Was it just 18 months ago that residents worried Nashville's literary culture was dying? Back then, there was nothing funny about the loss of the city's beloved bookstores, the persistent elegies for print literature and the doom-saying about reading in general. Now, it seems almost amusing — like measuring yourself for a cemetery plot when all you've got is a toothache.
If we can laugh now, that's because a lot has changed in the past year. With Parnassus Books, the city gained a PR-savvy standard-bearer and a magnet for readers and authors alike. Add to that a renewed effort from the city's used bookstores, from Rhino on Charlotte to BookMan/BookWoman in Hillsboro Village, as well as the citywide treasure that is the Nashville Public Library.
Any round of thanks, though, would have to begin with Humanities Tennessee — and the evidence is in this weekend's Southern Festival of Books, running Friday through Sunday on War Memorial Plaza. We've been attending and covering the SFB now for 23 years, and we do not make this claim lightly: the 2012 Southern Festival of Books is unprecedented in Nashville. Not just in its size and scope — more than 200 authors over three days — but in the staggering level of talent it has managed to lure.
In the pages of the festival guide that follows, you'll find: the author of the summer's No. 1 best-selling hardcover novel (and a terrific one at that); the just-announced recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant" for his slangy high-voltage fiction; the subject of an egregious true-crime saga that became an international scandal; and the young short-story writer whose debut collection is drawing raves — interviewed here by a local resident who himself ranks among the brightest new talents of recent years.
We've supplemented those with choices for more than 75 visiting authors and artists worth your time, from prominent historians, columnists and commentators to some of the most exciting and extravagantly gifted new writers of the season. And there's much more we simply didn't have space to cover. For comprehensive coverage, we urge you to consult Humanities Tennessee's invaluable Chapter16.org, whose editor, Margaret Renkl, is a bulwark against the notion that reading no longer matters.
Paging Nashville: Three days of highlights at the 2012 Southern Festival of Books
First up: acclaimed novelist Padgett Powell, who continues his experimental vein of late in You & Me, a novel written entirely as a liquor-stoked dialogue between two dudes. Say, did you enjoy The Interrogative Mood, that novel he wrote completely in questions? Why, yes I did. (Noon, Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA.)
• Revered Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer holds the Emancipation Proclamation up to scrutiny in Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context and Memory (noon, Nashville Public Library Auditorium). For a contemporary slant on race and presidential politics, there's New York Times international correspondent Rachel Swarns discussing her American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama (1 p.m., Room 12, Legislative Plaza).
• The success of the Coen Brothers' True Grit brought welcome attention to the source novel's author, Charles Portis, as distinctive a comic voice as the 20th century produced. Jay Jennings gathers 50 years of previously uncollected Portis works (including a play!) into Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany (noon, Room 30, Legislative Plaza).
• A bored housewife with a bloody past finds herself in Luxembourg among The Expats in a devious espionage tale from first-time novelist Chris Pavone (noon, Room 12, Legislative Plaza). For a sunnier view of human nature, try self-made Franklin insurance tycoon turned philanthropist Randall Baskin discussing his memoir Growing Rich (noon, Room 16, Legislative Plaza).
• Andrew Derr, onetime recipient of a Vanderbilt Grantland Rice scholarship, tips his hat to another sportswriting great — the late Nashville Banner legend Fred Russell — in his biography Life of Dreams (1 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conf. Room II).
• A triathlete, trained seismologist and writing mentor to Afghan women, Naomi Benaron won the Bellwether Prize for her first novel Running the Rift; it's the basis for the panel "In Spite of Violence: Novels of Turmoil and Tenacity" with Knoxville novelist Christopher Hebert's The Boiling Season, an account of a Caribbean servant's rise that has drawn comparisons to The Remains of the Day. (1 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA)
• "First forgive the silence / That answers prayer, / Then forgive the prayer / That stains the silence," Mark Jarman wrote in "Five Psalms," as succinct a statement of the paradoxes of divinity as we've ever read. Jarman, one of the city's literary heroes and a pioneering narrative formalist, will read from Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems (1:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Special Collections Room).
• Lauren Groff's previous novel The Monsters of Templeton was eagerly passed among readers; we've been hearing lots of love from local book clubs for her latest, Arcadia, set against the backdrop of a utopian commune in the 1970s. She speaks at 2 p.m. in the Nashville Public Library Auditorium, opposite Attica Locke (see p. 188) as well as the "Novels of Experiencing Womanhood" panel with authors Jeanne Ray (Calling Invisible Women) and Charity Shumway (Ten Girls to Watch) over in Legislative Plaza's Room 16.
• Governess, remote estate, brooding hero — check, check and double-check as Margot Livesay pays homage to Jane Eyre in her well-reviewed The Flight of Gemma Hardy (3 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room). Plan on dodging crowds at the library, however, between the "A Few Honest Words" panel with Naomi Judd and NPR/New York Times contributor Jason Howard (Auditorium), The Books That Mattered memoirist Frye Gaillard (Conference Room 1a), and constitutional scholar Kent Greenfield on The Myth of Choice (Conference Room 2), all at 3 p.m.
As if anticipating our dream of starting an event called "Lit 'n' Lattes," the SFB's "Coffee with Authors" (9:30 a.m., Nashville Public Library Auditorium) sports a duller name but livelier guests: novelists Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk), Gail Tsukiyama (A Hundred Flowers), Christopher Tilghman (The Right-Hand Shore), and one of the festival's rising stars, Karen Thompson Walker, whose slowing-earth best-seller The Age of Miracles is among the year's best-reviewed debut novels.
• Alas, you may need a to-go cup for your brew: The coffee is up against a slew of the morning's most anticipated appearances, including (sob!) Bridge to Terabithia author Katherine Paterson (10 a.m., War Memorial); best-selling Serena and The Cove novelist Ron Rash (10 a.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 12); the panel on young-adult fantasy novels featuring Karyn Henley, Sarah Maas and CJ Redwine (10 a.m., Room 29, Legislative Plaza); and Pulitzer Prize winner and Barack Obama biographer David Maraniss (10:30 a.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• To those scheduled at 11 a.m. opposite Gillian Flynn (see p. 182), whose Gone Girl, the guiltless juicy read of the moment, topped the Times hardcover list for most of the summer, we can only say: Sorry. Which is too bad, because their ranks include some of the SFB's most distinguished guests.
Among them: Dan Chaon, who's being hailed as an emerging short-story master for pieces like those gathered in his current collection Stay Awake (11 a.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA); Jess Walter, whose lauded comic novel Beautiful Ruins has spent months on the library's reserve list (11 a.m., Nashville Public Library Auditorium); John Egerton, Nancy Rhoda and Varina Willse with the Home to Us project (11 a.m., Nashville Public Library, Special Collections Room); and the evergreen Judith Viorst (11:30 a.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room), in what should be anything but a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
• The choices are no easier at noon, thanks to one of the festival's events: a rare Nashville appearance by The Atlantic senior editor and political blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates (Nashville Public Library Auditorium), whose much-discussed recent article "Fear of a Black President" may be the most perceptive, illuminating — and lacerating — single piece of writing on President Obama's racial reticence in the face of entrenched white privilege. His topic today: "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?"
Coates faces stiff competition from a trio of popular local authors: Alice Randall (noon, Room 12, Legislative Plaza), who's getting some of her best notices and biggest audiences in years for her novel-as-self-help saga Ada's Rules; and the pairing of Blake Fontenay (The Politics of Barbecue) and Ann Shayne, the Mason-Dixon knitting doyenne whose novel Bowling Avenue is a gentler variation on one of Tom Wolfe's stratified social comedies (Legislative Plaza, Room 31).
• Mark Helprin's 1983 fairytale-of-New York fantasy Winter's Tale, a multiple nominee for the best work of fiction in the past 25 years in a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll, just re-entered the best-seller list as an ebook after almost 30 years. (News of the upcoming movie version with Will Smith and Russell Crowe didn't hurt.) Helprin appears with his first new novel in seven years, In Sunlight and in Shadow (See p. 188; appearing 12:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• Genre fiction fans will long for a steam-powered teleporter to zip from the Paranormal and Steampunk Novels panel with Bethany Griffin and Amanda Havard (1 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room II) to Dystopian Novels with M.M. Bucker and Moira Crone (1 p.m., Room 30, Legislative Plaza).
• In Father's Day, Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger takes to the road with the grown son he acknowledges is "mentally retarded" for a frank assessment of his fears and failings as a parent (1:30 p.m., War Memorial Auditorium). At the same time, in Legislative Plaza's Room 16, Madison Smartt Bell anchors a panel on "Histories of Freedom" with Haiti scholar Laurent Dubois and Vanderbilt history professor Jane Landers, while Robert Sullivan takes what New York magazine called "a kind of gonzo traffic-helicopter tour of the nation's first capital" — New York — in My American Revolution (Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• Walk your kids over to hear Walk Two Moons Newbery medalist Sharon Creech (2 p.m., Nashville Public Library Auditorium), then double back for the "Boom Goes the Dynamite" panel featuring three of the year's most acclaimed debut novelists: Tupelo Hassman (Girlchild), Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) and Adam Wilson (Flatscreen). The last features this wounding description of a high school non-clique: "We were bound by pot-smoking prowess and the delusion that listening to loud music could replace regular sex as an outlet for hormonal energy."
• Fred Gill — aka Two Foot Fred, Ambassador of Attractions for Big & Rich and scene-stealer in their breakout video "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" — tells "How My Life Has Come Full Circle" in his self-titled memoir (2 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conf. Room IA).
• For some reason, Ozark novelist Daniel Woodrell's SFB bio leaves out the tidbit that he wrote the novel Winter's Bone, the source for the much-loved Debra Granik film adaptation. Here's hoping he discusses his "country noir" oeuvre on the dais with Ron Rash at the "Two Master Storytellers" panel (2:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• You'll have to do coin-flipping brackets for the 3 p.m. slot — unless New Orleans R&B trumps all other concerns for you, in which case you'll want to second-line march to Alex Cook and Ben Sandmel's panel on Louisiana music (Nashville Public Library, Special Collections Room). Otherwise, this may entail the toughest choices of the fest, starting with You Lost Me There author Rosecrans Baldwin and This American Life raconteur Jack Hitt offering "Comedic Takes on the American Character" (Nashville Public Library, Conf. Room IA).
Game over? Not so fast. Across the plaza in Room 16, experimental-fiction advocate Ben Marcus — whose dinner-guest praises were sung a few weeks ago in the Times Book Review by recent Nashville visitor Michael Chabon — discusses his new novel The Flame Alphabet, in which the country is ravaged by a plague: the speech of children. Joining him for a talk on "Answering the Apocalypse" is The Age of Miracles author Walker.
OK, that's the one! Not so fast. In the library auditorium, Nashville novelist Adam Ross — whose book of short stories Ladies and Gentlemen got even better reviews than his debut novel Mr. Peanut, the magnificent bastard — anchors a panel on triumphant first short-story collections with Claire Vaye Watkins (see p. 188) and Adam Prince (The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men). We wouldn't blame you if you short-circuited and opted just to chow down wearily on a banana at Curious George's 71st Birthday Party (Youth Stage).
• Y'all got the memo about carrying Junot Diaz (see story on this page) down Deaderick Street on our shoulders with the motorcade and the zebras and all, right? Oops, forgot to hit send. If you can't get into his War Memorial reading at 4 p.m., there's plenty more to see, starting with best-selling The Lotus Eaters author Tatjana Soli on the "For Land and Family" panel (Room 16, Legislative Plaza) and the mystery panel featuring Sandra Brannan and J.T. Ellison (Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA).
• For history buffs, there's the session with Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War scholar James McPherson, whose Battle Cry of Freedom remains an essential text (4 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room). An eyewitness slant on more recent history comes courtesy of Henry Gallagher, once a young military policeman providing security for trailblazing black student James Meredith during the incendiary integration of Ole Miss (4 p.m., Room 31, Legislative Plaza).
It's unusual to have a pair of World War II-themed novels by women authors, and more momentous still when the authors in question are Bobbie Ann Mason (The Girl in the Blue Beret) and Ruta Sepetys, whose young-adult novel Between Shades of Grey has been embraced as an instant classic (noon, Legislative Plaza, Room 12). We're also hearing strong word-of-mouth about John Corey Whaley's YA novel Where Things Come Back, which weaves together a rare woodpecker's appearance and a missionary's crisis of faith (noon, Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• At the other end of the young-adult spectrum is Goosebumps creator R.L. Stine, whose various series have sold — excuse us while we poorly disguise our envy — more than 300 million copies. Shield the young ones' eyes from his latest, however: a shocker for adults called Red Rain that's getting good notices (noon, War Memorial Auditorium).
• Wait, how do writers sell all those books? Tweet this to your Facebook page and become the MySpace mayor of FourSquare, as Girl Talk author Julianna Baggott engages veteran publicist Julie Schoerke and others in the panel discussion "Love It or Hate It: Authors and Social Media" (noon, Room 16, Legislative Plaza).
• If you're more interested in the actual world than the virtual one, the real-life horrors and moral quandaries of John Brown's bloody abolitionist crusade come alive in Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War, the latest from best-selling Confederates in the Attic author and journalist Tony Horwitz (noon, Nashville Public Library Auditorium).
• The 1 p.m. slot will likely be dominated by the appearance of released West Memphis Three prisoner Damien Echols at War Memorial (see p. 186). Consider it a blessing, however, if it leaves more room at the fine poetry-panel pairing of Rick Hilles and Ellen Watson (Nashville Public Library, Special Collections Room) or the "Nashville Private Eyes" panel with Stuart Dill, Mary Saums, Jaden Terrell and gumshoe guru Steven Womack (Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA).
• Don't be surprised if some people duck out early to catch either of a pair of popular authors scheduled opposite each other. A contributor to the New York Times' fascinating Civil War blog Disunion, Adam Goodheart got excellent reviews and a large audience for his well-timed account of the war's inciting incidents, 1861: The Civil War Awakening (1:30 p.m., Room 12, Legislative Plaza). NPR and Esquire contributor AJ Jacobs won a big following with his encyclopedia-cramming comic odyssey The Know-It-All; he's been getting a lot of attention for his attempt to try the entire spectrum of health advice, good or bad, in his latest book Drop Dead Healthy (1:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• The 2 p.m. slot brings one of the SFB's very best panels: the "Brainy, Brawny and Brilliantly Reviewed" assemblage of novelists sporting remarkable debuts. Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk has been hailed as "the Catch-22 of the Iraq War," while no less a figure than Gary Shteyngart called Jennifer duBois' novel A Partial History of Lost Causes "a triumph of the imagination." The debut of the season, though, may be Peter Heller's The Dog Years, a rueful spin on the zombie apocalypse novel (2 p.m., Nashville Public Library Auditorium).
• Kinflicks author Lisa Alther had the foresight to tap into the nation's revived fascination with the Hatfields-McCoys war, the subject of her best-seller Blood Feud (2 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Special Collections Room). If it had a soundtrack, it would likely have some of the songs from country singer Suzy Bogguss' latest project, American Folk Songbook (2:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• In his novel Freeman, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. views the upheaval that followed the end of the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination through the eyes of a freed slave determined to find his missing wife. Pitts appears on a panel with Christopher Tilghman, whose novel The Right-Hand Shore approaches slavery's aftermath from the viewpoint of a former slaveholding family (3:30 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 12).