Nathaniel Rich will discuss the lively story and vivid characters of his latest novel, “King Zeno,” about 1918 New Orleans Thursday night at Thacker Mountain. Music provided by Harry Permezel and Young Valley will accompany Rich’s conversation.
“King Zeno” tells about dreams of immortality, Spanish influenza and an ax murderer who kills anyone not playing the music that is pleasing to his ear.
The idea for “King Zeno” came to Rich when he began learning the history about the man-made canal that runs through New Orleans and the ax murderer prowled the city in the late 1910s.
This city’s relationship with nature fascinated Rich. He said he explores the way humans interact with nature in “King Zeno.”
Rich’s research took about six months and began with trying to figure out if there was something he could write a novel about. He said that he needed a great wealth of knowledge about this history before he could write rich realistic characters in the time setting.
“The hope is to make a reader to really inhabit this far-off place,” Rich said.
Rich said one of the resources the New Orleans Public Library offered was a set of cassette tapes which had to be listened to on a Walkman. On these tapes, local historians interviewed people about daily life in the 1920s, asking questions about the availability of running water in homes and popular music of the time.
Rich said memoirs on jazz musicians helped craft the time, the characters and the themes discussed in his novel.
Rich’s characters, he said, were difficult in their own ways to create. He said that writing about an older woman from 1918 was writing about someone who was very different from himself, but someone with similarities to himself.
“Each character is autobiographical in a way any writer’s characters are,” Rich said.
He said “King Zeno” was all about trying to find the humanity in his characters. They all grapple with very human things like tragedy, loss, regret, hope and redemption.
“These things that the book point to like building the canal, the war, creating new music, prohibition – they were all ways to control fate, and they all resonated with larger questions about life,” he said. “The grandiosity of it spoke to how to control one’s fate. That’s what I hope to explore.”
Rich said he thinks all people struggle with their mortality at some point. He said his novel is about how humanity interacts with nature.
“It’s the main scene I was grappling with in the novel, was this question of mortality, of legacy and life after death, and ‘what does it mean to what to live forever?’” Rich said.
Rich’s reading taste is one that is hungry for big ideas about life. Rich said he seeks out novels “that grapple with big ideas that don’t have clear resolutions.”
Rich said that he is looking forward to his return to Square Books and to being on Thacker Mountain Radio. He said Square Books wasn’t just one of his favorite places in the South but one of his favorites in the world, and he is excited to return to the store.
Square Books’ digital marketing manager, Sam McAlilly, said people should arrive early because seating fills up fast, but they should expect an entertaining show. McAlilly said it is a free and entertaining way to start a night out.
“People should expect an entertaining show of literature and music,” McAlilly said. “Not only is Nathaniel Rich an engaging writer, but he’s a good speaker.”