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RECAP: THE 29TH ANNUAL SOUTHERN FESTIVAL OF BOOKS

“A wonderful event that brings together writers and readers in a classy and beautiful city.” -- author Deno Trakas

 

 

It was a year of change at the 29th annual Southern Festival of Books: A Celebration of the Written Word, and change can be challenging but also energizing. As long-planned alterations to the Festival site came about, the Humanities Tennessee staff spent a great deal of time talking about how we might improve the Festival experience for writers and for readers, and we made changes that we hoped would preserve the community feel of the event while also improving the logistics.

 

We are fortunate that our good friends at the Nashville Public Library were happy to host all sessions of the Festival. The 2017 Library Journal Library of the Year is remarkable in many ways, but perhaps most importantly for the simple goal of having as many people as possible use its services. This treasured space became the home of all Festival sessions this year, and hummed throughout the weekend with author talks, panel discussions, conversation and fellowship among readers.

 

We kicked off this year in grand style at 12:00 Friday with a packed house for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan, discussing her new novel, Manhattan Beach. Egan’s reading and talk set the tone for a wonderful day of readings, talks and conversation. From Beth Ann Fennelly sharing micro-memoirs to Knoxville poet laureate R.B. Morris performing on the Arts Stage, the lineup had something for everyone.

 

Author Jonathan Gottschall kicked off our special track, “Telling Our Stories: Media, Methods, and Meaning,” with a reading and talk from his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. In partnership with the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, we were honored to present sessions throughout the weekend that focused on story in diverse formats, from film to podcasts, spoken word to music. From renowned spoken word artist Minton Sparks to the new Versify podcast partnership between WPLN and The Porch Writers’ Collective, the power of story was at the heart of this year’s Festival.

 

As crowds made their way from the library to the Festival Plaza, they encountered a new layout that included tented author signing next to book sales and a new feature to the Festival: the Handmade and Bound festival presented by Watkins College of Art and Design. Now in its eighth year, we were thrilled to welcome book artists from around the country to demonstrate and to sell their work to book lovers. This new partnership was a great success, as people who love reading books love the art of making books as well!

 

Friday night we celebrated a milestone anniversary, the 10th annual Authors in the Round dinner. This vital fundraiser helps keep the Festival free for everyone, and we thank co-chairs Cynthia Ragan Martin and Trish Mixon for superb leadership that resulted in a beautiful evening. With a guest author at each table, War Memorial Auditorium buzzed with conversation, book signings, and laughter.

 

It is always an honor to welcome C-SPAN’s BookTV to the Festival, and this year they aired sessions live all day Saturday and Sunday from the the library. Because of CSPAN’s reach, the Festival has received messages from as far away as Mongolia from viewers who watch coverage of the event. From Jonathan Eig discussing his new biography of Muhammad Ali to reporter Jared Yates Sexton discussing the new political landscape, viewers got a wide range of great non-fiction. We will also be sharing with you via CSPAN’s BookTV the session with Al Gore, interviewed by Professor Bruce Barry. Gore spoke about his new book, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.  As those sessions air, we will share on Facebook, so please follow us if you’d like those updates!

 

Among many honored authors attending this year was Javaka Steptoe, winner of the Caldecott Medal for his book Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Steptoe was part of a large contingent of children’s and young adult authors at the Festival. We like nothing better than to see Festival audiences that include readers of all ages, from children with picture books to teenagers with their favorite dystopian series. We are always grateful as well to meet and to hear from the many teachers and librarians who attend the Festival, and take back to their students who could not attend who they heard and new books to recommend.

 

Our day began on Sunday with a little rain, which did not keep readers away from the Plaza, ready to shop the Parnassu Books tent, visit our exhibitors, and have books signed by authors from Clyde Edgerton to Amy Stewart. As the rain cleared, the Plaza filled up further and the day ended with happy crowds at the Music Stage, enjoying performances by Ava Davis, Morgan Bosman, and Angela Easterling. For the second year, we offered a beer garden with a lot of help from our friends at Yazoo Brewery.

 

We are always left feeling hopeful and energized by the presence of thousands of readers sharing one space; it is part of the Festival’s mission to bring readers and writers together, to share in celebration of the written word. This year, that mission felt particularly meaningful, as a feeling of community and collegiality pervaded sessions and conversations. The steps beneath the big banners on Legislative Plaza are the front porch of the Festival, and as always, visitors congregated there to enjoy lunch from a food truck, talk about authors they’d met and heard, and dip into freshly purchased books.

 

Our small staff is amplified by the hundreds because of the volunteers who share their time and energy to ensure that the Festival is a smooth experience for everyone. From the volunteers with post-it notes at the signing tent, to the drivers of the golf carts on Capitol Boulevard, to the session hosts taking care of authors, the Festival earns its reputation for friendliness and organization because of the hundreds people who give of their time to make it so. We thank all of them!

 

We learned some things, as we always do, and we appreciate all of those who stopped by headquarters to share their thoughts on the new layout, the sessions they attended, and the Festival overall. When the trucks are packed up on Sunday night, our small crew gathers to toast the weekend and having another year of the Festival in the books. As authors fly on to other cities and volunteers get some well-deserved rest, this ritual gives us a chance to express our appreciation for another successful, safe, weekend, and the chance to do it all again. We hope to see you at the 30th annual Festival, October 12-14, 2018!