War Memorial Plaza in Nashville is a lovely space, with fountains, magnolia trees, and a sense of grandeur that’s appropriate to its everyday purpose as a place to honor Tennesseans who have given their lives for their country. When we set up tents, performance stages and food trucks every year, our hope is that it doesn’t obscure that purpose but fulfill it, by bringing together a community of people who are able and willing to share common ground if not common ideas.
We held the 28th annual Southern Festival of Books: A Celebration of the Written Word in that space once again October 14th-16th, and once again a large community of writers and readers shared that ground. In Legislative Plaza hearing rooms and at the Nashville Public Library, on CSPAN’s BookTV and on the steps leading up to the Author Signing Colonnade, in vendor booths and at the Parnassus book sales tent, the love of books, reading and ideas was pervasive.
It is beginning to feel like a Festival tradition that into each Friday a little rain must fall. There are few sights more gratifying to Festival organizers than seeing people out with their umbrellas, browsing exhibitor booths and buying books in between attending sessions indoors. The many faithful who came out on Friday were rewarded with rich readings and conversation on topics ranging from barbecue (we love to talk about it almost as much as we love to eat it) to the enduring Pulitzer fiction prize winners.
For the ninth year, we gathered Friday evening in War Memorial Auditorium for Authors in the Round, a vital fundraiser for the Festival. The decor for the evening was inspired by book artist Daniel Lai, whose intricate and delicate piece was auctioned to support the Festival. With 43 authors in attendance, the conversation at tables kept up a lively buzz all evening and into the courtyard afterward. We are so grateful to co-chairs Dianne Neal and Paul Ney for their service to the dinner, which raises significant funds and helps to keep the Southern Festival of Books free.
Our goal every year at the Festival is that anyone can come to the event, pick up a program, and find sessions that are of interest. We know longtime attendees who spend their days going from session to session, and others who choose to buy books and just meet authors in the signing area.
And there are Festival-goers who come for the variety of outdoor events--the exhibitors, Music Stage, Artober Performance Stage, Youth Stage, and the row of fantastic Nashville food trucks along Charlotte Avenue. This year, we tested out a small beer garden with great success, and thanks to the incredible team at Yazoo Brewery, all proceeds from beer sales at the Festival benefited the event.
This year, we hosted two themed tracks of Festival sessions. For the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes, we were honored to receive support from the Federation of State Humanities Councils via its Centennial Campfires initiative. In partnership with the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, we were honored to welcome Pulitzer Prize winning authors such as Robert Olen Butler and Annette Gordon-Reed, and to host Pulitzer-winning reporters and photographs who discussed their prize-winning work in depth. As part of this track, we included a session on Pulitzer winners from Tennessee, discussing a series of essays on our Chapter16.org website that explores writers from our state, from James Agee to Cormac McCarthy.
In addition, we received support this year from the National Endowment for the Humanities to highlight some themes that we find are common to the Festival each year, those related to race, ethnicity, and identity. This track of sessions, called “Our Histories of Race and Identity,” brought together writers from diverse backgrounds, and readers turned out for sessions rich in words, ideas and discussion.
If you missed the Festival, you may catch part of it on CSPAN2’s BookTV, which aired live from the event on Saturday and Sunday, and which offers the sessions on its website and through occasional re-airing. Through this programming, viewers and audiences heard from authors on topics ranging from integration in Nashville to President Jimmy Carter, from National Book Award finalist Arlie Russell Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right) to Richard Schweid’s Invisible Nation: Homeless Families in America.
If you’re a fan of young adult fiction, no matter your age, this was a great year for you to attend the Festival. Readers of Maggie Stiefvater got a special treat when the bestselling author invited Festival attendees to help spray paint her car following her session for The Raven King. From Lauren Oliver to Randi Pink, YA authors and their fans turned out in force for the weekend’s festivities.
Best-known for her blockbuster bestselling YA If I Stay series, Gayle Forman took the stage at War Memorial Auditorium with the renowned Curtis Sittenfeld (Prep; Eligible: A Re-Telling of Pride and Prejudice) to discuss her first novel for adults, Leave Me. Also on War Memorial’s stage were authors J.D. Vance, whose Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir has sparked an astonishing national conversation on poverty and topped the bestseller lists, and perennial bestseller Sherrilyn Kenyon, whose Dragonmark: A Dark-Hunter Novel continues her run of beloved fantasy novels.
The 28th annual Festival ended on a high note Sunday with great crowds, performances of Pulitzer-winning music and plays, and authors such as Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Where the Light Gets In: Losing My Mother Only to Find Her Again) and free cake for the lucky attendees at Anne Byrn’s session for her instant classic coookbook, American Cake: From Colonial Gingerbread to Classic Layer, the Stories and Recipes Behind 125 of Our Best-Loved Recipes.
The Festival would not, could not, happen without tremendous community support at all levels. There are approximately 300 people who volunteer at the event, and each of them plays a vital role, from hosting sessions to selling merchandise. From the faithful friends who contribute $35 and above, to strong community partners like Nashville Scene, Nashville Public Library, and Parnassus Books, our small staff at Humanities Tennessee is in awe each year at the army of the willing who give of their time and money to make the Southern Festival of Books: A Celebration of the Written Word a success. When the banners come down and the trucks are packed up on Sunday night, we gather on the darkened Plaza steps for a few minutes of appreciation of everyone’s hard work, and we offer our thanks then and now to all of the writers, readers, and volunteers whose passion keeps us going. We offer thanks for another great year, and happy reading!
*Photos of the Authors in the Round dinner taken by Eric England