The Writer's Life

The 27th Annual Tennessee Williams Festival: The Pretentious Comic Con

“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

These famous words of Tennessee Williams’ donned my t-shirt each day at the 27th annual Tennessee Williams Festival, which took place March 20-24 headquartered at The Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter. In my festive t-shirt, I attended panels of writers discussing writing and books, inspiring master classes, entertaining theater and late night events, and perhaps my favorite of all: an amazing book fair presented by the Garden District Book Shop with selections of books by festival authors, where I bought – count them – 13 books. To many, the festival seems pretentious; a high brow gathering of the literati. One of the festival’s own authors, Elena Pasarello, even signed her books with a flourish of “The Pretentious Comic Con.” I would just call it fun.

For writers, the festival boasted intriguing master classes on Thursday and Friday, including classes by local authors Cornell Landry (The Art of Self Publishing), Zachary Lazar (A Sense of Time and Place in Literary Fiction), and Moira Crone (Shaping Speculative Fiction), and by National Book Award Finalist Susan Straight (Resurrect the Past: Mining History for Your Book). These immensely talented writers gave on point advice and mesmerized the audience with enchanting stories of their families and their own personal experiences with writing.

Some of my favorite advice came from Tulane University professor, Zachary Lazar, on character, who said, “One thing you can do with details is to not just stick them in there, but filter them through the consciousness of the character.” Susan Straight regaled the audience with tales of family during her master class, stating, “Because I’m so invisible and nobody cares about me, everyone tells me their life story.” Straight had some words of wisdom for writers: “We are nothing. We are nothing as writers. It’s about our characters.”

Moira Crone, whose stories have been classified as “Southern Gnostic,” discussed how to shape speculative fiction, comparing the genre to geometry. With many mentions of numbers, lines, and layers, Crone said that the most important aspect of speculative fiction writing is world building. “Do the thought experiment before you sit down to write the thing,” she said. “Then, create characters who can move through this world.”

Beginning Friday, the festival held panel discussions with authors, including discussions on Imitating Life: The Family in Fiction, The Art of the Debut: Writers on Their First Books, Diversifying Your Career: It’s No Longer a Mystery, Writing New Orleans: The Most “Exotic” Place in America, Sparkle and Polish: Creating Successful Short Fiction, Telling the Truth, but Better: The Art of Creative Non-Fiction, Reading in the Digital Age, and others. There were also conversations with the likes of Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite and contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and Pulitzer Prize winning author of the The Hours, Michael Cunningham.

Panelists discussed their works and provided practical writing advice, including this suggestion during Imitating Life: The Family in Fiction from  Christopher Castellani, author of three novels including his latest, All This Talk of Love, “If you’re afraid to show something to your mother, that’s almost a requirement [for writing]. We should write about what we fear.” Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, which was an Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection, described her relationship with writing as a bad love affair: “We would get together, and I was like, this is great! I love you so much, we’ll be together forever! And then a few months would go by, and I was like, I hate you, you’re smothering me, get out of my life!”

Some of my favorite panels included Diversifying Your Career: It’s No Longer a Mystery and Reading in the Digital Age, both of which addressed how much the writing and publishing landscape has changed over the years and how technology has become an essential part of the modern writing life. Diversifying Your Career was an all-star panel of mystery writers: New York Times bestselling author Nevada Barr, award winning author Greg Herren, novelist and publisher Julie Smith, and author of six books Christine Wiltz, all of whom are local to New Orleans. Nevada Barr, who is author of the popular Anna Pigeon books, offered the gem, “There’s pixels for everyone.”

Julie Smith, founder of the digital publishing startup books B nimble, is a proponent of the e-book revolution, stating, “It’s not the death of the book. It’s change, but it’s good change because we’re adding something, not subtracting something.” Reading in the Digital Age panelist Dwight Garner, a book critic for The New York Times, disagrees, “People don’t see what other people are reading anymore. I feel that we’ve lost the sharing of books in some way.” Garner does agree that e-books have revolutionized the industry and garnered more interest in reading for society, stating, “The iPhone is the greatest thing for literacy since Gutenberg.” Other panelists included Maureen Corrigan, book critic for the Peabody Award-winning NPR program Fresh Air, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Hours Michael Cunningham, and host of The Reading Life on local radio station WWNO, 89.9 FM, Susan Larson.

Diversifying Your Career: It’s No Longer a Mystery panel has some fun at TWF 2013.

Both panels discussed how the e-book revolution has transformed the market and paved the way for the break-out of short stories and novellas. Today’s generation has a much shorter attention span than generations of the past, and the forms of the short story and the novella appeal to this sector more than traditional lengthy novels. “E-readers came along, and all of a sudden, short stories and novellas started being saved from the dust pile,” commented Greg Herren during Diversifying Your Career. Dwight Garner also commented about the popularity of online and digital reading, “I don’t feel like I’m published until it’s online. There are vastly more readers online.”

Outside of panels and master classes, the festival had many other offerings, and not just for writers. Music lovers enjoyed soulful tributes to the music of Tennessee Williams during A Tennessee Williams Songbook and an authentic New Orleans jazz music experience with a Day of Music at the Palm Court Jazz Café. Foodies were able to whet their appetites (and whistles) at events such as A Chat with Food Expert John Mariani – The Virtual Gormet, At Tennessee’s Table, and Sipping on a New Orleans Afternoon with Kit Wohl. Theater buffs enjoyed productions of John Biguenet’s Mold and Auto-Da-Fe and Those Rare Electrical Things Between People: Readings of Three One-Act Plays by Tennessee Williams. The festival also presented The Gnadiges Fraulein, which was later described by A Village Voice writer as the best production of that Williams play he had ever seen. Even late nighters had events to enjoy such as the Literary Jook Joint with the local group MelaNated Writers Collective (think speakeasy, but literary) and Literary Late Night with the New Orleans Nocturnes, a tawdry burlesque and variety show.

There was truly something for everyone, and everyone’s favorite is always the Stella and Stanley shouting contest, where hopefuls storm the Pontalba apartments in Jackson Square with the dream of recreating Marlon Brando’s famous scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The event features competitors wearing the infamous Stanley Kowalski wife beater and screaming S-T-E-L-L-A! at the top of their lungs, writhing in agony to the ground, pulling their hair out, and some even ripping their shirts off in fits of passion. Founding festival board member Peggy Scott Laborde said, “Some people just go crazy. You would be surprised at how many variations there are of ‘Stella.’ It really always makes me smile.” Laborde first introduced the contest as a way to attract more attention to the festival, and it has since become perhaps the most beloved, and certainly the most well-known, aspect of the event.

Winner of the Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest Dewey Caddell from New York City
by Michael DeMocker, and The Times-Picayune

Festival employees have already begun planning for the 2014 festival, announcing on Facebook today that next year’s festival will be held March 19-23. If you decide to attend, look for me. I’ll be the one in the festive t-shirt with the Tennessee Williams quote on it and the giddy smile on my face, sitting in the front row.

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