5 Questions with James Nolan, Author of Flight Risk

James Nolan is reading at City Lights Bookstore this Wednesday, May 3rd. He’s celebrating his new book, Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy, published by University of Mississippi Press. He answered our 5 questions. More about James, and his answers, below.

The Event: Wednesday, May 3rd, 7:00PM. 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133

About Flight Risk: Flight Risk takes off as a page-turning narrative with deep roots and a wide wingspan. James Nolan, a fifth-generation New Orleans native, offers up an intimate portrait both of his insular hometown and his generation’s counterculture. Flight runs as a theme throughout the book, which begins with Nolan’s escape from the Gothic mental hospital to which his parents committed the teenage poet during the tumult of 1968. This breakout is followed by the self-styled revolutionary’s hair-raising flight from a Guatemalan jail, and years later, by the author’s bolt from China, where he ditched his teaching position and collectivist ideals. These Houdini-like feats foreshadow a more recent one, how he dodged biblical floods in a stolen school bus three days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Nolan traces these flight patterns to those of his French ancestors who fled to New Orleans in the mid-nineteenth century, established a tobacco business in the French Quarter, and kept the old country alive in their Creole demimonde. The writer describes the eccentric Seventh Ward menagerie of the extended family in which he grew up, his early flirtation with extremist politics, and a strong bond with his freewheeling grandfather, a gentleman from the Gilded Age. Nolan’s quest for his own freedom takes him to the flower-powered, gender-bending San Francisco of the sixties and seventies, as well as to an expatriate life in Spain during the heady years of that nation’s transition to democracy. Like the prodigal son, he eventually returns home to live in the French Quarter, around the corner from where his grandmother grew up, only to struggle through the aftermath of Katrina and the city’s resurrection.

About James Nolan: James Nolan is a fiction writer, poet, essayist, and translator. His eleven books include the recent You Don’t Know Me: New and Selected Stories (winner of the 2015 Independent Publishers Gold Medal in Southern Fiction) and the novel Higher Ground (awarded a William Faulkner/Wisdom Gold Medal in the Novel). He has taught at universities in San Francisco, Florida, Barcelona, Madrid, and Beijing, as well as in his native New Orleans.


City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit? If you haven’t been here before, what are you expecting?

James Nolan: I’ve been coming to City Lights since I first arrived in San Francisco as a flower child in the summer of 1966. I grew up there as a a reader and writer. My playpen is still in the basement, you know, the one filled with empty bottles of red wine from vintage revolutionary years.

CL: What’s the first book you read & what are you reading right now?

JN: The first books I read were my murdered teenage uncle’s art nouveau editions of the Oz books by L. Frank Baumn. Right now I’m reading The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero, a detective novel about the poet. I picked it up after seeing seeing Pablo Larraín’s great film, Neruda.

CL: Which 3 books would you never part with?

JN: The Collected Stories of Flannery O’Connor, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

JN: Bob Dylan’s “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” from Blonde on Blonde, together with Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur,” Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien,” and David Bowie’s “Time.”

CL: If you opened a bookstore tomorrow, where would it be located, what would it be called, and what would your bestseller be?

JN: My bookstore would be Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans, but you’re in luck: that bookshop already exists. And like the current owners, I’d live upstairs. The bestseller would be Flight Risk: Memoirs of a New Orleans Bad Boy, because my playpen rescued from the City Lights basement would now be filled with copies of my new book and blocking the door, so customers would have to squeeze past it to get in or out. And with each copy, I’d give them an empty wine bottle from a vintage revolutionary year, encouraging them to refill it with their own new revolutions.


Join us this Wednesday, May 3rd to celebrate James Nolan’s new book, Flight Risk. Get a copy direct from University of Mississippi Press, from City Lights, or ask for it at your local independent bookseller. More more events coming up this May at City Lights, go to our complete calendar.

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