A book critic once wrote that Thomas Zigal writes page-turners with a conscience. He says it’s the best description he's found for a writing career that has spanned more than 30 years. "That's exactly what I want to do,” he says. “I don't have huge literary pretensions."
Zigal's latest novel, Many Rivers to Cross, is an absorbing, fast-paced story of a New Orleans family bent on survival and reunion in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At almost 400 pages, the story of Dee, the educated mother of two children, centers on her family's survival, and her father Hodge's attempt to rescue her and the kids. Along the way, characters as distinctive as New Orleans itself join Dee and Hodge's journey, including an ominous prisoner named U-Rite and the father of Dee's children, Duval.
Many Rivers to Cross is the second in Zigal’s trilogy of novels about New Orleans. The first, published in 2005 six months before Katrina, is The White League. Zigal has already started working on the third book, which he writes when he's not at his day job as the Senior Communications Writer for The University of Texas System.
As entertaining as Many Rivers to Cross is to read, the subject matter evokes an obvious question and one that Zigal pondered during the four years it took to research and write the novel: Why is a white guy writing about a tragedy that was essentially African American?
The answer is evident in the novel itself. Zigal’s talent is for blending a keen literary voice with commercial appeal. The result is a surprising comfort with modern street language in New Orleans that typically evades writers from Zigal's generation and background.
The Texas writer attended the University of Texas at Austin as an undergraduate and earned a master's in English at Stanford University with classmates like Scott Turow. He is quick to point out that while he studied with esteemed writers, the 1961 graduates of his program boasted real stars like Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry.
Zigal was a New Orleans resident for four years, not long after his son was born. Before that, he attended high school in Lafayette, Louisiana. "New Orleans was probably the most racially diverse city I lived in,” he says. “This story would have been sterile if it was about some white guy," Zigal says. "White people were an incredible minority of those impacted” by Katrina. “I got upset and obsessed by the whole thing. New Orleans is just a wonderful, beautiful, first-class city ignored by people who could have helped. That thousands of people died, and they died because they were poor, is incredibly unacceptable in the U.S."
To conduct research to tell the story of an African American grandfather going to save his granddaugther, Zigal and his son returned to New Orleans to find friends, volunteer and take notes months after the storm. “I challenged myself to make this authentic or not good at all," he says.
But like every other ambitious writer, Zigal hoped to write a literary masterpiece to rival James Joyce. Instead, he ended up writing crime fiction full-time for a stretch in the 1990s. "The crime novel thing was really a diversion from trying to be a literary genius," Zigal says. He wrote one and showed it to a friend who said he needed to write many more. He discovered he didn't write fast enough to keep up with the market demand.
Zigal was a founding member of a poet's cooperative and a small press when he returned to Austin after graduate school. He made a go at publishing with a small press in 1982, but his first major book was Into Thin Air in 1995. He didn't envision writing a series, but he landed an agent, so he wrote two more books. They didn't sell well, and ultimately he and the publisher parted ways.
Besides, it turned out that he didn't have a literary sensibility or style as most writers might refer to it. "I like this kind of hybrid that I write that is a combination of the commercial and popular with a sense of the historical," Zigal says. "I love film, so I write in a cinematic way. I'm in a place where I'm very comfortable. A novel is a journey and if you learn something in that journey and you grow older and wiser, then it was worth the journey. It doesn't matter whether you're white, black or brown."
Joshunda Sanders is an Austin-based writer.