When the celebrated authors who are members of the Fellowship of Southern Writers gather in Chattanooga November 3 and 4, they’ll have a new name and season for their biennial reunion and public festival. Still, the agenda of the SouthWord Literary Feast will be familiar to people who attended the Celebration of Southern Literature or the Conference on Southern Literature, as the gathering was known in the years since it began in 1981, when it was held in spring instead of fall. As before, important authors with Southern ties will read from, talk about, and sign their books, mixing at panels and meals with each other and readers.
This year, Wendell Berry—poet, novelist, essayist, farmer, and environmental activist—will appear on the panel for “Stories of the Southern Wilderness” and will deliver a keynote talk on November 3. Berry’s extensive writing ranges from his 1960 novel, Nathan Coulter, to poetry collections to influential essays such as “The Pleasures of Eating” and “Farmland Without Farmers.” Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain), Jill McCorkle (Life After Life), Jayne Anne Phillips (Lark and Termite), and Ron Rash (Serena) will appear on panels with intriguing titles like “Villains,” “Fact to Fiction,” and “True Grit: Writing across gender to create powerful Southern characters.”
The November 4 barbecue lunch has a theme—“Pig vs. Cow” —with John Shelton Reed and Roy Blount Jr. as dueling speakers. Matraca Berg, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, will provide music, and McCorkle and Lee Smith (The Last Girls) will read. Book signings will occur throughout the event.
McCorkle, chancellor of the thirty-year-old Fellowship, which limits its membership to fifty-five elected writers, described the camaraderie of the group as “an important part of my creative life,” and the Chattanooga festival as akin to “a wonderful family reunion.” She’ll moderate the “True Grit” panel, with Brad Watson (Miss Jane) and Allan Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All), “both of whom have written from the point of view of tough, powerful storytelling women,” McCorkle wrote in an email.
For the panel on “Villains,” Ron Rash expects to talk about one tough, powerful fictional woman he created: Serena, the title character of his rapturously received 2008 novel. “It’s a spectacular book,” Jay Parini wrote in The Guardian. The New Yorker called Rash’s protagonist “a Depression-era Lady Macbeth.”
Southern writers excel at creating charismatic villains, Rash said in a phone interview. Citing his favorites in the crowded field, he mentioned Jason in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Southerners, he said, “seem to be pretty good at seeing the dark aspects of humanity.” Of his diabolical creation, Serena, he said, “I think the reader, most readers, find her frightening, evil. But I will let the reader decide.” He adds, “I would be a little disturbed if someone said, ‘Serena is my heroine.’” The allure of villains resides in the “missing piece,” the mysterious source of their evil, Rash said. “To me, that’s where a writer can make a mistake by explaining too much about why.”
This premise is sure to surface during Rash’s panel discussion with newly-elected Fellowship members Robert Bausch and Beverly Lowry. In addition to Lowry and Bausch, whose twin brother, Richard Bausch, is already a member, new members elected this year include Tom Franklin, Silas House, and Watson. Rash described his own election to the FSW as “a great honor,” especially because the founders of the Fellowship in 1987 included Walker Percy, Eudora Welty, and Robert Penn Warren, “three of the most important writers for me.”
Lynda LeVan, executive director of Southern Lit Alliance, the festival’s sponsoring organization, doesn’t know the subject of Wendell Berry’s keynote speech and will be happy with any subject the revered writer chooses to discuss: “Just getting him to talk [at SouthWord] was an act of God,” she said, because Berry doesn’t use a computer, communicating “by snail mail only.” But this communication preference also brought LeVan an unexpected bonus: “I have letters that he has written me that I will treasure always.”
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.