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“Tell Me About It”–Jason Berry at the Tennessee Williams Festival March 24, 2011

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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Today I was working but took a long lunch hour to see Jason Berry, a journalist who has also published a novel and a play on Earl K. Long and an excellent book on New Orleans music, Up From The Cradle of Jazz. One of the flaws of the “master classes” in the festival schedule is that they are not really master classes, but really featured lecturers, but Berry’s “Finding the Non-Fiction Narrative” was worth the price of admission just for the Earl K. Long anecdotes.

He spoke at length about the genesis of several of his works, including the play Earl Long in Purgatory, his book on New Orleans music and his forthcoming non-fiction book on Vatican finances. The cadances of speech have always been a large influence in his writing style, Berry said, a “primary lure” into writing.

He related an annecdote about a friend who worked in the Democratic Cloakroom in the U.S. Senate when Berry was at Georgetown University. His friend’s job included answering the telephone and telling senators the agenda for that day on the Senate floorm, and he would frequently do his best imitations of various Senators for Berry. Th e one that stuck in Berry’s mind was Sen. Lloyd Bentson who, when the phone was answered would just say: “Tell me about it.” The line stuck with him so long, he attributed that same line and manner on the phone to one of his characters in his novel about Louisiana politics, Last of the Red Hot Poppas.

Berry, who started out writing about politics, found inspiration for his fiction in reading Latin American Magical Realists, citing Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa: “they were writing about where I live” was his immediate reaction, and he cited a Parish Review interview with Llosa in which that author spoke of his experience reading William Faulkner and finding techniques for describing an world at once as imaginary and real as Faulker’s Yoknapatawpha County.

He traced his interest in Louisiana’s bizarre politics and Earl K. Long in particular to his introduction to politics as a young boy by his father, who called him in one night to see Long on television, ” a man in a wheelchair flanked by two state troopers being dragged into a mental institution and (WDSU-TV) Channel Six was bleeping out the curse worlds. My father said, ‘This is your governor’.”

Berry also spoke about the re-issue of Up From the Cradle of Jazz by University of Louisiana – Lafayette press, and the 110 pages he added to the new edition focusing on musicians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, starting from the lyrics of songs written in the aftermath. “What I tried to capture was the resiliance of the musicians, and the writers and visual artists,” Berry said. Calling out both the White House and City Hall he said “government failed and culture prevailed.” The recovery of the city was closely tied to the determination of perhaps five thousand musicians and cultural workers without whom the city would never have recovered, he explained.

He began the new chapter starting from lyrics to songs written after the storm, which he said he said were primary sources for the expanded edition, “as valid as the depositions and other legal documents that I used in the book about the [Catholic] Church.” He did not limit himself just to musicans such as his friend clarinetest and educator Dr. Micheal White but to other cultural contributors, including Mardi Gras Indian Chief Donald Harrison Sr.’s wife Herreast who was a fifth generation quilter. It was the culture leaders and their commitment to return to the city that made the recovery for everyone else, for “all the service industries that depend on them” possible.

Berry finished up regaling the crowd with wonderful stories of the past misdeeds of Bishops and others Catholic clergy that came up during his early research in his forthcoming book on the finanaces of the Catholic church, but the red meat in his lecture was, for Toulouse Street at least, in his discussion of Earl Long and the role of musicians in the city’s recovery.

For more information on the Tennessee Williams Festival Master Classes and other programs, visit their website. The festival runs through Sunday. I’m done with master classes for this year, but I have my festival discussion panel pass and I’ll see y’all there.