Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

A Simple, Gentle Joy

A novelist reflects on the pleasures of the Southern Festival of Books, opening today in Nashville

I woke up the other morning just like you did. To the news from Las Vegas, another public massacre, another mass gathering gone terribly wrong, another “worst” in the history of our nation. Then, a few hours later, came the death of Tom Petty, whose American rock songs have soundtracked four decades of my life perhaps more consistently than any other. I wanted to drop everything, shut down social media, and go for a ride, blasting Petty from the open windows.

But escape wasn’t in the offing. I had an essay to write. I’m thankful it isn’t about senseless bloodshed or beloved dead rock icons because I can’t see myself capable of doing justice to either one at that moment. The subject I’m tasked to write about is a book festival.

A book festival! Could such a simple, gentle joy still exist in this world? Emphatically, it does. Fellow lit-nerds, it’s time to get happy: the Southern Festival of Books comes our way again this second weekend in October, as it has for the past twenty-nine years.

I first attended the festival in 2008, basking in the distant-star glow of what visibility my first novel, published by a tiny indie press, afforded me as a new author. I happily scooped up my goodie bag—An airplane bottle of Jack! A Goo-Goo! Bring it!—had a blast doing my reading, and wasn’t at all crushed when no one lined up in front of my spot at the author-signing table. Just making it there—having done the work and birthed the book and received the invitation to a festival—was enough. I’m guessing many authors at the festival every year feel much the same.

In recent years I’ve experienced the festival from a different vantage point: the inside of a ten-by-ten-foot tent where The Porch, the literary arts organization I founded in 2014 with fellow writer Katie McDougall, hangs its hat for the weekend. From our spot on Legislative Plaza, we greet a steady stream of friends and strangers alike, telling them what we’re up to, what a literary center is all about. It’s kind of a nice place to be, this tent. We have seats and shade; we have shelter from the rain and wind that always seems to show up for at least a little while on festival weekend. From where we sit, the Southern Festival of Books feels like a big reunion, a chance to visit with many people we love and admire and wish we saw more often, all in one glorious, exhausting, seventy-two-hour period.

Every year, I’m reminded of how refreshing it is to be among folks who love the sorcery of the written word. The festival draws a diverse crowd, a vast spectrum of ages and ethnicities, from all corners of Tennessee and beyond. Some gobble up mysteries; some nip at the syllables of poetry. Some are there to share their work, some are there to support those who share their work, and all of us are there because we love the work. Because we have fallen under the spell of what can be done with words on a page.

Not all readers are writers, to be sure. But all writers must be readers, voracious and attentive ones. When you read as a writer, you read as a sleuth or tinkerer, seeking to unlock the mystery of the text’s construction. And with the desire to take apart the books we love comes a desire to hear the stories behind the story—to see the writer in the flesh and find out just what went into the making of that beautiful object.

So we scour the festival listings, seeing just how many sessions we can cram into our busy lives. This year, I may duck out of The Porch tent more than I have in previous years to do just that. I feel a little bit desperate right now for the riches the Southern Festival of Books provides. I need to hear what Beth Ann Fennelly and Jami Attenberg and Ciona Rouse have to say. I’m curious to hear authors speak on motherhood, on the environment, on iconic American desserts. I’m dying to feed my own writing life a walloping dose of inspiration in the form of appearances by Jennifer Egan and Rebecca Gayle Howell and Kevin Wilson.

And I’m excited to bring to the festival, for the third year in a row, The Porch’s Poetry on Demand program, through which we gather stories from the community and employ poets to turn those stories into poetry on the spot. (Yes, you too can have an original poem written for you, about your life, in about an hour this weekend.) Poetry on Demand has grown this year into a podcast called Versify, produced by Nashville Public Radio, and the podcast—along with our poets—will have its very own tent right next to ours. There will be a live version of the podcast on Sunday afternoon.

Driven by the idea that all our lives are worthy of poetry, Poetry on Demand expands access to the literary arts. It creates surprising and meaningful moments of connection between everyone who participates in it, both storytellers and writers. It is, ultimately, dedicated to doing the same good work accomplished by the Southern Festival of Books.

And while our poets are listening to stories and furiously scribbling poems, there’ll be a world of fun spinning around them—kids’ activities, costumed characters (there are always a few), food trucks, live music, and the magnetic pull of the Parnassus Books tent, where books by festival authors will be sold. I always go home with a few new books, and I always go home with the hope—nay, intention!—that another book with my name on it will again be for sale under that tent one day. Again, in that I know I’m not alone. This festival brings us all together to celebrate the artistry of the written word, and it sends us back into our everyday lives recharged by story, by others’ dreams realized, and by communion with fellow readers—one of the best kinds of togetherness I know.

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