Monday, April 2, 2007

The attendees are back home, and they're blogging

Judy Merrill Larsen (whom I didn't get the chance to meet) had a blast in what sounds like her first visit to New Orleans. And thanks for spreading the word that the people in town are friendly, funny, and just plain nice...because they are.

And then there's Amy Guth, whom I met briefly. I wish I knew that she was looking for vegetarian food, because I could've steered her around (I'm not vegetarian, but there actually are some really good vegetarian [if not vegan] options in the French Quarter and thereabouts). Her New Orleans story needs to be read in its entirety, because the city was working all its weirdness on her, and she had the good sense to be more amused than alarmed.

...and this is how it ends for another year... you end a literary festival with a party (free to the public, of course, with free food and free drink and free readings and free laughs, all those things that still flow like water in New Orleans, even after Katrina) in a building where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803, and you fill it with a few dozen authors who range from a former Bourbon Street stripper to a distinguished professor and winner of an O.Henry award, all of whom contributed to an anthology with 110 contributors, and all of whom attempted to summarize Louisiana in the space of a single page.

Meanwhile, down the street, dozens of crazy people have gathered in the street below a balcony of America's oldest apartment building, all shouting "STAAAANLEY!" in their best Streetcar Named Desire impressions, hoping to win a prize or at least a few seconds of airtime on the evening news, and one of the distinguished litterateurs from the upstairs party notes, "New Orleans is a place where you can have good sex," and a seventyish gentleman passing by stops to correct her sternly: "Good sex? No--GREAT sex."

And, a few steps away, the preliminary winners from the screaming contest are herded into the courtyard of an 87-year-old theater, where the Festival president Peggy Scott Laborde is giving them all last-minute instructions or advice or just passing the time of day, while a giant sheet cake and hundreds of cups of sweet tea are being handed out at a table by some exhausted and stressed-out Festival volunteers and assistants, who are still managing to smile despite a four-day weekend of sweat, humidity, logistical high-wire acts, and thousands of book fans in various states of decorum, intelligence, and inebriation.

And inside the theater, a group has gathered, including the actor Jeremy Lawrence (who plays Tennessee Williams) and the memoirist, essayist, journalist, and foodie Calvin Trillin, who are dragooned into judging the finalists, which include everything from a modern Stanley who tries to call Stella on his cellphone to a generously proportioned man who gets the crowd screaming by ripping his T-shirt and exposing his ample belly. And while the judges total up their ballots, yet another pair of actors takes the stage and enacts an entire four-minute "Tennessee" play, with Stanley stuck on the roof of his tenement in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina while his wife paddles away in a rowboat.

And then a winner is crowned, and the dates of next year's Festival are being yelled from the stage (not by Stanley Kowalski), and I'm too tired to get 'em straight, and it really is over, except for word of an impromptu dinner gathering at Galatoire's and word of a few people gathering later in the evening at a sketchy bar at the other end of the French Quarter...

Sunday, April 1, 2007

All over, including the shouting

I've got other photos of the finalists in the Stanley/Stella Shouting Contest, the event that always closes out the TW Fest (this guy was the Grand Prize Winner, or the Big Stanley, or whatever you call it), but the Times-Picayune actually has a better slideshow, complete with sound.

A few more photos and stories tomorrow. Right now I'm beat.


"I think people are spending too much time thinking about what they put in their mouths rather than what comes out. Stop eating so much! We’re become a generation of people chewing their cud, eating all the time! No. Eat your breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and be happy."
--Mrs. Leah Chase, of Dooky Chase restaurant

This was the local legendary chef Leah Chase with Times-Picayune food editor Judy Walker at the party for Kit Wohl's new cookbook New Orleans' Classic Desserts.When I asked Mrs. Chase for a photograph and Judy Walker explained it would be on the Internet, Mrs. Chase said: "The Internet! I don't know anything about the Internet, but I know I need to be on it. Just don't put me up in the men's room."

The Louisiana in Words party, in photos

Bev Marshall, author of Walking with Shadows, autographing her essay in Louisiana in Words. There is really nothing you need to know about Bev except that she's written three terrific novels, one as-yet-unpublished memoir that has gotten a lot of buzz around the South (and is currently being read in New York by several editors), and that she brought 9 pairs of shoes to the Festival.

Leonard Earl Johnson, New Orleans bon vivant, "Yours Truly in a Swamp" columnist, and contributor to the collection, signing his work. That lipstick stigmata on his head is from the one and only GiO, the former Bourbon Street burlesque queen, writer, radio host, and fellow contributor, who used his pate to demonstrate one of her many, many techniques du charm.

Oh, man. This is John Biguenet, whom I've wanted to meet ever since I read his first incredible collection of stories, The Torturer's Apprentice...which got the sort of reviews that would've probably transported him to the top of the publishing heap if he wasn't a "Southern writer." He was really gracious when I started gushing about a six-year-old book, and talked about his latest endeavor, a play called Rising Water, which has become not only a held-over hit at Southern Rep, but also a sort of touchstone for the city and the nation: the first big post-Katrina play. And from what John said, it may soon have a life far beyond New Orleans.

The beginning of the end

Got to the Festival this morning in time to hear the "Wild at Heart" panel, with Paula Morris moderating a discussion of women's memoirs with Judy Conner, Louise Shaffer, Emily Toth, and Haven Kimmel. It was pretty lively at times--not exactly antagonistic, bu I had the feeling that a couple of the panelists wouldn't be establishing longtime Sisterhood of the Traveling Typewriters style friendships. But the cool thing was that they were all smart and funny and had a lot to say about their books and their fields, and it made me want to read the two writers I hadn't yet read (Shaffer and Morris).

When it was over, I met Emily Toth in the hall and complimented her on Inside Peyton Place, her biography of the writer Grace Metalious, which originally came out in 1981 and has recently become heaty again with the new interest in Peyton Place and the fact that Sandra Bullock has optioned her book. Toth, a professor at LSU, was charming and I felt like a dope for not bringing my copy of her book to the Festival to sign. It really was a lively piece of scholarship, and the fact it came out in '81 was remarkable: back then, Metalious was probably being sneered at in both English and women's studies departments. Anyway, Ms. Toth was a great conversationalist, and I was happy to learn she kept a place in New Orleans in addition to her home base of Baton Rouge.

(An aside: when a writer is standing in the hall after one of these things, go up and say hello. If you're not an insane fan, someone peddling an unpublished manuscript, or a Person With an Agenda, they're likely to be happy to have the chance to talk to someone who wants to talk to them. And if they're not nice, you have a story to share for years.)

Louisiana in (French) words

Cheré Coen of the Lafayette Daily Advertiser wrote today about the launch party for Louisiana in Words, which was held Mar. 18 at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans:
Erlene Stewart of Lafayette, one of the many writers of Louisiana in Words, Pelican Publishing's collection of "one-minute" nonfiction entries that complete a day in Louisiana, attended the book release party March 18 at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. The place was packed, Stewart said, and there were live music and refreshments.

"Mais, chèr, everyone passed a good time," she said. "I signed so many books, my fingers cramped and my signature became almost illegible."

Saturday, March 31, 2007

William Faulkner: rocking the French Quarter for one night only

Braved the millions of prom kids and wedding parties in the Quarter tonight--you couldn't walk down the street without having to dodge a limousine or a girl in a satin gown--to see Mirrors of Chartres Street: Faulkner in New Orleans/New Orleans in Faulkner.

An old friend, Rob Florence--historian, playwright, cemetery tour leader, and about 80 other things--had adapted the vignettes that Faulkner had written during his stay in the Vieux Carré into one cohesive narrative. It consisted of Faulkner's notes to his mother, along with recitation of his newspaper character sketches of beggars, longshoremen, sailors, grifters, and other denizens of the Quarter who still exist today. Ryan Reineke, as William Faulkner, carried off the 90-minute one-man show with no small amount of panache. The director was Perry Martin, who seems to be directing everything in New Orleans these days.

Playwright Rob Florence and his Faulkner, Ryan Reineke.

People usually get caught up in panels and parties at the Festival, so it was nice to see Le Petit Théâtre packed on a Saturday night. Rob said he's going to keep revising the show, and I think it'll get an even wider audience. I don't know how he's going to squeeze that name on a marquee, though.

Saturday afternoon panels

This afternoon brought "A Conversation with Yusef Komunyakaa," who read poetry and was interviewed by Dr. Henry Lacey, former vice-president of academic affairs at Dillard University, who has to be the one of the first moderators in the Festival's history to play the trumpet while his subject read poetry. Since Mr. Komunyakaa came up in Bogalusa, La., much of the conversation was spent discussing his formative years and literary influences in that paper-mill town bordering Mississippi. His poetry was wonderful, and his voice...let's just say that he makes James Earl Jones sound like Don Knotts.

Meanwhile, it started to become hard to hear inside the ballroom, because outside a rock-concert-sized crowd was gathering for "Tennessee Williams' Memoirs: When the Playwright Had His Say," which was the hot ticket of the day, with a panel that included local legend Dr. Kenneth Holditch, stage director David Kaplan, and film director/general personality John Waters. This was one of the most gossipy events at the Festival, since the Memoirs were pretty frank, and the literary/society crowd ate it up with a spoon, even the ladies in the little sweater sets. Maybe even especially the ladies in the little sweater sets.

Dr. Kenneth Holditch (back to the camera); John Waters; David Kaplan; and moderator Thomas Keith, being introduced by a Festival spokesman.

All three men read passages from the Memoirs, and then the gloves came off when it came to sexual frankness, lively anecdotes, and some dissing of lesser TW biographers. Waters had the crowd roaring with some outrageous comments, including "When The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More came to Baltimore, I begged my parents to take me to see it, but they wouldn't, which I consider child abuse." Dr. Holditch defended the decision to bury Williams in St. Louis, which didn't go over well in that crowd, and pointed out that Williams' most famous Quarter apartment, on Orleans Avenue, was right across the street from the ballroom.

And there was much talk of Boom!, the Liz-and-Dick film adaptation of Milk Train, which everyone on the panel considered the great "lost" Tennessee film. From the reaction of the crowd, a screening of Boom! at next year's Festival would be a major hit (and make a ton of dough). Get the attendees toasted enough and you'd have a literary version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I heart Haven Kimmel

Panelists Margaret Sartor (Miss American Pie) and Haven Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy).

Just heard a reading by the wonderful Haven Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy) and walked with her back to the Bourbon Orleans. She's as charming as her books, and in the space of five minutes filled me in on a) the two men who have proposed to her since she arrived in New Orleans; b) the three times she's lived here; and c) the last time she came to the TW Fest, when an audience member took ill and a doctor who was also a concert pianist had to come to his rescue.

And then she was off to WWOZ, where she was to be the guest DJ on the afternoon Brasilia show. Since she doesn't know anything about Brazilian music, she said she was tempted to play "The Girl From Ipanema" for an hour.

She's got a third book in her Zippy trilogy coming out this fall--I'll find out more about it later. Right now I'm leeching WiFi on the sidewalk on Conti Street. Gotta go.

More blogger reaction

Local blogger Ernie the Attorney attended Michael Lewis' panel on Thursday and had more thoughts on what Lewis had to say about Ray Nagin and the state of the city.