Chris Wiltz: Forever Tied to New Orleans

By Weston Harty

Christine (Chris) Wiltz was born in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, on January 3, 1948, to Adolphe Michael and Merle Wiltz. Her family moved to a house on General Pershing Street in the middle class Broadmoor section of New Orleans, just in time for Wiltz to start elementary school. At the time, Broadmoor was predominantly Jewish, which meant that Wiltz from a young age was introduced to a variety of religions, since her father was Catholic and her mother was Protestant (Wiltz). As a youth, then, Wiltz was unknowingly experiencing the kind of cultural diversity that New Orleans always offered its residents, a diversity which she came to love and appreciate as she grew older, especially after spending time in San Francisco and Los Angeles. As Wiltz grew up, her mother entertained her by reading mystery novels, like Sherlock Holmes, and narrating stories of her own creation. These tales from Wiltz’s mother led her to start writing from an early age. Though it would be easy to point to her mother’s narratives as the inspiration for Wiltz’s ultimate decision to become an author, it was only part of the equation. Wiltz also identifies her high school English teacher as another key source of motivation when he made her editor of the high school newspaper. Here she gained experience in the writing process through the oversight of her own and her peers’ work (Wiltz). Before reaching college, Wiltz gained a love of writing and knowledge of the publication process.

After high school, Wiltz studied at four different institutions over a four-year period: the University of Southwestern Louisiana, Loyola University in New Orleans, University of New Orleans, and ultimately San Francisco State College, where she graduated with a BA in English. Wiltz stated in an interview “I started writing at such a young age that when she went to college, I didn’t think writing was something I could take a course in,” and as a consequence, she spent a great deal of her time as an undergraduate reading and digesting the works of others and spent her time outside of class “drawing pictures in the books I read and writing poetry” (Justice). After graduating, Wiltz held various jobs including working as a secretary. Wiltz cites reading Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, a famous novel of detective fiction, at the age of 25 as the moment she realized that she wanted to write detective fiction set in New Orleans (Justice). The appeal of writing crime fiction, for Wiltz, stems from her feeling that “crime novels are good vehicles for showing society at its most raw and truthful” and “the sense of justice that comes with the genre, even if it is not always a happy ending” (Wiltz). These ideas certainly show through in Glass House as the novel is grimly realistic, though it does impart a chance of a happy ending.

Her first three novels were works of detective fiction, The Killing Circle, A Diamond Before you Die, and The Emerald Lizard, which center on the detective Neal Rafferty solving mysteries in New Orleans. These works were followed by a departure from Neal Rafferty, with Glass House, the nonfiction work The Last Madam, and her new novel Shoot the Money. While her first three novels are pure detective fiction, all of her works contain elements of crime, and, more importantly, all of the novels are set in New Orleans. Wiltz sets all of her works in New Orleans because it is the area she knows the best. With the exception of two years, she has lived all of her life in New Orleans, and as a consequence, has become intimately familiar with the diverse cultural, racial, and geographical issues and settings that can be employed in her works and make for a unique location. But her two years in Los Angeles and San Francisco allowed her to gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the dichotomy of the city as well: namely, that New Orleans is a very conservative Catholic city, yet is well known for being “The City that Care Forgot.” She pointed to the existence of streets like Piety and Desire, and the fact that they are located right next to each other as a way to exemplify the duality that the city embodies (Wiltz). Wiltz utilizes the wide range of people and places found in New Orleans to create character-rich worlds grounded in the reality of New Orleans.

In Glass House, Wiltz also sees the racial tension in New Orleans as distinct from other American cities. Since the city’s founding, race relations in New Orleans have always been different than in the rest of the United States. Slaves were given Sunday off, for instance, and the city had the largest population of free persons of color in the entire country. Before and after the American Civil War, there was a mixture of the African American and white populations that was not seen in any other American city, let alone in the South. While this racial mixing might have eased racial tensions, New Orleans was, after all, spared some of the race riots seen in other major American cities, there is nevertheless tension between the races that has surfaced rather dramatically in post-Katrina New Orleans.

800px-Uptown7June06MagnoliaBluetarpsTo help construct the setting of Glass House, Wiltz employed some creative liberties and adapted racially charged events that happened within the city of New Orleans and to her. In 1980, a police officer was shot near the Fischer Projects in the Algiers neighborhood of the city, setting off a wave of police brutality toward African Americans in the neighborhood and near riot conditions. Wiltz chose to relocate the event from Algiers to the fictitious Covenant Projects, representing one of the housing projects which flank the Garden District, in order to bring the event closer to the wealthy Garden District and further highlight the duality of the city in Glass House. The existence of the housing projects sandwiching the real Garden District provides anyone living in New Orleans a first-hand account of the contrast the city provides, and moving the Fischer Projects shooting to this location allowed Wiltz to make the two sides of the city more available to readers (Wiltz). Wiltz is also quick to point out that Glass House is not a retelling of the Algiers shooting, but about fear: “the black people were terrified of anything in a blue uniform and were protesting police brutality. White people were terrified that the blacks were going to riot and demanded police protection. Fear was running rampant,” and that she was looking “at the underside of reality, [wanting] to see just how dark it really is” (James 16). Using the Algiers Fischer shooting as her starting point, she imagined what could have happened if an event like that took place closer to the wealthier, whiter Garden District.

Wiltz also shared three personal anecdotes from her own life which are reminiscent of and essential to the action of the novel. First, Broadmoor was a victim of “white flight” which hit many cities across the United States throughout the mid-twentieth century. The middle class neighborhood her family moved into began to deteriorate as many of the families moved out of that part of the city and were replaced by lower class families, many African American. This changing demographic drove property values down and only encouraged the continued departure of middle class families. While Wiltz’s family remained longer than others in Broadmoor, they too eventually left as the conditions of the neighborhood declined (Wiltz). Wiltz’s experience reflects Thea’s father’s reluctance to move his store to another part of the city as the neighborhood declined. The second event happened at a much earlier age and is more directly connected to Glass House. When Wiltz was a young girl, she developed a close friendship with the daughter of her neighbor’s African American maid. The daughter often came over to play with Wiltz when her mother was working for the neighbors. For reasons unbeknownst to Wiltz at the time, the daughter stopped coming out to play and Wiltz lost a very dear friend. Much like Thea and Burgess’s childhood relationship, prejudices based on race ingrained within the older generation drove two friends apart, awakening Wiltz to the existence of race at a young age (Wiltz). Wiltz also brought up the parallel between both her and Thea returning to New Orleans after spending significant time away. For Wiltz, the two years she spent away from New Orleans allowed her to return to the city having gained at least a sense of an outsider’s perspective. In an interview Wiltz explained: “During those two years away, my understanding of the city grew in leaps and bounds- sometimes you need distance to see clearly. That’s why I had Thea come back after ten years, because her sight would be changed” (James, 13). Wiltz went on to say, “[Thea] is the one who’s got both the insider’s and the outsider’s point of view” suggesting that Thea’s “reactions might not be typical” for a lifetime New Orleans resident (James, 14). This altered perspective of the city allowed both Thea and Wiltz to fully see the character of New Orleans and gain a greater appreciation for its uniqueness and problems.

Chris Wiltz channels her deep affection and admiration for New Orleans into her works, adapting the diverse settings the city offers into all of her writings. The contradictions of New Orleans as a place match the nature of mystery and detective fiction, where the protagonist must wade through clues and evidence in order to find the answer behind a crime. In Glass House, Wiltz combines the confused racial backdrop of the city with her taste for crime fiction and own experiences, creating a riveting cautionary tale about racial fear. For Chris Wiltz, New Orleans represents both home and a bottomless source of inspiration for her writing.

Illustrations

1) Randy Moses, http://www.festigals.org/christine-wiltz/

2) Colorful House in the Garden District, 2008, Sue Cline, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jewel_Tones_Garden_District_NOLA.jpg

3) New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: C.J. Peete Development (Magnolia Projects), 2006, Infrogmation of New Orleans, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uptown7June06MagnoliaBluetarps.jpg

4) Custom Google Map, April 2013

Works Cited

James, Theresa. “A Conversation with Chris Wiltz.” Xavier Review 15.2 (1995): 13-24

Justice, Faith L. “From Mysteries to Non-fiction Thrillers: An Interview with Christine Wiltz.” 2008. n.p. (4/5/2013)

Wiltz, Christine. Telephone conversation with the author, 7 April 2013

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