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This Memorial Day Weekend, a diverse group of GLBT writers, publishing professionals, and enthusiastic readers will descend upon New Orleans for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. It’s an annual tradition that puts a gay spin on the land of Blanche DuBois and gumbo, where, to quote one of the weekend’s many events, you can “glitter with the literati,” discussing craft and the business of publishing in a city like no other.
Paul Willis, Executive Director of the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, who coordinates Saints and Sinners as well, expects 150-200 attendees at this year’s event, which will be held at the historic Hotel Monteleone. The Monteleone, anchoring the French Quarter, is a literary landmark of New Orleans, with suites named for famous hotel residents Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.
Willis describes Saints and Sinners as a combination of “solid literary content and a relaxed atmosphere where you can be inspired by other writers without any sense of hierarchy.” It’s a chance for writers of all stripes to get together, novices side by side with literary legends.
This year’s festival features master classes on writing and publishing by an impressive slate of speakers, including Dorothy Allison, Bernard Cooper, Elana Dykewomon, Ellen Hart, Andrew Holleran, Ayana Mathis, Felice Picano, Justin Torres, and Jess Wells. In addition, every hour offers a choice of readings and panels on a variety of topics, featuring both new and established writers as well as a number of publishing professionals.
Beyond the numerous panels and workshops, the heart of the festival remains the opportunity to meet and interact with others in the industry. Kelly Smith, editor-in-chief of Bywater Books, has been attending the festival since it started. “For me, the most important part is spending the weekend with a bunch of people who love the same thing I love, who spend their time working on the same sorts of things I do. I always leave the festival re-energized. So many of us work far away from our colleagues and it can be isolating. At Saints and Sinners I always get back in touch with why I’m in this industry, with why I spend my time doing this work. It is more than that I love literature. I also love this community, and bringing these two things together is my life’s work. At Saints and Sinners I’m surrounded by people who share my passion and it’s like I’m in a happy cocoon for the weekend.”
That’s a sentiment shared by Michele Karlsberg, whose career encompasses many roles, including author, publisher, and publicist: “The importance of a yearly gathering of writers, publishers, publicists, bookstore owners, distributors, agents, and media has been beneficial to all that attend. The friendships you create with your colleagues are priceless.” Karlsberg notes further that the camaraderie of the festival “inspires writers to have more self-confidence.”
Longtime attendee Felice Picano calls Saints and Sinners “the place to go and be seen and heard” for new as well as established writers. Picano has found a number of publishing opportunities at the festival, from his own books to anthologies and reviews: “Networking seems so easy over coffee and beignets.”
When he brought his book True Stories: Portraits from My Past to Saints and Sinners in 2011, doing readings and speaking about it on panels, he says, “readers’ response was immediate and very positive. That continued after the festival. So I suddenly knew what to expect from a book that I’d kind of wondered about at first.” Hoping for lightning to strike twice, Picano is premiering his latest book, 20th Century Un-limited, at the festival this year.
The schedule includes sessions on a range of topics, including memoir, AIDS literature, book promotion, and mysteries. Another highlight of the festival will be a reading by Lambda Literary Award finalists, including Ellen Hart, William Holden, Anne Laughlin, J.M. Redmann, William Sterling Walker, Barry Webster, and Jerry Wheeler. Also on tap are social events and a walking tour of New Orleans.
Author—and recent winner of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s 2013 James Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize—Trebor Healey has been a regular attendee of the festival for several years. “I’m excited to be coming back,” he says, “because it’s been the only major book fair in recent years. To Paul’s credit, he has sustained this thing through the dark days of gay lit’s lean times. It’s been a great preservation of community, which is really important. It’s one of the few places where a community of gay writers is sustained and cultivated.”
Healey, whose recent AIDS-themed novel A Horse Named Sorrow is up for a Lambda this year, will also be featured (along with Michael Thomas Ford, Marc Guy Foster, and Emanuel Xavier) at a reception for re-Vision and ME+U, two local groups for young gay and bisexual men, focused on community development and safer-sex education. Promoting HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention was one of the founding goals of Saints and Sinners, which each year donates a portion of proceeds to the NO/AIDS Task Force, a partner on the men’s group event. Healey notes: “I’m excited to be a part of a festival that is connected to the whole gay community in New Orleans, not just writers, and invested in maintaining awareness about AIDS and HIV.”
Like any good novelist, Saints and Sinners knows how to make use of a setting: the city of New Orleans itself is a dominant character and a major draw for the festival. For one weekend a year, the French Quarter is taken over by a band of writers and other lovers of literature, all staying within walking distance of the festival and everything else that the Quarter has to offer. After an engaging panel, festival goers can often be found at a local pub or the popular Clover Grill, chatting about writing and inspiring each other over a cocktail or a po’boy.
As Healey puts it, “Who wouldn’t want to spend four days in New Orleans? It’s worth going because you’ll have a good time no matter what happens I can’t think of another city that guarantees that.”
And Kelly Smith would agree. At the 2004 festival, she met her wife—right there at the corner of Frenchman and Chartres.
For more information on the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, readers can visit www.sasfest.org.