Literary New Orleans: The 27th Annual Tennessee Williams Festival

I have attended the Tennessee Williams Festival in New Orleans for the past five years, and each time, I walk away with a renewed need to write and a new list of books to add to my reading list. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of hearing many wonderful writers talk about all things literary. I have heard their opinions on their own work and the work of others. I have taken their advice on the physical act of writing and the discipline that is necessary to do so. The festival truly is a gem, and I enjoy immersing myself in it each Spring.

I started the day on Saturday with Tennessee Williams and the Southern Gothic Tradition at the Williams Research Center on Chartres Street. This was my second visit to the Center; my first was in September of last year for the Oxford American’s New South Journalism Symposium addressing the fall of the Times Picayune and what the progression of digital media and the subsequent migration from the page to the screen means for the entire industry.

The purpose of Saturday’s panel was to connect classic works traditionally placed under the umbrella of Gothic with the works of other more modern authors, including Tennessee Williams himself, considered to be masters of the Southern Gothic, a style categorized by “psychological misfits with twisted souls.” Panelists included Barton PalmerAnnette Saddik, and Harvey Young. The moderator was Robert Bray. The panelists were informed, articulate, and prepared. Saddik, the only woman on the panel and a professor of theatre at the City University of New York, monopolized the first half of the discussion with her analysis of various critics’ responses to Williams’ later plays, including Night of the Iguana and A House Not Meant to Stand, and their apparent Gothic-ness. After an audience member in the third row asked that she let the other panelists have their chance, Saddik sat silent for the remainder of the discussion.

Palmer’s comments centered around the movie industry’s portrayal of the South and its people; specifically, he spoke about the 2011 remake of Straw Dogs, a thriller about a Hollywood screenwriter’s trouble in small town Mississippi. Palmer, a literature professor at Clemson University, and the esteemed founding director of the Tennessee Williams Scholars Conference, Robert Bray, authored Hollywood’s Tennessee: The Williams Films and Postwar America. Harvey Young teaches theatre at Northwestern University. His work includes Embodying Black Experience and The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre. Young currently is working on his sixth book.

After lunch in the courtyard at Napoleon House, I witnessed my first “Pitchapalooza.” Writers are given one minute – exactly- to pitch their book idea to The Book Doctors. Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry co-authored The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published and are happily married. The prize for the best pitch? The Book Doctors give the winner an introduction to an agent or editor. This year, Kathleen Calhoun, Susan Larson, and Ayesha Pande sat on the panel with them; each member used their particular area of publishing expertise to comment on and critique every book pitch given.

I headed back to Hotel Monteleone, this time for Writing New Orleans: The Most “Exotic” Place in America. The panelists included Richard Campanella, a geographer with Tulane University’s Department of Architecture and author of Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans and Lincoln in New Orleans; Kim Marie Vaz, the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Xavier University of Louisiana; Nathaniel Rich, the author of The Mayor’s Tongue and the upcoming Odds Against Tomorrow and a New Orleans resident; and Thomas Beller, the author of both fiction and personal essays and a professor of creative writing at Tulane. Beller was fifteen minutes late and jogged into the ballroom wearing an orange Knicks t-shirt.

By far, this panel was the most interesting of the day. It addressed the tourism industry in New Orleans and the image put forth to outsiders and the entire world. The main question was this: does this city truly live up to the “exotic” ideal that has been perpetuated by literature and other means for many, many years? The answer: it depends. Every day isn’t Mardi Gras, and second lining isn’t a part of the daily routine here. There are real people behind the costumes; there are real problems here. We have been ravaged, we have been celebrated, and we are just like everyone else. New Orleans has been often referred to as a third world country, as separate from the rest of the United States in both culture and location, but with the progression of technology and the strong voices resonating from it, this city is clearly part of the larger whole.

Our very own councilwoman-at-large, Jackie Clarkson, was in attendance. During the allotted time for audience questions, she took the opportunity to state that, in her view, New Orleans is the very best the United States has to offer. Beller responded with the jaw-dropping but painfully true notion that the city “stinks of slavery” and is not the best that this country has to offer. He does like it here, though.

People come to New Orleans looking for something. Whether that thing is to urinate in the streets of the French Quarter or gawk out of the tinted windows of a bus circling the perimeter of the Ninth Ward, most of them find it. However, the world should be aware that there is more to this place than the booze and the frills – something simpler. You will find it in your own hometown; you will find it in the faces of your own neighbors.

(Note: Nathaniel Rich adamantly encourages you to skip the Disaster Tour. Try the Louisiana State Museum instead.)

On Sunday, I began my day with Sparkle and Polish: Creating Successful Short Fiction at the Monteleone. This panel featured three writers of short fiction who offered the audience their takes on first drafts, writer’s block and the ever elusive ending. I was charmed by Danielle Evans (Read this great article about her here), author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and immediately purchased her collection of stories from Amazon. First drafts “should always feel like you don’t know what you’re doing,” and she always “turns off her brain” when beginning one.

Manuel Gonzales was equally as interesting. His collection, The Miniature Wife, includes elements of the magical and the fantastical. Gonzales mentioned that he draws inspiration from hyperbolizing his own flaws and doesn’t necessarily base his stories on personal experiences. Geoff Wyss, an English instructor at Jesuit High School and author of the Ohio State University Short Fiction Prize winner How, confessed that writing endings is particularly hard for him.  They should be all about the language – poetic, even – and successfully complete the task of “rounding things off.”

Afterwards, I stayed put at the Monteleone for Telling the Truth, but Better: The Art of Creative Non-Fiction. This time, Thomas Beller was on time and better dressed. Along side him at this panel were Dwight Garner, a senior writer and book critic for The New York Times (check out his wonderful obituary for the late, and beloved, Chinua Achebe here); Elena Passarello, an essayist and the first female winner of the festival’s Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest;  John Jeremiah Sullivan, the stoic and highly intelligent southern editor of The Paris Review (read his riveting essay on the animal consciousness here); and moderator, Daniel Brook.

Coincidentally, I read Passarello’s brilliant and moving essay about her experience winning the contest in 2011 a few weeks ago in the Spring 2013 issue of the Oxford American. After seeing her name on the festival line-up, I made sure to be there. Her voice (no pun intended) is personal and filled with emotion. When writing, Passarello trys to “create sound on the page.” This is no surprise.

“You can hear me lose a battle in my throat. You do not have to assume that I will be mute for days afterward; you know it…Imagine the margin of a piece of paper torn, notch by notch, from a spiral notebook, or an anvil dropping through floor after floor of a cartoon tenement. I did not tell myself to make this hurt, but there I am, punching lower and lower into myself to see what comes up. This noise is awful, but it is mighty loud.”

(You can hear this moment here.)

Sullivan, on the other hand, approaches writing about regionalism from the outsider’s point of view, and his defense of the magazine essay is unwavering. He reminded the audience that serialized articles hearken back to the nineteenth century. Garner entertained with his brief synopsis of his essay on the history of the pickle and peanut butter sandwich. You can read this witty and well-written jaunt here. I expected this panel to touch on the technique of creative non-fiction and the joys and downfalls of writing it, but it fell short. Also, had I been in charge, I might have picked a different moderator. Brook, the author of A History of Future Cities, could have asked better questions. His input was sub-par and the panel only scraped the surface of this vast topic.

The last panel of the festival, Reading in the Digital Age, featured Susan Larson as moderator. Her panelists, Maureen CorriganMichael Cunningham, and Dwight Garner addressed the “ultimate private pleasure” of reading. Corrigan, host of NPR’s Fresh Air and a columnist for The Washington Post, sat on the jury for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction with both Larson and Cunningham, author of The Hours. Although the Pulitzer Committee did not pick a winner from the jurors’ top choices, the three had to read hundreds of books. Cunningham wrote an article about the experience for The New Yorker. You can find it here.  While he is an advocate of the e-reader and everything technology has to offer, Larson and Corrigan are more traditional and do not seem to be as excited about the advent and growing popularity of the e-book. Garner, however, considers the iPhone to be “the greatest thing for literacy since Gutenberg.” He predicts that sooner, rather than later, we will see a wave of young new writers who play with language in different ways than those who came before them. Garner also feels that there is a sense of great conversation in being published online.There is room for an interaction between reader and writer that has not existed in the past. Accordingly, he doesn’t consider his work as officially published until it is on the internet.

All in all, the festival was a success. The downside: the panel discussions last for only one short hour. Let’s start the countdown to 2014, ladies and gentlemen.

On deck: I was able to score an early copy of Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow. First impression: have a dictionary handy. Look out for my review in the coming days. The official release date for Rich’s novel is April 2, 2013.

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