Just days before the event, you’d expect to find the coordinator of this year’s Southern Festival of Books in a dishevelled mess of an office, and you wouldn’t be disappointed. The luxuriant vapor of calm that swirls about Galyn Glick Martin, however, is a tantalizing surprise. It suggests a personality that views anxiety as just so much superfluous garnish upon a plate full of well-arranged savories.
“Although our festival takes place in Nashville, our focus isn’t exclusively Southern,” Martin is at pains to remind. “But this year, there is a lot of focus on the South. It’s a happy coincidence; but at the same time, it seems that year after year we have to struggle with this prejudice about the South. Frankly, we struggle with typecasting by the publishers and some writers just a little bit. We asked David Sedaris to come here, for example, even though his book has nothing to do with the South, but his publicist said, ‘Maybe if you can convince some of his friends to be there too, that’ll entice him to come.’ ”
Whether the Tennessee Humanities Council didn’t or couldn’t rustle up any of Sedaris’ friends, it’s his loss as it turns out. Surely he might have made a few new acquaintances among the 242 writers whose presence constitutes the 10th annual celebration of the written word that will dominate downtown’s Legislative Plaza, October 9-11.
“We really have great fiction writers this year,” Martin says, “like Dorothy Allison [Cave-dweller], Clyde Edgerton [Where Trouble Sleeps], and Lee Smith [News of the Spirit]. There are also some fiction writers who are maybe not as well-known: Tony Earley [Here We Are in Paradise] actually lives here in town and is one of Granta’s ’20 best young American writers.’ And then there’s Joshua Russell who I think lives in Nashville also. He and Tony are both included in Algonquin’s New Stories of the South: The Year’s Best, 1998; and we’re going to do a panel on that, moderated by Algonquin editor Cathy Pories. Barnes & Noble has a program called ‘Discover Great New Writers,’ and we’ve also built a panel around that. So we’ve got the opportunity for people to see their old favorites and then to meet some really great new writers, too.
“There are also some non-fiction writers that I’m really excited about. Lee Stringer [Grand Central Writer], for example. He was formerly a homeless man who lived in Grand Central Station as a crack-head. He used this pencil to clean out his crack pipe, and one day he couldn’t find crack, realized that he had this pencil, and just started writing. At least that’s how he describes it in his first chapter. It turns out that he’s this great writer, and he talks about his life as a homeless man without any sentimentality or emotional manipulation at all.
“And then Homer Hickham [Rocket Boys] is this guy who grew up the son of a coal miner in the West Virginia mountains. His life, he says, was changed when he saw Sputnik. At that point, he and his friends started making rockets and blowing up stuff, and they went on to win a national science medal in high school. Now he’s a NASA engineer, lives in Huntsville, Alabama, and has managed to write this charming memoir.”
As perennial festival-goers can well attest, there is simply no proper solution to the inevitable scheduling conflicts that riddle Nashville’s annual literary bacchanal. A decision by the C-SPAN cable network to broadcast live programming from the festival on Saturday and Sunday may offer certain flexibilities to clever VCR programmers. What’s better for most, however, is simply to follow the will o’ the wisp and look for surprises where one least expects them.
“Take this panel, for instance,” Martin suggests, in reference to Saturday’s “Revolutionary Law: The Struggle for Equal Justice.” “Perhaps the program title isn’t as enticing as it could be. The panelists, though, are pretty impressive: Juan Williams [Thurgood Marshall: An American Revolutionary] and Constance Baker Motley [Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography]. Juan Williams was editor of TV’s ‘Eyes on the Prize,’ and Constance Baker Motley was a clerk for Thurgood Marshall. She was also James Meredith’s representative when he was trying to enter the University of Mississippi, and she’s the first black woman to be appointed to [a] Federal bench. I think that panel is actually going to be incredible.”
Or maybe what’s incredible for someone else will be the poetry and Appalachian folk music performance of Jim Clark on the Cafe Stage, or the Tennessee Dance Theater’s debut of Fair and Tender Moments, based on the Lee Smith book of similar title (i.e., Fair and Tender Ladies). Then again, to note that the Southen Festival of Books is 10 years old is incredible enough in its own right. Who but the most persevering litterateur might have foreseen that a popular bookfest from the dimly remembered statewide celebration known as Homecoming ’86 would be that effort’s most enduring legacy?
“Yes, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of this festival,” Martin admits almost sheepishly, “but by the same token, we’ve never had a particular theme for any given year. I guess it was a conscious decision not to take specific notice of our anniversary. We were simply determined to have really great writers this year, and we’ve done that. After so many years, we’ve become this very strong, established event that many people look forward to. As for reaching our 10th anniversary, I guess subconsciously we all just figured, ‘OK, we’re another year older.’ ”
That comment was so May 22.
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