“The truth wears a lot of different hats in New Orleans,” said a panelist at the Words & Music Conference 2016.
For anyone unfamiliar with the conference, it is held every year at the Hotel Monteleone (this year on November 9-13), and Rosemary James and Joe DeSalvo, Jr., who founded The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society in 1990, host the Words & Music Festival every year.
The conference circled through the prevalent themes of truth, New Orleans, and the darkness the city airs out in the open. There were comprised panels spanning multiple writing genres ranging from novels, novellas, short fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction to literature for millennial readers, biography, spec fiction, narrative non-fiction essays, memoir, and poetry.
Within these topics, published writers presented their New Orleans noir, documentation of the “Baby Dolls” Mardi Gras tradition, Jean Lafitte tales, and Mexican fiction. The conference celebrated its literary contest winners, including Lillian Lechler, whom acclaimed Southern writer Roy Blount, Jr. judged the winner of the Short Story by a high school student competition.
John Biguenet—a multi-genre writer, Loyola University literature professor, and New Orleans native—grew up understanding that New Orleans and the United States were two distinct places. Speaking on a panel with fellow contributors to Julie Smith’s anthology called New Orleans Noir, Biguenet said of New Orleanians: “We’re safer in the dark than in direct sunlight … but Americans have a much more optimistic view of the world.”
Maurice Carlos Ruffin, New Orleans writer, attorney, and founding member of the city’s Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, said on the New Orleans noir panel: “Ghosts only wander the world because they’re upset … because they haven’t been allowed freedom and truth.”
It wasn’t all about quotable writers, though. Southern and New York agents and editors spoke on panels as well as held one-to-one critiques with writers on their active manuscripts and book proposals.
There were journalists discussing music, including New Orleans journalist and musician Ben Sandmel and nola.com music critic Allison Fensterstock sharing details of Allen Touissant’s life as well as videos for the one-year anniversary of his death. Actors read from Walker Percy’s essay, New Orleans, Mon Amour; there was a scintillating competition between editors for best answers to frequently asked questions about writing, editing, and agenting.
The learning continued in non-conventional ways as Dr. Penny Morrill, biographer and pre-Columbian art history professor at George Mason University, delivered a presentation on William Spratling, a silver designer who rejuvenated Mexico’s silver industry, and who doubled as onetime landlord to William Faulkner. Then there was Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writers Month – or NaNoWriMo for short – who traveled from San Francisco to tout the joys and frustrations of writing a full-length work in one month, and to share literary successes. NaNoWriMo challenges participants to write 50,000 words each every November, and has grown since its 1999 inception to 300,000 writers in 90 countries.
The conference wasn’t all literature shoptalk. It is titled Words & Music, after all. On Thursday, the conference’s official opening night, conference participants stumbled a few blocks from the hotel to James and DeSalvo’s home. Once inhabited by William Faulkner, the ground floor presently houses Faulkner House Books. James and DeSalvo’s upstairs residence overlooks St. Louis Cathedral.
The conference culminated with a gala immediately following the annual meeting, also at the hotel, with dinner, speeches, and dancing. This year’s featured speakers were New Orleans author, entrepreneur, and entertainer Morgan Molthrop and Texas-hailing “Pulpwood Queen” Kathy Murphy. Donning a fine tiara, Murphy shared the origin story of Pulpwood Queen and Timber Guy Reading Nation, her book promotion factory, which has 700 affiliated book clubs across the U.S.; and of Girlfriend Weekend, Murphy’s annual Pulpwood Queen Book Festival.
Each year, the Words & Music Conference presents ALIHOT Awards, to celebrate writers who qualify as legends in their own time. James took the name from one of her former journalism colleagues, New Orleans police reporter Jack Dempsey, who signed his dispatches: “ALIHOT: A Legend in His Own Time.” This year’s ALIHOT winners were Yuri Herrera for fiction, Nancy Isenberg for history, and Christina Vella for biography.
The conference brings regulars from Norway and both U.S. coasts who write, edit and publish. On Saturday of this year’s event, The New Orleans Book Festival competed for Louisiana’s attention, which Words & Music so richly deserves.
Words & Music wrapped Sunday morning, with panels including one on spec fiction, where the topic of dystopian novels arose. From the audience, Rosemary James shared the following insight about New Orleans’ reaction to its intimate relationship with water-borne catastrophe: “New Orleans is afraid of water. There are only one or two places where you can get a drink while facing the river. It’s as if the city is turning its back on its greatest fear.”
Indeed. But if this conference makes one thing clear, it’s that New Orleans hides from so little, putting all the rest out there for us to read, celebrate and dance to.