Mark Folse: Tennessee Williams Festival redux
Cutline: Borders fire sale vs. The Tennessee Williams Festival: And my Treme Season One VDVs come Tuesday as well. If I didn't have to work, I might not see the sky for a couple of weeks unless I run out of cigarettes or coffee...
Local author Mark Folse (Carry Me Home) writes about “Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans” in his excellent Toulouse Street blog. This weekend, he carted his Droid and laptop along to The Tennessee Williams Festival, and posted ongoing stories as he sampled the sessions. It makes for a great recap of a seminal New Orleans event. Here, for your enjoyment, are excerpts from Folse’s Tennessee Williams musings:
Session: Tell Me About It -- Jason Berry at the Tennessee Williams Festival
Berry’s “Finding the Non-Fiction Narrative” was worth the price of admission just for the Earl K. Long anecdotes. …
The cadances of speech have always been a large influence in his writing style, Berry said, a “primary lure” into writing. He related an anecdote about a friend who worked in the Democratic cloakroom in the U.S. Senate when Berry was at Georgetown University. His friend’s job included answering the telephone and telling senators the agenda for that day on the Senate floor, and he would frequently do his best imitations of various Senators for Berry. The one that stuck in Berry’s mind was Sen. Lloyd Bentson who, when the phone was answered would just say: “Tell me about it.” The line stuck with him so long, he attributed that same line and manner on the phone to one of his characters in his novel about Louisiana politics, Last of the Red Hot Poppas. …
Session: New Southern Voices
If this post seems telegraphic I am already regretting my decision to try and live blog from the Druid, as Google’s OS insists I must mean when I type Droid.
The short version of the New Southern Voices panel is that all of the panelists have written historic novels, prompting me to ask them about the role of a sense of history in Southern writing. Skip Horack, author of a new novel The Eden Hunter, set in post-War of 1812 Spanish Florida, gave the short version: “There are ghosts everywhere.”
Minrose Gwin, whose The Queen of Palmyra recounts a fifty-something woman’s recollections of the Civil Rights summer of ’63, gave a response in keeping with her book and background as a Southern literary scholar: “I think Southerners are more aware of history because of the Civil War and the vexed history of race.” She grew up in her grandparents’ house, in which “people were always telling stories of the old times…the stories always changed but were about the past.” …
Josh Russell recounted a conversation the panelists had by email before Friday, and the term “hyperreal” he coined to describe the way some historical fiction has this obligation to “make things very real.” Modern writing, he said, tends to be very sketchy about scenes favoring character, but in historical fiction a lot of time is spent on scene setting. He explained that he did take some liberties with history, some accidental (such as transposing events a year) in writing his novel Yellow Jack, and how worried he was at his first reading in New Orleans. “Everyone who lives in New Orleans is a historian,” and he thought he’d be picked apart for his changes to geography and chronology. Instead, he learned later that docents at the Cabildo are required to read Yellow Jack as their primary text on the yellow fever epidemics in the city.
He expounded on the difference between “literary” historical fiction and “genre” historical fiction, insisting listeners put quotes around those words, calling genre historical fiction “hoop skirts on the veranda” works. History, he suggested, can be improved by “telling lies. Never let history get in the way of character-driven fiction.”
Saturday: The Moviegoer at Fifty
Session: Walker Percy’s 'The Moviegoer'
It was interesting that a work of fiction that seems to fall into the category of books from a strongly male perspective (think of Richard Ford as another example) was represented by four women. While Shelia Bosworth, Valerie Martin, Chris Wiltz and moderator Mary McCoy from the Walker Percy Center at Loyola discussed Bink’s fascination for women with large hips and derrieres, they also said that Percy loved the company of women. All three novelists were frequent guests of Percy’s literary luncheons. “He was “on” to women,” Bosworth said, quoting a Percy remark that [women] “are just better than we are.”
Saturday: Tale of Two Cities
Session: Tales of the Master: Conversation with Armistead Maupin
First a confession: I have not read Armistead Maupin. He is someone I know of, but don’t know, whom I thought of as primarily a gay writer and a San Francisco writer. And given the natural affinity of NOLA and The City (as San Francisco likes to think of itself) and my own focus on what I call geo-memoir, he seems a natural fit, someone I should have read before now. That is how I came to finish Saturday at the Tennessee Williams Festival by attending Tales of the Master: A Conversation with Armistead Maupin. The master immediately addressed that affinity: “I’m a Southerner who lives in San Francisco, and New Orleans merges the best of both” the South and the City. San Francisco, like New Orleans, is “physically charming and seems smaller than it is.”
Any New Orleanian, especially any who has spent the slightest time in San Francisco, could not help but immediately be infatuated with Maupin, feeling that this is someone you would want to have dinner with. In fact, the moderator doesn’t wait too long to toss off a quote from Salon.com, which describes Maupin’s Tales of the City series this way: “…as with the Beatles, everyone seems to like Maupin’s Tales—and, really, why would you want to find someone who didn’t?” Even gray-haired and in his 60s, Maupin gives off the boyish charm of the young Fab Four in their early years.
Sunday: Fan on the Run
There comes a point in any event where your program is starting to come unstapled, you’ve torn several pages loose in your notebook and the folks in the PJ’s Coffee know your order and you’re exhausted but you are up at 6:30 a.m. going over your notes and your program, circling the day’s offerings. You sip your thirdish cup of coffee (hard to tell when you keep refreshing half-way) and start wondering how you could hire yourself as a blog, Facebook and Twitter hack for events like The Tennessee Williams Festival because scurrying around the French Quarter taking copious notes with a digital recorder balanced on your knee and hammering out blog posts, some on the Chiclet keyboard of your Droid, is too much fun. You remember why you willingly submitted yourself to the newspaper business for a salary in the high four figures (pause: yes that’s right and it included your car allowance). You are uncredentialed, running yourself ragged and having the time of your life. You haven’t enjoyed yourself this much since you got the often pathetic West Bank Guide community newspaper to hold the presses four hours and organized comprehensive coverage of the 1984 local elections that kicked the Times-Picayune’s a--.
Sunday: Writing the Subterranean
Session: Johnny’s in the Basement: Writing the Subterranean
The panel could have gone in any number of directions, but moderator Miles Harvey and his panel took a hard turn into the macabre. Authors who have tackled the ugliest nooks of the American psyche tried to answer the question of our modern fascination with serial killings, abductions and all the dark crimes that spawn not only endless segments of cable news, but a dark genre of fiction.
I’m back to telegraphically thumbing the 'Druid' so a few choice quotes will have to do for now:
“The trope for a long time was the human being with the monster trying to get out. Tony Soprano is a monster with the human being trying to get out,” Scott Blanchard said. He focuses on the vulnerabilities of his dark characters.
Amanda Boyden said, “It can be a daunting task to inhabit the head space of characters but its the ultimate escape.” She said her fascination with such characters focused on the “gradiations” between the mundane and the murderous. “The notion of redemption and forgiveness enters into it; that tiny, little bit of hope.”
Thomas Beller said he was interested in the different ideations of love including “the love that fucks you up and makes you insane, a state of love that leaves you wrapped up in anxiety.” He suggested no one word summary like Blackwood’s “vulnerabilities” or Boyden’s” gradiations” so I asked him afterwards for one and he suggested” the act of self immolation.”
Dark stuff indeed and completely fascinating.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]