This year the festival celebrates its 20th anniversary. "There was never a doubt that we would continue with the festival," says Paul J. Willis, executive director of the event. "The support from the literary community was really affirming."
Pat Brady, president of the festival, seconds this assertion: "Writers, publishers, attendees who really value the literary culture of New Orleans have responded with tremendous enthusiasm since the storm."
Financially, the festival took a hard hit, losing many long-time sponsors as well as state and city funding. But the rallying efforts of the national and local literary supporters and community -- including The New Orleans Literary Institute and Katrina Arts Relief and Emergency Support -- raised money and spirits to ensure that the festival would go on.
The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival is a well-loved institution, acclaimed as one of the top 10 literary festivals nationwide. Many attendees, "generally a 50/50 split between out-of-state and local participants," says Willis, have returned more than half a dozen times. Brady says that "writers tell me [this festival] is the best" because of the Quarter's magical atmosphere.
The literary panels "encourage lively conversation," and all the events are "very accessibe" and "not stuffy," says Peggy Scott Laborde, vice president for development. One can't help but think of the outrageously entertaining Stanley and Stella Shouting Contest, where participants belt and scream their lungs out to a Pontalba apartment balcony every year. Douglas Brantley, vice president for literary programming, also believes that the festival has become so popular because of its "sense of levity" and "Southern hospitality." The famous mint juleps served between panels are certainly a reminder that the festival is anything but ordinary.
But the celebratory atmosphere doesn't take away from the fact that this is a serious literary event. It's hard to overestimate the effects the festival has on New Orleans' economy and in spreading the word about our rich literary heritage, which after music and food, is what New Orleans is known for. The festival began as a celebration of revered playwright Tennessee Williams, and though the discussion of his life and work still reigns over the events -- which include a Scholars' Conference, lively literary panels on a wide range of topics, trivia brunches, staged readings and full productions of his and others' work -- it's not just about Tennessee.
The festival is a place where writers, budding and seasoned, can meet and develop working relationships and friendships. Fostering new talent is one of the main goals of the festival, which is evident in the annual One-Act Play Contest. Also, many networking writers have been known to meet their future agents and publishers during the celebration. Joshua Clark, author and editor of French Quarter Fiction, says it best when noting that the festival's "greatest asset is that it provides unparalled access to some of the city's and country's greatest literary lights, not in a boring scholarly atmosphere, but in one that rolls along for [four] days like the party of a lifetime where friendships become forged and connections made."
Besides galas, brunches and receptions, musical performances, a book fair, theater productions and guided literary-heritage tours, the festival also features master classes with some of the country's finest and most prolific authors. This year's teachers are Kent Haruf, Silas House, Bev Marshall, Eric Maisel, Robert Olen Butler, Mark Kurlansky, Dorothy Allison, Elizabeth Berg and Rick Bragg. The expert literary panels cover topics ranging from mystery novels to portraying love in fiction to character development to baseball as metaphor to making books into film. Three of the panels present Katrina-related themes, which address and, in some ways, answer Richard Ford's question about just how writers and journalists are to utilize their greatest tool during these hard times. The answer is in the attempt, but then again, writing and creating in general are always nothing more than the attempt to communicate something that is at first intangible -- but if successful, the result can be life altering for both creator and audience. This year, the extraordinary 20-year-old literary tradition expresses our determination to "restore," as Joshua Clark states, not only our city but also our spirits. The festival's complete schedule, ticket pricing and venue information is available at the festival's Web site, www.tennesseewilliams.net.