Michael Patrick Welch, NOLA reporter, novelist, and teacher recently released an updated version of his guidebook, The NOLA Underground Guide and a ten-years-in-the-making novel, Y'all’s Problem.
The NOLA Underground Guide is a comprehensive compilation about the contemporary New Orleans music and art scene. The book offers brief but thoughtful nods to hundreds of musicians ranging from local notables who get attention elsewhere like Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? to lesser known locals like Fat Stupid Ugly People. It also includes travel tips from local celebrities like Juvenile and Tony Barton.
The book is interspersed with insightful sections called “N.O. Moments,” which highlight peculiar aspects of New Orleans culture such as Bywater speakeasies, the Grey Ghost, and local junk food. The book stands apart from traditional guidebooks that lavish praise upon the French Quarter and the Garden District. Even when mentioning popular tourist spots, Welch gives them a different spin. The Moonwalk in the French Quarter does offer a very beautiful view of the Mississippi River, but it's also a great place to burn a j as long as one keeps an eye out for bike cops.
Y'all’s Problem is a hysterical work of fiction. The novel follows a 27-year-old writer named Patrick, who falls in a love with a sultry 17-year-old Costa Rican girl named Alana. Strong details make the characters come to life.
The owner of the pizza restaurant where Patrick works to make some extra cash, Tony, is a Greek-American whose knowledge of his mother tongue extends to only two words: malaka (jack-off) and munaki, (pussy). A semi-famous author who's slumming it in Costa Rica makes money by plucking crustaceans off the shores, boiling them alive, and then selling them to Florida tourist traps. A woman on an awkward date talks about how she became stuck during childbirth. The doctor broke her little legs and yanked her out of the womb.
The humor in the book is often black as a bruise, but the story has a strong emotional core. It's about desire, creativity, un-fulfilled dreams, and all the other concerns that make 20-somethings miserable.
After reading both books, we recently sat down with Welch to talk about the origins of the word "fauxbeauxs," the challenges of working on a book for ten years, and how Ray Davies of the Kinks ending up becoming one of his fans.
NoDef: How autobiographical is Y'all's Problem?
MPW: I would say (another Welch novel) The Donkey Show was about 78 percent auto-biographical and Y’all’s Problem was about 30 percent. There are parts of it that are exactly like what was happening in my life. I worked at that pizza restaurant. The owner was exactly as he is in the book.
I've only written a few books, but if it's a really crazy thing then that thing is usually something that actually happened. The Donkey Show is filled with real people whose permission I got to use their full names, but they didn't really do any of the things that they do in the book. I just used a whole person like a puppet.
NoDef: How did you end up in Costa Rica?
MPW: I was living in Florida and I saved up money to move, but I didn't really know where I was going. I had this idea for Y’all’s Problem and I had written most of the Florida section in Florida and I was like, okay, now I wanted it be in a Latin American country.
In the beginning, Alana was Brazilian. I really wanted to go to Brazil. I wanted to be somewhere and really soak it up to the point where it felt very real. I had a friend who was a writer, but he also owned a chartered fishing boat and once a year he would go down to Costa Rica. He convinced me to go down there with him. The first time I went there I spent about $1200 including the airfare, staying in a hotel, and eating a big fish dinner with beer everyday.
By the time I left that little village every single person knew me and knew I didn't have any money and I wasn't a tourist tourist.
I became very good friends with this guy named John who was from New Orleans. He was a traveling partner and he said, “You should move to New Orleans, it's really cheap, it’s awesome and you're a musician.”
I thought about it hard. I came home to Florida and I was at my parents’ house when John got back from Costa Rica. He called me and said, “I got this apartment in New Orleans and it's gorgeous and beautiful, if you want it…” so I packed two duffel bags and got on the Greyhound and sent him the deposit. I showed up and I had an apartment, but I'd never been here or anything.
NoDef: What year was this?
MPW: 2000. And this book [The Donkey Show] kind of details that. There's a lot of talk of Costa Rica in the beginning.
NoDef: The idea of Y'all's Problem pre-dates The Donkey Show?
MPW: Y'all's Problem was written over a ten-year span. It was six and half years of real, solid work where I didn't have a full time job especially because I really wanted to finish the book. I would sit at home from 9-5 for months on end and then go to a restaurant to work.
At the same time this guy from Equator Books had gotten my self-published book, and he told me, “I really want to publish a book of yours.” I didn't want to give him Y'all's Problem because I'd only been working on it for 2 years and I thought it was going to be my big book.
I had written a story that McSweeney’s published. That ended up being the first chapter of The Donkey Show. I was thinking, “Okay, I'm going to write a novella about moving to New Orleans and teaching,” and I ended up writing that in nine months and publishing it. I thought, “Wow, I wrote my first novel.”
I was writing this story about Patrick chasing Alana around the restaurant. So I took The Donkey Show, which I thought was going to be a minor work of mine, as an opportunity to practice the dynamic that I was going for in Y'all's Problem with them chasing each other around a restaurant.
I have this feeling some people may think, “He wrote two books about people falling in love in a restaurant?” But I really like John Fante. John Fante has chunks that are almost exactly the same in his books. That doesn't bother me at all. It feels like he is really emptying his life into my brain.
NoDef: When did the first version of The New Orleans Underground Guide come out?
MPW: The first version came out during Jazz Fest 2009. That book, as you probably noticed, is so time-specific that you could redo it every six months.
NoDef: It's sort of the nature of the city.
MPW: Yeah, but it's also because we don’t focus on all the grand traditional things that will be here in 100 years when you come and visit. It's more new things. By the time it was printed one of the art galleries had closed. It's very specific and you have to keep up with it.
NoDef: Do you think your project will be updating it every year?
MPW: I would like it to be a publication that comes out every JazzFest.
NoDef: Besides the music sections, I really like the N.O. Moment sections. I had never heard the term “fauxbeauxs” before.
MPW: Me and my friends and other people who lived in Bywater were trying to think of a name. There are gutter punks and crusties and all these other things. I got into a conversation about it and some bartender at Mimi's said, “They're called fauxbeauxs.” and I thought, 'Holy crap that nails it.'
NoDef: How much of The Underground Guide came out of your own experience? Or was it collaboration with people you knew?
MPW: The main other word collaborator on it was Alison Fensterstock. There are also the two photographers. There are 200 photos in there. She did about 30% of the writing and I did 70 percent. She works at The Times Picayune. She was the one that I pitched the idea to. We felt like we had already written it so it would be easy to write. That was a foolish thing to think because it was anything but easy. It took 2 years to put it together.
NoDef: You're trying to condense an entire city into 300 pages.
MPW: I really tried to pick a narrower topic so it would not be trying to condense the whole city. We fully admit that we focus on the Marigny and Bywater, but I don't think it's out of laziness. It's more out of the fact that for 85% of the bands, that’s where you play. Where do you play Uptown? There's like, three places?
NoDef: Apparently Juvenile disagrees.
MPW: He doesn't think there's any place cool in New Orleans anymore unless you have a gun.
NoDef: Were you the one who interviewed him?
MPW: No it was Alison. She happened to be interviewing Juvenile and I happened to talk to her that day and I said, “Dude, ask him some tourist questions so we can put it in the book.” While she was interviewing him the cops busted in his house and found him with a bag of weed like that big and they were all in handcuffs. Alison was handcuffed to Juvenile. She sent out a mass text saying, “I'm handcuffed to Juvenile.”
NoDef: What's the story behind the Ray Davies quote, “Your boyfriend is very, very talented?”
MPW: He was a huge fan of The Donkey Show. Have you ever heard about when he got shot in New Orleans? I guess it was in 2004, and it was in the Quarter. Someone grabbed his girlfriend’s purse and he chased after him. This guy turned around and shot him. The mugger was thinking, “You’re not chasing me. I'm from fucking New Orleans. That guy is from England, he must have forgotten about guns."
There's this artist Bob Tannen who is friends with Ray Davies. Ray was hiding in his house because the British tabloids were trying to get the story. My friend was an intern there and said to me one day, “It's so weird. I'm working on their stuff and Ray Davies is walking around the house in a vicodin haze while reading.” I thought, “reading huh?” so I got a copy of The Donkey Show and I wrote him a get-well letter.
He took a particular liking to it.
My then girlfriend, now wife, and me were at JazzFest when all of a sudden Ray Davies was right there. I said, “Oh, Mr. Davies,” and he said “Oh, Michael.” He introduced me to his girlfriend and I said, “Oh this is my girlfriend” and he turned to her and said, “Your boyfriend is very, very talented.” I don't think he knows I put that in the book but I thought, “Wow, that did happen?”
If you do run into a famous person in New Orleans they treat you with great respect because, they are happy to speak to someone who lives here. It's almost like, “I was in some movies, but you live in New Orleans! What's it like? I would love to live here.”
When I met Chuck D I hung out with him for a whole day and gave him a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward with his crew of musicians. I always thought that was funny because if your idol was Keith Richards and you met Keith Richards you would want to do whiskey shots with him. If you met Chuck D you would want to walk around this political travesty with racial implications and discuss it with him.