As a Nashville-based editor for both Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Ami McConnell often traveled to book festivals and conferences that corralled specific types of authors—romance writers, say, or Christian writers. As creator of the first WriterFest Nashville, a writers’ conference to be held November 8 and 9 at Lipscomb University, McConnell wanted to take down the fences between genres.
She also wanted the event to be a “uniquely Nashville party.”
“Authors I’ve worked with have had their books made into movies, or I’ve worked with authors who turned a song into a novel, or turned a novel into a song,” she said as she described the “congenial and collaborative” style of working in her hometown. “There’s a lot of back and forth among books, films, and songs. We figured it would be so much fun to get those people together and let them learn from each other.”
The work of WriterFest headliner Liane Moriarty has also crossed boundaries, from her native Australia to bestseller lists in the U.S., and from page to screen. Her sixth novel, Big Little Lies, was transformed into a Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning HBO series produced by and starring two of Nashville’s highest-profile celebrities, Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Moriarty will speak at Lipscomb—as part of both WriterFest and the Salon@615 series—three days after her eighth novel, Nine Perfect Strangers, comes out, and Kidman’s production company already has rights to the book.
“It’s been cool to see Hollywood catch onto the fact that some of the most lively characters and compelling stories are coming straight out of the minds of contemporary authors,” Karen Hayes, co-owner of Parnassus Books and one of the thirty-five speakers and panelists at WriterFest, wrote in an email. With Netflix and HBO hungry for stories, she said, “I imagine that must be exciting for writers—just knowing that there are so many more options for their stories to come to life on screen—but it’s fun for readers, too.”
Where does Nashville get its creative mojo? “From a literary perspective, I think you can trace part of it back to eight years ago, when Humanities Tennessee and the Nashville Public Library set up a visiting author series called Salon@615,” Hayes said. “Shortly thereafter, Parnassus Books opened, and we all teamed together to attract, operate, and promote large-scale author events that helped put Nashville on the literary map. Publishers have learned that Nashville audiences turn out for books, so they send their authors here, and then the authors see what a welcoming place this is and how creative people here genuinely support one another.”
Humanities Tennessee hosts the annual Southern Festival of Books in Nashville. Hayes cited The Porch Writers’ Collective, the opening of The Bookshop, and the annual conference of the Midsouth chapter of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators as momentum builders. Authors such as Lorrie Moore and Jon Meacham have made Nashville home. “So maybe what we’re seeing here is the growth of a strong literary and creative scene that’s similar to how Nashville’s music scene grew up organically over the decades,” Hayes said.
Songwriters are another force for creating narratives, McConnell says. The website of WriterFest keynote speaker Tom Douglas describes him as two things: “Songwriter. Storyteller.” Douglas, whose songs have been recorded by Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum, Keith Urban, and Miranda Lambert—Lambert’s recording of “The House that Built Me” is one of Douglas’s best-known “stories”—was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.
A third WriterFest headliner is Liz Cackowski, a writer and producer who worked on Saturday Night Live and Community.
The two-day program has tracks for fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, songwriting, book publishing and professional writing. Panels have such titles as “Writing the Perfect Villain,” “Writing Something Funny,” and for songwriting, “The Nashville Way.”
McConnell, co-author of Candace Cameron Bure’s book, Kind is the New Classy, began thinking about WriterFest in 2014 but left the idea behind when she moved from HarperCollins to Howard Books, Simon & Schuster’s faith-based imprint, where she was editor-in-chief. When Howard’s Nashville office closed, she was free to rekindle the idea, and she chose most of the WriterFest speakers from among people she likes. “My rubric was, if I would invite them to my home or have them to a dinner party, then that’s a great fit.”
Panelists include producers, literary agents, and publisher’s representatives. Michael Bishop, author of A Murder in Music City, will speak. So will Marybeth Whalen and Ariel Lawhon, fiction writers and co-founders of She Reads. J.T. Ellison, who writes a psychological thriller series set in Nashville, and Mary Laura Philpott, essayist and illustrator, are panelists. Philpott and Ellison are also co-hosts of the Emmy-winning Nashville public TV literary series, A Word on Words.
“I think there are so many ways to tell a story now,” Ellison said. “I love nonfiction and fiction, but writing song lyrics is beyond me, though I connect with songs that speak to me while writing my work. … I feel the same about scriptwriting. It seems mystical and magical to me, though I know the experts can explain it well and demystify the process. That’s the strength of an event like WriterFest—exposing our creative mediums to other creative mediums means everyone wins.”
Peggy Burch was books editor at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis for ten years, and she also worked as a deputy metro editor and Arts & Entertainment editor for the newspaper. She is a graduate of the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and holds a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Mississippi.