All weekend long on Legislative Plaza, the Southern Festival of Books appeared to be breaking attendance records, drawing crowds for authors ranging from Michael Sims and Ann Patchett to Tayari Jones and Justin Torres. But at a time when Nashville was turning out in force to celebrate the written word, there was one person whose absence was glaring.
Rebecca Bain, the longtime host of WPLN's literary talk show The Fine Print and a fixture of local public radio for three decades, died in hospice care Saturday of what friends described as systemic failure. She was 58.
"I was wondering about her at the Book Festival last weekend, wishing she was still doing that marvelous program," says Bobbie Ann Mason, the revered novelist, critic and short-story writer who was a particular favorite of Bain's. "She interviewed me many times, and I always looked forward to seeing her. She loved literature, and she always made me feel privileged to be talking with her."
Bain's name may mean little to people who moved to Nashville in the five years since she left WPLN in 2006. For a generation of Middle Tennesseans, however, hers was the literal voice of public radio. Over a 30-year career at WPLN, she read news, reported stories, hosted round tables, and cajoled the station's "above average" listeners throughout a Sisyphean cycle of pledge drives — all in a convivial tone that made listeners feel she was catching up while they drove to work, washed dishes or sipped coffee at home.
Yet it was The Fine Print, a show devoted to conversations with local and national authors, that made Bain a hero to local bibliophiles. She gave thousands of listeners their first exposure to authors such as Mason and Rick Bragg — not to mention many long-forgotten writers whom she greeted, regardless of sales or status, as visiting heroes. No matter how dry the subject, for the duration of each author's slot, Bain made him or her feel like the most scintillating person alive.
"I can remember Rebecca Bain meeting me at the radio station with a big smile, escorting me into her studio for an interview," remembers Clyde Edgerton, the acclaimed author of Walking Across Egypt and The Night Train, whose SFB presentation Saturday drew one of the festival's largest crowds. "She beamed delight with her job. As soon as she started asking questions, you realized she was a different kind of interviewer. Surely she underlined, made notes, thought through things carefully, read again, reconsidered, guessed a little, and then found the just right question that you'd hoped might some day be asked. This was one of her talents. She was the interviewer you wanted for every book."
On the air, Bain came across like a favorite aunt, fussing over every guest and taking care to show she'd given his work a close read. Off the air, she was saltier, funnier and more opinionated than she allowed herself to be as a host. She had a wicked streak that belied her porcelain-doll features, and she loved sick jokes. She could be "intensely private, irascible, bawdy, warm, generous, and loyal," recalls Polly Rembert, Bain's longtime friend and a veteran of Nashville's publishing industry.
"Her timing as a storyteller was impeccable, and she particularly relished telling the ones at her own expense," Rembert says. "Nothing was sacred." One of Bain's funniest stories, she remembers, concerned "her Lady Di moment" when "she once answered an unreasonably early knock at the door in her nightgown — backlit! — and scared a priggish Vanderbilt professor half out of his wits."
Perhaps as a way of shielding her own jealously guarded privacy, she disarmed people by showing interest in them — famous, obscure, old, young, no matter. It's part of what made her such an attentive interviewer, and it didn't stop when she left work at the station. In a thread on the Scene's blog Pith in the Wind, writer Isaac Darnall remembered meeting her as a kid selling trinkets door-to-door in his neighborhood. "I dropped by pretty often to chat and play with her dogs until I reached the teenage years at which point I forgot about her," he wrote. "She remains in my memory as the epitome of hospitality and unconditional kindness to strangers."
People came to depend on that kindness to strangers — not just listeners and authors, but publishers and publicists. A touring writer's representative told the Scene many years ago that an appearance on Bain's show was a huge help in breaking new talent, and that she could increase an author's sales by thousands.
"Customers might not remember an author or title, but they would remember they'd heard about it on Rebecca's show," recalls Roger Bishop, former master bookseller at Davis-Kidd (which sponsored Bain's program) and founder of the publication BookPage. "I kept hoping that Rebecca's program would get national distribution. As you know, there are fewer and fewer places today where people can hear that kind of thing."
When the show ended, the city lost a major supporter of its literary community. As WPLN colleague Nina Cardona noted in a remembrance, "Rebecca had a reputation among publicists as not just the kind of interviewer you want to try to schedule if your author happens to be in Nashville, but the kind of interviewer that was sometimes the primary reason for making a swing through the city."
Over the past few years, while the city's chain bookstores were nearing their appointments in Samarra, Bain kept a relatively low profile. She embarked on a new career as a teacher at Nashville School for the Arts and a substitute at Harpeth Hall, and she sent regular email updates to a circle of friends about the joys and struggles she faced. When her health forced her to give up teaching last winter, even as she was working on her master's degree, friends say she was saddened.
Last weekend on Legislative Plaza, many of those friends could be seen anxiously checking their cell phones for updates on her status. One author was running late for his presentation, but he paused in mid-hustle to ask a festival staffer en route: "Has anyone heard anything more about Rebecca?"
And yet he noted how pleased she would have been by the turnout on the crowded plaza, after so much dispiriting news about the future of the city's literary culture. It was a cool afternoon and everywhere you looked were people holding books, buying books, talking about books, loving books. Rebecca Bain was everywhere, even if she had already taken her leave.
"The feeling I was left with after the interview was that there were so many careers she could have chosen," Clyde Edgerton wrote just a few days later, "but she loved books and reading them and through that love she made Nashville and the world a way better place."
Rebecca Bain's memorial service will be noon Thursday, Oct. 20, at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, 154 Fifth Ave. N., Nashville. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the children's literacy organization Book'em, 161 Rains Ave., Nashville, TN 37203 or the charity of your choice. Thanks to Serenity Gerbman, Galyn Glick Martin, Margaret Renkl and Rob Simbeck for help with this article.
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