Exile on Bourbon Street

Award-winning author Tom Piazza, Williams Class of 1976
Tom Piazza '76 (photo by Sean Gardner)

Tom Piazza ’76 had been addressing the theme of displacement in his fiction for years before Hurricane Katrina uprooted him from his New Orleans home in 2005. Still, when the award-winning author was forced to move temporarily to Missouri, he found himself casting about for “something to keep myself sane” for the next six months while he waited to return to his beloved city.

He started to write, in part to respond to critics who were calling New Orleans a lost cause, and in part to answer questions he was fielding about the city during speaking engagements. The result was Why New Orleans Matters, a 224-page treatise hammered out in five weeks and published almost immediately. Ultimately it’s the story of how and why Piazza himself came to love the city.

Around the same time he began formulating his second novel, City of Refuge, which focused on the “dislocation” felt by the people of New Orleans—many of whom, especially the poor, had never left the block they lived on before Katrina. He also became a writer for the HBO hit series Treme, based in the Big Easy and now in its second season.

Piazza’s love of writing—and New Orleans—has always been intertwined with music. In high school he wrote for the jazz magazine Downbeat. An English major at Williams, he hosted a radio show and became the first conductor of the Williams Jazz Ensemble, which grew out of a Winter Study class. He also started a yearly jazz festival on campus.

After graduation he landed in New York, playing jazz piano and writing about music for The Village Voice and The New York Times. He also started writing fiction. Piazza ultimately moved to New Orleans in 1994, after spending two years at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. And that’s when the books, and awards started coming—from nonfiction works about music to short stories to novels.

“For me, truth is the tension between these diverging feelings I have about just about everything,” says Piazza, whose book of essays, Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, is due out in August, and who is serving as the first-ever Peter Trias Writer in Residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central New York. “When I’m lucky, I make a kind of music out of that in my work.”

Read more about Tom Piazza in the June 2011 Williams Alumni Review. (For the text-only version, click here.)

You can also visit his website to read excerpts and reviews of his books .