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For years I have been hearing about the legendary Saints & Sinners Queer Literary Festival. I have heard nothing but amazing things, and was delighted when this year all the pieces fell into place for me to not only attend, but to participate on panels and in readings as well. Saints & Sinners, now in its 10th year, takes place annually in New Orleans—this year, May 23-26—and brings together an assortment of LGBTQ authors to discuss the ins and outs of craft, career, marketing, community building, and so much more. To be honest, I’m not the kind of author who tends to attend a lot of writing conferences. Okay, to be honest, Saints & Sinners is the first literary festival that’s ever appealed to me enough for me to make the travel commitment.
The 10th Annual Saints & Sinners conference brought with it the opportunity to participate in Master’s-Level craft classes from queer literary legends like Dorothy Allison, and was a weekend full of panels, workshops, and readings. I’d been looking forward to this conference for months, and am thrilled to report that I wasn’t at all disappointed and to now share my reflections and daily musings about the conference with Lambda Literary readers!
I almost didn’t make it to Saints & Sinners. I’m an anxious traveller—the kind that arrives at the airport two hours early for domestic flights. The weather in NYC was overcast as I approached the terminal, but I didn’t think much if it until I got inside and saw the display board full of delayed and canceled flights. I didn’t panic. I got through security. When I got to my gate and asked the airline staff if they had any updates, they told me to start praying. Not very comforting.
I had planned to arrive in New Orleans with enough time to make it to the opening party, a celebration of the release of the Saints & Sinners Short Fiction Anthology. Unfortunately, as my flight became more and more delayed, I realized I wasn’t going to make it. As my significantly delayed flight began to board, I found myself standing next to Emanuel Xavier! So excited to see another friendly queer writer, and be able to bond over our shared frustration over the travel delays. Three hours late, in a window between thunderstorms, my flight took off and I was officially in route to Saints & Sinners!
I did a LOT of live-tweeting at the conference—I’m on Twitter at @SassafrasLowrey. Be sure to follow the hash tag #SASFest13 to see a lot of the brilliant things authors had to say over the weekend on panels and in workshops!
Due to Thursday’s travel difficulties, it had been late by the time I hit New Orleans so Friday was really my first opportunity to get a taste of the city, and of course Saints & Sinners. The registration table opened at 9am and… I was there at 9am. Much to my delight I got registered and dropped off copies of my three books, which had taken up most of my luggage. I then wandered around the French Quarter for a couple of hours figuring out how to control my nerves about the afternoon when I would get the chance to work with one of the authors I most admire, Dorothy Allison.
My first workshop of the conference was Justin Torres’ master class, “Close to the Bone— Writing Fiction From Personal Experience.” I had actually finished reading We the Animals while I was stuck at NYC’s LaGuardia airport, hoping I would make it to New Orleans. The book was brilliant, and so was Justin in his workshop. He led the group in a lively lecture turned interactive conversation about the challenges, concerns, and power of integrating personal experiences into one’s work as a fiction author, and the specific challenges of blending reality into one’s fiction. Torres was sweet, funny, and just radiated brilliance. Our queer literary community is so much the better for all of the life that he is breathing into it.
Then, finally, came the workshop with Dorothy Allison.
She was teaching the master class, “A Voice Like Thunder, A Text In Whispers.” I was situated in the front row—thank god we’d already had a conversation and I pushed myself to give her a copy of my novel Roving Pack, and stumble through a few words about what her work means to me. I don’t normally get this way about people, but Dorothy Allison and her work influenced me at a pivotal point when I was first learning to talk about survival, abuse, and desire. There was a period of time when I literally carried her words everywhere in my backpack. I was, on some level, a little scared to take a workshop from this woman who I have looked up to since my baby queer days, to have her real and alive in front of me, not just on the pages of a book. I shouldn’t have been concerned. Dorothy blew me away. I wrote notes on everything she said as fast as I could so that I could revisit her words again and again (and tweet). I was in utter awe of the way she was able to captivate a room, giving us valuable lessons about how to do the same.
We did a writing exercise with the prompt: “the scars on my body are stories….”
That morning, my wandering had taken me to the famous St. Louis Cathedral, just a few French Quarter blocks away. A woman in the gift shop had said, “Girl, it hurts to look at you,” in reference to my visible tattoos and piercings—I knew exactly what to write about. As we finished Dorothy asked for five volunteers. I was one of them. I’m not the kind of person to eagerly volunteer for something, but I had made the commitment to force myself to be more extroverted, and to get the most out of every opportunity I had in New Orleans.
After Dorothy’s class my head was spinning with ideas, inspiration, information, and the way she captivated the room. Part of getting the most out of the conference, for me, meant practicing self-care and taking the time I needed to digest what I’d learned. I got lunch, went for a swim, took a nap, and was refreshed and ready to mingle in time for the Glitter With The Literati Welcome Party at the Hermann-Grima House!
Workshops! I knew the day would be packed so I started my morning with a walk along the Mississippi River and fortified with Café Du Monde beignets. Of course this meant I was covered in powdered sugar and had to go back to my hotel to change before the conference got started.
My day began with the “Singular Women, Singular Worlds” panel where lesbian writers Elana Dykewomon, Jill Malone, Judith Katz and Sally Bellerose spoke about their experiences creating a sense of space within their novels.
Then I participated in a panel with Trebor Healey, Greg Herren, and Jeffrey Ricker moderated by Ruth Sternglantz looking at “Young Adult vs. New Adult.” The panel was definitely a lively discussion about the complexities of the market, how to craft fiction for those audiences, and from my perspective, the experience of being what I call an “accidental young adult writer” —where I have never written or marketed for that audience specifically, but have a following amongst queer youth.
Saints & Sinners is back-to-back panels and workshops so I left my panel and went right to “Singing and Screaming: The Art of Voice in Fiction” where Justin Torres joined Trebor Healey, JM Redmann, and Summer Wood in discussing the construction of character voice. The authors talked about their personal processes and answered audience questions.
The next panel was one of my favorite parts of the weekend, titled, “Got to Have Friends.” It was a conversation between Dorothy Allison and Justin Torres facilitated by Susan Larson. The conversation was about the intimate details of mentorship, protégé, community, trust, and jealousy. This panel offered some of the most honest talk about the experience of being an author and the need and complexity that exists around building friendships amongst those other queer writers who are, in many ways, your competition—but also the people most likely to understand your world.
The final panel I participated in that day, “Beyond the Work Itself: The Writer and Society,” was with Kenyon Farrow, Judith Katz and Mimi Schippers, moderated by Martin Hyatt. This panel led to a conversation about the responsibility that we each feel we have to the queer community, which extends beyond the artistic work itself. We all spoke extensively about the issues that most matter to each of us, that influence our queer lives and as such, the work that we do—be it fiction, non-fiction, or both.
I started my day having breakfast with several authors who saw me walking alone on the street towards a drugstore to find a fruit cup and invited me to join them—that egg in-da-hole and cheesy grits, along with the excellent company, was far more satisfying. It felt like a brilliant way to kick off the last day of the conference.
In terms of panels, I started with “Cleanup on Page 23: The Role of Editors and Editing in Your Book’s Success” with Jameson Currier, Michael Thomas Ford, Kelly Smith and Ruth Sternglantz. The group offered the audience a great overview of the importance of editing but also a nuanced exploration of the different directions editing can take a manuscript.
From there, I participated in one of the author reading series where I read an except from my novel Roving Pack in which the main character, Click, finds hirself having a very queer encounter in a church—figured it fit with the Saints & Sinners theme.
I was flying home to NYC in the late afternoon so the very last panel I was able to attend was “There and Back Again: Surviving and Loving Your Writing Career” with panelists Trebor Healey, Martin Hyatt, Fay Jacobs and Jess Wells moderated by Michael Thomas Ford. It was a great panel, and the perfect way to end the conference for me. The group spoke candidly about the struggles and triumphs of a long-term writing career. They spoke of letters from readers whose lives were saved because of their books, day jobs, unpaid rent, lack of health insurance, and how they find the inspiration to keep writing.
I was not ready to leave New Orleans, or Saints and Sinners. I’ve been home a couple of days now, and I’m still in awe of what an incredible conference Paul Willis and all the other organizers have been able to pull together year after year, for the past decade. It is my sincere hope that Saints & Sinners continues for at least another decade, and continues to grow. I would like to see more young writers—at 29, I was often the youngest person in the room by at least a decade. This isn’t a bad thing, and on a personal level I greatly enjoyed the chance to engage in conversation with authors who literally paved the way for my own queer career. That said, for the sake of longevity, I hope that the conference will be able to attract more young writers, as well as increase the representation of trans and genderqueer writers.
One of the things that stood out most to me over the weekend was the ways in which everyone really went out of their way to ensure that no one was left out. I’ve never before witnessed a writers’ space where posturing was simply absent. People were genuinely invested in talking to one another, gaining different opinions, and figuring out ways to get queer stories out into the world to the readers that want them without tearing each other down in the process. I left the conference more committed than ever to the queer writing career I’ve been building, and more inspired to continue to work on my new novel – Lost Boi – a queer, punk, leather Peter Pan retelling.