Aug 30 2010 11:30am

Writing Hurricane Katrina

Flashback: August 30, 2005. Heat shimmered off asphalt that had softened in hundred-degree weather, and the cacophony sounded like exactly what it was: too many people crammed in tight spaces, under stress.

Welcome to the Days Inn of Bossier City, Louisiana, an hour outside Dallas, where I’d already spent 48 hours in a tiny room with two other adults, two dogs and two cats. I’d be there three more days before my little group finally scattered to subsist on the charity of friends and family. On August 29, Hurricane Katrina had dealt New Orleans a glancing blow. On August 30, the levees broke.

Like everyone else in that Days Inn, I became a refugee, a suddenly homeless New Orleanian with $50 in the bank and two days’ worth of clothes that had suddenly become all I owned. Six weeks would pass before I could return to a city vastly changed from the one I left, to see what had survived of my home and job and friends. Some made it and some didn’t. All of us were scarred.

A lot has been written about Katrina since the storm made landfall five years ago: 2,191 books, according to an search. How many of those are science fiction or fantasy?

One: Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon’s Map of Moments, released in 2009.

In theory, natural or human-made disasters should provide fertile ground for writers of science fiction and fantasy. What better setting to do what SF/F does best―exploring human nature under extreme conditions?

Yet it hasn’t happened. Informal queries on the 1,500-member “Worlds of Fantasy” e-mail loop, the 700-member “Futuristic, Fantasy & Paranormal” chapter of the Romance Writers of America, the forums of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and even Twitter yielded a grand total of three SF/F books set during or after any historic large-scale disaster, natural or human-made: The Golden/Lebbon collaboration mentioned earlier, set in New Orleans post-Katrina, and recent books by urban fantasy author Jess Haines and cyberpunk author John Shirley that both use 9/11 as a launchpad.

Generic global catastrophe, of course, has long been a staple of science fiction and fantasy, dating at least as early as the 1920s, when S. Fowler Wright penned Deluge. On this list we find global pandemics (Stephen King’s The Stand), earthquakes (Arthur C. Clarke’s Richter 10); killer comets (Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer), hurricanes (John Barnes’ Mother of Storms); and global terrorism (Barnes’ recent Directive 51). The full list is a long one.

Real-world disasters? Not so much. My own theories as to why:

They’re real. Once an author commits to writing around a specific event, there’s a responsibility to keep it real, and reality runs counter to the whole “speculative” part of speculative fiction. The natural exception is urban fantasy, which seems ideally suited to blend fantasy with real-world disaster. So far, however, the genre hasn’t moved down that road.

They’re too familiar. USA Today noted in 2007 that six years after 9/11, more than 1,000 nonfiction titles had been published about the event, and fewer than 30 were fiction (and, at that time, none were SF/F). Carol Fitzgerald of speculated that fiction “couldn’t compete with the visual images that dominate our memories. We don’t need to create stories around the event. There were enough stories there from the start.”

They’re sensitive. No one wants to be seen as “cashing in” on tragedy, so authors have mostly worked around disasters. For example, author Charlaine Harris’ sixth Sookie Stackhouse novel, Definitely Dead, was in production at the time of Hurricane Katrina, and the disaster was noted in an acknowledgement. The next Sookie book addressed the hurricane from afar. Sherrilyn Kenyon temporarily moved her Dark Hunter characters from New Orleans to Seattle for safety.

It’s hard to get it right. This is the problem encountered in Map of Moments, our lone real-disaster urban fantasy. Protagonist Max traipses around parts of town that were impassable and stops for drinks in neighborhoods that were deserted. It’s a challenge to not only place a fantasy world within an accurate real-world setting but to also address post-disaster conditions. For many weeks after Katrina, for example, New Orleans had little or no electricity, potable water, or city services. It creates an extra layer of complexity to a novel’s plot when characters must figure out how to bathe, feed themselves, move from place to place, and dispose of their trash―while also saving the world from evil.

Real-world disaster-scapes seem like natural backdrops for riveting science fiction and especially urban fantasy but, so far, authors have stayed away. What’s your theory?

A longtime New Orleans resident now living in Auburn, Alabama, Suzanne Johnson writes urban and rural fantasy. Her book Royal Street, scheduled for release in April 2012 by Tor Books, is set in New Orleans during and after Hurrican Katrina. Find Suzanne on Twitter.

debbie haupt
1. debbie haupt
Oh this looks wonderful, thanks for telling me about it. I love the genre.
Okay here's my theory. I think that usually paranormal authors have enough on their plate rearranging earth and it's inhabitants without adding natural disasters to it, although I really can see the pull because from the article above I can't wait to read it.
Leigh Butler
2. leighdb
The other thing about disasters like 9/11 and Katrina is that they are perfect examples of reality making fiction look downright timid in the plot department. I remember the comment one movie producer made, that prior to 9/11 no one would have ever greenlit a film in which terrorists fly commercial jets into the World Trade Center, because it was too unbelievable a premise for the audience to buy.

And he was right. It's kind of a kick in the teeth when real life challenges your suspension of disbelief. I will be interested to see if your novel stands up to the challenge.
debbie haupt
3. Jonathon Wardley
Fascinating article and so true. I'll definitely be buying Royal Street. I put off writing my book for 20 years for fear of offending those affected by a man-made disaster (including my own family). I agree that there is a duty to keep it real in one sense, but I found that keeping the story 'personal' gave me room to weave a commercially viable work of comedic fiction into an otherwise taboo backdrop.
My own personal memories of the disaster may not be the same as others, but they are just that; personal memories.
You could argue that Giles Fodden's Last King of Scotland contained many inaccuracies with regard to the actual events of that time. I have first hand knowledge that this was the case, but it didn't stop it from being a sensitive and enjoyable read. Hotel Rwanda is another such example.
It begs the question, is it the passing of time that makes a tragic event more acceptable as a landscape for commercial fiction? If so, how long is long enough?
Suzanne Johnson
4. SuzanneJohnson
Deb--Good point! I do think the extra layer of complication a real disaster would add might be something that turns away fantasy/sci-fi authors.

Leigh--I hope my book will stand up to the challenge! Really good point about the "plot" of real disasters making
fiction plots look pale. Who could have written the huge hurricane that scraped past New Orleans, only to have the levees fail twelve hours after the fact? I hope you aren't disappointed.

Thanks, Jonathan! I do think the passage of time makes a tragic event more acceptable as a landscape for commercial fiction, and I know there will be some who don't feel enough time has passed for Katrina. Who would object now if a fantasy were written around the 1900 Galveston hurricane? But I think it also offers a really good opportunity to explore some of the issues of a disaster from the distance journalism or memoir won't allow.
debbie haupt
5. Bart Palamaro
I believe real world disasters are simply too real, painful and emotional to easily fit between the covers of a novel. And there is the challenge of doing it well, sensitively and without offending thoise who think you are exploiting their, or someone elses, pain.
debbie haupt
6. Marie Andreas
Great article Suzanne! I agree with you and some of the other comments. I think especially for those of us writing fantasy & SF, we work with escapism. Even distopian futures are a form of escaping from the reality of now. I think real disasters are too painful.
debbie haupt
7. Janet Tait
I wonder if one reason is that the writers most interested in portraying these disasters are also survivors of these same disasters, and it can be difficult and painful to delve back into those memories? Writers do so, of course - just as you are writing about Katrina. But perhaps for spec fic it might be easier to take those memories and abstract them further into fictional calamities? I'm just speculating here. I'm a disaster survivor myself, and know a few other writers who are also survivors. We've all written about our experiences in one way or another, but for all of us it has been in non-fiction - memoir or creative non-fiction. I think this is a fascinating topic, and can't wait to read your book.
debbie haupt
8. Dawn Chartier
Great topic, Suzanne. I can relate to being in a hotel evacuated from home...It sucks! This really shocks me though about books not being published about tragic events like Katrina and 9-11.

I guess I'm one of the few authors who has set my world in post-Katrina, New Orleans and the surrounding Bayou communities. Yes, the subject is still raw, but to me that is what makes the characters real. The pain they go through, and how they over come it.

Dawn Chartier
Suzanne Johnson
9. SuzanneJohnson
Thanks for the comments! Bart & Marie, it is painful and that might be why more don't do it. As Janet notes (and Dawn can attest), I think one almost has to have lived through it in order to approach it with both accuracy and sensitivity. (The Map of Moments book was wildly inaccurate because, I think, the authors weren't familiar with the intimate details or the odd geography of the area). The hardest thing for me was probably separating my experiences from those of my characters--up to a degree they were an amalgam of my and my friends' experiences but at some point, at the end of the day, it's a novel and I had to take step back from it. It's a hard line to walk.
Marcus W
11. toryx
It's a sensitive subject. I've wanted to write stories of fantasy around events like Katrina but I've frankly never had the courage to do so. In part it's due to the fact that I've been fortunate never to actually be there when something terrible happens. If you're addressing a real event in a fantastic manner, you need to smoothly merge the real with the fantastic and I've been too afraid of outright failing.

On the other hand, it's a sense of respect. I've had a fantasy story idea centered around 9/11 for years but I just can't bring myself to write it because I fear that I'd (inadvertantly) disrespect those who died or survived the tragedy. Ultimately it's not worth the risk for me.

Then again, I'm also currently unpublished so I'm not sure my feelings are all that valid. I'd be interested in hearing if other, published, writers have given thought to doing stories like this, and why they might have chosen not to.
debbie haupt
12. 12stargazers
I think it is hardest to write about natural disasters in spec fic because the "man against nature" trope is hard to write all by itsself. There is no active antagonist. Nature doesn't care if you win or lose while Villians do. Nature is mostly quick, pretty thorough, and then ignores you while you pick up the pieces. ( I've been in enough deadly weather to know: microbursts, tornadoes, floods, etc. ) Villians will actively prevent you from finding the pieces, let alone picking them up. That's where the tension lies - conflicting goals.

The best, most successful examples of "man vs. nature" have nature embodied by something or some one standing in for nature. The first example that comes to mind is Jack London's To Build A Fire. The tamed wolf stands for the killing cold. I read this as a kid, and I remember thinking "so... will the wolf eat him if he dies?" (I've been around animals all my life. )
debbie haupt
13. InkGypsy
I think it would be interesting to follow this post up with looking at older-but-still-contemporary 'disasters' in spec fiction (ie. when we had at least some technology of cars & planes etc), including wars - eg WWII. I think you'll find a lot of true spec fiction (not memoir or lit fic) set in those horrible circumstances have been written relatively recently - bordering on historical UF (another topic which involves more real world disasters than standard UF).

Consider Jane Yolen's Briar Rose, based on Nazi death camp survivor's stories, which quickly became required reading in high schools in the US. It isn't UF. It's even more literary fiction than fantasy but Yolen masterfully handled the very real horrors and communicated them to the next generation through the lens of a fairy tale. I can think of a few fairy tale-based works which do this, particularly with regard to WWII and other serious tragedies/issues (eg ghettos, abuse etc). Perhaps this is because the fantasy aspect (magic, creatures etc) in old fairy tales is actually very minor - sometimes only one element - and is never the focus of the story.

Though UF is a fairly modern descendant of fairy tales (some would say it's actually a slow return to ancient forms of myth and legend) it tends to be rather rampant in use of the supernatural - something which may feel glaringly disrespectful to any surviors unless handled very well. While the Cold War engendered a rash of alien invasion stories I think 9/11 engendered a rise/return to the vigilante and lone hero-type stories (including the investigative smarts to foil nefarious plans in the nick of time and humurous handling of tragedy & bittersweetness of the noir genre) - something which UF excels at. You'll notice one major difference though: the alien stories are very 'us vs them'. The vigilante often has to deal with the 'other among us/is us', complicating the issues of hurt further because it isn't so (apparently) black and white.

The UF genre often reflects society's changing issues/values and confusion over such - eg. the changing attitude toward (and of) women, integration of minorities etc. I'm not saying UF has answers, just that it explores them but there may be a clue here too - perhaps in times of disaster UF reflects the very great need to escape the real world or at least deal with the real life issues at hand from a very large distance (just like fiction authors will often write of their own hurts, abuses and tragedies but greatly disguised under layers).

When you deal with tragedies head on - especially shared ones - I think you not only have to deal with your own hurt but are very aware of other's hurts too and combination is overwhelming. Writing a personal account, it's mostly about you and people understand that. A reporter will try and stick with the facts and find an 'angle' to represent them from but the key thing is still the facts. When you attempt to blur facts with fantasy on sensitive issues involving (essentially) a whole nation it's enough to block a lot of writers. Now that we've passed the decade anniversary of 9/11 and Katrina I've noticed, just in general conversation, people can talk about it more easily. But it's still difficult and people are very worried about being respectful of individuals and of getting their facts right (just as you said). Perhaps with more variety of supernatural and creatures being used in UF (beyond vamps & weres being center stage that is) people will begin to explore the personal mythologies in UF form. You'd think with the prevalence of 1st person POV that such self-focused storytelling would make it easier - and maybe it will. Especially if it twigs with writers that this is still fairly uncharted territory. ;)
debbie haupt
14. Geoff Nelder
As I replied to your query in World of Fantasy forum my Exit, Pursued by a Bee makes extensive use of real catastrophes, natural and manmade. It is a science fiction mystery but I like to get checkable facts right, or at least feasible.
Michael Mair
15. Nightwind
I do not know what qualifies for you as SF/F dealing in sufficient detail with Katrina but I remember a webcomic called Thunderstruck which essentially made the whole thing a side effect of a failed attempt to contain...
Ah, read it yourself:
Unfortunately, the thing will never be finished as the author decided to become a writer of books...
debbie haupt
16. Sherwood Botsford
Interesting points.

I'll add one more to your list: Barometer Rising -- man made disaster of a munitions ship blowing up in Halifax harbour.

Didn't Alastair McLean write one based on the explosion of Krakatoa?

Hammond Innes based a novel on the eruption of a volcano, titled 'Volcano' Don't know which eruption he took for inspiration.

He's also done several yarns about shipping disasters.

I vaguely recall several books that took place during the great fire in London, and one during the great fire in Chicago. Lots of stuff placed in San Francisco in the aftermath of the great quake there.

Wasn't there one about the Jamestown PA dam that broke?

Ken Follet's medieval books take place against the background of the plague.

And there was someone who did a fictional book set in New England the year after Krakatoa called "The Year Without a Summer"

I remember one set against the fires in Minnesota in the early 1900's And one about a train caught in an avalanche in the rockies.

There's one set in the Crows Nest pass in the days leading up to the Franks Slide event, when Turtle Mountain moved.

And one set in Central America when that volcano drop a lehar (mix of pumice and hot gas) down on the town below.

And I'm sure there are a ton of stories set to Vensuvius, Pompei and Herculeum.

One of the staples of fiction is to take a real event, and rub off the serial numbers. e.g. instead of writing about a disaster in New Orleans under Katrina, you take what you know of that disaster and move it to Galvaston, Texas. This allows you to use all your experience, but frees you from the need for historical accuracy.

I vaguely recall of an avalanche that wiped out a swiss town that was fictionalize like this some years later.

Or you take the actuality of Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Pinitubu and move it to Mt. Ranier outside Seatle - Tacoma.

Or you look at that fault that slipped off the Washington coast 400 years ago, sending tidal waves 600 feet high into some parts of coast.

Hasn't there been a lot of fiction regarding the San Andreas fault?

In general, I'd expect real disasters to be treated in main line fiction if at all.

For SF, the problem with Katrina is that it wasn't big enough. Science Fiction tends to be optimistic -- fiction about problems being solved. Katrina was a 'distopia' It showed many ways to NOT deal with a disaster. If a fictional work was done by it, it should be done by Tolstoy. Dreary. Weary. Dark.

Why settle for New Orleans when you can have the world.
As a reader, I empathize with the world. But New Orleans is a victim of it's geography and its government. And from what little I've read, they really haven't learned from it, and are rebuilding in the same spots.

(Itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout

Down came the rain, and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

Itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.)

One more demonstration of how people don't learn. Were there brains in the state they would pass a law that you could NOT build on land that had been flooded, unless you built a structure that was flood proof against water 3 feet more than the previous crest.

It's not like this would have been hard. Take the typical 1000 square foot house, 25 x 40 feet. Instead of building it on a concrete pad, I build it on 12 columns of concrete. It would increase the cost of the house by about 20%. But the kids would always have a shaded spot to play.

Now when the water comes it runs beneath the house. Oh sure, I lose the lawn mower, the barbecue, any of the kids stuff that was left down there. But when the water subsides, I can move back in.

A final note: Fiction about an event seems to wait 20 years for the memories of the pain to subside. The big rush of action/adventure movies/TV shows portrayin WWII came out in the 60's. When did "The Winds of War" and "War and Remberance" come out?

But it wasn't until the 70's that you do Korea in M*A*S*H and it wasn't until the 90's that you saw books like "Rolling Thunder" "Flight of the Intruder" and shows like "China Beach" and "The Deerhunter" about Vietnam.
debbie haupt
17. Erwin K. Roberts
Leinster used the Jamestown Flood as a background for part of his adaptation of the "Time Tunnel" TV show.

Not S-F, but "Tarzan of the Apes" ends with a forest fire in the U.S.A., of all places.

A few years ago McDonalds of Canada published a giveaway comic about a telegrapher who died at his post trying to save an incoming train from the Halifax explosion. True story, I believe.

As I read thru this topic one thing sort of jumped out at me. Using an S-F natural disaster premise, Anne McCaffrey built the entire world of Pern and the Dragonriders.

I've written a story set partly during the 9/11 aftermath. I was careful to only deal with how the situation influences my character. I did not feel it was proper to have any overt villians in the piece. (On a related note: I've often wondered about the Fox TV Network cancelling the time travel based action show "Seven Days" in the spring of 2001. Talk about timing.)
debbie haupt
18. Tony Tedeschi
You left out Tor's own "Ground Zero" by F. Paul Wilson. I read it last year (I believe the pb is due soon) and it finds something bigger and darker than Cheney and Big Oil behind the 9/11 attack.

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