[UPDATE, 10-11: The appearances by Susannah Cahalan and Jonathan Tropper have been cancelled.]
What the Nashville Film Festival is to movie lovers, the Southern Festival of Books is to bibliophiles: a place for people who sometimes feel alone in their particular passion to learn they're actually part of an army tens of thousands strong. This weekend, starting Friday, upwards of 20,000 admirers of history, mysteries, novels, biographies, young adult fiction, children's stories and cookbooks will converge on Legislative Plaza to celebrate the festival's 25th anniversary.
In the following pages, in anticipation of a festival studded with literary heroes and celebrity guests, the Scene offers interviews with some of the festival's most distinguished visitors and reviews of their work. We couldn't do it without one of the state's unsung treasures, Chapter16.org — the offshoot of festival sponsor Humanities Tennessee where editor Margaret Renkl and her staff of writers work year-round to cover the cream of Tennessee literature.
Under the guidance of executive director Timothy Henderson and festival coordinator Serenity Gerbman, the lineup is daunting even for a festival ambitious enough this year to produce its own anthology, Meet Me on the Plaza, whose table of contents reads like a survey of contemporary Southern literature. To help you with the schedule's hard choices — and in many cases, to make them even harder — we offer a chronological overview of this year's event. Relax — it won't be humanly possible to see everyone you want, any more than there's time enough to read every book that sounds interesting. But as every book lover knows, it's the challenge of what you might find that's worth the effort.
In her harrowing best-selling memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness (noon, Nashville Public Library, Auditorium), New York Post reporter Susannah Cahalan tells of the mysterious malady that almost sentenced her to a lifetime in a psychiatric ward, if not for the intervention of a quick-thinking physician. She's speaking opposite another eagle-eyed doc, famed forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, who with journalist/filmmaker Jon Jefferson writes popular mysteries under the nom de crime Jefferson Bass (noon, Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• In Room 29 of Legislative Plaza, noon: zombies, courtesy of the "Monsters Are Loose" panel featuring Cain's Blood author Geoffrey Girard and The End Games first-timer T. Michael Martin. In Room 30 of Legislative Plaza, noon: outlaws, courtesy of Michael Streissguth, whose well-reviewed new book Outlaw transports readers back to the early-'70s Nashville stomping grounds of Kris, Waylon, Willie and the boys. Don't end up in the wrong room.
• Seattle attorney Tara Conklin not only boasts one of the festival's most striking résumé items — former casino dealer in Costa Rica — but a popular first novel in The House Girl (noon, Legislative Plaza, Room 16), in which an art-world scandal lays open the secret relationship between an antebellum painter of slave portraits and the "house girl" who may have had a more than slight influence on her work. She's paired with Harper Lee Award winner Sena Jeter Naslund, whose novel The Fountain of St. James Court; or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Lady tells an 18th century French painter's story through a 21st century prism.
• Veteran newspaperman H. Brandt Ayers delivers a new memoir that sports maybe the festival's single best title: In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal (noon, Nashville Public Library, Conference Room 1A).
• Among the festival's major coups this year is a Nashville appearance by acclaimed graphic novelist and comic-book author Gene Luen Yang, whose 2006 work American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award. He was long-listed for the same honor this year for his latest work, Boxers & Saints (1 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Auditorium), which tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion through two volumes: one with the uprising Boxers as protagonists, the other focused on their Chinese Christian foes.
• One of Nashville's literary celebrities, best-selling presidential biographer and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham, conducts a conversation with Alison Stewart, the former CBS News, ABC News, MSNBC and MTV newscaster whose new book First Class discusses the rocky legacy of Washington, D.C.'s Dunbar High School, the nation's first black public high school (1 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room 1A).
• Since 2003, the prestigious Southern Poetry Anthology has been showcasing state by state the established and emerging poets of the contemporary South. This year's volume focuses on Tennessee, and throughout the weekend contributors will read from their selections, starting with this afternoon's panel of Heather Dobbins, Jeff Hardin and Linda Marion (1 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 30).
• Atlantic Monthly fiction editor Michael Curtis (God: Stories) and Harvard director of creative writing Bret Anthony Johnston (Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer) set themselves a modest task with their panel "How to Save the Great American Novel" (1 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 16).
• Two authors of well-received domestic thrillers — David Bell (Never Come Back) and John Searles (Help for the Haunted), the latter of whom regularly appears as book critic on The Today Show — conceal stilettos in their Swiffers as they discuss "Cleaning the Family Closets" (1 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 12).
• "Southern literature is full of humor but strangely short on satire," wrote The New York Times' Malcolm Jones of Wilton Barnhardt's best-selling Charlotte-set novel Lookaway, Lookaway. "Barnhardt gleefully leaps into this gap like a man with a very long to-do list, eviscerating rituals and rascals ranging from sorority rush and Civil War re-enactments to back-stabbing church ladies." Bless his heart. (2 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 16)
• Turned off by the Jazz Age boys club of Boardwalk Empire but love the milieu? Check out the "Gals Gone Wild" panel on scandalous women on the 1920s, featuring Therese Ann Fowler (whose Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald was an unexpected hit) and Suzanne Rindell, who scored an impressive debut with her period mystery The Other Typist (2 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 12). Unfortunately, they're in the same time slot against Denise Kiernan, whose nonfiction account of The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA) has terrific word of mouth.
• If your taste runs more to modern-day intrigue, William Landay will read from Defending Jacob (2 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room), hailed as "the best crime-and-courtroom drama in years" by an up-and-comer named Stephen King. Insert lawyer joke here for the opposing panel on "The Reptiles of Tennessee" (Nashville Public Library, Conference Room II).
• In The Love Song of Jonny Valentine, Teddy Wayne imagines the inner life of a tween heartthrob (not unlike one who rhymes with "Dustin Cheeber") with cringe-inducing intimacy. He's paired on a clever panel exploring identity in fiction with Amity Gaige, whose kidnapping novel Schroder has received some of 2013's best reviews. (3 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Special Collections Room)
• Even in this Friday afternoon slot, however, the festival is already presenting patrons with nail-chewing conflicts — such as whether to catch Guests on Earth author Lee Smith (3 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room), an SFB favorite since the very first event more than two decades ago; the joint panel of award-winning poet/short-story author Elizabeth Cox and Gap Creek author Robert Morgan (3 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 12); myth-melding writer and The Golem and the Jinni author Helene Wecker (see story here); or esteemed novelist Meg Wolitzer (3:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library Auditorium), whose latest book The Interestings (following four talented friends forward from their Nixon-era teenage years) has drawn the kind of adoring notices lavished on Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. Then comes another SFB stalwart, Jill McCorkle (4 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room), whose retirement-home charmer Life After Life has been passed from reader to reader all summer.
• For Civil War buffs, there's no dilemma: They'll be at the panel devoted to the Disunion book, drawn from The New York Times' fascinating War of Northern Aggression blog of the same name, featuring Nashville historian Daniel Sharfstein (3 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA).
Either you're enjoying pastries with your new best friends Jill McCorkle, Cathie Pelletier, Suzanne Rindell, Margaret Wrinkle and John Milliken Thompson at the festival's annual Coffee With Authors (9:30 a.m., Nashville Public Library Auditorium), or you're cupping your hands around a Starbucks and waiting with an armload of Lilly books at the signing well for Kevin Henkes. (See story here.) But competing options may make it difficult for you to stay at any one session for very long ...
• ... starting with the "Two Master Storytellers" panel pairing Ron Rash, the happy case of a literary author whose novels Serena and The Cove have found mainstream success, and Winter's Bone author Daniel Woodrell, whose much-buzzed new novel The Maid's Version unravels the truth behind a grisly small-town catastrophe. (10 a.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room)
• Jesse Graves, the East Tennessee poet whose volume Tennessee Landscape With Blighted Pine won a number of year-end honors in 2011, appears at today's "Southern Poetry Anthology" panel with fellow poets Jim A. Clark, Jeff Daniel Marion and William Wright (10 a.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 30).
• Those who follow the Scene's food blog Bites will want to rearrange their schedules for Nathalie Dupree (10 a.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 12), the food celebrity and revered cookbook author who'll appear with Cynthia Graubart, her co-author on the James Beard Award-winning text Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking. Stick around for the panel on "Biscuits, Bourbon, Peaches and Tomatoes: Classic Recipes," featuring Kelly Alexander, Belinda Ellis, Kathleen Purvis and Miriam Rubin (11 a.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 12).
• As part of the festival's focus this year on the convergence of literature and health, New York Times/New Yorker contributor Katy Butler will discuss her book Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death (11 a.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA), which challenges the insistence on prolonging life long after the quality of life has gone.
• Because of George Singleton, we've been known to say to no one in particular, "This itches, y'all," and fall over laughing. You'll have to read his 2003 short-story collection The Half-Mammals of Dixie to find out why — or ask him at the "Masters of the Short Story" panel with the aforementioned Bret Anthony Johnston, noted for his striking collection Corpus Christi, and Jamie Quatro, whose Lookout Mountain-set collection I Want You to Show More is one of the year's most heralded debuts (11 a.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 16).
• With former Vice President Albert "Evidently You Can't Call Me Al" Gore drawing people from across the plaza for his 11:30 a.m. talk at War Memorial Auditorium, that may free up some room in panels that might be packed otherwise (and may be still). That includes Edgar Award nominee Ace Atkins (noon, Nashville Public Library, Auditorium), the author of the Quinn Colson thrillers as well as the man chosen to carry on the legacy of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. Auburn fans may show up just to shake the hand of the former defensive end, who memorably sacked Florida QB Danny Wuerffel that undefeated 1993 season.
• The Oxford, Miss.-based husband and wife team of Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly are generating a huge buzz with The Tilted World (noon, Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room), their suspense novel about a female bootlegger set against the backdrop of the unimaginably vast 1927 Mississippi River flood.
• At this point, it's probably a good idea to snag a bite from the festival's nearby food trucks — you'll need your strength for navigating the logjam ahead, even if you're not attending Andrew Solomon (see story here) or Ayana Mathis (see story here). Up against each other at 12:30 p.m. are Slash Coleman (Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IB) — whose comic memoir The Bohemian Love Diaries will undoubtedly strike a chord with other Evel Knievel worshipers whose grandfathers danced at the Moulin Rouge — and the high-powered panel of novelists Dale Kushner (The Conditions of Love), Elliott Holt (You Are One of Them) and Anton DiSclafani, whose The Yonahlassee Riding Camp for Girls was one of the summer's juiciest reading recommendations (Legislative Plaza, Room 12).
• Then again, it's difficult to pass up history in the flesh — the only description for civil rights movement hero Rep. John Lewis (1 p.m., War Memorial Auditorium), who tells his life story in the lauded graphic novel March: Book One with Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell.
• We were going to go to the celebration for Herman Parish's bedtime-story favorite Amelia Bedelia (1 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Auditorium) — but instead of Herman we thought they said "vermin," so we ran shrieking to Jedi master of Southern comic writing Clyde Edgerton (1 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room).
• One of the SFB's rarely touted pleasures is the chance to hear many fine contemporary poets read their work in person. Case in point: Mary Jo Salter, co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, whose collection Nothing by Design (1:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IB) the Scene praised in these pages a few weeks ago. (See "Bullet in a Dream," Sept. 19.)
• Another SFB pleasure is the chance to catch a literary star of tomorrow on the way up. In that spirit, we recommend Brent Hendricks (2 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 30), a poet of considerable promise who made a stunning leap to nonfiction with this year's A Long Day at the End of the World — a personal perspective on the notorious 2002 mass desecration of bodies at Georgia's Tri-State Crematory, where one of the mishandled corpses was that of Hendricks' father. He's appearing with Wendy Reed (An Accidental Memoir: How I Killed Someone and Other Stories).
• Another memoir with a gripping true-crime angle, Michael Hainey's After Visiting Friends takes the author, a GQ deputy editor, on a quest to uncover the truth behind his father's mysterious death in a street on Chicago's North Side. Scene managing editor Jack Silverman moderates a panel on "Reporting Your Life" with Hainey and David Berg, whose memoir Run, Brother, Run: A Memoir of a Murder in My Family (2 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Special Collections Room) was voted this year's best summer read by online readers of The Guardian.
• Quite a few visitors will likely be planning their late afternoons around Bill Bryson (3:30 p.m., War Memorial Auditorium), Nashville author Cathie Pelletier (3 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 30), the Complete Poems of James Dickey panel with Christopher Dickey, Ward Briggs and Ron Rash (4 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Auditorium), or Karen Joy Fowler (4 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room), whose novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has commanded attention ever since Barbara Kingsolver gave it a widely circulated rave in The New York Times Book Review this summer.
• Of special note: Scott McClanahan (3 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA), whose West Virginia memoir Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place is one of the year's most talked-about debuts — not least of all for accusing fellow SFB guest Lee Smith and others of perpetuating an "Appalachian Minstrel Show" with their fiction. And it's doubtful there'll be a timelier presentation than Pulitzer Prize winner and The American Prospect co-founder Paul Starr on his Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform (3:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IB).
No doubt many people will be attending this weekend just to hear recent National Book Award nominee James McBride. (See story here.) But it's also a good day to encounter some authors you'll be hearing more about in coming years. One is Holly Goddard Jones, who follows up her impressive short-story collection Girl Trouble with The Next Time You See Me (noon, Legislative Plaza, Room 30) — a slow-burning drama about the search for a missing small-town factory worker that Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn called "an astoundingly good novel."
• Another is Michael Farris Smith, the award-winning short-story writer whose debut novel Rivers (noon, Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IB) has earned comparisons to Cormac McCarthy with its depiction of deadly close encounters in a flood-ravaged apocalyptic South. He joins Wilderness author Lance Weller for a panel with the promising title "Lost in America."
• Up against them is one of the events of the weekend: the unveiling of Meet Me on the Plaza (noon, War Memorial Auditorium), the omnibus publication Humanities Tennessee has assembled to commemorate the SFB's 25th celebration. Present are all-star contributors Roy Blount Jr., Lee Smith and Bobbie Ann Mason along with longtime Humanities Tennessee president Robert Cheatham, who penned the epic intro.
• While Jon Meacham interviews current Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (1:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library Auditorium), Keel Hunt tells how we ousted former Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton in Coup! (1:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Conference Room IA), his engaging account of the concerted effort that sabotaged the crooked lawmaker's reign.
• One of the very first SFB guests, Allan Gurganus, returns with his new novel Local Souls (2 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Grand Reading Room). Across the plaza, popular local young-adult authors C.J. Redwine (Deception) and Kat Zhang (Once We Were) join Entangled's Amy Rose Capetta for a panel on writing YA science fiction with fierce young female protagonists (2 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 29).
• We hear Chuck Palahniuk (see story here) may be wearing pajamas and handing out toys at his sure-to-be-packed appearance. We do not hear this about the Nashville Writers Circle gathering of William Akers, Roy Blount Jr., Rick Bragg and John Seigenthaler (2:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library, Banner Room) — but hey, check it out and let us know. Meanwhile, Grammy winner Janis Ian reads from her children's book The Tiny Mouse (2:30 p.m., Nashville Public Library Auditorium).
• Students of local history will not want to miss "History Is a Rolling Wheel" (3 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 12), at which eminent Nashville author John Egerton discusses the region's route to the present with Reuben Kyle and Paul Clements, whose monumental Chronicles of the Cumberland Settlements 1779-1796 remains a Christmas wish-list item for Middle Tennessee history buffs.
• Already attracting much attention is Set Free: Discover Forgiveness Amidst Murder and Betrayal (3 p.m., Legislative Plaza, Room 16) by Stephen Owens, whose mother Gaile was convicted of killing his father Ron and spent 26 years on death row before being paroled in 2011.
• As a grand finale, line up with hundreds of parents and kids to see the man who engineered the best literary cameo ever by Nashville's Parthenon: Percy Jackson creator Rick Riordan. (See story here.)
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