Tom Piazza’s new novel, A Free State, chronicles two runaways—one black, one white, each masquerading to claim his own life. It opens with Henry Sims, skilled banjo player and fugitive slave, staring at his own Wanted poster. The other runaway, a youngster pressed into ceaseless toil by his brutal family, skips town to join the circus.
Both young men stake their new lives among Philadelphia’s blackface minstrels. Sims pretends to be a white man masking as a black musician. James Douglass blackens his white face with burnt cork and feels exhilarated. Together, they push against the law, against all expectations—even as Sims is hunted. Piazza has written a novel that is at once a sharp examination of America’s past and a searing investigation of its present.
We’ve been eagerly anticipating Tom Piazza’s fiction ever since we read his mesmerizing (and often-anthologized) short story “Brownsville,” originally published in Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly and collected in Blues and Trouble. But if you don’t believe us, listen to what Bob Dylan has to say: “Tom Piazza’s writing pulsates with nervous electrical tension—reveals the emotions that we can’t define.” And then there’s Junot Diaz: “This cat is a dynamo.”
The author of City of Refugee (winner of the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction), Devil Sent the Rain (essays on “Music and Writing in Desperate America”) and Why New Orleans Matters (a post-Katrina cri de coeur from this New York-born writer who for more than two decades has called New Orleans home), Piazza is a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Writing. His other work includes Blues Up and Down: Jazz in Our Time, Setting the Tempo, True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass and Understanding Jazz: Ways to Listen. He won a Grammy Award for his liner notes to Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: A Musical Journey. For his first novel, My Cold War, he received a Faulkner Society Award. He also wrote for the HBO series Treme.
Tom Piazza recently answered a few questions for Sacred Trespasses.
You’re a novelist and have also written and edited books about music and musicians. Those two lives—fiction writer and music critic—coalesce in your latest novel, A Free State. How has a lifetime of writing about—and playing—music influenced your work as a fiction writer?
I’m not sure which way the influence goes; the two streams feel like one stream at this point. I really am led by my ear, in writing. I feel pace, tension and release, all varieties of rhythm, sound—I feel it all musically. It’s my ear that tells me whether something is kosher or not. I think I even experience interpersonal relationships musically, in terms of how people take up space in a room as if it were a composition, how they move through time.
You’ve taken research to a new level with A Free State. Like your character Henry Sims, you’ve become a skilled banjo player. What came first, the character who plays the banjo, or the banjo that has now become one of your passions?
I was friends with Mike Seeger, the great folk musician, and after he died I came into posession of a banjo of his. I had never played banjo, and I thought I should learn, since I had this instrument. The banjo became kind of an obsession for me. It’s part percussion, part melody, part rhythm… very elemental. Wood, steel, skin for the head… I really fell in love with it. And I started reading about the history of the instrument, which was brought to the Americas in its earliest form by enslaved Africans. You can’t go far with the banjo without learning things about slavery, and also about this bizarre phenomenon of blackface minstrelsy, in which white men blacked their faces up and did these horribly racist, distorted caricature performances of black musicians singing and dancing. The music itself seems to have been a hash of African-American melodies and rhythms, Irish fiddle tunes, sentimental parlor songs… It was the rock and roll of the mid-1800s. The whole thing was fascinating and strange, yet familiar, too. I mean, to this day a lot of white people like to act certain things out vicariously by pretending to be black, one way or another.
A Free State is set in 1855 and chronicles minstrelsy and race in ways that force the reader to stop and examine life in America today. Besides your research on the music of the era, what were some of the other avenues you explored in order to understand the world of 1855?
This was definitely the most research I’ve ever done for a book, although I did do a lot of reading about the JFK assassination when I was writing My Cold War. For A Free State, I read a lot of Underground Railroad history, history of slavery and blackface minstrelsy—those are kind of obvious, probably—but also history of Philadelphia in the nineteenth century. There was a lot of stuff to learn, even simple stuff like how did people travel around town? What were the distances like? What did the place look like? What would it have smelled like? W. E. B. DuBois’s book The Philadelphia Negro had a lot of important information about how and where black people lived in nineteenth century Philadelphia. John Hope Franklin’s book Runaway Slaves gave me a lot of info on the hows and whys of escape for slaves. I thought for a minute about putting a bibliography at the end, but I’m not crazy about finding a bibliography in a novel. I’ll probably put up a list of books at some point at the Facebook page for A Free State.
What, during this research, were some of your favorite discoveries about the period?
Probably the best “discovery” I made was the trove of interviews with escaped slaves compiled by William Still, a black businessman in Philadelphia who was a main “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. Hundreds of escapees came through his offices, and he would interview each one, asking what their life had been like, how they had been treated, and it is just unbelievable stuff to read. Really pretty much the first American oral histories, as far as I know.
How do you make all of that research—the facts themselves—eventually fill the world of the novel?
At a certain point, you have to use your imagination to assimilate all this stuff and try to get a picture almost in your muscles of how people lived at that time—not just the static details but the way in which people lived with those details, and that takes imagination. You can tell when somebody has done research and is just putting details and facts into a story because they learned it by research. You have to choose details as if you had been living with the details, rather than excavating them out of a book.
A Free State is your first novel to appear since your time as a screenwriter for the HBO television show Treme. How has writing for the screen changed the way you approach writing fiction? What does working in one field instruct you about working in the other?
Writing for television forces you to think hard what needs to be dramatized, as well as what can be dramatized. You have to really ask yourself what makes a scene a scene, be more rigorous about what you accomplish once you start the clock running on a dramatized scene. As a writer, all you have to work with is action and dialogue. In a novel you have more resources—exposition, interior monologue, you can jump inside people’s heads. So in writing for TV or film you learn to accomplish more in less time, but then you have to be careful to remember that you have a lot of other things available as a novelist.
What are some of those things—the ones that keep you most excited about the art of the novel?
The novel allows a direct conduit of affect between events on the largest scale and processes in the innermost privacy of the mind and heart. It’s the greatest strength of the novel, and the thing that sets it apart from all the other forms. You can have near-absolute interiority, and you can also range as high above the action and give as wide a perspective as you have it in you to give. The greatest novelists, in my opinion, are the ones who are always doing the one in terms of the other. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens… A book doesn’t have to be long to do it. The Great Gatsby does it in a very tight space with astonishing economy. And that level of ambition doesn’t necessarily guarantee great literature, obviously. I don’t want to name names, but there are plenty of best-selling novelists who shoot for that and end up writing long, baggy, turgid potboilers about Big Events. And there are great novels that appear to be centered exclusively on their characters’ emotional lives and manners and relationships in a very circumscribed world—think of any of Jane Austen’s books for example, or Henry James’s. But Jane Austen was obsessed with the way society’s expectations weigh on individuals and bend their lives and expectations. Anyway, for me, the novel is really the ultimate writing, and reading, adventure.