There is no greater thrill for a writer than a packed room at your panel reading at a literature festival, and I had that thrill once. Just once. Granted, this was the Tennessee Williams Literature Festival in New Orleans and the panel was on Louisiana music, and nobody is more interested in Louisiana music than Louisiana people. That interest only intensifies when it is New Orleanians being interested in New Orleans music. I suspect if one targeted just the right street corner in Treme, you could get the interest of your audience level to approach the infinite.
My book Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana’s Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks and Dance Halls was not as New Orleans-focused as the work of the other panelists, which put me in a nice position. It was like being a special guest on the bandstand, offering something a little different from the usual proceedings.
That is what being an author is, I think. People assume you write books about things because you are experts, but it’s actually the reverse. The deep mining and the wayward traveling one must do to satisfy a book’s page count and an editor’s obsession with quality brings about a modicum of expertise (if you do it right.)
It is such a weird thing to consciously try to become an expert in anything, perhaps one of humanity’s most egregious acts of hubris, but here all we panelists were, experts in our corner of things: John Swenson had his interviews with post- and intra-Katrina musicians in his New Atlantis, as did Keith Spera in his Groove Interrupted; Alison Fensterstock explored the gyrations of new Orleans hip-hop in The Definition of Bounce; and me.
We had our quips at the ready. It’s a little like playing a solo. I have a good one about zydeco where I count on my fingers all the improbable things about black men, dressed as cowboys, playing R&B, in French, on accordions, in the middle of nowhere, in the dark—and the audience seemed appreciably appreciative. It might be the one arena where a music writer gets to feel what a musician feels, not to be alone for once in pursuing this curious art of writing about other art. To have strangers dig what you do.
We did get one question about whether we felt bad exploiting musicians for our writing and not giving them back all this money we make off of them. The response was a collective silence from the panelists that radiated, “What money?” But it’s a fair question, mostly because all questions are fair. Books are written by asking questions and hoping that you answer some question even if it wasn’t the one you started with.
Everyone on that panel said they wanted to include a CD with his or her book and the licensing restrictions made it prohibitive, but the unspoken answer was, perhaps, that we are not in promotions; we are not in sales, specifically, though I suppose we all do our share of both. We are all trying to chase down some wriggly, elusive truth in this thing we think we know everything about. And the only place you really get that affirmation, that sense that there is a synergy between disparate people engaged in the lonely pursuit of writing, is at a festival like Tennessee Williams. I like to think I know a little about rock stars, and I think this is a little what it’s like.