Award-winning writer Tom Piazza, who was selected as the first resident of the Peter Trias Residency for Writers in 2011-12, will return to campus to read from his new novel, “A Free State,” on Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the Hirshson Ballroom.
Piazza is the author of the novels “City of Refuge” and “My Cold War,” the post-Katrina manifesto “Why New Orleans Matters,” the essay collection “Devil Sent the Rain,” and many other works. A New Orleans resident, he was a principal writer for the HBO drama series “Treme,” which was set in that city, and is the winner of a Grammy Award for his album notes to “Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues: A Musical Journey.” His writing, as Bob Dylan said, “pulsates with nervous electrical tension — reveals the emotions that we can’t define.”
Piazza’s visit, sponsored by Writers Reading, coincides with the release this month of “A Free State,” a startling and powerful story of race, violence, and identity set on the eve of the Civil War.
The narrative follows Henry Sims, a fugitive slave and a brilliant musician who has escaped to Philadelphia, where he earns money living by his wits and performing on the street. He is befriended by James Douglass, leader of a popular minstrel troupe struggling to compete with dozens of similar ensembles, who imagines that Henry’s skill and magnetism might restore his troupe’s sagging fortunes.
The problem is that black and white performers are not allowed to appear together onstage. Together, the two concoct a masquerade to protect Henry’s identity, and Henry creates a sensation in his first appearances with the troupe. Yet even as their plan begins to reverse the troupe’s decline, a brutal slave hunter named Tull Burton has been employed by Henry’s former master to track down the runaway and retrieve him, by any means necessary.
Bursting with narrative tension and unforgettable characters, shot through with unexpected turns and insight, “A Free State” is “a thoughtful examination of the intertwining of race and culture — as well as a truly scary portrait of a genuine psychopath” (Kirkus Reviews).
As the Pulitzer Prize-nominated author David Gates writes, Piazza’s new book “combines bite-your-nails tension with deeply felt evocations of the brutalities of slavery, the perplexities of racial masquerading and the transcendent joys of making music. At the end he executes a swerve so bold, it’ll take your breath away.”
In 2011, Piazza was selected as the first resident of the Peter Trias Residency for Writers. The author of nearly a dozen books, Piazza was chosen by the Trias selection committee and the Provost because of his extraordinary fiction and non-fiction, which have garnered him national attention.