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One for the Books

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The Words & Music conference attracts writers and all those who love literature

Rosemary James is a Charleston, South Carolina, native, but she couldn’t be more integral to the New Orleans’ literary community if she’d been born here. She and her husband, New Orleanian Joe DeSalvo, an impassioned antiquarian book collector, own Faulkner House Books in Pirate’s Alley. They also head the nonprofit Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, which celebrates literature and local writers, and organize Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans, an annual event that will be held this year from November 20 to 23. In addition to critiques and workshops for authors, there are concerts, interviews, author readings and improv storytelling. Personalities from Ted Turner to noted jazz authority Stanley Crouch are participating.

This year, the theme is the American Dream. It connects with New Orleans’ Big Read of The Great Gatsby, the National Endowment for the Arts program that the Faulkner Society launched in September with the Jefferson Parish Public Library as co-sponsor. The Big Read, which had its official launch party in October, encourages a city, especially its at-risk youth, to read the same great American novel. Those who are interested can attend related events at Words & Music. The festival is not only entertaining but it’s affordable. For example, tickets to hear Ted Turner speak are $5, with discounts for writers, students and seniors.

New Orleans Living: How did you wind up buying the house where William Faulkner wrote his first novel and starting the Faulkner Society and opening the bookstore?

RJ: My husband always wanted as a retirement occupation a rare bookstore, and we wanted the right place. It was serendipitous that the house came on the market after we started talking about it. Oil prices had been coming down, and the house stayed on the market for a long time. We decided to make a lowball offer and to our surprise it was accepted.

We bought it in 1988, and it took us two years to renovate. Joe opened the bookstore on Faulkner’s birthday [September 25] in 1990. We had a party to celebrate moving to Pirate’s Alley and opening the bookstore and jokingly called it the first meeting of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society. The people who came to the first party were our initial membership.

Tell me about this year’s Words & Music theme, the American Dream.

We picked it to go with our Big Read project. We were thinking about it anyhow because of the political debate going on. A primary theme [in the election] was the American Dream and who’s going to have access to it. It seemed obvious to pick Fitzgerald. [Gatsby] could have been written yesterday. That’s how relevant it is.

There’s a diverse group of speakers at the conference, but they all fit in with your theme.

That’s what we tried to accomplish. There are some participants who come every year, backbone members of the organization. Like Michael Malone. He is a great writer himself but also a teacher at Duke, and every year he teaches Fitzgerald there. So he’s teaching the master class for high schools.

Words & Music is great for writers, but most events have a broader appeal.

There’s a lot for everyone to enjoy. In addition to Ted Turner and Michael Lang [co-creator of Woodstock], we’re having Stanley Crouch, one of the country’s real jazz authorities. It’s his theory that The Great Gatsby is based on “Beale Street Blues.” There’s a jazz event, Jazz After Hours at Napoleon House, that people enjoy. People love Literature and Lunch. [Author and humorist] Roy Blount Jr. always sets the scene at the closing event, Tall Tales, and he’s very funny. He gives the first tall tale and people improvise based on that.

After the storm, you put together a collection of essays, My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by Her Sons, Daughters, and Lovers, to benefit Faulkner Society programs and the PEN Writers Fund.

A few days after [Joe and I] evacuated, my agent called and said, “I want to do something to help. Why don’t we do this?” He sold the idea in about five days. It isn’t a book about Katrina, but a celebration of things about the city that people love.

How is the New Orleans literary scene today?

It’s a truism that disaster inspires people to write. [Katrina] has inspired a lot of good writing. In general, there’s been a real sense of togetherness since the storm. We ran a series at the Cabildo called My New Orleans, to focus on things about the city that make it special. One event filled up the whole cathedral. Any excuse to be together and celebrate the city drew a crowd.