Before the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival began last weekend in New Orleans, the friend I stayed with took me to newly opened Crescent Park. We climbed the elegant rusted steel Piety Street Bridge (one block from Desire) to cross the railway tracks and explore the beautiful, if minimally designed, riverfront gardens. All that remains of a once bustling wharf is a lone three-story white wall and the burned out skeleton of beams extending over the muddy water. The city skyline glimmers in the distance. Rusty poles bearing words like Diversity are interspersed with concrete slab benches etched with quotations.
That quote in particular struck a chord, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps a premonition of the experience I anticipated having the next four days? I’ve attended many festivals, conventions and conferences in the last two years. Saints and Sinners, with its combined queer and literary focus, was by far the most inspiring, entertaining, enlightening, and – (How do I say this? In Dutch the word is ‘gezellig’ – an almost untranslatable mix of cozy, warm and friendly.) I thought: this is what Christopher Isherwood meant when he wrote about his tribe.
And the perfect city for such a gathering is New Orleans – its rich history and culture, the mix of Creole and Cajun, its music and art, food and drink, romance and mystery. (Should I mention that during my first visit in 2001 I fell a little bit in love, not only with the place, and have never fully recovered? Another story for another time.)
Cocktails & Classes
The weekend began Thursday evening in the garden of the historic Beauregard-Keyes House with the first of many receptions. This one launched a collection of short fiction written on the theme of Saints & Sinners, edited by Festival founder Paul J. Willis and Amie M. Evans, and published by Bold Strokes Books. The event was also a benefit for the Festival and the NO/AIDS Task Force.
Bright and early on Friday morning a series of Master Classes began. First up: tips on Developing Your Inner Editor from my gay mystery author hero John Morgan Wilson and Bold Strokes editor Ruth Sternglantz. Ruth used a medical metaphor: Look into the wound and see the healthy structure that needs to be repaired, not the damage. Begin your healing there. John suggested: Critique the manuscript as if you were being paid to review a stranger’s work. It helps to be obsessed, he added. They both stressed that words are not neutral. Every word has a specific job. Have you hired the best word for the job? they asked. I took copious notes, but was encouraged that intuitively I was on the right track.
Next I listened to Felice Picano talk strategies for Remaining in Control of Your Own Career Over the Short and Long Hauls. The Violet Quill author began writing novels in the 70s, will have two novellas and two non-fiction books published this year, and never stopped writing in between – despite receiving a devastating review in the New York Times for his controversial 1979 gay thriller The Lure. A career is an endurance test, he said, quoting Bruce Dern. The key was working toward a body of work, despite critics. Don’t ever believe your reviews, he warned. But if great, exploit them; and if bad, exploit them!
After lunch it was the turn of fellow Violet Quill author Edmund White, who I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing twice in Amsterdam. His topic was Lives on Paper and the craft of memoir. Don’t let a false sense of modesty inhibit talking about yourself, advised the writer of many memoirs – the latest being Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. Surprising to me was an admission that he does not keep notes or a diary, but writes everything from memory. “I think gay people remember more than straight people,” he said with a smile. “At least older gay people.” He explained the need to be alert, always decoding or rehearsing things, making up lies and having to remember them.
The afternoon ended with a session by marketing expert Michele Karlsberg, aptly titled #NetVISIBLE. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn and I’ll tell you more. Time to dash to another reception: Glitter with the Literati at Hermann-Grima House, another historic French Quarter home dating back to 1831.
Panels, Panels, Panels
Saturday and Sunday provided full days of panel discussions on a variety of topics. The only downside was being spoiled for choice – each session had two panels and a Writers Reading Series. Much as I wanted to hear authors read from their own work, I narrowed my options to the panels, which was difficult enough. In the near future I’ll write more about some of them, such as Otherworldly Forces in Fiction, Death and Desire, and When Genres Collide. But I’ll begin here with one called News Hounds Today: Gay Headlines & Bylines (mostly because I was the moderator, so I couldn’t take many notes and my memory’s not what it used to be.)
My illustrious panel included dynamic journalist and editor Diane Anderson-Minshall (Curve, The Advocate, HIV Plus, among others); eclectic Toronto-based journalist (and Bear Bard) Shawn Syms; and The Violet Quill member Andrew Holleran, groundbreaking columnist (Christopher Street, New York Native) and novelist (Dancer from the Dance.) The audience started small (it was 10 am on a Sunday morning in New Orleans, after all) but the discussion began with a bang, tackling tough topics like HIV criminalization, rising rates of infection in young gay men, and coverage of international stories like anti-gay laws in Uganda or Russia.
“I couldn’t not write about AIDS,” said Andrew, whose personal pieces appeared long before what’s now called blogging. When asked how HIV stories could attract more attention, Diane said: “Celebrities.” Putting openly gay actor Matt Bomer, star of The Normal Heart, on a magazine cover shirtless is one strategy, she explained, like adding cherry to cough syrup. And like them or not, clickbait headlines grab readers. Advocacy journalism remains crucial to getting stories told, and Shawn talked about the first-ever national HIV is Not a Crime conference, being held next week in Iowa. (I’d not heard about that and jotted a note to myself.) By the end of our hour the audience had grown, as had my esteem for these committed journalists.
Hall of Fame
At the closing reception, a number of honors were bestowed. The Saints and Sinners Emerging Writer Award went to Juliann Rich for her coming-of-age YA novel Caught in the Crossfire. And a number of authors and supporters of LGBTQ literature were inducted into the Saints and Sinners Hall of Fame. One of them I had met at a previous reception, quite by accident. I was waiting to introduce myself to Andrew Holleran as he spoke to a lovely woman who introduced herself as Brenda. She’d been at the recent Tennessee Williams Festival speaking on a panel reviewing the work of Williams and Truman Capote, in particular the film adaptation of In Cold Blood – my favorite work of non-fiction. My friend had pointed out the house Capote stayed in as we wandered the French Quarter after our visit to Crescent Park.
Brenda Currin had met Capote after she was cast as the young murder victim Nancy Clutter in the film. And an odd thing happened in the dim light of the New Orleans night. Almost fifty years slipped away, and I saw her as the frightened teenager lying on a bed in her Kansas home – the scene was shot in the room where the killing took place. As she reminisced in a soft voice, the murder replayed in my head. Perhaps because I’d written a murder scene, it was all the more chilling to imagine filming one that had actually taken place. Or maybe it was the magic in the New Orleans air.
This might seem an odd place to end, but there is more to write on Saints and Sinners. Like Isherwood in Berlin, I’ve found my tribe – a tight-knit community of LGBTQ writers that I’m proud to be a part of now. Oh. And that reference I began with about culture being “the common threads that tie us together” – at some point I remembered why it sounded familiar. The title of the Oscar winning documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt. There’s a connection there somewhere.