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Southern Festival of Books celebrated 25th in a big way

What’s the right way to celebrate a major anniversary? For the Southern Festival of Books: A Celebration of the Written Word, the 25th annual event called for even more celebration than usual. From early in the year, the staff and board of Humanities Tennessee and key volunteers were determined that this year’s Festival would honor the rich history of the event while laying groundwork for the next 25 years. We wanted the weekend to be big and to feel special, and we were not disappointed! This year’s Festival broke records for attendance and book sales. Merchandise sold out quickly, and all weekend long the Plaza and library were filled with happy readers and buzz about great books and great sessions.

We followed tradition this year by kicking off on Friday with a full slate of sessions, and the crowds turned out early. From National Book Award nominee Gene Luen Yang to Nashville’s newest literary resident Jon Meacham, the day was filled with opportunities to hear great writers talk about their work.

We were also thrilled on Friday afternoon to have a very special photo opportunity. We were able to gather on the Plaza steps eight of the nine authors from this year’s Festival who were on the program in 1989 at the very first Festival: Cathie Pelletier, Bobbie Ann Mason, Alana White, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Roy Blount Jr., John Egerton, and Paul Clements. Twenty-five years later, the friends greeted one another with hugs and reminisced about the first Festival and the years and books since then.

A newer Festival tradition continued Friday night with the Authors in the Round dinner at War Memorial Auditorium. Since its founding in 2008, this dinner has become a vital fundraiser for the Festival. Master of ceremonies John Seigenthaler spoke eloquently as always about the immense talent of the authors gathered in the room. The evening ended with a champagne toast in the courtyard, celebrating the Festival’s twenty five years as a rich part of Nashville literary history.

What better way is there to begin your Saturday morning than with a beloved children’s author? We got the day started right with the incomparable Kevin Henkes, author of The Year of Billy Miller. Henkes is also the creator of Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, and Lilly herself turned up to give Henkes a hug (and to hug a few kids, too!). As Henkes got the day rolling in War Memorial Auditorium, the library filled up as well. Among the sessions--a conversation between old friends Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell. Representing the Appalachians and the Ozarks, the two master storytellers kept the audience rapt with readings and discussion on American literature.

And while fiction took center stage there, C-SPAN 2’s BookTV shared some of the rich non-fiction of the Festival, airing live programming from the Festival across the nation and the world. You can see their full weekend of Festival programming online anytime at, or watch listings for re-airings on BookTV. If you missed Scott McClanahan’s session on his memoir, Crapalachia, do yourself a favor and go watch this very entertaining session with one of the rising stars of Southern writing.

All politics really is local in Nashville, where we were honored to welcome hometown resident and former Vice President Al Gore to the Festival stage for the very first time. Our environmentalist-in-chief fired up the crowd and taught us a thing or two about spider goats before signing his new book The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.

And if anyone needed a break by this point, we were ready with live music on the Cafe Stage and a selection of Nashville’s finest food trucks. Lined up on Charlotte Avenue, everything from Grilled Cheeserie to Deg Thai was available. And what’s a sunny Saturday afternoon without ice cream? Jeni’s had us covered, dipping up gourmet flavors like Loveless Biscuits and Peach Jam. Yes, please!

While we’re catching our breath, it’s a good time to dip into the anthology Meet Me on the Plaza: Twenty-Five Years of the Southern Festival of Books. Almost a year in the making, the anthology features works donated 

by thirty eight authors who have been part of the Festival through the years. With printing donated by Ingram Content Group, all proceeds from the anthology will help to keep the Festival free. Missed it on the Plaza? We’ll be glad to sell and send you copies! Click here to order.

You might have noticed lots of kids peering behind columns and behind bushes throughout the weekend. They were on the hunt for...Waldo, of course! That elusive fellow turned 25 this year as well, and our weekend-long contest challenged kids and adults alike to name five places Waldo could be found at the Festival. Where’s Waldo? He’s everywhere!

Among our goals each year is to create a program that is rich and diverse, offering readers of all types of books sessions that will catch their interest. We were especially proud this year to partner with the creators of the Southern Poetry Anthology: Volume VI, Tennessee. This beautiful work features poems from across the state, and we scheduled a session each day of the Festival to feature Tennessee poets. But that wasn’t all for poetry lovers. Among our first-time guests this year was the renowned Mary Jo Salter, whose new book Nothing by Design we were proud to feature. And also for poetry lovers, we were honored to to feature a comprehensive new collection, The Complete Poems of James Dickey. Dickey’s son, Christopher Dickey, was among the panelists celebrating the poetry in this comprehensive new collection.

Up on the Plaza, War Memorial Auditorium was filled all afternoon Saturday. Among the highlights of the Festival for many was the appearance of Congressman John Lewis, a living hero of the Civil Rights movement, whose new collaboration is March, a graphic novel treatment of the Civil Rights years. This was followed by an enthusiastic audience for Oprah author Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, who was interviewed by O Magazine Book Editor Leigh Haber.

It doesn’t get much bigger or more exciting than Bill Bryson, chronicler of the interesting and the obscure, who made his first Festival appearance and vowed to come back. Bryson’s fans came from across the United States to hear him speak, and they were not disappointed. Laughter rolled out of the room, and the lines were long, keeping Bryson busy until the end of the day.

We don’t want to give away any secrets, but we hear that certain downtown hotel bars with lots of TVs might be a good place to spy authors in between their sessions. It is the South, after all, and there is football to be played on Saturday afternoon and evening!

Although the Festival doesn’t officially begin until 12 pm on Sunday, the crowds start coming out early to buy books, choose their sessions and plan their days. This year, one of our first customers on Sunday morning was a 13-year-old girl from Chattanooga who was celebrating her birthday by coming to see Rick Riordan, author of House of Hades. She started the line for this 4:00 pm event at 10:30 am, and the line grew (and grew and grew!) throughout the day. Riordan’s publicity team nicely sent us T-shirts, buttons and trading cards in advance, and Humanities Tennessee staff learned quickly that in the battle between Camp Jupiter and Camp Half-Blood, it isn’t even a close contest. The orange Camp Half-Blood T-shirts were in much greater demand, but everyone was happy. And what else do you do while waiting in a line like that but read the book? That’s a sight to make a book lover smile, hundreds of kids lined up for an author event! And for the more than 1,000 people who cheered Riordan as he took the stage, it was worth the wait.

The lines got long at the Parnassus Books tent, but our friends there were prepared. One of the many amazing facts about the Festival is that a full-service bookstore is built from scratch onsite so that readers will be able to buy the books of any author on the program and have them signed. We knew we were going to have a great weekend, but this year’s book sales smashed our previous record and a portion of those sales goes to support the Festival. Thanks to our book loving friends at Parnassus for making the weekend such a success!

And while we’re offering our thanks, we’re especially grateful to the 400 volunteers who give of their time so that authors and visitors will have a flawless weekend. There are a few dedicated souls who give up their full weekend, never seeing a session or attending a signing so that the event can run smoothly. Author hospitality coordinator Carolyn Wilson and signing colonnade coordinator Kathleen Dietz are there every minute, and we offer the thanks of a grateful festival for their service!

The weekend ended as it always must, with the sale of mums and pumpkins at headquarters and customers at exhibitor booths looking to pick up that last book before the drive home. By the time dark fell, all tents were empty, books packed up, and trucks loaded. Before parting ways, Humanities Tennessee staff gathered beneath the banners for a well-earned toast to a perfect weekend, and to twenty-five more!