[Workshop Reflection] Daniel Wolff: Listening to New Orleans

by Shannon Geis and Laura Barnett



On September 26th, Daniel Wolff, author of The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back and executive producer of the documentary “I’m Carolyn Parker,” both about the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina, spoke to the OMHA students about the differences between using life histories in book form versus documentary film. Both were released in 2012.

Daniel Wolff is the author of How Lincoln Learned to Read, a Chicago Tribune Editor's Choice pick; 4th of July, Asbury Park, a New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice pick; You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke, a national bestseller; and two volumes of poetry, among other books. His writing has appeared in publications ranging from Vogue to Wooden Boat to Education Weekly.

Wolff also served as executive producer of The Agronomist, a 2003 documentary directed by Jonathan Demme following the life of Jean Dominique, who ran Haiti’s first independent radio station, Radio Haiti-Inter, during multiple repressive regimes.

Although Wolff doesn’t necessarily consider himself an oral historian, much of his work as a non-fiction writer has depended on the oral histories of people involved with the subjects he writes about.

Wolff began the process of documenting New Orleans when he accompanied Jonathan Demme about five months after Hurricane Katrina. As he helped with the filming, he started learning more and more about the people trying to rebuild. But it was Demme who convinced him to write the book.

Writing a book also allowed him to focus on many more of the people he encountered through the time he spent in New Orleans than are included in the film, as well as provide background and context to what he was witnessing.

The role of providing background was one of the most important ways he felt his book differed from the film. As an example, he showed the same scene in three different formats.

First he played the opening scene of the documentary, narrated by Jonathan Demme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdShyOYVx_M

Then he read the section of the book where he introduces readers to Carolyn Parker:

The light’s starting to orange toward sunset. It strikes the panes of the twin fanlights. Out one door comes a broad woman with a yellow kerchief covering her hair. “I’m Carolyn…That’s Father Joe Champion, our parish priest.”

            Carolyn’s wide short frame nearly fills the door. She’s brown-skinned with a broad nose, almond-shaped eyes, and a welcoming smile. There’s a touch of the troublemaker in the way she turns the priest’s name into Champion. She’s wearing blue jeans and a white T-shirt with SAVE THE TIGER printed on the front. When she walks, it’s with an awkward roll, as if something hurts. But the smile is overwhelming. She invites the little crowd on the street to come in.

            It’s dark in her house, and there are few walls. The rooms are separated by blue tarp. “This is my brother Raymond. Who’s enjoying himself.” A gray-haired black man is sitting on the edge of a cot, watching TV and eating. Later, Carolyn will explain how she hadn’t seen her brother for ten years when she found him in the crowds of the Superdome. “He’s eating my famous fired fish. And that’s my daughter, Kyrah.”

            Kyrah is sitting on a bed in the other half of the double shotgun. She’s watching her own TV. Kyrah looks to be in her late teens with pulled-back short hair, her mother’s almond eyes, and a bright smile. Father Joe givers her a hug and asks when she got in. “Last week,” she says. Her freshman year at New York’s Syracuse University has just ended.

            A neighbor appears from down the block. It’s becoming a small, noisy party.


            “Come see,” she says, inviting her guests to tour her home.

            A shotgun is typically one room wide and two or three deep: a long, narrow rectangle you could supposedly fire a shotgun straight through. Carolyn’s double is two of these under one peaked roof, with a wall down the middle. She thinks it was built in the mid-nineteenth century; it’s on an 1875 map as part of a truck farm.

And then finally, he played the raw footage from the moment that he and Jonathan Demme met Carolyn Parker. Through showing these different versions of the same moment, Wolff was able to make apparent some of the key differences between documentary film and documentary writing, particularly the ability to include background.

For Wolff, being able to provide context to his readers is an important part of the writing process. He is able to shape how the readers view certain moments and events. However, he acknowledges the challenges of objectivity that this can create:

This was also the first time Wolff was writing a book where he had video footage to reference, which meant he could go back and see how a person told the story not just listen to it and try to remember.

Wolff also discussed the politics of editing people’s voices for film and writing and how those editorial choices affect the final product whether he means for them to or not.

Overall, the role of context and background have played largest role in the Wolff’s choice to write a book based on his observations and experiences surrounding the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and why he says he will probably continue to write books rather than delve into other formats. Though, if Jonathan Demme asks him to make a movie again, he certainly wouldn’t refuse.