The summer after Bruce Snow graduated from the University of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina arrived in his hometown. At the time, Snow was living with his mother, aunt and uncle in a house his Ecuadorian immigrant grandparents owned in the Gentilly neighborhood, commonly thought of as “high ground.” With his grandparents out of town, a fierce loyalty to the house combined with a shortage of cash led the family to decide to stay in the city. But as the water rose, they were forced into the overheated attic, where—milking a final liter of Diet Coke and a bag of Doritos—Snow imagines they might “dry out like leather” waiting for someone to rescue them. “I felt like a cave painting, or the anonymous image on a damaged old photo. Something long forgotten, the chalk outline of a dead man,” he writes in his memoir, Can Everybody Swim?: A Survival Story from Katrina’s Superdome, published in 2016 by Arkansas-based Et Alia Press. His chronicle of the week that follows moves at a gallop, at times both humorous and gutting, rendered through a gaze that is not unflinching, but captivating because of how precisely he renders the humanity of every flinch.
Last October, Bruce moved back to New Orleans, where he now lives with his wife and stepdaughter in his grandparents’ former house. When I spoke with Bruce on the phone in early June, he was sitting back in the living room he had once swum away from.
The Rumpus: There’s a point in the book where you are in the Superdome and you say you knew you would write about this experience one day. When and how did you actually start the writing process?
Bruce Snow: I tried very shortly after I left New Orleans. I was still in Florida where the book ends, and I bought a notebook and filled up a little more than half of it with facts and details and timelines. Then in the next eight years in Arkansas I moved like five times, and though I had read those notes a couple years prior, I wasn’t able to find this actual notebook until after the book was printed.
I tried to really approach what would become Can Everybody Swim? in 2009, but I just wasn’t mentally where I needed to be. I was still writing too angrily, kind of pissed about my mom and different things that had happened since the hurricane. I wasn’t being fair about the story. It sounded like a kid crying more than it sounded like a book. So I shelved that after a notebook or two and put it down for a while. Around the spring of 2014 I actually just started doing it. It got easier and easier. I would write everyday and if I skipped a day I would be like, “Aw Goddamit I’ve got to get back to it.” The job I had while I was writing was as a trolley car driver and tour guide in downtown Little Rock, and part of our route was crossing back and forth over the Arkansas River. And so everyday I was seeing all of this brown water down in the river, and as I was writing and getting deep into it, in my mind’s eye I could see houses and roofs sticking out of that river. It was a cool way to connect with my surroundings in the landlocked middle of the country. I would look down in the river and just see the flooded neighborhood again.
Rumpus: Did you go back to New Orleans at all to retrace any your steps?
Snow: Not exactly. In 2007 or so I went with my father and one of his good friends to visit the Hornets, the professional basketball team at the time. The stadium that they play in is adjacent to the Superdome, so we walked across the terrace where I had camped. I really upset my dad’s friend when I was like ‘Look over here,’ and ‘Look what happened there,’ because he was just like ‘Come on, they’re about to tip off!’ That was as much actual research as I did going back. Of course I had come and visited this house and the wreck that it was afterward, but writing this was mostly a big memory thing.
Rumpus: You refer to your life as “B.C.” and “A.D.,” before and after the storm. That presents certain narrative challenges in that there is not just the loss of home but also the loss of a certain form of self. You end on a very compelling image of trying to call the person you had been before the storm. What was it like to go back and write yourself as that “B.C.” self?
Snow: Well, of course it was easier because it was me. I can go back there, I can find it, all I know is that at the time I wasn’t exercising at all, I was drinking a lot; I had really long hair. I was just kind of a couch-potato-in-a-nutshell dude. It was actually pretty easy to recreate that. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Did you write back then?
Snow: Yeah, I had graduated from college in May before the storm. I was really into Kurt Vonnegut at that time and that summer I had started a kind of pseudo sci-fi story. All the chapters were really short and my buddies were like ‘This is cool, keep going.’ But then that all got wet. You could say I was kind of hot with a pen before all the hurricane stuff happened though. I was already seeing the world through that kind of eye.
Rumpus: In the introduction you warn readers that you can’t present the truth without “both the serious and the asinine.” And then there are a lot of scenes about, like, literal shit in this book, because there was a lot of literal shit in the Superdome. Did you ever question how to present that material?
Snow: I always felt like, if you’re going to censor this, why even do it? I mean there’s a color photograph in the book of an overflowing toilet! I had to really twist [the editor] Erin Wood’s arm that this had to be there. I mean why paint over it now? I wasn’t trying to be the Sid Vicious of novelists, but I wanted it to be as real as it could be. And there are a lot of really personal details. At one point I talk about how I can’t use the restroom in fairly graphic detail. But if I’m going to tell you what I was doing and feeling, I’m going to tell you what I was doing and feeling! It wasn’t all smoking cigars and walking around the field.
Rumpus: Your details make this unlike most prior coverage of the storm that I had seen. I don’t just mean your honesty about bodily functions, but, for example, your observations that a party is always about to happen, even during the flood. There’s that great scene in the beginning where you’re stuck in the attic and you’re like, ‘I can hear a party on a roof nearby and I’m kind of jealous.’ Were you aware of trying to present a different narrative about Katrina?
Snow: It really didn’t cross my mind. The only other bit of Katrina literature I have read besides a newspaper article here or there was this collection of columns by local newspaper reporter Chris Rose. It’s a collection of his pieces called 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina. This woman at the restaurant I was working at was like, ‘Oh this is so good you’ve got to read it,’ so one of my friends lent me a copy. I swear, oh my God, he’s talking about ‘Oh my goodness it’s really windy, I hope the ice machine doesn’t go out.’ I mean people are dying and swimming in piles of shit, and this guy is saying ‘We had to drink our gin and tonics warm.’ After the first fifteen or so of these columns I put it away. I mean I guess everyone has his or her own experience but I don’t know. That’s the only other real piece of Katrina literature I’ve tried to digest and I just stopped. I couldn’t do it.
Rumpus: One of the themes of the book seems to be about how quickly we can adapt to crazy conditions. You write without judgement about seeing both sides of humanity, both extreme empathy and extreme brutishness.
Snow: Yeah it’s interesting. Even guys in the army who train for it can’t really know how they will respond to this much stress. Everybody is doing it in his or her own way, and I get that. Some are trying to cope as well as they can and some are just saying ‘Hell it’s the Wild West, I’ll keep going until someone knocks me down.’ This human melting pot is always there.
Rumpus: I read your book the same week Trump decided to pull out of the Paris Accord, and I kept thinking about climate change and projected rising sea levels. Has your experience affected how you think about these politicized climate change discussions?
Snow: I tell you, it blows my mind. This might not answer your question, but when I got a loan from the bank to repurchase my grandparents’ property for my wife and I, I learned that this house is apparently in a zone where flood insurance is optional. It seems like that should be pretty mandatory considering, but no, what they used to say before the hurricane was, ‘This is a good high-ground part of the city.’ And I’m like, ‘Man! I swam out of this house!’ Maybe they’re just trying to set people up to screw them on the next go-around, I don’t know. New Orleans is an engineering marvel, but all it takes is for someone to turn off the levees and it can go bad really quickly. Living here is sort of like a contract with, you know, your stuff. I enjoy all my stuff but all the crap I have now is mostly accumulation since the flood. Everything is replaceable except yourself, and that’s what’s important. I wrote about my grandfather’s guitar, and I still have that. It’s completely unplayable but hey, I have other guitars now.
Rumpus: You moved back to New Orleans last October. What is it like being back?
Snow: The city is very different now. It’s actually a smaller population by about 100,000 people, but it seems more crowded and congested than it ever did before. It’s weird. I’ll tell you, this book has been very hard to push in this town. People are just kind of over it. Like disaster fatigue, they’re over it. They’ll tell you their little story about the storm, most of them will probably pretend to listen when you tell them yours, but they don’t really care. They’re over it.
Rumpus: At the end of the book you write, “I still haven’t figured the correct way to heal, only ways to cope.” How did writing this book fit into that?
Snow: Yeah, this was the healing. [Laughs] The writing of it all, facing it all again from the comfort of my La-Z-Boy with a big drink in my hand, that was the big reflective healing that I’d put off for a long time. I still don’t like being in a big crowd but other than that I think I’m pretty adjusted now.
Author photograph © Lacy West.