First, it's important to understand that New Orleans has been to writers what heroin is to a junkie: an ultimate high, sensory overload to the nth degree. Itinerants on Jackson Square, tarot-reading under candlelight, juxtaposed against the blinding excess of the Garden District. The sounds of local accents -- some Cajun, some a sort of southern belle meets Brooklyn thug -- played alongside melodies leaking from every bar, here an Irish ballad, there a blues band, everywhere a jazz combo. And the smells, from the pervasive stench of stale "huge ass beers" spilled along Bourbon Street to the aroma of a fresh batch of jambalaya, gumbo or etouffe, beckoning from French doors thrown open wide in invitation.
But below the surface of these sensory images lurks the current of energy that is the "real" New Orleans. It's the heady stuff writers yearn to get at, the beating -- albeit often inebriated -- heart of the city and its people, no matter the sagging infrastructure or leaking levees.
Feeding that frenzy, pre- and post-Katrina, have been author Rosemary James and attorney Joe De Salvo Jr., curators and co-creators (along with Faulkner scholar W. Kenneth Holditch) of the Pirates Alley Faulkner Society.
In 1990, James and De Salvo restored Faulkner House, a then-ailing structure, where William Faulkner wrote his first novel, "Soldiers' Pay." They opened Faulkner House Books on the ground floor, crammed with fine literature and rare editions. They created the nonprofit to provide realistic assistance to writers and quality literary programming for the reading public, each year expanding into ambitious projects, including an international writing competition, as well as Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans, five days of literary programming each year for readers and writers.
New Orleans, always mecca for the literati because of its cosmopolitan tolerance, began attracting bigger crowds. Each year, more acclaimed authors and aspiring talents flocked to the Big Easy to commune with other like-minded word junkies. They'd sit around discussing the influence of Aristotle or ancient Rome on literature, or F. Scott Fitzgerald's legacy. Then they'd rush back to their rooms to write, maybe stopping by the landmark Carousel bar in the Hotel Monteleone on their way, seeking fortification from the same watering hole that Faulkner, Williams, Hemingway and Capote slurped from in decades past.
On Aug. 29, 2005, howling winds, anguished cries and rushing water obliterated the beloved music and quirky accents of New Orleans. Writers watched ... and wrote. A proliferation of post-Katrina musings filled newspapers, magazines and rushed-to-market books. And while we wrote, Rosemary and Joe got to work. Like other NOLA natives, armed with a toolbox of invisible implements, these stalwart citizens grabbed for their strength, clutched their faith, wielded their renowned resiliency and ventured forth with unimaginable fortitude.
But in 2006, James and De Salvo indeed hosted a small yet devoted tribe of readers and writers. What they lacked in funding they went out-of-pocket to supply, painstakingly restoring the festival, like the buildings that housed it, brick by brick.
This year's Words & Music will once again play host to hundreds of writers from around the globe. True, there are fewer candlelight readings in the Square these days, and fewer restaurants sporting gumbo. A more conservative economy is careful not to spill as much beer on the sidewalks.
But the heart of the city beats stronger than ever, forged by a common bond of Louisianans with writers the world over, who truly get why New Orleans matters.
A pro billiards player and the co-creator of Pool & Billiard Magazine, Shari J. Stauch has worked in New Orleans since 2004. An award-winning essayist and fiction writer, she is the author of three nonfiction books and the co-director of programming for Words & Music: A Literary Feast in New Orleans. Read her blog on Red Room.