It's somewhere past 11 p.m. on a November night in 2003 at Guy's Gumbo Shack in downtown Fairhope, Ala. Michelle Richmond, author of Dream of the Blue Room, is applying makeup to Bobby Gatewood's lips. Gatewood, an author as well, just drove in from Taos, N.M., where he'd spent three years as a ranch hand. Just a few feet away, Grayson Capps and his band are working through a three-hour blues set.
"Michelle, get your hands off that longwinded sonuvabitch!" yells Edgar Award-winning writer Tom Franklin from across the table. A few hours earlier, Gatewood had earned catcalls during a packed reading at Faulkner State Community College for reading a 45-minute selection from his upcoming novel, and Franklin isn't letting him forget it. A few minutes later, though, Franklin has his arm around Gatewood, and all is forgiven.
In most of small-town Alabama, a bunch of writers cavorting and drinking late at night would be a rare find. But not in Fairhope, at least not the weekend before Thanksgiving. That's when the town hosts Southern Writers Reading, a four-day annual festival that revolves around author readings, autograph sessions and more than a few late-night parties. Close to two dozen writers made it to the event in 2003; organizers expect a similar turnout this year.
Now in its sixth year, Southern Writers Reading is only one in a growing calendar of literary events around the South, but it has quickly become one of the most prominent. Though its yearly roster of eight authors is limited to newcomers, the festival is a big draw for freshmen and veterans alike. Last year, along with Franklin, the boldface names included Brad Watson, William Gay and Franklin's wife, the poet and Ole Miss professor Beth-Ann Fennelly. Rick Bragg, another regular attendee, was prevented by a book tour from attending. Along with the usual crew, this year's headliners include Daniel Wallace, whose book Big Fish was turned into a film by Tim Burton, and Ronald Everett Capps, whose new novel, Off Magazine Street, is the basis for the forthcoming John Travolta film A Love Song for Bobby Long.
Fairhope, located just across the bay from Mobile, isn't the first place one might look to find a flourishing literary scene. After all, it claims just over 12,000 residents, and it lacks a large university or other major cultural institution that would routinely draw in literati. And yet Fairhope is also home to more than its fair share of bookstores, with more than half a dozen in or next door to the town, and it boasts an affluent, well-educated, mostly retired population, a good portion of whom have become small-time literary patrons. They attend local readings, travel to Mississippi and Georgia for book festivals, and host visiting writers in their homes. Not surprisingly, Southern authors make an effort to put Fairhope on their tour schedules, and they speak of it in the same sentences as Oxford or Jackson, two other, more established Southern literary hotspots.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Fairhope's successand the driving force behind Southern Writers Readingis Sonny Brewer, a former real-estate agent, used car salesman and novelist (his first book, The Poet of Tolstoy Park, is due out next spring) who now owns Over the Transom Books in Fairhope, just down the street from Guy's Gumbo.
Brewer started Southern Writers Reading in 1999 as a one-hour program with just three writers. "I had wanted William Gay to come read," says Brewer, a short, stout man with close-cropped gray hair and red reading glasses that dangle on a red string around his neck. "So I figured, why not make it more dramatic?" Gay was joined that year by Tom Franklin and Frank Turner Hollon. Over the next few years, Brewer expanded the roster of invitees, and the event went from an afternoon reading to a multi-day affair featuring music, an expanded program of readings, and multiple parties, many hosted by friends of Brewer's.
Indeed, Brewer is more than just an organizer. To many at the festival, he is father figure to an emerging renaissance in Southern literature. He edits an annual anthology of Southern writing, Stories From the Blue Moon Café, and by all accounts, he works tirelessly to promote new authors. He even publishes chapbooks by first-time authors on his own imprint. With Brewer's encouragement, these writers explore aspects of the South that have typically been overlooked in favor of more kudzu-covered clichés. The stories in the latest Blue Moon Café are rooted in the essential details of everyday life: a failed affair between an English professor and his star student; a terrible bus accident and the rescue workers who find it in the middle of the night.
"Sonny Brewer changed my life," says Dayne Sherman, an author from Hammond, La., who insisted to his publisher that Brewer edit his first novel, Welcome to the Fallen Paradise. (One of Sherman's stories, "Hard to Remember, Hard to Forget," appears in the latest Blue Moon Café.)
Brewer's interest in young writers is evident in his design for Southern Writers Reading. William Gay and Tom Franklin, with three and two books respectively, are considered too experienced to take part. "There's never been a veteran onstage," Brewer says. "We're all about the upstarts, the new guys." So last year, Franklin and Gay stepped aside for Richmond and Gatewood. This year, they'll all step aside for Ronald Everett Capps and Daniel Wallace.
Though it has expanded in scope, Southern Writers Reading follows pretty much the same schedule every year. Thursday night is a reception and reading for that year's Stories From the Blue Moon Café, held at Over the Transom. And though the collection typically includes work by such literary stalwarts as Rick Bragg and Tim Gautreaux, Brewer likes to give the floor to a band of relative unknowns. So-called veteran writers have to wait until the next night's event, which Brewer has dubbed the Alumni Grille. Saturday includes two sessions of readings by new authors, and Sunday rounds off the event with a book signing at Over the Transom.
But while author readings form the backbone of the event's schedule, the most significant aspect of Southern Writers Reading may be what comes during the down time. Between some of the reading sessions last year, for example, writers and guests alike retreated to a bayside house for a reception. There Bobby Gatewood and Michelle Richmond could catch up, Dayne Sherman could meet William Gay, and locals could get to know the authors as people, not just faces and words.
These days it's conventional wisdom in many publishing circles to proclaim, against massive evidence to the contrary, that Southern literature is long dead. Simply trying to convince editors outside the South that such writing even exists is a tough job. I've had pitches rejected out of hand with a note informing me that Southern literature died with Walker Percy. Perhaps this is the result of the sort of transregional, cosmopolitan culture that has overtaken the country via television and the Internet; perhaps it is simply an unwillingness to recognize that the Southin contrast with, say, the Mid-Atlantic statescould even have a distinctive literary voice anymore. Such skeptics might think twice, however, after seeing the folks gathered for Southern Writers Reading. Granted, community isn't literature. But the sort of camaraderie and networking on display in Fairhope, Ala., every November plays a big part in helping a literary spirit grow.
The 2004 Southern Writers Reading will be held Nov. 18-21 in Fairhope, Ala. Tickets can be purchased online at www.overthetransom.com/southern_writers/ or by calling (251) 990-7980.
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