I can't believe it's been a week since the Southern Festival of Books! Now that I've had a few days to reflect on the experience of having 200 authors in Nashville—and running around like a chicken with my head cut off to see as many of them as possible—I wanted to share my favorite moments from the book festival (in no particular order).
As a native Arkansan, it was surreal to see Damien Echols, one of the members of the West Memphis Three and the author of the memoir Life After Death, walking free on the stage of an auditorium at a book festival. It's hard to convey how important Echols' case was to many people in Arkansas (and later, around the world) when I was growing up; in high school, students routinely wore WM3 bracelets to express their support for the three convicted men. Echols spoke poignantly about how it's emotionally difficult for him to talk now about his time on death row and in prison, but he continues to travel and promote the book because you never know when an audience member might find themselves on the jury of a murder trial. Echols wants to educate people about the painful realities of our justice system.
I had the good fortune of interviewing Naomi Benaron, author of Running the Rift, and Inman Majors, author of Love's Winning Plays, on the Chapter 16 stage at the festival. (Okay, I know this is technically two "moments," but I'm grouping 'em together!) Both authors were gracious, articulate and fascinating to talk to. It was inspiring to hear how Benaron actually aspired to win Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize from the time she started writing her book—then went out and did it! Her love and respect for Rwanda, the setting of her novel, was palpable. Majors was just as funny in person as I hoped he'd be, and his philosophy of humor—he uses "high" language applied to "low" situations (a.k.a. toilet humor, as the case may be)—rang true.
On the final day of the festival, I hosted a panel called “Creating Our Own Realities: Young People Making Sense of Their World." The authors on the panel were Loretta Ellsworth and John Corey Whaley.
Even though the last day of the festival was terribly windy, a nice crowd turned out to ask questions of these two YA authors and listen to them read. I loved hearing both authors talk about writing the story they needed to write—but by far, my favorite part of the panel was when young people asked questions during the Q&A and approached the authors after the talk. (One kid wondered if Where Things Come Back was inspired by a video game.) It's fun to hear from the people for whom the books are intended.
On Saturday morning of the festival, Nina Cardona--a reporter on Nashville Public Radio and host of All Things Considered--interviewed four authors at the Women's National Book Association breakfast at the Nashville Public Library. There was a stellar line-up: Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), Christopher Tilghman (The Right-Hand Shore), Gail Tsukiyama (A Hundred Flowers) and Karen Thompson Walker (The Age of Miracles). Throughout the two-hour panel, Cardona (whose voice has accompanied much of my time in the car, as long I've lived in Nashville!) did a fabulous job distilling (and explaining) the four distinct stories and pulling out similarities. It was especially fascinating to hear the authors speak about getting to know their characters and taking on the beast of research.
The final session I went to at the festival, William Henry Chafe's talk about his book Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal, reminded me that some of the best experiences at a book festival are the unplanned moments. I walked into this session on a whim when I was on my way home on Sunday, and it turned out that Chafe's flight was delayed. So, the poor moderator--not to be deterred!--went ahead and gave his introduction without the author present. Turned out he'd attended Yale Law School with the Clintons, and he was able to give some insight into their time as law students. The moderator had certainly not planned to take questions from the audience about a book he didn't write, but this introduction added an unexpected personal touch to the proceedings. Then, about 20 minutes late and straight from the airport, Chafe burst into the room and blew us all away with a spirited account of the Clintons' relationship--and how you have to understand their personal lives to make sense of their political decisions. The audience was obviously enthralled, and it was an exciting way to end the weekend.
This is really only the tip of the iceberg of the fun I had at the festival. Moral of the story: Go hear authors speak in person! Author talks are entertaining and you'll no doubt learn something, too.
Have you been to any great author events lately?