but that he "got tired of the politics and the insurance fraud. Ordering more bloodwork than necessary, ordering more chext x-rays than necessary, just to pump up the bills, you know?" I couldn't follow the story about how he'd acquired the hearse. "To get what I've got, you'd have to put yourself in the system to be evacuated, and a lot of people don't want to do that. This is the choice they give you: you want to get the medicine you need, you have to leave the city. So I'm driving around providing care. To get supplies, I loot. Do you think they'll ever be able to use anything that's in Touro ever again? After the filth and the dead bodies lying in there? They're going to have to throw away everything anyway, so why shouldn't I go in there and get it? And in the pharmacies, the people don't know what that stuff is and it's better off with me anyway so people don't use these things incorrectly. So yes, I'm a looter. Fine. You got me. But I have things even the ambulances don't have. You go to a first aid station or an ambulance and ask for Diavan. They'll say what the fuck is that. Ten minutes ago, you should have been here, the fucking FBI pulls up, like eight agents, and they surround the car. They're like, who the fuck are you? What are you doing with all these stuff? Is it stolen? Who do you think you are, driving around giving out medicine. I say, I'm a doctor. They ask for my license. But I don't carry my license with me because I don't want to lose it. I show them this, this old Tulane ID, which is expired, and they say, fuck, this is expired. Who the fuck are you? So we go round and round. One of them says, what are you some kind of weirdo? This is a car of death, and you paint a cross on it? What are you, sick? Then they find this" - he reached under the seat and came up with a huge Bulgarian army pistol - "and that was another whole go-around. It was just a big fucking hassle, like they don't want anybody freelancing - you know, helping people. They finally left me alone, though they took all the bullets." He took a breath and his eyes seemed to focus on me for the first time. "What do you need? Nothing? Then get out."
Miriam Gershow explains how her close bond with her older sister inspired her to write about the complicated relationship between two siblings.February 12, 2009
When I think of childhood, I think of my older sister. She and I existed in a particular sort of family, the kind where parents were nearby but in their own orbit of adult preoccupations: art museums and Cornish hens and PBS and New York Times Sunday magazine. Rebecca, even though she was three years older, still revolved in the same cartoon-watching, sprinkler-jumping, stuffed-animal-collecting orbit as I did. And so she was my playmate, my confidante, and my mentor--calm to my spastic, mellow to my weepy, unflappable to my very, very easily flapped.
My earliest memories are of camping outside Rebecca's bedroom door, where I waged a nightly campaign of tears until my parents relented and let me sleep in her bed; she and I running around the gym of our elementary school, shirtless, flapping our arms as we played the nonsensical diversion we'd dubbed The Chicken Game; me trying to keep up with her on her bike as I trailed behind on my loud, loping Big Wheels. Growing up, when I wanted to know what to wear, what magazines to read, what music to like-when I wanted to know how the world worked and how I was supposed to work within it-I looked to her.
So the idea of siblings has always been of interest to me, and in particular the power older siblings hold over younger ones. I have been fascinated by what my friend Luanne calls "The Little Sister Syndrome." Luanne, like me, grew up with an older sister who was, roughly, the sun and moon to her. Now Luanne calls me days after her sister has made a cutting remark ("I've decided to spend Christmas with my husband and kids from now on. No extended family"), still bruised from it. This, according to Luanne, is a classic case of Little Sister Syndrome. No matter how old or accomplished or out from under our older siblings' sway we consider ourselves, they still wield a unique ability to influence and penetrate, rendering us into earlier versions of ourselves: young and spazzy, suddenly unsure of the ground beneath us.
When I decided to explore these tensions in my first novel, I had little interest in writing a thinly veiled story about Rebecca and me. We lacked the requisite conflict. Decades later, we still live seven minutes from each other. She still tops of the list of people I call when I have news: grad school, engagement, book deal. She's still the person I spend birthdays and holidays with, though the guest list now also includes her husband and mine, and her two young daughters.
As one of my favorite authors, Charles Baxter, wrote, "All happy couples are alike, it's the unhappy ones who create the stories."
I needed to invent some unhappy siblings.
And one day, a single scene came to me: a teenaged girl is traveling through her neighborhood, distributing posters of her missing older brother to local businesses. She gets into an argument with a convenience store clerk who refuses to hang the poster. That was it. My sole idea. So I wrote the scene. From there, The Local News was born.
I only knew two things when I began. One, I knew that Lydia Pasternak, the narrator, did not get along with Danny, her missing older brother. Two, I knew the outcome of Danny's disappearance. Everything else I discovered in the two years of writing the book. What fascinated me the most-more than the search for Danny, or the tumult of Lydia's high school life, or the rapidly crumbling Pasternak family, all of which I loved writing about in their own right-was the jumble of love/hate feelings Lydia had toward Danny, and the power Danny had over Lydia, and the way that power was complicated and deepened and muddied and intensified by the fact that he was suddenly missing. Their relationship turned out to be neither as simple nor as bleak as I had initially imagined, their shared orbit far more nuanced and multi-layered than my early ideas of it.
Rebecca was one of the earliest readers of the finished book. I was well into a successful writing career by then. I'd landed my first book deal. I'd won awards and fellowships. I knew that I was a good writer, that this was a good book. But still I waited in the anxious way little sisters do, to find out what my big sister thought.