The author of A Thousand Miles From Nowhere talks about finding a new home after Hurricane Katrina and paying tribute to his literary heroes.
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When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in August of 2005, John Gregory Brown was teaching English at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia. He watched from afar as the city he grew up in literally went underwater and friends and family members lost their homes. It was this changing idea of home that got him thinking about his next book.
“I almost immediately had to contend with the idea that my imagination had been located in this place, and I didn’t know what was going to come of it,” he says. “That area of Virginia had become my home, so the idea of having another home was a strange phenomenon.”
He began to imagine a story about a character having to find a home in another place. What would it be like to completely relocate your sense of home and community and what sort of struggles would one encounter during the process?
Brown finds answers to those questions in character Henry Garrett. After three days on the road fleeing the hurricane, Henry finds himself in a small Virginia town. He pulls into a roadside motel and meets Latangi, a short widowed Indian woman with glittery painted fingernails, who offers him a free room for as long as he needs. She thinks he’s lost all his possessions in the storm, but as Henry tries to explain to her, “He had swallowed ruin and wreckage and despair” way before Katrina even started churning.
Through a series of bad decisions, he had already ruined his marriage, squandered an inheritance from his mother and quit his teaching job, not to mention lost his father at an early age. Brown says A Thousand Miles From Nowhere isn’t so much a Katrina novel as it is a novel about loss. “That sense of desolation is something everybody’s familiar with,” he says. “The question is how do you return from that to health?”
Henry is also afraid he may be losing his mind and often feels overwhelmed by his memories, the people around him and life in general. Brown calls it a notion of the “world being too much.” Local secretary Marge recognizes that Henry is in need of help when he visits the courthouse after being involved in a car accident in which a man is killed. She corrals her women’s church group to clothe and feed him and also introduces him to the town doctor Rusty Campbell, who tells Henry to take it easy on himself.
“I’m interested in the ways in which ordinary human beings become overwhelmed by events, by loss and the mistakes they make,” says Brown. “If somebody says give yourself a break, that’s probably the one thing you can’t do.”
Brown admits this is the most autobiographical of all his novels. Like Henry, the loss of his father has impacted his life, he’s had to learn some of the same lessons about finding and valuing a sense of community, and they share a love of literature.
Brown uses A Thousand Miles From Nowhere as an opportunity to pay tribute to some of his favorites authors and novels, while also expressing the power of literature to transform our lives. Latangi’s hotel The Spotlight becomes this magical safe haven for transcendence, an ode to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s world of magical potential in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And Edna Pontellier from Kate Chopin’s The Awakening makes several cameos in Henry’s thoughts as someone who feels as lost as he does. “Edna’s could have easily been Henry’s fate,” Brown says.
Through what Henry realizes might be a divine plan for his life, the Virginia community he’s found himself in comes together to not only support this outsider in a time of need, but to help him heal old wounds and even get his wife back. “What else can we do except help other people along?” asks Henry/Brown.
In the end, Brown says “The true journey—the journey that mattered— was to return.” Marge and a local boy accompany Henry on a road trip to try and find his friend in New Orleans, but he discovers that Virginia has become his home now. As Marge tells him, “It’s the ones among us, no matter the cause of their suffering, who it’s our business to look after first.”
Brown says he went back to New Orleans with his siblings as soon as their old neighborhood opened up and does travel to the city regularly, but an event soon after he finished the novel made him realize that Virginia was his home too. He had been teaching at Sweet Briar for 21 years, and an announcement was made that the college was going to close. He and his wife had to find new jobs and ended up relocating to Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.
“It was a deeply ironic and traumatic experience for us,” he says. “Having to leave Virginia actually established for me that this place had in fact become home, and it doesn’t make New Orleans any less my home, but we raised our kids here, we have friends here. It really has become home in ways that still surprise me.”
Former students of Brown will be glad to hear he and his wife are returning to Sweet Briar, which ended up being saved, to teach next year. Aspiring writers who take his classes will learn to view their characters with empathy and understanding, ultimately creating moments of grace like those that make A Thousand Miles From Nowhere such an uplifting novel.
Enter to win a copy of A Thousand Miles From Nowhere from Lee Boudreaux Books and some Love, Cookies made in New Orleans. We thought their Midnight Almond flavor made with rich chocolate and chock full of toasted almond pieces and love was perfect for those late nights of summer reading.