Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Southern Festival of Books: Nashville Has More than Music!

Even before moving to Nashville in 2016, I found ways to get here in October for the Southern Festival of Books presented by Humanities Tennessee. This free event, held in the downtown Nashville Public Library and extending up the hill to War Memorial Auditorium is a feast for book lovers. Between the two edifices are booths--books vendors, authors, writing programs--and stages featuring music, poetry and more.

Now that I am settled here, I have to study the schedule, choosing between so many excellent sessions, many in the same time slots. Opening the first session in the library auditorium was country singer Rory Feek, who lost his wife and singing partner to cancer a few years ago. He opened his session with songs, then read from his memoirs about his courtship and marriage to Joey, as well as The Cow Said Neigh, his children's book. He invited his young daughter Indiana to join him on stage, and she promptly curled up in his lap and fell asleep, a perfect visual for his newest children's book The Way God Made You.

Discussing Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South, Samia Serageldin, who first dreamed up the anthology was joined by Marshall Chapman and Belle Boggs, two of the authors who shared the stories of their mothers in the book. Serageldin first conceived the idea for the book when her mother died in Cairo the same day another friend lost her mom. She mentioned the possible project to author Lee Smith, who ran with it, bringing in more stories than they had room to include.

Each of the women read from her own story: Serageldin told the story of a hypercritical mother; Chapman shared details about the woman whose daughter called "a great human but terrible mother.
Boggs, whose mother is still living and whose daughter Beatrice sat on the front row, read her essay considering her daughter as a reincarnation of her mother. With twenty-seven authors, many of them from my former home state of North Carolina, contributing stories of their mothers, the book not only promises poignant reading, but will likely evoke readers' memories of their own mothers.

A crowd lined up waiting for the doors to open on Saturday morning for the WNBA sponsored "Breakfast with the Authors," with Mary Laura Philpott interviewing Alexi Zentner (Copperhead), Anissa Gray (The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls), Karen Thompson Walker (Dreamers), and Taylor Jenkins Reid (Daisy Jones and the Six). One Instagram worthy feature of the breakfast was the miniature cupcakes topped with sugary miniatures of each of the four authors' novels--too pretty to eat.

While some audience members seemed to direct questions to Reid, whose novel was a Reese Witherspoon Book Club selection, all four books were so appealing that audience members had to debate whether or not to miss the next session in order to line up for the book signings that followed on the War Memorial Plaza.

Another particularly popular session featured Nashville: Scenes from the New American South with photographer Heidi Ross and Nashville writer and bookseller Ann Patchett, who wrote the captions and one of the essays in the book. The assignment came from New York editor Liz Sullivan, who had not actually been to Nashville, but who had a particular vision for the book: Nashville in present tense, not a retrospective--and plenty of white space. Even Ross and Patchett found that they had separate versions of Nashville, which occasionally overlapped.

They described their pleasure that so many people they invited to participate agreed to be photographed. Ross told particular stories of some of the photographs--a session with Al Gore in the same green room where he had once learned that he had lost the presidential race. She particularly prizes a picture her husband snapped in the room of her photographing the former vice president. Just as touching, though, was her account of a photograph she took of a homeless man--with his permission--when she dropped her camera and broke the lens.

The two women and their editor had to wrangle over some of the choices. Patchett thought there were too  many murals; her editor loved them.  The had to fight Sullivan to include the Predators photo, not just because it matched the color palette of a photograph of monks on the facing page, but because they believed the book would be incomplete without the team. ("They thank us at ever game," Ross quipped.)

After facilitating the earlier session, Philpott returned to share the stage with Dani Shapiro, discussing her  collection I Miss You When I Blink, a memoir collection whose narrative arc examines her attempts to break free of the perfectionism laid on her by her mother. Shapiro's latest book Inheritance also tells her own story, in this case the aftermath of a DNA test she took "recreationally," revealing that the man she considered her dad was not her biological father. Since the discovery came after the death of her parents, she had to decide to pursue the truth about her origin.

Ann Patchett shared the stage of War Memorial Auditorium with Margaret Renkl, a Nashville writer who contributes essays to the New York Times. Her recent publication Late Migrations, a collection of very short pieces that combine naturalist writing, memoir, and family history, is causing a storm in the publishing world. Not only is the writing brilliant, but the illustrations by her brother a collage artist make the book a library addition worth collecting.

For book lovers--whether they prefer fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or even cookbooks--the Southern Festival of Books should be a annual event. With Nashville musicians performing throughout the weekend, the festival is a sampler of  the best Nashville has to offer.

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