He knew he wanted to stay, but he wasn't sure how. Like so many others, a summer of bartending in the French Quarter had stretched into a year and a half, and writer Josh Clark realized he was at a crossroads.
"I decided I'd do one of two things: either get the hell out of here or start doing something really productive with my writing," Clark says. "That's sort of where the idea for the project came from. In some sense, it's a big excuse to stay here."
The "big excuse" blossomed into a grand undertaking: assembling an anthology of short fiction by living writers with each story taking place in the French Quarter. And starting his company, Light Of New Orleans Publishing, in order to publish the work. The result is French Quarter Fiction: The Newest Stories of America's Oldest Bohemia. It is an excellent collection representing the work of 37 writers who have helped make the Vieux Carre, as James Nolan puts it in the book's introduction, "a place in the imagination that imbues these worn bricks and rotting boards with magic."
And that magic isn't just voodoo, although the occult plays a part in such stories as Jason Keene's "Conjure Me," set in the suffocating days of the yellow fever plague, and John Biguenet's "Gregory's Fate," which displays some of the shortcomings of shape-shifting. But perhaps the greatest spell took place before the book was written, when Clark managed to convince so many well-known and highly paid authors such as Poppy Z. Brite, Julie Smith, Andrei Codrescu, Ellen Gilchrist, Valerie Martin and Tim Parrish to contribute stories for a token honorarium and no royalties.
"I already knew of many of them, and after some research I compiled a list of 25 writers," Clark explains. "These were people who had been published and who I knew had either written about the French Quarter or lived there and could write about it. I got all of their addresses and sent them informational packets. The response was overwhelming; every single person, with the exception of Anne Rice, basically offered me a story if they had one to give. Some even, like Tim Parrish, created new ones.
"A few of these authors get tens of thousands of dollars for being published, and to have them do it was amazing," Clark continues. "They wanted to be part of the project."
And he didn't stop with known authors. Living in the Quarter and recognizing the untapped source of literary talent, the 28-year-old Clark wanted to reach out to his fellow bohemians, either living here or elsewhere. But this time, he didn't send out separate invitations.
"It's like the title of the books says; this is still a bohemia more than any other American city. You have very artistic people who can work day jobs to support themselves and still be able to live in the middle of the city and do things like write at night or whenever. I placed ads in publications like the Gambit, national magazines, and every Web site I could find asking for submissions. We got almost 700 from all over the world -- from Australia, the Czech Republic, and Bourbon Street."
Clark, who had never previously edited a book, then had to go through the unenviable task of paring down the number of stories -- difficult by the sheer volume, and painful for having to refuse another artist. Still, his resulting choices are perspicacious and revelatory in exposing previously unknown (except by small literary circles) local talent. Joe Longo, an MFA graduate from UNO, deftly plumbs the murky reality of the service industry with his story, "S.I.N.ners." Jason Weise's "The Dive" gives a memorable first-hand account of taking the literal and metaphorical plunge into the Mississippi River. Andy Young, a poet who teaches at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, exposes her economical but fully descriptive use of language with her one-page offering, "Go to Hell." And Mick Vover, a photographer and New Orleans transplant from Australia, convincingly proves in "Appealing for the Truth" that a bet made drunk is sacred.
The coup de grace of the book, and for Clark, is a previously unpublished work by Tennessee Williams, "The Night Was Full of Hours." The story relates the first-person ruminations of an aging veteran of the French Quarter and his insomniac struggles as the "loneliest man." It is not a stretch to imagine that the narrator is Williams himself, nor is it hard to see why Clark broke his rule regarding the anthology being exclusive to living writers.
After all, who better to conclude this collection of Vieux Carre fiction than the man who once wrote, "On my social passport Bohemia is indelibly stamped, without regret on my part."
- "A few of these authors get tens of thousands of dollars for being published," Josh Clark says of the writers who contributed works to his anthology. "They wanted to be part of the project."