The 2015 Southern Festival of Books kicks off this Friday, October 9 and runs through Sunday, October 11 at Legislative Plaza and its environs. In a festival-heavy town, The Southern Festival of Books remains one of my favorites. It helps that I’m a full-time reader, amateur book collector and compulsive book buyer, though I’m working on reeling in this last descriptor a bit and taking advantage of the Nashville Public Library more.
So loving books and the written word – wherever it’s written – is a good start to enjoying the Southern Festival of Books, but (of course) it’s only the beginning. The biggest joy for me in going to the Festival has been the access to writers, the engaging readings and conversations, and the memories that follow. I have plenty.
One of my favorites is from 2009. It’s notable to me because it’s also tied to a memory of the late journalist, A Word on Words (AWOW) host and First Amendment advocate, John Seigenthaler, whom I admired greatly. In the days prior to that year’s Festival, I ran into him in the break room of Nashville Public Television, where I worked and he hosted AWOW. I was overwhelmed by the choices at the Festival, and asked his advice. “Who should I not miss at the Festival?” I asked. “What authors are you excited about this year?” He said there was a woman named Kathryn Stockett, who’d written a wonderful book called, The Help, and I shouldn’t miss it. I hadn’t heard of Stockett at that point, and while The Help, which came out in February of that year, was successful, it was not yet the sensation it would become, nor the 2011 blockbuster film. I took his advice and went to see Stockett read and thought she was fantastic. I immediately bought the book and got it signed and read it. I then bought copies for other people as gifts. I know plenty of women who’ve read it since then, but to this day, John is the only man, other than myself, that I know who read it. I take that to be pretty good company. Fortunately, you can listen to Stockett’s reading that year on the Chapter16.org website.
It was also at the Southern Festival of Books that I got to hear Richard Price read and take questions in one of the Legislative Plaza rooms. He used plenty of expletives, which probably wasn’t the first time that happened in that room. He also told a great story involving meeting Paul Newman on the set of The Color of Money – Price wrote the screenplay – in which Newman asks him if he’s ever eaten a grapefruit while taking a shower. When I got my copy of Price’s latest book, Lush Life, signed I tried to make conversation with him. His novel Clockers, which was also made into a Spike Lee directed film, took place in a city modeled after my hometown, Jersey City. He was somewhat irascible, but I expected him to be. Pulling the Jersey card doesn’t always have the desired effect.
Except when it does. In 2011, Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz came to the Festival. Diaz, originally from Paterson, New Jersey, opened his reading by asking the War Memorial audience if anyone was from or had been to New Jersey. I had my signing colonnade opening.
Diaz’s reading from This is How You Lose Her was funny and sharp, and when it came time to get my book signed we had a nice chat about where we were both from. I think we fist bumped.
There have been other memorable moments: J.R. Moehringer, who wrote one of my favorite memoirs, The Tender Bar, reading from Sutton; Gary Shteyngart reading from Little Failure; Edith Pearlman discussing Binocular Vision; Tamara Saviano discussing her memoir, The Most Beautiful Girl; me getting a slice of pizza from the Joey’s House of Pizza van and not being yelled at or rushed because there’s a line behind me like there usually is on Elm Hill Pike.
This year’s festival, its 27th edition, has no shortage of excellent writers and discussions and food trucks. New are special programs focusing on young adult fiction and Understanding Islam. Go see the big writers, but be sure to take a chance on the unknowns as well. Especially the unknowns to you, as Seigenthaler’s recommendation was for me. You might discover a new author to call your own and share with others. You might walk away with some memories. If you can afford it, bring a card or some cash and consider supporting those authors and publishers. In addition to major publishers with books by visiting writers, there are dozens of smaller and university presses represented throughout the plaza as well. You might discover something you didn’t even know existed, like the Joey’s House of Pizza van.