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Tennessee Williams Literary Festival: John Berendt 

Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival

Wed.-Sun., March 25-29

www.tennesseewilliams.net

click to enlarge John Berendt spent years visiting and living in Savannah and Venice, - the two cities where he set his books. - PHOTO BY GRAZIANO ARICI
  • Photo by Graziano Arici
  • John Berendt spent years visiting and living in Savannah and Venice, the two cities where he set his books.

After writing books about the romantic and mysterious cities of Savannah, Ga. (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), and Venice (The City of Fallen Angels), John Berendt cannot visit a new place without someone assuming there is a book in the works.

  "I visited Charleston and it was announced in the paper," he says.

  Berendt spent February living in the French Quarter, and he discovered many muses, but not the ones fans and publishing houses might expect.

  "I was invited by Karina Nathan — the head of the Bearded Oysters, the 'Mother Shucker' — to march with them in the Muses parade," he says. "She made me an outfit — not the kind the 150 or 100 Oysterettes wear — and I marched with them. Or most of the way. There was a triple vodka along the way that drew me astray. And there were plans at a restaurant, but I got the spirit of Mardi Gras. I had avoided it before."

  Berendt returns from his Manhattan home to spend another month in the city beginning this week with the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. He's among the many journalists, novelists and playwrights scheduled to speak on a variety of issues in the pleasures of literature and the work of writing and getting published. He's a fan of Tennessee Williams' short fiction and this is his third visit to the festival.

  Berendt presides over a seminar on capturing the character and setting of a particular place. It seems tailored to the way he wrote his two books. He started visiting Savannah long before he decided to write Midnight.

  "When I went to Savannah for the first time, it overwhelmed me," he says. "It was the third week in March and the azaleas were at their peak. Then I began to meet the people. They were oddly charming. I had never seen a city like that."

  After a year, he began to write Midnight. Berendt had been a magazine editor and Esquire columnist for much of his career, but for Midnight he spent years interviewing and poring over 12 volumes of trial testimony about a high society murder. It took him eight years to complete the book, and it eventually sold more than 3.5 million copies and was made into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. He also spent years writing Fallen Angels, but he initially decided to write a book before he had settled on a story. The city simply enticed him.

  "Place has to do with the look, the history, architecture, the trees and the people," he says. "It has to have its own accent and be set off from what's around it ... like Venice. Like New Orleans. You have a self-contained universe. That's attractive to a writer."

  Does that mean he's considering writing about New Orleans?

  "You kill somebody and I'll do it," he says, laughing.

The Tennessee Williams Festival presents an array of novelists, playwrights and journalists including Richard Ford (The Sportswriter, Independence Day), Rick Bragg (All Over But the Shoutin'), John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), John Biguenet (Rising Water), Jill Conner Brown (the Sweet Potato Queens series), Tom Piazza (City of Refuge) and many more. There also are plays, culinary events with chefs and cookbook authors, and the ever-popular Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest in Jackson Square. For a complete schedule visit www.tennesseewilliams.net.

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